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Behavior Modification: Take Two, Consistency

Last time I discussed the cons of behavior modification. This time I am approaching it from the other side. When are behavior modification techniques worth it?

The first thing to keep in mind is that you must be consistent. If you waver at all, you're toast. Children are like lawyers in training. They look for the one loophole or chink in the armor, and they then try to exploit it for what it's worth. Exploiting usually means giving them something they want (even though you know better) or trying to catch you during a vulnerable moment. Just remember, you know what's best. I always urge parents to cultivate and listen to that little voice inside of them that tells you what is and is not appropriate, or a kind of parents' version of Jiminy Cricket. It's your conscience, of course.

If your conscience says, "No matter how much they beg to stay up a little later to finish that television program, you know that they will be absolute monsters without a full ten hours of sleep." Encouraging and hearing that parental voice will be important in making behavior modification work for you.

Take my son for instance: He has a very litigious mind, for a seven year old. Although he's only in the first grade, he knows that he can wear his Mom down if he keeps asking the question over and over again, rephrasing every so often to get the most out of his query. He's Perry Mason and Matlock all rolled into one.

"Can I please? Can I, huh? Yesterday, you told me I could. But you said…"

The latest battle is about being rough with the dog. We have a ten-month old labradoodle (yep, that's a breed) named Hershey who is taking all sorts of loving punishment from this very sweet and well meaning tyrant known as my son. I just don't want the dog to be loved to death. 

A typical conversation between he and his mother might be:

"I am being gentle!"

"Pulling the dog's tail to get his attention is not being gentle. If you do it again, you're getting a timeout."

Even after the fifth or twentieth timeout, reason or punishment doesn't seem to make the situation any better. Behavior modification to the rescue. My wife rolls out the arts and crafts paper to draw up the obligatory signage for what can and can't be done and what will and won't be taken away. 

"Four checks mean you have been caught being gentle with the dog and you get to play a computer game. Four zeros means just the opposite; no computer games and a loss of television privileges, which amounts to two hours on the weekend."

From my office I hear all of this go down and I just know that I'll get dragged in the middle somehow.

The initial novelty of the behavior mod game works. Immediately, for a day or so, loving strokes on the brown fuzzy back abounds. No more yelling, no more tears. Mom is happy. I, remembering what I wrote in my previous column, am ready to get out the salt, pepper, and ketchup to eat a little crow. Behavior modification seems to work.

Well, hold on. Now I get initiated into this endeavor, which means the entire thing goes to Hades in a hand basket because I never signed up to be a UN Peace Keeper between the nations of dog, Mom, and boy. Granted, I don't like the loving torment aimed at our new pouch, but Hershey's young and quick with very sharp teeth, I figure he can take care of himself.

Well, there I go again, as Ronnie might say. I am dragged back into the fray with awful results. When my wife is at work on the weekends and I am Mr. Mom, I don't know where the behavior mod sheet is kept and my son conveniently forgets. One day gets completely subverted because her system is either lost, stolen, or just plain incomprehensible to me. 

My bad, I say when she comes home, which means that I could not keep the reward and punishment plates spinning long enough to keep it all going. I either have no nerve or am a closet anarchist. The system fails because we are not consistent.

In some ways, behavior modification programs are like a New Year's diet and exercise regime. It may work for a little bit, but come Valentine's Day, you're staring at that box of chocolates like they were your last, best friend. 

Make reason the partner in disciplining your children. We should no more treat our children the same than we would eat that last piece of chocolate at the very bottom of the double-decker, heart-shaped box. Yes, you might end up doing it anyway, but you know it's not going to be all that appealing. 

Indeed, I would urge everyone to enter into a conversation with your children about everything, not just discipline. It certainly does not have to be some democracy. No, no, no, no, and no. But your children are pretty savvy folks. Remember, they came from you. Go ahead, talk to them about anything, even their punishments and rewards.

You never know what you're gonna get-in the end.

© 2002 by Brian W. Thomas

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Behavior Modification: Does It Work?

You hear often that there is a time and place for everything.

I see it at my local warehouse-type grocery store all the time. Some child behaving badly and a parent promising to buy the little darling a treat if they "can just keep it together until we get to the car." Many parents even have the system worked out ahead of time with poker chips, check marks, or even money as the prize for good behavior. Of course, bad behavior means the loss of the same "dear": item and the bountiful harvest that waits.

Some parents are on to the faulty logic, realizing that some of the techniques they use to manage their children's lives no longer work anymore after some unseen milestone or over time.

Yet, can behavior modification work at all when trying to instill good habits or attempting to break bad ones?

