Speaking for Kids

When Parenting Extends Beyond Mom and Dad: Many Deserve to be Valued, Supported when They Step up

March 4, 2016 — Cradling my first child hours after her birth in a haze of sleeplessness and awe, I was overcome with the responsibilities of raising a new human being. A difficult birth left her under close medical watch for five days, and I spent many hours wondering over the unknowns, and if I would be up to the task. With each mistake and triumph in the months and years to come, I learned to parent aided with knowledge from others around me – my own parents, spouse, child care professionals, teachers and pediatricians. I learned parenting a child often involves an entourage – a team made up of various supporting specialties with mom/dad the quarterback calling the plays.

Parenting, like many disciplines, is both learned and a fine art. Over time, we grow as they grow. In March we observe Parenting Awareness Month in Michigan with the knowledge that this work is seldom effortless or accomplished without support from others. Parenting, as we know, often extends beyond mom or dad, to extended family, adoptive and foster families, even the state. “The village” in which our children are raised include schools, child care facilities, institutions and organizations we rely on and hope are also up to the task of supporting the growth of healthy and happy children, including and especially the most vulnerable among us.

Through March, Michigan’s Children is spotlighting a variety of parenting issues and partners we’ve worked with to highlight the critical nature of raising children with the community supports and services necessary to meet the challenges of 21st Century life. Our advocacy and work is rooted in improving our communities to do that with policies made in the best interest of children, youth and families. We believe supporting parents – a child’s first and best teacher – as they become the best parent they can be is a major part of public policy that results in stronger families, stronger communities and a more prosperous Michigan.

You will read about the importance of parents improving their own literacy and academic skills through adult education programs that recognize not just the economic benefits of a high school diploma and advanced training, but that parent literacy is a major factor in 3rd grade reading skills and a child’s own success in school and life.

We will spotlight the need for expanding services with additional state revenues for Early On Michigan, an early intervention program designed for families with children birth to 36 months who have developmental delays or medical conditions that can result in developmental delays. This home-based program has had great success in working with parents and their children for better outcomes.

Other pieces will describe the necessity for improving supports for foster, adoptive and kinship families in a state that has not invested adequately in those caregivers. Improved mental health services for children who have experienced trauma and better access to services in general are two issues we hear families discuss at our sponsored FamilySpeak events. It’s a timely topic as new foster care legislation is working its way through the state Legislature. Additionally, we will look at pilot programs aimed at family reunification that will help parents become better parents for their children.

Take this journey with us this month. It’s our hope parenting Michigan’s children gains new advocates not just this month but year-round.

Parenting Awareness Month is a Michigan initiative to promote awareness, education, and resources – through state outreach and local efforts – emphasizing the importance of effective parenting in nurturing children to become healthy, caring, and contributing citizens. Parenting Awareness Month is unique to Michigan and has been celebrated since 1993.

Teri Banas is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.

Advocates See Opportunity in Changing Media Climate

February 22, 2016 – Personal experience often generates the most compelling arguments for change. The real challenges ordinary people face provide the human connection that resonates strongly with the public, policymakers including elected officials and the media.

That’s what makes Deb Frisbie an effective advocate for kinship care and grandparents raising grandchildren in her adopted hometown in Northern Michigan. (See related article.) Forthright and open, Frisbie, her husband and two grandchildren recently became the subject of a front-page news article in Traverse City that explored the rising trend of grandparents raising grandchildren.

As a former newspaper reporter, I know how powerful these real-life stories can be. Made public, stories such as Frisbie’s also have the power to reach others who are fighting similar battles and offer them the courage to come forward to seek help. And equally importantly, they have the ability to grab public attention and grow support for changing policies that help families.

The downsizing of traditional journalism in the past decade has left far fewer staff with the time and expertise to ferret out stories to tell. But with change, opportunity arises. For those of us who work on behalf of the children, youth and families in our communities and state, it is even more important than ever to reach out to local media, and bring attention to relevant stories that could help improve the policies and investments that matter to our children and families.

