Conditions Associated with Risk: School Factors (page 3)
Schools contribute to vulnerability in students by failing to create conditions that are supportive of children’s needs. Researchers have outlined multiple ways that schools, and teachers in particular, contribute to behavioral and academic vulnerability in children (Espinosa & Laffey, 2003; Gunter & Coutinho, 1997; Johnson & Pugach, 1990; Kauffman, 2005; Kokkinos, Panayiotou, & Davazoglou, 2005; Lehr & Christenson, 2002; Maag, 2001; Van Acker et al., 1996; Walker et al., 2004; Zentall & Stormont-Spurgin, 1995). Teacher practices that impact vulnerability in children include using poor instructional practices, having inappropriate or low expectations for children, using inappropriate behavior management practices, and having a classroom environment that is not culturally responsive.
Poor Instructional Practices
Educators need to be prepared for a multitude of different needs in their classrooms. Many children need differentiated or individualized instruction (Kauffman, 2005; Meese, 2001; Mercer & Mercer, 2005; Tomlinson, 2001). This does not imply that teachers need to teach children individually; rather, it means that teachers need to be prepared to alter the curriculum, instruction, assignments, and classroom management practices to be more supportive of different children’s needs. If teachers adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach to curriculum and instruction, then many children who are vulnerable for failure will fail (Kauffman, 2005). Teachers also contribute to risk if they use practices that are not supported by research or that have been documented to be ineffective (Meese, 2001).
Schools in urban areas often face many challenges that directly impact the provision of consistent effective learning conditions and instructional practices for children. Specifically, children in urban settings are at greater risk for having transient administrators (Resnick & Glennan, 2002). Almost half of superintendents in urban areas have been in their districts for less than 5 years. Recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers is another challenge in urban areas. As a result, children in urban areas often do not receive effective instructional practices, which creates or exacerbates their risk for failure. “The issue today is not whether it is possible for urban students to learn well, but rather how good teaching and, therefore, learning can become the norm rather than the exception in urban educational settings” (Resnick & Glennan, 2002, p. 2).
More than 10 years ago, Kozol (1991) illustrated his experiences in an urban classroom in Chicago, which still ring true today:
The room is sparse: a large and clean but rather cheerless place. There are few of those manipulable objects and bright colored shelves and boxes that adorn suburban kindergarten classrooms. The only decorations on the walls are posters supplied by companies that market school materials. . . . Nothing the children or the teacher made themselves. . . . In a somewhat mechanical way, the teacher lifts a picture book of Mother Goose and flips the pages as the children sit before her on the rug. “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow. . . . Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to fetch her poor dog a bone . . . Jack and Jill went up the hill. . . . This little piggy went to market. . . . ” The children recite the verses with her as she turns the pages of the book. She is not very warm or animated as she does it, but the children are obedient and seem to like the fun of showing that they know the words. The book looks worn and old, as if the teacher’s used it many, many years, and it shows no signs of adaptation to the race of the black children in the school. (p. 45)
Research has documented school conditions that lead to higher achievement and social competence in children in all types of school settings, including urban settings (Resnick & Glennan, 2002). These characteristics will be presented throughout this text.