In my humble estimation, "No!" I have certainly used behavior modification with my own children and even in some schools that I have worked at as their standard policy. I have seen great gains with behavior modification with small children to get them to read, practice piano, or take out the garbage. However, behavior modification fails as a standalone training method with children because of what it suggests.

Before we get to the suggestion part, let's look at the places in which I have seen behavior modification work. A friend of mine gives his six-year old son a quarter every time he looks a new friendly acquaintance in the eye, usually someone from his church, shakes hands, and says hello. So, the drill might look like this: Little Tommy comes over to a visiting Pastor McCready, staring right into the old reverends peepers, and bellows, "Fine sermon Reverend. Thank you for coming."

Now, don't misunderstand, it's important for children to be "raised right." Eye contact and a proper greeting may be one of the more important things that you can teach a child. It may even dramatically improve civility in Western Civilization. However, what I am suggesting here is that the good reverend just became a quarter on its way to a nice model train engine from the local hobby shop. Now, it doesn't mean that Tommy will always see his new friends as dollar signs, but the odds aren't so good. It's like having a stereotypical stage mother (or parent, to be politically correct) as your guide where almost everything is done to please someone else and where people are seen as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

There may be people who would argue differently with me, and I'm willing to take them on. Behavior modification (checklists, marbles, money, chips, etc.) offers a temporary stopgap to reasoning. As training it is least effective for teaching the true value of people and things because children do, because they know they will "get" something in return rather than for the intrinsic value of a thing. That's why good grades and test scores may get you into college, but it will not make you a true learner or a person who is naturally curious.

Like my good friend, you may very well get respectful kids, but it's always done at a price.

If a child is rude, they need to know that being rude is not cool. Should they lose things for bad behavior? You betcha!! A child should not be rewarded for awfulness. However, should the technique of gaining and losing things become ingrained by bribes and punishments? Probably not. 

Making your child see the importance of what's valuable to you, rather than getting him or her to win or lose at things, is they key ingredient in this recipe.

© 2002 by Brian W. Thomas

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Right Decisions
by Brian Thomas

How does a person know that he or she has made a good decision? Bad decisions seem to abound not only in our lives, but also in the lives of the children that we love. Mark Twain is credited with saying, "Good decisions come from bad decisions, which lead to good decisions."

For those of you who know me know that I turned 40 about three weeks ago. I have been trying to stay as active as I can, especially given the breakneck pace that I keep-coaching varsity baseball, being an assistant school head, a Master's Degree class every Monday night, father and husband, as well as trying to get at least some sleep occasionally to offset that loopy stare one gets during sleep deprivation. 

Yet, I wouldn't have it any other way. I noticed that I didn't have enough to do, so I began playing men's baseball after a season's hiatus. A friend of mine in the Bay Area calls it Men's Little League. Today was the first game. I do the things that everyone should before beginning any rigorous activity; I eat a burrito and haul around 45 pounds of gear, which is the equivalent of a five-year old strapped to my back. Carrying around a little extra weight shouldn't be that big of an issue, right? I have seen women in the mall lugging around toddlers the size of Barry Bonds on their hips. I certainly can clean and jerk a little old bag of catcher's equipment and a stash of two-year old Milky Way Bars about 200 feet to the dugout.

Well, I arrive before the pitcher starts his warm-up tosses, and I feel my left side ache like I have just been kicked in the ribs by Frances the Talking Mule. You guessed it, I ripped some muscle before "play ball" was even barked out by the ump. Great decision!

What does any of this have to do with books? Very little to be honest. It's all about aging, if anything. Aging is one of the few things that we all do regardless of what tends to divide us as people.  We see or saw our parents as their body change (thank you, Bonnie Raitt) and we feel our own lives alter and even fade a bit every time a milestone is passed. 

Should I take more precautions to prevent the onset of the inevitable? Maybe. Is there a magic pill that can bring back old hair or lost virility? Yes, but why? All I know is that the decisions that give me the most pleasure are simple. They have to do with seeing the smile on my wife's face when I do some incredible deed that I didn't know would bring happiness (like folding the laundry) or the laughter of my children when I read a book where they actually get the jokes. Good decisions; it's in the way that you use them, I guess."

© 2002 by Brian W. Thomas

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Our History, Our Heritage
by Brian Thomas

True discourse or lock step? That is the question that courses through the currents in black history.

From 15-second commercials meant to highlight our achievements to Black History Month school pageants going on across the country this month, the history of Africans in America has received only cursory treatment. Seeing our history as a counter to the themes, aesthetics and heroes of white European-centered history tends to screech rather than shout.

