From Addressing Barriers to Learning,
Vol. 3 (2), Spring 1998

Enabling Learning in the Classroom:
A Primary Mental Health Concern

It seems that the most important influences in the prosocial development of children are the experiences that form the foundation of caring -- receiving nurturance and empathy and being given the opportunities for mastery. Chaskin & Rauner, 1995

Over half my class needs special help!

What's a teacher to do?

For many, when any student is not doing well, the trend is to refer them directly for counseling or for assessment in hopes of referral for special help --perhaps even special education assignment. In some schools and some classrooms, the number of referrals is dramatic. Where special teams have been established to review teacher requests for help, the list grows as the year proceeds. The longer the list, the longer the lag time for review -- often to the point that, by the end of the school year, the team only has reviewed a small percentage of those on the list. And, no matter how many are reviewed, there are always more referrals than can be served.

One solution might be to convince policy makers to fund more services. However, even if the policy climate favored expanding public services, more health and social services alone are not a comprehensive approach for addressing barriers to learning. More services to treat problems certainly are needed. But so are prevention and early-after-onset programs that can reduce the numbers teachers send to review teams.

Why Schools Need an Enabling Component

No one is certain of the exact number of students who require assistance in dealing with the many factors that can interfere with learning and performance. There is consensus, however, that significant barriers are encountered by many, especially those from families that are poor. Schools committed to the success of all children must be designed to enable learning by addressing barriers to learning.

Enabling is defined as "providing with the means or opportunity; making possible, practical, or easy; giving power, capacity, or sanction to." The concept of an enabling component is formulated around the proposition that a comprehensive, multifaceted, integrated continuum of enabling activity is essential in addressing the needs of youngsters who encounter barriers that interfere with their benefitting satisfactorily from instruction.

Turning the concept into practice calls for weaving together school and community resources to address problems experienced by students and their families. Included are programs to promote healthy development and foster positive functioning as the best way to prevent many learning, behavior, emotional, and health problems and as a necessary adjunct to correcting problems. An enabling component encompasses six programmatic areas of activity designed to (1) enhance classroom-based efforts to enable learning, (2) provide prescribed student and family assistance, (3) respond to and prevent crises, (4) support transitions, (5) increase home involvement in schooling, and (6) outreach to develop greater community involvement and support (including recruitment of volunteers).

The concept of an enabling component provides a broad unifying notion around which those concerned with restructuring education support programs and services can rally. At a fundamental policy level, the concept paves the way for understanding that restructuring should encompass three primary and complementary components: instruction/curriculum, enabling, and governance/management. The message for policy makers is:

For school reform to produce desired student outcomes, school and community reformers must expand their vision beyond restructuring instructional and management functions and recognize there is a third primary and essential set of functions involved in enabling teaching and learning.

Adelman, H.S. (1996). Restructuring support services: Toward a comprehensive approach. Kent, OH: American School Health Association.

Adelman, H.S., & Taylor, L. (1997). Addressing barriers to learning: Beyond school-linked services and full service schools. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67, 408-421.

Helping Teachers Assist Identified Students: Classroom-Focused Enabling
When a teacher encounters difficulty with a youngster, a first step is to try addressing the problem in the regular class. This usually means enhancing the teacher's ability to prevent and respond to learning and behavior problems. In developing a school's Enabling Component (see box on p. 2), this area is one of six clusters of programmatic activity and is called Classroom-Focused Enabling.

A key facet of Classroom-Focused Enabling is personalized on-the-job education. The aim is to increase a teacher's array of strategies for working with a wide range of individual differences and creating a caring context for learning. Such strategies include ways to accommodate and also teach students to compensate for differences, vulnerabilities, and disabilities. In this context, special attention is given to targeting how paid assistants, peers, and volunteers are used to enhance social and academic support.

