First Person

Helping a shut-down learner learn to thrive

Dr. Richard Selznick is a child psychologist and the director of the Cooper Learning Center, Department of Pediatrics, Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey. He is the author of “The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child.” Selznick looks for certain signs in the child’s behavior that are often not obvious to parents or even educators, pediatricians or general practitioners to help understand the child’s school struggling.

The Shut-Down Learner book coverThe most common key to helping a shut-down learner is identifying whether a child has sufficient “emotional fuel.” Here is how he explains the most common situation he hears from parents asking about the problems that plague their children:

Succeeding in school: Emotional fuel

Seven-year-old Marissa is in the first grade.  Reading comes easy to her.  Spelling and writing are fun. Teachers smile a great deal in their interactions with Marissa and make nice comments on her tests and papers.  Positive reactions come from Marissa’s parents who post the teacher’s comments on the refrigerator.

In short, Marissa derives much gratification from her school experience.  The praises and successful outcomes add “emotional fuel” to Marissa’s growing reserves.  As time goes by, this fuel will serve Marissa well for meeting the inevitable challenges of school.

Shut-down learners: Nothing in the gas tank

Contrast the scenario above with the Emily, who is the same age.  Emily has the mirror image opposite experience to Marissa. For Emily preschool, kindergarten and first grade have been nothing but a struggle.  Learning the alphabet and the sounds that go along with the letters has been excruciating.  Trying to read words seems painful and reading out loud is embarrassing for her.  There are many Emily’s in every school district of the country.

These children quickly become victims to a negative feedback loop.  Negative reactions, either subtle or overt, are sensed and experienced. Deriving little gratification from the ongoing school encounters, the child starts to shut-down and become disconnected by degrees. Like air leaking out of the tire, over time there is little emotional fuel to carry the child along.

Filling the tank with emotional fuel

Richard SelznickTo counter the downward spiral in of the struggling child, the adults in the child’s life (parents and teachers), must pay very close attention and offer support and empathy to counter negative feelings, insecurity and the limited sense of gratification.  Empathy and support give the child emotional fuel. It is this fuel that allows her to work through her difficulties. Once the children feel more understood a weight is lifted.  There will be more fuel to tackle challenges.

A child’s attitude towards learning is enhanced only when there is and encouraging, supportive relationship between the tutor and the child.  This relationship is true with normal children, however it is particularly important for discouraged children.  Discouraged children are demoralized and disheartened.  They do not perceive hope and they lack enthusiasm for meeting challenges.  They need positive relationships to counter their discouragement.

You can add emotional fuel to the child’s reserves in many ways:

  • Assume discouragement if child is struggling.  A struggling child may not tell you she is discouraged.  Even if the child maintains a cheery demeanor, assume a certain amount of discouragement.  Small empathetic comments go a long way. “Honey, I know this is hard for you.  School was hard for me to a lot of the time.”

  • Watch yelling and sarcasm. Yelling and sarcastic statements are the number one tools parents use today and they are very hurtful to kids.  It’s so easy to lash out a child who doesn’t seem to be trying.  Stop yelling and being sarcastic.

  • Find a fun activity Brief game interactions can add an enormous sense of energy to the child. For example, playing Uno with kids is a great example and something kids would look forward to doing.  The game’s not long and drawn out and it usually can hold enough interest for kids and adults alike.  Kids get much emotional fuel from playing games with adults.  Take the time to play a game or two once in a while during the week.

  • Embrace the child’s strength(s). Many struggling shut-down learners are wonderful with hands-on activities.  These “Lego kids” thrive with visual and spatial activities.  Feed the child some more.  Exercise these mental muscles.  Find more of these types of activities to do with the child.  Build a model. Create a Lego city. Make a diorama.  Have fun!!!! Build on the strengths and talents the child shows you.

  • Enlist the child as a helper. Some of you may remember the good old days where there were actual blackboards in schools. Kids loved to be the eraser monitors – the ones that got to go outside and clean the erasers against the walls.  Find tasks like this for the child to do in school and at home to give him or her a sense of participation, belonging and competency.  They will love to do these.

Remember, children are not car engines that can be fixed by getting replacement parts.

Only through relationship building and understanding can kids find themselves with a great deal of renewed energy for overcoming their deficit areas.

The bottom line? The most important thing that parents can do is to pay attention to the child and go slow.

It will also be helpful to see a learning specialist.  Get a referral or get an appointment, do whatever it takes.  Seeing a learning specialist is to best way to make sure your child gets the best and most effective treatment.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.