Friday, August 21, 2009

The Only Way To Learn About Each Other

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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Liz Gallagher said...

Yesterday I had lunch with an ex student, now 23. She is at Drama School and tells me she just spent the last year actively unlearning all the stuff her expensive private education taught her.

Cheryl said...

Tom, this is an excellent post. Thanks so much for writing it- and thank you for being a teacher.

BellaDaddy said...

I completely agree with EVERYTHING you have written here...we feel exactly the same,, and hope our child will learn from teachers like you.

PJ Mullen said...

Very well said, that is a very interesting dynamic you have at your school. My son is too young for me to have started any substantive research on schooling options, but I like the way your school works. I agree that these labels are applied to easily/liberally and I think that this name calling can surely impact that students development. Thanks for this post, very thought provoking.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

I have meant to leave a comment on this post a few times now, but couldn't wrap my mind around what I wanted to say. I wanted to be short and sweet, but probably not.

I think it is a shame that these kids are labeled and are on medication. I also think it's a shame that our educational system is so rigid and not developmental in the least that many of these kids need to be medicated in order to be successful in the classroom. As a public school teacher, I fully admit that in order to do my job with 20+ students in the classroom, having a child who yells out and disrupts others (keeping them from learning) medicated can be very helpful. I have a had a few students in my classroom where medication has made them successful in school where as when they were not on it, they weren't. I have also had one or two students who have turned into complete zombies on medication. I have heard a lot of people state that it's because "we", the teachers in the classroom, don't want to deal with these children and that medication just makes our lives easier. That is not the case. It's that we are not given the option of dealing with these children in a way that would be most beneficial to them. We are also not allowed to sacrafice the 19+ other students' education in the process. It's a slippery slope for sure. I wish there was something I could do about it, right now. But until our country's educational system gets over soley emphasizing test scores as a means for measuring our kids' (and teachers') successes, I don't know what the answer is.

I must also add (not towards anything you wrote, but just to put it out there)that many parents also medicate their children in order to deal with them in the home. In my experiences, more often than not it's the parents who bring up the prospect of medication to the schools rather than the other way around.

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks for writing this PD!

This definitely is not the fault of teachers. It is largely the fault of an underfunded educational system that too often turns good teachers into classroom managers.

People often say that teachers should make more money, and that's true, but most of the teachers I know would rather have smaller classes. That's because no one goes into teaching for the money -- we're all in this because we genuinely want to teach kids. Huge classes make it almost impossible to provide much by way of individualized instruction, so instead we're forced to try to make the kids fit the curriculum rather than the other way around.

My daughter goes to a private school where the teachers make less than the public school teachers, but the classes are limited to 16 students. And in the lower grades the kids spend most of their day in groups no larger than 8. This really gives teachers a chance to teach rather than just manage a classroom. It's not surprising that the school is flooded with resumes every time there's an opening.

I'm blessed to be teaching in the sort of environment where I can concentrate on one child at a time if I have to. I wish other teachers had the same opportunity. There are so many dedicated, hard working teachers out there, and most of them do an incredible job in spite of underfunding and large classes.

I can tell by your thoughtfulness and concern that you're one of them. =)

The Devoted Dad said...

I think this post is awesome and want some of my colleagues to read it. It is so true about how all children are a perfect example of the human specimen. As adult we place labels on everybody. It's how we categorize our world, but at the same time it can be very damaging to our relationships and ability to build them. Thanks for such a well thought out post. -Jason

Saya said...

I love both your post AND pumpkin delight's comment.
Both are so true...
My son, who is the biggest reason why I do what I do, and have heart for "maladaptive behavior". He was labeled so many times by so many people ( and I must admit, I did, too), because he is full of energy but didn't know how to control it. Never had to medicate him or deal with someone suggesting it, though.

I know some teachers that just don't want to deal with them, because it's easier for them... but not majority. I think that some people, not just teachers, pick and choose their profession for wrong reasons.

I also know that a lot of parents want to put their children on meds because they worry about their kids not adapting to school environment, tired of hearing everyone say their child is "bad", probably feel helpless.

But... when did schools become "god" on what's normal and what's not? When did they become authorities to pick and choose the children? We are supposed to work around them, work with them, not all the way around.

the schools my kids go to, they have this book about rules of conduct in school, they are so ridiculous. A child can get out-of-school suspension for using a word "whore". Yeah name calling isn't cool, but suspension? Come on.

Sorry about the long ramble.

Randi said...

I find this so interesting. I worked in the northeast for years, teaching in Montessori schools. Small class size, where the kids could choose what they wanted to do. I never had one child that had a diagnosis. I then moved to another part of the country and I worked in a traditional preschool. There I had large class sizes....and I came in contact with my first student w/ a diagnosis, then my second, third. Hmmmm something to think about.

Anonymous said...

"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."

I like your blog very much, but this is not an accurate representation of what we know about gifted kids. It's not true that gifted kids are more likely to be socially backwards--actually, within a certain range, it's a social advantage. It's also not true that skipping grades is bad for kids, generally speaking. In an ideal world, all kids should mix and mingle and receive differentiated instruction at their level...which would likely involve spending time with kids not their age. As a preschool teacher, I wouldn't think you'd be wedded to the idea that kids can't handle being with other kids of other ages--don't you have a 3-5 classroom? The single-grade structure where you only hang out with kids your age is pretty artificial, IMO.