Another aspect of Classroom-Focused Enabling involves restructuring the functions of student support staff so they play a greater role in directly assisting the teacher in the classroom. This calls for redesigning the job descriptions and staff development of resource and itinerant teachers, counselors, and other pupil services personnel so they are able to work closely with teachers and students in the classroom and on regular activities.

Classroom-Focused Enabling requires programs and systems for
  • personalized professional development of teachers and support staff
  • developing the capabilities of paraeducators and other paid assistants, and volunteers.
  • temporary out of class assistance for students
  • expanding resources.
  • (See the survey in the Ideas into Practice.)

    Through a programmatic approach for Classroom-Focused Enabling, teachers increase their ability to address problems as they arise. In turn, this can increase the effectiveness of regular classroom programs, support inclusionary policies, and reduce the need for specialized services.

    A Caring Context for Learning
    From a psychological perspective, it is important that teachers establish a classroom atmosphere that encourages mutual support and caring and creates a sense of community. Such an atmosphere can play a key role in preventing learning, behavior, emotional, and health problems. Learning and teaching are experienced most positively when the learner cares about learning and the teacher cares about teaching.

    Moreover, the whole process benefits greatly when all the participants care about each other.

    Caring has moral, social, and personal facets. And when all facets of caring are present and balanced, they can nurture individuals and facilitate the process of learning. At the same time, caring in all its dimensions should be a major focus of what is taught and learned. That is, the classroom curriculum should encompass a focus on fostering socio-emotional and physical development.

    Caring begins when students (and their families) first arrive at a school. Classrooms and schools can do their job better if students feel they are truly welcome and have a range of social supports.

    A key facet of welcoming encompasses effectively connecting new students with peers and adults who can provide social support and advocacy. On an ongoing basis, caring is best maintained through use of personalized instruction, regular student conferences, activity fostering social and emotional development, and opportunities for students to attain positive status. Efforts to create a caring classroom climate benefit from programs for cooperative learning, peer tutoring, mentoring, advocacy, peer counseling and mediation, human relations, and conflict resolution. Clearly, a myriad of strategies can contribute to students feeling positively connected to the classroom and school.

    Given the importance of home involvement in schooling, attention also must be paid to creating a caring atmosphere for family members. Increased home involvement is more likely if families feel welcome and have access to social support at school. Thus, teachers and other school staff need to establish a program that effectively welcomes and connects families with school staff and other families to generate ongoing social support and greater participation in home involvement efforts.

    Also, just as with students and their families, school staff need to feel truly welcome and socially supported. Rather than leaving this to chance, a caring school develops and institutionalizes a program to welcome and connect new staff with those with whom they will be working. And it does so in ways that effectively incorporates newcomers into the organization. (For more on this, see the Lessons Learned section on pages 10-11.)

    What is a psychological sense of community?

    People can be together without feeling connected or feeling they belong or feeling responsible for a collective vision or mission. At school and in class, a psychological sense of community exists when a critical mass of stakeholders are committed to each other and to the setting's goals and values and exert effort toward the goals and maintaining relationships with each other.

    A perception of community is shaped by daily experiences and probably is best engendered when a person feels welcomed, supported, nurtured, respected, liked, connected in reciprocal relationships with others, and a valued member who is contributing to the collective identity, destiny, and vision. Practically speaking, such feelings seem to arise when a critical mass of participants not only are committed to a collective vision, but also are committed to being and working together in supportive and efficacious ways. That is, a conscientious effort by enough stakeholders associated with a school or class seems necessary for a sense of community to develop and be maintained. Such an effort must ensure effective mechanisms are in place to provide support, promote self-efficacy, and foster positive working relationships.

    There is an obvious relationship between maintaining a sense of community and sustaining morale and minimizing burn out.

    Expanding the Context

    Learning is neither limited to what is formally taught nor to time spent in classrooms. It occurs whenever and wherever the learner interacts with the surrounding environment. All facets of the community (not just the school) provide learning opportunities. Anyone in the community who wants to facilitate learning might be a contributing teacher. This includes aides, volunteers, parents, siblings, peers, mentors in the community, librarians, recreation staff, etc. They all constitute what can be called the teaching community. When a classroom successfully joins with its surrounding community, everyone has the opportunity to learn and to teach.

