Excerpt: Promises Kept

Education to Match His Needs

Chapter 8: Education to Match His Needs

How to Understand Our Son's Learning Styles and Special Needs

All through kindergarten and first grade, my son did very well and had no problems at school. But all of a sudden in second grade, the teacher starts telling me he wasn't behaving well and he was having problems in reading and writing. Mind you, he had a very strong teacher--also a white woman--in first grade, and none of these issues existed. But, okay, we met with his second grade teacher.

She said, "Maybe the problem is that he's an only child."

I said, "Well, there's nothing that we can do about that. Do you have any other strategies that you can suggest?"

She says, "Well maybe if he was around girls more. Does he have any girl cousins? Maybe they can help his writing style."

Is my son at age seven going to sit down with his girl cousins and write a letter? It's just not gonna happen. But I said, "Well, let me see what you're referring to."

So I had him write a letter to a friend. Basically the letter said, "Dear Jimmy, Come to my house. We'll play PlayStation. We'll have pizza. We'll have fun. Bye."

Then I asked the teacher to show me a letter from a girl. It was long and flowery.

I said, "My husband has a master's degree. It takes pulling teeth to get him to write a letter. Maybe it's just a boy/girl thing; they're probably just different."

So I go back to his first grade teacher for help. She tells me, "You gotta get him out of here, because he's cute now, but when he gets older, he's gonna be threatening to them. They're going to be intimidated. So we did.

--Tamika, the thirty-six-year-old mother of a fourteen-year-old son

In this chapter we examine some of the reasons black boys disproportionately get placed in special education and get passed over for G&T, honors, and advanced placement classes:

  • We'll help you understand the importance of learning styles and supportive educational environments
  • We'll give guidance on navigating the special education system
  • We'll help you understand how learning differences and disabilities work
  • We'll talk through the difficulties of G&T programs

Promise your son that you will help his teacher customize his educational experience to his learning needs, that you will communicate your high expectations both to him and to his teachers, that you will help him understand that he must learn no matter what anyone else thinks of him, and that you will respond quickly to ensure he obtains appropriate help if you, a teacher, or another member of his Village notices possible symptoms of a learning or developmental difference or disability.
He Doesn't Fit the Profile
Many experts we've spoken to believe that schools are better suited for girls than boys, leaving males of all races at a disadvantage from the time they begin school.

"Boys' fine motor skills and executive function develop more slowly than girls' do," says David Grissmer, research professor at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia. "If you get a boy in kindergarten, he's eight to ten months developmentally behind in two key skills needed to take advantage of kindergarten. He hasn't got the basic comprehension skills, and if he happens to be young in his class, that puts him further behind."

Boys also tend to communicate more directly than girls do and interact through physical activity and movement. They like hands-on activities that rely on large muscle movement rather than their fine motor skills. When boys are young, they tend to have less control over their behavior than girls do. But schools strongly rewards children who communicate verbally, sit still, work quietly at a desk on tasks that require fine motor skills, and demonstrate a high degree of self-control--that is to say, girls!

Kids who don't fit this profile are often viewed as poorly adjusted, are often accused of misbehaving, are subjected to punishments, and get assigned to special education more often.

"We've designed a female classroom for large numbers of male students," said educational consultant Jawanza Kunjufu, author of Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys and other classics on black boys and education in a radio interview.1 "If you know that boys have a higher energy level, allow more movement. If you know that boys have a shorter attention span, then shorten the lesson plan. If you know that girls mature faster than boys, then there's no need to put boys in remedial reading classes or in special education. Allow for the maturation difference. The research shows that girls mature about three years faster than boys in terms of a K- 12 experience."

"You have to allow boys to be able to express themselves so it's not such a pent-up environment that they're unable to be who they are in a constructive manner," says a high school vice principal.

The fact that boys start behind girls in pre-reading skills ups their odds of being miscategorized as learning disabled during their early school years.2 In 2011, 9 percent of boys as compared to 6 percent of girls ages three to seventeen had been diagnosed as having a learning disability.

"Boys catch up later," says psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint. "But teachers may gravitate toward the girls and see the boys as slow. They may not understand the difference developmentally."

With black boys the differences in race, gender, and often socio-economic class that exist between them and their teachers complicate these developmental differences. Eighty-three percent of fulltime teachers are white, and 84 percent of elementary school teachers are females; only 7 percent are black.4 In general, boys don't encounter male. Importantly, even though they go on to instruct an increasingly diverse population, new teachers receive little to no education that would make them cross-culturally competent.

"Many teachers think that everybody is the same in terms of resource history, the challenges they're confronted with, and what they're trained to do in terms of teaching," says Dr. Spencer. "Serving as a source of support for children's learning is critically important. Traditional teacher training may not include supporting youngsters whose experiences include a lot of challenges linked to race, color, gender complicated by low socioeconomic status. That's a very, very complex interaction that's not in the training or the cultural sensitivities of many traditionally trained adults, both Black and White. For Blacks the tension might be due to social class. For Whites dissonance may occur due to unquestioned and unanalyzed stereotypic assumptions about how social class interacts with race and ethnicity. Contemplating these complexities in non-pejorative ways is not part of traditional teacher training programs."

