Educators Know When Students Are Struggling At Home!
anonymous Asks ...
I am a 4th grade teacher and I believe that one of my students is having a problem at home and I am not sure how to help out. He is a very bright boy and he is very well behaved but in the last 2 months or so his behavior has changed and he is now very attention seeking and disruptive and paradoxically becoming a bit of a loner where he used to have an active social group of friends. He is showing a very noticeable shift in behavior.
I have had 2 of his older siblings in previous years and I have come to know the mother to some degree. She is a single mother and in my experience she has always been very caring and conscientious and her children are always well looked after and always have their work done. I believe that education is a priority for her.
After her son missed some school a while back it was explained to me that she had been assaulted at work and she was recovering in the hospital and her children were temporarily at relatives. After her son came back to school everything was fine but his behavior has deteriorated since then, he rarely does his homework and he often wears dirty clothes to school and looks as if he is un-showered. I have tried getting the mother to come in for a conference but she will not come in. When I ask her son how she is doing he says she is ‘fine’ but spends most of the day in bed. The mother also dodges my phone calls but on one occasion when I managed to connect with her she acknowledged that she was dealing with some PTSD from her attack
I do not know what I can do to help. Under normal situations when it appears that there is a neglect situation my first move would be to contact child protective services. In this case, because I know the mother to be very caring and a good mom, I am very reluctant to go to this extreme because of the difficult consequences for the family that could result from it. If things continue as they have been, however, I will probably have no choice but to do it.
What I would like to know is how can I, as a teacher, help the boys so that they are less impacted by their mother’s sudden disability; to enable her to have a little more time to get her act back together?
Dr. Richard Schultz Says ...
Hello and thank you so much for addressing this important question to me.
First, let me extend my admiration and deep gratitude to you, both for being so observant and concerned about your student, and for showing such compassion and consideration to the parent. Obviously, educators such as yourself are in an excellent position from which to observe and assess changes in children's behavior. Add that to the basic responsibility of educating young people, and I know that you have your hand's full! Again, thank you for writing.
Based on what you have said, it would appear that there is indeed a correlation between the parent's recent trauma and the erosion in the child's behavior, performance and hygiene. Adding to that, this parent does also seem to be quite reticent to seek treatment, let alone simply discuss her struggles. This is not an uncommmon response to trauma, as it can have a shocking, demoralizing and shaming effect on the victim, and can cause severe withdrawal from what may now be percieved as a terrifying and dangerous world. In addition, there may be sociocultural factors at play that also discourage the individual from seeking treatment, unfortunately.
Nonetheless, as you express very well, this victim is also the mother of young children, and the manner in which she attends to her symptoms, or does not, can certainly have a powerful impact on them. Sadly, it is hard to imagine this impact would be anything but negative and destructive.
I completely understand your hesitatation to contact protective services; they may or may not be able to actually assist in this situation, and there is the danger of family disunification, which could worsen the current problems. When clear abuse is occurring or suspected, I would not hesitate to take that step (and am, as a psychologist licensed in the State of Georgia, mandated legally to do so). I am not sure what protocol is legally required in your state, or by your school or other governance board.
I wondered, while reading your question, if your school, or the district, employs any type of school psychologist or guidance counselor. It would seem that such an individual would be in the best position to either advise you, or to intervene directly on the student's behalf. If such an individual is not on the payroll, I would consult your supervisor before taking further action. With that individual's guidance and collaboration, you could implement a plan to assist this child's family. It might begin with a call from your supervisor to the mother, reiterating the strong concerns that have been raised. This could then be followed by a registered letter urging the mother to come in for a conference, and letter her know that if she chooses not to do so, you will be compelled to contact a social service agency to address the issue. Obviously, this is the step you least want to take, and hopefully one of the prior steps will work, making this consequence unnecessary.
An alternative idea would be to get into contact with a close extended family member or friend of the mother and recruit that individual to intervene. You may have such a contact in the child's records, or the child himself may be able to provide the information.
Again, your active concern for this student's welfare is highly commendable. I hope that some of what I have offered is useful to you, and that a constructive resolution to the problem is achieved. Please do keep me posted in that regard, and feel free to write again if I can be of any further assistance.
Richard E. Schultz, Ph.D.