Michigan’s Children has a strong tradition in helping raise up authentic voices to spotlight the needs of children, youth and families, whether caregivers such as Frisbie, young adults from foster care, or students needing a second or third chance at a high school diploma. We’ve seen how outspoken advocates build needed public awareness. We’ve learned that personal stories matter and that their lessons tend to stick with policymakers who have the authority to provide new investments or system changes that assist families. Equally important, we’ve seen how personal experiences shared by advocates such as Frisbie offer expertise to an issue.

There’s no mystery to becoming a voice for change in the media. Post views on social media and in letters to the local newspaper. Write opinion pieces. Lawmakers look to the media for information and pay attention to what their constituents are saying there.

Frisbie’s article in January has been a boon to her work, leading to other media inquiries to spread the word about grandparent issues in Northern Michigan. Her article also led to a follow-up opinion piece from Michigan’s Children published in that same paper, helping us to connect the dots between Frisbie’s conversation and current policy work.

Know that being an advocate means using all tools at your disposal, whether it’s reaching out through social media postings through professional organizations or getting to know the media who cover your community. Seeking the journalists in your community to educate them about what’s important to those we represent is a valuable service. Be a great source of information about kids and families in your community – and a source for change.

Teri Banas is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.

Moms’ Mental Health Matter

February 3, 2016 – Last week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated its recommendations on depression screening to include all adults and specifically all pregnant and postpartum women.  The recommendation also states that “screening should be implemented with adequate systems in place to ensure accurate diagnosis, effective treatment, and appropriate follow-up.”

The national recommendation for universal depression screenings for pregnant and postpartum women makes perfect sense.  We have known for some time that moms who are depressed will have a harder time bonding with their babies to support optimal development.  We have also known that maternal depression is a significant risk factor for child maltreatment and that children growing up with a family member with an untreated or poorly treated mental illness are more likely to struggle into adulthood.  In fact, many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that might stem from maternal depression are closely linked to the Centers for Disease Control’s ACE score and poor adult health outcomes stemming from those experiences.  This leads to long-term health costs down the road.

The well-being of parents has lasting consequences on the well-being of their children, positive and negative.  During the earliest years of life, a parent’s emotional capacity to provide the nurturing care their children need for optimal development is crucial.  I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with some infant mental health experts at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and learned a tremendous amount about how early life experiences influence brain wiring for life.  While advocates have known this for a while, what has not been as widely discussed is the parent-child relationship which creates those experiences.  When you stop to think about this, it’s clearly a no-brainer (no pun intended).  It is those early parent-child interactions that build the foundation for healthy social-emotional development from which all other learning and experiences stem from.

Unfortunately, current public services for young children have not consistently included appropriate support for parents and other caregivers who may struggle with mental health issues, creating potential barriers to a strong parent-child bond.  Our expectation of new moms returning to work after just a few weeks is reflected in a lack of paid leave at many low-wage jobs, as well as the two-month work exemption from Michigan’s Family Independence cash assistance program, making it more difficult for low-income moms to be their child’s first and best teacher.  Michigan has increased public investment in evidence-based parent coaching and support programs through home visits that would target new moms with certain risk factors, yet we still only reach about 20% of eligible families.  And while these programs may be effective in looking for symptoms of mental health concerns, they are not equipped to provide those more intensive services when depression is identified.  Instead, we rely on access to public and private mental health services to provide necessary intervention and treatment for moms and children – services like infant mental health that focus on eliminating barriers to a strong parent-child relationship like parents’ mental health issues – yet those services continue to be inadequately funded and supported in both the public and private sectors.

The research is clear.  Children of moms with depression face more challenges, and our systems that provide mental health services to children and families with the most risk factors must do more.  Investing in the emotional health of women is truly one of those early investments that will pay-off in the long-term for them and for their children.

