For the bulk of her career, Lavonda Thompson, a 48-year old bus driver and school custodian in Hartsville, S.C., never questioned either her role or the larger system she was serving. “My job was to drive the bus and clean the buildings,” she said. “The child’s job was to act respectful and follow directions.”
Today, however, Thompson and her fellow drivers understand they are uniquely positioned to play important roles in children’s experience of school, beyond getting them there and back home safely. As the literal transition guides between home and school life — and the first and last adults with whom children interact before and after school each day — bus drivers can help recognize how children are faring emotionally, respond to behavior problems in thoughtful ways and set a welcoming tone for the day.
Recent research in fields ranging from developmental psychology to neuroscience has confirmed that optimal learning environments require a safe and welcoming space for children, a sense of belonging, and an emphasis on forming healthy relationships. Yet there are many other adults beyond teachers who regularly interact with children — and who are often overlooked as potential contributors to the educational mission.
Take Hartsville. Until recently, no one there had ever asked Thompson or her colleagues what they noticed about their child passengers on the bus, or thought to connect their observations to the behavior teachers might witness in the classroom. Moreover, while Hartsville’s teachers were expected to be knowledgeable about their students’ academic standing, they were not expected to be attuned to their psychological states.
That began to change in 2011, when the community announced a five-year plan to transform its elementary schools. It partnered with Yale University’s School Development Program, which helps schools identify and meet the developmental needs of children. It began to evaluate its schools by a broader set of measurements – including the number of disciplinary referrals a bus driver had to write each morning. And it started to coordinate its social services to ensure a more equitable set of support structures for Hartsville’s poorest families.
Hartsville is a town of 8,000 residents, evenly divided between black and white, and unevenly distributed across both social class and five square miles in an arbitrary maze of winding streets and subdivisions. It is also the subject of an upcoming documentary film on PBS (I am one of its producers), which chronicles Hartsville’s efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty on children and their families by strengthening the quality of its neighborhood schools.
The connective tissue of those efforts is a communitywide focus on development. “Healthy development in school occurs when children form positive relationships with adults,” explained Dr. James P. Comer, who founded the Yale program more than 40 years ago. “For meaningful change to be sustainable, you need a work force of professionals that really understands child development, and you need policies that incentivize the behaviors that rely on that sort of expertise. Poverty is a disease that affects a community, and we can’t heal a community in isolation. We have to heal the whole thing by creating an ecosystem of folks on the ground.”
Across America, more than 16 million children — slightly more than one in five — now live in poverty. And in communities like Hartsville, the need for a healthier social ecosystem is acute.
Although it has pockets of privilege, Hartsville also has large areas in which poverty is the norm; more than 70 percent of the town’s elementary school children receive free or reduced-price lunches. And although we often hear about a general crisis in education, the reality is that American schools with less than a 10 percent poverty rate rank first in the world in science and reading, and fifth in math, on the PISA exam, a triennial international survey of 15-year-olds. By contrast, American schools in which more than half the students live in poverty score well below average in all areas.
This clear connection between the percentage of children living in poverty and a school’s overall ranking is not just a cause for concern. It is also an opportunity to think more holistically about the needs of children. As Sara B. Johnson and others wrote in a February 2013 article for Pediatrics: “The fact that early environments shape and calibrate the functioning of biological systems very early in life is both a cautionary tale about overlooking critical periods in development and reason for optimism about the promise of intervention. Even in the most extreme cases of adversity, well-timed changes to children’s environments can improve outcomes.”
When Comer and his team conducted their initial environmental analysis of Hartsville’s schools in 2011, they noticed a pattern. “In our conversations, lots of people raised concerns about the bus,” he said. “Kids would come into school revved up because of things that happened there, and there were an alarmingly high number of bus referrals. So we made it a goal to include the buses as a key part of the overall solution.” In doing so, he said, “we identified two things that were missing: first, there wasn’t a real relationship between the drivers and the school; and second, the drivers didn’t have any training on how to deal with children or families — the only training they’d received was how to drive a bus.”
In response, staff members from the district and the program organized a series of two-hour training sessions for the drivers, which they spread over two years. They provided basic information about the developmental pathways along which kids develop, and suggested constructive ways to interact with students and parents (for example: speak to every child every day, learn everyone’s name, and try to build relationships with the children and their parents). “The goal was to make the drivers feel like a valuable part of the whole picture, and to help them start asking for the behavior they did want, instead of talking about the behavior they didn’t.”
They also reviewed the bus referral form itself. “It listed 48 possible infractions — and no rules,” said Camille Cooper, who directs the programs’s learning, teaching and development initiatives. “If you’ve got tons of referrals but no rules, the expectations for the kids were not being clearly communicated.”
So the drivers honed in on the behaviors they thought were most important. They continued to explore strategies for better communication between the children and their families. And they reduced what had been a long list of opaque infractions into a short list of five rules, which ranged from the mundane (staying seated) to the aspirational (treating one another with respect).
Cooper also worked with Hartsville’s elementary school principals to help them strengthen their bonds with the drivers. “I’d never worked with the bus drivers in any capacity before,” said Tara King, the principal at West Hartsville Elementary School. “There was never any relationship there, let alone a professional development opportunity. But when we started looking at bus discipline across the district, we saw how high it was — higher even than the in-school referrals — even though kids were spending a lot less time on the bus than in school.”
King mentioned a fifth grade student, Rashon Johnson, who had benefited from the new coordinated approach in Hartsville’s schools. and whose experience figures in the PBS documentary. Rashon’s mother was raising three children alone, working 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in two minimum-wage jobs. The impact of her absence had begun to show in Rashon’s behavior at school, prompting King to worry about the boy’s prospects for advancing to sixth grade.
The bus program was redesigned in large measure to ensure that a child like Rashon begins his day with supportive, rather than punitive, interactions with adults. For King, this is mission critical. “If you don’t address a child’s emotional needs, he won’t learn,” she said.
After school hours presented another opportunity to deepen relationships. King signed Rashon up for Boy Scouts and enrolled him in the Boys & Girls club.
Within school hours, the School Development Program’s work focuses on helping teachers, district and support staff — from principals to cafeteria workers – take the initiative in identifying children at risk, in part by developing a shared language about what the children face and how they are likely to react developmentally. This is a major departure from the old approach — typically waiting for behavioral problems to occur and then reacting to them.
The results are promising. At the end of the 2013-14 school year, disciplinary referrals had dropped by 71 percent as academic achievement rose. And King had the pleasure of watching Rashon walk across the stage to receive his fifth-grade diploma.
“What we’ve done is change the thinking from punishing bad behavior to supporting appropriate behavior,” King explained. “That has allowed our teachers to spend more time on instruction. And it’s allowed all of us to start engaging with the kids in more constructive ways.”
James Comer has based his career on that formula. “Learning is still widely thought of as this isolated, mechanical cognitive operation that children can either engage in or reject. But it has been our repeated experience that when you increase the developmental knowledge and behavior of adults, the behavioral and learning challenges of children begin to disappear.”
Lavonda Thompson agrees. “That’s what I took from this – just taking into consideration at times what could be going on with them, instead of just thinking this is a bad kid.
“You have to understand the environment they’re growing up in. Now I understand I need to explain to kids why I’m asking them something. I don’t get as upset with them now as I used to — I used to be more of a yeller — and I don’t do a whole lot of write-ups.
“I talk to the parents instead. And when the children want to talk, I listen.”
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Sam Chaltain writes about American public education. He is the author or co-author of six books, including Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice, and a co-producer of the PBS documentary film 180 Days: Hartsville.