Monday’s New York Times ran a story about Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit that partners directly with high-poverty schools and districts to transform the physical and emotional environments in which children spend the school day. Turnaround emphasizes the importance to learning outcomes of children’s psycho-emotional well-being; the organization’s former title—the Children’s Mental Health Alliance—is indicative of its focus on the behavioral conditions that impede academic success among the young. Funded in large part by donations, Turnaround is currently working with 20 New York City schools, as well as three more in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1994, the New York-based group operates by sending a team of two educators and a social worker to struggling schools. The team works with each partner school for about three and a half years to address the psychological and behavioral problems distressing its students and, consequently, the teachers responsible for their development. Turnaround trains teachers to identify children distracted by emotional issues, to diffuse aggression among students without resort to traditional disciplinary procedures like detention, and to generate an environment of placidity in the classroom. The organization also requires each school with which it partners to hire a full-time social worker, whom Turnaround trains in accordance with its philosophy. Among the group’s purposes is to make teachers, parents, and administrators more attentive to the ways in which domestic instability, lack of attention, and the breakdown of social support networks make it exceedingly difficult for disadvantaged children to maintain concentration, discipline, and self-control.
Leaving aside the empirical question of just how successful Turnaround for Children has been, there are at least two advantages to the thinking that undergirds the group’s efforts. First, Turnaround aims to make schools’ responses to troubled children more flexible, more subtle, less mechanical. Many young teachers arrive at work without a clear sense of what to do when young children disrupt or disrespect their authority. Overcome by the anxiety of losing control of the classroom, such teachers often resort to punishment, understood in the primary and middle school context as ejection from the classroom. The result is that struggling schools too often come to rely on disciplinary mechanisms like in-school suspension placement, mechanisms that have the effect of simply quarantining disruptive students.
Turnaround refers certain children—often, those whose disruptive behavior its staff deems most likely to influence the conduct of other students—to psychiatric services, but it also aims to introduce students to concentration and mental resilience skills, while at the same time showing teachers subtle mechanisms for swaying the behavior of recalcitrant kids. The Turnaround staff demonstrates, for instance, how teachers can use body language—rather than spoken words, which can sidetrack an entire class—to capture and hold the attention of individual students. The staff also prepares teachers to have potentially embarrassing conversations with students about problems at home. These sorts of interpersonal skills are elementary, but it is by no means uncommon for them to be neglected in education schools.
In a more basic sense, organizations like Turnaround have the effect of calling attention to the psychological factors that often shape the academic performance and social development of American schoolchildren. It is not often, in fact, that one encounters a group that stresses the importance of calm and serenity to student performance, as Turnaround frequently does. The language of education reform in America reflects a fundamental bias in favor of solutions that can be discussed in concrete and tangible terms. The resulting tendency to think about school reform in terms of quantifiable metrics like funding levels and teacher certifications has obscured the fact that America’s education problem is in crucial respects a sociological problem, and that disadvantaged students will not brought to par unless school leaders, parents, and responsible community members think seriously about the psycho-emotional causes of student failure. If nothing else, perhaps Turnaround can serve as a corrective.