Sunday, March 8, 2015

Executive Functioning and Emotional Control

In all the reading and blogging I've completed for Teaching with Poverty in Mind, I've found the most resonating information for me was within 'My FIRST Big Takeaway'. I need to frequently remind myself to respond with patience and compassion when a student is impatient or inappropriate. This important mindset has been reinforced by my professional development 'Smart but Scattered', a seminar on DVD focused on executive functioning skills (response inhibition, task initiation, goal-directed persistence, metacognition, organization, emotional control, flexibility, planning/prioritization, sustained attention, time management, working memory) and the necessity to teach those skills to many children. 'Smart but Scattered', like Teaching with Poverty in Mind, indicated that students are not "lazy", they are merely lacking skills. This also ties into a breakout session I attended at the Autism Spectrum Disorders conference, led by Dr. Ross Greene. Dr. Greene had the same message, although he was talking primarily about students who display behavioral outbursts. His message was that all kids want to be good, they just have an unsolved problem and are lacking skills. Dr. Greene provides an 'Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems' on his website, Lives in the Balance. For children living in poverty, it is arguably more important they are taught executive skills, particularly emotional control and range, in order for them to succeed in life and navigate the social world. We, as teachers, need to remember we have an impact on what kids can accomplish when they leave our classrooms, and the more patience we can offer them, the more patience they will learn.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


In Chapter 4 of Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Jensen focuses on an acronym SHARE.
                    Support the Whole Child
                    Hard Data
                    Relationship Building
                    Enrichment Mind-Set
As a school district, Rugby is doing some things right, and in some areas we need more development.
S: We are improving with our support of the whole child by having faculty mentors for each student at the junior high and high school level, and by making the effort to identify any children (at all grade levels) who may be missed by our attempts to develop personal relationships. Our support of the whole child could be improved if we had medical services available at both campuses to make sure children remain physically healthy and the services of a social worker who could provide counseling to students to improve their emotional and mental health.
H: In the area of hard data, we do have a lot of data (MAP, NDSA, ACT, etc.), but in some cases we need to improve how we use the data to benefit individual student learning. We have focused on this area in professional development sessions, but in my opinion, we can always use more development and direction in the understanding and use of data. It may also help to have the time to review data in order to make adjustments in teaching strategies for individuals and groups.
A: As far as accountability goes, I think Rugby is headed in the right direction. We have been doing self-directed professional development this year, which has been a great benefit for many teachers. In the past couple of years we have had a faculty-dense professional development team finding and implementing useful strategies to share with the remainder of the faculty. Does every professional sing the praises of these methods? Hardly. But, most professionals have come around and, I believe, embraced the peer-led professional development. Teachers seem to have the freedom to teach how they choose, without intervention or micromanagement from administration. Not being a classroom teacher, I feel that I am allowed and encouraged to use my own discretion when it comes to delivering services. The school district has also had a public stakeholder meeting to invite anyone in the community (teachers included) to discuss ideas for how we could meet our goals (put forth as a result of our AdvancEd review last year). Teachers are being given more of a voice in school politics, if they are choosing to participate.
R: Relationship Building is a four-prong concern looking at: (1) students' relationships with their peers, (2) caregivers' relationships with their children, (3) school staff members' relationships with one another, and (4) teachers' relationships with students. At the elementary school, we have 'kids with character' programs each month and use 'caught in the act of good behavior' slips to recognize students who show acts of kindness, citizenship, or other positive behaviors. These programs seem to help build a beneficial environment for students and one that encourages relationship-building. The system is not yet perfect, as more of us teachers must buy-in and fill out both the 'caught in the act' and 'kid with character' forms more regularly. The students love when they get 'kid with character' or 'caught in the act'. These are both great programs. At the high school, we have 'students of the month' for each grade level. The student has his or her own reserved parking spot for the next month. As a teacher who travels from the elementary school to the high school, I find that staff relationships seem to be quite good in both buildings. Teachers get along well, and students see those positive interactions.
E: For myself, I think more about remediation than enrichment. I work primarily with students who struggle. I think this is difficult for a lot of teachers. It is easy to let the kids who are achieving at grade level "coast" while the teacher focuses most of his or her attention on the students lacking skills. Our schools do offer before-school and after-school homework help, but these are not geared toward enrichment. The focus is for kids to keep up with the regular classwork. In our community, students are able to participate in "Destination Imagination", which is a wonderful program that helps students gain independence, collaboration skills, and a host of other skills. This is outside of the school day, although many of the leaders who choose to help the students are teachers and much of the planning and work takes place at the school. I have thought about how I could plan some enrichment activities for some of my students, such as planning a movie night in town or some other type of social outing. I think it would benefit a number of students, including kids I don't necessarily see on a professional basis.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Birth to 99

The point in chapter 3 of Teaching with Poverty in Mind that struck a chord with me was the admission that kids who were given high-quality early intervention services from birth up until the age of 5 showed stronger skills than a control group at the age of 21 (p. 59-60).