Certainly looking at what professor James Banks at the University of Washington calls multicultural education -- the stories of marginalized people in the United States and the world -- is one of the most significant advances in the past two decades.

But nowhere do I see history being shown and celebrated with much depth and detail. After the Black Arts movement of the '60s, spurred on by Amiri Baraka, an African American poet and activist, and moving on to the Million Man March exhortations of the past decade, black America has suffered from a narrow view of what constitutes being African and American. Certainly brothers Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard professors -- at least for the time being -- have told us being academic and nappy holds a great many pitfalls.

Bob Marley's plaintive lament, "If you know your history, then you know where you're coming from," isn't being played out with much real attention and substance these days as Africans meld into the larger society. But do you know your history?

At a talk at Portland State University almost two years ago, Gates spoke about what it means to critique other folks of color. He was criticized for his PBS series "Wonders of the African World" in which he "exposes" the African role in the slave trade. Gates pulls no punches in saying some Africans captured other vanquished tribes in battle, thereby beginning the pernicious system, and sold them -- men, women, and children -- into slavery to whites.

In tackling the role of Africans in the slave trade, Gates' critics claim he gives the European racist agenda more fuel to absolve whites for African slavery. Many of his critics stood ready to shout him down, leaving us with a legend ladened Frederick Douglass-George Washington Carver-Martin Luther King, Jr. look at ourselves or a "Happy Month Black Man" sort of celebration of heroes and sheroes. Certainly there's nothing wrong with that, but aren't we about more than that?

The debate in some circles overshadowed the tremendous work being done to give the world a growing history of Africans in the Diaspora -- the regions of the world where people of African descent live as a direct result of the slave trade.

Gates and his colleagues have come up with a kind of African World Book Encyclopedia; they actually liken the Encarta Africana, an encyclopedia that aims to gather knowledge of all things African, to the Encyclopedia Judaica, which served to unite the Jewish world in terms of information and pride at the start of the past century. I prefer the World Book Encyclopedia comparison.

For many lower-middle class black folks who rose to prominence during the'50s,'60s, and'70s, the World Book Encyclopedia was the most important thing we ever owned. In many respects it gave black people without many books a ticket to the world. Learning about trains, butterflies, the route of the Ganges River or a host of other things opened up a kind of world literacy, albeit mostly white and Disney-fied. Encyclopedias, just like dictionaries, can be gleaned for the mistakes, their corrections, their flaws and what is left out. 

Indeed, let us teach our children of African descent, as well as those of other heritage, about a deeper understanding of history. Teach children not just about the celebrations featuring King, Malcolm, and Du Bois, but discuss Sonja Sanchez, Kwame Nkrumah, bell hooks, Steve Biko, Mumia Abu-Jamal as well as others who force us to focus upon the meaning of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

As Africans in America, let's celebrate our history today, vowing to learn even more about who we are as people and never letting anyone shout us down again.

© 2001 by Brian W. Thomas

Reprinted from The Oregonian, 02/17/02

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Real Indians
by Julie Houston

After cleaning up our classroom we gathered in a circle on the carpet.  I announced that we were going to go do something kind of special (we were going to go listen to Noella from Rattling Thunder give a presentation about Native Americans).  A child—I will be referring many times to “a child” to protect the innocent—asked ever so quietly, as if it were a secret, “Are we going to go see some Indians?”  I told them that we were.  Very quickly another child stood up and said that he knew about Indians.  He put his open hand to his mouth repeatedly and made that sound—you know, the sound that all Indians make—and it rapidly spread to several other children.  I, of course, having faced this situation every single time the word Indian has ever surfaced during my eleven years of teaching, broke out with my standard line, “You know, my grandmother is an Indian, and she has never, ever made a sound like that.”  Between you and me, it’s actually my great-grandmother, but I get a little more mileage out of the grandmother bit, and as a teacher, I’m allowed a little poetic license.  Generally, this line stops that sound if for no other reason than to make them think about how strange my grandmother is because she doesn’t make the sound that all other Indians make.  

The next step is to ask the children what they know about Indians—this is where you’ll want to have a seat because I can almost guarantee that your child believes these things to be true.  Children know that Indians wear feathers in their hair.  They know that Indians don’t wear a lot of clothes.  They know that Indians paint their faces.  They know that Indians carry weapons—some have the pointy things, others have guns.  And everyone knows that all Indians make that sound. 

