August 8, 2005
by Wendy M. Williams
Many Ithaca-area parents were extremely concerned about redistricting during the 2004-5 school year. For those parents whose children will be attending a different school in 2005-6, redistricting is now a reality. For the administrators who run the schools and the teachers who educate the children—as well as all of the support staff who make the system run efficiently--redistricting has brought numerous challenges to already-stretched schedules. The new school year begins on September 7, meaning that there is time for parents to rethink their approach to redistricting to help their children and their children’s teachers create a successful educational experience.
What are some of the lessons from educational research that can help parents deal effectively with redistricting?
Parental attitudes are critical to children’s school success. Many parents expressed considerable anger and frustration, as well as a sense of helplessness, during the redistricting debate. To the extent that their children hear such sentiments, parents are setting their children up for negative experiences. The communication from the parents to the children is clear—redistricting is bad, the new school will be inferior to the old one, and the students who are sent there will suffer. Regardless of the potential merit of any of these points, parents whose children are attending a new school should communicate a positive attitude to their children, and stress the new learning experiences, friends, and relationships that this new environment will provide. If parents are negative, children will definitely suffer in their adjustment and learning outcomes, and the parents will have themselves created the outcome that they most feared.
Challenges create opportunities for positive growth and development. Parents involved in the redistricting debate often stated that changing to a new school would be bad for their children’s development. While it is natural for people to be apprehensive about change, ample research demonstrates that learning to deal constructively with change and meeting challenges is a positive force in children’s development. While acknowledging the potential difficulties, parents can stress that flexibility and adaptability are critical life skills. Helping children to deal effectively with their fear of a new experience and overcome it can create a valuable set of competencies. A childhood devoid of challenges (such as changing schools) may leave a young person without the skills to deal with inevitable changes and challenges later in life.
Parents should expect setbacks during the transition. Changing to a new school involves learning new routines and getting to know new teachers and fellow students. Approaches to education vary from school to school. Research shows that children sometimes need time to adjust. When children express that things are different and that they are having difficulties, parents should state that this is normal and expected, and that over time, it will undoubtedly work out. If children expect that transitions will take some extra time and effort, they will not become overly frustrated or disillusioned when this does, in fact, happen. Parents should be prepared to spend extra time assisting their children with the transition—accompanying them to school, showing them the school grounds and familiarizing them with the school layout, and even introducing their children to students who have previously attended the new school and who consequently know the ropes. The majority of children will grow to like their new school and will adjust to the change. In those situations in which things do not eventually work out, alternative options can be explored, either within the school system or outside of it.
Teachers are not to blame. Research shows that angry, frustrated parents concerned about school-district-wide changes most often begin by expressing their anger to their child’s teacher. In essence, they shoot the messenger. The trouble is that teachers have a job to do, and they cannot focus on their job while dealing with parents’ issues about district-level management. Teachers report substantial time spent in conversations with parents that have nothing to do with classroom instruction and their specific students’ progress—which teachers are happy to discuss. Rather, these discussions focus on aspects of school administration and district-level decisions that parents find frustrating or upsetting. Teachers are already pressed for time, and they wish to focus on their students and on doing their job. Wise parents allow their children’s teachers to do just that.
Wendy M. Williams is a Professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University. She is an educational psychologist who studies the development, assessment, training, and societal implications of intelligence and related abilities, such as real-world reasoning and creativity. She co-founded and co-directs the Cornell Institute for Research on Children. Williams has written several books on education, including "The Reluctant Reader", "How to Develop Student Creativity", "Educational Psychology" , and "Practical Intelligence for School". This article appeared in the Ithaca Journal on August 8, 2005.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.