Supporting School-Community Collaborations
American schools can no longer afford to operate in isolation. As a result, many school-linked and school-based health and human service programs have sprung up around the country. Schools are also reaching out to parents and the community to strengthen students’ educational foundations. State education agencies play a role in supporting many of these school-community partnerships, primarily for two reasons: they seek to ensure the educational success of all students (collaboration being a means to that end); and, secondly, they view themselves as key partners in larger, broader-based efforts to ensure the overall wellbeing of children and families. The highest levels of state government have undertaken collaborative efforts on behalf of children and families. The goal is to develop a model of comprehensive local services delivery with an emphasis on community-directed initiatives. The effort has focused on children placed out of state and those at risk of out of home placement. While everyone agrees that collaboration is the call of the day and necessary to create the systems that support children, youth, and their families, there are still many barriers and challenges to be overcome, including:
– Bureaucratic and cultural differences between education and collaborating agencies
– Pressure on educators to be accountable for discrete educational results, and
– The time, money, and frequent contact it takes to build working relationships and collaborations.
Despite the barriers, support for a child and family agenda at the highest levels can help collaborative efforts in communities. A formal structure, such as a children’s “cabinet,” can facilitate and establish collaboration as an expectation. While high-level state support is vital, collaboration at the school-community level is equally important. The degree of government agency support for local partnerships teeters on the dependence of many factors. Despite such bureaucratic challenges, however, state education agencies are increasingly supporting and working with collaborations at the school-community level. It is at this grassroots level that diverse and interdisciplinary groups of professionals are working together to support children and families. The increase in collaborative activities in recent years is testament to educators’ recognition that they can no longer operate in isolation if they hope to guarantee students’ success in school. Despite difficult family and community circumstances, some children succeed at school and in life. Because they have persevered through severe, often enduring and multiple challenges, they are referred to as “resilient.” If we can understand what makes for such resilience in some children, we might be able to enhance such development in others.
A classic 25-year study of psychological resilience followed infants born in Florida in adverse circumstances, including approximately 350 who were considered at high risk. Approximately one-third of those children showed no problems at all, and while the other two-thirds did have problems, by their mid-30s almost all had become constructively motivated and responsible adults. One of their distinguishing experiences as children was a long-term, close relationship with a caring, responsible parent or other adult. Other resilience studies have been made of children of mentally ill parents and teenage mothers, those in foster care, and those who have been maltreated, chronically ill, and/or delinquent. Of these children, most who achieve adult success tend to have long-term connections with competent adults, religious faith, and perceptions of themselves as worthy and competent. Parents or mentors of such children make the child feel worthwhile and valued. They exhibit competence that children can emulate, and provide guidance and constructive feedback about the child’s progress. In addition, they provide experiences that build competence and confidence. But changes in American families, such as more teen mothers, divorce, separation, and “latchkey” children, have made resilience-building more difficult. In some areas, the stabilizing influences of religious and social institutions have also declined. Unfortunately, educators have little impact outside the school on early childhood development. Urban educators face still greater challenges. Their schools are typically large and often serve poor and highly mobile families, making it difficult to reach out to families and communities. Research suggests that despite such difficulties, educators can extend themselves to promote educational and psychological resilience. First, the educational practices shown to raise achievement can be employed to help students succeed not only in school, but also in learning the skills that make for success in life. Second, educators can work with others to enhance conditions in communities that foster psychological well-being. Only about one child in four born of alcoholic parents becomes an alcoholic. What are the general traits of children who overcome this and other risk factors? Researchers have identified several key competencies of resilient children. They include:
– Social Competence: Resilient children have mild temperaments and usually avoid “flying off the handle.” They are malleable and can adapt readily to different situations. Such traits and skills enable them to attract attention, support, and affection from adults and peers.
– Intellectual Competence: Resilient children score higher on intelligence tests, particularly verbal tests, and are able to think of novel solutions to problems. Such novel thinking is often manifested in humor, which can diffuse anger and anxiety from confrontations.
– Planning: Resilient children can think about their problems, set high but realistic goals for themselves, and monitor their own progress. They believe that they are decisive in bringing about their own success.
– Resourcefulness: While they have good social skills and respond well to others, resilient children can be independent when necessary. For example, they are able to stand apart, from abusive and disordered families, and to form bonds with others outside the family.
These four areas of competency are hardly predestined; they can be learned in families, schools, and communities. To the extent that parents, educators, and other adults in the community encourage development of such resilience competencies, children are likely to be successful in school and in life. The school’s first priority is learning, and anything that enhances learning is in a student’s educational interest. Some practices, however, seem especially important to children who live in high-risk circumstances. For example, local, state, and national movements toward curriculum standards have made it possible for teachers at various grade levels to build on what students have learned in previous grades. This is particularly important for mobile children, who often suffer setbacks in grade level and achievement when they move to a new school. New meta-cognitive learning methods encourage students to set and monitor their learning goals. In reciprocal teaching, for example, children prepare a lesson and then teach each other, following the adage, “To learn something well, teach it.” The need for planning and organizing such activities not only helps learning, but also improves children’s capacities for independence and teamwork, both valued in adult life.
Research shows that children in categorical programs, such as special education and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education, are often poorly served in segregated settings. They may be injuriously stereotyped and given inferior lessons, and consequently they may learn less and suffer from low self-esteem. Many such vulnerable children would do better in regular education classrooms that are designated to accommodate individual differences among students.
Teachers, principals, and other school staff can serve as role models for at-risk children by demonstrating what they do to solve real-life problems. When problems arise, educators can discuss with students the causes, possible solutions, and ways of implementing the best solution.
When educators perceive that a student is undergoing a crisis, a confidential chat, some encouragement, or a referral to a professional specialist can work wonders. Sometimes just listening can help. Educators who form strong, enduring bonds with students can be of great benefit to children in crisis. Families that have a variety of educational and psychological resilience resources available to them are more likely to effectively nurture children. For example, families can consult educators for insights and helpful information on effective parenting and educational practices. Educators can also provide confidential support and advice to families seeking guidance in dealing with risk factors and deterrents that hinder resilience. Parents can provide a healthy environment for their children in many ways:
– Avoid violent conflicts and abuse
– Exhibit warmth and caring
– Encourage joint activities
– Encourage responsibility through family chores
– Provide positive role models
– Introduce appropriate expectations
– Show interest in accomplishments
– Enroll children in school and community programs
– Encourage skill development
– Seek professional help when necessary
– Participate in organized adult-child programs
Healthy communities are likely to foster resilient children. Public safety is obviously important, as are agencies that provide effective library, medical, psychological, and social services. Schools can link to community agencies to provide referrals to collaborative services, and cooperative programs. As in medicine, preventative actions may be wiser and more cost effective than after-the-fact remedies. Schools can help by informing students and parents of the resources that communities have to offer. Cooperative programs are especially effective. Resiliency programs are hardly a panacea for the problems that many children face in school and in life, although various strategies and approaches have had some measure of success. Given the problems and challenges faced by today’s children, expanding such efforts through the nurturing support of all adults who work with children seems very much in our national interest.