One consequence? Although only 9 percent of the school-age population nationwide consists of black males, 15 percent of black males end up with an individualized education plan (IEP), which contains customized objectives for children with disabilities.5

And while giftedness is dispersed equally throughout the population, black boys are disproportionately unlikely to be placed in gifted and talented (G&T) programs or honors or AP courses, even when they qualify.

"Today 9.1 percent of black male high school students are in special education, compared with the national average of 6.5 percent; and 14.5 percent of black males are in honors classes, compared with the national average of 25.6 percent," says Ivory Toldson, author, Howard University counseling psychology professor, and senior researcher for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Dr. Toldson adds this important-to-remember detail" "Yes, there are more black males in honors classes than in special education."

Boredom and Learning Styles
Different children, regardless of their race or their gender or age, have different learning styles.

The term learning styles describes the way a person naturally or habitually uses their senses to extract and process information in their environment, including at school. For example, visual learners prefer seeing pictures, graphs, timelines, films, and demonstrations; aural learnersprefer hearing, reading aloud, sounds, rhymes, and music; interactive learners tend to love group activities and bouncing ideas off of people; and kinesthetic learners learn through bodily sensations, hands-on experiences, roleplaying, and movement.

"Yet the classroom still tends to be set up to cater to one type of learning style," says pediatrician Michelle Gourdine. "So if you don't fall into that category, then we're sorry; good luck; hope you do well."

"My son's teachers complain that my son is always looking out the window," says Tahira of her ten-year-old son. "Yet somehow he always gets As and Bs. They claim he's disengaged. No, you are boring. He reads, likes going to museums, and is very excited about learning at home. Somehow they just can't seem to get that."

A number of factors contribute to this disconnect.

Many times a mismatch exists between the learning style of a student and the teaching style of their instructor.

"When you have what we call a kinesthetic learning style--kids who have to do, who have to be active, who have to have hands-on--most classrooms aren't set up to adapt to that learning style, which is unfortunate," says Dr. Gourdine. Requiring students to work quietly by themselves on a worksheet or read a textbook is not the best way to engage them.

"Last year I led a group of students to Costa Rica," Chris, a charter schoolteacher recalls. "There were three boys, and two of the three boys were in nonstop motion. One sits because he draws so much, but his papers are full of drawings. The other didn't stop moving for a week. It's so much easier to teach him when we're outside and moving around. He walks in and out of your conversation. He might say, 'I want to learn a language' and then walk away and start interacting with people. Then he'll come back and ask, 'How do you say pretty in Spanish?' because he sees an attractive girl. But he was the one who could speak the most Spanish at the end of the trip. And he was the one bouncing around the organic cow farm asking all these questions about cows. He was not a nuisance. But when he's in some people's classroom, he's a nuisance. Even when he's excited about what he's learning, he can't follow the rules. But I'm so over the idea of there being four walls and five rules."

"Teachers may not know if they have an auditory learner versus a kinesthetic learner," says Bryant Marks, director of the Morehouse Male Initiative at Morehouse College in Atlanta. "They need to engage in appropriate strategies to reach all the kids. Am I aware of how to teach the same concept in two or three different ways?"

When a teacher doesn't have this ability, students may become bored and inattentive in class, do poorly on tests, or become discouraged. "Boys can tend to be more hands-on and physical," says one principal. "But if you're holding fast to how you learn and holding the child accountable because they don't learn like you do, you're doing the child and yourself a disservice. Because the child's going to get frustrated, you're going to get frustrated because they're frustrated and giving you problems, and it's going to spiral downward from there."

But a child who looks bored may also be masking more vulnerable emotions that are important for their teachers to attend to.

"It's not always easy to tell the difference between a bored student and a student who feels rejected and scared," says Joshua Aronson, an associate professor of applied psychology at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. "When people are scared of looking foolish, of being rejected, they often look numb or bored. So you look at your students and say, 'You're bored,' or 'You don't care,' when actually a lot are just scared to engage. The stakes in American classrooms can be very high. By attending to children's need to feel comfortable in classrooms, you often get a dramatic improvement in achievement because you often take away that fear. We should also address boredom because there's a lot of boredom in schools."
Keep it Moving
"If two-thirds of children and an even larger percentage of African American males are right-brain learners (visual-pictures, oral/auditory, tactile/kinesthetic), but 90 percent of lessons oriented toward left-brain learners (visual-print), then Houston, we have a problem," Dr. Kunjufu writes in Understanding Black Male Learning Styles.6

"I saw one teacher's lesson and asked her why she thought her children don't learn," one principal told us. "She was like, 'They need to pay better attention in terms of how and what I'm teaching. If they don't get it, then it's their fault.' Suffi ce it to say that I wrote that teacher off. In my opinion it's never the child's fault; it's our responsibility to teach the child, not to teach ourselves."

