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Social justice is on the move in education research and practice!

June 26, 2014

There is a social justice priority in education and mental health research, in strategic plans and in application that has reached that level of penetration where positive results are happening for children!

Social justice involves not only protecting the rights and opportunities of children and families, but also promoting what works in policies and practices that enable these and all children to thrive, to achieve academically and socially. These solution-focused approaches to quality instruction and interventions are paying off in improving the academic and social-emotional outcomes for children in poverty as well as for racial and ethnic groups who frequently have been blocked from learning through de-facto segregation and poor instructional experiences.

The signs are clear: The impact of poverty on education is being looked-at and addressed head-on in many communities. This proactive focus can become more universal if we deploy the resources and best practices to children and communities that are traditionally “left behind.”

For example, many educators, including school psychologists are more actively examining the effectiveness of early childhood in-home visits to improve the vocabulary of Latino toddlers. Vocabulary development is a critical reading readiness skill. Rachel Eisenberg and her Lehigh University team have shown that parent in-home support increases toddler’s language development, replicating the best-practice construct of structured in-home pre-school support for children.

At the NASP 2014 convention in Washington DC earlier this year it was impressive to see so many sessions and poster presentations following a social justice theme. Hundreds of presentations examined and compared actual interventions including ones supporting safe community facilities for exercise, preparing school staff for social skill instruction, finding positive alternatives to address behavior issues and to address the prejudice use of discipline policies. Gone was the traditional focus on deficits or diagnosis. School mental health professionals are playing an active role in developing strength-building systems of service for economically disadvantaged children and others experiencing institutional barriers to learning and wellbeing. One set of studies used the Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study (SEELS) database to examine the disproportionate use of punitive and isolating school discipline practices and policies between Black and White male students (who all qualify for special education services). Additionally, this study examined how punitive and isolating practices and policies may help to explain differences in students’ self-reported levels of academic self-efficacy. This presentation by Gregory Young, Ph.D (Kennedy-Krieger Institute, Johns Hopkins) reconfirms decades of research and data on disproportionality regarding harsh discipline use for Black males. Although this study did not directly look at alternative practices and policies, results support the use of alternative evidence-based strategies for behavioral managing within schools.

Many school systems are now implementing alternatives to suspension and expulsion including restorative justice programs where problem solving replaces punishment (see previous Morning Zen post on the use of “Planning Centers” to replace in-school suspension). These are promising practices that show positive results in reducing behavior problems, increasing attendance and better connecting students to school. 

The NASP convention included a host of energized and dedicated school psychologists, trainers and graduate students providing documentation of studies on interventions, policies and practices directed at addressing the neediest children’s academic and social-emotional learning. The measured impact of prekindergarten was presented with an academic focus. In less than a decade, many more educators and school mental health professionals are focusing on strengths as the tools for teaching and interventions. Click here for more information.

Early interventions, promoting language development in parenting skills and resources can help overcome some of the barriers to learning poverty presents. Rather than seeing these children as “learning disabled,” researchers and practitioners alike are refocusing on prevention as the intervention. Examples abound. The spring symposium of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities focused on the barriers that poverty place on learning and the critical interventions that may remove such barriers. Again the stress was in-home support and early childhood education. Similarly, in a briefing held at the U.S. Capitol on April 30th using the same concept of family and home support, parental coaching and engagement were shown to teach social/emotional and problem solving skills in toddlers. This congressional briefing sponsored by Rep. Susan Davis highlighted the success of social skills education at all levels of child development. This shows that public policymakers recognize both the need for social skill development and the critical value that these skills present to address barriers of poverty. Grant programs and national policies based on best practices can positively change practices, integrating social skills into instruction. 

To quote the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “Two bills that support social and emotional learning have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 113th congressional session. HR 1875 was introduced on May 8, 2013 by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and has garnered bipartisan co-sponsorship. HR 4509 was introduced on April 29, 2014 by Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) with Rep. Tim Ryan as a co-sponsor. Both bills provide strong support for social and emotional learning.” CASEL is following this legislation closely so visit their website to stay informed.

The barriers poverty presents will also require targeted interventions for children and youth who are already falling behind. Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education pushes strongly for a focus on 9th grade. In his op-ed titled: Stop Holding Us Back, (NY Times, June 8, 2014) Balfanz found that there are 660 high schools in 15 states that teach only “poor kids of color” and that account for more than half of the Black males who do not graduate. Targeting resources to effectively address the academic and social/emotional learning needs of these youths when in 9th grade has been shown to increase their graduation rate. Implemented with fidelity and properly resourced these 9th grade academies for all those who we know are “at risk” are successful when compared to failed and costly retention. As Balfanz cautions, “These young men are waving their hands early [by sixth grade] and often to say they need help, but our educational and student support systems aren’t organized to recognize and respond to their distress signals.” Most school systems intervene by retaining those who fail and giving them the same inadequate instructional experience over again. Balfanz acknowledges that early childhood preventive interventions are critical as the research supports but that positive preschool experience must be followed by consistent sound instruction and high expectations. He says that for those who are still falling behind more intensive interventions will succeed. What Balfanz found is that the schools for poor children are not equipped or resourced to meet the challenge. He notes the success of some high schools in 14 urban districts where he has joined with two other non-profits in forming Diplomas Now for addressing the needs of middle school and 9th grade youth, improving attendance and academic learning.

Social justice is blossoming across the nation among professionals, policymakers and community stakeholders. Let’s keep this trend going for the sake of our childen!


dwyerKevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant.  He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children.  He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family focused collaborative child service systems.  During his 30 years as a public school psychologist he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment.  He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children.  In 2007 the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly.  He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award.  In 2000 he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.

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