Recently I’ve found that more than discipline, referrals, suspension, and medication, many underperforming inner city children need one simple thing to increase their performance—access. Access to what? Access to anything their better-off (or well-to-do) counterparts have access to. While I’m not a clinician or therapist, my cursory assessments of the children I’ve taught over the years has made it clear that their behavior problems could be reasonably curtailed, over time, when these children simply have access to things.
Some of the things I’ve given my students access to include nutritious food, supplies, and play time. Some of the subjects that I give my students access to include Yoga, Urban Gardening, conflict resolution, and juicing. Some of the abstract concepts I’ve given my students access to include affirmation and consistency.
The majority of the children I teach reside in low-income communities and some don’t have dependable meals. During snack distribution, some of the children would hide the snacks I gave them and insist that they didn′t receive a snack in order to get another. Sometimes another child would reveal the scheme and a fight would erupt between them. Since we juice often in my class, I leave fresh fruit out to make prep work easy. I would discover that tangerines, oranges, and apples were missing (I counted them first because juice blends require a certain amount of each fruit for optimal taste and texture). Eventually I saw students stealthily taking the fruit and hiding it in their coat pockets and bookbags (I’ve even found tangerine peels hidden in desks). When addressed, they would stare at me frozen, unable to vouch for their behavior. I will not say they were stealing, I consider the situational ethics of the offense—they were hungry and attempting to selfishly meet their needs in the way most familiar to them. I helped solve this issue (for them, primarily, and me, secondarily) by bringing extra fruit and informing them that they had permission to eat the fruit provided they ask me first. Access to the fruit meant fewer hungry stomachs and therefore fewer behavior problems.
Would you believe some of the challenges during the homework period boiled down to a child not having a pencil? Sometimes, not having a sharpened pencil? To the educator it will seem like a simple matter of preparation for the sake of classroom management. In truth, it goes beyond classroom management. I’ve found that the children believe themselves to be inadequate without their supplies, although they cannot verbalize it as such. Some of the children know their parents could not afford to purchase the requisite supplies and that, in the child’s mind, translates to them being inferior, that they are less than their peers who do have pencils or supplies. They tend to compensate with bravado and toughness. They create a tense scene in the classroom, fabricate stories of why their homework can’t be done, and feign indifference to the outcome they’ll face for not having completed their homework. As with the fruit, I keep a large supply of pencils and a battery-powered sharpener in class now so the students can address their shortcomings themselves. This has given them a sense of empowerment. They walk over to the supplies, sometimes with a confident smile on their faces, sharpen their pencils, affix one of the new erasers on top, and strut back to their desks to complete their homework.
Once access has been granted, encouraged, and accepted, the children consistently perform better. Initially, access to something new is a distraction because it is foreign and requires a tremendous amount of exploration on their part before they accept or reject it. Once they are able to go beyond the novelty of the thing and embrace it as a quotidian norm they can strive for mastery.
In all honesty, a child will be an under-performer when their stomach is empty (try as you might, you cannot teach a hungry child). They will underperform when they don’t have the tools available to get the job done. They will underperform when they don’t feel cherished. Without access, the children are locked out of opportunity and begin the downward spiral toward underperformance.
They, in turn, will blossom when they have adequate nutrition to power their bodies, get the job done with the appropriate tools for the task, and perform at superior levels when they are praised, coached, and believe they are in a safe, consistent, nurturing environment. When these children have access to the very things they are deficient in they are able to get involved and perform better.
Have I seen improvements in the children’s performance since they’ve gained access? Absolutely. Not only has their performance improved, their exposure has increased—they’ve been exposed to information and opportunities they would not have been exposed to before when they would not do their homework. They are free to absorb the information, experiences, and things and perform as expected. They are able to get on task faster, solve their work materials issues, and have overcome the novelty of items like an electric pencil sharpener, math manipulatives, a juicer, and other previously-foreign-to-them materials. My students have begun to perform better.