Monday, August 20, 2012

How to Get Kids to Love School

"Do not train children to learn by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the particuliar bent of the genius of each."


I've always taken for granted that my boys had such great public education systems at their disposals. The above quote by Plato rings so true to my core beliefs. Each child is different with unique talents and a social style of his or her own. Each child has hidden potential that his or her teacher has a special opportunity to identify and to unlock. A caring heart and an individualized approach goes so far with a child. Force and harshness shuts a child down and you run the risk of him or her feeling that who they are is a bad thing.

Up until this year I have been blessed to experience the positive side of education. One of Israel's (now ten) best teachers was his third grade teacher, Mrs. Miles. She was cool. She even rode a Harley to work when the weather permitted it. Now, Mrs. Miles understood an individualized approach and how to harness what makes a child unique. She spent the whole first week getting to understand each student and what made him or her special. She identified the leaders, the comedians, the shy ones, and so on. After that week she rearranged the entire classroom to put students next to one another in support of their strengths. When it was conference time her focus was on the positive, where a child excelled. Most of the time I never even realized Israel had any bad marks on his report card because all we heard about were subjects in which he excelled and how they were investing in them and uplifting him more in those areas. My son is a talker; very social. He loves to entertain, be liked, and has a very caring heart. He is passionate about the right things too. Instead of repremanding him for talking out of turn the teachers told him that they couldn't help but notice he had a social gift, and reccommended him for student council. From that point on Israel LOVED school. He was up before the alarm every single day.

Donovan (now five) had a similar experience for preschool and pre-k. Donovan is a very focused child. His teachers understood that he needed to sit and finish his art project to perfection before sitting down for circle time. By telling him something was "good enough" they would have been intruding on his value for excellence. Instead of shutting this down, the teachers allowed him to finish his art projects where he could still be involved with circle time. The individualized approach was held at a higher priority than sticking to a schedule. Donovan and another girl, Isobella, loved to organize and clean. To them, picking up the stations after play time was a reward! It was a special honor held for them each day, and the other children weren't made to do it to be "fair". In fact, allowing the other children to pick up probably would have been punishment for these two because they would just have to go back and fix everything!

Last week my boys started a new school. For Donovan the transition hasn't been difficult. He would have had a new school with new friends regardless of where he went because he is a kindergartener this year. For Israel I expected a diffucult transition. He is in fifth grade now, was in love with his school, and had many friends he left behind. What I didn't expect was for the first week to be as hard on him as it was. Each day he came home with such an attitude and started picking on his little brother. He would complain and cry for hours about how he hated things, and Donovan would tell me it wasn't so bad. I decided I needed to see things for myself. Israel is prone to exaggeration, but one thing was for sure... his little bucket was drained each day he got home, and he promptly began draining ours in a feeble attempt to fill back up.

Today was the start of a new week and my commitment to my son was that I was going to experience what he was experiencing. Today I went to school. I've never done this before and I will be honest, I was really nervous about being a fifth grader again! It wasn't for the entire day, only for lunch, but it was long enough to identify why my son was so miserable.

Israel and Donovan are very different in their personalities. Israel is very touchy-feely. He likes to sit close to you, he needs a hug, he needs to hear he is loved. Israel loves to talk and needs recognition. He tends to interrupt, but not intentionally. He wants to be liked and therefore he hates being left in the dark with what others expect of him. When he is criticized he doesn't take it well and feels very misunderstood. He's more of a visual-spacial learner who conceptualizes quickly and teaches his peers, but has an impatience for details and red tape. Donovan is different. He is quieter and more focused. He appreciates order and structure. He is introverted, a deep thinker. He doesn't take criticism personally, but meets it with questions to improve his performance. He gets bored easily, they both do. They are both competative and both very active. They both are so busy in their heads that they often miss what is being said. 

This new school lacks an individualized approach. It's a breeding ground for analytic thinkers and a prison for intuitive feelers. The world needs both. Everything is about following rules, having order, and maintaining the structure. You are not allowed to touch a friend when you talk. If you interrupt you will write an essay as punishment. Israel loves to write by the way. Now he is having something he sees as positive transformed into something as negative. Talk about confusing. The entire time we were at lunch we were yelled at. I couldn't tell you what the lady said, but she seemed angry. No wonder he always feels like he is in trouble. No one even smiles. To top it off, we were given exactly seven minutes to eat. Ridiculous! No wonder the boys are starving when they get home. I'm just told, "Mom, you pack too much food", when in reality - I don't! They don't pack enough time for these children! And if this isn't enough to state my case try this one on for size. Anyone can be on student council as long as you pay a fee. Really? Politics this early in the game?

Now, I realize I'm not in any position to march into the prinicpal's office (who is sure to be there because I have been in this school on three occassions in six days and he is always in his office) and demand an overhaul with the power of positivity and custom fitting.

What I can do is be involved.

I've taken my children's education for granted and put that burden on the hands of their teachers for too long. This is as much my responsibility as it is theirs. Tomorrow I am going to lunch with Donovan. Later this month I will attend my first ever PTO meeting. My good friend reminded me that sugar catches more flies, and I intend to give this school some sugar. I will make it a point to help my oldest understand why the teachers are behaving the way that they are and I will continue to reinforce his strengths and pour in his bucket every single day.

I beg you to pay attention to your kids. We get so busy, I know. I was very guilty of it prior to this year. Don't wait until fifth grade to join your son or daughter for lunch like I did. Too often we chalk up problems in the education system to funding. What I found is that in this situation it had nothing to do with money and everything to do with a lack of empathy and positive reinforcement from the staff - resulting in a lack of engagement by the students. While there are a lot of thing that are out of our control, our children's education shouldn't be one of them.

Above are my boys getting off the bus the first week of school. After talking with some other parents I was able to help my oldest understand the differences between his two schools. He has been happier with his school now that he understands the whys behind the actions and that I am involved. His biggest hurdle was that he felt he wasn't good enough nor meeting any of the teacher's expectations. With that rectified, both boys are happy and enjoying school more, but I will continue to stay actively involved!