It’s Time To Do What It Takes

Let me tell you a story.

I have a patient.  Let’s call her Alex.  Alex is 7 years old and she’s in Kindergarten at an SISD elementary school.  She has attention deficit disorder and anxiety.  This has led to a lot of behavior problems at school.  Her home situation is chaotic to say the least.  Alex’s dad is not consistently “in the picture”.  Her mom is busy with her job at a local healthcare facility and also with raising Alex’s siblings.  As a result, she is not home as much as she would like, leaving Alex in the care of her grandmother and various other relatives.

Prior to when she began coming to see me, Alex had a violent outburst that resulted in a psychiatric hospital stay.  At that time, she was placed on an anti-psychotic medication.  As a result, on many days, she falls asleep at her desk.  On days when she is awake, she acts out in class, hitting other students and verbally abusing the teacher.  A few months ago, Alex’s behavior at school began to significantly worsen.  Because of the family’s low income, her insurance is through the Texas Medicaid Program.  This means doctors are hard to find, especially psychiatric doctors.  My attempts to adjust her medications did not help her behavior-instead she continued to worsen.

As an attempt to try and come up with some novel solutions, I made a housecall and met with the family and had them take me through a typical day for Alex.  It turns out that after school, both Alex’s mom and grandmother are working.  So instead of going home, she goes to the home of her grandfather, who lives with another male relative.  Unfortunately, that male relative had sexually abused Alex a couple of years earlier.

So Alex has to spend some time each day in the home where she was abused in the past and in the presence of the abuser.  Suddenly the spiraling anxiety and out-of-control behavior start to make a lot more sense.

What’s the point of this story?  The point is that this is not an isolated incident.  As a pediatrician, I see kids like Alex every day.  Perhaps a parent is in jail, or just absent.  Perhaps a parent has a mental health or substance abuse problem.  Or both.  Perhaps the parent is working two or three jobs to provide a meal and housing.  Perhaps they are homeless.  In Seguin ISD, about two-thirds of the students are poor.  And this population has much higher rates of housing instability, food insecurity, mental health problems, substance abuse problems, single parent households, incarceration, truancy, you name it.  And we are not, as a district nor as a community, dealing with this reality.  As I said, I see kids like Alex every day.  That’s my job.  But Alex’s teachers see kids like her every day too.   And they feel helpless because they feel they have no tools to help.

THAT is why our schools continue to struggle.  We have no universal preschool.  No free before-school or after-school programs for kids whose parents work.  We provide no consistent social work services on our campuses.  There are no mental health services.  We don’t provide any extra transportation services for kids who live within 2 miles of their school.  There is no partnership between SISD and employers to allow parents to interact with school personnel while at work.

This has been the case for decades and this, at bottom, is why we continue to be low-performing, failing to educate large numbers of our children.  Historically, the answer has been “that’s not our job.”  And perhaps that’s right.  But unless we MAKE it our job, we are never going to be successful.  We have a long history of blaming the parents.  In some cases, perhaps they deserve blame.  In other cases, they most certainly do not.  But regardless, blaming them isn’t going to fix our problems.

It is time for us to adopt a far more expansive definition of what it means to educate our children.  We need, certainly, to teach them to read, and write, and do math, and all those other things that are the schools’ “job”.  But most importantly, we also need to teach them that we care.  That means we need to go above and beyond.  That’s what districts that are successful with populations like ours do.  That’s what communities, civic leaders, faith leaders, and employers that really care about their kids do.  It’s time for us to get with that program.  Until then, we are going to continue to fail kids like Alex.  And that’s not right.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

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7 thoughts on “It’s Time To Do What It Takes

  1. Dr. Stephens,
    Thank you for this article! This is exactly how I have felt the last several years. After 28 years of teaching in this district that I loved (and still do), I retired. I felt the same frustration you speak of in your article. Many teachers felt at a loss for getting the help for the students that needed it so badly. We also knew the lack of funding is part of this ongoing problem. It is heartbreaking to watch your students struggle to learn because of situations at their home. How can you expect children to learn when their lives are full of turmoil? We do NOT have adequate services to deal with these severe situations.
    I appreciate your service to your profession and have heard very positive things about how you coach your parents.
    We HAVE to start networking in our community to see success again. I worked with so many dedicated educators in SISD for all those years and I know the passion most of them have for their job. Even with all the unrest in this district right now, it’s the teachers who are going to school and trying to make a difference in the lives of these babies every day.
    As they say, it takes a village to raise a child! I’m ready to be a part of this change. When are we getting started and it needs to start ASAP!

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  2. Dr. Stephens,
    I have just a few things to say. First I would like to repeat that Seguin is so very fortunate in having someone who demonstrates their care and concern in such an effective way. My professional career has been centered on students with special needs. You are so absolutely correct. Unfortunately, as you said your story is repeated in so many different ways. This is not a single event. These children need our attention and work. They also need resources that are often times expensive. Thank you Dr. Stephens your hard work is greatly appreciated.

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  3. This is a prime example of the magnitude of the problem for 1 family. There is so much need for additional support for so many of our students who have an unstable homelife, are hungry, in need of after school activities to compliment and augment their school experience. We have so much evidence that educational attainment is correlated with health of an individual and has an influence on so many other aspects of life. We need a concerted effort now to raise the level of all our students, not just tge ones who have family support. It will take all of us. I include an excellent program I heard about today that teduced teen drug use.
    http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/03/09/iceland-teen-substance-abuse

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  4. Send me “Alex” we specialize in exactly what her factors entail. Seguin YouthServices is free it’s been proven successful in helping students succeed at school, offering safe activities from 4-7 every day, providing life skills and self esteem programs to show immediate improvement in our students. Our staff work with admin and teachers to help coordinate the school/family relationships. We teach parents how to utilize online academic information. We build strong families. Use us! We have been here for 22 years in Seguin Texas. Communities across the state envy our program and have asked that we help them do the same. But Seguin is our heart. Jump in and help. Send me “Alex” and every other Alex you have. I can’t wait to show you what we hot’

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