Friday, June 14, 2019

Please Read the Report Before You Meet the Kid (Things Helpers Need to Know)

So, why is there ever resistance to reading about a new student’s learning profile before meeting them? A teacher may say, “I like to get to know students first without any preconceived notions” or a parent may say, “Would you like the report? I realize you may want to draw your own conclusions first and I respect that...” In the parent’s case, I think it is just a wise marker of respect, signaling a certain deference to the professionalism of the teacher. Yet, because of what is at stake here, I hope more parents will find other ways to do that. And I definitely hope that excellent teachers will reflect upon the fact that 

  • Their very excellence and professionalism is what protects them and their students from any sort of “bias,” or “prejudgment”—any negative narrowing of the lens through which a student is perceived—as a result of reading a neuropsychological assessment, or pass-up notes from colleagues. 
  • There have surely been other excellent teachers all along each student’s journey, and those teachers’ reactions to a struggling student as they have gotten to know them are mentally paired with the student’s self-concept as much as the reactions of less-experienced teachers. That is, if school has been primarily a place of struggle and failure, if we react to the student even in subtle ways that they have seen before--ways that even skilled, kind teachers have reacted--we are still reinforcing the student’s sense that this year will be just like last year and the year before... Basically, what could be an opportunity to signal a genuine new beginning has unnecessarily become just the opposite. 

As a learning specialist once upon a time, it was a key part of my job to try and ensure that all agreed-upon accommodations for students were in place “from day one.” This, to me, should be the very minimum we do to pave the way for student success. I’m asking reflective teachers to help us do much better than that.

For many students, school is a relentless ramping-up of the pace of assaults upon their self-esteem. Whether it is a challenge with reading, writing, math, processing, retention, production, behavior, or any combination of these, as academic demands increase in volume and complexity, experiences of inadequacy, helplessness, different-ness, hopelessness, and failure increase as well. A kind peer can be a beacon of hope in a sea of despair; a kind teacher who can systematically prove to a student their worthiness, their unique strengths, and the sheer normalcy and manageability of their challenges, can be a fortified life raft in that sea, perhaps even delivering the student all the way to a shore they've never known.

In those first days of school, working with a teacher who likes to give everyone a “clean slate,” the student who is an outlier in one or more areas is probably clinging to the tiniest desperate hope that this class will be different, that this teacher will be different, that they themself will be different. Thus, they can be incredibly sensitive to moments that confirm the dreaded status quo. A teacher deprived of the foreknowledge of challenge areas for that student may just have a benign pause, a little moment of mental processing when they first notice a student struggling: the student might take in anything from a few extra blinks, to a friendly “oh, this is tough, huh?” or just a quick subtle surprised look. Of course these are incredibly minor compared to destructive accusations of laziness or lack of effort the student may have received in the past. In fact, the sheer weight of the student’s awareness that nearly all of their peers perform with ease particular tasks that are so hard for them likely far outstrips the familiar microhurts of the teacher’s tiny moments of recognition.

Yet, the teacher has the opportunity to explicitly send messages from day one that run counter to all the evidence of hopelessness the student sees around them. In spite of accommodations which are, of course, given without fanfare, from day one—in the same way that a student might be gently reminded to put on their glasses—there will still be moments of struggle, and these are much more emotionally fraught for a student with learning differences than they are for a peer. By knowing the exact contour of that student’s challenge, at least as far as it is understood up to that point, the teacher can not only avoid the moment of concern or surprise which deflates the child, but can immediately signal a genuinely hopeful new start.

When the child struggles and looks for a reaction, the informed teacher seamlessly redirects the student’s attention to a genuine strength that the student has revealed in their effort, and immediately presents an alternate approach to the task, not as a crutch or an easy way out, but as a logical next step in helping the student manifest the aforementioned strength in the completion of the task. When this is done reflexively and repeatedly, the teacher is not only signaling a possible new stage of growth and joy as a learner in this new classroom for that student, but also modeling a key ingredient of the kind of grit and resilience that almost any student needs to learn to survive. 

Rather than hitting a wall and thinking “See? This always happens. I’m dumb. It’s hopeless...,” we learn to think “Oh! A wall! Of course I hit a wall; I’m trying to do hard things. That’s an important part of school and learning! So where’s the loose brick? Is there a side door or a low spot? Is there something useful to do to the left, right, or behind me, so I can come back later feeling stronger? Can I get a boost from somebody or offer a boost so maybe they’ll help me with one later? Do I have wings I keep forgetting about?...”

My firm belief is that previewing what others have noticed about our new students won’t make us blind to the special perspective and insights which our singular new relationship with that student will bring. We are not a collection of binary switches processing an assembly line of clones, a few of which are stamped defective and thereby assigned to the reject pile. We bring our whole selves to the work, and the students are kind of forced to bring their whole selves to school, try as they might to hide in plain sight. Let’s have all the tools and scaffolds we can at the ready for our most vulnerable students, from the first moment we see them; that way we can save some of the mental bandwidth we might use to figure out the basic contours of their learning style, and instead apply it to being ace strengths-detectives, relentlessly reminding each student of their unique awesomeness, while demonstrating the fine art of resilience and grit, and how one forthrightly gets what one needs from the various institutions we all must navigate.

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