At Risk Kids: Keeping Them in the Game

Summary: Building of relationships with at risk kids and seeing their misbehavior as an expression of difficulties in their history can short circuit suspension and retain them as part of the school community. This people intensive approach requires deepened funding.

Kids get disconnected from school in a variety of ways, one of which has typically been through the disciplinary process. William, a young black guy and a voluble connector to people, sometimes just had a hard time keeping his mouth shut, a skill teachers prize because it is hard to conduct a class of 25 to 30 kids without some degree of order. Not this day could William contain himself, and in due course he was sent to the office for his “misbehavior,” while the class marched on. Because this was hardly the first occasion, he was given a three day suspension as a standard penalty for his infraction.
As with many such subjects of suspension, the administrative office sent out requests to his teachers for homework for the three days, part of which would require William to self-teach some of the material that was subject of the homework. It took the better part of the suspension period for the materials to be returned to the office for pick up, which didn’t matter because William didn’t seek them out. As an alternative, William also was encouraged by his counselor to email his teachers for the work he missed, but William already lagged behind the class and, like many of his peers in a similar situation, simply lacked the motivation to seek out the work and make up the lost ground. In my experience, seldom do suspended students make up the work they have missed.
So William fell a bit further behind in skill development, in his mastery of the material, in his confidence to make his academic mark, and finally in his sense of connection to the school and in his faith in himself. His grades lagged, failure mounted, he eventually dropped out.
That’s how it happens, disproportionately to kids of color, more disproportionately to African American youth.
The labor simply to improve American schools’ test scores is repeatedly undercut by our exclusion of guys like William, and he is probably at worst a middle level offender. We kick kids out at approximately the rate at which we need to better include them.
According to a Kent (Washington State) School District study, just one suspension marks a student as likely to drop out of school at some point, even if the event happened as early as middle school.
The litany of consequence begins with the moral failure implicit in rejecting our kids from the social body, and continues through welfare and incarceration expenses, and the disaffection of large segments of the population, who might otherwise make contribution to the general wellbeing.
So what might be the paradigm shift that will keep kids connected to the people in their school, in academic prosperity rather than despair?
Well, that in itself is a paradigm shift – to consider exclusion in many cases an inferior option; to create connection becomes the norm.
The trick is not to ignore misbehavior, but to transform it by working with the emotions and personal history that underlie many if not most disciplinary infractions, and in a proactive kind of way, before the behavior occurs. It begins with a resolve to keep the kid within the camp.
Cognition and feeling are intertwined in complex ways. A useful construct called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), recently the subject of a Seattle Times Education Lab article, links traumas such as parental divorce, domestic violence, abuse, and even racism and poverty to disruption in brain networks crucial to learning. Multiple traumatic experiences deepen the effect, according to the work of researchers at Washington State University and Johns Hopkins. Teachers and administrators trained in the Spokane School District and encouraged to adopt this perspective found suspensions and defiant behavior sharply down. The wag in me would like to point out that these findings come as no surprise to experienced teachers and administrators, who have struggled to find the time to make use of the knowledge; the research gives a return to the original paradigm fresh impetus and political currency.
Begin young, because the march to dysfunction in the intersection of school and kid usually begins early. Seattle and Bellevue, Washington schools are two districts among a number in the country that use a curriculum called RULER (how clever to harken back to the collective memory of old school corporeal discipline), which teaches students to “Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate emotions.”  The research base since 2006, according to Marc Brackett of Yale, one its founders, documents the lowering of suspensions and office visits “as much as 50%” in the toughest of circumstances. My student William, he of the rapid tongue, might well have benefited from such an approach.
As a once psychotherapist, I recognize the echo of research based cognitive-behavioral approaches to depression, which induce patients to think about their problems in more constructive ways than is their dysfunctional habit.
The KIPP schools, regularly cited as among the more consistently successful of charter school models, appear to have fueled their positive outcomes in part through teaching self-control of emotions and the value of deferred gratification to kids whose life stresses make them prone to “hot” impulsive and self-destructive responses and hence school suspension. Here again William might have learned to defer his social pleasures for the hallways outside of class.
From a different angle, the “restorative justice” movement, based upon a Maori tradition of shaming and responsibility to community, bypasses suspension in favor of requirements which seek to rebuild that connection. In another example from a Seattle Times Education Lab article a student busted for pot smoking first was confronted with the breach of trust her transgression represented to her relationship with teachers who believed in her, and then agreed to lead some student groups about drug use and its dangers, and to complete some rigorous academic reading and writing. In schools across the country deeply invested in the approach, suspensions have plummeted and academic achievement school wide has improved. Kids are held accountable, but in a way that keeps them in the fold, rather than excluding them as unwanted.
I am reminded of the calls from the African American community about reparations for past wrongs, and am inclined to think of “restorative justice” as “reparative justice” where African American kids are involved.
Parenthetically, quality teachers have always acted in a similar spirit, earning a student’s cooperation in the context of a constructive student and teacher relationship. Relationship building takes time; teachers’ time has increasingly been funneled toward testing and related pressures. I felt in later years I saw fewer referrals to my counseling office than earlier in my career from teachers who once had more time to get to know their students, and so developed concerns from what they learned.
All of these approaches in the intermediate future require heavy investment of school time, personnel, and financial resources. Can’t just lay another duty on already stretched personnel, not if one wants the initiative to bear fruit. Suspension, although too long an unexamined practice, is one option for administrators and teachers who simply do not have the time to do the long work. As the Washington State Legislature chews over its increased funding for education, freeing teachers and administrators to do this “long work” would answer a significant portion of the need for reform. Partly, this is where the class size argument comes in. As a teacher, I am more likely to focus in on individual problems if I have 18 in my elementary classes rather than 28.
Some years ago, I worked with peer mediation in my high school, a cousin of the “restorative” movement. Teachers and students were trained to mediate disputes between students, often “he said/she said” imbroglios. Here too a research base documented cooled emotions and lessened disciplinary action. But it was time consuming of staff energies, which were essential to its function and, after early and some sustained enthusiasm, the program petered out, victim of too many other things to do.
The Williams of our world need our commitment to his place in our community.
We need him too.

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2 Responses to At Risk Kids: Keeping Them in the Game

  1. Linda Shaw says:

    Thanks for this, and all your thoughtful posts. I’ve enjoyed being one of your readers over the past few years.


    Linda Shaw

    Education Lab

    Seattle Times


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