HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The New “In Loco Parentis”

by Jonathan Levy Issue: The Whole Student

Changes in family dynamics are affecting the way students need, and parents expect, schools to attend to them. Levy proposes ways that schools should consider student needs beyond the curriculum.

Some years ago, a parent phoned me in a panic. “Please,” he said, “tell my daughter she cannot wear that outfit to school! She is ignoring me—she will listen to you.” As I hung up the phone I reflected that this caller—a successful, well-educated professional, one who dealt with complex issues—could not get his daughter to change her skirt. An unusual situation? Not at all, and this call served for me as a metaphor for the sea change in parent-child-school relationships that has emerged in recent years.

Schools and parents need to work together to model, promote, and instill certain key values that give the intangible skills needed to successfully navigate the modern and rapidly changing world. With increasingly complicated family dynamics, the evolving Jewish family, and shifting parental roles, families are looking more and more to schools to promote healthy social behavior. These values (or “apps” in today’s lingo) include modeling social skills, knowing what you can and cannot control, fostering resiliency, and knowing how triggers and rewards contribute to behavior.

Few would disagree that the last quarter century has seen a drastic increase in the numbers and types of issues with which schools need to deal on a regular basis. No longer does the relationship between school and student begin and end in the classroom and recess playground. Changes in family dynamics including greater numbers of double income families, financial stresses, lack of parenting skills and hectic schedules prevent many parents from adequately imparting all of the social-emotional guidance and skills that they would like their children to receive. Areas as diverse as modeling religious practice, teaching appropriate social behavior, enforcing safe Internet use, offering opportunities to perform acts of chesed, and identifying students’ deficits and delays have moved from the arena of the home to the arena of the school, and parents’ demands seem comprehensive and constantly evolving.

How can schools position themselves to be able to meet these demands and promote a collaborative partnership between the home and school, while keeping the focus on their mandate to promote academic growth and learning? And what are the key messages that the schools must convey to parents? Below are some reflections to help focus the attention of school leaders on the diverse needs of students and families.

  1. 1. All of us, school leaders, parents, teachers, even students must know what they can control and what they cannot. When my eldest son was a baby a power struggle arose at the end of his bath. I asked him to pull the plug and he would refuse, trying to keep me from letting the water out as well. Finally I stopped arguing and asked him who was going to pull the plug, him or me. Immediately, he pulled it, thinking he had maintained control over the situation. I had given him a choice where I did not care which option he selected, but I could control the outcome. And that was ok because as the adult I understood that we had both “won.”

Similarly, school personnel need to remind themselves of the areas over which they have control and what is beyond their control. While in the past teachers could take for granted that children would be closely supervised at home with respect to homework completion and preparing for tests, classroom expectations must be modified to allow for the fact that parental involvement in out of school work is not always a given. Homework instructions must be clear and easy to follow, and test material should be thoroughly reviewed in school. When communication with parents is necessary, use of multiple modalities including notes home or email communications should be utilized.

With respect to students’ personal responsibility, this must be modified according to the age and maturity level of the student. While sophomores in high school can be expected to take full responsibility for their workload, third graders will need to have their responsibilities stated to them explicitly and might require additional tools (checklists on their desks, straightforward review sheets, reminders on the board) to help them meet their teacher’s expectations. Additionally, work that goes home should be able to be completed independently without the thought that there will be parental involvement.

  1. 2. Model the behavior and interpersonal relationships that promote collaborative classroom and school function. The image of the stern teacher at the front of the classroom facing children with rapt attention is a relic. No longer are children (if they ever were) raised with the idea that the “teacher is always right.” The teacher must establish a classroom environment that promotes respect both between the teacher and student as well as amongst the students. School personnel are ambassadors of the school 24 hours a day. In this age when everyone can follow you on Twitter or friend you on Facebook there is no “off” time. Students are still learning about the ramifications of online posts. Educators must model appropriate behavior through all potential contact with students.
  2. 3. Promote resiliency. As parents have less time to spend with their children, the idea of a “happy child” has supplanted the image of a hard working and sometimes disappointed child. The difficulty in this model is that children are not put into situations where they might fail, and thus they don’t learn the skills necessary to recover from failure. As a school community, there are several ways to promote resiliency. In the classroom environment, the students must feel free to take chances, go outside of their comfort zones and give answers that might be wrong.

If the milieu of mutual respect has been established, students will not feel embarrassed to try for fear of repercussions from their classmates. Setting academic challenges, like crossword puzzles with increasing levels of difficulty or online math competitions, allow students to see their efforts pay off after continued involvement and work without the immediate gratification of instant success. Another way to promote resiliency is to establish programs such as an arts venture, student leadership forum or a chesed project that encourage children to take on new skills. For most people, new skills are not acquired easily but come only through hard work and, possibly, failure.

  1. 4. Know triggers/rewards. As school educators and administrators, we often get frustrated at our inability to get our students to change their behaviors. Implementing behavior change is probably among the most difficult things people face, as anyone who has tried to lose weight or quit smoking can tell you. The key factor in promoting change is to understand the environment in which the behavior is occurring and the purpose these behaviors serve. For the student who is habitually disorganized, changing the way they manage their locker time, the number of shelves or types of binders they use might go a long way to reorganize them. For the student who continually acts out in class, understanding the secondary gain they receive for their behavior can help the school to redirect the student to an activity where they can receive positive attention for their energy and efforts.

The teacher is not alone in dealing with these challenges. Depending on the type of school, a multitude of professionals may be available to assist. Many schools have part-time social workers contracted to meet with students or families. Elementary schools may have someone specializing in group dynamics and who assists with conflict resolution. High schools may have guidance counselors, deans and administrators who deal with discipline and other complex issues.

Communication among staff is crucial. A set time during the week for the various non-teaching staff to meet is essential in treating the whole child. In schools where it is possible to include a teacher in the discussion this is preferable; otherwise, another way should be found to solicit teacher input. In our school, weekly meetings take place between guidance (academic and responsible for obtaining teacher input), social worker (social-emotional), deans (discipline). This team approach ensures that all angles are covered and one cohesive plan is in place. Another benefit of this meeting is that trends and larger issues can be discussed and schoolwide initiatives can be thought through, planned, implemented and evaluated. In this increasingly complex world of children, many heads are certainly better than one.

To be successful, schools must recognize that the old model of the school as the imparter of knowledge, of “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic,” is no longer sufficient. The complexities of the world today, the change in parents and parenting, and the challenges that confront students each day from a myriad of external forces have led to a sea of change in the demands placed on schools. We must work towards creating the climate, adding the resources and providing the opportunities to meet these challenges.♦

Jonathan Levy is campus principal at TanenbaumCHAT Kimel Family Education Centre, located in Vaughan, Ontario. He can be reached at jlevy@tanenbaumchat.org.

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The Whole Student

One way that day schools stand out is the attention they can provide to each and every student, as expressed in the classic line from Proverbs, “Educate the youth according to his or her path.” Authors here offer numerous ways for schools to address the multi-faceted student to ensure that s/he is nurtured academically, spiritually, creatively and socially. 

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