Well, I had an idea that the children would respond this way (I’m not really going to go into the discussion of how this is the last great stereotype to go, just know that it’s true) so I brought in some pictures of Native Americans.  It just so happens that these pictures show people with brown skin and black hair in regular clothes doing regular stuff (i.e., riding horses, working in a garden, playing with a puppy, running outside).  Apparently, I have a lot of nerve because I was trying to tell these children that the people in the pictures are Indians, but obviously they’re just people.  “They’re not real Indians!”

Now, our Rabbits are a very insightful bunch—they make us very proud—and they are very, very good at asking questions (I’m not being facetious here, it’s really true).  Here are a couple of questions that the children had:

Q:  How do they get to be Indians?

A:  Their parents are Indians.

Q:  What do Indians do?

A:  They get out of bed.  They eat breakfast.  They get dressed.  They go to   school or work.  They eat snacks.  They play.  They eat lunch.  They come home.  They go shopping.  They eat dinner.  They play.  They brush their teeth.  They go to bed.

Children’s response:  Wow!

I know it sounds a little simple, but at 4 and 5 years old, they don’t need to know about the history of Native Americans in our country.  They don’t need to know about the history of African Americans in this country.  They don’t need to know about the Taliban.  They are learning what is fair and what is unfair.  They need to know that sometimes people were, and still are, treated unfairly because they look different or act different or think different.  They NEED to know that that is NOT okay (I think many grown- ups still need to know that).  They need to know that it’s okay to notice differences.  They need to know that it’s okay to ask questions (and they don’t even need to use their secret voices).

This summer, my children (then 4 ½ and 6 ½) and I were at the Tillamook Factory on the coast.  As we were taking the tour, my children noticed a boy whose legs had been, what appeared to me to be recently, amputated at the knees.  He was probably in his early teens, but was roughly the same height as my children.  He was wearing shorts, his thighs were bandaged completely and there was something attached to the bottom of the bandages where his knees once were so he could walk on them.  When I saw this boy, my head went on and on about what must have happened and how he must feel and how lucky I am to have healthy, whole children.  When I saw the look on my children’s faces as they stared at this boy, I knew I had to say something.  This is where it gets tricky.  I thought about the time-honored tradition of “It’s not polite to stare!” and decided against that route.  I thought about asking the boy about his legs, but being a young teenager in a new situation, I couldn’t anticipate his response, so I opted out again.  I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted my children to gain from this interaction, but I knew that what I did not want them to go away from it with was fear.  I knelt down and said in a regular voice, “Are you wondering about his legs?”  They nodded.  I said, “I was wondering about them, too.”  Then I told them about my grandpa who had to have one of his legs amputated because part of it wasn’t working and then the doctors gave him a wooden leg.  Then we got into a conversation about prosthetic devices.  Then I gave myself a pat on the back because we all came out of it okay.

I have a feeling that there is much more in me on this subject that I would like to share with you, but it is 11:30 and if I don’t end this now, I never will.  Megan just came out (we won’t get into a discussion of sleeping habits of children) so I decided to give her the quiz.

“What do you know about Indians?”

M:  At Powwows they look really beautiful.  And they have Fancy Dancers.

(We just went to a Powwow last weekend).

“What do you think Indians do?”

M:  (Accompanied by the eye-roll and the “have you lost your mind?” look),

Mom, they do the same stuff we do.

We celebrated with a high-five and a little happy dance.  I’m doing my job.  But I know I’ll never be done.

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Connecting the Old to the New

By Brian Thomas

Ever since I started the site redesign of A Child’s, I have been reconnecting with old schoolmates from my high school days in Harvey, Illinois. Thinking about the education that we all received at Thornton Township High School and the incredible work those teachers did to prepare us for the world gives me pause as I reflect on another season of teaching (just completed) and being an administrator at a very different kind of school. Currently, I work at an independent school in Portland, Oregon, which is far away from the receding prairies that surround Chicago’s South Suburban sprawl. The students that I teach don’t have to worry about the racial chasm that marked our formative years. They have tremendous opportunity, getting into sixty-three percent of their first choice colleges--places like Stanford, Yale, Duke, Emory, and Connecticut College. They live in a world marked by one of the largest sustained economic booms in our nation’s history. Yet, does the absence of struggle make their lives any easier? Does it make us Thorntonites, now in our mid-to late-thirties, any more solid as citizens? Rhetorical questions all, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure. I’m not certain of the world that these current students will inherit. I’m not sure if spending scads of money on education will make for a better student or a better person. I also do not know if my own children will learn anything from my own circuitous journey from housing projects to the Pacific Northwest. All that I am certain of is my own will to connect with those people, classmates and students, disparate and multifaceted as we all are, as we glide murkily into the next new thing.

© 2001 by Brian W. Thomas

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Books -- The perfect disability awareness tool!

