Five-year-old Sokha, a Cambodian orphan adopted by a white couple, came into our kindergarten. He immediately showed himself to be a happy, gregarious, curious boy.
But Sokha engaged with others in ways they were not used to.
For instance, he was not afraid to jostle, got a bit too close to his peers, and touched them more than they were used to. When it was time to line up, he would often rush to be at the head of the line, and if someone else got there about the same time, he would try to push in front of him.
However, Sokha was good at learning from his mistakes. He was responsive to correction. Both teachers and students were consistent in defining for him the requirements of his new environment and requiring behavior of him that his new culture considered respectful.
Some of his classmates were put off by his early behavior. At first many students didn’t want to be partnered with Sokha. Sokha’s inability to express himself in English made it a particularly difficult challenge, and the teacher had to work hard with his classmates to make sure he was accepted. Some children were put off simply by his differences, and in two cases we had to conference with parents to enlist support in teaching these students to be welcoming and open to a new and different person. Sokha’s presence in the class provided opportunities for the children to become more appreciative of differences.
Sokha’s parents were patient and understanding of the conflicts. Although they expressed concern, they seemed to trust the teachers enough to allow painful learning experiences to occur. They were supportive of what the teachers were doing, and didn’t let their anxiety overwhelm them or interfere with the process. After all, a child’s challenges are usually harder on the parents; children are designed to take on challenges and to rise to occasions.
And indeed, Sokha’s classmates, proved themselves as resilient as the teachers expected them to be, rising to the challenge of turning conflicts into friendship. Learning from those who are different was an established school norm. By the beginning of first grade, all agreed that Sokha’s social adjustment to the class was completely successful. His language development moved along nicely, too. His communication was smooth and understandable to his peers and teachers.
But the first grade teacher was concerned about his academics. In preparation for the formal parent-teacher conference in November, Sokha’s teacher came to me concerned about how far behind Sokha was. She went through his report card showing me that Sokha was “just not there,” and was wondering what she should say to the parents.
“What’s the matter with simply telling them the truth?” I asked.
“Of course, that is what I will do, but he is so far behind!!” she countered. “It’s alarming.”
“I can see that, but should we be alarmed? Is he responsive to you?”
“Yes,” she said. “But shouldn’t we be talking to the parents about the fact that he will be repeating the first grade?”
“Is that a fact?”
“He is so far behind—he can’t possibly be ready for second grade.”
“How do you know that?”
“When a child is this far behind, they are at risk!” she said.
“Are you sure?” I persisted. “This is your fear speaking. What are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid that I will pass to second grade a student who is not ready for it,” she said, with deep concern in her voice.
“Well, let me ask you some questions. Is he enthusiastically engaging in the activities?”
“Does he take responsibility?
“What do you mean?”
“If he is corrected, does he make excuses or respond?”
“He responds. He doesn’t make excuses.”
“Is he having a positive impact on the class?”
“Does he feel he belongs?”
“How is his self-confidence? Does he feel good about himself?”
“Good. He is very happy and confident.”
“Well then he’s fine,” I said with my hand relaxed on the table. “This is what success looks like. Our job is to make sure that he continues to be an enthusiastic learner, who welcomes challenges, makes a difference, and gains in his self-confidence. You are doing a great job. If this keeps happening, he will continue to learn and be successful.”
“What about the standards?” she asked.
“I know he is behind, but we knew that right up front. If he keeps being a confident, responsible learner who matters to his community, the academic achievement will come. Right?” I asked, finally.
“Right,” she said. “I know. Thank you.”
What are the key ingredients for a child’s success and what is standing in the way?