In the last few years, I’ve noticed a significant increase in a specific type of article (and/or Facebook rant) coming from teachers, administrators and parents concerned with education reform and child development. In this article (or Facebook rant), an adult expresses concerns regarding the restrictive, developmentally nonsensical, and generally inhumane academic regulations and expectations currently being imposed upon children. The author then seeks to draw a link between the decrease in the amount of free time, outside play, and basic motor/social skills development, and the supposed increase in “developmentally immature” behavior in children over the last however-many years, suggesting that these under-developed, hyper-reactive children are the direct product of bad educational policies, and might be less prevalent were we to allow children more time to explore and develop as individuals before forcing them to conform to a rigid academic schedule.
I have a number of things I want to say in response to this:
1. Please get how not-okay, exclusionary and dismissive it is to use the mere existence of kids like me as a rhetorical tool to try and convey how wrong it is to treat children like machines built for efficient task performance and little else. Treating kids like that is wrong, period. And you really shouldn’t be using the “normalcy” of children’s behavior in class as the measuring stick for determining whether or not you’re allowing each child sufficient time to develop as an individual. Consider the fact that emotional outbursts, struggles with social and motor skills, etc. might be things that some kids experience no matter what, but that are exacerbated and made more frequent by stressful environments and rigidly enforced expectations. You need to be thinking of children as people with varying needs and temperaments, reacting to and adjusting to their environments as best they can, not as a pool of experimental subjects in which some may end up “damaged” or “delayed,” while others achieve peak normalcy.
2. Treating children and adolescents like academic computing machines is inhumane regardless of their developmental stage. There is no point in the life of a human being where it suddenly becomes acceptable, or developmentally appropriate, to force them into a situation where they have little agency, means for self-expression, or time/space for physical activity. I’m really tired of people decrying the way that early childhood education is being affected by the harsh educational reforms of recent years, while acting as if it’s somehow more morally acceptable to force teenagers to conform to similar educational structures, because they “need to learn self-discipline.” Apparently, learning self-discipline as a five-year-old means doing cute things outside in groups, and engaging in self-directed play activities, but learning self-discipline as a teenager means doing what you’re told, studying hard for the SAT, and not “getting in trouble.” What a crock of utter bullshit.
3. The next time you want to rant and rave about how distressing it is that “these days” there are so many more kids being “disruptive” and emotional and not-developed-enough in your classroom, or around your kid, I highly suggest you take five minutes beforehand to do some basic research on the history of institutionalization and pre-ADA educational exclusion of disabled children. Realize that much of the change you’re seeing is likely due to the decrease in segregated care/educational establishments and a decrease in children being pulled from school or declared unteachable (combined with more strict and conformist academic expectations for all children, regardless of their differences). Realize how many kids today are trying to claim their right to an inclusive, community educational setting because they belong to one of the first generations of disabled kids who won’t spend their whole lives in institutions, or lose lifetimes of opportunity because their segregated education was never meant to qualify them for personally meaningful employment. I don’t want to hear about how you hope x, y, and z reforms will make your class composition more “like it used to be,” because no matter how you frame it, that is fundamentally a hope for renewed exclusion.
4. Every time someone complains about the restrictiveness and rigidity of mainstream educational environments, but doesn’t have the time of day for those of us who are trying to bring attention to the wrongs inflicted daily on children in special education, and children in marginalized/poor/non-white communities, I basically fight the urge to set something on fire. Your developmental norms have always excluded us, and your frantic concern for the development of white, able-bodied, normative children often remains, at its heart, a fear that your children will “fail to develop,” and end up like “those people” (or, as I like to say, “us.”) This says a lot about how you view “those people” relative to “your people.” And this says a lot about the purpose and structure of “childhood development,” as you would have it understood.
I will not be your bogeyman. It’s time to confront the history of the arguments you use, because they are old, and fraught, and often violent. Kindly get your shit together.
A severely ADHD, autistic adult who had probably the most well-rounded and developmentally-flexible primary educational experience she could possibly have had, and loved it, and is/was still developmentally disabled.
Caption: A picture of me as a toddler/young child, sitting at a kitchen table and staring down away from the camera taking the picture (as I tended to do, once I figured out how to predict when my photo would be taken). I’m a little tiny white kid with short, darker blonde hair, in a white shirt and dark blue jumper.