    Most schools do their job better when they are an integral and positive part of the community. Unfortunately, schools and classrooms often are seen as separate from the community in which they reside. This contributes to a lack of connection between school staff, parents, students, and other community residents and resources. For schools to be seen as an integral part of the community, steps must be taken to create and maintain collaborative partnerships.

    A good place to start is with community volunteers. Greater volunteerism on the part of parents, peers, and others from the community can break down barriers and helps increase home and community involvement in schools and schooling. Thus, a major emphasis in joining with the community is establishment of a program that effectively recruits, screens, trains, and nurtures volunteers. In addition, we all must work toward increased use of school sites as places where parents, families, and other community residents can engage in learning, recreation, enrichment, and find services they need.

    Teachers Working and Learning Together in Caring Ways

    Increasingly, it is becoming evident that teachers need to work closely with other teachers and school personnel, as well as with parents, professionals-in-training, volunteers, and so forth. Collaboration and teaming are key facets of addressing barriers to learning. They allow teachers to broaden the resources and strategies available in and out of the classroom to enhance learning and performance.

    As Hargreaves (1984) cogently notes, the way to relieve "the uncertainty and open-endedness" that characterizes classroom teaching is to create

    communities of colleagues who work collabor-atively [in cultures of shared learning and positive risk-taking] to set their own professional limits and standards, while still remaining committed to continuous improvement. Such communities can also bring together the professional and personal lives of teachers in a way that supports growth and allows problems to be discussed without fear of disapproval or punishment.

    Collaboration and collegiality are fundamental to morale and work satisfaction and to transforming classrooms into caring contexts for learning. Collegiality, however, cannot be demanded. As Hargreaves stresses, when collegiality is mandated, it can produce what is called contrived collegiality which tends to breed inflexibility and inefficiency. Contrived collegiality is compulsory, implement-ation-oriented, regulated administratively, fixed in time and space, and predictable. In contrast, collaborative cultures foster working relationships which are voluntary, development-oriented, spontaneous, pervasive across time and space, and unpredictable.

    In many ways, the success of Classroom-Focused Enabling depends on the school's ability to organize itself into a learning community that personalizes inservice teacher education. Such "organizational learning" requires an organizational structure

    `where people continually expand their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision and improve shared mental models' [Senge, 1990] by. engaging in different tasks, acquiring different kinds of expertise, experiencing and expressing different forms of leadership, confronting uncomfortable organizational truths, and searching together for shared solutions (Hargreaves, 1994).

    Finally, we all must acknowledge that problems related to working relationships are a given -- even in a caring environment. A common example that arises in such situations is rescue dynamics. These dynamics occur when caring and helping go astray, when those helping become frustrated and angry because those being helped don't respond in desired ways or seem not to be trying. To minimize such dynamics, it is important for all concerned to understand interpersonal dynamics and barriers to working relationships and for sites to establish effective problem solving mechanisms to eliminate or at least minimize such problems.

    Additional discussion of working relationships is available in several works prepared by our center. (As noted on p.3 of this newsletter, some of these works are already or soon will be accessible through the Internet.)

    Some Relevant References

    Chaskin, R.J. & Rauner, D.M. (eds.) Youth and caring. A special section of the May 1995 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan.

    Fowler, R.C., & Corley, K.K. (1996). Linking families, building communities. Educational Leadership, 53, 24-26.

    Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teachers' work and culture in the postmodern age. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Kruse, S. & Louis, K.S. (1995). Teacher teaming -- opportunities and dilemmas. Brief to Principals, No. 11. Published by the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, Univ. of Wisconsin, 1025 W. Johnson St., Madison, WI 53706.

    Sarason, S. (1996). Revisiting "The culture of school and the problem of change." New York: Teachers College Press.

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