At Risk Youth: The Teacher’s the Thing by Which to Catch the Student Being

Summary: Meta-studies of psychotherapeutic outcomes, transposed onto relationships between teacher and student, suggest a preponderance of any change in an at risk kid’s academics stems directly from a positive relationship with a teacher.

You know the kid. He sits near the rear of the room, if you let him, and either has a unique ability to disappear into slouched anonymity, or perhaps situates himself near buddies, with whom he is in constant disruptive communication. As a student, he is listless, disinterested, though may regurgitate enough material to fully establish himself as a D, or at best an uninspired C student. Or, he simply fails, is absent at least one day a week, and establishes his slow slide to dropout status early in his school career. Or, she.

I betray my history as a high school teacher and counselor, as this profile is that of a young teen. Seen some years earlier as an elementary student, attendance has already been spotty, disruption of classroom, tantrum or tears is typical of his modus operandi, and within a few years (if not before), his teachers have remarked on his lagging academic skills.

When we find the time to inquire, invariably we encounter an intimate family story of neglect, or poverty, or divorce or single parent, or abuse, or substance use.

So his story goes, unless he happens to land a teacher or teachers that tune into his wave length, establish a bond, and deepen the relationship into an alliance that lifts the fellow’s (or lady’s) academic motivation into the mainstream of the teacher’s efforts. Ah, then the learning occurs.

Education is a people business, which the obsession with testing, and with curricula and pedagogic technique in recent history often tends to forget. It seems for every page I read that speaks to the elemental rapport between teacher and student there are ten that obscure its importance.

I am led to this meditation from a cousin to the teaching discipline, that of psychotherapy, in which I once practiced, and a book entitled Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, which in part tries to bridge the not so distant gap between Buddhist psychology and western modes of psychotherapeutic practice.

More specifically, one of the authors discusses research findings that attribute the success (or failure) of psychotherapy to a few critical variables. Two or three of them bear relevance to the human bond between teacher and student.

The most obvious is that approximately 30% of variance in treatment outcomes in psychotherapy is attributable to qualities of relationship and the character of the therapist, from whom qualities of “empathy, warmth, understanding, and acceptance” set an environment in which successful treatment proceeds.

Let’s go back to the prototypical at risk student profiled above. Though the task of school be academics, quality teachers understand intuitively, because of who they are as people, that kids marginally present in the classroom need the extra buoyancy that those qualities of contact provide. In fact, though we teach reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, much of our success with at risk students lies in the subtext qualities of relationship that good teachers establish with them.

Could it be that 30% of the variance in outcomes for at risk students in the classroom revolves around these qualities, before we consider curricula, or instruction, certainly testing?

There is more.

A separate 40% of the variance of outcomes in psychotherapy, according to these authors, derive from the characteristics that the client brings to the therapy, other than the presenting problems – motivation and other resources, support from outside significant others, and the circumstances of the client’s life – all qualities that would appear to be beyond the therapist’s influence.

Yet, some of this latter set of characteristics, viewed through a classroom lens and the dysfunctional quandaries of a young kid, might be provided by an empathic teacher. In time, motivation can be stimulated by quality human connection. Lack of support from inconsistent significant others in the kid’s life can find some compensation in the steadiness of a teacher’s regard.

Another 15% in psychotherapy treatment is accounted for by “placebo effects and expectation of change.” Many at risk kids turn away from applying themselves in school because they think they cannot do it, are too dumb, and or have fallen behind in previous grades. A good teacher breathes belief and builds confidence in progress. The kid who has been a reluctant student finds a spark with a teacher who encourages.

In this admittedly heuristic conversion of psychotherapy outcomes to a school setting, as much as 85% of school outcome may revolve to greater or lesser degree around a teacher or teachers with whom a young student bonds. Teachers, please remember in the deep winter of your next difficult season.

Though the argument assumes parallels between the emotional suffering of psychotherapeutic clients and the deficits that at risk kids face in their lives, the personal connection is arguably a factor in the school engagement also of children of stable families, but otherwise bound up in academic ennui by their loving families’ tendency to simply give them too much without the earning of it.

Which leaves 15% of this model to be accounted for; in the psychotherapeutic world, this last variance accounts for different treatment models. According to this research, none of the over 400 identified treatment models shows consistent and clear superiority to others. In other words, though a trained competence in a given approach is assumed, it generally doesn’t matter in what technical skills the therapist is trained.

I am reminded of a study from my own training, in Philadelphia in the 1950’s, which compared client outcomes between experienced and degreed therapists and housewives chosen for their native empathic qualities who received a brief orientation. Interestingly, the clients of the housewives demonstrated greater progress than those of the credentialed psychotherapists.

An outcome sure to humble the sophisticate and the Freudian.

The corollary in the classroom and with the teacher would suggest that despite the search for a magic curricular or instructional bullet, many techniques adequately trained for are likely to work roughly as well as another. Overmuch testing in this light looks a bit like an emperor without clothes – a confusion of a measure of a progress with the ultimate goal.

Our proverbial Johnnie, he of the earlier composite list of personal issues, sits in a classroom with a teacher who checks for understanding before proceeding, breaks larger concepts into component parts, and is careful to teach to different modalities. But none of these techniques will land their good intention without the willing attention of a kid who admires his teacher and senses benevolent interest in his progress.

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