The Child in the Back of the Room
by Anita Biase
Go in any grammar school classroom and you'll see him. His desk may be turned to the wall, flipped sideways or just pushed back off to itself. Sometimes, at the request of a parent, he may be moved into the middle, or even to the front of the room if the teacher wants to "keep an eye on him." It doesn't really matter where he sits. He's usually a social outcast, he does little if any work and he is and always will be the "child in the back of the room." This is not an indictment of the teacher or even the educational system; it is merely the way it is. This is the child who disrupts the class. He shouts out impulsively, interrupts the teacher, throws things and annoys other students. This child's parents do not want to put him on medication and will not sign for him to be placed in a "special" class. The teacher tries. She tries all the different educational and behavioral remedies she has been taught. She tries to draw him into the classroom "family." She tries to be kind, patient, give the child extra attention, etc. Most of the time her sincere efforts are to no avail. The student ends up unsuccessful in spite of everything she can do. He seldom finishes his work. The other students won't play with him because he annoys them; the more he annoys them, the more they ostracize him. He is often a misfit; an outcast, both in the classroom and on the playground.
In most cases "the child in the back of the room" is a male. Females are sometimes found there, but not as often as males. He may be a low achiever, have an attention deficit, be hyperactive, have been damaged at birth, be a victim of extreme poverty or abuse, or any combination of these things. But what were we taught-way back there in student-teaching? Some children learn faster than others-right? Children learn in different ways-children have intellectual strengths in various areas-not all are inclined academically-right? So, why are we penalizing him? Punishing him and failing him for something he simply can't do or can't do as quickly as the other students. The "child in the back of the room" may be a gifted artist, an excellent musician, a talented creative writer or a brilliant athlete, we'll never know. While we have him in the "palm of our hand," at just the time when we can grasp the teachable moment, we must let the opportunity slip by. There just isn't time.
Let's look at what happens when the child is placed in a "special" setting. He is in the class now with only six or seven other students. Some of these children are "troubled," some have behavior problems, some learning or attention deficiencies. Almost all are former holders of the "child in the back of the room." title. Most special classes are excellent. You can't get around the fact, however, that these are students who can no longer be maintained in a "regular" school setting. Behavioral expectations are more strictly enforced. The small classrooms and high teacher-to-student ratio has been planned so that the student will receive extra attention and the most educational and personal benefits. This is as it should be. He is in a small class now, is receiving individual attention, is allowed to work at his own pace. He finally has the chance to be successful, but the tools which would allow the system to help him must be left in the box; there is a curriculum to follow, no time for such frills as art, music and computers-not here. It is time for the child to finally learn the three Rs. The only problem is he doesn't. He enters junior high and then high school without being able to read, write or "do math." Unfortunately, neither can he "do" much else because those hidden abilities, which should have been nurtured, have not been. There wasn't time; we had to implement a "curriculum." Okay. You may now ask the question "If this child has special talents and abilities, wouldn't they have risen to the surface and been identified and at least acknowledged by now? Not necessarily. There could be many reasons for this. One is that educational minds have only recently grasped the concept of "multiple intelligence" and of teaching children in a variety of ways so as to appeal to different intellectual strengths and styles of learning.
Another possible reason could be that the child was so traumatized by his initial lack of social and academic success, combined with what other problems he may have been dealing silently with, that he simply gave up and became a "behavioral problem" out of sheer failure to "become" anything else. His self-concept is very low. He considers himself a failure, after awhile, others look at him as a failure; this merely confirms his own feelings, his lack of self-worth.
Whatever the reason, his talents were either not discovered or once discovered, were not nurtured and allowed to bloom.
So, what do we do? We need to expose and shine a light upon gifts that are inherent in many, if not all of the students. The integration of computer technology into the classroom can solve this problem. There is specific software available to teach virtually every subject at every level. Computers can be programmed with individualized lesson plans which cater to the student's learning style and intellectual strengths, while bolstering his academic weaknesses. For students with special needs, lessons can be designed to target specific deficits in basic skills. It's true that many students aren't academically motivated but the webquests, cyberguides, on line lessons and activities provided by computers are more interesting than the traditional classroom fare. When a student is interested, he is engaged; when he is engaged, he becomes motivated and successful!
The computer is a patient tutor which provides anonymous, non-judgmental feedback and allows the child to discover his own learning and learn at his own pace. In most on line lessons, the student is exposed to many intellectual areas. The teacher can can create high interest resource materials on the computer to supplement texts. This is effective in all areas but especially in content subjects because in these disciplines many students become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material they have to read. Even when a student has behavioral problems, attention-deficits or hyperactivity, many become so engaged by computer -assisted instruction that these differences are no longer problematic. If the "child in the back of the room" could be seated at a desk with a computer and allowed to do his work on the computer, many of his problems would be minimized or actually disappear. This is no secret. It's something educators have known for awhile. So? Well, computers are expensive so they're are usually only one or two in a class and sometimes these are not even operable. All of the students must have a turn at the computer and it's not fair to allow one or two children to monopolize it. This is true. What we need is more computers. Technology is not a priority yet in most schools. It will not become a priority until teachers and parents and society as a whole realize the worth of computers in the classroom.
The child will only find the tools to succeed if he finds them within himself; we can only guide him. If he encounters only the traditional system, he will only encounter his own failures. If we enrich the classroom environment with a computer technology which will allow him to find, experience, express and display his own learning, he may reverse the self-fulfilling prophecy and finally become successful. As his strengths emerge, the student will find that he does at least one or two things well. Then he will feel good about himself and be more willing to work at his "weaker" points, such as reading and writing, because he will no longer be afraid of failure.
If we allow it to happen, computer technology will truly "revolutionize" our educational system and bring our students into the future with resounding success; even the "child in the back of the room" will move up and walk confidently into the future.
The bottom line is, the system itself may have to change in order to allow these children, and others to achieve success. It is time for us to accept this challenge.