Understanding Students

Copyright Rabbi Eli Hecht
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"The world exists only because of the innocent breath of schoolchildren", attributed to Jewish sages 1st Century Talmud:Shabbat.

Recent reports of children as early as two years old receiving psychotropic drugs has me worried.  How safe are Ritalin and Prozac - the stimulants and anti-depressants for kids?  Somehow the unresolved question of their effects on a developing brain has not been answered and yet prescriptions are being prescribed to young school children.  Daily school problems are now being addressed with drugs and more drugs.

Too many teachers are frustrated by being told to label children as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or even to suggest Ritalin for problem students.  They know that they have a 'problem student' but they do not have the tools, as of yet, to deal with or recognize what kind of student they are working with. 

Educators are being forced to make decisions regarding placement of their students.

Every once in a while teachers are faced with a student who won't fit into the class.  It may be they lack in emotional growth or in intellectual growth, or both.  At times the problem deals with the immaturity of the child.  Since teachers are not qualified to do the testing, as they are not trained in these fields, what can they?  Here are some simple suggestions. 

I believe teachers must ask themselves the following questions:

Why is the student having a hard time in class?  Is it plain boredom or is it a social, emotional or intelligence problem?  What role does maturity play with this student?  Most teachers are aware of three kinds of students who may be doing poorly in class.  They are students having problems in one of the three groups.  It may be with immaturity, or a slow learner, or perhaps a late bloomer.

We perceive immaturity when a child doesn't respond in a correct way. They do not have the tools to express themselves.  They simply lack the social skills.  They may, at times, be too smart and need smarter children to relate to or they are average but need more time for child's play.  In both scenarios the child doesn't fit in well with the class environment.  The child always acts out and frustrates the entire class.

The slow learner can't keep up with the class.  The student may have many positive character traits but simply is lost in a class setting.  No matter how many times the teacher addresses the student the work is not done.  The student cannot understand the instructions and simply cannot integrate the ongoing instructions and lessons being taught in the class.

The late bloomer too suffers from a lack of understanding of the schoolwork.  This child may have good social skills; listens but still cannot perform the needed class work.  He never seems to get things right.  You wonder what's wrong and what can you do for him.

Both the slow learner and the late bloomer will not get the work done but have friends in class, while the immature student will get the work done but not posses the normal social skills for friends. 

Being smart and being sociable are two different markers for dealing with students.

Here are some suggestions that may help teachers deal with the three kinds of students

There is a book called "Don't Push Your Preschooler" by Dr. Louise Bates Ames and Dr. Joan Ames Chase, published by Harper & Row, which states: that being smart and mature are two unrelated markers.  As it is possible that an extra smart child may have more problems than a slower and not so bright child. 

"It is important for parents to appreciate that maturity and intelligence tend to be two separate measures or qualities.  A child may be obviously very bright, that is, very intelligent, and at the same time be immature or young for his age.

Thus saying that a child is immature does not mean that he is not intelligent.  We often use the term 'superior immature' for that child who is bright but young for his age.  The "superior immature" child is one who especially needs protection from the parent or educator who would push him too early into formal schooling just because he is bright."

What we need here is to be super sensitive to the 'superior immature' students.  The teacher needs to go the extra mile in providing guidelines for this child.  If not, we could have disastrous results.  The bright child gets into all kinds of trouble and shows inappropriate behavior.   This is because the student is immature and that is the cause of the problem.  This answers the old question of "if they are so smart then shouldn't they know better?"  The answer is that they are not emotionally ready for a regular classroom environment.

In dealing with the slow learner we must be cognizant that the slow learner remains a slow learner all his/her life.  They never catch up, repeating the same class for one or two years will destroy the student.  As being bigger, older and placed with younger and smaller children destroys the self-esteem of this student.  So what do we do?

What the teacher may need to do is address the students needs now while remaining in the appropriate class.  The school must provide a one-to-one instructor where the slow learner will learn, however, at his own pace.  We must keep the child with his peer group "class at any cost.  A teacher's aid or volunteer will be needed.  The teacher will need to set different goals and tasks for this slow learner.

Remember, another thing must be considered.  Is the slow learner getting the survival skills like reading and basic arithmetic?  No amount of in-class or homework will take care of the above-mentioned concern.  The teacher and supervisor will need to make the appropriate accommodation now while the child is in the proper age group and keeping his self-esteem.  Survival skills must be the goal for the student. 

"The New Dare to Discipline" by Dr. James Dobson, published by Tyndale House  states "The slow learner is unlike the later bloomer in one major respect: time will not resolve his deficiency.  He will not do better next year.  In fact, he tends to get further behind as he grows older."

The late bloomer is the easiest student to work with.  There is an expression "what time does the mind doesn't." The late bloomer will bloom a bit later and catch up with his peers.  He just needs some extra time.  A late bloomer will unquestionably catch up and do well with his age and peer group.

However, it is the responsibility of the school and teachers to protect the student from being mislabeled as a slow learner that never catches up.

When teachers are aware of the different kinds of students we become better teachers.  By knowing the needs of the different students we can help them stay in school and become a true asset to society and a joy to their parents.  Teachers have the power to empower the student with self-esteem thus giving them the much-needed ingredient for success.  Yes, each child has different gifts and it's our job to teach to the child's capabilities.

By realizing that a classroom has all kinds of students, realistic expectations are met.  The teacher feels a real sense of accomplishment and when that happens, it becomes a win win situation.  Drugging them into compliance will only create a defiance of unprecedented proportions.  America has witnessed so-called phenomena of violent students.  Drugging our children has done little to alleviate violence in the schools.

In a recent book called "Reclaiming Our Children" by Peter R. Breggin M.D. author of "Your Drug May Be Your Problem" and "Talking Back to Ritalin", we are told that the violent youngsters involved in school shootings are usually under psychiatric care and prescribed medicine.  Breggin believes that "The most despairing and violent of our children reflect the underlying disorder of the society: the alienation and abandonment of our children.  We must utterly reject the idea that the problem lies in our children's brains or bodies, or that we need to focus on diagnosing individual children.  Instead we need to identify the breakdown of relationship with our children in our homes, schools, and community, and then to come together as adults dedicated to making ourselves and our institutions more able to serve the needs of our children."

It may be true that many children need medication, as do adults.  But, I believe it is far more important to educate our educators to be sensitive to the students than to mass medicate.   We should have a whole child approach in understanding the student before we prescribe drugs and label them.

I run a day care center and private elementary school.  I have learned that children march to different drums.  One of the ways we deal with problematic children is with a mentoring system.  We solicit seniors and grandparents who are talented, but have graduated from the work field.  These volunteers come into the school once or twice a week to spend a few hours mentoring children.  They do this in a supervised area under the guidance of our school principal and teachers.  Our methods of having the child overcome so-called problem is by receiving extra attention and one-to-one instruction.

You can't imagine the joy we have observing the success rate between the student and their mentor.  The retired mentor has a purpose and the children receive a great boost, enabling them to continue within the school system.  This may be an alternative to medicating youngsters.

Let's keep the innocence of children alive by providing them with the rich opportunities of sensitive teachers and safe schools.