On a Wednesday afternoon in 2020, we were driving back to Richmond, Virginia.

We were north of Raleigh on U. S. Route 1. My wife wanted a bottle of water and some cookies. It wasn’t too many miles before we reached a convenience store. I went inside to make the purchase.

After I paid the cashier, I was walking toward the exit doors. A mother and her two sons were slightly ahead of me.

The younger son scampered out quickly. Too quickly for the mother, who was clearly concerned about him bounding out into the parking area. The child had no comprehension that anything could go wrong.

That’s when I heard the mother say to her son, “Jimmy, get your ass back over here.”

I’m not sure how Jimmy responded. I kept moving, but I hope he heeded the warning by slowing down or stopping.

Clearly, I am an imperfect parent and grandparent.

All my years of work in public education and an appointment to our school board certified for me how difficult being a parent is. Even in the best of situations, parenting is tough, demanding work. I can’t tell you how many times in raising our three children that my wife and I looked at each other and said, “How are we going to work through this?”

Since Wednesday afternoon, I have thought quite a bit about Jimmy. My guess is that he would be entering kindergarten soon. I wonder how he will work through that transition.

If Jimmy’s corrections at home or in public follow the same pattern that I witnessed at the convenience store, I wonder how Jimmy might respond to his kindergarten teacher when he is reminded about being compliant with classroom rules.

The teacher notes he is a bit out of line. The teacher calls for his attention: “Jimmy, I need a favor from you. I need you to please return to your seat and work on your assignment.”

Jimmy ignores the request.

Again, the teacher intervenes with another reasonable request for Jimmy’s cooperation.

Jimmy seems oblivious again to his teacher.

I wonder how Jimmy would have responded if the teacher’s third attempt to gain his attention was stated like this, “Jimmy, get your ass back in your seat now.”

Children, students, take their signals from adults.

If Jimmy’s correction at home centers on coarse, harsh language, then he might not be conditioned in a different setting to respond to a request made with appropriate language and a considerate tone.

I wonder how often similar circumstances play out for youngsters like Jimmy in classrooms across America every day. My school board experience tells me this occurs more than any of us could have ever imagined.

While thinking a lot about Jimmy, in truth, I have thought about his mother too.

I wonder how she was disciplined as a child. I wonder if she is a single parent. I wonder if his father is part of the family. I wonder if Jimmy has the opportunity to attend a preschool before entering kindergarten. I wonder if he has books at home. I wonder if anyone reads to him?

I wonder, I wonder, I wonder.

In his book, “Swimming Upstream: A Story about Becoming Human,” James P. McCullough, Jr., references his work and writings about “psychological insults.”

McCullough states: “When emotional deprivation and verbal abuse are encountered on almost a daily basis, they rise to the level of psychological insults that become malevolent and maturationally damaging in the growing self-perceptions of children. Psychological insults are just as developmentally damaging as other more well-known categories of maltreatment.”

If Jimmy continues with behavior choices that need correction, and his mother continues the path of “psychological insults,” I’m going to speculate that his transition into a preschool setting or even his first entry into kindergarten will be a challenge.

So how do we solve this challenge?

One of the first things I learned about teaching was in loco parentis.

That Latin phrase translates to “in place of the parent.”

The term had application for school law—meaning that teachers working with students had an obligation in the school setting to be like parents.

So, I guess that means Jimmy’s future kindergarten teacher can correct him with the same methods his mother uses at home or in other settings.

I can hear the kindergarten teacher now addressing the class— “Ok, boys and girls cover your ears. I need to correct Jimmy by using some bad words.”

That is not the type of interaction we want in any classroom.

So, how do we find a solution?

Over the last few years, a greater emphasis has been placed on developing and implementing more early childhood programs for students before entering kindergarten. 

These early childhood programs are critical. It also is important for us to carefully evaluate existing programs to determine if they are having an impact. If not, we must dig deeper into the analysis to discover adjustments that can make a difference for the student, parent, and teacher.

