Since this is a time of year that we think both of gifts and resolutions, I would like to offer three suggestions that are both; they are decisions that can have a lifelong positive effect on those we care about most. The three resolutions can entail difficult choices, require sacrifice, and not always show immediate benefit, but they have a possible value far greater than any material gift.
I would like to address those readers who have children of any age who are not doing well in school. The frustration of students and parents when academic and social progress do not meet expectations is manifested in behavior issues, parent-school confrontations and tension in the home. My three suggestions are not magic remedies or even appropriate to many families; however, each is a proactive step to support a student at risk.
Resolution No. 1: Parents must be willing and supportive in taking steps to determine any learning disabilities.
Every year in nearly 40 years of teaching I would recognize middle school or high school students who were struggling with academic fundamentals, especially reading comprehension and mechanics such as spelling. Every year I would find out from the special education teachers or the counselors that some parents had refused to have their children tested or had refused to accept the classroom modifications suggested to them. Every year I would call parents to discuss these issues, and parents would tell me that their son or daughter "just needed to work harder" or was "plain lazy" or "never did like to read much, just likes those video games." In many cases those comments might be true, but there is nothing sadder than students who want desperately to succeed and cannot do so because of issues beyond their control. The spiral becomes intensive: The child does poorly; the pressure from home and within increases; the child falls farther behind; self-respect weakens, and failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The testing procedures for mental and physical issues in education are not perfect. Many depend upon the skill of the testing agency, some results are vague and unsatisfactory, and educators are often accused of jumping to the fad solution of the day, such as chemical solutions for classroom behavior modification. However, the potential for substantial benefit is huge, and the issue is so crucial, that parents must seriously consider the opportunity to have testing done. Many parents have the testing done by private services, and the results are confidential.
I don't believe that parents who refuse to deal with issues of testing usually do so because of false pride or obstinacy. Many do so because of the fear that a child diagnosed with learning needs is doomed to a second-class educational and vocational future. It would be a lie to deny that students with individual learning plans sometimes feel "different." Again, though, the positive potential vastly outweighs the negative. I could fill thousands of pages with the names of people who have been happy and successful despite learning disabilities; studies indicate that Albert Einstein certainly had Asperger's syndrome, just as many children do today. A more personal memory is of a former student who had severe test anxiety, studied furiously and still failed most tests. School testing revealed that he processed information at a different rate than most students, so he rushed through tests in order to complete them. When he was allowed extra time, he revealed what he actually had learned, and his grades and self-confidence soared.
To complete the resolution, parents need to carefully consider how to present the issue of testing to their children. I can't think of a more lasting gift than the positive support of parents through the process of testing and educational modification. The gift might be an entire future.
Resolution No. 2: Be aware of avoidable school absences.
It goes without saying that circumstances often demand that children miss school for non-illness reasons, such as family events or unique opportunities, but parents are mistaken if they believe that make-up work, no matter how carefully monitored, can replace a struggling student's presence in some classrooms. Certainly some classes lend themselves to easy remedial lessons, and some students are able to miss school without apparent ill effects. The resolution refers to those students who have difficulty in the classroom before a prolonged absence. Even if they are able to complete missed work, the classroom experience, including demonstration, class participation, question-and-answer and assessment, cannot be experienced in absentia. The overriding threat is that a challenged student returns from absences with a double burden: understanding the lessons that were missed while the class progresses with new material that may require mastery of the material that was missed. That challenge can be too daunting for a student who is on shaky ground in the first place.
Almost any decision to miss school can be defended in some way. Many parents have spoken of the learning experience of travel and exposure to non-academic stimuli. Many trips include vital family interaction or emotional circumstances such as weddings or funerals. The resolution is intended for those parents who have told me they plan one- or two-week vacations during months like October or February, key months for curriculum and uninterrupted learning, because airline fares are cheaper then; other parents have said that they didn't mind having their children miss school frequently on Monday or Friday, because "that's just one day."
The issue of absences is undoubtedly a family responsibility and an issue that depends on so many circumstances. My concern is that a student who passionately wants to succeed could be penalized with unnecessary handicaps to learning.
Resolution No. 3: Become involved in the school process.
I know parents are often given the opportunity to take part in school activities, but the decision to do so can be important to those parents concerned about their children's well-being. Poor grades can result from so many factors and can be so frustrating that participation in the school community can be beneficial to both parents and children. Parents who volunteer to serve on a committee, chaperone an event, help raise funds, keep score at a ball game, join a parent-school organization, donate skills or energy or promote innovation are sending a message to their children. The message is that they are willing to commit time and energy to foster a better learning environment to improve the chances for all students.
The pragmatic benefit for parents who become involved is that they learn firsthand, not secondhand, about the environment that their children enter every day. Parents can make informed judgments about the school facilities, the faculty, the programs, the positives and negatives that are a part of academic success and individual growth. These judgments become part of what all three resolutions are about: choices. Parents have the responsibility to make choices both with and for their children, choices that positively deal with academic difficulties.