Helping underachieving young students

Case study of a highly privileged, under-achieving, student with low skills who appeared to be going from bad to worse.

Teachers face challenges which they come to realize are beyond their own influence. There are times when a teacher has to admit that she/he has done everything possible and the results are not encouraging.

Below is a letter documenting a long struggle this teacher had trying to reach a particular child. Shaketa, the girl in this case study, is a child whose parents are both educated professionals who share custody of their only child. (Some teachers reading this far could probably write the whole story, just based on the above sentence).

Note: All names in this case study and the memo have been changed; however everything in this memo is factual


Shaketa comes to school with the trappings of affluence. She seems to have plenty of spending money and nice clothes. Although she is physically well taken care of, she often arrives late for her first period class. Periodically her mother takes her out of school for a day to have her hair done. Shaketa returns a day or two later with elaborate braids and beads.

Ms. Williams, her CORE teacher, learns from other teachers in their 7th grade family (science, math, electives) that Shaketa’s performance in class is both disruptive and non-productive. Ms. Williams has her seated near her and when she works one-on-one with her, Shaketa is able to slowly follow directions and do the work.

The front row seat, however, gives Shaketa a launching pad. Occasionally, Ms. Williams assigns another student to work with Shaketa. About half the time that strategy works, and Shaketa stays on task while her peer works with her. She can’t work with boys and runs through the available girls quickly.

Unfortunately, the out-of-bounds talking and yelling destroys the class focus. After numerous teacher suspensions and parent conferences, Ms. Williams throws in the towel and writes the following memorandum.

Shaketa B. is an attractive, likable 12 year-old African-American girl enrolled in my three-period CORE class (English, History, Language Arts). She has been exhibiting disruptive behaviors since the beginning of school.

During the past four and a half marking periods I have had many private conferences with Shaketa. I modified her lessons and made numerous telephone calls to the parents of Shaketa Bradley (they live in separate residences but share responsibility for her).

I have had private conferences with both the mother and the father as well as an aunt and another relative (all of whom are pleasant, cooperative, and expressed concern regarding Shaketa’s behavior). I also have written numerous memos, referrals and teacher suspensions (some of which never come back to me).

Examples of chronic behavior problems: running her mouth, talking out, pulling others off task, eating corn nuts and M&M first thing in the morning, but denying it, loudly protesting her innocence, calling to students across the room, etc.

She will loudly protest that she doesn’t have the paper we are working on and the paper is, in fact, on her desk, in front of her. Sometimes the paper is in her hand! “Oh, yeah!” she will say loudly. “Oh, I didn’t see it. Oh, here it is, Ms. Williams. I have it. Oh, I didn’t see it. Oh, here it is!”

This verbal behavior insures disruption. If the verbal behavior doesn’t get attention, Shaketa uses body language (gestures, waves, to others) and facial expressions (grimaces and pained looks) to let the world know she is innocent and put upon. She has a highly developed excuse system and is easily distracted.

Shaketa sometimes comes to class without materials (binder, pencils, pen) but usually comes with many “toys” of one kind or another (lip gloss, perfume, key chains, corn nuts and candy which she eats on the sly, etc.) I asked Ms. Bradley that Shaketa not bring her purse because she was constantly digging into the purse pulling out one thing out after another, passing things to other students (including selling beef jerky to another student). Ms. Bradley agreed that Shaketa would leave her purse at home. Now Shaketa wears a key chain necklace with numerous gadgets hanging from it-a great source of distraction.

There are three boys in the classroom who “connect” with Shaketa’s mouth and acting out.(I sent you a memorandum regarding this problem in December.) Shaketa blames them for her problems. (“They be messing with me.”) Today she cut her first three classes-my extended CORE-and I observed her chasing boys during the lunch hour. She is unwilling (but I believe able) to monitor herself.

There has been no appreciable improvement these past months. I can no longer cut Shaketa any slack. I have prepared teacher suspensions and alternative assignments. I will issue her one as soon as she begins to act out, and I will do this daily if necessary. Other students in the class have rights, too.

An example of on-going academic problems (from yesterday). Shaketa had written the word “car” in place of the word “can”. I pointed it out to her, showing her that the “r” was not the same as the “n”. She loudly protested that the word “car” was “can.” I showed her again the “r” which she wrote instead of the “n”. “Oh, yeah!” she says. “That’s ‘car’-I messed up.” She wrote an “r” and “n” and observed the difference.

Shaketa then proceeded to write “car” in stead of “can” again and again I pointed out the difference between “r” and “n.” This time she got it. As a mainstream teacher with 32 students in the class (and so special ed support) I do not have the luxury of this kind of one-on-one instruction.

Shaketa appears to have an abundance of material things provided for her. I strongly suggest that Shaketa needs to have a behavior modification program where by she earns these many and various goodies. She needs to be held accountable for

  • 1. Arriving on time
  • 2. Coming with supplies
  • 3. Having her binder organized before she comes
  • 4. Monitoring her own behavior while in class
  • 5. Completing homework assignments daily
  • 6. Focusing on the task at hand
  • 7. Controlling her tendency to run her mouth
  • 8. Accepting responsibility for her behavior, her materials, her work
  • 9. No eating, chewing, nor passing junk food items to other students

Shaketa is a 7th grade student who is not able to work independently, does not self-correct even when intensive work with her has been done. Her penmanship is an example-she can form letters correctly but does not bother to. She uses capital letters incorrectly even after extensive modeling. I believe Shaketa is capable of exercising more self-control and self-monitoring but she will not do this unless and until she is held accountable.