Additionally, it is important for early childhood programs to incorporate a significant parent component. If this piece is missing, then early childhood programs must be re-designed to include parent participation and education.

Building capacity for a parent and a teacher to learn from each other is critical. It seems likely that a parent who bonds with a teacher at this early intervention stage will now be equipped with the skills to engage teachers as a student advances to future grade levels.

For years, teachers and school boards across America have been asked consistently to solve what ails America. Learning how to work with students who have experienced years of the trauma of “psychological insults” is a constant challenge for teachers. Figuring out what makes Jimmy tick and others like him is an energy burner.

But at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to—human energy.

Part of that human energy must be channeled toward building a partnership between the parent and teacher. Working together, that partnership has the potential to reduce the trauma of “psychological insults.” 

Human energy also means conveying with clarity to local school boards and to educational leaders at the state and federal levels that funding early childhood programs for students and their parents must be done. There are no other options.

And that same human energy also must commit to disrupting. 

Here, disrupting means having the courage to move beyond models and programs from the past that are ineffective. 

Constructing programs that are effective in building trust between the parent and the teacher is critical. Anything short of this goal should not be considered.

Human energy also is linked directly to time.

It will take time to utilize our human energy effectively.

But if our human energy and time are properly channeled with the student, parent, and teacher, there is hope for improvement. 

That reduction of the trauma of “psychological insults” for Jimmy and other children who experience the same struggles might create a new energy for learning opportunities.

New learning opportunities might never be experienced if we continue to ignore the impact of “psychological insults” on children. 

But just as important is finding the path to diplomatically disrupt in the home the trauma template of “psychological insults.” This will be a collaborative effort with the student, parent, and teacher. Retooling, retraining teachers in understanding students like Jimmy also will need to be a part of this process. 

And that is where educating parents about communicating with their children comes into play. Coaching parents is a pivot point.

Marie Curie once stated: “You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals.”

Investing in early childhood programs is an opportunity to improve learning experiences for children, their parents, and their teachers. 

It is an opportunity to build a better world.

And, honestly, school boards can’t afford not to invest in early childhood programs. 

Choosing not to invest in early childhood programs only ensures a difficult path for Jimmy, his mother, his teachers, and even his classmates.

I’m no expert, but I’d wager there is a pretty good chance that at some point Jimmy’s difficult path of transition into a public school setting will end up in front of your school board. 

Jimmy will create disruptions and havoc in every classroom he enters. Jimmy’s reputation will precede him. Parents will complain about him to classroom teachers and building principals.

And when Jimmy ends up in front of the school board for an expulsion hearing at age 17, the board will read the following: repeated the ninth grade; earned single-digit credits toward graduation; discipline file fills multiple folders. A school board’s natural reaction will be to recommend expulsion immediately.

But in truth, expelling Jimmy only indicates one thing—a school board’s failure to intervene when Jimmy was 5, not 17.

Every school system in America has a Jimmy. Jimmy and his pals are weighed down with “psychological insults.” They have been carrying this trauma baggage a long, long time.

If school boards don’t want to meet Jimmy at 17, when hope is erased, then school boards must ensure that quality early childhood programs are in place and are meeting the needs of students like Jimmy.

To do this, school boards must revisit and keep in front of them as a constant reminder Marie Curie’s quote: “You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals.”

If school boards truly want to improve educational opportunities for students like Jimmy—waiting isn’t an option. 

Here’s why: The next Jimmy is already warming up.

Bill Pike (wapike1@gmail.com) spent three decades working in Virginia public schools as a teacher, coach, administrative aide, assistant principal, and principal. After early retirement, he continued to work in education through the Virginia Office of School Improvement, the Virginia Department of Corrections, and as a supervisor of student teachers. He also served a 14-month appointment on Virginia’s Henrico County School Board.

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Black Students in the Condition of Education 2020

The Center for Public Education selected relevant data from the Condition of Education to help school leaders not only monitor the educational progress of Black students, but also rethink what public schools can do better for Black students.