What it will take to engage students

tired boy doing difficult homework

Tired boring boy doing his difficult school homework

How long does it take to turn around a student who can’t engage due to the emotional baggage he brings with him everywhere? One week? Four weeks? Three months? Throughout his entire K-12 education?

The answer is “We don’t know”. But it’s much longer than the current system allows for. We can see this by looking at the success rates of most IEPs, especially for students served under the EBD (emotional behavioral disorder) label.

Let’s look at the needs of all students to be engaged in school:

1) A safe, secure home – We all want to provide our children with safe, secure homes. This allows them to be able to focus on other aspects of their life, such as social interactions, and academics. Unfortunately, according to the American Journal of Public Health in 2013, 1 child in 30  is homeless. The definition of homeless is that the child lives in a shelter, hotel, motel, shared housing with others, or no housing, such as living in a car.  This creates stress for the child which then decreases his ability to become engaged with learning.

2) Food security – Nutrition is important for good health and learning. In our country 21% of children experience food insecurity, meaning that they are not sure of reliable access to adequate and nutritious food that is affordable on a regular basis.  Many children end up eating fast food or food from convenience stores which are high in fat and salt, and low in nutrition.  This does not allow proper growth and energy in the brain for effective learning.

3) Basic hygiene– There are not a lot of studies on how basic access to hygiene affects children but Whirlpool as started a program called Care Counts working with 2 school districts. They found that providing the students with a means to having their clothes cleaned, they were able to increase school attendance, school engagement, and student motivation to do well in school.

4) A safe community – ¼ of all children are exposed to traumatic stress. According to Child Trends, in the 2011/2012 school year 13% of children lived in neighborhoods described as never or only sometimes safe. Another 30% lived in neighborhoods described as usually safe.  Children living in unsafe neighborhoods are witnesses and victims of violence, including domestic violence.  This leads to their limbic system being in overdrive (fight or flight) so that they are unable to use their prefrontal and frontal lobes for learning and social interactions.

5) Pro-social support – According to Education.com, for high-risk students, it is the school which will need to build pro-social skills since the parents are frequently unable to due to their own stresses. This means that the schools need to focus on building peer supports and a greater sense of social safety from the staff so that trust can be built and blossom into relationships. This will then lead to a decrease in the activity of the limbic system, allowing for more engagement and learning.

6) A stable family – According to Pew Research in 2013,  46% of children live in nontraditional families, with 34% living in one parent households. This is up significantly from the 1960’s when it was 9 %. This creates a great deal of stress due to the co-morbidity of under or unemployment, maternal depression, and a significant decrease in mothers availability to be emotionally there for their children.

7) Adequate sleep – Despite all the discussions about the need for adequate sleep for children and adults, studies show 1/5th of children have inadequate sleep. Children who live in less safe neighborhoods actually have more problems with 41.9% of them having sleep problems according to the journal Sleep in 2013. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2014 looked at 4 factors (too bright, too loud, too hot, too cold)  which can affect sleep in a preschool populations. They found that the children who experienced one or more of these factors slept an average of 27 less minutes per night than peers without these factors. This lack of sleep, especially when chronic, is a significant factor in behavioral and learning problems in children. What wasn’t found in studies were the issues of bed sharing which can create problems for some children, but which happens often in low income families.

So how do we help students who are experiencing one or more of these stressors which can negatively affect their engagement and learning in school? Likely as Hilary Clinton said her 1996 book, it takes a village. And the school needs to be the core for providing this help through collaborations with the agencies and organizations who can provide aspects of each of the 7 areas.

1) Homes that are safe and secure – Parents may need assistance to coordinate with HUD, Habitat for Humanity, and other agencies that assist families in securing housing. Having an outreach person for schools on designated days can help.

2) Food Security – The Child Nutrition Programs through the USDA is already  helping students with breakfast and lunch programs. They also have the Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Summer Food Service Program. We need to make sure that all of these are utilized to the fullest. One could also look to organizations such as Target, where their volunteers have been known to have bag pickup days at schools that are filled with food to take home. If possible, schools could also see if they could create vegetable gardens on their land to increase students awareness of the process and a greater likelihood of wanting to eat what they have grown.

3) Basic hygiene – Students who don’t feel good about themselves are more likely to avoid school. Having availability to brush their teeth, wash themselves, and wash their clothes allow them to feel more presentable and more likely to come to school, participate, and be more motivated to do well. This is where working with local hotels/motels for donations of unused toiletries can be of help. In addition contacting Whirlpool about it’s Care Counts program could bring in a washer and drier to the school so that students’ clothes can be cleaned while they are in class. The schools could also approach detergent companies to donate detergent and softener to clean the clothes with.

4) A safe community – This is harder due to fear and distrust in the neighborhoods of both the people who make it unsafe and the police who are there to protect. There would need to be the development of task force or council where all stakeholders will meet and sit down to develop the relationships to strengthen the neighborhoods’ belief in themselves as entitled to safe surroundings.

5) Pro-social support – Working to provide home visiting programs and enrichment programs to as many low-income families as possible would help lay the foundation of parenting skills which are more empathetic to the realities of young child development. Programs such as Parents as Teachers, Early Head Start, and Head Start have been effective to increasing the well-being of children. There needs to be an increased emphasis on combined public and private funding to maintain or increase services which requires continued advocacy from various agencies to our elected officials.  Students also need to be surrounded by schools which are more pro-social in nature, where teachers focus on understanding the emotions below the behaviors demonstrated in order to help students trust and engage with the teachers.

6) A stable family – This is another area where one has to look at how we help students learn about relationships, cooperation, compromise, and empathy so that when they are old enough to have families they will be stronger to handle the stresses. But for the current families, the need is for developing means of creating relationships with organizations and agencies who can provide counseling, housing, food, medical and emotional support so that they can rise above their current stressors. It is through helping parents learn and be able to utilize resilience in their own lives that they will be more available to their children.

7) Adequate sleep – Help here could be related to helping families to have a safe and secure home. It might relate to just being able to have pajamas – which are a symbol of comfort and rest – along with a book to be read at bedtime to establish a bedtime routine promoting adequate sleep. It might be helping the student who comes to school tired after having to sleep on the couch in the apartment or house shared with other families, by providing him a place for a nap. There could be after school time where students could choose to stay after to have a quiet place to take a nap, thus allowing them to be more refreshed for homework or to handle life at home.

As can be seen by the 7 factors listed above, things will not turn around quickly for students but with a closer collaboration between schools and agencies (and less turf issues), life can be stabilized for more students, leading to more completing high school, going on to further education, be it college or trade schools, and having more mental health rather than disease.



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