Monday, June 17, 2013

The Technology Of Treating Children Like Fully Formed Human Beings

I remember my first formal exposure to the "technology" of treating children like fully formed human beings -- and I often do think of it as a kind of technology in that it's the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. I'd previously been exposed to this technology via my daughter's preschool teacher, with whom I'd been working as a cooperative classroom parent for many months, but, as technology often does for the uninitiated, it just looked like magic, something Teacher Chris was able to do because she was Teacher Chris.

I was in one of Tom Drummond's classes at North Seattle Community College and he began to explain the ultimate ineffectiveness of "directive" statements. You know the kind, "Sit over here," "Stand there," "Pick that up," the sorts of adult communications with which most of our childhoods were filled. I had a small epiphany as he explained our assignment to us, which was to simply keep track of the number of directive statements we made during our next classroom day. And even as I had the epiphany that this was a part of Teacher Chris' magic trick, I doubted that it could really work, at least not all time, not for all kids, not for all ages. It was good that our assignment was simply about ourselves, about listening to our words, practicing using this new technology, not being burdened with the complications of having to make judgments about how the children were responding, just focusing on ourselves and the words we were using.

It felt incredibly awkward, then, replacing my directive statements with informative ones. For instance, instead of saying, "Pick up that block," I would try to make the more cumbersome informative statement, "I see a block on the floor and it's clean up time." One of the basic ideas, Tom explained, was that unlike directive statements which tend to shut things down, informative statements create a space in which the kids get to do their own thinking, make their own decisions about their own behavior, instead of merely engaging in the power struggle that inevitably emerges from being bossed around. It made sense to me even while it felt strange and artificial. It was true, I couldn't help but notice, that when I took the time to be informative, children were far less likely to push back rebelliously, and instead take a beat (which, I've learned means they are taking a moment to process the information you've given them) then pick up that block and put it away. 

I discovered, on my own, the truth of Tom's assertion that the ultimate weakness of relying upon directive statements is that, over time, they need to be escalated in intensity. I recall standing in our school's parking lot with a much more experienced parent as she yelled angrily after her kids, "Get your butts over here!" only to have them giggle and scamper away. When she grumbled, "I never thought I'd be the kind of parent who spanked her kids, but I'm almost there," I saw a glimpse of a place I didn't want to go.

And I still had doubts, even as I began to practice with my own preschooler, who soon detected the change in my approach and began to object to it as "teacher talk." I felt a little guilty, like a magician letting the public in on my trick, as I explained to her what I was trying to do. I remember my 5-year-old agreeing that it sounded like a good idea. She especially appreciated that I wouldn't be bossing her around, even suggesting she would be happy to help me by pointing out when I slipped up. I thought for sure that I'd ruined everything by letting the cat out of the bag, but if anything, the opposite happened. She became my ally in making "teacher talk" a more natural part of my day-to-day language until I've arrived at a point in my life when parents refer to "Teacher Tom magic." 

And still, despite all the evidence, despite all my ever-increasing expertise in using it, I was suspicious that the technology of treating children as fully formed human beings would stop working as they got older and more sophisticated. 

The father of one of my daughter's classmates was a high school teacher, a good one by all accounts; jovial, casual, humorous. I think I would have liked being in his class. As our kids approached middle school he explained his philosophy of dealing with teens to me: "Oh, I'm their best friend until they cross the line, then Bam! I come down like a house of bricks." By this time, I'd become quite confident in the use of my "teacher talk" technology when it came to preschoolers, had seen its effectiveness with my own eyes, had even customized it for my own use, but listening to this guy who everyone admired, I wondered if maybe I was, at least as a parent, going to need to adopt some of this "house of bricks" technique as my own. Well, here I am today, the parent of a 16-year-old, a kid learning to navigate all the regular high school stuff we worry about, and I've yet to feel the need to "come down" like a house of bricks. In fact, just as I did when she was 5, I find it much more productive to lay it all out for my daughter as honestly and informatively as possible, revealing my emotions, my dilemma as a parent, my concerns for her safety or her morals or her future or her reputation or whatever. No one makes great decisions all the time, but she's had a lifetime of practice, and most of the time she comes up with perfectly reasonable solutions.

None of this is magic. Like all technology it still works, often even better, when everyone knows how it works.

I've now finally come to a point at which I have complete trust in the technology of treating children like fully formed human beings. Indeed, it's a technology that works on all fully formed human beings no matter what their age and it starts with the assumption that I can never, whatever your age, command you into doing anything. My primary responsibility is to speak informatively, and to leave a space in which thinking can take place.

