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Photographs by Erin Patrice O’Brien

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How
Parenting

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How In defense of the wild child

By Photo: 

Photographs by Erin Patrice O’Brien


Of the possible child heroes for our times, young people with epic levels of the traits we valorize, the strongest contender has got to be the kid in the marshmallow study. Social scientists are so sick of the story that some threaten suicide if forced to read about him one more time. But to review: The childor really, nearly one-third of the more than 600 children tested in the late ’60s at Bing Nursery School on the Stanford University campussits in a room with a marshmallow. Having been told that if he abstains for 15 minutes he’ll get two marshmallows later, he doesn’t eat it. This kid is a paragon of self-restraint, a savant of delayed gratification. He’ll go on, or so the psychologists say, to show the straight-and-narrow qualities required to secure life’s sweeter and more elusive prizes: high SAT scores, money, health.

I began to think about the marshmallow kid and how much I wanted my own daughter to be like him one day last fall while I sat in a parent-teacher conference in her second-grade classroom and learned, as many parents do these days, that she needed to work on self-regulation. My daughter is nonconformist by nature, a miniature Sarah Silverman. She’s wildly, transgressively funny and insists on being original even when it causes her pain. The teacher at her private school, a man so hip and unthreatened that he used to keep a boa constrictor named Elvis in his classroom, had noticed she was not gently going along with the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program. “So ...” he said, in the most caring, best-practices way, “have you thought about occupational therapy?”

I did not react well. My husband reacted worse. I could appreciate the role of O.T., as occupational therapy is called, in helping children improve handwriting through better pencil grips. But I found other O.T. practices, and the values wrapped up in them, discomfiting: occupational therapists coaching preschoolers on core-muscle exercises so that they can sit longer; occupational therapists leading social-skills playgroups to boost “behavior management” skills. Fidget toys and wiggle cushionsO.T. staples aimed at helping children vent anxiety and energyhave become commonplace in grammar-school classrooms. Heavy balls and weighted blankets, even bags of rice, are also prescribed on the theory that hefty objects comfort children who feel emotionally out of control. Did our daughter need what sounded like a paperweight for her young body in order to succeed at her job as a second-grader?

My husband grilled the teacher. How were her reading skills? What about math? Did she have friends?

All good, the teacher reassured us.

“So what’s the problem?” my husband asked. “Is she distracting you?”

The teacher stalled, then said yes.

“And have you disciplined her?”


Photographs by Erin Patrice O’Brien


He had not.

This is when I began to realize we’d crossed some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them. “Self-regulation,” “self- discipline,” and “emotional regulation” are big buzz words in schools right now. All are aimed at producing “appropriate” behavior, at bringing children’s personal styles in line with an implicit emotional orthodoxy. That orthodoxy is embodied by a composed, conforming kid who doesn’t externalize problems or talk too much or challenge the rules too frequently or move around excessively or complain about the curriculum or have passionate outbursts. He’s a master at decoding expectations. He has a keen inner minder to bring rogue impulses into line with them.

Emotional regulation is psychology’s new pet field. Before 1981, a single citation for the term existed in the literature. For 2012 alone, Google Scholar turns up more than 8,000 hits. In popular culture, self-regulation is celebrated in best-selling education books, like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, manuals for success in a meritocracy extolling a pull-your-socks-up way of being. Some of Tough’s ideas are classically liberal, built off Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman’s theory of human capital and the importance of investing in the very young. But then the book turns toward the character-is-destiny model pioneered by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth and the KIPP charter-school network. The key to success, in this formulation, is grit. (Though Duckworth acknowledges on her own website that nobody is sure how to teach it.) One KIPP school features a tiled mosaic that reads, “DON’T EAT THE MARSHMALLOWS YET!”

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“Long may this book dwell on the best-seller lists!” Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times, giving How Children Succeed a hearty endorsement. Yet though widely embraced by progressives, the grit cure-all is in many ways deeply conservative, arguably even a few inches to the right of Amy Chua and her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The parent of the well-regulated child should not, like Chua, need to threaten to burn her daughter’s stuffie if that daughter is curious or self-indulgent, AWOL (or god-forbid, dawdling) somewhere between school, soccer practice, and the piano tutor. The child should be equipped with an internal minder. No threats necessary.

