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Volume VIII Issue III

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Chaotic Situations

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


A few months ago, I came across a topic that not only intrigued me, but has continued to stick in my mind. In her blog Denver Public Schools humanities facilitator Grace Sussman introduced me to a category of student she called “kids from chaos.” There are no officially required services for these students and yet they represent some of the neediest young people we see in our schools.

In her writing, Ms. Sussman eloquently describes the environments from which these children come. She sees them as “poor and historically marginalized student populations” who come from homes where chaos is the norm. She further writes, “The adults in their homes are absent, either physically, from the necessity of working multiple low-paying jobs, or emotionally, as fallout from unemployment, substance abuse, illness, or some other social factor.” With the paucity of adult support, the children in these chaotic situations often do not have basic necessities such as proper nutrition and clothing. More significantly, they are missing “substantive relationships with powerful, humane, culturally affirmed, and engaged citizens. Turmoil and unpredictability rule the daily lives of kids from chaos.”

After reading Ms. Sussman’s blog, I am making a concerted effort to watch out for these students during school visits. I realize that there are many students who are not wealthy and who do not possess some of the same clothing styles or trendy gadgets as other children, but they have stable lives both inside and outside of school. However, the kids from chaos are all around us but in some ways they may seem invisible. As I talk with teachers and administrators about these students, they describe them as often withdrawn, unkempt, introverted, struggling academically, and very sad. They also seem less interested in school, often have attendance problems or illnesses, and are unable to set even short-term learning goals. The names of these children may appear on “students-at-risk” lists, but they may never qualify for special services or smaller classes.

As educators and professionals, we are often called upon to be all things for all people. Our days are already overflowing with responsibilities and challenges; however, these students, who collectively might be categorized as our lost generation, deserve our support and attention. Teachers who have sought out these neglected children have often found that they can break through the veneer of isolation, and have uncovered a child who is bright, capable, and responsive. They were simply yearning subconsciously for that supportive adult to enter their lives in a proactive way and to give them the attention and sense of belonging they so desperately craved. In short, they may be open and ready to receive our help.

I have concluded that their needs fall into two categories: non-academic and academic. As we have learned from psychologist Abraham Maslow and educator William Glasser, we cannot hope to address the learning needs of these students until the most fundamental human needs are first addressed. In other words, whereas achieving our school academic goals are at the forefront of our thinking, they are often the furthest things from the minds of our troubled students. It is hard to think about passing a math achievement test when you are plagued by hunger pangs and personal anxieties. Maslow, through his hierarchy of needs, has concluded that physiological needs must be satisfied before an individual can concentrate on higher-level learning; these essential requirements include food, clothing, and shelter. School personnel, including counselors, social workers and/or mentors can be instrumental in helping young people and their families address these needs. Despite their unhappiness, children may be reticent to share their personal situations because of embarrassment and shame. Carefully addressed, a sensitive adult can open the lines of communication and set the stage for the next levels of development. In his theory of motivation, Maslow has reasoned that the human condition has a yearning for a safe environment and a world that is orderly, predictable, and under control. Although there are few guarantees in life, a compassionate teacher with a strong resolve can make the classroom a safe, non-threatening environment that is a place where a young person can feel physically and psychologically secure. Once children have a personal feeling of well-being, they develop a desire for acceptance as well as a need to be respected and valued. When a child no longer feels deficient or “broken,” he or she may be on the road to self-actualization and acquire a sense of personal power and, as Glasser has written, they may see life as a place where fun and even joy can be a reality. In short, they begin to see themselves as learners.

There is nothing simple or fool-proof about addressing the basic needs of children whose lives are in chaos. It can be a tedious process filled with successes and failures and small victories. Nonetheless, putting forth the effort can be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding as educators see progress. The question then becomes: Once the basic, non-academic needs of a youngster are addressed, what are the steps a teacher should take to support the academic needs of children whose lives outside of school are in turmoil? Although there is no panacea that will fit each and every circumstance, there are instructional initiatives that may result in improved learning, increased confidence and overall greater success for students whose personal situations are filled with confusion and disorder. Below you will find some practices that have shown promise in helping struggling learners eventually achieve success:

Begin by demonstrating that the student is valued as a learner.
This important step must be seen by the student as genuine and not “fake.” It can be accomplished by pointing out (even in small ways) the things that the student is doing that are right as opposed to emphasizing mistakes.

Practice the attribution theory.
Bernard Weiner, in his repeated research, has affirmed that students must believe that effective effort leads to success and a feeling of self-efficacy. Children often attribute their success (or lack of success) to luck, task difficulty, or their questionable ability. Their perception often translates into their lack of willingness to try. By retraining them to see that their hard work can lead to success, a teacher can change their erroneous perception into a different reality.