And still people say to me, "You're lucky. You teach privileged children," often insisting that there are some children out there who are so "damaged," who have had so little love or attention or whatever in their lives that they are somehow not ready to be treated as fully formed humans, that they need commands and punishment; that they need to learn obedience. I'm left with nothing to say, of course, because they're right in the sense that I teach the children I teach, and without a classroom of older, more damaged kids with whom to experiment, I have nothing but "Sez you!" on which to fall back. Still, I will say that much of the damage probably comes from being either abused or neglected, neither of which will be repaired by being bossed around.

This brings me around to an article I want to share with you, especially those who doubt this technology, who tend to dismiss it as "namby pamby" or "weenie," even if they are just shadows of words that haunt you when things aren't going well with the fully formed human beings with whom you are interacting. This is a long article about a high school that its principal describes as "the dumping ground," one that was once run by gangs. It's a story about how "punishing misbehavior just doesn't work. You're simply adding trauma to an already traumatized kid." It's the story of how magically this technology is working when applied to poor, disadvantaged, abused, and neglected kids.

The first time that principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he never when back to the the Old Approach to Student Discipline.

If you have any doubts, and even if you don't, this is the article to read. There's a lot great information in here; science about how and why the technology works, even on the most "hardened" kids. If you're already a devotee of this technology, it's still worth the time. This is not written to tug at the heartstrings, but it did mine. I found myself tearing up over and over at the epiphanies of teachers and students, at how they had to overcome a lifetime of believing in the myth of "tough love" and "punishment with dignity," at how the "magic trick" is being revealed to the kids themselves making them experts in their own "recovery." It's a story of teachers and children learning to use this technology together to change their lives, one they all say "is just the beginning." It's my story as well.

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MizzzSmiff said...

Years ago, very early in my teaching career, the parent of one of my students (who was a 4th grader at the time) stopped me in the hallway. She wanted to tell me that she was asking her son about school and how it was going. She wanted to know who his favorite teacher was. She wanted me to know that he had told her that it was me. When asked why I was his favorite teacher, this student of mine told his mother that it was because 'She talks to me like I am a person'. Over the years, Joseph's words have stuck with me and I think, I hope have made me a better teacher.

figz said...

Very interesting! I'll give this a try (and even consider telling my 4yo what I'm doing). It makes a lot of sense. I think these "informative" statements will inspire some problem solving too. I always thought clear, direct statements were best, and I was trying to avoid sound like all those parents who end every sentence with "...ok?" or "...please?". But your article is very convincing. Thanks!

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

In a moment of frazzled frustration, I told my children that from here on in, anyone who hit another had to spend 10 minutes alone in their bedroom. It was not my finest moment, I know. As a mother of four, I was in a panic at the end of a slap-happy day to put an end to the hitting that had been going on. Yesterday, my husband enforced the rule with our four year old who is generally kind of anxious about being alone or separated from her parents/siblings. I listened to her panic upstairs and when my husband came downstairs, I sent him up to hold her through the 10 min. I acknowledged that it was not well thought-through, and that it wasn't even working that well.
Thank you as always for inspiring and encouraging me as a parent and as a teacher. Punishment is hard on everyone. I fall on it when I feel overwhelmed (like when I try to get everyone out the door) but now I'm going to try, "Hm. We're going to the library, but we're all in bare feet!" and see where that gets me.

(also just finished reading a great book about the impact of crime on one family's life, and the power of restorative justice...excellent, eye-opening read).

Anonymous said...

This is very instructive and illuminating. The point is that this kind of advice will be understood and accepted mainly by people who would never treat their children badly, anyway. So, the target group is limited, it is like a vicious circle at the end. The goal is to make also "bad" parents, uneducated and 'simple' minded people to see the truth behind these words and act respectively. This need a whole new education system, a new mentality in order to make articles like that understandable and consumed by non-elites.

I.M. from Greece

Andrea said...

Interesting article. Thank you for giving us parents who are forever trying new ways to parent and teach our children another perspective. Often I hear advice to "respect your kids" and "treat them how you want to be treated" but rarely do I see practical examples of how to go about that in the heat of the moment. Like any other parenting technique, this takes practice and a willingness to change and re-train ourselves how to relate to our kids. It obviously worked with yours, and I hope it does with mine!

Allison said...

I was going to leave a comment along the lines of, "I try this and it doesn't work! What am I doing wrong?" ...but then I realized that what I was doing wrong was talking from too far away and not connecting with my son (age 2). I also wasn't waiting long enough. So last night I went into the living room, knelt down beside him, and we had the following conversation:
"You're playing with those trucks."
"Doors open. Doors shut."
"Those ones have doors that open and shut. Hey, dinner is waiting for us on the table."
"I park trucks."
Then we went to the dining room with no coaxing or anything.

This morning, he spilled some water. I said, "Oh, there's water on the floor." Because of this article I then waited while he stared at me, maybe 30 seconds or even a full a minute, then said "I wipe it up!"

Thanks for coming back to this topic. Maybe I'm getting the hang of this a little bit.

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