If we don’t suspend them, what do we do? We constructively work to break the vicious cycle of violence.
It is a challenge to teach children the skills they need to stop choosing negative behavior when many of them do not have the emotional security required to make healthy choices. Instead of nurturing, trusting, and consistent relationships with loving adults, they have a hyper-vigilant emotional foundation that comes from a variety of factors, including a life of neglect, abuse, family conflicts, poverty, substance abuse, and unsafe neighborhoods. A vicious cycle revolves around the insecurity of their personal situation, which makes them more distrustful and susceptible to the culture of violence, which then leads to harmful behaviors that only perpetuate the lack of emotional security.
In this environment, many young people develop a matter-of-fact view of violence and death. They might not think what they are doing is wrong or understand what they should do instead; it conflicts with what they know is true in their real life. To protect themselves they respond the best they can to the harsh lessons they learn early in life. Without the social bonds and trust that come from a safe and caring family and with many of their basic needs not met, children fight to survive in unhealthy violent ways. The resulting coping mechanisms can persist into adulthood.
Dr. James Garbarino, in Lost Boys, describes the background of men on death row this way:
“Each of these men had been subjected to extreme child maltreatment, yet none received mental health treatment once that victimization was substantiated by the state child protective services agency. I could not help but think that if any one of these young men had been taken hostage by a terrorist group and tortured for years, there would have been no question about their need for and entitlement to mental health services upon their release. Yet we did not provide the same services to these ‘hostages’ once they were released from their tormentors. And now we intended to execute them” (Garbarino 1999)
One size does not fit all when we consider that young people’s anti-social, self-harming behaviors -gang membership, alcohol and other drug use, vandalism, theft, early sexual behavior, physical violence-is an understandable, though not desired, reaction to a life of neglect and abuse. Targeted early intervention with mental health professionals is essential when a child’s anti-social behavior is a reaction to coping with a personal life of pervasive violence. This is where the school, more than ever, needs to be a safe haven where the negative forces of a child’s life outside the school do not carry over into the educational environment.
Why are some children resilient against these negative forces?
Research shows that two-thirds of students living in dire conditions rise above and succeed in spite of their circumstances. What does this two-thirds have that the other one-third is missing? We can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of a high-risk childhood by providing assets that build the network of support and the personal efficacy that are characteristic of survivors of toxic environments. These assets benefit all children and are critical for the most vulnerable. They include:
- · Caring relationships.
- · High expectations.
- · Meaningful participation.
- · Autonomy and sense of self.
- · Sense of meaning and purpose.
(California Healthy Kids Survey 1999)
A study on the relationship between student and teacher safety and the nature of the school and home community in the Chicago Public Schools found this is true. (Steinberg et al. 2011) Controlling for academic achievement and type of neighborhood (crime and poverty levels), the schools with the highest suspension rates were less safe than those with low suspension rates. Researchers discovered that the neighborhood in which the school was located was not as influential as the students’ home neighborhood. The primary difference between schools that felt safe and those that did not was the quality of the relationships between school staff and students and parents. It depended on what happened inside the four walls of the school. The study concluded, “disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships.”
In addition, the report noted that a relationship exists between student low academic achievement and increased problems with school safety and order. Schools with a population of low-achieving students experience higher rates of violence. This finding supports growing research that recommends schools focus on raising the literacy rates of young children, adolescents, and adults to reduce violence in schools and in the community. (Jalloh 2009) Research on aggressive behavior, high school drop-out rates, crime, incarceration and recidivism, unemployment, and poverty show a positive correlation between these negative outcomes and poor literacy skills, especially among Latino and African-American men. The literacy-violence connection has been widely documented and the results show this aggression begins in the primary grades when children first experience frustration when trying to learn to read.
To succeed at academics, students need cognitive confidence (ability to read fluently with comprehension), text confidence (stamina to read increasingly difficult material), and social and emotional confidence (positive attitude and enjoyment of reading) (Jalloh 2009, 3) Students who have many negative risk factors in their lives need an intentional school support system and targeted early intervention efforts to teach literacy, math, and technology skills. Without this support these children become disengaged underachievers who stop trying, turn to violence to get what they need, leave school before they graduate, and live a life of poverty and crime. This reality reinforces the need for school-wide, intentional efforts to improve the interactions and relationships among staff, children, and families, and make the connection to academic success.
Teachers know we can intervene early and change this pattern. The Chicago Public Schools study gives credence to the belief that the way we relate to our students is the critical factor in reducing school violence and improving academic performance. A secure climate is necessary for children to take risks and learn. It is in our power to create a secure, caring climate that addresses the academic and social-emotional needs of our students and builds resilience against negative circumstances, regardless of their neighborhood of origin. And when there is a problem, we need to handle it thoughtfully and appropriately within the context of the student and the circumstances. One-size fits all rigid discipline policies do not work.
In Part Three we’ll see how there are better options that teach, in a lasting way, self-discipline, taking responsibility for one’s choices, restitution, and that result in better decision making in the future.
Part Three: Instead of zero-tolerance, use early intervention, mediation and restorative justice.
Trevor is in trouble at school.