-Mina Hong

Meet Leann, the Newest Member of our Staff

Hi! My name is Leann Down and I’m excited to begin my year-long internship with Michigan’s Children. After receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Michigan State University in 2008, I worked in Bozeman, Montana as a youth case manager for A.W.A.R.E., Inc. Working with families to navigate the labyrinth of mental health and developmental disability systems fostered an interest in policy and systems-level change, as I was able to see how federal- or state-level decisions affected my clients. Also, this experience shaped how I view the interconnectedness of systems, from education, health, and mental health to substance use, developmental or physical disabilities, and housing. After five years in Montana and a growing interest in systems-level change, I returned to my home state of Michigan to pursue dual master degrees in public policy and social work.

I am currently in my second year of graduate studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Since matriculating in 2014, I have had the opportunity to work at the Curtis Center in Ann Arbor as an evaluation assistant, where I gained practical knowledge in program evaluation. Additionally, I worked as a public policy intern at the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2015, where I focused on issues of inequity for LGBTQ youth and youth of color in the child welfare and early childhood education systems across the US.

I have always had in interest in health outcomes and family systems, especially as it relates to social policy and safety net programs. As my experience in mental health grew, I came to realize the social determinants of health can affect many other areas, as well. The longterm, human impacts of funding decisions are often forgotten, overly discounted, or considered too uncertain to include in basic determinations for many programs and policy areas — until it’s too late. Through engagement in policy research and advocacy, I hope to provide further support for public investment in targeted, early interventions for marginalized communities.

Michigan’s Children will offer an ideal learning environment to practice these skills. Over the next year, I will have the opportunity to advocate for children and families in Michigan through contributing to research, issue briefs, and more. I am excited to join the team, and look forward to what the year will bring!

– Leann Down

Michigan’s Children is proud to welcome intern Leann Down to our staff. You will hear more from her throughout her year at Michigan’s Children, and can get in touch with her via email.

The ESSA Needs Our Help to Make Every Student Succeed

December 11, 2015 – In previous blogs, we’ve outlined the federal role in education policy falling squarely on promoting quality and innovation and promoting equity – mitigating the impact of students’ learning challenges on eventual educational success. After years of discussion and somewhat rare bi-partisan work in Congress, the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by the President yesterday, again setting the path for federal policy and investment in K-12 education. So, what do we see?

  1. Proven equity-building strategies remain intact. Investments that provide access to pre-school, integrated student services and expanded learning opportunities will continue. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that supports after-school and summer learning programs is well researched and provides evidence for this strategy that requires school-community partnership and goes well beyond just expanding hours in a school day or days in a school year. Newly titled, “Community Support for School Success” continues investment in full service schools and Promise Neighborhood grants. The use of Title I and Title II dollars for early childhood education beginning at birth is more explicit and requirements to improve school stability for young people in foster care are strengthened.
  2. New priorities reflect new evidence and recognition of specific needs. Despite opposition, the law expands requirements to track how different groups of students are doing and on what. Understanding what groups are doing well and which not so well is the first step toward building more equitable practice. States will now, for the first time, be required to consistently track and report outcomes for kids in the foster care system. It has been difficult for advocates to move better educational investments in that population without adequate information that could point to better strategies for practice and investment. States and districts will also have to start tracking critical outcome indicators beyond achievement scores like school climate and safety and student and educator engagement, improving their ability to address student needs.
  3. Some strategies proving ineffective are discontinued. What has been termed a “cookie cutter” approach to improve struggling schools has not served to improve very many of them, and this bill recognizes that there need to be a broader scope of possible strategies that are much more targeted toward local needs. We continue to contend that building investment in equity-promoting strategies have a stronger evidence base than simply removing school leadership and punishing educators for the woes of all systems that serve children, youth and their families.
  4. Additional state and local flexibility in other programs COULD increase equity in Michigan. Read on…

So, what are some of the early takeaways?

