Why Some Kids Just Can’t Learn

October 11, 2013

“No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”

*David O. McKay* President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1873-1970

When I started my teaching career as a substitute with the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1989,  and I took jobs in some of the toughest inner-city schools in that area. I have worked in decaying schools where learning where criminality was the code and learning drew only contempt from juvenile gangsters.

Things are different in Colorado.  There is little crime.  Bad teachers usually get fired and schools are generally safe.  As one principal put it, “We have what I would call Western values out here. Teachers really care. They want to do the best job possible.”  And, for the most part, he is right.

But even in this little corner of conservative values and God’s crowning creations there is a hidden menace that has been stalking our schools for decades.  It is a malady that affects every district in the country. It has the potential to cripple our public schools, especially our Special Education programs.  It is not a new problem, but it has been developing and seething under the public radar for many years now.  My guess is that almost every classroom teacher in the country has been effected directly, or indirectly, by this blight.  It disrupts learning across the board, blows apart classrooms, and has yet to be honestly or realistically addressed.  It is the dilemma presented by students who have an “environmentally induced behavior disorder.” I made that up, but I am well traveled in the labyrinth of educational acronyms, and there will be many, many educators who know exactly the kiddos of whom I speak.

By “environmentally induced behavior disorder,” (EIBD) I don’t mean kids that have been exposed to mercury in the local landfill, lead in the paint, benzene in the water, or radon in the romper room.  I mean children who are coming to school with severe, sometimes unmanageable, behaviors, who have no underlying cause such as a mental illness or a personality disorder.  It is the home environment that is destroying these kids; their ability to learn, get along with others, problem-solve, and regulate their own emotions.

These kiddos are usually children who have no organic or genetic malfunction which cause disordered behavior.  They are usually physically normal.  These are the kids whose family life is volatile and stress-filled, whose parents fail to care for them, keep them safe, or provide even minimum structure for their lives.  These are those students who are often abused, physically, sexually, emotionally, or all of the above.  They may be kids who have no stable home. Their parents lack the skills or the will to find stable work, or overcome substance addictions.  These kids may have little or no time with one or both biological parents.  They may be fostered, placed in the homes of relatives or grandparents, or all of the above.  These kids are so stressed, fearful and unsure that they lack any framework for emotional self-regulation.

Students who manifest the symptoms of an “environmentally induced behavior disorder” are not segregated by race, region, socio-economic class, or learning styles.  Almost every school, in every part of the United States has a population of kids who fit this profile.  And the numbers are growing.

The dirty big secret is that these children are ending up in the Special Education system, either by default or by process, because they are so disruptive and dysfunctional in the general education classroom. Their academic achievements are so impacted by their social/emotional issues that they appear to have organic learning disabilities, or mental illness, or both. Special education professionals end up tracking and servicing these students at a very high cost to the tax-payer vis a vis school funding. Children in SpEd may have up to 7 or 8 service providers for their case. The onus almost always falls on the school and educational professionals to provide structure, safety, and social modeling where parents so often fail. The children of whom I speak are the monster children of monster parents.

General social decline has been like a snowball that has picked up everything in its path, plunging downhill demolishing individuals, families, and institutions. This is the flotsam and jetsam left by decades of women’s lib, sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, if it feels good, do it, and unrestricted sexuality.  Generations X and Y are begetting generation Z for zero; children who are ciphers, cast aside by parents who are too selfish, addicted, or numb to take care of their offspring.

The public school system has no mechanism with which to hold parents accountable. Private and charter schools may opt to have parent-school contractual relationships. But typical public schools traditionally are either too PC, or too overburdened to add another layer of tracking and liability to their already momentous tasks. Children with EIBD show up in declining achievement scores, disorderly and violent campuses, and ultimately, in group homes, jails, and rehab.

The answer to this educational problem is easy.

It will take a cultural sea change and decades if America is to restore its social and educational foundations. But until the very real and intractable problem of children who have been emotionally, physically, and psychologically hurt and thereby, socially and academically shattered, is dealt with as a parenting problem and not an educational problem, there will be no improvement in the sad state of our public schools.

by Marjorie Haun  10/11/13

  1. Jennifer

    I could not agree with you more. I saw it during my brief few years as a middle school teacher 25 years ago, and later in my foster children, and the children we adopted. The schools are being overwhelmed by this social problem. This why the idea of merit pay for teachers seems insane to me. Until we change our culture, there is only so much even the best, most dedicated teachers can do, and it won’t be enough. You, as a teacher who obviously cares about her students and their education, have my great admiration.

    • Reagangirl

      Thank you. You’re right, educational problems will never be solved until the family is encouraged and sustained as the central unit of a moral society. It is heartbreaking because many of these children cannot be helped by outside sources when the parents are so incorrigible in their dysfunctional behaviors.

  2. RickTheLDSRocker

    At first I thought EIB D was something Rush Limbaugh caused. I am very happy to see he has nothing to do with it.

    Its interesting that the philosophy of “if it feels good-do it” has serious consequences. That philosophy was not and is not hard to spread because its core is selfishness.

    I can only imagine your frustration as a teacher and mom.

    Very insightful article.

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