Friday, April 2, 2010

How Do I Know My Child is in the Right School?

I should preface this by saying that one of my colleagues told me that as long as I live and practice in Manhattan, where the applications process begins at conception, that I should never, ever suggest to a mother that her child is in the wrong school, unless I enjoy causing and coping with full blown panic attacks.

In a city with many private schools, like Manhattan, there is an abundance of choice in terms of educational philosophies, and there is quite a bit of diversity in terms of how learning and social development are approached and fostered. There are the well known classics, like Waldorf and Montessori, but every single school, whether it is articulated or not, has its own peculiar culture, philosophy and methodology. I've seen how a child can thrive in an environment that plays to his strengths and bolsters his weaknesses, and I've also seen how the wrong school can make a child feel like a failure.

For instance, I evaluated a little girl who was floundering in her public school kindergarten class, which was a highly structured, rigorously academic program that had the children reading and writing for a large portion of the day. This child was five years old and was functioning over a year behind in her fine and gross motor skills acquisition, her visual perception, and her eye hand coordination.

According to Piaget, reading and writing should not be taught before the age of six, because the body simply has not had the time to acquire the strength and stability to support the fine motor coordination of the hands and eyes required for the task. So, all day long, this child was being required to do things that were two years ahead of where she was developmentally. No wonder she was floundering! She was a sweet child, creative, social, and fanciful, and would have thrived in a setting where the children were encouraged to play and be creative, to explore, and to develop their coordination and prewriting skills through movement and craft activities before settling down to the rigors of academics.

Another little boy I treated was in a school where the youngest children were required to spend a large portion of their day collaborating on elaborate block structures with each other, building pretend cities and negotiating the architecture of their work in small groups. All that block building was simply nothing that appealed to him, nor did he have any talent or use for it. I could sympathize with his plight. I have the same problem, since operating in the physical world is often quite a challenge for me. I have often wondered about how I would have functioned in his situation. If the grown ups, who knew best, had required me to spend a large portion of every day doing something for which I simply had no interest or aptitude, I would have concluded that I was inept and stupid.

Although he had a sibling who was thriving in the same setting, the culture and methodology in that place were all wrong for this child. He was quite sensitive to noise, and the block building tended to get chaotic, with the frequent sounds of the wooden blocks crashing onto the hard linoleum, and the children's voices rising to a higher and higher pitch. He was required to sit on the floor a lot, which he didn't have the trunk strength to do easily, and this forced him to contend with struggling to remain upright in addition to dealing with the noise. I could tell when I observed him in his classroom that the block building was bewildering to him. He could not initiate any ideas about it on his own, and the social skills necessary to negotiate the group dynamics were not yet available to him, since his expressive language was somewhat delayed. He did not have the mid range control in his hands and arms to arrange the blocks into elaborate structures without them toppling over, and since spatial skills were not his strong suit, he didn't know how to envision a structure and then build it.

Understandably, this child preferred to play on his own or wander about the classroom, looking at what the other children were doing. When he was redirected back to the blocks, the cycle would begin again. Consequently, his behavior became more and more defiant as he was required to navigate an atmosphere that was making him feel inadequate, confused, and miserable.

Another little boy who was struggling in his environment was a student at a wonderful school with a strong child centered philosophy. Their lower school curriculum emphasizes creativity and critical thinking, fostering motor skills through dance, movement, and craft, empathy for others, and spirituality. The school is full of light, beautifully decorated, and the teachers are sensitive, committed, and highly cultured. The food in their cafeteria is organic, healthy, and delicious. I would send a child there in a heartbeat.

Unfortunately, this little boy was not at all thriving in his classroom, which had a loose structure and a soft spoken teacher. He was an alpha male who required a firm leader, a high amount of structure, and clearly defined expectations to help keep him steady. He was the type of child who needed to challenge every adult in his life in order to feel contained, and the culture of the school and his teacher's personality could not help him. Believing that there was no one really in charge, he repeatedly attempted to take control of the classroom. His behavior escalated to the point where he caused some serious harm to a classmate. He would have been much more successful in an environment with a strong, rigid hierarchy, high academic and behavioral expectations, and powerful, strict teachers. The atmosphere in such a setting would have easily contained him, whereas his school expected for the children to be able to manage their own behavior. He and the little girl in the highly structured academic classroom could probably have happily changed places!

If you love the philosophy of a school but your child is not thriving there, it's important to analyze why the situation isn't working. It's possible that the child would do better in a different environment. This is especially important when looking for placements for children who have sensory and learning problems.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that you are on track to become a child's and parent's best friend. I love reading these sensible blogs of a keen observer. Since I am training to one day become a superb grandma, I am taking note and becoming a faithful reader of this blog !
Lynn White,M.D.