Another paradigm blown to bits

“I’m not a child development expert, but I play one on TV.”

Wait. That’s not what I meant to say, but it just sounded so silly, I had to. What I really meant to say is that I’m not a child development expert, but I hang around with a whole bunch of kids. Just like Santa, I see them when they’re naughty and when their nice, and I know when they’ve been good or bad. I’ve also watched a lot of them grow up over time, with the most startling ones being the awful little 5 year olds who turn into lovely 10 or 12 year olds (I own one of those).

I’ve therefore drawn a lot of conclusions based on my real life, real time observations: (1) no matter the child’s objective deficits, structure and discipline (by which I do not mean abuse and insults) make a huge difference in controlling negative behaviors; (2) some kids, especially boys, are slower than their peers in developing impulse control; (3) most kids need some time during the day in which they can really run around and burn off excess energy, without being constrained by lawsuit or “tender flower” playground rules militating against real activity; (4) kids respond like flowers to water when given genuine praise and are morally destroyed by false praise; and (5) kids are growing so constantly that yesterday’s child may bear little physical, mental or social relationship to tomorrow’s child. I bet all of you have noticed pretty much the same things.

Experts, however, who study children in a vacuum, seem to have a harder time drawing logical conclusions. Even school teachers see children frozen in a moment. A lifelong 3rd grade teacher sees 8 year olds. She doesn’t have a sense of the child’s trajectory from K through, say, 5th or 6th grade. Without the sense of time, and the changes that time brings, one can draw false conclusions about what makes little kids tick and, more importantly, how they change.

This prolonged introduction arises because I wanted to give you a context for how I viewed this news:

Educators and psychologists have long feared that children entering school with behavior problems were doomed to fall behind in

One concluded that kindergartners who are identified as troubled do as well academically as their peers in elementary school. The other found that children with attention deficit disorders suffer primarily from a delay in brain development, not from a deficit or flaw.

Experts say the findings of the two studies, being published today in separate journals, could change the way scientists, teachers and parents understand and manage children who are disruptive or emotionally withdrawn in the early years of school. The studies might even prompt a reassessment of the possible causes of disruptive behavior in some children.

“I think these may become landmark findings, forcing us to ask whether these acting-out kinds of problems are secondary to the inappropriate maturity expectations that some educators place on young children as soon as they enter classrooms,” said Sharon Landesman Ramey, director of the Georgetown University Center on Health and Education, who was not connected with either study.

My response, copied verbatim from my 5th grader is, “Well, duh!” I’m only surprised that it took so long for the experts to figure out that children grow and change.  And if you need proof for that, I can tell you that all children are naughty but, thank goodness, most adults are not.

9 Responses

  1. There you go again – confusing the issues with rational thought. Foolish mortal!

  2. C’mon, Bookworm! You’re caricaturing the positions of the educators. You’re claiming that educators are unaware of the fact that children develop. That’s absurd. At the very least, why then do most educators take a psychology course called “Child Development”?

  3. Sounds like some researchers are rediscovering Piaget.

    My simple-minded understanding of Piaget’s theory is that children have something like “time-release capsules” in their brains. There is a “capsule” for learning to count, another for understanding the concept of equality, still another for learning to read, and so on. Piaget asserted that trying to teach a child any skill before his or her “capsule” for that skill has “fired off” is not only a waste of time, but probably harmful as well.

    There is great variation among children — especially in the early years — in the timing of when each of their “capsules” fires off. Testing children of a specific age group for a particular ability is like taking a time slice across a developmental continuum. Some of the children will have had their “capsules” for the skill fire off, and others will not.

    It does not necessarily mean that some of the children are developmentally disabled or mentally handicapped. It just means that their “capsules” for that particular skill haven’t fired off yet. And the reassuring news from Piaget is that the “capsules” will, eventually, fire off, and when they do the children will be ready to learn the skill. How many teenagers, after all, do you know who have not yet mastered toilet training?

    To change metaphors: It seems to me that a child’s brain is like a garden with many different kinds of seeds planted in it. I think it is for us as parents and teachers to water and fertilize what’s there, and not to worry too much if our child’s carrots sprout a little later than someone else’s — and not be too proud if our child’s corn happens to ripen first. We can all still look forward to a plentiful harvest in the fall.

  4. The son of a friend of mine talked in sentences before he was one and didn’t walk until 18 months.

    I hadn’t heard it described as a “capsule”, highlander, but that’s pretty much right on. The idea that a child learns gradually from K or 1st grade and will be “behind” if they don’t progress with their peers ignores the fact that learning doesn’t happen in that gradual manner. It happens, particularly in those early years, in leaps and bounds. The ONLY reason for a child without a disability who doesn’t read by 3rd grade to remain “behind” class level is that they have internalized the self-concept that they are stupid and can’t learn.

