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Have We Drifted Away From Informed Child-Development Practices?

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Child development is not part of the reform agenda. Yet, at the local level it is our daily reality.  In some schools, assessments on computers to capture and measure understanding, information, and skills begins as early as Kindergarten. The accountability frenzy has trumped not only common sense, but years of child development research and theory. 

The ire of leaders, teachers, and parents on the local level, will only rise as the testing culture becomes embedded practice.  Some have experienced youngsters becoming sick before, during, or after the testing.  Parents have kept students home on testing day.  School environments become tense as principals and teachers impose testing schedules that intrude on valuable teaching and learning time. How does this help us maintain school cultures intended to create and conserve safe, nurturing, learning environments for children?  It does not. What are our choices?  

To be fair, the reform agenda and testing are not the only reasons we have drifted away from informed child development practices.  Somehow, as a society, we have become comfortable with the notion that children are little adults.  Beauty contests for one year olds, with hair extensions and fake teeth are not only popular in some regions, they are televised and watched enough to be renewed season after season.  Seriously? While well-meaning parents may encourage their children to watch world and local news as a family, the commercials contain adult intimacy, partially clothed men and women, and gratuitous violence.  Our children are bombarded with information and visual experiences over which we have little control.  Adolescents are partying by the hundreds in empty houses and parents object to them being held responsible for the damage done. And the local DA relates his own story of fleeing form police at a similar event a few decades back. Really? Do we wonder how this is all happening? We are the educators, the voters, the parents allowing it. Have we lost our sense of what maturity is?

Consider the Montana judge who recently commented on the case of a former high school teacher who confessed to the rape of Cherice Moralez, a student. In the US News on NBCNEWS.com article, it was reported that the judge sentenced him to only a thirty days in prison. Why? The judge concluded that the girl "was older than her chronological age" and was in "as much control" as the teacher. Is that possible? The teacher was 54 years old; she was 14. She committed suicide in 2010, approximately two years after the rape.  The school superintendent is "appalled" and has joined hundreds of others in objecting to the inadequacy of the sentence. An online petition calls for the judge's resignation; he intends to stay on.

Tim Elmore's new book, Artificial Maturity, contextualizes part of this dilemma. He argues that children are overexposed to information, far earlier than they are ready and children are underexposed to real life experiences, far later than they are ready. He goes on to suggest that 10 things can shift artificial maturity into authentic maturity:

  • Face to face relationships
  • Genuine projects and experiences
  • Multigenerational exposure
  • Saving money toward a goal
  • Service opportunities
  • Cross cultural travel
  • Mammoth real life challenges and opportunities
  • Participation on a team
  • Age appropriate mentors
  • A rite of passage (pp. 122-127)

His work is worth a look, especially since many of these 10 recommendations might occur in our schools. Certainly, we know that age does not determine maturity and society will be stronger when truly mature young people leave our schools. It may also help people like the judge understand that the relationships formed at school must be healthy. Otherwise our children can't be.

Let's look at our practices and ask ourselves if what we are asking of our students is age appropriate.  Here are some examples of where we may be taking missteps that can be reconsidered.

On the high school level we encourage students to be engaged in sports or other activities in addition to attending to their academic classes.  It is not uncommon for (as an example) an AP teacher to stress the importance of coming to a review class while a coach is expressing the commitment to the team and the need for practice before the final competition.  From the student's point of view, they have two adults pulling them in different directions.  Both adults have (hopefully) established relationships with the student and now the student has to choose.  There may be those of you who are thinking that this is a "real life" situation and that students must learn how to prioritize and make value based choices.  We would argue that they are still children and yes, they must learn how to prioritize and make choices - but we should be teaching them how.  The role of the leader in this situation becomes clear. 

An environment in which adults are advocating for their own interests for the child and beliefs about what is right for that child can place young adults in an unfair and unhealthy position.  In a school culture in which adults understand and respect the goals and intentions of the school experience, in which they work together to make most things possible for students, this type of selfish advocacy does not exist.  It is a healthier school culture where adults sit with students and help them develop the skills to make this type of decision.  Rather than the AP teacher advocating for study and the coach advocating for practice, imagine the two adults (or either of them) sitting with the student and helping them make a list of plusses and minuses, for each of the decisions they have to make, without bias, and then allowing the student to make the decision without fear of disappointing the teacher or coach.  Even better, can't the adults figure out how to schedule their lives to let students achieve both? Where do those artificial limits of time come from? Not from the child...

An example on the elementary level is the testing one.  Assessment reveals what a student knows and what they need to learn.  Although assessment ends in a number or a label, and is, at least for now, a requirement, where does the pressure come from?  If assessments are given in the computer lab, it should be a familiar place for these young students, a place they have been before and where they have become comfortable.  Where does the pressure come from?  It must be from the adults.  No amount of pressure will force a student to "do better."  Here another opportunity for leaders to address issues of culture and climate arises.  Can we conceive of a testing program that is high stakes and low pressure?

Children deserve to spend their days growing up in safe and supportive environments.  The school is the only environment we can control.  Sometimes we wonder if even that is possible. Home environments, where children develop values and their play time, their social and Internet environments, all exist without our hand.  But we can, without a doubt, lead our school environments to be developmentally sound,  safe, supportive, guiding environments.  Now, more than ever, this is important.  We cannot allow our urgency to implement or get things done to impact our students any more than necessary.  It simply is not developmentally appropriate.  AP exams, plays, art exhibitions, sports competitions, standardized assessments, extra help afterschool, are always going to be competing needs and interests for our students.  We maintain the culture and climate, the environment in which our students live every day.  If we are mindful of our students' experiences and remember the value of childhood, we can make a difference.

Resource:
Elmore, Tim (2012). Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet The Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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