I don't know any parent or teacher of young children that doesn't believe in the benefits of reading to kids.  Virtually all of them include "story time" in their daily routine.  Books have the power to capture a child's imagination & take them on wonderful journeys.  They also have the power to help them understand new things & to send positive messages.  All of these qualities make books an ideal choice when adults are searching for ways to help non-disabled children understand the world of a child with special needs.

If you are a parent or teacher interested in doing some simple disability awareness training, then I would offer these tips:

1.  Start with the right story.

Select a story that your reading audience can relate too, but also select a special needs character that will be relevant to their life.  Do you currently have a special needs child in your class?  Do they have friends or neighbors with a disability?  Do you know someone who could come & talk to the class as a friend or guest about their own disabilities?  Use your chosen story to help everyone relax.  Young kids relate well to the characters in stories.  If you use a story with a positive message it will help set a great "tone" for what you'll be saying later.

2.  Don't stop with just the story.

After the story, be sure you take advantage of the "teachable moment".

Talk about the things that can be more difficult for a child with special needs.  Young children are naturally empathetic.  They feel the pain of the book character that gets hurt & worry about the fate of their favorite TV character when he's in trouble.  Don't be melodramatic about things; just be "real" about what tasks would be harder for a child with the disability you are discussing.

3.  Include a child or adult with special needs.

This can be accomplished by inviting an adult with disabilities to your classroom as a guest, including a current or former special needs student as the "star" of your discussion or as parents just taking the opportunity to introduce your child to individuals with disabilities that are friends or acquaintances.  This step is important because it reminds the kids that this is real life, not JUST a story.  If you are worried about making the discussion awkward, then schedule the visit for a day or 2 after your story.  This will allow the visitor to have center stage & give the kids a couple of days to think about the story & your follow up discussion.

4.  Tell them how they can help!

If you are doing the awareness training to support a current class member, then do some pre-planning with the other adult involved (the child's parent if you are the teacher or vice versa).  Decide together what support roles classmates can play.  Will there be a transition buddy to help the child find areas away from the regular classroom.  Will anyone besides the teacher be pushing the child's wheelchair?  Is it important for someone to sit next to them who can help them find activity supplies?  Kids are natural helpers & this is a wonderful time to ask for volunteers who like to help out.  Just remember to talk about exactly what they will need to do & when they should do (i.e. only when the teacher reminds you, every day after recess, etc.).  For a more general discussion, it may be enough just to talk about issues like not teasing, ways to offer help respectfully, & different ways to communicate with each other.

5. Remind them we're more alike than we are different.

This is a great opportunity to help everyone see that kids with special needs are really just kids.  You've already addressed how he or she is different, now spend some time talking about how s/he's just like them.  Help lay the groundwork for future friendships by talking about all the "regular kid" things your current class member or invited guest.  Practice a simple conversation about their interests that you & the special needs child can have in front of the class.  Not only does the child have the opportunity to share about themselves, but also you demonstrate how to communicate with him/her in a very non-threatening way.

6.  Answer questions honestly & address fears.

This is probably the most important thing you can do.  Allow as much time as this takes so that you've answered all questions to the best of your ability.  It will probably help to think through some possible questions & answers ahead of time just so you can phrase your answers in kid-friendly words.  If you're not sure what questions they may ask, think back to when you first heard the child's diagnosis.  What questions did you have? Chances are their classmates will have similar fears.  Can he play games with us?  Will I hurt her?  How do I ask her a question?  Will she ever be able to ……?  (talk, run, etc.)

Hopefully these tips will encourage you to include stories as a frequent awareness tool in your home or classroom.  If you are interested but not sure what books to use, you can find some excellent choices listed here:

For kids age 4-8:

For kids age 9-12:


© 2001, Lisa Simmons

Lisa Simmons is a licensed teacher, author, & disability researcher.  She is also the founder of the Ideal Lives Project.
Visit her on the web at: or contact her at

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Jumping Through Hoops

Three number two pencils. No help from the teacher. A gurgle in the back of the throat. Scads of Kleenex surrounding a sea of eraser detritus like red ants devouring an arm. Every year, the scenes of America's obsession with standardized tests play out before a larger and larger audience. Principals. Administrators. Superintendents. Senators. Governors. Education Czars. Presidents. Indeed, a variation of Hamlet's speech to the players could not be more apt and any less confusing to the multitudes of children performing for our own mercurial monarchs of education: "Take the test, child, I pray you. As I have coached you, dimly in your seat." Our legislators have brought their "bottom line" mentality to America's schools, and we're all drowning in a cesspool of red ink; failing schools dot the landscape like Alfred Hitchcock's birds, pecking and nattering us all to death. What's to be done? Surely answers arrive from the myriad of successful schools and think tanks that Newsweek and Time taut in feel good fashion nearly every week. The charter schools in the 'hood that made good. The Edison Company, and their clones, which may or may not be doing justice to those inner city schools that time (and government funding) forgot.