  1. Evidence and advocacy matter. Some positive shifts were the result of coordinated, strong advocacy efforts in Michigan and around the nation, like the coordinated efforts to maintain the 21st CCLC program and supports for integrated student services, as well as expanding initiatives before kindergarten. Some negative shifts were too, but those who were talking with their elected officials had definite impact on the final negotiations.
  2. Funding will obviously matter – this law outlines what COULD be funded by Congress. We still don’t have an actual federal funding bill for the current fiscal year, and continue to operate under resolutions that maintain FY2015 spending levels. This has avoided the disinvestment proposed by some conservative members of Congress, but also avoids any conversation about shifting or increasing investment strategies.
  3. Engagement at the state and local levels will matter more than ever before. For example, Congress increased the ability to address learning challenges early by allowing a variety of funding to be used for activities before kindergarten. Additional flexibility was added for the Title 1 program, which provides consistent and significant investment in the most challenged schools. There is always risk and opportunity in this flexibility to avoid taking resource from evidenced programming for one group of students to pay for expanded programming for others.

At this moment, Michigan’s Children and others are engaged in the Superintendent’s call for suggestions on how to move educational success in our state over the next decade. With more flexibility in federal education spending, being a part of state priority conversations becomes more important than ever. And, of course, we have already begun another state budget conversation where we will need to continue to fight to keep and build critical state investments while still not seeing education funding levels return to where they were before the recession in 2008. And with other budget pressures resulting from continued disinvestment in our most challenged school systems and spending decisions mandated by road funding compromises, our voices are critically important to ensure that our state is providing equitable educational opportunities for all students.

– Michele Corey

Additional Resources

More on Early Learning: Every Student Succeeds Act and Early Learning
More on Expanded Learning: Senate Passes ESEA, 21stCCLC: Sends to President for Signature 
More On Foster Care: President Obama Reauthorizes ESEA, Affording Groundbreaking Provisions for Children in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems 
More On Integrated Student Services: Community School Prominent in Every Student Succeeds Act 
More on Equity Building Strategies: ESEA Reauthorization Shows Promise
More on Accountability: The president just signed a new ed law that teaches the naysayers a thing or two
More on Local Decision Making: President Signs ESEA Rewrite, Giving States, Districts Bigger Say on Policy 

We’re Thankful for our Partners

November 23, 2015 – It has been a busy fall. State legislators and leaders in the Administration been talking about critical things like how we spend our state resources – on roads and on other things, how we support our most vulnerable school systems like Detroit, how we can work to be a leader in the educational success of our young people, and how we care for our most vulnerable kids in the foster care and criminal justice systems.  Michigan’s Children has also been busy connecting with others in the many networks we work with to impact those conversations and help to begin or continue others.

We are thankful for the many people around the state who help Michigan’s Children move better policy for children, youth and families. They are community leaders, service providers, parents and young people who take time out of their busy lives to let decision makers know what works and what doesn’t. Michigan’s Children shares research and information with them, connects them directly with policymakers, helps to build their advocacy efficacy, and most importantly, learns from their on-the-ground experiences to build our advocacy strategies.

We do this in many ways, including participating in existing conferences. This fall, staff members were involved in advocacy, communications and youth voice workshops at the Early On Michigan conference, the Michigan Pre-College and Youth Outreach Conference, and the Michigan Statewide Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect. Another priority of Michigan’s Children is continuing relationships with existing networks, and working with those folks more often than just at a single conference session. We work throughout the year to provide advocacy support to the Early On Foundation; local child abuse and neglect prevention councils and direct service agencies, as well as human services collaboratives across the state; and Fostering Success network members who work to improve adult transitions for young people currently and formerly in the foster care system statewide; among others. And, we consistently respond to community groups who reach out to us for assistance building local policy agendas.

We also work with our networks to create specific opportunities for local voices to connect directly with policymakers. These are done through KidSpeak and FamilySpeak forums, as well as other initiatives. We’ve hosted these forums in recent months along with partners including the Michigan Association for Community and Adult Education, the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH), the Communities in Schools (CIS) network, the Michigan Statewide, Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Family Coalition, the Michigan Kinship Coalition and the Kinship Care Resource Center network, and critical regional partners like Ozone House, the Student Advocacy Center and Wayne State University’s Transition to Independence program. Their voices have changed the trajectory of policy conversation and have resulted in additional champions for youth- and parent-driven solutions in the Legislature, several Departments and other local policymaking bodies, including a recent legislative focus on critical improvements to the states’ foster care system.

