Education does not start in kindergarten. It starts in early infancy, and, if all goes well during the first four years of a child’s life, the next 13 are likely to be just as good. So, the parent’s role in the child’s education begins long before the child starts formal education. There are many valid recommendations by experts about what parents can do to ensure that their children have the best possible advantage once they start school. There are just two that we will underscore briefly here, (1) talking with the young child and (2) disciplining the child.
Talking with young children
Researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted an immense investigation of parents and their young children interacting with each other, which they published in a must-read, small book titled “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” (ISBN 1-55766-197-9). The researchers spent an hour each month for two years recording the talk and interactions between the parents and their child. In all, 42 families were observed. The children were about nine months of age at the outset and the families represented a broad swath of socioeconomic status. The Hart and Risley results were astounding. It turns out that there was a huge range in the average amount of words parents spoke to their child during the hour, from a low of 231 to a high of 3504, a factor of 15. There were other meaningful differences between parents as well and we recommend the book for those interested in learning more. The short of it is that parents who talked more to their children during the period of the study gave their children larger vocabularies and higher IQs as measured at age three, and better performance in school at least through third grade. In bold face type, the Hart and Risley research says “talk to your young children, not a little but a lot.”
Discipline without spanking
Some children are more active than others, some have more “daring-do” than others, some just seem to get into more trouble than others, perhaps because they are more inquisitive. In any event, all children, even the “best,” need to learn what they can do and what they can’t, where they can go and where they can’t, and so on. Even the most vigilant and most planful parents cannot plan for every situation and, sooner or later, their young child will do something that needs to be stopped. What should the parent do? The best strategy for the very young child involves directing the child’s attention to something appropriate. Doing so may require physical guidance, and that is fine; however, parents of a young child must carry objects in their purse, pocket, or bag that will easily distract their child. This is the time to distract. Having a battery of engaging objects can also, of course, preclude the need for distraction. Parents of young children often carry many things, including a diaper bag and stroller; however, it is surprising to us how often we see a parent who has no engaging objects for their child, a situation that encourages behavior that eventually requires distracting. What the parent should not do is hit or spank the child, or threaten to hit or spank the child. So, if necessary, distract, but do not spank. There are many really good books on parenting. We recommend three, in part because we have had the great fortune to know and be influenced by each of the authors. If you can, read either Wesley Becker’s “Parents are Teachers” Glen Latham’s “Power of Positive Parenting” or Howard Sloane’s “The Good Kid Book.”
Special needs children
We will have more to say about children with special needs below. Meanwhile, if you have read this far and are puzzled because you child has special needs and it doesn’t seem that what has been said applies, it does. If it happens that your child has special needs, is not meeting developmental milestones, is not talking by 24 months, for example, or is not learning how to respond to simple parent commands like “stop,” “come,” “give,” “take,” “look,” and so on, the recommendations above still apply, but, in addition, we strongly recommend that you seek professional help from the child’s pediatrician or by way of referral from the child’s pediatrician. Early intervention is often critical to a satisfactory outcome.
Key school indicators
Emotional reaction to school
Parents cannot be in school very often, so they do not have all the first-hand information that they might want to determine whether their child’s schooling is good quality or defective. Consequently, they must rely on indirect observations, primarily the reactions of their children. For us at TIEE, the most important indirect indicator that the child’s school is among the best is the child’s reaction to school. Parents commonly know whether their child likes or dislikes something. It is a good sign if the child obviously likes school because it is likely to mean that school is well organized and predictable; it is likely to mean that the teacher is not “mean” but positive; it is likely to mean that the lessons are within the child’s ability to learn; and it is likely to mean that peer interactions are positive. That’s probably a good school.
The following is a quote from one of our Mt. Helix Academy second graders: “The hardest thing about school is leaving school. The easiest thing about school is coming to school.” It speaks volumes about what school is for this little girl.
Maybe the child is wrong. Maybe she sees everything as a glass overflowing. Go visit the school when you can. We recommend arranging the visit with the school’s front office and with the child’s teacher a couple of days in advance. Begin your visit the first thing in the morning. That will give you tons of information right away. Meanwhile, do not be put off if you receive a cold shoulder from the school’s office. It is proper and within your rights to visit your child’s school, to see your child’s classroom and pretty much whatever else you want to see. Be firm, not rude. Remember, the school’s teachers are there to educate your child. To do so, they must interact with your child. Everyone likes to interact with pleasant people and hardly anyone likes to interact with rude people. Trust us, if you are pleasant and forthright, your child’s education is likely to improve; if you are rude, it is very likely that your child’s education will be compromised.
Good schools are highly organized, students are taught what to do and when, and they are “caught being good.” Schools like these need not be PBIS schools, but they function in much the same way. Schools like these are a pleasure to observe. The students not only know what to do, they actually do it. You can already see it at the very beginning of the day. They line up appropriately. They move through the halls appropriately. They manage their materials efficiently. They move within the classroom to their various groups without incident. They turn on the computer without incident and they shut it down when the period is over or when told to do so by the teacher. The students have been taught “how to do school” and they do it. The teaching begins as soon as the students start school for the new year and, before long, nearly all of the students are doing the right thing nearly all of the time. The organization of the school is not limited to classrooms, lessons, and hallways. The cafeteria is also highly organized. Students get their meals, proceed to tables, and eat and converse with their peers peacefully. The playground is highly organized; it’s also peaceful. Students have been taught to play group games and they do. Moreover, when they are waiting for their turn, they wait appropriately and they cheer on their fellow students. You won’t hear “put-downs” and you won’t see bullying. If this sounds too good to be true, you must visit a high performing school. Come see one of ours.
