by Julia Steiny
Dr. James Comer is a rock star in my world, with sterling credentials and a great personal story. He started as a doctor delivering babies in the middle of the night, and went on to become a Master of Public Health and one of the nation’s leading psychiatrists, home-based at Yale Medical School.
But he’s most famous for inventing “Comer-model” schools, which first and foremost address children’s developmental needs. Otherwise, academics are just water sliding through the sieve that is a child’s unmet developmental needs.
My kind of guy.
Recently I caught his lecture at Brown University, where he vehemently asserted what only a man with his cred can assert.
“No child is born interested in academic learning. Their preparation in life is what helps them get interested in academics.”
If kids’ families don’t hold them to high expectations with loving support, schools have to. Period. He adds, “Poor children lack social capital. (A healthy, warm adult context.) So why not create schools that provide the environment they need?”
Great question. Answer: that’s not what public schools were designed to do. They’re supposed to teach math and social studies, so educators tend to resent feeling pressured to help make up for kids’ social deficits. While understandable, what are we going to do about the legion of kids arriving at the schoolhouse door who are angry, uncivilized, and raised in chaotic households without strong attachments to reasonably-functioning adults?
Schools were never organized to help them. So these kids cause trouble. Teachers have standardized tests bearing down from one side and rude kids raised by TVs on the other.
But the over 1,000 schools currently using the Comer method — with great results — argue that paying attention to kids’ needs puts kids and schools on more successful paths.
Comer’s parents barely had sixth-grade educations. His mother’s abusive step father wouldn’t let her go to school, so she vowed that if she had children, they’d all get a great education. In fact, her five boys all became professionals.
Comer and three friends grew up together in a shabby East Chicago ‘hood, each as poor as the other. “We thrived in that environment,” until school increasingly divided their fates. Teachers loved little James and his polite, love-rich upbringing — the other three, not so much.
“My mother could barely read, but every Sunday she’d read the funnies to us. It wasn’t great literature, but what mattered was the caring and closeness. My parents’ transmitted their values in every little thing.
“My three friends were just as bright as me, but they came from marginal social networks. They didn’t have my advantages, (including church). They were intimidated by mainstream institutions like schools. They didn’t receive what they needed at home or at school. That was a huge problem then and a HUGE problem now.”
Comer is a vital 70-something; his friends are dead of alcohol, mental illness and prison.
The friends got indifferent parenting. The schools didn’t help. Conversely, Comer’s parents had high expectations coupled with generous affection. Comer showed slides demonstrating how affectionate attachment powers up a young brain. “For two decades, neuroscience has shown that the brain works like building a house. The early conditions create a foundation on which the subsequent learning is built.”
How can kids learn if they didn’t get the loving basics?
Comer argues they can’t. But warm, trusting relationships with teachers can get them invested in learning. Kids care about learning when the adults in their context care about them. “We know what to do to help children perform at high levels, but we’re NOT DOING IT.”
He relates this example, “A new kid, 8 years old, was yanked from a warm home and stuck in a New Hampshire school. (A custody issue.) A frustrated teacher gestured in a way that the child read as rejection. So he kicked her in the leg and ran. I thought that was a very healthy reaction. The teacher did not.”
Teachers often take personally the misguided behavior of distressed kids. In such circumstances, Comer-school adults ask: What does this child need? Social-support teams support both kids and teachers. The teaching-and-learning relationship has to be primary, effective, even intimate. Or you get the sieve effect.
He says, “We have to train teachers very differently. Teaching is one of the most complicated, frustrating things you can do. It’s an intense relationship. So we have to figure out how to help teachers handle these relationship. We have to partner with teacher preparation to recruit and train new ways of thinking.”
The academics are gravy if kids’ needs for belonging are met. Schools are best positioned to teach parents effective communication and how to discipline kindly. Crummy parents were probably badly-parented themselves. But that’s no reason to take it out on the kids.
Comer’s totally right that academics have to come second. First give the kid a shot at some sort of life success.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.