People around the state are working hard to share what they know with decision-makers in their communities, at the state Capitol and in Congress, and their work matters. Progress in policy work, including real gains in critical investments and thwarting or minimizing damaging disinvestment, doesn’t come by accident. It comes from us all working toward a better Michigan – one that invests in strategies proven to close equity gaps and improve lives. The challenges before us require that the work continue, but we need to take a moment to just say thanks to our fellow advocates across the state. It matters. Happy Thanksgiving.

– Michele Corey

Prioritizing Early On

November 20, 2015 – Last week I attended the Early On Michigan Conference and had the opportunity to present to Early On providers and families on how they can get engaged in policy advocacy.  I also got to learn more about the great state-level work and the work local Early On providers are doing to bolster the system. Given that improving access to needed early intervention services through Early On is a priority of Michigan’s Children, it was a great opportunity for me to learn directly from the folks working in the field and to figure out how we can be most helpful.  Here were some of my key takeaways.

First, like any other group of providers serving children and families, this group is very passionate about the kids and families they serve.  In my workshop on policy advocacy (that was competing against other amazing workshops focused on things like parent engagement, trauma experienced by young children, language acquisition, and other incredibly important topics), attendees ranged from folks who had good relationships with their elected officials to folks who had never spoken to an elected official before.  And all were engaged and eager to learn how to build those important relationships to improve public policies on behalf of the families and children they serve.  I am confident that at least a couple of legislators have heard from their constituents since then on the needs of Early On.

Second, I learned a lot about Medicaid in one of the workshops I attended on reimbursement for Early On services.  In the room, there was lack of understanding among services providers of how this can be done most effectively and efficiently, and the workshop was incredibly informative to all those who attended.  It reaffirmed Michigan’s Children’s priority, supported by the Early On Michigan Foundation, to push for a study on how we can better maximize Medicaid resources to help offset costs of early intervention services.

And finally, it continues to become more and more evident that many challenges with the Early On system exist due to the two-tiered eligibility and funding structures.  This results in young children with moderate developmental delays – the majority of Early On children in our state – often receiving inadequate intervention services to address those delays compared to children with more significant delays.  The state must take brave efforts to look at ways to streamline eligibility for this program so that all children and their families can receive the services they need for optimal development.  Not only will this improve outcomes for kids, but it can also reduce the special education rolls in preschool and k-12.  You can learn more about the challenges to the Early On system resulting from this tiered eligibility system in our Issues for Michigan’s Children brief.

This program and the children and families it serves are too important to continue to ignore, as evidenced by these incredible family stories, and we are not sitting idly by.  Michigan’s Children and the Early On Foundation recently submitted a sign-on letter to the Governor requesting he begin investing state funds starting in fiscal year 2017 to address the significant financing challenges that Early On faces.  The letter was signed by numerous entities and stakeholders including the majority of Intermediate School Districts who are responsible for this program.  Over the next year, Michigan’s Children will be working closely with the Early On Foundation and others to promote the need for state investment for Early On while simultaneously working to identify ways to maximize Medicaid funds and to begin addressing eligibility challenges.  We hope you’ll join us in these efforts to ensure all families with babies and toddlers have the services they need to thrive.

-Mina Hong

What Does It Take To Make A Great Teacher?

November 13, 2015 – What does it take to make a great teacher? An expert group of educators, policymakers and others had been working for quite some time to answer that question and came up with a better, more consistent system in Michigan for making sure that our teaching force is the best it can be, for our most advantaged and most challenged students alike. One of the takeaways from that process demonstrated in the teacher evaluation legislation recently signed by the Governor is that better training and support is necessary so that teachers can use their talents to the best of their abilities.

