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Does This School's Sign Promote Independence or Scare Off Support?

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When I shared this image on Twitter last week, I was quickly overwhelmed by educators and parents who were eager to share their thoughts on its message.

The sign, which hangs on the front of the Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, Ark., discourages parents from dropping off forgotten lunches and homework assignments. "Your son will learn to problem-solve in your absence," it says. It has since gone viral, sparking sharp debate online and 110,000 shares on Facebook.

"It's simply to help boys avoid the default switch of calling mom and dad when things don't go right to bail them out," Principal Steve Straessle told NBC affiliate KARK.

Would it be a good idea for all schools to have a sign like this? Yes, some say, arguing that it encourages students to be independent and to cope with the consequences of their own poor planning. Others disagree, arguing that discouraging an occasional parental rescue mission may lead to some students going hungry. Everyone slips up and needs help sometimes, they say.

The conversation demonstrates the complexities of managing a thoughtful school climate. For school leaders, decisions that affect student learning and development go well beyond what curriculum they adopt and which teachers they hire. 

There are two relevant threads of social-emotional learning research here. One suggests that students need to develop skills like problem solving and perseverance to be successful in the work place. The other suggests that students, particularly more students in traditionally disadvantaged groups, are more likely to thrive and be engaged in school when they have a supportive climate and meaningful relationships with adults.

I asked University of Texas Psychologist David Yeager, who studies such concepts, what he thinks of the sign. It's all about context, he said.

"I guess I have two opinions," Yeager said via email. "If it's an elite prep school I kind of like it. Parents are often too involved. Kids need to learn independence. And a little failure in high school can be a learning experience. The most important thing would be that the school debrief with the student about the missed items, so that the student has a plan for doing it differently next time.

Another important precondition to this working is trust: if you trust that the school has your best interest at heart, then students will view this in the right light. If the school has a reputation of being unsupportive, this might come across as yet another sign of unfairness. In which case it could backfire.

If it's a really disadvantaged school, I have a mixed opinion. Random events get in the way more for poor kids than for rich kids. They need all the support they can get, often, and typically it's good to increase parent involvement in school. I'd want to support parents' involvement if it was a community where parents typically shied away."

Here are a few responses I got on Twitter.

Would you support a rule like this at your local school? Why or why not?

Related reading on student engagement and school climate:

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