Stop expulsions: Empathize and teach

As reported in “Suspending Preschoolers Doesn’t Work: How Adults Can Intervene“:

[E]xperts and advocates now argue that suspending a 3- or 4-year-old, no matter how bad the behavior, is a bad idea.

“Expelling preschoolers is not an intervention,” according to a policy statement issued earlier this year by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Rather, it disrupts the learning process, pushing a child out the door of one early care and education program, only for him or her to be enrolled somewhere else, continuing a negative cycle of revolving doors that increases inequality and hides the child and family from access to meaningful supports.”

Instead, use gentle redirection and teach them techniques for managing big feelings.

And, help the teachers and caregivers empathize with the children.

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Trusting students to direct their learning

As noted by David Wills when directing the Barns Hostel in rural Scotland:

students behaved much better around staffers with whom they had developed an affectionate bond, and concluded that affection created a desire to please and made coercion unnecessary.

In lieu of punishment, Barns operated on a system of “shared responsibility,” designed to minimize both misunderstandings and resentments. Although lessons were mandatory, the rest of the rules were made by the students themselves, and transgressions were handled by peers imposing what they considered a reasonable and appropriate consequence — for example, a disruptive student might have been asked to remain in another room until the desire to be disruptive faded.

And at the Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School:

The school fostered a supportive atmosphere that emphasized egalitarianism and mutual trust among faculty and students… The students themselves drove the curriculum but shared overall control of the school with teachers and community leaders. Everyone had a genuine voice…

As David Gribble summarizes from his observations across ~20 schools worldwide:

overall, the children at these schools appeared engaged and eager to learn, without coercion—they were even willing to make great sacrifices for the opportunity to attend the schools… “most social and academic problems are eased and many are solved … by respect, responsibility, affection and freedom.”

Trust and respect can help students flourish and achieve far beyond what we might otherwise have allowed ourselves to see.

Out-of-school factors connect with in-school success

Per “Strong neighborhoods, parenting can bridge ‘achievement gap‘”:

“when youth in urban environments have supportive parents and feel safe in their neighborhoods, they are positive about their future and believe they can be successful in school,” says lead author Henrika McCoy, assistant professor at UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work.

The statements with the strongest correlation with academic achievement were: “I can be successful” (indicating future aspirations); “I can talk with parents about bad things” (positive parental relationships); and “I can be safe within a few blocks from home” (safe neighborhood environment).

Henrika McCoy, Elizabeth A. Bowen. Hope in the Social Environment: Factors Affecting Future Aspirations and School Self-Efficacy for Youth in Urban Environments. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s10560-014-0343-7

Inequitable discipline

Racial minorities and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from school, as per “National report highlights racial disparities in suspensions”:

  • African American boys receive harsher penalties than white students for the same offense
  • African American girls, Latino students (at middle and high school levels), Native American students and students with disabilities are also overrepresented in suspensions
  • there is “emerging evidence” of disproportionate disciplinary practices involving English learners and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students

The effectiveness and appropriateness of suspension as a disciplinary tool is also suspect:

  • Suspensions are most often used for conduct that is not a threat to safety.
  • disparities are most pronounced for subjective offenses, such as insubordination or defiance

Further troubling is the consequence of receiving suspensions:

  • Suspensions can lead to lower academic achievement, higher dropout rates and a higher likelihood that students will be arrested and incarcerated

Especially in light of more effective alternatives both for preventing and responding to discipline issues:

  • Positive relationships among students, teachers and parents are more important than neighborhood crime and poverty at predicting school safety.
  • interventions that improve the quality of academic instruction contribute to lower suspension rates
  • schools with more diverse faculty and student bodies have fewer disciplinary issues
  • The growing use of restorative justice in schools may help in these efforts because it increases opportunities for positive contact between races and helps teachers and administrators see students as individuals rather than members of a particular race

We need to work to understand differences, not shut them out.

Empathizing with actions above appearance

In two previous posts, I emphasized the importance of encouraging children in general and girls in particular to value actions above appearance, noting that I would especially want to promote perspective-taking, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility rather than looks. “Fit and Feminist” blogger Caitlin echoes this sentiment:

[W]hat your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.

She objects to the disconnect between achievement and the appearance of achievement, with regard to how we judge physical fitness:

When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who [sic] has excellent nutrition… You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?

Imagery carries an immediacy that surpasses words and numbers, even when crafted into a compelling narrative. We process images much more quickly and viscerally than we process stories, and we have less experience critiquing pictures than we do analyzing and arguing using language.