I took Shaketa to the counseling office and spoke with our counselor Ms. Brown who counseled with Shaketa for twenty minutes. Ms. Brown suggests that we have the parents in immediately and put Shaketa on a contract.

I would also encourage the parents to support Shaketa by providing her with one-on-one tutoring help. Shaketa has serious academic and behavioral problems. These problems are not going away and in fact will become more burdensome to Shaketa and her family. She would benefit from intensive tutoring and behavior modification.

Shaketa has not made acceptable progress. Perhaps she needs a different placement. Something has to change.

This is a long memo and perhaps I need to restate that Shaketa is basically a nice youngster, a sweet child, with an engaging personality. This memo is not meant to sound like I’m dumping on her; however, her situation has gone on far too long. Shaketa cannot pass my 7th grade CORE classes this marking period, nor the next, unless there is a serious change in the way Shaketa does business. I have done all I can.

When Ms. Williams took Shaketa to Ms. Brown (a highly competent counselor of many years experience) she frankly asked Ms. Brown, “What do you do when you have run out of things to do and nothing seems to work?” Ms. Brown sat with Shaketa and asked her some questions, the first one being, “Shaketa, how old are you?” “I’ll be thirteen in August,” Shaketa replied.

Ms. Brown immediately picked up on Shaketa’s tendency to not answer direct questions and repeated her question, “But how old are you now?” “Twelve.” “And how old will you be in ten years?” (Ms. Brown’s style is to ask questions which lead a child to thinking about her/his future).  Shaketa was stumped.

She pretended not to understand what was being asked and tried to change the subject. She tried counting on her fingers several times, gave up and finally said with a question in her voice, “About twenty?” When Ms. Brown helped her find the answer, Shaketa said, “Oh, yeah, I knew that.” “What do you want to be doing when you are twenty?” “A doctor.”

After counseling with Shaketa Ms. Brown told Ms. Williams that the parents needed to come in immediately, and the child should be put on a contract. Then Ms. Brown told Ms. Williams a story from her own past. The counselor was a classroom teacher getting her counseling certification, and had been reminded that she was spending 75% of her time with 25% of the students and that she needed to refocus on the others.

The parents did not come in for a conference but kept Shaketa out for a week. The father then brought her back to class one morning during second period (missing the first half of the CORE) and said they were going to sign Shaketa up a the homework center. That the youngster returned to class without any action being taken on the memo and no “tardy” pass is part of the school dynamics: students must be admitted to class even if they arrive late, without admit slips and/or without materials because under the law (as interpreted at that school site) the every child has a right to an education and the teacher may not deny any child that opportunity.

After sending of this memo, a campus supervisor gave Ms. Williams another slant on the situation. The campus supervisor had been at a different school the year before, the school in which Shaketa was enrolled in the 6th grade. “She’s done a whole lot better this year. Last year she was never in class, either in the halls or in the office.” Is it possible, looking at a wider picture, that Shaketa really was making progress?

Although the parents agreed to enroll Shaketa in the after-school homework program, Shaketa came only one day. The homework center, run by a retired elementary teacher and staffed by three teachers, had to have Shaketa removed from the room because of excessively foul language. The director said Shaketa’s loud and continual gutter talk, both in the homework center and in the adjacent halls made it impossible for them to work with her.

This was yet another interesting twist. Although Ms. Williams encountered a long list a unacceptable behaviors, she had never once heard Shaketa use foul language. Is it possible that Shaketa was indeed exhibiting a significant level of self-control in Ms. William’s classroom even though it did not appear so to Ms. Williams?

This story has no happy ending. Other teachers who had Shaketa felt that the parents were in denial. Some thought that the parents were trying to compete with Shaketa by giving her material things. The principal privately commented that the parents should take all the money they were spending on Shaketa and get her some good one-on-one tutoring.

It is clear that there were several dysfunctional issues here. Nevertheless, the teacher was out to do her best, and that included leaving behind a clear record. That documentation was a protection for the teacher as well as a support the student. A vice-principal at Ms. William’s school told her ten years ago, “If it’s not on paper it didn’t happen.”

Regardless of what parents, students or administrators should be doing but are not doing, the bottom line is you, the teacher, have to document what is going on in your class, and write concise, detailed memos. Learning to write clear documentation is part of what is covered in the Teacher As Effective Advocate For All Children workshop.

The student tally sheet, a weekly record each student keeps of attendance, assignments, and credits, is part of the Tally Sheets and Other Useful Forms. (To download a copy click here, or send a large self-addressed stamped envelope to Rusting Educational Services, 4523 Elinora Avenue, Oakland, CA 94619). The tally sheet is very useful for keeping students, parents, administrators aware of what it happening in the class.


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