Inappropriate or Low Expectations
It is important that the culture of the school and/or classroom does not communicate inappropriate or low expectations for children (Lehr & Christenson, 2002). Regarding inappropriate behavioral expectations, from the research it is clear that many children will experience discrepancies between what they can do and what they are expected to do as early as kindergarten. That is, teachers expect children to enter kindergarten with certain social skills and self-regulatory behaviors already intact (Stormont, Beckner, Mitchell, & Richter, 2005). Research, including the perceptions of 3,000 kindergarten teachers, has revealed specific skills that teachers rated as critical to success in kindergarten (Lin, Lawrence, & Gorrell, 2003). Behaviors that kindergarten teachers rated as “very important” or “essential” included:
- tells needs/thoughts
- is not disruptive
- follows directions
- takes turns/shares
- sensitive to others
- sits still and alert
- finishes tasks
Teachers rated children’s English proficiency and their academic skills as secondary to these social skills. As mentioned earlier, many children who are vulnerable have not learned or do not consistently use these skills. Teachers should not expect children to demonstrate behaviors that they have not learned and/or are not motivated to use. Furthermore, it is inappropriate for teachers to judge children and prematurely lower their expectations (Kauffman, 2005; Kokkinos et al., 2005; Lehr & Christenson, 2002). Teachers need to have high expectations for all children, especially those who are vulnerable for failure, and should clearly communicate these expectations to their children. At the same time, teachers should adapt instruction and make accommodations to foster success (Kauffman, 2005; Tomlinson, 2001). Successful teachers also consistently and proactively manage behavior.
Inappropriate Guidance Strategies
Many teachers inadvertently create environments that foster rather than prevent problem behavior (Horner et al., 2005; Johnson & Pugach, 1990; Maag, 2001; Stormont et al., 2003; Van Acker et al., 1996; Walker et al., 2004). Inconsistent management creates conditions where children do not know what is expected of them and do not have clear structures to support them a behavior is a problem. Furthermore, some teachers may believe that a reactionary approach to discipline is the only approach to discipline. However, it is clear that reactionary discipline in the absence of teaching and supporting appropriate behaviors (proactive discipline) is not effective (Horner et al., 2005; Kauffman, 2005; Lewis, 2005; Mercer & Mercer, 2005; Raymond, 2004; Walker et al., 2004). If children receive attention (even if it is negative) or assistance when they are engaging in problem behavior, then this attention or assistance may increase their use of this problem behavior in the future (Gunter & Coutinho, 1997; Maag, 2001; Walker et al., 2004). If attention or assistance is what a child is trying to obtain with a specific behavior, then teachers are supporting the continuation of the problem behavior (Alberto & Troutman, 2003).
Teachers also contribute to problem behavior when children use a behavior to escape an unwanted task or activity (Alberto & Troutman, 2003; Gunter & Coutinho, 1997). If a child would rather go to the principal’s office than read in front of a group, then they may use certain behaviors (yelling, throwing something, hitting a peer, leaving the room, etc.) to try to make this happen. If teachers allow children to use such behaviors to escape unwanted tasks and activities, then they are inadvertently creating an environment that fosters this type of behavior (also known as negative reinforcement of behavior).
Finally, school professionals and peers within schools serve as powerful models of both positive and negative behavior. Children learn about desired social and academic behavior and ways to treat each other from watching these models:
Exemplary behavior on the part of the teacher encourages like conduct in pupils. Maltreatment by the teacher of any student in the class is very likely to encourage students to treat each other with hostility and disrespect. (Kauffman, 2005, p. 227)
Cultural Conflict Between Home and School Contexts
Educational professionals need to be aware of the fact that many children enter school with different belief systems from the mainstream culture that is often emphasized in schools. According to Espinosa (2005),
It is important to remember that young children have formed culturally shaped expectations and attitudes for when they are supposed to talk, to whom they should talk and what type of language is appropriate in different contexts. . . . When the cultural expectations of the home and school vary markedly, the child may initially feel some discomfort and anxiety in the school setting. (p. 839)
Teachers can make a large impact on how smooth the transition process is for children from diverse backgrounds by understanding their home cultures and by using culturally responsive practices (Espinosa, 2005; Turnbull & Turnbull, 2001). In a letter to his son’s kindergarten teacher, a father describes the cultural alienation his son was experiencing in school. He writes,
My son, Wind-Wolf, is not an empty glass coming into your class to be filled. He is a full basket coming into a different environment and society with something special to share. Please let him share his knowledge, heritage, and culture with you and his peers. (Lake, 1990, p. 48)
Clearly the need for culturally competent educators cannot be overstated for many reasons including the increase in children from diverse backgrounds and decrease in children representative of one “majority” culture.
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