Thursday, July 30, 2015

Each Of Them Is Perfect

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, sensory processing disorder, and autism are among the most common these days, but there are dozens of others we hang on our kids.

Name calling is never okay, and too often, 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 the rest of us, 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. Young children are 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 “industrial” 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. These children instinctively know it’s an inferior way for them to learn, so they “rebel” by insisting on learning the way best suited to them and that shows up as a "problem."

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 medication. Nearly 20 percent of high school aged boys has been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and one in ten are on drugs that purport to treat the symptoms. That tells me that the problem is more likely with schools than with kids.

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 often a mystery.

Some of their brains crackle with the mathematical foundations of patterns and sequencing, but 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.

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? These are skills that can only be learned through practice.

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 gravityerosion, or consistency. And when children are confused by the behavior of their peers, there’s an adult available to provide social words like sharingpretending, 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, in the hands of professionals, 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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greyhoundgirl said...

For the most part I agree with your viewpoint and, as a child development consultant, found it to be a good reminder for me. I often ask myself, and the teachers I work with, "What would be different if this child had a diagnosis? Would the strategies we use to support that child change?" The answer is almost always no, except in extreme cases where a child clearly needs some expert help and a diagnosis is the only way that they would get it. Your statement that you set out to prove a label wrong and take it as a personal challenge to do so is curious. This seems to be as much (or more) about you and your needs as about supporting children. I'm thinking it may be more useful to not set out to prove or disprove anything, but to be with the children in the supportive, hands-off-eyes-and-heart-on style that you write about. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot you don't know about giftedness, teacher Tom. :( Pretty surprised that you associate it with lack of social skills.

Teacher Tom said...

You're right, Anonymous, there is a lot I don't know, which is why I shouldn't be using these labels at all. It's why I used modifiers like "some" and "often" throughout this post. My experience has been that the children who are most likely to be labeled "gifted," however, struggle at least as much, if not more, than their "normal" classmates, and this is born out by the research I've reviewed. That said, of course, there are many who don't struggle. This is why I don't want to know a child's "label" or diagnosis: they are all unique individuals and the moment I approach them as a label is the moment I disrespect them.

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