Good education means good teaching. Period. The more bureaucrats try to legislate what good teaching means, the less we'll see of it. Again, high test scores simply mean high test scores-nothing else. Certainly, it may get you into Harvard or Rice or Vanderbilt, but what can Johnny or Janey do once they get there? Will she have a love of learning that will last her lifetime? Will he read on his own about tide pools on his own because Ms. Delaney the Science Lady put a bug in his ear back at Sandburg Junior High? I would hazard to guess that training for a test never sparked a child's curiosity about what it is to be human-a metacognitive endeavor to be sure.

However, put a creative, resourceful, and skilled teacher in a room with twenty ravenous young minds and there's no telling how far they'll go.

© 2001 by Brian W. Thomas

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The Case for Diversity

I have been busy these past few weeks sitting on a committee with three other teachers and a librarian trying to hire a 7th Grade English teacher to fill the shoes of a thirty-year veteran. Our retiring teacher hails from Boston, went to a venerable Ivy League School, and captivated our campus with his gracious New England charm. He even reads aloud to his seventh grade charges from many of the books that would entrance almost any ‘tweener (Note: A new term that basically means 5th grader to 7th grader). He is steeped in the work of Madeline Hunter, a renowned educator who sees the whole child at the center. So, how do you replace a legendary figure without upsetting the apple cart? Should we hire another person, in this case a man, who will assume the mantle of legend-in-waiting. Maybe. We have a young man in the offing who appears to be just that. Young, affable, charming, and filled with the extracurricular drive that would continue our old boy status (possibly) clear into the Twenty First Century. Yet, maybe we could try to hire differently. Yes, yes. When all things on a resume are equal, like teaching experience and rapport with children, for what does one look? Diversity. Diversity means more than just black and white. Indeed, the categories for diversity encompass the Big Eight: age, gender, race/ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic status, size, sexual orientation, and family make-up. But why is diversity important? More importantly why is it important to consider when hiring? Just hire the best candidate, right. Well yes, of course. But what does “the best” mean? Aye, there’s the rub. It’s the question that many of us have pondered for the better part of last century, particularly over the last twenty-five years or so. Simply put, think of attempts at diversity as trying to assemble a very good orchestra. We all know a good orchestra when we hear one. However, the challenge surrounds being intentional in our selections. The best advice I can give to other hiring committees, including my own is to pick people that bring out the best in all people. A great trumpet player may not necessarily make the others around her sound as good. In fact, she may drown the rest of the section out. Also, some people may like a band made up of all tubas, but would you want to hear everything played on the tuba? I don’t want to be reductive here, but diversity counts for something when assumptions need to be challenged. Diversity matters so that children can over come fear and stereotypes. Diversity matters when you look around and there are precious few of one group, if any, among the many. Diversity matters to enliven the process of bringing fundamental change to the status quo. Diversity matters when comfortable is good, but growth is better. In the final analysis, as Dr. King might say, diversity just matters.

© 2001 by Brian W. Thomas

Born and raised in Harvey, Illinois, Brian Thomas earned a degree in American History from Yale and later became an actor. Brian had a recurring role during the second season of NBC's "A Different World, a spin-off from "The Cosby Show." He earned an Emmy Award in 1988 for his work on "Fast Break to Glory: The Du Sable Panthers." Currently, Brian lives with his wife, Jaime, and two children, Eian and Olivia, in Portland, Oregon where he is the Assistant Head of a prestigious prep school and founder of A Child's

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Weighted Down:
Achieving Preschool Academic Excellence

I see them trudging through campus, weighted down with the cares of the world, as if their foreheads are being slowly pulled to the ground.  I never see the color of their eyes, just their packs, like some dromedary or other beast of burden, piled high with who-knows-what.  They are children whose parents have set the bar so high that they only see the ground in front of them. Many of them in third or fourth grade, with faces that speak of innumerable shocks, planning their day with Palm Pilots chirping at them, reminding them of soccer games, violin lessons, tennis practice, and after school math enrichment. 

