February 24, 2021

A Story

This week I had the honor of participating in a dissertation defense (congratulations Dr. Jim Hollis!). The topic of his research was chronic absenteeism. Dr. Hollis interviewed young adults who were chronically absent when they were in school which means they missed more than 18 days of school in one year.

The stories of their lives, and why they missed school, were heart-wrenching. I will not participate in “poverty porn” and share the stories, but I do want to share my take-away from the study.


In many cases, a caring adult giving support to an at-risk student is all that is needed to change the trajectory of a child’s life. Notice I did not say an adult (or a school for that matter) can (or needs to) “fix” the student. What the child needs is someone they know cares about them. PERIOD. FULL STOP.

Here is a list of things these kids DO NOT NEED.

  • Barriers to in-person school attendance
  • Threats of being sent to the magistrate
  • Attendance policies that reward sitting in a chair in a classroom
  • JUDGEMENT about why they are missing school

Here is a list of things these kids DO NEED

  • Support from an adult (this can be in the school or in the community)
  • Flexibility on when and where they are educated
  • An opportunity to work and go to school
  • A social worker to help them navigate the chaos in their life

What can a Learner-Centered Leader Do to Help These Kids?

A learner-centered leader is a leader that thinks of each individual learner. You cannot “batch” kids into groups (i.e. at-risk) and treat an individual learner as part of a larger group. Each learner has their own world that a learner-centered leader must know, understand, and interact with.

Frankly, if you don’t believe this then you should not be working in public schools…just an opinion.

For easier decision-making easier…

Narrow Your Frame

The frame is uncompromisingly learner-centered. If you act on your frame, decision-making becomes easy. Implementing your decisions may not be easy, but the decision is easy.

Narrowing your frame takes a lot of potential avenues for decisions off the table. For example…

  • If a program that will help a lot of kids navigate their chaotic world is expensive, you find the money to pay for it.
  • If a policy is harmful to kids, you change it.
  • If a professional in your school dislikes kids, you get them out of your school.
  • If “the way we have always done it” is harmful to kids, you create a new way of doing things.

A learner-centered leader also thinks about all of the students in their community, even if they do not attend your school. Regardless of where they get their education, if they live in your community, your frame is “what is in the best interest of each child.”

A Challenge

For today, whether you are a teacher, principal, central office staff, or superintendent, pause every time you will make a decision and think of a specific learner, and ask yourself one question.

  1. How will my decision make this learner’s life easier/better?

Don’t think of problems implementing the decision…just consider the decision itself.

That is narrowing your frame.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Get weekly, actionable strategies and knowledge from The Learner-Centered Leader Newsletter. 

%d bloggers like this: