Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Elephant in the room, continued

In response to this post (and in the last days before I enabled comments), a reader wrote:

While you did not write much about the NYTimes article on school refusal issues, you seem to disagree with the article. I would like to know why. I found the article well written from a pediatrician’s perspective. School attendance can be a major factor in a child’s academic success, and it can affect their social lives as well. All of us just need a day off sometimes for whatever reason; but when a child is having recurring illnesses that are affecting their ability to attend school on a regular basis, multiple people (parents, teachers, and doctors) should be concerned. I liked Dr. Klass’ emphasis on these groups working together to find out why a child does not want to be in school. Is it really a medical issue, or is there something in the school environment that needs to change? Doctors can address these issues and help the parent bring them up at school or support the school in addressing them as well. I don’t think he was saying there was something wrong with the children. He wrote about potential medical problems or problems at the school. I think we need more of what Dr. Klass is proposing, collaboration between doctors, teachers and parents. Oftentimes, the school gets mad at the parent for not getting their child to school without supporting the parent in figuring out why, and doctors often ignore the fact that their young patients are seeing them quite a bit for minor or non-existent illnesses. Everyone is there to support the child. That support is more successful when everyone communicates with each other and works together.

Thanks for continuing to write about the insane world of education.

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.

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