Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dear Schools, I Have a Request:

It's a fairly well-known fact that US schools are required, by law, to follow procedures and accommodations for students set forth in Individualized Education Programs (IEP's) and 504 Plans; it's also fairly common knowledge that not all US schools follow special education law...but that is a subject left for another day (and probably far-better bloggers and even journalists).

It has been my experience, however, that many students who would benefit from accommodations aren't getting them (disclaimer: IMO this includes one of my own kids). This means that many students who may have difficulty organizing and carrying out multi-step tasks or turning in sloppy work or who may seem as though they are tuning out teachers are being punished for things they cannot control by teachers take these behaviors personally and assume they are purposeful and who feel the need to correct the behavior primarily through punitive means. Additionally, there are students whose out-of-school circumstances are influencing or even outright causing behavior problems in schools, where punishment often increases the problems rather than correcting them: students living in dysfunctional homes where anger and shouting and physical violence are modeled from Day One, students often living in a constant state of "fight or flight," tend to respond less than positively when they are punished in school for behaviors they are still learning to control, let alone override.

Based on now 11 years as a parent of a public school student, preceded by another 5-1/2 dealing with well-meaning but unhelpful advice from strangers, neighbors, and even sometimes family, not to mention the same behaviors and assumptions and punitive means perpetrated by preschool teachers and staff, and on my successes in handling many (not all, but many) students who drive/drove other teachers to despair, I have some suggestions:

1) Meet your students where they are, not just where you wish they were. You want scintillating writing and fantastic artwork and completed assignments from all your students? Not going to happen, by and large. A student who's a terrific artist or a fantastic writer may struggle completing the 30 (!) problems you assigned them in your math class or the chemistry lab you want turned in tomorrow; no amount of telling the ones who aren't great artists to "Just Work Harder And Be More Careful" will turn them into Picasso or Van Gogh if they have visual processing or fine motor issues that interfere with the visualization and production of visual work - and it shouldn't take a 504 allowing them to find images online instead of requiring hand-drawn ones to help those kids succeed. (Last year I actually had a high school teacher tell me he was disallowed by law from "providing any accommodations or differentiation for your child without a 504.")

Of course you wish that child who always falls apart in line when Someone Touched Them or is a Sore Loser or a Tattletale would just stop it already, but just because his Sensory Processing Disorder hasn't been diagnosed doesn't mean he isn't suffering from it, or that her undiagnosed Aspergers isn't behind a heightened sense of perceived injustice or social delays. And nobody wants a child exploding emotionally during Morning Circle Time, but the fact is that some kids come to school even at 4 & 5 years old suffering from physical and emotional symptoms of chronic stress, and those kids need even more guidance than their peers. Punishing these behaviors without understanding what causes them only serves to exacerbate what are often already contrarian and antagonistic relationships rather than actually correcting the behavior, which leads me to...

2) Set your students - ALL of them not JUST the ones with documentation! - up for success rather than failure. A child with social delays shouldn't need a 504 for you to not just not take what you perceive as "attitude" personally but understand that this is a kid who needs support in this area regardless of paperwork; a kid with sloppy handwriting but without a 504 shouldn't need one for you to realize that maybe the family has exhausted their funds on OT related to handwriting improvement (and you have no idea how bad it USED to be!) and that maybe handwriting is a lousy hill to die on and something not worth punishing a kid for in the name of your vision of "good" work. Failing a student just because you think they should be able to do a thing and shaming them in front of their entire class for it (I have a kid with audio of this on a high school just within the past month!) only serves to interfere with the kind of positive connection that research shows is at the root of academic success even more than good teaching technique and instead increase the likelihood of those kids dis-engaging from their education more and more as time passes. This happens most in middle school, by the way, and I don't think it's a coincidence that it happens as most kids see more teachers for less time per day instead of one or possibly two classroom teachers most elementary-schoolers see in the course of a school day, so bear in mind that there are things outside your 45 minutes that go into what you see that aren't necessarily A Bad Kid Trying To Push Your Buttons.

