My daughter left me once again this morning to begin a new school year. I was a little sad to lose her to school again. I quite enjoy the days we can take a lazy, slow breakfast before heading out for a wonder or play without too much concern for the ‘clock’.
Last year was like all first years in school, an important and memorable year full of firsts and milestones. Time was experienced as a downhill skier racing towards a finish line. The year came to an end approximately two weeks before I finally perfected and adjusted to the optimal ‘routine’. Oh well. This year is the year I’ll finally get on top of everything (I will, I swear).
I really wanted to share some of the toughest moments for me as a parent last year. It wasn’t my daughter’s Guevara-esque resistance to homework – although a memory of her screaming at the top of her lungs: “why are you trying to change me? You have to accept me the way I am. I don’t want to learn to read!” I swear. I’m not making this s&*^ up. In actuality I rather am proud of this fighting spirit, her resistance, and as the events of the day are unfolding , her fighting spirit may just be exactly what this world needs. This leads me to my point. My child is not good at sitting quietly. She is not great at waiting or being patient or not excitedly speaking out of turn. She is extremely distractible. She is a ‘big’ outgoing personality with much energy and boundless enthusiasm. She wakes up at 6am singing to herself and doesn’t stop talking, or doing, or singing or watching or dancing until 9 pm at night. My child is not naturally suited to classroom environments. As a professional I’ve worked with many kids and many families. I know what ‘high energy’ is. And she’s got it. So I knew her teacher had her hands full but also knew how fortunate she would be because she’s also a deeply lovable and caring little soul.
As the year progressed what struck me quite deeply is how unsuitable these environments are for children like my daughter. The school system is set up to reward and encourage those whom already posses or are naturally inclined towards the skills and behaviours that the school system is tasked with shaping. While my child did occasionally receive rewards and merit for her behaviour and efforts she also often missed out more than her peers whose temperaments are naturally more suitable to the school environment. She would often come home in tears about missing out on yet another reward, despite the fact that she was trying so hard.In these moments it was difficult for me to advocate for continued effort and perseverance within a system that is quite frankly a little unfair. with plenty of compassion and understanding I explained that it was indeed unfair, and maybe too eagerly discussed and educated about the inherent inequality and unfairness in society as a way of inspiring her fighting spirit. But I wished that next time her teacher would notice how much effort classroom etiquette takes for my daughter. The same could be said for any other aptitude or skill that is rewarded in schools, whether it be academic, behavioural or sporting. A system set up to most often reward the genetic lottery and not effort is unfair. Is this a reflection of the world we live in? Sure it is. And look how that’s working out!
The school system is set up to more easily reward natural ability more often than it rewards effort. And this is the saddest and most difficult thing I’ve faced as a parent last year. It has been difficult having to encourage my daughter to keep trying and improving with praise and encouragement when her efforts are being overlooked by the school system because her behaviour still often falls short of the standard. We know from behavioural psychology and from the vast literature and scientific evidence in the last 60 years that the best way to shape and improve behaviour is to reward effort and not outcome. The reward system should be set up to reward effort and skill development, not natural aptitude. Merit and praise should be given for how hard each child tries and within the acknowledgement that effort and success do not always go hand in hand. I don’t even know if this would be possible? Just that it makes me sad. It makes me sad because I have been instilling in my daughter the value of perseverance and courage in the face of difficulties and I am scared that she will lose hope and decide that it’s just too hard, or not worth it.
I will continue to do my part and encourage her as often as I can. If your child finds themselves in a similar boat, I urge you to do the same. Listen with compassion and understanding if they are feeling disillusioned or ‘sick of trying’. Let them know that in your books they have been making remarkable progress. Listen and validate their feelings of unfairness. Let them know that this may not change too soon but that they may continue to improve so that one day they will reach an expected standard. Regular scheduled meetings and brief chats with the teacher letting them know how much effort your child has said they are making as opposed to whether or not they are reaching an approved standard and how much it would encourage your child if the teacher could ‘catch’ them making an effort and appropriately reward and encourage those efforts.
I will this year advocate a lot more on behalf of my daughter with her teacher in the hope that her teacher understands that her 2.8 seconds of quiet may be equal to another child’s 5 minutes. I will also remember that some of the qualities that my daughter’s school finds so undesirable may just be the very qualities that lead her to be part of a growing movement of change and hope on this planet. It takes these fierce souls to keep fighting and speaking out of turn and questioning authority. Equality is not sameness. Justice does not look the same for all.