Parents Are Recruits, Teachers Are Responsible, Kids Are Victims, and Schools Are Culpable For At-Risk Problems
Troubled students cause troubled parents and vice-versa. If kids have a bad year, parents have a bad year. If parents contributed to the problem, they are not likely to resolve it. Teachers deal with at-risk kids’ problems daily. Teachers hope for help from parents but can’t expect it. The problems are theirs.
Bill Page, author of “At-Risk Students: Feeling Their Pain” www.At-RiskStudents.com has just published a newly revised second edition, 2009. This article written for The Gazette, is excerpted and adapted from the newly added chapter for “at-risk parents.”
My many decades of teaching “the kids who have trouble in school” (I never labeled them, I just taught them) have convinced me of four important facts that should help parents and empathetic educators as they suffer the collateral effects from children at risk of failing.
Failure insures students being embarrassed, demoralized, and stigmatized. Unfortunately, failure also insures strained relations, bad attitudes, defeatism, and enough blame and finger-pointing to go around-and-around.
Misunderstanding of the unique roles of students, parents, teachers, and schools in the educative process is natural and predictable in the frustration and dissatisfaction wrought by bad grades and bad behavior. I received so many letters from parents of kids at-risk complaining about teachers, I added an entire chapter titled Insights, Strategies, and Rules for Parents of At-Risk Kids to remind readers of the separate roles. Following are some excerpts and explanations of some of the material in the new chapter of my newly revised, 2009 second edition book, At-Risk Students.
Some Beliefs and Thoughts I Want to Share with Parents
First, I have never seen a kid who wanted to fail. No kid, given a legitimate choice, would choose to fail. Failure hurts all over and keeps on hurting. If students actually make such a choice, it means that the alternatives to failure are far worse. People who say of failing kids, “They could do it if they tried,” “He just doesn’t care,” or “She won’t pay attention” could not possibly understand the anguish of failure and students’ loss of motivation, morale, dignity, and self-respect.
Consider adults afraid to speak in front of a group or to sing or dance in public because someone might disapprove, ridicule, or reject them. For many people, performing in front of a group has been considered “a fate worse than death.” Is it any wonder that kids who feel inadequate, insecure, or incompetent would fear performing in a classroom of successful peers where they are judged, graded, and compared continuously day-after-day? Each classroom is a society, where kids judge one another. Success, failure, and weakness in every daily activity from manners, skills, and abilities to following directions, behaving, and understanding becomes a matter of common knowledge and interest. Failure might be the lesser of two evils or maybe the better of two choices for kids already at-risk of failure.
Second, failure is school’s ultimate rejection. Suspension, expulsion, truancy, and dropping out attest to kids’ failure but kids would never admit to failing, if they could avoid it. When failure becomes unavoidable or undeniable, kids go to extremes far beyond what any adult or successful student might understand or see as reasonable to cope with the pain, embarrassment, and stigma. School and peer rejection can lead to psychosis and neurosis to suicide and even homicide, but it usually doesn’t. Rejection leads mostly to compensation tactics, withdrawal, and defensive ploys and mechanisms.
Failing kids may develop bravado, a swagger, an attitude, or a failure identity. There are three predictable choices of compensation familiar to educators: deceit, defense, or defiance. Deceit involves cheating, lying, and manipulating. If you can’t make the grade, baffle them with boloney. It means conning, sucking-up, using flattery, phony friendship and attitudes to get acceptable passing grades. Defense involves being lazy, apathetic, or having an “I couldn’t care less” attitude. If you don’t play the game, you can’t lose. Defiance shows hostility, resentment, and disrespect. Kids skip class, sass the teachers, and refuse administrators’ demands. They get kicked out of school--all to show the world, “I could do the work if I tried, but you can’t make me try.”
Third, kids are human and they act like humans. Being human is a fact parents and educators often misunderstand or ignore about kids. What do failing students or those at risk of failing need? They need precisely what every human being needs—love, acceptance, respect, friends, belonging, appreciation, satisfaction, competence, enjoyment, and fun. When their needs go unmet, kids resort to aberrant behavior, however incomprehensible, illogical, and self-deprecating.
Kids rejected by the school need even more acceptance at home. Such students most often deal with outright rejection in ways that are counterproductive, that invite further rejection, isolation, marginalization, and respond with even more unlovable and undesirable traits and behavior. Positive feelings about school, teachers, learning, and other kids are learned from positive experiences—not threats, negative feedback, and failure. Feelings of belonging, competence, and security are an integral part of school for successful kids, but not for those who fail; they rarely “have a good day.”
Fourth, kids cannot change their lives. With help they might begin to make some choices that can redirect their behavior. But by the time kids are labeled at-risk, they are frequently far too engaged in a defensive mode to consider alternative behavior. Changes must begin with acceptance of the at-risk students’ survival behavior. Intervention requires acknowledging student defenses while offering safe alternatives by someone who cares and who earns their respect. Kids are living the only life they have in the only way they know. Unable to find success by way of belonging and self-concept, they will seek it by delinquent or defiant behavior. A failure or troublemaker identity is better than no identity.
Parents must use their own skills and resources to compensate for the school’s miseducation by making sure the home becomes a safe haven. Because children are mistreated by failure at school, they must not receive punitive treatment at home. Parents can help salvage the imperiled, beleaguered lives of failing kids, if schools will refrain from encouraging parents to intimidate kids as an extension of school threats and intimidation.
Rather than add to the school’s condemnation, parents can use positive comments and encouragement rather than increasing pressure as a way of relating to kids failure:
“I trust you to make some choices that will make school better for you.”
“I am confident that you can do better. I know you can learn the work.”
“I hope you will ask for my help. I want you to succeed.”
“Together we will work on this situation.”
“I’ll call or go talk to your teacher with you to see how I can help.”
Bill Page, a farm boy, graduated from a one-room school. He forged a career in the classroom teaching middle school “troublemakers.” For the past 26 years, in addition to his classroom duties, he has taught teachers across the nation to teach the lowest achieving students successfully with his proven premise, “Failure is the choice and fault of schools, not the students.”
Bill Page is a classroom teacher. For 46 years, he has patrolled the halls, responded to the bells, and struggled with innovations. He has had his share of lunchroom duty, bus duty, and playground duty. For the past four years, Bill, who is now in his 50th year as a teacher, is also a full time writer. His book, At-Risk Students is available on Abebooks, Amazon, R.D. Dunn Publishing, and on Bill’s web site: http://www.teacherteacher.com/
In At-Risk Students, Page discusses problems facing failing students, “who can’t, don’t and won’t learn or cooperate.” “The solution,” he states, “is for teachers to recognize and accept student misbehavior as defense mechanisms used to hide embarrassment and incompetence, and to deal with causes rather than symptoms. By entering into a democratic, participatory relationship, where students assume responsibility for their own learning.” Through 30 vignettes, the book helps teachers see failing students through his eyes as a fellow teacher, whose classroom success with at-risk students made him a premier teacher-speaker in school districts across America.