Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Education Begins At home

February 28, 2000

What do teachers see happening in their classrooms, especially in schools serving low income neighborhoods? They find children are harder and harder to teach. No, not all children, but enough to make a noticeable difference in the school environment. These are some observations veteran teachers are making about how their students are changing.

1. Shorter attention spans. Kids have a harder time sitting still and staying on task. It seems like an inordinate number are diagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder and are on medication. Is it really that way or is it that some are coming from chaotic environments where they watch a lot of fast-paced TV? Are their lives full of interruptions, distractions and no requirements for sustained effort at tasks at home? Is there something about our video culture that lends itself to shortened attention spans for children?

2. A lack of cooperation and respect for adults. It used to be that 1st graders used to be afraid of adults. No longer. There is backtalk, disobedience and resistance. They are not innocent or intimidated. One wonders how they are treated at home or what they are witnessing to bring a disrespectful attitude to school. Too much happens in the home, either from siblings or parents, without regard for the needs or desires of the child.

3. More aggression with peers. The story here is that insecurity, anger and "might makes right" manifest themselves at school. They are easily frustrated and upset when things don’t go their way. They haven’t learned to control their emotions or delay gratification. Their need to feel important and crowd their way into the limelight offends their peers and soon they become isolated and rejected - leading to even more aggression. Coercion in the home or getting away with tantrums and coercive behavior makes aggression at school more likely.

4. A lack of moral values of right and wrong. It seems to the teachers that not enough time has been taken to explain certain principles of behavior to children. They lack of a foundation for knowing how to behave. Teachers have to spend time educating children about basic morality. School is only a part of the total environment for children and what happens at home overrides what little can be done by busy teachers

5. Not knowing the fundamentals of reading. Many children haven’t been read to. Many children don’t know the nursery rhymes that were universally known a generation back. There are few books in the home. Parents aren’t reading themselves. Many younger parents may have struggled themselves in school and may not be that proficient at reading.

6. A low value is placed on education. Parents may care for their children but may not put a high priority on education as a key to success in society. The cycle of poverty is passed on to the next generation. They don’t become involved with the school. They don’t take responsibility for being a partner in their child’s education.

7. Too tired and exhausted to learn. Kids do not have regular bedtimes. They stay up late watching TV. They fall asleep in class. In some cases, in crowded homes, they may be kept awake by older teens or parents watching TV late into the night.

8. Dysfunctional home behavior. Too often the child bears the label but the problem lies in factors at home. There may be a young single parent overwhelmed by life. Unable to do his or her best to take care of their own lives, they can hardly take on the responsibility, dedication and sacrifice to take care of children. Their problems are compounded by their own poor choices.

Children are routinely exposed to intense parental conflict, divorce, moves, conflict over visitation, their mother’s boyfriend moving out, tempers, drinking, domestic violence, abuse and other symptoms of the breakdown in family life. They come to school traumatized and preoccupied with worries and insecurities about family life.

This is not the whole story. There are heartwarming examples of success stories that run counter to these trends:

a. Children of immigrant parents who are pushed to become educated.

b. Resilient children who have support from someone special in their life, who take to school and excel despite tough conditions at home.

c. Parents who value education, teach values, parent well and offer strict monitoring of their children behavior despite an anti-education environment.

d. Teachers, church leaders, youth programs, caring relatives, and coaches who make a critical difference in the lives of children.

Does it seem like I’ve overstated the case? I would like to hear from teachers and administrators about what they are seeing in their schools. I would also like to hear about promising ways communities and schools are trying to reverse these disturbing trends. Send your letters to "Unprepared Children" Preston Connection, P.O. Box 9125, Rapid City, SD 57709.