    My homeschooled daughter who is in a public high school this year who didn’t read until she was 10 and didn’t read much to speak of until she was 12 and *still* doesn’t read rapidly, tested at the top of her class this fall in vocabulary and choses to read college level psychology books when she reads.

    Because no one ever told her she was dumb because (well, actually, when she started posting to psychology forums with really poor English skills they *did* but she wasn’t in 2nd and 3rd grade by then) she wasn’t reading as well as the rest of the class.

    There are a whole lot of children who shouldn’t even be in school until 3rd grade.

  5. Ophi, that’s an excellent question about whether these scientists benefit from their education. Clearly, with regard to confidently predicting that difficult little kids would inevitably be problem older kids, they didn’t. They let theory override common sense, which is a fairly common problem in academia.

    I’m working on a policy committee at my kids’ public school and can tell you a few things about the educators in charge: they really care about the children, they work hard, and they speak in cant that they are unable to translate. A lot of these theories get credence because many of the theoreticians, or at least the people running with the ideas, have no idea what they’re saying.

    When I was an undergrad, I earned the undying enmity of many of my teachers because I insisted on having them translate the professional jargon they insisted on sprinkling around the classroom. As often as not, they were unable to translate it, or looked ridiculous when they did. Instead, of reexamining their assumptions, they simply turned on me because I showed that, like the emperor, they had no clothes.

    Incidentally, this is not sour grapes talking because, despite their hostility, I managed to graduate with high honors, and that’s despite having done very little work during my four years at that fine institution.

  6. Jeez, Bookword, you gotta lotta resentment there!😉

    First off, I’ll agree that many educators get caught up in the fads. I taught once, many years ago, and had one of the fads of that day imposed on me by the administration. I was initially open-minded about it and made an honest effort to make it work. At the end of my first year, I reported back to the administration that it wasn’t working as well as the traditional approach. They overruled me. When I informed other faculty of my experiences (I was the trial balloon for the whole school), the administration fired me. So yes, I know something about fads, weak thinking, and so forth.

    Still, I’m not as quick to condemn educators as you are. For example, let’s talk about cant. Every profession uses it. The legal profession uses it. Now, if you really do understand your field, you can explain the cant to an outsider in normal language, although it always takes a while to communicate the subtle connotations of the terminology.

    And I certainly agree with you that many people use cant to intimidate others. That’s a universal trait — we all like to dump sesquipedalian terminology on others as a kind of verbal chest-thumping. I myself am vulnerable to accusations of a thrasonical vocabulary.

    I too tormented by professors in college, but I never encountered any who resented me for it. I think they respected me for challenging them effectively. I recall one professor whom I particularly bedeviled, including proving that he had used an incorrect answer on a test. He gave me an “A” even though I missed the final due to illness.

    Perhaps you had lousy professors. Perhaps the problem was confined to a few disciplines — I have long felt that philosophy profs and sociology profs seem to be especially inflexible — although that was based on only a handful of samples.

    In any case, I urge you to be less quick to condemn those around you. The world is a big complicated place and every time I have investigated something closely, I have discovered factors that I had not taken into account in my first forays.

  7. A few comments to your comments, Ophi.

    Jeez, Bookworm, you gotta lotta resentment there!😉

    You’re right about that Ophi, because I’m a product of public school fads, with the result being that probably 40% of my solid academic skills arise from the fact that I’m an autodidact — and even that doesn’t go all the way to compensating for the major deficits those experiments left me with in mathematics. My father was also a teacher, and I saw the damage done to his students as his phenomenal skills were degraded by every social and academic experiment that came along, most of which made it impossible for him actually to teach.

    Still, I’m not as quick to condemn educators as you are. For example, let’s talk about cant. Every profession uses it. The legal profession uses it. Now, if you really do understand your field, you can explain the cant to an outsider in normal language, although it always takes a while to communicate the subtle connotations of the terminology.

    I do use cant, when I speak to other attorneys. When I’m not speaking to attorneys, I revert to English. As I’ve noted before, what was so disturbing for me in my meeting at the school was the fact that the educators using this cant truly had no idea what it meant. They were incapable of even beginning the explanation process. The cant words on which they relied were words behind which they hid their ignorance, not short hand expressions to shared concepts. In other words, I’m not talking about “subtle connotations,” I’m talking about people who throw around phrases that are as unintelligible to them as they are to me.

    And I certainly agree with you that many people use cant to intimidate others. That’s a universal trait — we all like to dump sesquipedalian terminology on others as a kind of verbal chest-thumping. I myself am vulnerable to accusations of a thrasonical vocabulary.

