Stop Pathologizing Children and Start Helping Them

1:10 pm

We need to stop pathologizing the development of children and start concentrating on where they are as opposed to where we think they should be with regard to norm-based benchmarks. The fact that a disproportionate percentage of low-income minorities are not “at grade level” means they are not achieving on norm-based standardized tests at the level of their affluent white peers. Is that really so surprising? We need to give them more of the advantages that their white peers take for granted, not fewer.

Here in PPS, starting in pre-K, kids engage in a curriculum and a school experience that has doing well on the 3rd grade tests as its primary objective. Teachers are focused on regularly measuring kids’ progress through a set of norm-based benchmarks; those kids that are not “at benchmark” are flagged and given additional assistance.

The rationale is that focusing on their measurable skills and providing remediation when necessary will help these kids and will serve as the primary means through which the achievement gap will be closed. But what is not considered is that additional assistance takes more time for both the teacher and the student.

This is time away from other things (e.g., art, music, etc.). The underlying rationale is that low-income minority kids are too far behind and don’t have time to do anything else. So, to “save” them, they are denied art, music, recess, PE, etc., and given a heavy dose of skills-based exercises, most of which are to practice for the test and to close the measurable gap.

In PPS, you hear folks like Jonah Edelman from Stand for Children say that things are not as bad as they are in D.C., “where they do 51 days of test prep.”

But I make the distinction between explicit test prep (a la D.C.) and implicit test prep (a la PPS).

Implicit test prep = a curriculum and a school experience designed to raise the measurable achievement of all students.

Under this test-centric regime, it’s logical that non-tested subjects are given short shrift. But it overlooks the fact that kids, esp. very young kids, need a broad base of experience including art, music, and free, unstructured play (i.e., recess) to develop to their full potential.

Ironically, it’s low-income minority kids that need this broad-based experience even more than their affluent white peers because they are less likely to have these experience outside of school, whereas affluent white kids are more likely to be exposed to art, music, etc.

We also need to take into account that standardized tests are an extremely poor measure of what kids know and can do, and they — at best — only measure a very narrow band of who are they are and what they are becoming. What about attitudes towards learning? What about curiosity? What about tenacity? What about inter and intra-personal communication skills? Creativity? Critical thinking? None of these things are measured, and therefore none of these things count.

Sure, there’s a lot of lip service paid to these things, as well as “teaching to the whole child” and “differentiating instruction” to accommodate their various levels of development. But the fact is that all kids are expected to be at the same place at the same time. If they’re not, then something is said to be wrong with them. We don’t take into consideration the fact that all kids — all people — develop differently and at their own pace.

But we also don’t take into account that not all kids are good at the same things. To hold academic skills up as the holy grail automatically guarantees that a large number of kids are doomed to fail. They are good at other things, but they are never allowed to show they are good at these things or develop their capacity in these other things because these other things simply don’t exist as possible options. Not good at math and not a quick, accurate, fluent reader? Then you’re f*&#$’ed. It’s as simple as that.

If we stopped pathologizing kids’ development and instead focused on where they were, not where we demanded they be via some arbitrary set of standards, we’d go a long way in acknowledging the broad continuum of development that characterizes all people as they learn anything. We’d also be more likely to acknowledge the need to focus on developing the full potential of kids, not just enlarging their craniums and improving their test scores.

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Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

filed under: Assessment, Curriculum, Equity, No Child Left Behind, Reform, Standardized Testing

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105 Responses

  1. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    ohme – would you offer your perspective on the issue of behavior and low-income schools? PPS_Expatriate, Rose, and Stephanie have presented one side of the argument, while Steve Buel has offered another side in a different thread on this blog.

  2. Comment from ohme:

    I would love to give my perspective.
    Working in a low income high needs school has given me a first hand view of things. First, I would agree that a teacher with strong management skills and a well organized classroom can lower the impact of behavior problems in the classroom. Overall, I do see a high percentage of children for whom behavior interferes with learning. Children who have parents in crisis, have lived with multiple relatives, are more likely to be left in the care of older cousins or siblings are more likely to be the victims of or have witnessed inappropriate actions. These children tend to be children in poverty, as you have mentioned.
    The difficulty lies in that one very disturbed child (through no fault of their own) can completely disrupt the learning in the classroom. Children with this level of need tend to be in high poverty schools. When one child can disrupt learning, when do the needs of the other 25 students outweigh the needs of the one disturbed child? It takes years of documentation to get them the help they need, while the children around them and the teachers who have little to no training to help them, are left frustrated and not learning.
    Another component of this is language use. A more affluent child is more likely to have appropriate coping strategies when they are upset, like using words, like their parents have taught them. I see at least 25% of children who have none of these strategies to deal with stress and anger, and so are more likely to act inappropriately. Children learn from their parents, so when I see a 5-6 year old cursing, yelling, hitting, and blaming everyone else for their actions, I know where that behavior is coming from. It takes time to reteach behavior when the expected behavior is so far removed from what is expected and seen at home. For example, I had a student once who stole from me. The item stolen was valued under $20. The parent said “Why is he in so much trouble? That costs less than $20!” There was no support from the home.
    There is a medical/financial component as well. If a parent with resources notices their infant is not making appropriate milestones, they are more likely to check up with a physician. If the doctor says the child has a problem, they are more likely to find interventions, medication, etc.
    One year, we had 5 undiagnosed autistic children come to the first day of kindergarten. No interventions, no help. Needless to say, those first few days of kindergarten were quite an experience in those rooms.
    Another difficulty is newcomer ELL students. We have gotten children from refugee camps who speak languages that nobody speaks in the building. They become (through no fault of their own) a huge management/behavior issue.
    Add to all that the reality that district behavior rooms are more likely to be housed in poverty schools, which means more children will witness “breakdowns” in the halls or cafeteria.
    It is quite the “perfect storm” of factors contributing to behavior issues in a low SES…all of which I have experienced and/or witnessed. I wonder if these factors are experienced as much in higher SES or charter, or focus option schools?

    I hope this helps the understanding of the impact behavior has on learning and school climate.

  3. Comment from Stephanie Hunter:

    Oh me – This is great information from your firsthand experience. One thing I want to add from my years of working in family homes through disability services and child welfare is that there is a responsibility the county and state have to these families. I have seen families begging for help that receive none. I have gone to bat for parents that are doing a great job but their kid still has mental health issues that cause problems and the poor parents are blamed for bad parenting and DHS steps in because the school calls in abuse simply based on the child’s school behavior. Seemingly affluent parents have to deal with stereotyping as well when it comes to mental health and disabilities. I know parents that have mortgaged themselves into serious debt and they “look like” they can afford the sun and moon and the county worker will berate them for asking for help purchasing medical equipment. So much more to say but have to get back to work. How can we get all of this information into more of a structure to look at this stuff more closely and be solution-oriented?

  4. Comment from Rose:

    Ohme, thank you for your comments and expertise.

  5. Comment from mneloa:

    On the subject of ‘behavior rooms’, I wonder If Buckman has one. It certainly never was mentioned, but about 5 years ago a kid did something in that room that caused the police to taser him and the school to go into a brief lockdown. It was hushed up like you wouldn’t believe.