Help students develop short-term goals.
Some students can be overwhelmed by the enormity of the work they are asked to perform in the classroom, especially if their education has been intermittent. By working side-by-side with troubled students, teachers can help them develop and reach achievable and concise goals that are within the students’ capabilities and with well-defined time frames. Once the goal is achieved, the student’s confidence is increased and the learning can serve as a building block for future learning.

Provide timely, growthproducing feedback.
Students who question their ability to learn will achieve at greater degrees when their teacher explains to them in specific language the next step they must take in their learning continuum and how they will know when they have accomplished it. When students know precisely and exactly what they have to do to continue learning, they are much more likely to stick to a task and see it through to completion. The importance of providing feedback cannot be underestimated.

Establish different ways for students to demonstrate their learning.
In our current educational environment, our success is often based on a school’s ability to show results on annual achievement tests. These results are often based on a child’s ability to show what they have learned based on only a single opportunity. In the real world, however, our achievement can be judged by our ability to ultimately achieve success after trial and error as well as multiple opportunities to show what we can do. We demonstrate our abilities through creativity, conversation, working collectively with others and not by sitting in a cubicle and blackening in ovals on an answer sheet. Our children, especially those who have traditionally been unsuccessful in taking a paper and pencil test, deserve the right to show what they can do in multiple ways and by having multiple opportunities to reach mastery.

Display models of excellent work.
Some students have great difficulty envisioning what good work looks like. Additionally, many students who have grappled with failure lack the imagination and foresight to produce acceptable work products. Wise educators have rooms that are filled with models of work that can provide the necessary examples that can inspire and motivate students to learn and grow. An absence of such models can hamper a resistant or conflicted student’s desire to work hard and complete assigned work.

Establish a classroom where all learning styles are honored.
Students who come from chaotic backgrounds often lack communication skills. Hence, when they are in a learning situation in which information is presented orally, they struggle to achieve. As Ms. Sussman has written, “These students have to be able to see, hear, touch, and speak as they learn. Offering them lectures alone is like pouring water over rocks and expecting seeds to sprout.”  Additionally, students must participate in learning experiences which require them to move and not be sedentary for long periods of time.

Make sure students see themselves as thinkers and achievers.
All students should view themselves as problem solvers who can successfully think through a process. Often students who struggle are given mundane, watered-down tasks that are uninteresting and repetitious. If teachers limit a child’s ability to view themselves as competent, they will never make progress and even regress in their ability to achieve. The trick is to provide just enough challenge without causing the learner to have a meltdown or give up on themselves. Once a child’s self-concept as a learner begins to emerge, it is important for the teacher to continue to build upon that newly-found self-image by praising the student’s accomplishments and providing the next achievable learning goal.

Assign homework carefully and deliberately.
Students with unstable home environments may not be able to complete homework. For teachers to continue to ask these students to complete work outside of class is counterproductive and tension-producing for both teacher and student. We must recognize that the playing field is not level for kids from chaos and in fact is rocky and uneven at best. In the ideal world, the teacher can set aside time at the end of class to complete homework of provide a voluntary homework center after school.

Leave nothing (or as little as possible) to chance.
In dealing with children who come from chaotic environments, there can be no assumptions about what, when, and how a child will grow academically. We cannot take for granted what we think they know or don’t know. Steps for student success must be clearly thought out and decisions have to be judiciously planned if educators are going to see progress with these previously unsuccessful students. Trying to “get inside their heads” is perhaps the best approach to use as we make our instructional decisions.

As I reviewed the above ten suggestions, I realized that the ideas are not simply good approaches to help “kids from chaos” but are practices that will, in fact, help all students learn better. Whereas some learners can still achieve success without the ten suggested steps, struggling learners will be less likely to break out of their mold of failure and despair unless we view them differently and take great care to develop them as competent and able individuals. Although there are ten brief recommendations included here, there are many more practices that a teacher can apply that are described in Paula Rutherford’s latest book, Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners. The book is filled with specific suggestions to address the learning requirements of all children. It includes over 60 scaffolding and intervention tools plus dozens of templates on the CD-ROM that accompanies the book.

Many of us in the education field made a decision to choose this vocation because we felt we could make a difference in the lives of children. We have big hearts and a strong sense of compassion. We bring this dedication into our schools and classrooms every day. We recognize that there is nothing easy about teaching, especially when we see young people who are disconnected, disenfranchised, who feel unaffirmed by society as a whole. Children do not have the ability to choose the environment from which they come. As professionals, however, we can choose to make the school environment a place of fulfillment and even happiness for every child. As Grace Sussman writes, “We know that the task we face is both urgent and obvious: to find what is needed to make the classroom a powerful learning space for these especially at-risk and neglected kids, places where instruction helps build a strong identity while it enriches learning and life chances.”

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Chaotic Situations” Just for the ASKing! March 2011. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2011 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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