How to Help our Pressured Kids

Our good friend, nationally recognized educator Rick Ackerly shared this article with us. 

How to Help Our Pressured Kids?

One day, Helen, age 3, was scooping sand into a bucket with a cup. Her teacher came by and (good constructivist teacher that she is) said, “So, Helen, how many cups do you think it will take to fill up your bucket?” Helen looked calmly up from her work and said in a friendly way: “Miss Alicia, why don’t you go teach those two kids over there?”

Helen is unique, of course, and yet most three-year-olds reveal Helen’s deep commitment to self-direction. Powered by a sense of autonomy that comes from a successful passage through the “terrible two’s,” they take initiative and launch themselves to the doors of kindergarten full of industriousness, ready to show the world—and themselves—what they can do. (Thank you, Erik Erikson). Then, however, they open those doors and school begins to interfere with their education.

Good elementary teachers know that their students are brimming with capability—almost six years of life has gone into most of those kindergartners. But grade upon grade their teachers, accountable for covering a curriculum, begin doing things to them. Increasingly it is understood that these things are unnatural acts. (You’re not supposed to like this; just do it; it’s good for you.) It is our job to make a success out of you.

Parents and teachers collude in the project of engineering the children’s success. But parents don’t take to this folly naturally. Most parents know what success looks like. Every year I ask the parents who want their children to come to our kindergarten this question: “Let’s say your daughter comes here and nine years from now as you approach graduation you are thrilled with the education she received. What will you be patting us on the back for?”

For seven years I have gotten the same three answers. They all say some version of “She still loves learning,” or “She still loves to go to school.” (99%). 75% say something like: “She is good at getting along with others.” Two-thirds say: “She is comfortable in her own skin,” or “She knows her strengths and weaknesses.” So parents and teachers all want what Helen wants; i.e. for Helen to keep being Helen and to get better and better at directing herself through the world as a self-possessed, socially competent, life-long learner.

Why then, are so many of our young people in distress? Why do they self-destruct? Why do they drop out? They do it when school is not designed with children in mind—children as they are—children whose capabilities are greater and far more complex than our curriculum assumes.

What if teachers were held accountable for maximizing industry, enthusiasm for learning, increasing social competence and self-discovery in the context of a curriculum?

We don’t need to change the curriculum. We don’t need to rewrite the standards. We all know what sixth graders need. We need to change the culture of our schools so that they are learning communities rather than achievement mills. We (all educators) need to recite as a mantra, “Go teach those kids over there.”

How to help our pressured kids? Remember that the difference between pressure and challenge is who chose what. In most cases young people will strive to achieve more than we aspire for them. “Bring it on. Show me the mountain and let me decide how to climb it. It’s not that I don’t need you. I need you very much. I just need you to stop trying to engineer my success. Be there for me in success and failure, and let me fail.”

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