But at what cost? One mother I spoke to, a doctor in Seattle, has a son who has had trouble sitting cross-legged, as his classroom’s protocol demanded. The school sent home a note suggesting she might want to test him for “learning difference.” She did“paid about two thousand dollars for testing,” she told meand started the child in private tutoring. “After the third ride home across the city with him sobbing about how much he hated the sessions, we decided to screw it,” she said. She later learned every one of the boys in her son’s class had been referred out for testing. Another family, determined to resist such intervention, paid for an outside therapist to provide expert testimony to their son’s Oakland school stating that he did not have a mental health disorder. “We wanted them to hear from the therapist directly: He’s fine,” the mother said. “Being a very strong-willed individualthat’s a powerful gift that’s going to be unbelievably awesome someday.”

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In the meantime, he’s part of an education system that has scant tolerance for independence of mind. “We’re saying to the kid, ‘You’re broken. You’re defective,’ ” says Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America. “In some ways, these things become self-fulfilling prophesies.”

Education is the business of shaping people. It works, however subtly, toward an ideal. At various points, the ideal products of the American school system have been extroverts and right-handed children. (Lefties were believed to show signs of “neurological insult or physical malfunctioning” and had to be broken of their natural tendency.) Individuality has had its moments as well. In the 1930s, for instance, educators made huge efforts to find out what motivated unique students to keep them from dropping out because no jobs existed for them to drop into. Yet here in 2013, even as the United States faces pressure to “win the future,” the American education system has swung in the opposite direction, toward the commodified data-driven ideas promoted by Frederick Winslow Taylor, who at the turn of the century did time-motion studies of laborers carrying bricks to figure out how people worked most efficiently. Borrowing Taylor’s ideas, school was not designed then to foster free thinkers. Nor is it now, thanks to how teacher pay and job security have been tied to student performance on standardized tests. “What we’re teaching today is obedience, conformity, following orders,” says the education historian Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. “We’re certainly not teaching kids to think outside the box.” The motto of the so-called school-reform movement is: No Excuses. “The message is: It’s up to you. Grit means it’s your problem. Just bear down and do what you have to do.”

As a consumer of educationboth as a child and a parentI’d never thought much about classroom management. The field sounds technical and dull, inside baseball for teachers. Scratch two inches below the surface, however, and it becomes fascinating, political philosophy writ small. Is individuality to be contained or nurtured? What relationship to authority do teachers seek to create?

One way to think about classroom management (and discipline in general) is that some tactics are external and others are internal. External tactics work by inflicting an embarrassing or unpleasant experience on the kid. The classic example is a teacher shaming a child by making him write “I will not ...” whatever on the blackboard 100 times. My own second-grade teacher threw a rubber chicken at a boy who refused to shut up during silent reading. But such means have become “well, problematic,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, director of the History of Education Program at New York University. In 1975, in Goss v. Lopez, the Supreme Court found schoolchildren to have due process rights. “As a result, students can say to teachers with some authority, ‘If you do that, my mom is going to sue you.’ And that changes the score.”

In Goss’s wake, many educators moved toward what progressive education commentator Alfie Kohn calls the New Disciplines. The philosophy promotes strategies like “shared decision-making,” allowing children to decide between, say, following the teacher’s rules and staying after school for detention. This sounds great to the contemporary ear. The child is less passive and prone to be a victim, more autonomous and in control of his life. But critics of the technique are harsh. It’s “fundamentally dishonest, not to mention manipulative,” Kohn has written. “To the injury of punishment is added the insult of a kind of mind game whereby reality is redefined and children are told, in effect, that they wanted something bad to happen to them.”



A different, utopian approach to classroom management works from the premise that children are natively good and reasonable. If one is misbehaving, he’s trying to tell you that something is wrong. Maybe the curriculum is too easy, too hard, too monotonous. Maybe the child feels disregarded, threatened, or set up to fail. It’s a pretty thought, order through authentic, handcrafted curricula. But it’s nearly impossible to execute in the schools created through the combination of No Child Left Behind and recessionary budget-slashing. And that makes internal discipline very convenient right now.

To train this vital new task, schools have added to reading,’riting, and ’rithmetic a fourth R, for self-regulation. The curricular branch that has emerged to teach it is called social and emotional learning, or SEL. Definitions of SEL are tautological. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines it as involving “the processes of developing social and emotional competencies” toward the goal of making a child a “good student, citizen, and worker” who is less inclined to exhibit bad behaviors, like using drugs, fighting, bullying, or dropping out of school. The aim is to create a “virtuous cycle” of behavior. As Celene Domitrovich, director of research at CASEL, told me, SEL instructs children in “the skills that undergird” grit. “Paul Tough doesn’t talk about SEL, even though his whole book is about it,” says Domitrovich. “Tenacity, grit, motivation, stick-to-it-ivenesswe’re all talking about the same thing.”

