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Saturday, July 01, 2017

Helping Students Who Are Difficult to Reach

As I think of teaching over multiple years, I'm thinking about the students that were hard to reach. They are the students that hold the secret to our personal needs with regard to bettering our practice and effect. Who were those students, and what messages do they send.

The Hungry Child
It's possible that some of the snack stealing that occurred over the years was related to hungry children--children who come to school without a good snack or having a healthy breakfast that morning or the night before. When this happens, children are irritable.

There are students in our schools that meet the requirements for school breakfast, yet we don't sponsor a school breakfast. What can we do?

Students are allowed to get an apple from the lunchroom or a granola bar from the nurse so this helps. Another way to help is to reach out to parents at the start of the year with the information of how important good nutrition is with regard to learning, and to enlist ideas and support with regard to having healthy snacks and perhaps, breakfast, available for those that need it.

Unrealistic Expectations
Some parents have unrealistic expectations for their children. Due to countless potential reasons, parents may want their children to be or follow specific criteria when that criteria offers a challenge that's unrealistic or untrue for that child. For example I've noted parents who have unrealistic body expectations for their children, and live out those expectations with severe limitations or expectations. I've seen the same with academic and social expectations. It's hard to judge unrealistic though. For example, once I noted parents pushing a young boy towards tremendous athletic endeavor. The boy was mild mannered and not that physically active. Yet after the boy engaged in lots of healthy, physical sports activities, his personality became more engaging, his friendships grew, and his physicality became more adept--I was surprised by this. Yet, I've also seen parents push their children to places that create social/emotional struggle and related behaviors. So in the end, the best is to listen carefully to parents, to trust their instincts, and if it seems that expectations are over the top or troubling, have an honest conversation with the parents and possibly the school counselor or principal to discuss what's realistic/positive and what is not, then make a plan together.

Lack of At-Home Academic Support
Some parents cannot provide academic support for their children due to many factors such as long work hours, illness, language barriers, and lack of Internet access. It's very important to assess which children have that academic support at home and which do not. Then it's important to work with families to bridge the opportunity gap. If there's no one at home for daily reading and stories, perhaps that child is provided with a daily story time in school or after school. If there is no Internet access, perhaps the school provides a device and access. If there is a language barrier, then the school should find ways to publish newsletters and other information in ways that a parent can understand. If there's no one who can help out with the academic work, then perhaps an extended day with good quality home study support is provided.

Lack of Basic Needs
At times students will arrive at school without needed clothing or supplies that match the weather or expectations. It's important to clearly relay to families what is expected in your school environment with lead time. For example at our school, students need snow pants in the winter. It's good to let parents know that well in advance so they can access affordable snow pants prior to the winter months. Our students play outside a lot, so it's important that students wear good play clothes to school--clothes and shoes that can get dirty and avail a child to lots of movement.

Adequate Rest and Nutrition
Families need to understand how important rest and nutrition is. Also families that struggle with providing basic needs should be connected to social service agencies to mitigate this situation.

Develop Interests and Passions
Many families take the time and make the investment in their children's interests and passions. Other families are unaware of this activity and don't take advantage of the scholarships and opportunities available at local museums, nature preserves, parks, and play spaces. Matching students with positive play, sports, nature, and cultural events and opportunities has the chance to dramatically increase those children's academic success, connection to future internships and jobs, and college study.

Sometimes a family member's own lack of confidence or success makes it difficult for a child to feel like he or she can be successful. It's important to dispel old myths about who can learn and who cannot by sharing the history, science, and story of what creates successful learning. Dispelling old time, limiting myths builds capacity for students and families.

Some children are simply uncomfortable at school. It's important to ask students if they are comfortable and what might make them more comfortable in school. Having a variety of seating options and work spaces can lead to greater comfort. Allowing a child to take a walk, play a little more, or even rest can lead to greater comfort. If a child is not comfortable, he/she may have difficulty learning.

Respect and Dignity
Above all we have to treat every family and child with respect and dignity. A child's or family's struggle may challenge educators from time to time. It's natural to want to blame the child or family when challenges are posed, yet that's not a positive direction. Instead, it's critical to analyze situations with as much depth and knowledge possible in order to empower, elevate, and educate every child well.

At the start of the school year, it may be a good idea to think about the children who did not meet the success expected or desired in the past year. It may be good to look at why that success was not reached and what you can do better in the year ahead to reach greater success. As I think about my own teaching situation, I hope to enlist the following activities next year in view of an analysis of last year.

  • Focus on a good intake process at the first parent conference in order to know what children and families need for a successful year. Inquire about contact information/times, basic needs, at-home academic support, children's interests, passions, and challenges, and families' goals and vision. Listen a lot during these early meetings.
  • Keep a child notebook with specific notes and anecdotes about children's successes and needs. use the notes to inform efforts.
  • Give students a chance to tell me their story in many ways including the question, "What do you want me to know about you?" Work to include students' interests and passions in the curriculum.
  • Have frequent class meetings with the focus on the question, "What do you need, want, and desire?" Then respond to students' needs.
  • Make goals explicit and create learning paths with and for students to reach those goals.
  • Deal with conflict and problem right away, and give students the chance to lead their own conflict resolution with guiding questions such as What happened?, Why do you think this happened?, What can we do to resolve this issue and make it better?. . . .Remind students that there is a promise in every problem, and our job is to find that promise by solving conflicts and problems in ways that lead to betterment and greater positive capacity for learning and living. 
  • Create a comfortable learning environment with a "place for everything and everything in its place" and lots of varied working, seating, and learning spaces.
  • Develop a healthy school routine with students that provides opportunity for student voice, movement, play, building/creating, reading and more.
  • Establish positive home-school communication routines with the continuation of the virtual classroom (our TeamFive website), weekly newsletters, phone calls, meetings, emails and texts with families, parent-student-teacher conferences, and student portfolios.
  • Start the year with a number of formal and informal assessments to analyze in order to understand what students' know and where their learning goals exist. 
Every child in our school environment matters. Some will present greater challenge than others, and these children are the best teachers we can hope for as their challenges become our learning as we sensitively and kindly look for the best ways to serve these children and their families.