Ask any educator about kids and anxiety and you’ll probably hear a pretty common refrain: more and more young children and adolescents are experiencing anxiety. We also know that when children feel frightened or anxious, they don’t learn as well. For some children, school is the cause of their worries. They are afraid of making mistakes, of losing status with their peers, of feeling or looking “dumb”, or of not living up to their own or someone else’s expectations. Students with learning disabilities may fall into this category as things that seem to come easily to their classmates are a daily struggle for them.
When teachers discuss these students with me, one option usually presented is to “buffer” the student from the anxiety-inducing situation (usually grade-level instruction in one or more subjects) until adaptations or supports are in place. The student may work on some individualized activities with an LST teacher, child care worker, or education assistant. As you can imagine, we have done this with the best of intentions – reduce the child’s stress, let them know that we care about what they’re going through, and demonstrate flexibility in our system. We would not add any pressure, and wait for them to be more “ready” to get back to their regular grade-level curriculum. Up until a few weeks ago, I thought that was a pretty good thing to do.
What changed a few weeks ago was that I attended a three-day seminar on response to intervention. Not only did I realize during those three days that my knowledge of what RTI is was very superficial, I had a few of those moments where a real internal debate was going on. One of the core premises of RTI is that ALL students are guaranteed access to essential grade-level instruction. If we regularly remove students (especially students who are below grade-level or struggling to keep up), then we are in effect lowering our expectations of those students. We are setting them on a road to ALWAYS being behind and being at risk of all the negative effects of not completing secondary school (poorer adult health, lower income, higher likelihood of criminal activity, to name a few).
What right to I have to set that child on that road while they are still in elementary school? Knowing that a child has struggles, be they academic, social, emotional, or physical, should never make us set the bar lower for that child. We need to not just say “All children can learn” while adding “to their own level”. That’s an abrogation of our responsibility. We need to say “All children can learn….whatever it takes”.
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After bringing some of my epiphanies back to my school, we are making our interventions a priority for next year. We will explore ways to identify what the ESSENTIAL curriculum is (a great opportunity with the new curricular frameworks here in BC), and how to ensure that ALL students are guaranteed access to that AS WELL AS the interventions that they need to catch up and keep up.
We need to blend our good intentions with our high expectations for all learners. It’s a big responsibility, but why else are we here? <br /