Understanding and Working with Vulnerable Students

Michael Ben-Avie

As part of research I conducted with a colleague to find out why teachers choose to leave day school, one finding we found particularly surprising: teachers say that they have seriously considered quitting the profession or leaving Jewish education because their schools were not effectively dealing with students who were not thriving either academically or socially and emotionally. How do students become vulnerable in this way?

Students are vulnerable when they have yet to develop a “who-ness” and a “wholeness.” A wholeness emerges when there is a balance among all the aspects or domains of development. When development is uneven, there is an overemphasis on one aspect of development to the detriment of overall development in the present and possibly in the future. For example, if students’ cognitive development has been overemphasized to the detriment of their social development, they may be at grade level in their learning of math and science, but may be unable to successfully engage in teamwork and group problem-solving.

While all students experience some measure of imbalance in their development, the imbalance of vulnerable students is more acute. Students’ level of vulnerability is often categorized into three tiers. Students in tier I tend to benefit from attention to the quality of the climate of relationships in the school as well as a comprehensive system of social-emotional learning and behavioral supports. Tier II and III interventions ramp up the instructional or social/behavioral supports to the students. There are many causes why students may be in tier III, including trauma, anxiety, terror, aggression towards others/suicidal ideation, obsessive thoughts, and so forth. In general, students in Jewish day schools who are not thriving will benefit from either a tier I or tier II intervention.

How do students in Jewish day schools become in need of intervention? Children and adolescents too often lack access to the appropriate adults and the communication skills necessary to engage with them about important issues they face. Thus, too often they derive from their experiences the wrong lessons about themselves and the world, developing global and enduring limiting beliefs about themselves and their potential based on specific negative experiences in specific environments. For these students, expert support and guidance by adults makes the difference between perceiving a world filled with opportunities for mastery and satisfaction and perceiving a world filled with obstacles and frustration.

The who-ness of vulnerable students is characterized by beliefs that trigger or support hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness. Robert Dilts, the author of “Thought Viruses, Mental Maps and Health,” offers the following examples:

Hopelessness: “No matter what I do it won’t make a difference. What I want is not possible to get. It’s out of my control. I’m a victim.”

Helplessness: “It’s possible for others to achieve this goal but not for me. I’m not good enough or capable enough to accomplish it.”

Worthlessness: “I am a fake. I don’t belong. I don’t deserve to be happy and healthy. There is something basically and fundamentally wrong with me as a person and I deserve the pain and suffering that I am experiencing.”

According to Trudy Rashkind Steinfeld, a former colleague at the Yale Child Study Center, students may also be experiencing a deep sense of unease about their life in school. For many of them, there’s not enough time to fully process concepts and skills, and just when they feel like they are learning the material, the topic changes. Many of them lack sufficient support for homework. Some fear being shamed or targeted by their classmates or even by their teachers. They may feel uncomfortable enough about being confused even when they are alone, so that their primary focus is on self-protection, rather than learning. To be successful, students need to shift these types of limiting beliefs to beliefs involving hope for the future, a sense of self-worth and belonging, and a sense of capability and responsibility.

Jewish day schools can help students who are vulnerable by promoting their self-regulation, which underlines healthy development. Self-regulation includes the monitoring, appraising and expression of emotions. Robert Sternberg, former president of the American Psychological Association, explains that self-regulation is “being aware of what matters to you and having the discipline to avoid temptations and see it through.”

As child and adolescent research conducted at the National Institute for Mental Health has demonstrated, promoting students’ self-regulation is critical to help prevent mild aggression among young children from escalating into serious behavior problems and violence later on. Our research of Connecticut public school children determined that the most important predictor of students’ academic achievement (GPA) was the students’ scores on the scale that measures self-regulation.

Within the classroom, the more teachers know what specifically “triggers” the lower levels of self-regulation among vulnerable students, the more they are able to figure out how to help them. There are many reasons why students may not demonstrate self-regulation, and on our self-assessments students are asked to indicate their level of agreement with the following sample items:

When I don’t behave in class, it’s because

  • something in the environment “triggers” me (it’s too hot, I can’t see the board, there’s too much noise in the hall, etc.).
  • someone else in the class “triggers” me (they are joking around, pushing, etc.), and I defend myself.
  • someone else in the class “triggers” me (they are joking around, pushing, etc.), and I join in the fun.
  • something inside me “triggers” me (e.g., I don’t know the answer to a question the teacher asked, I’m bored, the subject we’re learning makes me feel anxious).
  • that’s just the kind of person I am.
  • I’m just not able to control myself.
  • I feel that it’s important to behave the way I want to, not necessarily the way someone else tells me to behave.
  • if I start following the rules, I’ll get bullied or targeted by others.
  • I don’t like something about the teacher.

Fortunately, students’ levels of self-regulation and vulnerability are amenable to change in a way that family background or previous educational experiences are not. To change the lifepaths of students who are vulnerable, an effective strategy is stretching their orientation to the future. Students who demonstrate self-regulation are able to engage in goal-oriented behavior. Consider the following example of a goal-setting program: At bimonthly meetings, students are welcomed with a short presentation (on learning styles, skill sets, etc.) and a piece of paper on which were written “weekly goals” and “long-term goals.” Students are given 20 minutes to write what they want to accomplish that week (to earn a B in a math class, to pass a science test), activities to complete in order to reach the goals, an assessment of time needed, and the specific days on which they would commit to completing the listed activities. Then they share aloud what they had written.

In this way, students help each other think through how to achieve their goals. By seeing each other’s goals, the likelihood is increased that this process will raise the bar for many of them. Over time, they will learn that achieving their goals is something that they can do—that it is not overwhelming. By subdividing their goals into manageable chunks, they will learn that achieving them does not need to be too daunting.

The most effective strategy for helping students to reduce their vulnerability and to increase their self-regulation is getting to know them well and becoming an important person in their lives. In our studies of students in Jewish schools, youth movements and camps, we ask students to indicate about how many adults in their lives (at home, at school, in the community) care about what happens to them. Students who indicated “zero adults” had significantly lower scores on overall learning and development than students who indicated a number greater than zero. Fifty-four percent indicated that between 11 and 30 adults care about what happens to them. An additional 18 percent indicated a number greater than 30 adults. Students who indicated either 13-25 adults or more than 25 adults had the highest levels of learning and development, significantly differing from the other students, and the fewest challenges with interpersonal relationships.

In schools that effectively work with students who are vulnerable, the typical students also benefit. Typical students quickly learn that how they interact with vulnerable students matters to teachers. I observed a teacher respond to a negative interaction that occurred between a typical student and a vulnerable student while they were working in a small group. Instead of focusing only on the two students, she stopped the work of all the groups. She told them, “I can see that you are engaged in your group projects, but the whole fabric of the community that we are creating in this classroom has been torn asunder. We cannot continue until this has been addressed.” This teacher embodies a core principle of Jewish tradition: the health of society depends upon the way that we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.♦

Michael Ben-Avie PhD is a research affiliate of the Yale Child Study Center. He can be reached at Michael.ben-avie@yale.edu.

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HaYidion Whole_Student Winter 2012
The Whole Student
Winter 2012