Can THAT student really learn?  Maybe . . .

I recently had dinner with a friend who teaches special education at the high school level.  She was telling me about the difficulties she is having with some of the students.  (Confidentiality was not broken.)  At some point she responded to something I said by saying “No!  They CAN’T learn!”

It got me to thinking.

I have worked my whole life with students who were classified as “can’t learn”.  I was the parent to a child who was labeled in the same way.  I know from experience that people can and do learn when given the chance.  They can even blossom in ways that exceed our wildest dreams.  I also know  there are certain conditions that make their ability to learn increase or decrease.  I know THAT student can be made better or worse by the things we do.

We cannot, however, do it all!

Educators can control the environment in which THAT student is schooled.  We can control, to some extent, THAT student’s interactions with others.  We can ensure that our interactions with THAT student are equitable.  We can set aside our negative thinking and look for the positive in THAT student.  We can examine our beliefs and our attitude about THAT student.

Yes, we can make great advances with parents.  We can show them we know they love their child.  We can show them we care about their child.  We can go into conferences with a positive attitude and stick to what is observable and measurable.  We can make “good news” phone calls and work together with them for the benefit of the child.

But there are somethings we cannot control.

Students spend more than 2/3 of their lives outside of school.  They spend it sleeping, with parents, with other young people, and in front of screens.  We educators have absolutely no control over what those experiences are like.

Take sleep for example.  Adolescents need between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep, but most get only 7 and many get much less.  Experts recommend that children aged 6 to 13 get nine to eleven hours of sleep and kindergarteners get 10-13 hours per night.  Few young people get this much sleep.  We know that a lack of sleep negatively affects a person’s ability to learn and to behave “appropriately” in school.

Educators can provide parents with information, but we cannot control how much sleep students get.

For more information on sleep and learning see: ; ;

We also know that children thrive in home environments that have regular and consistent routines.  These routines provide structure and a sense of stability in children’s lives.  Yet we know that many, many families do not have regular routines for the children.  One need only visit a grocery or big box store in the late evening, like around 9:30 p.m., to see children of all ages with parents out when they probably should be in bed.

We know that medical experts recommend that children under the age of 13 have no caffeine at all. Caffeine, especially in large doses, makes children “scatterbrained”, interferes with focus, and makes children restless and jittery and unable to sit still — all behaviors that interfere with school success.   Yet the majority of children take in caffeine regularly in soda pop, and some even drink coffee at a young age.  Almost anyone who has been in a restaurant has observed children being given soda pop containing caffeine.  I have even observed parents pouring soda pop into baby bottles and sippy cups.

We know that children who participate in sports, dance, gymnastics, playing a musical instrument, etc., do better in school and life.  Yet Children need down time.  They need time to play and day-dream.  Overscheduling a child is as detrimental to learning and behavior as providing children with no extra-curricular activities.  Nonetheless, many children are expected to spend all of their time outside of school in practice or games, or travelling to and from those.  Play is scheduled as “play dates” and not enough have time to simply have down time or day dream.

These are just a few of the things that educators cannot control, and that can negatively affect students’ ability to learn and behave.

So why do so many families do the things we know are damaging to children?  That’s a good question.  The first answer has to do with the fact that there are many philosophies of child rearing.  Often parents want to raise their children either exactly like they were raised or completely different than they were raised.  They may not be mature enough to be “good” parents.  They may not have the resources to learn more or to provide differently for their children.  They may be influenced by peers or those they admire to behave in certain ways towards their children.  Another answer can be that, especially in today’s society, understanding of what is and is not a fact has become increasing blurred.

It is an easy out for educators to put the burden of blame on parents.  It is not all up to parents.  On the other hand, there are things parents can and should do to increase school success.  Nonetheless, parents do the best they can, under the circumstances they have, at any given moment.   And yet it is not a bad thing to think many parents could and probably should do more.

Schools have been increasingly been given the role of making up for all of the negative influences of society or families have on the development of children.  At the same time, schools have been viewed as not doing enough or not doing well enough to provide the appropriate amount and kind of education to make graduates into contributing members of society, and to make the US competitive in the global arena.

The pressure on educators is monumental.  Not considering the stress of the school day itself which are enormous , the conflicting attitudes in society, and the decrease in pay and benefits sends a powerful message to teachers:  you are not valued, you are not doing it right, you are not good enough.  Is it any wonder why the number of those majoring in education are decreasing?  Or that families discourage young people from aspiring to be teachers?  Or that colleges have difficulty in attracting diverse populations to major in education?

Which brings us back to thinking about whether or not all students can learn.

It is, I suspect, much easier for an educator to teach a young child to “code switch” from the expectations of home to the expectations of school.  An elementary teacher may find it much easier to work with the child and work with the family to turn things around.  By the time a young person is in high school. s/he has had so many years of the possibly negative effects of family, society, and such, that it is much more difficult for them to change.  Their negative view of learning is more deeply ingrained and their negative, uncivil behaviors are more thoroughly integrated into their personalities.  By the time a young person has reached high school, they must really want to make those changes for any change to take root.

So my friend was right, in a way.  High schools students can’t learn – but I would add “if they do not have any reason to change or the tools needed to make that change.”

This makes the way elementary teachers work with THAT student all the more meaningful.  No, we cannot control what goes on at home.  We cannot control how much sleep or caffeine they get.  We cannot control how consistent their home routines are, or how over- or under-scheduled they are.  We cannot control their socio-economic status.  But we probably have a much better shot at putting THAT student on the path to success.

That is why it is vital that we work on helping THAT  student right now!

No, pressure, right?

Let me know what you think by writing a comment.  Thank you!

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Kathryn Roe has been an educator for 39 years. She began teaching in a juvenile corrections facility (no, she was not an inmate!). She has taught in public and private schools, special education and regular education, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She moved from the classroom into administration where she was a principal and a curriculum director. She taught pre-service teachers at the university level for the past 13 years. Classroom management is her passion!

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