Opinion: Secrets for creating great students | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Secrets for creating great students

Dan Dougherty
Free Press Opinion Columnist

The education industry studies every aspect of student performance in search of ways to help improve the learning experience of children. The research yields many valuable insights, but they are often lost in the vast sea of information, media translation, or the selection preferences of advocacy groups.

One such area of study is the “performance gap” between high- and low-achieving students. What causes the gap? What conditions have the most impact on closing the gap? How can teachers adapt instruction in ways to help the lower-achieving students learn more without causing the higher-achieving students learn less?

It turns out that “poverty” has the greatest impact on student performance levels. Wow! How can schools fix poverty? We can’t. But, if we go deeper into how socio-economic levels have negative effects on learning, then we can understand and act on the dynamics that impact how students learn.

Not surprisingly, parents have the greatest impact on the particular factors related to poverty. The research gets right to the differences in behaviors exhibited by those struggling in poverty compared to those who are not. Importantly, anyone can be “struggling” in spite of their financial situation, but the struggle of being in poverty is more intense and creates what experts call toxic stress on the brain. There is a significant fear of hunger, homelessness, or death regardless of personal choices.

Families living above the poverty level have a more optimistic outlook. This allows parents to have conversations with their children. They ask their children how the school day went, what they enjoyed learning the most and ask about relationships with friends. Parents also encourage their children, using significantly more positive affirmations throughout the day. Parents read to their young children each night and have their children read to them. Some researchers point to a “future-positive” outlook as the family view. A future-positive perspective believes that if you work hard and put in the effort, then positive things will happen in the future. Thus, they encourage their children to do their homework, pay attention in class, participate with teachers, and enjoy learning.

By comparison, families living below the poverty line struggle with a “future-negative” or a “stuck-in-the moment” perspective. They have to focus on day-to-day survival. Many parents work multiple jobs or physically demanding jobs, so they lack either the time or the energy to engage with their children. Rather than conversations, interactions are simple commands like, “do your homework,” or “do the laundry.” The greatest difference is in the number of positive affirmations and encouraging comments shared from parent to child. Often, it’s not just the absence of encouragement, but the presence of negative comments that are an extension of the difficult and restrictive reality of being stuck in poverty. Most often, parents are just not available to supervise homework and study, but it’s also common for the parents to devalue education. The future-negative world view cannot believe that the future will improve based on work performed in the present. In part, this is because of the toxic stress of surviving; they are focused on basic day-to-day survival and don’t have the luxury of thinking too far ahead.

So, what are the actionable insights? Regardless of financial status, parents can help their children succeed by being encouraging. The world will take care of the discouragement part, so wrap your child with love, confidence, and optimism. Read with your children. Make education important and show that the work they put in today leads to positive outcomes in the future. In school, this can be doing today’s homework to pass tomorrow’s exam. In life, this becomes getting the skills as a young adult to get tomorrow’s job. Have real conversations with your children, not just commands.

Basic literacy in lower grades is tied to vocabulary — the words a student hears and learns about is akin to the fuel in gas tank; the more they bring to the classroom, the faster they learn. The view they have about education is like a road map — to go somewhere they have to believe the roads lead somewhere. And, we’ve addressed the nutritional needs of students, now we need to address how living in poverty shapes their psychological needs. Meanwhile, the only sustainable solution to poverty is education. It is the linchpin of the American dream (the great equalizer). The mission of public education is to give every citizen the education they need to “pursue happiness” and make their own success.

Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at dan.dougherty@d51schools.org.

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