Thursday, September 16, 2010

Guest post: Elephant in the room, continued

[From Chris at ABlogAboutSchool]

After my last post, a reader asked me to explain what it was I disagreed with about the article I linked to. FedUpMom asked me to pass my response along here:

Yeah, it was a smart-alecky post, granted. I deserve to be called on it, if only as a reminder that I shouldn’t act as if I’m writing only to people who already agree with me.

The reason I felt provoked by that seemingly innocuous article was that, like so much other commentary about kids who have trouble “adjusting,” it never seemed to consider the possibility that it might be the school, and not the kid, that has the adjustment problem -- that “school refusal” might be a perfectly normal and even healthy reaction to the conditions of today’s schools. (Echoes of Peter Gray.) Yes, the author acknowledges that sometimes the school environment needs to change, but she refers to things like “a bully, a bathroom with no doors on the stalls.” How about an environment where learning is seen as “work” that no one would freely choose to do, or where kids have little or no autonomy over what they learn about or how they spend their time, or where “being good” is defined primarily in terms of being quiet and obedient, or where recess is cut back to a minimum and used as a punishment tool, or where education is conceived entirely in terms of one’s ability to score well on standardized tests in math and reading? Given the environment of our schools, I wonder as much about the kids who aren’t “school refusers” as the ones who are.

Am I exaggerating? My kids tell me they like going to school (though they sometimes have their complaints about it, and they never seem sorry to see summer vacation arrive). I know that some good things go on there, and I like the teachers and often think they are doing their best under difficult conditions. Yet there have been times when I have observed my kids in school and seen looks of boredom on their faces that I never thought possible. It seems to me that their happiness in school depends an awful lot on their ability not to think -- not to imagine how things might be different, not to wonder whether there might be more valuable and fulfilling ways to spend their time, not to notice the everyday petty unfairnesses of institutional life, and not to credit their own perceptions and experience. The child who thinks “I’m just not good at paying attention” might actually be happier than the one who thinks “I’m confined to a boring institution.” But is that the kind of happiness I want for my child? And do those have to be the choices?

I don’t want my kids to be malcontents, but I don’t want them to be Stepford children, either. Why is it only the malcontents who are sent to the school psychologist?

I get a stomachache just thinking about it. I may have to go see the nurse.


  1. Thanks for the cross-post, Chris!

    This discussion reminds me of a post on kitchen table math, Diagnosis Diagnosed. A psychologist named Galen Alessi did a survey of 50 school psychologists. In theory, they all agreed that a child's problem might fall in any of these 5 categories:

    1.) bad curriculum, or wrong placement
    2.) teacher mismatch, or bad classroom management
    3.) problems caused by the school administration
    4.) problems with the family
    5.) problems with the child

    In practice, out of about 5000 cases, the school was NEVER identified as the cause of the problem. The problem was always located within the child and/or family.

    School psychologists have a million reasons to blame the child. Their training is all about diagnosing problems in children. Then, even if they perceived a problem in the school (for instance, developmentally inappropriate expectations), they might not be able to do anything about it. Plus, they don't want to cause unpleasantness at their workplace.

    The situation for pediatricians is very similar. Blaming the child is the path of least resistance.

  2. PsychMom says:

    The lack of a basic link to normal growth and development and what is expected at developmental milestone, is what stuns me about some school psychologists. I quietly replace books on the bookstore shelves that are written by Ph.D's who write books about how to help young children to "get organized", and who deal with "time management" issues. They are only trying to make all those star shaped children fit into round tidy school holes.