By Jessica Kelmon
He isn’t paying attention. Why isn't he paying attention?
It’s ironic: I’m the adult. I should be focused, but this distracted kid’s pulling my attention away from the task at hand. I’m at an East San Jose middle school to report on the secret of this school's success. For the day, I’m shadowing students who exemplify what this school is all about – helping low-income students succeed academically.
Reporting at school
While the rest of the class has their heads bent over a 10-point algebra quiz, this 8th grader, who sits front and center in the classroom, is looking around for something – anything – more interesting. Meanwhile, his page remains blank.
I watch as he vies, repeatedly, for his friend’s attention across the aisle. As part of the school setup, students are seated in pairs to facilitate group work. When they’re meant to work on factoring problems independently, he tries to get the attention of the girl seated next to him by stroking her hair with an eraser, but she expertly ignores him and keeps working. It strikes me that I should do the same – and it makes me marvel at this girl’s wonderful ability to focus despite what I’ll learn is an ongoing distraction issue. And if this boy's constant antics are getting to me, they must be affecting the other kids in class.
The young, sharply dressed math teacher walks discreetly over to the distracted boy, speaking in hushed tones. The child’s response, slightly louder so that I overhear, isn’t what I expect: despite the one-liners he’s been hurling around for the last 30 minutes, he’s not a smart-ass. He’s respectful and shares his plan to get a new notebook (his is currently missing) and start fresh the next trimester (which starts next week). It appears his interest in doing well is sincere. But then, set up with note-taking paper from the teacher, the end result is the same: yet another blank page.
A peek at a problem
With this exchange, I get a glimpse of the very real, very complex problem that teachers face on a daily basis: this student wants to do well, but just can’t seem to get with the program. Whether or not the distraction comes from a diagnosed condition (ADD, ADHD, oppositional defiance, sensory processing, etc.) this child’s inability to focus is impeding his progress. I worry that the only way to help him succeed is to help him conform (ugh) and that if he doesn’t conform, he’ll be left behind – ostracized socially and emotionally by peers who have the skills to stay on task, thinking he’s not smart (or worse), and eventually slipping through the academic cracks.
Reporting throughout the day, I see that the school is keen on helping this boy. I watch his academic aide in social studies. The aide’s impressively unobtrusive, quietly pulling the boy out of class four or five times to correct problematic behavior in the moment. It’s an interesting approach, but makes me wonder just how much of the lesson the student’s actually getting. Perhaps no less than if he sat in class, without the aide, with the same lack of attention he had in math.
The social studies teacher’s eyebrows rise when I say this child’s behavior reminds me of my nephew, who attends a nearby yet more affluent school. There’s an assumption that a school with more resources would do more; but in this case, at least, it’s the opposite: this school is trying harder. And yet I can’t shake the feeling that even with so much effort, it's still not enough to ensure this boy will turn the corner and start succeeding in school.
Days later, I’m still worrying about this child, and my nephew, and all the distracted students in classes across the country. Because it goes way beyond a poor math grade or a negative report card comment – it affects self-esteem, friendships, graduation potential, and job prospects.
It’s an ongoing, nagging thought. And it’s affecting my focus, too.Follow @JessicaKelmon