According to Dr. Kunjufu, a large percentage of African American males are tactile and kinesthetic learners, a learning style that's not embraced in many schools. What's more, kinesthetic learners need forty-five minutes of daily physical education. Sadly, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, 3 percent of high schools provide PE or its equivalent every day.7

"Testosterone makes you aggressive," Dr. Poussaint says. "It's important for boys to blow off steam and run around the yard. That's why boys gravitate to sports."

"In an all-boys school, you have to have sports or these boys will drive you nuts," says Dave Hardy, president and CEO of Boys' Latin High School in Philadelphia.

We learned very early on that physical activity would need to play an integral role in Idris's life. Even before we received his formal diagnosis of ADHD, it was very clear that physical activity helped our son focus and study. When some boys get into trouble, the first thing their parents do is pull them out of sports. With Idris, we realized that sports wasn't an extra activity, sports needed to be a priority. So we had him engage in some sort of physical activity every day before school, even if it was just going outside and dribbling.

"Exercise is sort of an essential nutrient," said John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, at a 2011 conference hosted by Harvard University's Achievement Gap Initiative. Dr. Ratey explained that when you keep children from playing, they "do less well on their SAT scores, they have a harder time socially, they become bullies or bullied--and we see this with our children today who are sitting and have all the media input in the world but are not interacting."

A Different World
Far too few of America's teachers of any race receive any cultural competency training to qualify them to know how to teach black boys, particularly when the boys come from low-income families. Additionally, a study of white teachers' experiences with black students identified that many teachers have a limited amount of personal and professional encounters with people who are racially, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally different from themselves and that student teachers have expressed their dissatisfaction with their training in teaching diverse students.8

Adding insult to injury, teachers of black boys tend to have less experience in education than the average teacher. And because many new teachers cycle in and out, they may also be new to the school.

"The younger ones come in and may not stay very long. Before they become master teachers, they're out," says Dr. Marks.

"Many times the teacher really wanted to work in a suburban school district, but she didn't have enough years teaching," Dr. Toldson says.

Some research shows that when low-income and minority students consistently have high-quality teachers, they make significant gains. But other studies show that even experienced teachers can lack confidence in their ability to teach black boys.

For example, a study conducted in Maryland, found that even "highly qualified" teachers don't always believe they can teach black students successfully. The fifty teachers, administrators, and counselors whom the researchers interviewed were quick to blame the students and their families for failing to meet academic standards, describing factors like the students' "lack of preparedness," "negative dispositions toward learning," "lack of math, time management, and critical-thinking skills," and "broken families" for the boys' academic results. We know that some of these problems do exist--among all students and, in some cases, disproportionately among black students. Yet "almost none of the teachers who participated in our focus groups said that they themselves were responsible for the limited achievement of African American students in their schools," the study authors wrote. Surprisingly, the students' educators did not identify structural factors, such as the systematic underfunding of public education, as factors that may have impeded students' learning. Many of these teachers were black. The researchers concluded that many of the beliefs that teachers had about black students were consistent with racist ideologies and internalized oppression. 9

Education requires that a relationship exist between the student and the teacher but, more importantly, that the student trust the teacher. Teachers who are most effective are not only knowledgeable about the subject they teach, they also understand and appreciate the life experience of each student.

"Show some interest in who they are as individuals and who their families are," says psychologist Claude Steele, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University. "Then you can have an impact on their reading skills, their math skills, or whatever."

"The more you know about the student, the better chance you have of educating them and the less likely you are of accepting their failure," says Hardy. "If you wanna know why public school teachers in big cities so readily accept failure from kids, it's because they don't know them. They come in just in time for school, and they leave as soon as the bell's over. If they don't get paid for activities, they don't do them."

This doesn't mean that teachers who aren't black can't do a good job of teaching black children--or that black teachers are necessarily more effective with black children.

"The strongest teachers for raising achievement among white children were black teachers whose daddies were professional," says Ronald Ferguson, of Harvard University's Achievement Gap Initiative. "The strongest teachers with black kids were white teachers whose daddies were professionals and black teachers whose daddies were not."

In fact, research shows that teachers from all walks of life can teach children that they love and care for, and that has certainly been our experience with our sons.

"Teachers of all kinds of backgrounds can care and deliver, but they do need to have a certain empathy and impulse to really connect at the same time they have an impulse to hold kids responsible and accountable," Dr. Ferguson says.

"I don't care what color or what race you are, every human being needs to feel like their presence, their existence, is important, needed, wanted, valued," says one teacher. "You need people to look you in the eye and say 'I love you, you're beautiful, you're appreciated, I affirm you--even when you mess up, even when you're imperfect.' "

"My ninth grade history teacher was this small white woman who changed my work ethic," says Benjamin, 17. "She was a strict disciplinarian, and I found value in that. I had a research paper and I worked with her like 24/7--like meeting with her a lot every week. It wasn't like I was doing bad, but I showed that I really cared and she showed that she really cared, and I ended up doing so much better. Not only because I worked harder, but she was able to see my effort. She ended up writing me a college recommendation."

From Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life, by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard, © 2014 by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard. Reprinted with permission from the author and Spiegel & Grau. www.randomhouse.com