I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t even hold a degree in early childhood education. I’m just a guy who has gotten to know a lot of young children.
I’ve never met a child who isn’t a perfect specimen of the human species. Some are startled by every sudden movement or noise. Some are oblivious to jackhammers. Some can’t focus on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. Some can lose themselves in contemplation of a mote. Some can scale the sides of a building. Some sit on their bottoms to scoot down the stairs. Some know the names of all the dinosaurs. Some barely know their own names. And each of them is perfect.
I’m speaking scientifically.
We live in an age in which it seems everything outside the norm gets a label. There are so many “conditions,” “disorders,” and “syndromes,” it’s impossible to keep track. All of the kids I've ever known could be placed along one “spectrum” or another: ADD/ADHD, gifted, and Autism Spectrum Disorders are the trendiest labels, but there are dozens of others we hang on our kids.
Name calling is never okay, and that’s what this is. These diagnosies are medical or academic terms, used by professionals to help guide them through the literature related to specific symptoms and behaviors. In the mouths of anyone else, it’s name calling. None of us really know what we’re talking about when it comes to this stuff. Indeed, there is the occasional parent who has studied up on a subject because a label’s been hung on her child, and I give her credit for her expertise insofar as her individual, beloved child is concerned, but not much beyond that. They’re all so different, especially as preschoolers whose development is notoriously “spikey,” it’s impossible for us laypeople to generalize from one child to the next.
Every child arrives in the world as an amazing collection of biological tendencies and potentials. When we teach, we strive through our love and attention to shape those tendencies and potentials. Setting labels aside, what scientists are really telling us is that every child processes information differently, and it’s our job as teachers to figure out how to best teach each child as an individual, not according to stereotypes.
Many children, for instance, need to use their whole bodies to learn, fidgeting around, sticking their noses into this place and that, almost as if they’re hunting for knowledge, which is what author Thom Hartmann (author of 8 books on the topic) says is the core characteristic of people who are often labeled with ADD or ADHD. He theorizes that this is left over from our ancestral hunter-gatherer instincts and it often shows up as a problem in our contemporary “agricultural” society. The problem isn’t with the kids. The problem is that we try to get them to sit in desks, facing forward, and learn with just their ears and eyes. They instinctively know it’s an inferior way for them to learn, so they “rebel” by insisting on learning the way best suited to them.
Traditional schools with one teacher and 20+ students have a hard time serving these kids, so the children are too often made to fit the traditional school through interventions or medications such as Ritalin. (I even know of one instance where a public school gave a family a choice about their 3rd grader: drugs or expulsion.)
Other children have brains ready-made for understanding the physical and theoretical world through its patterns and policies. They readily comprehend order, repetition, consistency, and rules. We often call them “geniuses" (which is a loaded label in its own right). I once sat beside one of these pattern-seeking boys watching other children playing pirates and mermaids on and around a pirate ship built from blocks. He watched thoughtfully for a time, then leaned over to me and asked, “Is this pretend?” This boy upon whom the label “gifted” could easily have been hung, spent his free-play time deftly organizing small objects by size and color, working puzzles, and counting anything and everything, but the behavior of his peers was a mystery.
These little brains crackle with the mathematical foundations of patterns and sequencing, but they often struggle with the parts of life that involve comprehending the unpredictable complexities of the other human beings, especially their preschool-aged peers. Traditional schools with one teacher and 20+ students have a hard time serving these kids, so they are often ghetto-ized in “gifted” programs full of other children who are equally confused by human behavior or, worse yet, promoted to higher grades where their peers are on an entirely different social plane.
Found along the same continuum as those with the “gifted” label we find other children who sometimes seem locked up within themselves, and often miss the emotional and social cues that other kids more readily interpret. They want to make friends, but struggle to communicate appropriately, not instinctively comprehending the importance of eye contact, proximity, or facial expressions. They might even display behaviors that strike us as awkward, or even bizarre. The labels of “autistic," “Aspergers,” or even “obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)” are whispered about them.
Traditional schools struggle to serve these kids as well, and like the children upon whom is hung the “gifted” label, these children find themselves segregated, very often into programs full of children with similar challenges. How does one ever learn social skills in that kind of environment?
At one time or another every child demonstrates symptoms of ADD/ADHD, giftedness, autism and all the other syndromes and conditions out there. I’m not saying these labels don’t refer to real phenomenon, but rather that the “symptoms” are also all part of the normal range of behavior found in a preschool classroom. Because we are a cooperative preschool, with a plentitude of engaged adults at hand, our Woodland Park community represents a good model for accommodating and incorporating these various methods of processing information. We have the ability to work with these children within a community setting, without turning the entire school on its head, drugging them, or segregating them according to their label.
We provide a wide variety of adult-monitored activities for when children need to bounce from thing to thing. On a typical morning we run 6-7 stations, each “staffed” by an adult, and the children are free to spend as much or as little time as they want at each of them. They can sit or they can stand. They can work alone or as part of a large group. They can be loud or quite. They can even choose from a dozen or so other options found around the classroom. And if that fails, I'm happy to go to my storage closet and pull out something else.
We also provide intensive one-on-one attention to the children who have an intellectual need to focus deeply. When a child wants help with a challenging puzzle, for instance, there is always an adult available to guide her through it. When a child wants to quietly study the way sand moves through funnels and tubes, there is an adult there to help hold things and to provide scientific words like gravity, erosion, or consistency. And when children are confused by the behavior of their peers, there’s an adult available to provide social words like sharing, pretending, and joking.
We also have the manpower to provide on-the-spot, individualized coaching when children are struggling with how to appropriately interact with their friends. There is always an adult available to remind a child to make eye contact, touch gently, stand closer, or speak more clearly.
In large part, it’s this ability to teach children as a group as well as individuals that makes the cooperative model so powerful and effective. Our community is not built so much by a teacher or a curriculum or an educational theory, but by our ability to aggregate and accommodate all the strange and wonderful differences found in these perfect specimens of humanity. We get to learn together and learn from each other. Both children and adults are taught important lessons about diversity and tolerance.
I strive every day to avoid treating any child according to stereotypes, and when one comes to me with a label already attached, I take it as a personal challenge to remove it. And it’s not just these “serious” labels with which I take issue. When a parent drops off a child saying, “She’s crabby this morning,” for instance, I set out to prove that label wrong as well.
I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t heed their doctors and teachers when they hang a label on their child. I’m not even saying that these labels don’t have their clinical usefulness. And I’m aware that there are extreme examples of everything that call for extreme solutions.
But out here in the real world, where everyone is a perfect specimen, it’s important to give all of our children the opportunity to be a member of a robust and diverse community, with all its awkward spikiness, and without labels. Whatever our learning style, whatever our strengths and weaknesses, being together as representatives of the whole world is the only way to learn about each other.
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