Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Why Tough Schools Need More than Band-Aids

There may not be a research study to back up the theory of Band-Aid inequity. Still, if you've been in enough schools you may get the sense that children in higher socio-economic classes get more Band-Aids for their ‘boo boos’: the literal kind of Band-Aid that is used to cover minor (and sometimes invisible) injury.

It's not the cost of the Band-Aids that’s at stake – this is the sort of thing teachers are more than happy to go out and buy. It doesn't reflect a belief that children in the tough schools need fewer Band-Aids or are more likely to fake their need. Rather, it’s a systemic issue that may not be obvious to people outside elementary education.

Band-Aids (like time in the kindergarten housekeeping center) are not typically high on our list of things children need for their future. Six-year olds, though, tend to value Band-Aids more than adults do. They have different ideas about what necessitates one. Wanting one sometimes reflects wanting something besides the object itself: attention, a brief stroll across the room – and yet sometimes bandages settle children down and put them back on task, whether they really believe that a Band-Aid is a necessary medical intervention for a hangnail (or a scab) or just want to know that they occupy a cared for little corner of the universe.

Higher Needs, Less Continuity, Different Management Styles

So where does the inequity come in? Children in the toughest schools tend to have more unmet needs, but it can be a challenge to meet them during the school day. There’s also a greater chance that they haven't spent as much time in stable, predictable environments, even when they were babies. The effects can be cumulative. In school, they might have had more transitions: a stream of teachers they need to adjust to: less experienced ones. They may not have routines for unobtrusively getting little things they need. They may not know the routines if they are in place.

It’s also likely these kids have less freedom to walk around the room. If it's a class where there are reactive children – ones who may not be aggressive themselves but will react to things like an accidental bump in extreme ways – the teacher may have adopted a more regimented style to try to prevent calamity. “Stay in your seat,” may be the way to ensure that some child doesn’t get a brand new boo boo, that some child doesn’t cry or hide under the table. In some classes, children can get up to get a Band-Aid, as long as it’s not teacher time, as long as they’re not grabbing bunches or using them to clown. In other classes, no.

The Cumulative Effects

If the teacher isn't experienced with managing large groups of small people, Band-Aids and bathroom can derail a lesson. It happens more easily in the tough classes, but it’s not because these little ones are themselves tough. Crystallized intelligence is highly dependent on previous experience, and it means different things at different ages. At the first grade level, part of it is having a better sense of what school is and what a lesson is. Some children will recognize that the lesson is about ‘Long A’ and ‘Short A’ and not about scabs and hangnails, or about tummies and what makes them feel better. They’ll plug all the teacher talk – on-topic and off – into its proper place in their mental schema and move on. Some won’t. And some classes have more than their share of children who won’t. Some have more than their share of children who only marginally understand the language. There may be half a dozen languages represented in a single classroom.

Children have only so much working memory. Getting pulled off subject for a few seconds here and there means they've lost the continuity of the lesson. They aren't holding the first fact in their heads when they hear the second that supposedly builds on it. A lesson can be well designed in theory but still fall short if there are too many little stops that pull cognitive resources and tax working memory.

But happens when a class sees a bright new adult face and the adult says the magic word “yes”? Children do what children do: They want more Band-Aids, more water fountain, more impromptu bathroom breaks. They want a snack in their hungry tummies. They want to tell you that so-and-so did such-and-such and they didn’t like it. They want attention. Kiddie see, kiddie do: Yeses have a way of breeding more requests. Sometimes those latter requests don't reflect a strong need for the item requested, but sometimes they reflect meek children who don't ask for things that they strongly want until they've scoped out the territory and heard enough other children get told yes.

Eventually, someone pulls the reigns. It may be the teacher. If it’s a newer teacher, or a sub, then a team teacher or instructional assistant may notice a behavior change and tell the children that they know better, it’s not the time for whatever it is they’re asking for. There may be a few in the room who feel chastened, including the Band-Aid proffering teaching.

Some children have been in situations since infancy where real needs weren't predictably met. Sometimes their tears brought them help; sometimes they didn't. That can affect developing brains. That’s one of many reasons why some children enter school better equipped than others to understand cause and effect, to regulate behavior, to hold to the continuity of a lesson.

Opportunity for Success

What do children at the so-called tough schools need? They need time to work, time to move, time to be attended to. They need experienced teachers who have incentives to come and stay. They need adequate staffing levels with well-trained professionals and paraprofessionals. They need policies, too, to attract substitutes: to help ensure that classes do have subs when the teacher is out and that the children aren’t split up and parceled out to other classes or assigned to the music teacher.

When class sizes are small and staff are prepared to organize them to advantage, academic instruction can take place in smaller groups. The same organizational structures that allow children to receive targeted instruction can help with focus and ensure emotional needs are met.

Teachers don’t like choosing between managing a classroom and giving an individual child a safe corner in the universe. Experience helps. Supportive policies help. Passion, too. Some teachers are not only surviving but thriving – even in a world where it seems the toughest schools are handed metaphorical Band-Aids by those who have never handed the real kind out.