    I’ve never been intimidated by cant, because I’m not shy about exposing my ignorance when it comes to words or phrases. If someone can explain the concepts to me, my mental horizons expand. However, if they’re incapable of doing so, they’ve demonstrated that they are relying on cant, if not to intimidate me, but at least to intimidate others so that they can push forward an agenda with which the others might not agree.

    I too tormented by professors in college, but I never encountered any who resented me for it. I think they respected me for challenging them effectively. I recall one professor whom I particularly bedeviled, including proving that he had used an incorrect answer on a test. He gave me an “A” even though I missed the final due to illness.

    I suspect you are talking about science professors, and not social science and English professors. Even though scientists make mistakes, either in their facts or their theories, their discipline is open to be tested and challenged. English and social studies (and history too), at least by the time I came along, were closed intellectual systems with long-haired academic types who did not take kindly to having someone who didn’t even challenge their orthodoxies, but simply exposed the fact that those orthodoxies existed.

    Perhaps you had lousy professors. Perhaps the problem was confined to a few disciplines — I have long felt that philosophy profs and sociology profs seem to be especially inflexible — although that was based on only a handful of samples.

    Oh, I definitely had lousy professors — but they were lousy precisely because they were so bound by their closed worldviews.

    In any case, I urge you to be less quick to condemn those around you. The world is a big complicated place and every time I have investigated something closely, I have discovered factors that I had not taken into account in my first forays.

    I’m actually a pretty tolerant person, Ophi. However, this blog serves as a forum for things about which I am not tolerant — and ludicrous theories about children, theories that have little relationship to real children and how they learn, are one of the things about which I have no tolerance. Also, as you’ve gathered, I have no tolerance for people hiding behind three dollar words to hide either (1) ignorance or (2) agenda.

    By the way, let me add here that, while I disagree with you on many things, I am truly appreciative of the fact that you debate with civility and that you back up your assertions with facts. I don’t always think your facts are the appropriate ones to support your arguments, nor do I believe that some of your fundamental premises are correct (which may explain why I think you’re looking to the wrong facts), but you are truly bringing debate to this blog, and that is a very healthy and stimulating thing.

  8. what was so disturbing for me in my meeting at the school was the fact that the educators using this cant truly had no idea what it meant.

    I’ll join you in condemning that behavior. I have no tolerance for it, either. I misapprehended you, thinking your condemnation to be general to the teaching profession rather than specific to those teachers. Let’s hang ’em high! (And I can regale you with my own tales of spectacularly incompetent teachers.)

    English and social studies (and history too), at least by the time I came along, were closed intellectual systems

    Again, I share your discomfort with much of the academic work done in the arts and humanities. It’s interesting that you would describe them as “closed intellectual systems” — that’s exactly the same phrase I used in a paper I wrote that was published in an academic journal. In general, I think that there’s a lot of bull in these fields. On the other hand, however, I have had my eyes opened by the occasional insight derived from these fields, so I’m reluctant to condemn them. Even a fool is occasionally right, and these people have a somewhat better track record than fools.

    Thanks for the nice words. I too greatly appreciate serious discussions of difficult issues. I do not take the fact of our disagreement to be a source of friction, but a basis for learning. I can’t learn a thing from people who nod their heads up and down in unison. My most cherished friends are the ones who can nail me when I’m wrong (which, cough, cough, is a rare occurrence, cough, cough), because they are the ones who help me become a wiser person. I have had great difficulty finding a venue populated by people who can disagree with me with power and civility. That’s why I’m here.

  9. The snapshot you see in the classroom at one time is NOT fixed. Children progress at different rates. So true.

    I once worked as a substitute teacher. I taught a class of 4th bilingual graders. One student in the class was behind the rest, and needed a lot of assistance, much of which seemed futile. I concluded that he was “slow”, but fortunately kept my opinion to myself.

    The next year, I taught the same class. The student that I had thought was “slow,” was now performing at grade level, and also in English! He had come to the US when he was 8 with no previous schooling, and had done five year’s work in three in addition to learning a new language.

    Another student who in 6th grade behaved as a big dumb lug, and apparently considered himself one, was a high achieving student in 9th. A move to a less dysfunctional school helped him. (The school he attended for 6th grade was VERY dysfunctional.)

    BTW, this school system did not keep bilingual students in Spanish indefinitely. I concluded that many in the 4th grade class needed to be switched to English, because some asked me, the gringo, what certain Spanish words meant. While I told them what the words meant, I thought to myself that if their knowledge of Spanish was being pushed to the limit, it was time to switch to English. The next year, most of the students were in English.

    Another BTW. My grandfather did not begin school until he was 8. He went on to become a university professor.

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