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Got Behavior Problems in the Classroom?
Call Grandma

April 3, 2008—Of all the issues teachers face in the classroom, behavioral problems seem to top the list of pet peeves. In fact, student misbehavior has raised such a roadblock to academic achievement in some nations that if there were an intervention program to solve the problem, its developers would surely have school administrators beating down their door. And if the program could address a couple of other pressing issues at the same time, most everyone would have to agree that it would be a keeper.

Interestingly, a program studied by researchers from the University of Tennessee could be said to have reached this level of success. The 2003 study looked at how older adults might affect the school behavior patterns of young children, as well as students’ attitudes toward the elderly. The children in this case were 4th-graders.

Using an inner-city school as the laboratory, researchers chose two classes as the control group (who continued classroom instruction in the usual way) while two similar classes participated in an outdoor version of the curriculum alongside volunteer elders from a nearby senior center. The experimental project ran two days a week for four weeks.

The findings? Children who participated in the intergenerational project had significant improvement in attitude scores toward older adults, as well as significant improvement in overall school behavior. The control group did not.

According to the researchers, these findings were not a huge surprise. The first finding, especially, was no more than they expected. "Children's negative attitudes toward elders have often been associated with a lack of positive contact between these two groups," they pointed out.

Of course, simply increasing contact isn’t enough to change existing attitudes in any significant way, since interactions between these groups are not always positive. In fact, recalling past studies, the researchers note that when contact occurs between children and the elderly in nursing homes, negative attitudes typically remain unchanged: seeing older people in nursing homes merely reinforce stereotypes many children have that the elderly can’t participate in fun activities. In fact, children in these studies sometimes express the belief that older people have little to do beyond loving their grandchildren from afar while waiting to die.

Because the elders in the outdoor classroom study were actively engaged in interacting with the students, however, the children saw them as meaningful, positive role models and could imagine being like them someday.

The second finding had multifaceted benefits. "[Behaviorally] at-risk children pose special challenges to school systems already strained with limited budgets," the researchers said. "Research suggests that children with behavioral problems benefit from higher teacher-student ratios, increased adult role models, and non-traditional teaching methods. Higher adult to children ratios can help prevent behavior problems, like school bullying."

The adults from the senior center did, indeed, affect all of these conditions through their participation. They increased the teacher-student ratios, served as role models, and simply by virtue of their presence defined a non-traditional classroom situation, even without considering the outdoor setting.

There were indications that the adults gained something from the experience themselves—although the latter aspect was not rigorously examined: a circumstance the researchers in retrospect viewed as a weakness of the study. Nevertheless, say the researchers, "anecdotal evidence suggests that the elders found their involvement with the children to be highly rewarding."

Other research does tell us that no matter what life stage we may be in, we are happier about ourselves and our lives when we feel we are making a valuable contribution to others. This is one of the reasons people enjoy mentoring, and in fact, the overall health of society depends on something researchers call “generativity,” which refers to the passing down of knowledge and culture from one generation to another.

However, this process becomes interrupted when the generations neglect interacting. Unfortunately, say sociologists, our society is structured in such a way that people are segregated by age groups for most of their day. Children are in school or day-care centers for much of the day, people in mid-life are in workplaces, and the elderly are alone or in retirement communities. Except for brief periods, it seems, we aren’t really interacting with anyone other than peers.

Sociologists Gunhild O. Hagestad and Peter Uhlenberg explored the implications of this kind of segregation in a 2006 study published in Research on Aging. “In our view,” they wrote, “it blocks essential opportunities for individuals to meet, interact, and move beyond ‘us versus them’ distinctions.”

Not only does this interrupt generativity, but each age group is less embedded in society as a whole. When older people aren’t emotionally connected to younger generations, they don’t care as much about contributing to the future well-being of society. Younger people who don’t have important elderly people in their lives don’t care as much about providing the social and financial support required to help those who can no longer provide for themselves as they once could.

Clearly, social networks are strongest when they connect both vertically and horizontally, and it’s not difficult to imagine why the entire social fabric begins to break down when vertical ties are cut between generations. As those in older generations reach the end of their lives, fewer of their friends are left to provide them with emotional support. Younger generations grow up with peers as role models, rather than those who may be older and wiser, and it should not surprise us that their behavior reflects that of their role models.

While there are certainly a variety of pathways to encouraging different generations to spend more time together, the idea of bringing seniors into the classroom is intriguing on many levels. Widespread education budget cuts have put pressure on schools, as well as parents, who must continually be asked to volunteer more time and financial resources to help close the gap. Already overstressed teachers and administrators are short on the support staff needed to address increasing behavioral issues among their students. It’s difficult to imagine a solution more elegant in its simplicity: a program that provides support for teachers while strengthening the community’s social fabric in the process.

Got behavior problems in the classroom?  You might call the local senior center to see whether a few substitute grandmas and grandpas would consider coming to the rescue.  


April 3, 2008

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