The portfolio begins in pre-school, and there seems to be no end to how difficult it gets.  I work at school on the West Coast that is pre-K through high school.  I am the assistant head of the high school.  In fact, I have worked at four such high-powered college preparatory schools over the last 12 years, but for some children the stress starts early; parents have already picked out the colleges for their children as early as four-years of age.  Stanford, Brown, and Yale dot the landscape of most parents’ top schools.  However, most of the elite schools have seen their prospective student pool increase ten-fold over the last twenty years.

What happened?  How did it get this way?  What can parents do to avoid the trap of children who may crash and burn far too soon?  Here are a few suggestions to keep your life sane and raise healthier children, even as the college admissions process drives what children learn as early as pre-school:

  • Parents should avoid making decisions based on erroneous assumptions about the right curriculum or the perfect school for their children.  Be wise and selective when choosing schools.  Never just go for the name.  This is true whether you are selecting a pre-school, public school, or college.  Remember you always have a choice.

  • When researching schools or even extracurricular programs, look for value-laden clues like how well the children treat each other.  Do the teachers and aides know all of the children, respecting each as individuals, with each being uniquely important?

  • Is there an emphasis on providing a rich environment rather than on getting students ready for the next year or a certain test? 

  • True, children do learn how to take test quite well in the test-them-until-they-drop states and schools, but can a test measure whether a student will be a life-long learner.  Hint: Most elite private schools do not use tests in the same way as public schools.  Why?  Because tests only validate a child’s ability to take a tests.  No test can truly show how a student treats or accesses knowledge.

  • Never force your child into an area of elective interest that she or he does not want to do.  Parents often will risk a complete aversion to piano lessons or soccer practice because they pushed too hard early on.  Take the dilettante approach by exposing your preschooler to a wide variety of activities and interest.  However, make sure that what he or she decides to sign-up for at your local recreation center or neighborhood church can and will be finished at some defined point; choose an activity that has a merciful escape hatch.  Meaning, the activity’s session is long enough to learn some of the fundamentals, but your child can gather a sense of completion--four to six weeks depending on the activity.

  • Always give your child a choice. Almost every child will battle parents with oppositional behavior.  Take away that struggle, particularly with school issues, and see how long your student can have a one way battle.

  • Finally, enjoy the school years.  They are short-lived.  Treat each day with your child as if it will never come again because it never will.

© 2000 by Brian W. Thomas

Born and raised in Harvey, Illinois, Brian Thomas earned a degree in American History from Yale and later became an actor. Brian had a recurring role during the second season of NBC's "A Different World, a spin-off from "The Cosby Show." He earned an Emmy Award in 1988 for his work on "Fast Break to Glory: The Du Sable Panthers." Currently, Brian lives with his wife, Jaime, and two children, Eian and Olivia, in Portland, Oregon where he is the Assistant Head of a prestigious prep school and founder of A Child's

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by Brian Thomas

Cars lined up for a solid block as I pinballed my way out of the pocket of the restaurant’s drive-thru to the open road. I slammed on my breaks, trying to avoid hitting the car immediately in front of me.  I had just come from Popeye’s on MLK and had to get home before the day proved to be a total loss—papers to grade and parent phone calls to make.  My forays into fast foodland had spilled over from my monthly haircuts at Terrell Brandon’s Barbershop on Alberta to wherever, or more precisely whenever.  Whenever I didn’t feel like eating the soup that was probably a better bet for my expanding autumnal waistline, I tramped through the city’s streets. So, I tacked hard to the right and parked in front of the cue  (flash—red car—SUV—minivan—white car), then I saw him. For an instant, he reminded me of my grandfather old Zach Thomas, an old brown man kissing the pavement after too much cheap liquor—Night Train, Ripple, Peppermint Schnapps.  I thought he had just gotten hit.  My heavy foot wanted to accelerate to the open field—to Alberta then I-5 South to 405 South to the 26 to the 217 to Walker to home (touchdown)—but my hand inched to the handle to open the door. Something submerged in me said, “Help him dammit! Help him and you’ll help you.”

“Are you alright, Pops?” My voice dinged against the honking cars, reverberating too loudly in my own ears.   I lifted the man to his feet.  He teetered once more, almost falling again against the now useless shopping cart, bashed in on its left side, that once supported his weight.

“I’se ar’…ok, Ah guess.  Where’s you goin’ man?” 

That slurred question that met my question thrust me back to a man I barely knew. Yet, another relative who taught me vicariously about losing control and creeping despair.

“Can you gib’me a ride hom’?”

I looked south down MLK noticing the stares of the passerbys, trying to gauge my own reactions in their lancing stares.  My moment of truth had arrived at last.  The other cars, road, and the world dissolved to a timeout.  Twenty-three years after Zachariah Thomas had die; I finally had a chance to dialogue with one of hellhounds that drives me, the son of the son of an ex-sharecropper, still.