Interactions between teachers and students, parents, and other teachers
Good schools are virtually devoid of negative teacher talk. Teachers speak positively with their students, encouraging problem solving for genuine problems. Teachers will often compliment their students or praise their effort and accomplishment. Students have to be corrected from time to time at all schools, but teachers at good schools will be on the lookout for students doing the right thing and they will tell them “that’s good.” Yelling at students, ridiculing them, or “putting them down” simply does not occur. Teachers must inform parents when their child has misbehaved in school, particularly if it is a serious infraction. However, teachers are generally not required to communicate desirable student actions to parents. They do at good schools. At good schools, teachers also speak positively about their students. The lunchroom is a great location to test the school. In good schools, the lunchroom often involves discussion of students but you won’t hear “rag” talk, complaining about having to teach a particular student or group of students. What you will hear is problem solving and, from time to time, you will hear laughter, real belly laughs caused by the telling of an anecdote involving one of the students. You will be impressed at how much the teachers genuinely like the students.
Amount of time in lessons
In underachieving schools, the amount of time spent in lessons is often a small fraction of the school day. In good schools, teachers spend a great deal more time actually teaching. There are several reasons. First, in good schools, there is a commitment on the part of the teaching staff to teach students as much as possible every day. If you talk to the teachers, you get a strong sense that their teaching and their students’ learning is really important to them. Typically, this commitment stems from the leadership at the school. Second, because the students have been taught how to get ready for lessons and how to behave during lessons, which we call “session skills,” less time is spent doing classroom behavior management and administrative chores and the result is that more time is available for lessons. You will see this in the organization of classroom activities and materials. Third, because the students have a history of obtaining lots of praise and other positive consequences for doing the right thing, they are more inclined to do the right thing. The right thing is to start lessons quickly, participate in lessons as much as possible, show effort, and acquire competence.
Student engagement during lessons
In good schools, you will observe that the teacher arranges for students to show effort and to acquire competence. It’s not guesswork; it’s organized. You will see the teacher and the students interacting frequently during the lessons, and the students won’t just be shouting out. Some of the time, the teacher will have all of the students respond; less often, the teacher will call on individual students. You will also see that the teacher’s method for teaching can be called: “I do it; we do it; you do it.” That is, first the teacher models the right way, then the teacher assists the students doing it the right way, and then the students are given the opportunity to do it themselves. In all of this, it will be clear that it is the teacher who is leading the students and not the other way around.
Student accuracy during lessons
In good schools, you will also see that, during lessons, students’ responses are nearly always correct, not always, but nearly always. The teacher has organized lessons so that they progress regularly through the curriculum, but they do so in a way that results in the students really mastering the skills and knowledge required. However, when students do make errors, the teacher makes a correction right away.
Student performance data
In good schools, student achievement is evaluated regularly to determine whether the students are progressing through the curriculum. Performance data are gathered on tests that are derived from the curriculum, individual student data are graphed, and the teachers make instructional decisions based on the charted data. Curriculum-based measurement and instructional decision making on the basis of charted student performance data has been shown to be just about the most powerful practice a teacher can do to improve student achievement. Ask to see your child’s charts.
Teacher commitment to using research-validated methods
The characteristics of quality schools discussed above are supported by the research literature, as are numerous other, more specific methods. Your child’s teacher may not need all of them to teach effectively and efficiently, but it sure would be nice to know that the teacher is aware of the concept of evidence-based or research-validated methods, knows how to find out about them, knows how to learn to implement them with fidelity, and knows how to improve upon them through “fine tuning.” A simple question such as: “What’s your take on these so-called evidence-based teaching methods?” might very well give all the answer that’s needed. Be skeptical of the practices of teachers who question whether there are evidence-based methods, teachers who cannot identify any, teachers who are unaware of how to learn about them, and so forth. Although such biases do not by themselves mean that the teacher is poor, more than likely the teacher could be much better, and here’s the real crux: does the teacher display an eagerness to improve?
Special needs students
Students who have qualified for Special Education and have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are a highly diverse group. Despite their diversity, the characteristics of a good school and a good teacher that we identified above are the same for students with disabilities as they are for students who are typically developing. The student should like school and going to school. The school should be highly organized and the students should be taught how to “do school” as much as they are capable. The teachers should reveal by their behavior that they truly like their students, no matter their disabilities. School and classroom should be structured so that the maximum amount of time is spent in lessons. During lessons, teachers should ensure that students are consistently engaged. Lessons should be designed so that students make many more correct responses than errors, and, when they commit an error, it should be corrected immediately. Student performance data, especially for all IEP goals and objectives, should be collected regularly, charted regularly, and used regularly to make instructional decisions. And, finally, the teachers should be committed to implementing research-validated methods and to becoming the best teachers that they can become through a program of continuous professional development.