Don't write off pupils by blaming the family

Labelling families as "broken" or "dysfunctional" has become a way for teachers to write off pupils, says an American academic.

Teresa Rishel, of Kent State University in Ohio, says teachers use these terms as catch-all explanations for misbehaviour and academic underachievement. As a result, they often fail to ask further questions or look into a family's specific circumstances.

The term "dysfunctional", she says, covers a range of diverse struggles, ranging from workaholism to alcoholism, depression or child abuse.

For example, in one primary she observed, two brothers regularly failed to hand in homework and the 10-year-old stood on a chair one lunchtime and screamed: "I hate this school!" His teacher responded that it was "just another one of those dysfunctional families".

But on further questioning, Professor Rishel discovered the family had recently moved to the community and the father had just started a night shift, cutting down on family time. "The children had substituted family time for homework," she says. "Under great stress, they were simply attempting to adjust to the move."

Equally, divorce is not uniform and children's responses vary according to individual circumstances. Professor Rishel recalls a primary pupil who regularly misbehaved and failed to complete her homework. Her teacher said: "She is from a broken family, so I" In fact, the girl's parents, though divorced, provided consistent, coherent support.

Professor Rishel says teachers often use the labels "broken" and "dysfunctional" to absolve themselves of responsibility.

"These terms are often used as a means of blaming parents I indicating that nothing can be done. As a result of these preconceived notions, families experience alienation and students risk slipping through the cracks."

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