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Childism: Changing perspective on society’s discrimination against struggling children

Childism:  Changing perspective on society’s discrimination against struggling children
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By Jennifer Gardner, LMSW
Art by Mark Williamson

“What were you thinking? Why did you do that?” the teacher says to a pouting student following a classroom disruption.

“Because, I am a developing child who is struggling with adult issues and extra life stresses that don’t just make my school job hard, but make relating to people difficult,” said no child ever.

Instead, what is the response?  “I dunno” and guess what…they really don’t know.

The teachers replies in frustration, “That’s it you’re outta here, I’m sick of dealing with you.”

Human emotions and relating to others is a complex and dynamic process that most adults, let alone children, struggle with. Let’s throw into that complicated process trauma, abuse, neglect, poverty or major life events, and you have a battleground for growing up with survival being the key. Now, when I say survival I don’t mean survival in the “plan for the future, make good grades, so you can get a good job” kind of survival. I mean day-to-day, defenses up, ready to fight, ready to retreat, kind of survival, which often leaves the long term planning and career goals out of sight. In addition, it also makes taking simple direction or critique very threatening. I’m referring to the millions of children who come to school each day and are “behavior problems” in the classroom and, more importantly, how we perceive them in order to “manage” them.

I have worked in education for 15 years, specializing in classroom management and behavior issues all over the Houston area. I have seen amazing teachers finesse challenging children with love, interest and care. I applaud their work and dedication because it will pay off – they become better teachers and the students become better human beings. On the flip side, for every one teacher I see handling the challenges of a struggling child with care, there are three more managing the same challenges using shame and fear tactics.  Shame and the use of threats still plague our classrooms as a way of keeping children in compliance. Additionally, policies like Zero-Tolerance reinforce a system that admonishes the most wounded and failed students in the school system. The toxic thinking is so ingrained most teachers don’t even know they are making the problem worse.

When a child comes into the classroom with dyslexia, what does school personnel do? They rally around the child, getting him specialists, extra help and accommodations. They empathize and encourage as he conquers and makes it through school while having a disability. When a child comes in wearing leg braces and on crutches what do we do? We rally around to discuss ways for her to be successful in PE, be included in extra-curriculars, and we cheer her on for trying even when the physical demand seems too daunting.

So what do we do when a child comes into the classroom with trauma or social-emotional delays displayed as behavior issues? We may still come together but it’s often times to figure out a proper “behavior management” plan that is steeped with punishment and exclusion. There is no rallying around the student for support and encouragement. There is no cheering on and admiring the perseverance it takes to do another school day in the face of the distress and mental chaos they bring with them. We most often take away the very things that could be what they need most. We strip them of a healthy peer group and put them in with other peers who are low functioning in alternative programs. We take away extra curriculars, which could give them skills and a sense of belonging. But most importantly, we discriminate against them. They get reputations among the staff and are alienated instead of mentored by teachers. We fail when we see these struggling children and adolescents as having problems instead of having needs like other children with disabilities. We can’t even properly train teachers on classroom management if we are still working from an antiquated model of punishment and exclusion. We need to make it easier on teachers who are trying by lowering class ratios, having more counselors, and more staff education on children’s mental health.

We need a more conscious perspective in order to have better solutions to help these kids in our education system. It starts with being curious about their story, their home life, and their thoughts about how the world works. It starts with bringing them in closer and connecting with them, not excluding them. It starts with building on their strengths, which are gifts like perseverance, courage, tolerance, and grit. In our adult worlds where we demand respect, desire to be heard, need connection, and aspire to work for someone who believes in us, these children are no different. However, these struggling children don’t have the language to express it or the choices to create it like we adults do, they are born into it, daily trying to move from surviving to thriving.

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