Author Archives: Melissa Steel King

I Wish I Had Learned About the Science of the Brain and Toxic Stress

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

The first time I met Martin*, his fellow kindergartners were at the rug listening to a book, and he was under a chair. I was a first-year teacher visiting the students who would be in my first grade class the next year. I watched as Martin noisily crawled under desks while the teacher read aloud; she had clearly reached her limit and decided to attempt to ignore the behavior for the time being. Like me, her teacher training had not prepared her for what to do in the “child-under-desk” scenario.

I resolved that when Martin joined my class the next year, I would make sure that he participated in class activities. I spent the summer reading up on classroom management and student engagement. What I didn’t know until many years later is that there is a body of knowledge on the science of the brain and stress that would have made me a much more effective teacher to Martin — and many of the other students in my class.

The author at the graduation ceremony for her teacher preparation master’s program.

Martin, a stocky, apple-cheeked boy with a winning grin, turned out to be one of my most rewarding and challenging students. Each day that he was in my class, I braced myself for some kind of outburst or confrontation. He threw tantrums, as well as the occasional backpack, book, or pencil. He had a hard time sitting still. He picked fights. He became quickly frustrated and often refused to do work. On the other hand, he regularly made me and his classmates laugh. He relished my praise and listened attentively when I sat down with him one on one. He was so proud and delighted when he finally started to read.

I thought of Martin many times this summer as I read The Deepest Well by renowned pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris. In the book, Harris lays out in detail how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a profound impact on children’s and adults’ physical and mental health. She describes her journey to understand and incorporate into her medical practice lessons from a seminal study, published in 1998, that found longterm health effects related to ten specific ACEs: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; loss of a parent to death or separation; a parent who is alcoholic, depressed, or mentally ill; or witnessing a mother being abused. Continue reading

“I’d Better Bring Home An A”: The Power Of Parent Expectations

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

It’s the beginning of the school year, and I’m already behind on my assignments — that is, the flurry of forms to fill out, orientations to attend, and Back-to-School nights to add to the calendar. As an education researcher, I applaud all the efforts to engage me in what’s going on at school — and I love hearing about what my kids are learning — but as a working parent of a middle schooler and a high schooler, I admit I groan a little trying to fit it all in.

Often, parent involvement gets framed as caregivers’ level of interaction with the school — coming to school events and volunteering with the PTA, for example. While such activities may present minor scheduling headaches for me, many caregivers face much bigger obstacles, including lack of childcare, language barriers, or working multiple jobs. Framing engagement around school-based activities can lead to the assumption that the parents who don’t appear, especially low-income parents, are apathetic about their children’s education.

But that assumption is off the mark. A parent or guardian can have a powerful impact on a child’s achievement even if they never set foot in the school. A 2013 meta-synthesis of research on parental involvement drives this point home: out of a wide variety of types of involvement explored in many different studies, parents’ expectations for academic achievement had the strongest impact on students’ academic performance.

A student I met once in a focus group at a large city high school made this point even more succinctly. When asked her thoughts on parent involvement during high school, she said emphatically: “My mom is working in another city right now, so she’s not at home. But I know I better bring home an A, or else!” Even though they were physically separated, her mother’s expectations for high achievement were a very real motivating factor.

Ultimately, a central goal of family engagement is to increase the alignment between home and school in support of each child’s education. One way to do that is by inviting caregivers to the school, but there are many other ways to provide families with the tools they need to champion learning at home. For school leaders and policymakers seeking to engage a wider range of families, below are several examples of strategies that empower parents and guardians to reinforce high expectations for academic achievement, even if they are not able to physically come to the school. Continue reading

3 Steps New York and Other Cities Should Take to Help At-Risk Youth Reach Graduation

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new education agenda, announced last week, proposes to raise the city’s on-time graduation rate from 68 percent to 80 percent over the next ten years. A dramatic increase in high school graduation rates is a laudable goal and critical to championing equity; the devil will be in the details, which are yet to be made public. His plans to invest in pre-K and reading by 2nd grade are a critical foundation, but when it comes to keeping older students on track through high school, the mayor would do well to look to a new report released last week by the Center for Promise. Called Don’t Quit on Me, the report provides valuable insight into the role that relationships play in young people’s decisions to stay in high school. The findings point to three key considerations for any city seeking to build a plan to keep all youth on the path to graduation:

  1. Take a hard look at school discipline policies.

The study found that young people who left school were more likely to have experienced multiple adverse life experiences between ages 14 and 18, compared to youth who stayed enrolled. One of the experiences that was a top predictor of leaving school before graduation was suspension or expulsion; being suspended or expelled more than doubled the odds that a young person would not complete high school.

The link between being suspended or expelled and leaving school—consistently found in other research as well—is particularly troubling given the well-documented fact these disciplinary actions are disproportionately meted out to students from certain demographic groups. For example, in the 2009-10 school year, 17 percent of Black children in grades K-12 nationally were suspended at least once—more than three times the suspension rate of white students. The suspension rate for Black students with disabilities was even higher, at one in four (25 percent). In order to keep more students enrolled and increase equity in graduation rates, it will be critical to promote school discipline policies that create safe and productive classroom environments by employing effective alternatives to out-of-school suspension.

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