In the past couple of years I've been astonished at the number of schoolmates my high-schooler has who are in therapy and/or on medications for depression and other mental health issues; to my knowledge few if any of these are documented, so I have to wonder how many of their teachers know, how many understand that these kids are going through significant struggles outside their classes, and outside school? Do they know about the kids who hang out in the music or drama or art room until the teacher finally leaves for the day to delay going home as long as possible? Do they know about the kids who are themselves parenting younger siblings when their own parents can't or won't? If they DO they truly CARE? This leads me to...

3) Before assuming the worst intentions on the part of a student (or parent/family), try to find out why a problem is occurring and go from there, documentation or not.  I cannot tell you how many of my kids' teachers have taken the tack that a perceived misbehavior is something to be "fixed" punitively instead of taking any other approach, how many have completely dismissed my input on my kids' challenges and situations, how many have refused to even take it into account or even meet with  me in the first place (same teacher who told me he couldn't, by law, make any adjustments for my daughter without documentation also steadfastly refused to meet with me, would ONLY agree to meet with my daughter; we compromised and had the counselor present to prevent a "he said, she said" scenario, but GEEZ!) when 5 minutes of learning about what makes her tick could have saved us a lot of time and aggravation.

Even back when I was assisting in preschool I was able to see social delays on the part of an easily-frustrated and -overstimulated child that other staff would take into the hall and force to look them in the eye while they chided him strongly for his transgressions; when I took the approach of shadowing that same child one rainy day during an indoor playtime and successfully kept flapping-hands-and-screeching from escalating into warfare and instead got him to ASK the other child for the toy back - "May I have it back please?" - that set a stage for a whole new level of rapport and communication that took the other staff aback. I had seen how the child behaved, I could see what was precipitating the behaviors, and I could intervene in ways that nobody else had tried, at least not with any consistency, because I looked at the WHY, not just the WHAT, and went from there. Other staff were either too overwhelmed or not trained to recognize the same signs of overstimulation or just didn't care, which leads me to...

4) CARE. CARE about your students. Not just their academics, but them: Are they musical? Do they play sports? Which one(s)? Are they artistic? What do they do outside school? Are they happy? In the end, all these contribute to their performance in your classroom, even if they come with messy handwriting or kids who always want to work alone instead of in groups (or vice versa), and some hills aren't worth dying on. Not everything you see as a flaw is actually "broken" and in need of "fixing."

Whether they're 3YO and out of control and threatening to bring a knife to school and cut you (true story, happened to me and I was instructed to let the preschool director handle it, which she didn't, really) or 5 years old and falling apart at Kindergarten circle time ostensibly because someone touched them but really because they haven't had breakfast and they're just hangry or they're 9 years old with undiagnosed learning disabilities or ADD and not producing the work you know they are intellectually capable of or they're naturally-social middle-schoolers glancing across the room at each other but really mostly paying attention to you (even if you don't think they are) or high-schoolers trying to keep it together on too-little sleep and food and too much stress...they're your students; they're your kids too. I'm not suggesting you sacrifice your sanity micromanaging every child's issues, nor adopting them all; I'm suggesting that teachers who don't understand the baggage and difficulties their students come to school with and who can't be bothered to even TRY make genuine positive human connections, who thought that all they were going to do was come into the classroom, be stern, and have their room become a magical Dead Poets Society classroom where everyone interprets poetry or does algebra at a high level from Day One (and if they don't they're just lazy)...sorry, but that's not how teaching works except in the movies. Real day-to-day teaching is first and foremost about connections...and those connections can and do make and break kids - and teachers - on a daily basis. If you're unwilling or unable to consider making those connections as a central part of the job, you're in the wrong business. America's data-driven test-centered school culture makes this hard, but IMHO, these kinds of connections are how we'll really help our students succeed across the board, academically AND emotionally - and in my experience they make the teachers' job that much more satisfying and rewarding.

[Note: I've temporarily removed 2 comments which could identify our family personally; these will be restored eventually. :-)]


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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)