By M. Scott Morris
Americans love a boot-strap story about a resourceful kid born with every possible disadvantage who grows up to become a successful adult.
“It is possible for students to not have parental involvement and support but still be successful individuals,” said Thea Williams-Black, coordinator of the University of Mississippi’s master of literacy program and a former K-12 teacher. “Those students have to be extremely motivated students.”
That type of self discipline isn’t exactly abundant, especially in elementary school. That’s where parents come in to help make sure their child is ready to learn when the school bell rings.
Parents can see that homework assignments are finished on time, and they can ask open-ended questions about reading assignments to test a student’s comprehension.
Those are relatively simple ways to assist a child, but not every young student is lucky enough to get that type of help at home.
The barrier could be ignorance on the parents’ part.
“I’ve had parents tell me, ‘I had no clue what to ask my child after he read his book. I just said, “Oh, good job reading, Johnny,’” Williams-Black said. “A lot of parents do not know that, but they can be taught.”
For other kids, barriers can be more extreme.
A drug-addicted parent might not have the will, much less the ability, to help a child who is struggling in school.
“If you have a stable foundation, it gives you the confidence to ask questions and make mistakes and interact with other people. Your caregiver’s confidence in you gives you confidence to get out and explore the world,” said Susan Hyatt, a child psychologist at North Mississippi Medical Center Behavioral Health Center.
“If a child doesn’t have that foundation, they’re set up for anxiety, anger issues, lack of confidence in their skills. That affects their ability to learn.”
No matter what obstacles they face at home, children are expected to come to school prepared to learn.
“There are all different types of families and all different types of kids,” said Shelia Davis, certified family life educator at The Family Resource Center in Tupelo. “We have to meet them where they are.”
Asking for help
Davis said teaching parents is one of the keys to educating students.
“I can tell by a child’s vocabulary if the parents have been reading to them,” she said. “You know the parents who have been talking to and reading to their children because those kids don’t stop talking.”
The Family Resource Center gives books away to clients, which can be exciting for children who aren’t used to books in the home.
“One girl came in and she never had a book,” Davis said. “It was like I gave her a bag of candy, that expression on her face.”
Davis teaches parents to read to their kids even before they’re born, just to get in the habit.
Williams-Black advises parents to actively explain the world to their kids. A trip to the grocery story is a chance to explain that bananas are yellow and oranges are orange.
“People look at me like I’m crazy with my 3-year-old. They walk by and they’re like, ‘What is she doing?’” Williams-Black said. “But that’s a teachable moment. That’s teaching. What child hasn’t been to the grocery store or Walmart? Parents can turn that into a lesson. They just don’t realize it.”
Hyatt said the right toys can prepare children for school, too, and that doesn’t mean expensive electronic gadgets.
She cited one study where low-income kids who were given blocks showed an increase in verbal skills six months later. That creative play also helped build social skills, motor skills and more.
“Think about toddlers. You give them an expensive gift and they want to play with the box. That’s what gets their attention. Encourage imaginative and creative play,” said Hyatt, who has a Ph.D. in school psychology.
Many of the parents at Davis’ parenting workshops are referred by the courts, but others come on their own.
“A lot of parents don’t want what happened to them to happen to their children,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with needing help. Everybody needs help sometimes.”
Educating a child is a collaborative process.
“It’s a team sport,” Hyatt said. “You have to have a parent who is invested in their child’s education and you need to have the invested teacher.”
A parent from a poverty-stricken background might not feel comfortable dealing with school officials, so outreach by teachers and administrators is important.
“They might be in survival mode, so they don’t put education first,” Davis said. “They might have dropped out of school themselves so education is not a big emphasis.”
And there are going to be cases where the team sport breaks down.
“The parent could be on drugs or an alcoholic, or have mental health issues,” Davis said. “The child can feel like they need to take care of the parent. They become hard-hearted and angry because of what they have to do.”
In the best of worlds, a relative or neighbor can step in for unwilling parents. Kids need people who can praise their efforts, Hyatt said.
“That makes them more likely to work hard and to make progress,” she said. “It’s not the information they know. It’s not how fast they can learn it. It’s their effort. That’s what needs to be reinforced.”
Williams-Black said teachers have to understand the stresses students face when there’s little or no parental support.
“It takes teachers getting to know the students,” she said. “When you’re in poverty, you need to know your teacher cares. That makes you feel good and makes you want to excel.
“If you’re coming to class and that teacher never gives you a pat on the back or says ‘good morning’ to you, that poverty-stricken child automatically will shut down.”
Williams-Black said it’s important to find out what motivates the child, which might be a gold star after he successfully reads a paragraph.
“If I know Johnny loves dinosaurs, I would bring in as many books on dinosaurs as I could possibly bring in,” she said.
Teaching such a kid also could require loosening the rules at times.
“I’ve seen where a teacher knew mama and daddy were at work or mama was at work and couldn’t help with homework, so she didn’t expect Johnny to have his homework ready like the rest of the classroom,” Williams-Black said. “If he did, ‘Oh, great.’ If he didn’t, she didn’t make a big deal about it.
“It’s about the teacher going the extra mile. Yes, we already have a lot to do, but what it all boils down to is we want Johnny to do well, so we have to get to know Johnny.
“When a teacher does that, you see great results.”
And those results might someday inspire someone else to try a little harder and reach a little farther.
“If you can teach that growth mindset, if you can instill that in children,” Hyatt said, “they’re more likely to persevere over obstacles and achieve more. They’re more likely to strive for success.”