School scoop — When 'normal' doesn't fit

By Mariah Albanese | Nov 22, 2012
Source: File image

Searsport — Keith Dunson, a special education teacher at Searsport District High School, recently returned from an international conference of researchers in Washington, D.C.

While there, Dunson and his team received a peer review of their research regarding an idea for education that could help children meet their psychological characteristics in school.

Dunson said there were two important results that came from that process. First, it was confirmed that there is a certain combination of psychological characteristics that are not compatible with what American schools currently expect from students, which he believes explains why some students are having difficulties in school. Second, his team developed a way to screen elementary students for these characteristics. A multinational corporation wants to use the child-screening instrument. Dunson and his team are hoping that this corporation will fund the fine-tuning of the instrument for validity and reliability.

Dunson's ideas from two years of research were well received, he said, and he hopes to be able to screen middle and high school students to determine where their characteristics fall, and what can be done to help them get more out of their learning experience. The aim is not to change students' individual characteristics, Dunson said, but to help students feel better at school. Dunson asserted that this is a very important issue when working with students who have a difficult time in school.

“It is not that there is something wrong with some students; it is that their characteristics are part of the normal personality,” said Dunson. Some of the psychological characteristics he studied include curiosity, acceptance, competition, social contact and honor.

Curiosity is really about learning, Dunson explained. Some students like to have knowledge, Dunson said, but do not like to over-think things — those students often find such practices irritating and thus don't participate as much as some of their peers. Some people think learning is an advantage, which Dunson said is perfectly normal. Even if the student doesn't like to learn, for example, there must be other things they enjoy.

And, Dunson said, some characteristics would make school harder for some than for others. For instance, some people have a higher need to feel accepted by others by being recognized for good work. If the assignment looks too challenging, they develop a fear of failure and so might be afraid to try. Acceptance may be less important to some students, but those who have a high need for acceptance may not do very well in school.

There's always that characteristic of competition, he said, and in schools it's usually academics-based. But it is tough to compete if you don't enjoy learning.

Another characteristic that can pose problems for some students is a low need for social contact. Dunson said the need to make friends, have friends and have a lot of social interaction is important to some, but not to others. On the other hand, some students only come to school to be with friends, but the kids who have a difficult time in school are not interested in it.

“If you have a low need for social contact, you could have a hard time in school, because school is a social institution,” Dunson explained.

Dunson explained that the characteristic of honor is the ability to identify with a strong set of social norms or rules. One of the characteristics is a low need for honor. Things such as school spirit — showing loyalty to your institution — would be annoying to these students, Dunson said. But just because someone will not support school spirit doesn't mean they are against the school. Dunson explained how characteristic may make some students concerned about losing their identity to an institution, which means they may be afraid of being defined by an institution.

Dunson said he couldn't have done this study without the support of the Regional School Unit 20 administration and teachers and his partnerships with Steven Reiss — a retired Ohio State University professor — and psychology professor Carl Weems of the University of New Orleans. Now the Maine State Department of Education is interested in the research, too, Dunson said.

There are several next steps. Dunson said he would like to screen a middle and high school population with an instrument which is already available. The instrument is like a personality test, but the results would be scientifically valid. There has been no instrument to use with elementary school children until now, and Dunson said the screening would show a cluster of psychological characteristics in those younger students. With these insights, educators will be in a better position to make a difference for this population.

Dunson's hunch is that the characteristics measured by his instrument have a lot to do with how people identify themselves and what they need for self-identification. He declares there really wasn't a scientifically valid way to determine the differences among students until this research was completed.

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