You are Trevor’s teacher. What is going through your mind when you place the call to Trevor’s parent?
You are Trevor’s parent. What is going through your mind when you get the call from Trevor’s teacher?
You are Trevor. What is going through your mind when your teacher tells you she’ll be calling your parents and when you hear the phone ring?
What did the experience look like from the perspective of each participant? How would perspectives impact each person’s choice of behavior as they deal with the problem? One of the common feelings is fear. Maybe the teacher doesn’t like delivering bad news, especially when she doesn’t know the parent and isn’t sure how he will react. Maybe the call upsets the parent who is also having problems with the child at home and he is worried that you think he is a bad parent. Maybe…Trevor is scared about being punished both at school and at home,. He knows the home punishment will be physical.
Fear and insecurity are major impediments to developing a relationship. We do not know what the parent’s earlier experience with school has been and how they view schools as an institution and teachers in general. But we can imagine what it may be like for parents to get dressed for a meeting at school, to go into the building, check in at the office, walk down the hall, wait until it is time to go in, walk into the classroom, sit down across from the teacher, and then listen to what she has to say about their child. Many things could be going through the parent’s mind- and your mind- to make you both distrustful and on edge. This fear and insecurity can manifest in defensiveness with a poor choice of words, harsh language, aggressive body language and facial expressions, raised voices, and, in the extreme, threats of violence, and it interferes with meeting the goal: to help the child take responsibility for his actions and do better in the future.
The Good Before the Bad
Since teachers are responsible for keeping parents informed about their children’s progress, successes, and transgressions, they need excellent communication skills. Trevor’s situation would be more comfortable and productive if the teacher had already experienced a few positive interactions with the parent. Casual and newsy communications help the teacher and the parent become familiar with each other. The interactions reduce those understandable fears and develop a level of trust that lets them work as a team for the child. The trick is to use the positional power that comes with being the teacher through a lens of empathy and compassion.
The goal then is to do things that set up a foundation of trust that creates a working partnership between teacher and parents, which ultimately benefits the child. Here are some ways to do this.
- For younger students, make home visits or send them postcards before school starts.
- Send home a welcome letter that expresses your hopes and expectations for your year together and that invites parents to participate.
- Use a system of student agenda books or folders sent home daily that includes homework assignments, notices, personal notes, and a place for parents and teachers to communicate with each other.
- Write or have the children write a class newsletter or Friday note to take home.
- Design homework assignments that involve parents in a fun, meaningful way.
- Host a mini open house for your classroom or grade level a couple of times during the year.
- Use parents as classroom volunteers to help with projects, read with students, chaperone field trips, share their knowledge, talents, and jobs.
- Invite parents to visit the classroom for small performances such as dramatic presentations of a story or an author’s tea.
- Welcome parents to parent/teacher conferences by putting chairs and a desk outside the classroom where they can wait.
- Include some books and school projects for them to look at while they are waiting, and maybe a bowl of hard candy for a dry, nervous mouth. (This works for you, too!)
- And one of my favorites…the good news contact: make random phone calls and send notes home that celebrate the child’s successes or to just show appreciation for who they are.
Parents are concerned about their children, and so are we; they have a profound responsibility, and so do we; they know a lot about what makes their child tick, and so do we; they want a bright future for their child, and so do we. It is just plain natural that we should work together as a team.
Part Two: Preparing for a successful parent call or meeting.
*Parents is a generic term for those who have custodial responsibility for the child.
Take a minute to think…
How do you feel when your students walk into your classroom? What do you see when you look at them? What is going through your mind? What do you expect to happen?
The answers reveal your core beliefs and attitudes about children and being a teacher, and you might not even be aware you feel this way.
How we consciously and unconsciously treat our students is not lost on them, and we wind up getting what we expect. The lens we look through determines how they respond to us and how we experience our time with them. Nowhere is an optimistic, generous attitude more important than in what goes on between a parent and a child, and a teacher and a student. And we are responsible for what happens under our watch.
If we approach teaching with the attitude that students are a problem because they:
- don’t listen
- are disrespectful
- refuse to take responsibility
- have no manners
- don’t want to learn
- can’t be trusted
- need to be managed
…we interpret all that happens in this light. We expect them to not listen, to take advantage if given some freedom, to show no interest in what we are teaching, and to need strict discipline. They can tell how we feel, and their attitude toward us and school reflects the messages we send:
We are adversaries struggling for control.
But if we believe students are precious human beings that are:
- inherently good
- sensitive and vulnerable
- interested in learning new things
- responsive to encouragement
- capable of learning better behavior
- at our mercy
…we treat them with compassion and concern. We expect good things from them, believe in our power to influence, see all the positives, the growth, the breakthroughs, and, the sometimes ever so slight, continuous progress. They can tell we like and enjoy them and their attitude reflects this:
We are collaborators sharing power.
These essential understandings are simple but not simplistic. We know that how we treat others and how they treat us determine our relationships with them. We also know that sometimes when we are in the midst of all the demands and stresses of teaching and life, we forget that the basics of a positive working relationship are mutual care and concern, and that we get what we model and expect.
We want good things to happen in our classroom and, if we show and expect, we will get back:
- And teamwork