12/17/2012 11:40 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2013

The Other Side of the School Equation

Whether they admit it or not, every teacher has taught at least one student whose absence from school produced a silent cheer or a sigh of relief. Such a child is always the disruptive student, the loud student, the hyperactive student, the one who never sits down and rarely shuts up. Of course, during parent conferences or special education meetings, the words teachers use to describe these children are carefully chosen and deliberately sanitized, however in politically uncensored conversations with colleagues and friends, these children are often spared no mercy by their teachers, who must work to keep them in line each and every day.

And so, when a student comes to school, dutifully sits in his seat, follows directions, does well in class and bothers no one at all, teachers are grateful to be in their presence, so grateful in fact that they may not ever engage with them at all, choosing to leave well enough alone. In an educational landscape driven by the need for students to achieve, it is not hard to imagine how a compliant, academically achieving student might be forgotten, even if their demeanor hints at an element of disconnectedness or normalcy gone awry.

Perhaps this might explain why so many troubled youngsters who go on to commit serious crimes often escaped the radar of nearly everyone in their schools. Teachers and principals are trained to quell disorder and chaos, not to help children to connect with adults or with each other. Of course, various programs have come into schools designed to build character, but typically programs are not designed to build connection, but to promote obedience.

Once popular in schools, cooperative learning is not as fashionable now, replaced by new education buzzwords like, "differentiation" and "rigor." Differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all learners is certainly vital, as is the level of rigor of the curriculum being offered. We cannot hope to meet the needs of a 21st century workplace without first meeting students where they are, then challenging them to think about, analyze and evaluate academic material. These goals are very important, but so too are collaboration and cooperation.

When children are given structured tasks that require them to speak to one another, and when the children with whom they speak are orchestrated by the teacher to ensure diversity of academic knowledge, and diversity of other factors such as gender and personal disposition, it forces them to face someone whom they may not have ever spoken to, and to listen, to really listen to what that person has to say. The cooperative learning structures used in schools that partner with Turnaround For Children, the organization that I work for, requires students to work in pairs, or in larger mixed-achievement groups of four to answer rigorous academic questions, orally and in writing, and to share their thoughts and ideas with each member of the group. Some structures require children to arrive at a consensus about the answers to certain questions in their groups, while other structures go beyond a four-person team to require an entire class to mingle over and over again with each other as they review academic material for mastery prior to an assessment. At first glance, tasks like these may appear to be a bit contrived, but as time progresses, children begin to own them, participate in them, and along the way, they start to connect with each other more than they did before.

Because Turnaround For Children is an organization that places equal premiums on academic achievement and socio-emotional health, if a child displays signs suggesting that they would rather serve a detention or be otherwise punished than to be face-to-face with another child, teachers in a Turnaround partner school are encouraged to bring this fact to the attention of a school social worker, or guidance counselor so that they can work with a small team to determine if the student could use extra support in order to feel comfortable interacting with others and thus be more successful in school. However, unless classroom learning tasks include those that require cooperation and collaboration, teachers may never begin to see the social capacities and social limitations of each child, thus relegating many children to an isolated, lonely existence in school - one that typically only intensifies as time goes on.

Does it matter if a child stands alone at recess every day for an entire year? Does it matter if a child cringes painfully when someone does nothing more than offer a morning greeting? More and more, we must answer "yes", to these questions, and we must look at these children in close and meaningful ways and decide with a team of school-based professionals whether or not this student needs additional support, either in the classroom, with school staff, or through a community-based organization trained to address children's emotional and/or mental health.

Unlike many in my field, I happen to believe that test scores really do matter. However, after more than a decade as an educator and more than two decades as a parent, I understand clearly that other things matter too. Eye contact, a simple touch, a warm "hello" - these actions all send a message of care, and thus foster human connection. Even with all of their vast untapped intellect, at their core, our children are social beings meant to affirm each other's presence, and to let each other know that they belong; that their presence counts for something. We must pay attention to children where this awareness is lacking because connection is at the essence of what it means to be human, and thus lacking it, in extreme cases, could be a warning sign of dangerous things to come. In the end, sometimes we must learn the hard way that the quietest child, through his or her actions, is actually screaming the loudest of all.