How Visiting Kids at Home Can Help Us Provide a Better Experience in...

Voices | Student Success

How Visiting Kids at Home Can Help Us Provide a Better Experience in School

By Jabez LeBret     Mar 22, 2019

How Visiting Kids at Home Can Help Us Provide a Better Experience in School
Jabez LeBret with his mother at age three.

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

This is a picture of me at almost three years old. That is my mother laying face down on the ground, grandpa’s cowboy boot frames the shot of me looking up at the camera with a weight in my soul. This was one of the days my mother went back to the hospital.

When I was growing up, my mother struggled with mental illness, my stepfather was abusive and I lacked the stability I needed to become a successful student. Like many kids, part of my survival mechanism was to hide what was happening inside the walls of my house. A home visit would have fundamentally changed my life, but no one from my school ever came.

When I was in third grade, my teachers began sending me to the resource room for reading. By fifth grade, I was acting out in class and rarely turning in homework. I started cutting class in middle school and regrettably, by high school, I stole some cash from the lunch line register, skipped school regularly and failed nearly half my classes. By that time, I was dragging everyone who came within arms length into my downward spiral of dysfunction.

The schools I attended missed every opportunity to catch these issues early, and sadly I did not graduate from high school. All was not lost. Luckily, I had some friends whose parents stepped in along the way, providing me a place to stay and encouraging me do homework. Eventually I received my GED, went on to graduate from Gonzaga University and founded a marketing agency.

In 2017, I sold my company and my wife quit her job so we could pursue our dream of creating a school for at-risk students together. One of the first commitments we made was to visit every prospective student’s home so we would understand each individual in broader context. Because of my own troubled history at school, this element was crucial for me. Looking back, I realize that many of these early life experiences have prepared me for the journey I’m on now as we launch our school.

Behavioral issues and even low test scores in the classroom are often the result of experiences that occur outside the school. This research study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), investigates the correlation between chaotic homes and children’s behavior, and in it, researchers make a strong case that conducting home visits has a net positive impact on the school, as they can provide valuable information about the student.

In the early planning phases for Sisu Academy, our all-girls tuition-free boarding high school, we realized that in order to capture the full needs of our students, we had to understand the world they live in. Sisu is designed to meet the needs of underserved and underprepared students. Because our program focuses on fragile communities, the context of our student’s family situation plays a major role at the starting line of each student’s experience.

How Home Visits Help Us Serve the Whole Child

Despite being a residential program, we know that the more support we can provide the families of our students, the more success we will have in the long run. What if a student is the primary child care provider for their three younger siblings? What if the family doesn’t have a bank account? What if there is no healthy food in the home? Answers to these types of questions are nearly impossible to discover until you step into someone’s home.

If a student ultimately ends up at Sisu Academy, the system has probably already failed the child in some way. Whether the child’s obstacles stem from difficult family dynamics or their school environment, the vulnerable population we serve needs more services than a traditional day school can provide. With negative life experiences arising all around them, these students are not in a position to fully participate in their learning, often leading to unfavorable social issues, problems with self-confidence and attention-seeking outbursts at school.

So, as we embarked on the planning phase of our new school, we spent a great deal of time connecting with experts in a number of fields to better understand how to address educating students who are failing in school because of out-of-school obstacles. We met with social workers, mental health professionals, individuals who work in the foster care system and in our local juvenile court. Everyone we talked to had suggestions about creating wrap-around services and support structures for our students. Almost in passing, the majority added, “and, if you could possibly stop by the house to visit, that would be amazing.”

We decided that home visits would become part of the admittance process for Sisu and began planning out what these visits would look like. We considered scripting our questions, meeting with kids and parents separately and administering short surveys to learn more about the child’s living conditions, but because many of our students tend to have challenges at home, we take a conversational approach to keep things casual and non-confrontational.

Staying Present

Mindy Ahrens, principal at Sisu, who has been on almost a dozen home visits says, “Home visits allow you to see a student in a way that she would never allow you to see at school.”

It’s not just the conversation that illuminates our understanding of a child in broader context, it’s also the atmosphere. “Home visiting is shown to be a deeply embodied practice in which all the senses and emotions come into play and movement is central,” Harry Ferguson, professor and researcher of social work and child protection writes in his research paper on home visits. That’s why the biggest key for a successful visit is to be observant and present in the moment.

It’s not always an obstacle or challenge that you find—sometimes a home visit can provide a school with invaluable information about a student’s interest, offering a strong foundation for building a relationship.

Take Sarah for example, a prospective Sisu student. On a recent visit to her house, we gathered much of the information we needed nonverbally, just after entering her home. On this home visit everyone showed up: Sarah, both of her parents, her grandmother and her younger brother. As we walked through the door, we took in the surrounding environment, and as the eight of us sat around the kitchen table, we noticed an old guitar propped up against the wall near the fireplace. The markings on the face of the guitar revealed years of use. In the room to the right of the kitchen, we saw two pianos.

After niceties were shared and we were all settled in, I asked Sarah’s mom who teaches piano and plays the guitar. It turns out that in addition to his day job, Sarah’s dad is a music teacher on the side—and Sarah is a talented musician. This visit helped us discover that one of our prospective students had a passion for music, which allowed us to connect with her in a more meaningful way.

If we are going to build strong relationships with our students and truly create lifelong learners, we must start the process with genuine care, zeal and curiosity for learning about each one. Finding out what makes an individual tick requires understanding the environment they spend most of their time in when they’re outside the classroom.

Home visits typically uncover opportunities for us to develop deeper relationships—whether by helping us learn about a student’s passions and talents, or deepening our understanding of the challenges a student is facing and related stressors.

There is power in knowing more about our students than what we see on paper. Although these visits are time consuming, they’re critical—getting into the home can make a world of difference in the kinds of learning experiences we can provide for students in school. When we enter a student’s home, we demonstrate a commitment to understanding each child’s circumstance, we show children and families that they are valued and we help school staff build relationships with students that are rooted in trust.

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