Finally, I said, “Yeah man, I’ll take you home.”

I don’t remember all of the details of that ride, attempting to find his house while looking for North or Northeast Fremont; he couldn’t be entirely sure.  Neither place seemed familiar to him, limp memories gouged by a long time inebriate’s faulty wires.  He told me he was once a boxer once.  He told me about a girl he used to love. He told me about everything it seems except what I wanted to hear.

I listened hard for the fight still left in him.  He pissed in my car getting out.

I said, “That’s ok man.  It’s ok.  Really.” An old baseball jersey from my over thirty league team was martyred for his sake, their sake.  BBB, which stood for Birmingham Black Barons, my grandfather’s boyhood colored team, embroidered across the chest.  I left him to keen across Williams Avenue, away from where he told me that he wanted to go.

The boxer took me on a ride that I was never to forget, even though it was hard to hear exactly what he said to me.  But as usual, I make it up.  Creating the words for him, echoing

I think he said, “Son? I’m proud of you, boy.  Damn proud to know you.”  

Foot on the pedal, back to my own house now, soiled jersey in back near the spare tires of my new used car, barreling down field, looking for daylight.

© 2000 by Brian W. Thomas

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Rapport: An Educational Philosophy
by Brian Thomas

The first day of school. Blue, black, green, and purple backpacks stacked everywhere. Student voices crashing like waves at one end of the hallway, breaking somewhere in the middle. Echoing and reechoing down plastered corridors, off windows, into portals of learning. If I could bottle that first-day-of-school energy and just keep it somewhere. To be used whenever I needed it, I would. I wouldn’t sell it. That would be against the educator’s code of service to humanity; or poverty, depending on your point of view. What I would do is liberally sprits that essence of first day whenever things got tough. Whenever a student complained about a bad grade. Whenever the trash in the cafeteria needed to be addressed. Or whenever those times in the life of every school that are so difficult that people just stop talking to each other. Everyone has those moments. Whenever I ask my colleagues about the buzz on the first day of school they mention that it is from a lack of sleep from the night before. Over tired? Adrenaline? Students pretty much say the same thing. With so much anticipation of what is to come, sleep is just not often possible. It’s not just lack of sleep and adrenaline that make the hallway an ocean of sounds on the first day of school, but something else. It is the anticipation of what is to come. It is one of those rare moments in life where the slate is wiped clean. All agree to begin anew. Capturing that moment would make me the richest man in the world. But, as we all know, wealth is not why most educators go into teaching. Relationships are the draw.

Rapport is the single greatest reason that I feel that I have been effective as an educator. Those moments with students, as well as colleagues, that keep us up all night in anticipation of yet another year. It doesn’t matter what transpired over the summer. It doesn’t matter how the last year ended. Most people would agree it is the specter of our work reflected in the relationships that we foster with each other as educators or with our students. Relationships extend outward, seismically. We are even thrilled to work with students who aren’t our students, or with colleagues who don’t necessarily work where we do. It is through relationships that I try to build mini-communities within larger ones that may get everybody on the same page. Whenever I have to say, "no" to a request that is as sound as sound can be, I hope that rapport will lessen the blow. Rapport allows me to get more done in the classroom, especially for those students who feel that they just do not have more to give. Rapport transmutes those difficult moments that are not the curriculum or agenda but allows the curriculum and agenda to be effective. Hearing what is said is the key to rapport.

My greatest strength as an educator is the ability to listen deeply. I can even pinpoint the moment that I realized this about myself. I was a freshman in high school and I had just gotten into my first high school play. Mr. Clarke, who was the director of the reader’s theater production of David Mamet’s Water Engine, gave his version of "there are no small parts only small actors" speech when something clicked in me. I vaguely heard him say that the most effective actors are the ones who can get you to pay attention to them without using words. He reiterated several times that it wasn’t about upstaging someone else. Just listening deeply. I thank Mr. Clarke, now a fellow educator, for conveying the germ of a philosophy that has been most effective for me ever since. Listening deeply establishes the kind of rapport that supersedes all of the theories about pedagogy and learning that I have ever read or currently use. I am no master by any means, but I try to work at it every day. It is often time consuming. Never reactive. And sometimes frustrating keeping the hounds of response at bay. Yet, listening to both students and colleagues allows for the kind or gentle persuasion or encouragement that is often overlooked in the text. Whenever I can’t see the forest for the trees or the floor for the backpacks, I return to the moment on the first day and listen closely to the ocean of things to come.

© 2000 by Brian W. Thomas

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