Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Dysfunction?

Dynamite Imagery as seen on


Why is it that many of our students seem to come to school dysfunctional, and that we surmise that their families are similarly so?

From Encarta online, we get the following definition:

relating badly: characterized by an inability to function emotionally or as a social unit”

What do educators, and our society at large, really mean when they see a family or a student and say that they are dysfunctional? It seems that they are saying about the subject that “They just do not Get It”. Their behaviors, not doubt rooted in their beliefs, rooted in their values, shaped by their experiences, are maladaptive or counter-productive to what we (we being the educational establishment, which tends to have what I call a “1950’s Leave it To Beaver” value’s system) believe to be their best interest, or to the interests of society (those being in the mind of the educational establishment that students work hard, stay out of trouble, do not make trouble, do not question authority, graduate, get a high paying job, stay out of trouble, do not question authority, have kids, rinse, repeat).

Why is it that so many of the families that bring their children to school, and the children they bring, look and seem to be so very dysfunctional according to educators? Without oversimplifying this question, or the answer, it may be illuminating to ask the same of ourselves in our practices as educators as we go off to work each day.

Many people in poverty have a value set that has been arrived at through their circumstances. Ruby Payne has been a great resource in this regard ( In short, she tells us that people in poverty live for the now, and value relationships over decorum and “getting along”.

If we examine the educator’s paradigm (simplified or boiled down from the entire industry) that students should come to us ready to become the next  fine upstanding man/woman that works a 9 to 5 job, and volunteers for the children’s fair, and borrows enough to buy a big house and a nice car, we have fallen into the trap oursleves of being dysfunctional. We are relating badly (or not at all really, as we hold the keys to approval or disapproval, promotion or retention, opportunities or lack thereof) at best to students who come from a world where they do not want to live like us. Add to this the phenomenon of anti-deppressant use amongst “succesful people” in America (a friend relayed to me how in her school most of the staff were on anti-depressants) and it appears that “Leave it to Beaver” has left us on the side of the road.

Schooling can be transformational, for staff and students, but not with a new carpet-bagger curriculum or slick instructional approach guareanteed to have all students doing rocket science by the 2nd grade. It can meet the basic human needs for belongingness and a feeling of efficacy, if it is structured as such. If so, it can help to bridge the gap between “functional” staff and “dysfunctional” students and their families. More on bridge building later!


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