What supports a great teacher? Certainly the ability to have time in the classroom to use what they have spent years learning – to help students build knowledge and skills. For some, that is in specific topic areas; for some, that is about fostering and supporting a love of learning for younger kids; for some, it is about getting kids who are struggling back on track; and for some it is about making sure we continue to challenge the imagination and creativity of those who excel. Not surprisingly, teachers report that they can better utilize their skills when kids come to school ready to learn. Unfortunately, there are a host of things that prevent kids from optimal learning in the classroom that are impossible for teachers to address on their own. Teachers are better able to teach and students are better able to learn when:

  • – kids don’t come into the classroom hungry, or when they don’t come in with a toothache as supported by integrating nutrition and health services in the schools;
  • – kids are not feeling intimidated by other kids or school staff, or feeling unsafe at home and on the way to school, which is improved by utilizing positive behavior supports and other evidenced discipline strategies;
  • – older students have a manageable job after school that they want and need, and when students have had the opportunity to catch up when they fall behind and stay motivated after school and in the summer, made possible through investment in community partnerships and expanded learning;
  • – young people have been able to manage their addictions, mental health or other special needs and other members of their family have been able to do the same through access to those services in school buildings and in the community;
  • – student behaviors are managed well in the school system by recognizing behaviors borne of trauma and addressing them through that lens; and
  • – their parents are able to build their own skills to help and encourage them at home and have the time together at home to use those skills, as supported through adult and community education programs and family friendly work supports.

Everyone knows that educational, career and life success are not built in the classroom alone. Because all of our systems, not just the K-12 system, don’t work as well as they should and often don’t work together, disparities in literacy emerge as early as nine months of age.  Those gaps can continue to grow throughout educational careers without appropriate attention and intervention. In addition, future state budgets will be stressed by recent road funding decisions and inadequate revenue putting other critical state investments at risk.

Despite these challenges, Michigan must find a way to commit investments for teachers and the children, youth, families and communities they serve. To do otherwise would fail to move ahead in the work started by this teacher evaluation legislation. As we better evaluate teachers, we must also ensure that they have the support they need to succeed.

– Michele Corey

Connecting My Brother’s Keeper to Policy

October 30, 2015 – Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the launch convening of the Washtenaw County’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative.   My Brother’s Keeper was launched by President Obama to focus on specific solutions to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.  Washtenaw County joins a dozen or so other Michigan communities who are part of the MBK initiative, demonstrating that many communities across our state are committed to reversing the trend we see in decades of data  suggesting that  our attempts to reduce disparities by race continue to fall short for boys of color.

The goals of the MBK initiative are to ensure that all children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready and read at grade level by 3rd grade; that all young people graduate from high school, complete post-secondary education or training and remain safe from violent crime; and that all youth out of school are employed.  Michigan is far from those outcomes now.

All of these areas are of great importance to Michigan’s Children, and as a Washtenaw County resident, I’d love to help connect the dots between these localized efforts in my community and public policy priorities.  I was very pleased to see a handful of policymakers in attendance, ranging from local city council to U.S. Congress and everyone in between.  However, the locally-focused conversation felt like a bit of a missed opportunity to connect the great ideas generated at the convening and the role of public policy to help implement or remove policy barriers to them.  As Michigan communities continue to roll out MBK action plans, a few thoughts.

First, the challenges of boys and men of color are important to everyone.  The prosperity of our state relies on the success of all of our future workers.  If data and evidence demonstrate that a significant portion of our child population is falling behind, it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that programs and services are providing equitable opportunities for all children to succeed.  We can’t rely solely on localized efforts, but rather, statewide public will and policies must support these efforts to ensure that all children and youth – including children and youth of color – can succeed for the future prosperity of our state.

Second, the state department that was represented, and who represents the MBK initiative in Lansing, is the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC).  While I am glad to see that there is state-level connection to these localized efforts, the role of the MCSC is to connect its programs like AmeriCorps, Mentor Michigan and other volunteerism initiatives to MBK efforts.  This is an essential piece, but to really impact outcomes, we need other state departments to be part of the conversation like the Education, Health and Human Services, Workforce Development, Civil Rights, Corrections, and others whose investment strategies and everyday decisions impact the lives of boys and men of color.  These departments can help design better investment, policies, rules and programs that can best support MBK efforts.

