We Are a College Prep School. We Do NOT Make Accommodations!

Yes, this heading is an actual quote from an administrator from a “prestigious” high school in the area. Sadly, I have heard this statement from several school personnel over the years. I just got off the phone with a distraught mother whose probable-National Merit Scholar is in danger of failing 11th grade. Please allow (and excuse) my amygdala to overrule my prefrontal cortex today as I share my response to the teachers, supervisors, administrators, headmasters, and in some cases, family members.

Dear Educator at Prestigious School,

Smart Student has recently experienced academic difficulties, and we are trying to close the loop and help this student. Even though you claim to have a student body that has only 1% learning disability, let me assure you that your number is quite low and inaccurate. How do I know this? Well, over the years, I have worked with approximately 10% of your student body, which includes students with suspected or diagnosed disabilities. Most of these parents fear sharing this information with you. They fear that at the slightest hint of trouble, you will boot him or her out of your school. They fear the humiliation and rejection from other parents, teachers, or even friends. They worry about their child’s acceptance into a good college, so they suffer in isolation. I don’t say they suffer in silence because I hear their anguish on almost daily basis, including weekends and holidays.

So when you tell me that you “don’t see the need to make any changes to your teaching practices” allow me to challenge you with a few points on best practices, which are based in neuroscience and what we know about the developing brain:
1. Is it appropriate to teach college prep material at a college level with college-level textbooks and readings to an adolescent brain? I challenge you in finding ways to teach human anatomy without using a medical school textbook.
2. Is it appropriate to give 35 calculus problems that essentially assess the same skill? I challenge you to reduce the load and have students write at least one problem of their own, which invokes a higher level of thinking.
3. Is it appropriate to ignore phone calls and emails from frantic parents or students? I challenge you to connect with families, even though you are very busy and important.
4. Is it good teaching to assess students on their memory rather than their understanding of concepts? I mean, is it REALLY necessary to have a student MEMORIZE the periodic table of elements? My gosh, not even Einstein had to memorize anything he could look up! I challenge you to find meaningful ways to assess student knowledge based on how well they can apply concepts, also known as Problem-Based Learning (PBL).

We are all part of this community who helps educate the students in your student body. It makes no sense to ignore the needs of creative, intelligent individuals who don’t learn the exact same way as each other. Let’s acknowledge that intelligent kids are everywhere, and even if they experience a struggle in learning, isn’t that the best opportunity to show your school’s excellence in teaching?

Frustration is a Natural Stage in Learning

Frustration is a natural stage in learning.
I know I promised to continue with the Adolescent Brain stuff, and I will, but I have to share this vignette….
During a recent “cookie decorating party”, I enjoyed using my lack of artistic talent to frost purple Santas, lopsided mittens, and charred snowmen.  It was fun to use my fingers to create swirls, push little candy balls into dough, and use sprinkles on whatever I could sprinkle.  After licking my fingers sufficiently, I washed my hands and looked down at my own creation, a cookie that looked more like a rocket than a reindeer.
It was then that I noticed several parents decorating cookies on behalf of their kids.  It didn’t make sense; how could anybody NOT want to decorate a cookie?  When I asked one of the kids why he wasn’t making a mess—like I had—, his parent blurted out, “ Because they didn’t know how to decorate, and I don’t want a meltdown!”
Another mom then confessed to me that she had built her son’s entire graham-cracker house because “he would just get too frustrated”.
Several parents also admitted that they don’t let their children hang ornaments on the Christmas tree or arrange the candles in the Menorah because they’ll “make a big mess”.
Sorry, but all I could think of was that these little experiences and probable mishaps present opportunities for those neural connections within the brain.  There are direct consequences and implications for learning, and this relates directly to academics and life.
Has anybody else noticed the low threshold for frustration that now seems to be the norm in our society?
The child who can’t get the answer to a math problem immediately, throws down her pencil, and announces “This is impossible!”

The reading student refuses to write a chapter summary for To Kill a Mockingbird because “it’s too hard.”

The AP U.S. History who student doesn’t know why he got the DBQ wrong, but  he doesn’t “feel like looking up the info because it takes too long on Google, and the teacher didn’t say we had to.”

The science teacher who performs all the labs and has the students watch passively because “they will waste supplies and time, plus there are Bunsen burners!”

The business executive who screams into the phone while driving on the Beltway because he can’t get his “Bluetooth to work” ( immediately).

The neighbors who throw out their Christmas tree because one set of lights stopped working, and they don’t understand how the tool works that will fix it.

The Tour de France wannabee who yells obscenities at slow cyclists on the family bike trail.  (Okay, that is one of my pet peeves, but patience is essential in learning.)

If everything comes easily to you, are you really learning?  NO.

Teaching kids—and adults—how to handle frustration is probably the most important brain (and social) skill we can offer our kids.  The smallest interaction can provide a valuable learning tool, also known as  a brain-enhancing experience.  So the next time your kid sets the table with the forks on the right side of the plate and the napkin a little askew, know that you are helping your child’s brain develop!  (Then have him or her put the forks on the left side!)