CASEL was founded by Daniel Goleman, the former New York Times reporter whose 1995 blockbuster book, Emotional Intelligence, was based on the work of two psychology professors, John Mayer and Peter Salovey. (Salovey clearly has all kinds of intelligence. He’s now president of Yale University.) Emotional intelligence sounds unassailably great. Who wouldn’t want high ratings for oneself or one’s children, especially given Goleman’s claim that emotional intelligence is a more powerful predictor of career success than IQ? Besides, SEL filled a need. On top of the discipline vacuum created by the Goss ruling, in the 1990s, says Domitrovich, “you start having school shootings. There’s a surge of interest in the idea of preventionbullying prevention, character development.”

Since then, CASEL has been pushing hard. It’s an advocacy group. The NoVo Foundation, run by Warren Buffett’s son Peter and Peter’s wife, Jenniferand endowed with roughly $140 million worth of Berkshire Hathaway stockhas taken up social and emotional learning as one of its four primary philanthropic interests. SEL is now mandated at all grade levels in Illinois. Some form of it is taught in half of school districts in the United States.

Certain SEL lessons are embedded into school practices like “morning meeting.” The peace table at my daughter’s school, inspired by psychologist Thomas Gordon’s suite of alternatives to “power-based” classroom management techniques, is sort of an SEL extracurricular. Anyone can call a peace table to address a grievance, which can range from I think you smacked that tetherball into my head on purpose to I’d like to hang out more with your best friend. At the table, the children complete a worksheet. When you ______, I feel _______. I need you to _______.

SEL curricula also offer direct instruction on discrete skills. For example, a teacher might do an active-listening exercise, laying out the componentsyou look the other person in the eye, you’re quiet when they talkthen asking the children to role-play. This, of course, is a useful life habit and a dream to a lecturing teacher. Yet Domitrovich takes it further. “You can see where it’s so obvious that this is essential to learning. What if a child is not good at stopping and calming down? What if a child is really impulsive? What if a child is not good at getting along with everybody? How’s that going to play out?” To her, the answer is clear. The other students in the class are going to ignore and exclude the poorly regulated child. As a result, that child is not going to be “learning optimally.” Academics will suffer due to deficient social and emotional skills.

The only problem is: It’s not clear that’s true. In 2007, Greg Duncan, a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine, did an analysis of the effects of social and emotional problems on a sample of 25,000 elementary school students. He found, he says, “Emotional intelligence in kindergarten was completely unpredictive.” Children who started school socially and emotionally unruly did just as well academically as their more contained peers from first through eighth grades. David Grissmer, at the University of Virginia, reran Duncan’s analysis repeatedly, hoping to prove him wrong. Instead, he confirmed that Duncan was right. A paper from Florida International University also found minimal correlation between emotional intelligence and college students’ GPAs.

In 2011, CASEL volleyed back at the skeptics, publishing a gigantic meta-analysis (213 studies, 270,034 students) claiming that SEL programs raised academic performance by 11 percent. Such a large and divergent finding sent up a red flag for NurtureShock co-author Ashley Merryman, who’d read just about every published study relating to emotional intelligence and academic achievement while researching the book. So she examined CASEL’s source studies and discovered that only 33 of the 213 reported any academic results at all. She also uncovered a far more likely reason for CASEL’s fortuitous finding: Many of the students in the sample populations received academic tutoring.

In 2007 a UNICEF paper on child wellbeing ranked England dead last in the 21 developed nations it surveyed. (Apparently all those books and movies about horrid British childhoods are accurate.) SEL, the British hoped, would make its children emotionally healthy. The Department of Education rolled out programs countrywide. Six years later, England’s experience with SEL (or SEAL, as they call it) offers some cautionary tales. For starters, the programs didn’t seem to work as hopedor, as an official 2010 brief reported politely, “[O]ur data was not congruent with the broader literature” promising “significant improvements in a range of outcomes.”

Among the most cutting assessments of the British SEL experiment is an ethnographic study called “Social and Emotional Pedagogies: Critiquing the New Orthodoxy of Emotion in Classroom Behaviour Management,” by Val Gillies, a professor of social and policy studies at London South Bank University. Gillies describes the new emotional orthodoxy as a “calm, emotionally flat ideal” that “not only overlies a considerably more turbulent reality, [but] also denies the significance of passion as a motivator.” In theory, SEL gives less well-regulated children a more stable foundation from which to learn. In reality, writes Gillies, “Pupils who dissent from sanctioned models of expression are marked out as personally lacking.”

