The subject of children’s behavior came up in the course today and I punished the group by giving my long view answer before getting into the details. Ha ha! The short version was something like this.
“Compared to the days of ‘children should be seen but not heard,’ corporal punishment,
hushing up life’s important stories (be it sex, that different uncle or social justice) and/ or children working in brutal conditions in factories or going to brutal schools as described in Dickens, it’s not a bad time to be a child. And yet, this time, like all times, has its own particular challenges and most of them are falling in the laps of teachers who thought they were signing up to teach a subject they loved, but are expected to be therapist, counselor, friend, policemen, healer, social worker and more to their children, children who may report a misunderstood incident that can get the teacher fired.
So when children “misbehave” in class, there is a long list of possible energies at work that reflect the difficulty of being a child today. Amongst them:
• Childhood itself is threatened as the child’s deepest needs to move, to play, to explore, to engage the world sensually, to imagine, to work out the trials and triumphs of friendships, are all under attack. From one side, by overbearing parents overscheduling classes and organized activities outside of school and the pressure to work on improving test scores, from another by parents abandoning their children to screens designed for addiction, encouraging non-consequences of tweeting and texting free from face to face contact, reducing the child’s multi-sensual world to the flat two-dimensional world of screens with no smells, tastes or textures, short-circuiting the curiosity that arises from boredom, promising instant gratification that is shallow and superficial, inhibiting needed movement and exercise and robbing the children of nature’s precious window to know the world through the body, through the senses, through the imagination and through three-dimensional engagement with plants, animals and other breathing human beings.
• Families are confused, economically forced to work harder and harder, not clear whether to be their child’s friend, guardian, protector or guiding parent, either too much in their business or too little, expecting either too much or too little from the kids, not eating meals together, not conversing habitually, not making music together, being strict in the wrong way and loose in the wrong way. Of course, not all families, but the growing trend toward blaming the teachers instead of holding the child accountable under the illusion of “understanding the child” is making teaching yet harder than it need be.
• Culture—at least in the United States—is unravelling at an extraordinary pace so that the actions by and words of politicians (for example) that were unthinkable and 150% unacceptable a mere 5 years ago have suddenly become normalized. How can the children not feel this? How can they not feel abandoned by the people they’re supposed to look up to, who clearly act on behalf of their own selfish position of privilege and publicly proclaim without shame their lack of care for others, for the tenets of the most basic democracy, for the fate of the planet?
• Nature (to quote Michael Meade) is rattling as culture is unravelling and children are picking up either directly by the fires and floods around them or hearing the news or feeling indirectly in the air the fear that their future is diminishing. With all of these heavy, heavy issues on their small, small shoulders, should we wonder that Johnny is misbehaving in music class? They “ain’t misbehavin’”—they’re singing the canary song in the mines that is off-key because there’s not enough air in there!
Of course, part of being a teacher is to help correct, guide, understand misbehavior and this involves another role as translator. Since “behavior is the language of children,” the teacher must decipher what’s going on, which can range from a child who didn’t eat enough breakfast to one worried about the fate of the universe. None of this background is intended to get children off the hook for stepping up to being a better citizen in class, but it does put us teachers in a position of re-evaluating if we are giving children what they deeply need in the face of everything they’re not getting (see above). All of the above is out of our control, but what happens in our class when we shut the door is where we can begin to change our often outdated notions of “misbehavior” and think an inch deeper about what’s really important in the short time we have with kids and how we can help them align themselves with the flow of a positive group energy. That has a different ring to it.”
Part II will offer some thoughts about how. Stay tuned.