Images themselves strip away context, removing the periphery and exaggerating the impact of anything contained within the frame. Still images also remove temporal context, inviting us to fill in but allowing us to forget what might have happened before and after the photo. In today’s highly connected and media-saturated world, we archive and recirculate images capturing unusual moments, someone’s “best of” achievement rather than the ordinary everyday which we mentally discard. Instead we create unrealistic expectations based on this visual vocabulary in which only the rare and easily perceived is worth remembering and emulating:

[W]hen we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes. This is insane! In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best? Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle? No! So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?

Even trickier is our tendency to try to identify with the subject of a photo, mapping ourselves onto the person we see (or imagine). As Paul Bloom notes, people are influenced by appearance and perceived similarity to themselves when judging competence, culpability, and worth:

People are understandably empathetic toward the victims of crime, particularly when they are young and vulnerable, when they are attractive, and when they share our race or ethnicity.

[W]hen the victim of a crime is attractive, the defendant tends to get a longer prison sentence; if the defendant is attractive, he or she gets a lighter sentence.

[B]aby-faced individuals also tend to get lighter punishments, perhaps because they inspire parental warmth.

[J]udging someone based on the geometry of his features is, from a moral and legal standpoint, no better than judging him based on the color of his skin. Actually, both biases reflect the parochial and irrational nature of empathy.

Bloom also highlights our tendency to selectively empathize with people on one side of a conflict while disregarding the other, and with identifiable individuals rather than anonymous numbers:

Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with.

Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.

Appearances are seductive, readily merging with our imagined selves and crowding out invisible others.

What we ought to do instead is maintain a healthy separation between ourselves and the targets of our empathy. Parenting expert Janet Lansbury continually highlights the value of empathizing with young children, as distinct from simply identifying with them. It requires acknowledging others’ feelings while also remaining separate from them.

The more you are willing to agree with your child’s feelings while calmly holding on to the boundary, the easier it will be for her to release her resistance and move on.

They need to be able to complain, resist, stomp their feet, cry, express their darker feelings with the assurance that they have our acceptance and acknowledgment. They need to know that they have a leader who will help them to comply with rules and boundaries in the face of their No’s, and not be intimidated by their displeasure and disagreement.

Is my attitude toward my baby’s fussing or crying one of curiosity rather than impatience and assumption?

Am I soothing my baby by understanding and meeting her needs, or shushing, jiggling and stifling her because I want the crying to stop?

Am I following my impulse to calm my child by saying, for example, “You’re okay”? Or am I staying connected and centered by acknowledging her feelings: “You bumped into the table. Ouch, that hurt you!”

Am I hurrying the feelings along, or waiting patiently for them to be fully released?

Our capacity for empathy needs to go beyond thinking of others as replicas or extensions of ourselves, to recognizing that they are distinct from ourselves. We can acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of others’ feelings without assuming responsibility for changing those feelings or giving in to their demands. Instead of rushing to shelter or console innocent and adorable babies—focusing on their obvious appearance of vulnerability and cuteness—we observe their actions to better understand their particular goals and needs, which may not be the same as ours. Empathy is not ownership.

By maintaining this difference in perspective, both between appearance and action and between ourselves and others, we marry empathy to reason and allow space for incorporating multiple angles and unknowns in our empathy calculus.

The many pluses of positive parenting

Again highlighting the importance of encouragement, David Bornstein describes several evidence-based parenting programs that reduce at-risk behaviors:

As he summarizes, “The essence of the research is that children do best when they receive calm and consistent feedback and assertive discipline that’s based on reasonable expectations – with significantly more encouragement and positive feedback than criticism.”

Incentives and investment in schooling and parenting

In an interview with Paul Solman at PBS, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman discusses the achievement gap, IQ testing, early childhood education, and parenting, framing the issues from the perspective of incentives and investment.

Let me give you a startling finding about achievement gaps. Suppose you pay children in the 5th and 6th grades, right when you think of the achievement gap opening up between blacks and whites, to take an IQ test.

Say you have unmotivated black kids living in the middle of the ghetto and white kids from Scarsdale or some other upper-class neighborhood. You give each kid who gets a successful answer one M&M — just give them an M&M — and you say for each point extra on the IQ test, each correct answer, I’ll give you one more M&M. It turns out that the gap between the black and white student in the IQ test scores vanishes — vanishes completely.

The interventions in the “enriched parenting” programs include the usual: reading regularly to kids, providing encouragement, and simply giving the kids time to formulate and act upon a plan.

We need to think about these factors as social investments which the children eventually internalize, so that they are better positioned to succeed later in life.