According to the human development theory of Dandelion and Orchid children, certain people are genetically predisposed to grow fairly well in almost any environment while others wilt or blossom spectacularly depending on circumstances and care. Some kidsthe dandelionsseem naturally suited to cope with the current system. As Sanford Newmark, head of the Pediatric Integrative Neurodevelopmental Program at the University of California at San Francisco, puts it, “You can feed them three Pop-Tarts for breakfast, they can be in school twelve hours a day, and they can go to kindergarten when they’re four, and they would still do OK.” But many children crumble.

“We’ve been around for a couple hundred thousand years, reading only for the last five thousand years, and compulsory education has only been in place for one hundred fifty years or so. Some kids are going to be thinking, ‘Why is my teacher asking me to do this? My brain doesn’t work this way,’ ” says Stephen Hinshaw, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Heidi Tringali, an occupational therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers a hypothesis built on shorter-term influences: Many of the nonconforming children she treats may need wiggle cushions and weighted balls because they’ve grown up strapped into the five-point harnesses of strollers and car seats, planted in front of screens, and put to sleep at night flat on their backs, all of which leaves them craving action, sensation, and attention when they’re finally let loose. “Every child in the school system right now has been impacted. Of course they’re all licking their friends and bouncing off the walls.”

One crude way to measure the population of kids who don’t meet today’s social and behavioral expectations is to look at the percentage of school-aged children diagnosed with attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Over the past ten years, that figure has risen 41 points. (A lot of these kids were just born at the wrong time of year. The youngest kindergarteners, by month of birth, are more than twice as likely than the oldest to be labeled with ADHD. This makes sense given that the frontal cortex, which controls self-regulation, thickens during childhood. The cortexes of children diagnosed with ADHD tend to reach their thickest point closer to age eleven than age eight.) The number climbs higher still if you include syndromes like sensory-processing disorder, which Newmark jokes just about “everybody” has these days. When I asked Zimmerman, the New York University education historian, if schools had found a way to deal with discipline in the wake of the students-rights movement, he said: “Oh we have. It’s called Ritalin.”

The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking judge originality, emotional expressiveness, humor, intellectual vitality, open-mindedness, and ability to synthesize and elaborate on ideas. Since 1984, the scores of America’s schoolchildren have dropped by more than one standard deviation; that is to say, 85 percent of kids scored lower in 2008 than their counterparts did in 1984. Not coincidentally, that decrease happened as schools were becoming obsessed with self-regulation.

As Stanford Professor James Gross, author of Handbook of Emotional Regulation, explains, suppression of feelings is a common regulatory tactic. It’s mentally draining. Deliberate acts of regulation also become automatic over time, meaning this habit is likely to interfere with inspiration, which happens when the mind is loose and emotions are running high. Even Tough acknowledges in a short passage in How Children Succeed that overly controlled people have a hard time making decisions: They’re often “compulsive, anxious, and repressed.” Last year, a study out of the University of Rochester took on the marshmallow kid himself and challenged his unconditional superiority. What if the second treat won’t always be available later? There can be an opportunity cost to not diving in right away.

Valorizing self-regulation shifts the focus away from an impersonal, overtaxed, and underfunded school system and places the burden for overcoming those shortcomings on its students. “Even people who are politically liberal suddenly sound like right-wing talk-show hosts when the subject turns to children and education,” says Alfie Kohn. “ ‘The problem is with the individual.’ That is right-wing orthodoxy.”

Maybe the reason we let ourselves become fixated on children’s emotional regulation is that we, the adults, feel our lives are out of control. We’ve lost faith in our ability to manage our own impulses around food, money, politics, and the distractions of modern lifeand we’re putting that on our kids. “It’s a displacement of parental unease about the future and anxiety about the world in general,” says psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. “I’m worried our kids are going to file the largest class-action suit in history, because we are stealing their childhoods. They’re like caged animals or Turkish children forced to sew rugs until they go blind. We’re suppressing their natural messy existence.”

I do worry about my little Sarah Silverman. She’s frenetic and disinhibited. My life would be easier if she liked to comply. But we did not send her to O.T. Parents make judgment calls about interventions all the time. What’s worth treating: a prominent birthmark? A girl with early puberty? Social and behavioral issues can be especially tricky, as diagnosing comes close to essentializing: It’s not your fault that you’re acting this way, honey. It’s just who you are. As one mother told me: “The insidious part is, you can start losing faith in your child. You go down this road ...” Your child’s teacher tells you your child is not showing appropriate emotional regulation. You’re directed toward psychological evaluations and therapists. They have a hammer. Your kid becomes the nail. “The saddest, most soul-crushing thing is the negative self-image. We think kids don’t understand what’s happening, but they do. There’s this quiet reinforcement that something is wrong with them. That’s the thing that’ll kill.”

Elizabeth Weil is the author of No Cheating, No Dying, a memoir about marriage.

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