And finally, along those same lines, we know that public policies and investment strategies have contributed to the  “pipeline” that we see too often play out in the lives of boys of color, and that changes to those policies and investments can and should play a vital role to prevent and mitigate its continuation.  Public policy must support efforts to improve access to high quality early childhood education for the children who are most at-risk of starting kindergarten behind, expanding afterschool and summer learning programs for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these equity-promoting programs, connecting students and families to wraparound needs through integrated school services, or connecting the dots between community-based initiatives and state department efforts’ to expand trauma-informed practices across all sectors.  As MBK initiatives across our state continue to develop and implement plans, and local communities take responsibility for improved outcomes for boys of color, Michigan’s Children will stay connected to those efforts to help connect the dots between local innovation and the policy and investment required to support them.

-Mina Hong

Students, Living with Trauma, Struggle in School

October 12, 2015 — John Green, award winning young adult author, recently gave a TEDx Talk in Indianapolis entitled, “The nerd’s guide to learning everything online.” He explained how he was a terrible student and felt education was a series of hurdles he didn’t care to jump. He said teachers would threaten him by saying he couldn’t get a good job because his GPA was too low and it would go on his permanent record. “As far as I could tell at eleven or twelve years old, people with good jobs woke up early in the morning and the men with good jobs, one of the first things they did was tie a strangulation item of clothing around their necks,” he said. “That’s not a recipe for a happy life. Why would I want to jump over all of these hurdles and have that be the end? That’s a terrible end!”

John Green’s example may seem exaggerated but it is the perception of many students and as experts say in the world of sales and advertising, perception is reality. Students who struggle with trauma in their lives often see little to no importance in attending school. They see it as a hurdle, a hurdle that by law is required of them and a hurdle someone other than them cares more about. Why should a student who is burdened by the crushing weight of poverty, hunger, abuse, having to be the main source of income, living in a crime-infested neighborhood, loss of family and friends to violence, being a teen parent, being the parent to their parent(s), and having intermittent heat, electricity, or running water want to attend school? When life is about survival, school is an unnecessary hurdle.

School should not feel like a hurdle, should not feel like something one has to do for someone else. Students have mastered the basic economic principle of opportunity cost without realizing they have. Many students living with trauma see the cost of attending school as greater than the benefits. By being at school, they see the lost opportunity of getting a job, making money, parenting younger siblings, and having the freedom to make their own choices. They don’t see nor value the future benefits promised of an education because they are focused on trying to survive the present.

According to the 2009 New York Times article, “Large Urban-Suburban Gap Seen in Graduation Rates,” the urban-suburban school attendance and graduation gap is due to the inequality of teacher quality from classroom to classroom. We have to start at ground zero, in the classroom, with increasing the quality of teachers and teaching if we are to motivate students to attend school. The teacher ultimately holds the power to motivate students to attend school and the classroom is ground zero for inspiring students. If teachers create a safe and nurturing environment in the classroom, if they differentiate and individualize instruction based on the needs, wants, and learning styles of students, students will want to attend school. If teachers provide students extended learning opportunities such as guest speakers, field trips, contests, simulations, projects, character building workshops, and college and career fairs, students will attend school.

Steps are being taken to improve the quality of teachers and teaching in the alternative and urban schools; however progress is slow and infrequent. Hamtramck Public Schools is one of the few school districts in Michigan to have a person dedicated to teacher evaluation and instructional improvement, which is my current position with the district. The University of Michigan –Dearborn is one of the first and few universities to have a concentration area in Metropolitan Education for their Education Specialist and Doctoral degree programs. More secondary schools and institutions of higher learning should develop programs and plans specifically to improve the quality of instruction within urban and alternative education schools. By doing so, students living with trauma will receive the emotional, social, and academic support they need and will be motivated to attend and stay in school.

– Tim Constant, Director of Teacher Evaluation and Instructional Improvement, Hamtramck Public Schools

Michigan’s Children invited Constant to write a blog about the importance of trauma-informed practices in education and the need for integrated school services to help all students achieve greater academic success. Tim has been involved with Michigan’s Children for many years, ensuring that the young people he serves have a voice in the public policy process. We were glad for him to share his thoughts about recent work to include components of trauma informed practice into expected outcomes for the educators he supports.

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