How one teacher, child, and parent turned failure to success. Gradually, school became more than an aching wait for recess

When seven-year-old Charles was transferred to Virginia Chalmers's classroom, he left behind a trail of scholastic disaster. At his former school, Charles had spent nearly five hours of every day in the principal's office. Teachers had given up on him. His mother, a single parent of West Indian background, had given up on the teachers.

If something was going to be done to redirect a child already heading for academic failure, it had to be done - fast.

``I had to build a relationship with him and his mother,'' says Ms. Chalmers, then a first-grade teacher in the Cambridge school system. She is now director of the Eliot-Pearson Children's School, a laboratory school at nearby Tufts University. Outlining her approach, she explains that when dealing with a child who has a behavior problem, ``it's important to understand his understanding'' about what's appropriate and what isn't.

In the case of Charles (not his real name) the issue of correct behavior had so overwhelmed his experience that it was all he talked about. ``I can't concentrate,'' ``I can't sit still,'' were his constant refrains.

``My job was to make him feel like he can do those things,'' says Chalmers, a veteran of 14 years of teaching, mostly in the Cambridge system. Her approach was to help Charles realize that school could be interesting, fun, and relevant to things he really cared about.

One of her first steps was to recruit his parent's active assistance. Charles's mother agreed to make sure he got to school by the ``first bell'' every morning, well ahead of most of his first-grade classmates. This meant Chalmers had 20 minutes or so to concentrate on him and help him plan for the day ahead.

Among other things, she had him put notices of activities on the bulletin board, so that he could have some feeling of having a part in making the class run smoothly. Before, his only ``plan'' had been to get to the playground as quickly as possible.

She discovered, too, that Charles had a passionate interest in insects. This was a key. Scientists have to know math - something this child had an aversion to. And ``they read a whole lot,'' Chalmers told him.

An interest in the natural world is ``one route'' toward becoming a student. It's often particularly useful with young boys who've been turned off to schooling, says Chalmers.

When word got around about Charles's interest in bugs, classmates began bringing him specimens from their backyards. Children made sure he saw sections about insects in books they were reading. ``So a kind of community support developed,'' says Chalmers.

``Did you know Charles is a scientist?'' she asked his mother at one point. ``She just about dropped,'' the teacher recalls, laughing.

Letting mothers and fathers know about good things going on with their kids in school is crucial, she affirms. So often, parents - and particularly low-income parents - expect to hear only bad news from a teacher. ``It's amazing how dramatic it is for the whole family system when they begin to hear something positive,'' she says.

``And it was just as important to build a relationship with him around positives as it was to build a relationship with her around positives,'' adds Chalmers. Even when Charles simply spent a solid 20 or 30 minutes working - and ``work'' is Chalmers's word for all such efforts - with blocks or in the sandbox, she made a point of saying, ``See, you can concentrate!''

Charles is begin fourth grade in the fall. He's still building on the foundation in academics and in self-discipline established during his stay in Chalmers's classroom. She made sure his future teachers knew about his needs and interests.

Chalmers is an old hand at working with children who have problems similar to Charles's. She, along with former principal Barney Brawer and family therapist William McMullen, are partners in School and Home Associates, a training and research firm. Chalmers and Mr. Brawer regularly share their ideas with other educators at summer institutes sponsored by Lesley College here, which has an extensive program in teacher training.

As they work with children and their parents, Chalmers and Brawer apply methods borrowed from the family therapy field. As explained by Brawer, these are essentially ways of working within families that allow you to ``enter and exit that system'' without harming it.

``We're not encouraging or teaching teachers to do therapy,'' he emphasizes, but just ``looking at parts of a teacher's work where these insights will help.''

``In teacher training,'' notes Chalmers, ``very little is done with working with parents.'' Yet the first conference a teacher has with a parent is ``crucial,'' she says. ``You have an enormous bank of resources'' if you can establish a good rapport with parents at that time.

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