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Parents, Students, Teachers and Academic Performance – Everyone Plays a Role

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Throughout the nation great concern is being expressed about how poorly our children are performing on tests in math, reading and science. The future of our country depends on a citizenship who knows how to participate in the democratic process and is educated and trained for the job market. This is why an educated population is so essential.

As a result of poor test performance, there has been a great deal of finger pointing at our teachers, who are being blamed for failing to educate their students. In my opinion, there is a lot to be said for that criticism. Schools tend to attract some professionals who are looking primarily for tenure. After achieving that milestone, the sense of job security seems to make them apathetic and the result is that they don’t work very hard. This is certainly not true of all or even most teachers, but it is true of too many of them. However, the problem of how to educate kids is a lot more complex than just the teachers involved. Let me give the reader an example of this complexity.

Heather Hollingsworth, a writer for the Associated Press, reports that many children are more worried about when they will get their next meal than how they will do on their math tests. As a result, increasing numbers of schools across the nation, especially inner city schools, are providing dinner to youngsters who participate in after-school child care and tutoring programs. In effect, these schools are now providing three meals a day to these children, without which they would go hungry.

In effect, there is something wrong with both teacher selection and training and with the American family. Simply stated, children cannot learn and develop intellectually if they don’t get sufficient nutrition. In addition, they cannot learn and develop if the families they come from are so chaotic that they fail to feed their kids.

Problems within the family are not restricted to the inner city. Alcohol and drug abuse, lack of supervision due to parent work schedules, child neglect on all levels of society, and single parents, of which there are an ever-increasing number, make child raising quite difficult. These parents cannot balance work and child rearing without major problems unless proper care and nurturing is coming from other sources such as grandparents or other surrogates both inside and outside of the family. None of these situations provide a stable environment in which children can learn without major stress and fear.

Family stability and background determine how children cope in school. Many years ago, I worked as a teacher. I saw youngsters whose behavior both in and out of classroom was impulse driven, uncontrolled and turbulent. Most of these kids couldn’t sit in their seats or focus their attention. Fights broke out with the smallest provocation. Teachers were overwhelmed in their attempts to bring order to the classroom and school. How could learning occur in this environment? Then, too, there were many cases of children coming to school hungry. Breakfast at the school and food during lunch were the only meals they would get and not all of them qualified for these food programs.

In this setting, I saw teachers who took their jobs seriously and were conscientious. Some of them would argue over how best to teach children. There were those who advocated traditional teaching while others believed in innovative ways to approach classroom learning. They all talked about discipline problems and how best to get the families involved. Even then, there were those who did not care. One such math teacher worked out a formula to calculate how many days were left before the next vacation as compared to the number of days until summer vacation. The formula even included how many days he had to work until retirement. This type of attitude does not promote learning. I couldn’t help but think that it was too bad he didn’t put the same effort he used to develop his retirement and vacation formulas into his lessons with his students. It might have made a real difference!

I must emphasize the fact that I personally saw these problems both in inner city schools and in schools in privileged neighborhoods.

Children are not born with self control in place. It is something that parents teach them, almost from the beginning. For example, parents who take their children to restaurants are sure to remind them to keep their voices low so as not to interfere with other patrons. However, there are those who seem impervious to the presence of others and allow their kids to run around the restaurant, interfering with staff and annoying customers. It is easy to imagine that this does not lead to learning how to exercise self control in school. The fact is that the ability to learn is compromised by poor self control.

The development of self control also depends on the development of the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes are the center of thinking and reasoning and are part of what we call the “executive functions.” Executive functions, in part, have to do with thinking, planning and carrying out tasks that must be accomplished, such as what is called for at work and at school. Frontal lobe development depends on good nutrition. Without it, the ability to function at higher levels is damaged. Frontal lobe development, self control and good nutrition all depend upon a loving, nurturing and stable home structure. With these in place, teachers and good schools can perform their jobs. It goes without saying that teachers have to be carefully selected for their motivation, creativity and knowledge of how to educate kids.

In other words, everything is tied to everything else in terms of raising and educating our children.

More is being done to train, select and supervise teachers so that they are held accountable for meeting their responsibilities. How do we give families the help that is needed to raise kids who are emotionally and cognitively intact? Many, and even most families, are able to do this, but not all families and until that is achieved, there will be no real improvements in student performance.

Your comments and opinions are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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