These kids:
-Earned higher cognitive test scores through age 21.
-Demonstrated enhanced language skills.
-Earned consistently higher reading achievement scores.
-Demonstrated moderate effect sizes in mathematics achievement.
-Were more likely to still be in school at age 21 (40 percent versus 20 percent).
-Were more likely to attend a four-year college (35 percent versus 14 percent).
-Were less likely to have experienced trouble with the legal system. (Ramey & Campbell, 1991)

Incredible! This shows me that in Rugby we are on the right path in terms of having a preschool program in place, but what else can we do before kids turn 3 or 4? Are there programs in place in our community for this population of children? I know we have the Imagination Library program, through which children receive a book in the mail each month until they turn 5, so long as new parents know about it and sign up for it. Unfortunately, aside from the Imagination Library, I am not very familiar with the birth to three scope of enrichment services available in Rugby for children who do not have some type of disability. I suppose the main weight of the task of preparing kids for the future falls to daycare providers to offer age-appropriate activities and social-emotional support.

With my limited ability to have an impact on kids before they turn three, it was a relief to read, on page 49, that children who demonstrated IQs below 86 (average=77) increased their IQ scores to an average of 91 eight years after being adopted by middle-SES or high-SES parents. These children were adopted between the ages of 4 and 6, at which time many would assume their IQs would not change much. Although, as educators, of course we are not able to adopt our low-SES students, we can try to offer them the same compassion, assistance, and enrichment that we would offer our own children. Just knowing that such a positive change is possible makes such a difference in the way instruction is given. The worst thing that could happen to a student is for his teacher to 'give up on him'. If even his teacher doesn't think he can improve, how can he?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

My FIRST big takeaway

After reading chapters one and two of Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen, I found one of the concepts he presented really stayed with me. Jensen's list on page 19 of behaviors displayed by children in poverty painted a clear picture of some of my own students. The list included "'acting-out' behaviors, impatience and impulsivity, gaps in politeness and social graces, a more limited range of behavioral responses, inappropriate emotional responses, [and] less empathy for others' misfortunes." The children who show these specific deficits in "soft skills" are often punished for behaviors they can not yet understand nor rectify. We expect kids to enter school with a myriad of skills that many of the children do not yet have and may never learn without a teacher's specific guidance and effort. We need to show patience, with these children in particular, and teach them (over and over and over again) how to handle various situations that crop up throughout a school day, and ultimately throughout life.

On page 18, Jensen provides the reader with an "Emotional Keyboard" (fig. 2.1) on which he notes there are only six 'hard-wired' emotions which children do not need to be taught in order to experience. Only six! Those six feelings include sadness, joy, disgust, anger, surprise, and fear. The amazing implication of this information is that the majority of kids (who are not living in poverty) are able to learn the additional, more complex emotions from their parents and family.

Emotions that Jensen lists as taught include humility, forgiveness, empathy, optimism, compassion, sympathy, patience, shame, cooperation, and gratitude. How difficult life must be without these emotions in your repertoire! Reading these lists, I found myself understanding why my own students demonstrate 'hard-wired' emotions when 'taught' emotions would be more appropriate. As a speech-language pathologist, I work exclusively with children who are identified as having a disability of some sort. Whether it is an articulation disorder or something more complex, my students often have additional challenges to overcome and compensate for in academic situations. Kids in poverty with disabilities have the added challenge of not getting their basic needs met from one day to the next, which is a reality I must consider in my treatment style with these children.

{Sidenote: I must mention that I do wonder about the validity of the information on 'hard-wired' emotions, only because I recall learning (in a child psychology college course ten years ago) that infants responded with what seemed to be empathy when they could hear another child crying (by starting to cry themselves). I am not arguing that Paul Ekman's research is not valid (as I have not had the opportunity to read the article cited), but I would be interested to know if infants are born with empathy, but it is somehow 'untaught' through the course of their childhood, or if what I've previously learned was false.}