Simon & Garfunkel, "Save The Life Of My Child"

>> Tuesday, October 02, 2012

I was listening to the podcast version of This American Life this morning, the September 14th episode, "Back To School", talking about what we're getting wrong with education, or at least one of the things we're getting wrong.

The focus of the episode--maybe you heard this on the radio or maybe online--are discoveries in neuroscience and psychology that point to the idea we're totally screwing up by focusing on "cognitive abilities", i.e. the kinds of things that are easy to objectively score on standardized tests.  This is a mistake because, it seems, the kinds of harder-to-pin-down "non-cognitive abilities"--things like the ability to focus on a task or the ability to delay gratification--are basically precursors to being able to develop cognitive skills.  I.e. it's awfully hard to teach a kid to read if the kid lacks the ability to focus on a task like sitting quietly with a book in the first place.

But it's worse than that, really.  Because what the This American Life episode also gets into is that one of the big factors impairing the acquisition and development of non-cognitive skills is stress.  That is, children who are in violent or insecure environments, or whose parents lack in the ability to properly reassure or nurture their children, etc., are basically getting their brains rewired to be in a constant fight-or-flight state.  Their brains are generating and reinforcing the chemical pathways that lead to aggressive reactions and snap judgements, and obviously that's a lousy physical--not to mention mental--state to try to learn math in.  As one of the folks This American Life talked to put it, it's a great physical and mental state for confronting or running from a bear in the woods: your brain starts turning off the parts of itself that might try to think through the situation (you know, the rational parts of your brain that could cause delays if you need to be aggressive or hauling ass--"Wait, attacking a bear is stupid! I'm going to die! Run away! No, I'll never escape! Where's a gopher when you need one?!  Waugh!"), and the sympathetic nervous system starts telling the body to pull blood from the extremities and starts hotwiring muscle groups.  Again, great for bears, bad for learning how to do quadratic equations.

I found the whole hour increasingly depressing.

This is ironic, because the general tone of the show was guardedly optimistic.  There are plenty of social policies that would address these issues that liberals and conservatives could agree on.  Something as simple as a mentoring program can provide some of the stability, nurturing and positive reinforcement these kids aren't getting at home, offering them the kind of positive social interaction that gets the brain to stand down from constant red alert while bringing the kids into contact with somebody who can teach some of the social skills they're lacking that foster cognitive learning.

But this is where I have to talk about work, as much as I'm generally loathe to do that, but this is where I find the whole thing depressing.

What's happening a lot these days is that the schools have zero-tolerance or low-tolerance policies towards the kinds of behavior that shell-shocked, stressed-out children are prone to.  Remember that whole bear-fighting/fleeing thing.  The brain and body are in this mental and physical state of aggression, of instinctual response.  Do these kids talk back to teachers, get into fights with other students at the drop of a pin, react without thinking, get disruptive in class, etc., etc.?  You bet.  But these days, instead of just getting walked down to the principal's office, they get walked down to the principal's office and the school resource officer charges them with assault, affray, public disturbance, communicating threats, that kind of thing.  Misdemeanors, typically, but they end up in juvenile court if they're under the age of sixteen and in adult court if they're over the age of fifteen (North Carolina and New York are the only two states that start charging children as adults when they turn sixteen).

Which is where I deal with them.  I do a lot of juvenile court cases--I'm the guy in my office who assigns them in this Public Defender's Office, actually--and I end up with as many sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year olds in District Court for supposedly "adult" charges that happened at school as any other lawyer in the office.

And what you have to understand is that the legal system lives down to that old saying about "When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail" all too perfectly.  What we have is a criminal justice system that was invented to deal with, you know, criminals, not something that was created to deal with unruly kids with shitty home lives whose brains are getting neurochemically transformed into something like that poor bastard's in the Thomas Lea painting.  What we do in the justice system is, we threaten you: if you are naughty, you will be punished; if we give you a chance to straighten up, you better not blow it or else.  People come in here all the time, not getting that, saying they want help for themselves or for a friend or family member charged with a crime, and what they don't understand is that this system isn't designed to actually help anyone, it's designed to hit them really, really hard if they aren't able to help themselves.

So it's a little different in the juvenile system.  A little.  There are services offered through juvie court, and some good and well-meaning people trying to offer them.  But, you know, at the end of the day it's still the same basic thing, only nicer.  So the juvenile judge can order a kid to get counseling, and the juvenile probation officer--we call them "court counselors" here in North Carolina, but that's awfully confusing--can make the necessary referrals and recommendations, and there's some state funding for whatever is recommended (depending on the state of the budget, natch); but the real bottom line is there's a solid lead weight cast in the shape of a fist beneath the velvet glove: kid, you're going to get counseling, and if you don't, we'll lock you up, and we'll keep locking you up until either you submit or we just can't lock you up anymore, and we'll keep checking up on you to make sure you're doing what we're making you do and we'll lock you up if we catch you screwing up.

D'ya see where I'm going with this?  Let's postulate that the real trouble with these kids is stress.  That what's really messing them up is they don't get positive reinforcement from the parents, that their home lives are transitory and unstable, that maybe they're going from home to home because they're in foster care or maybe they're going house to house because their parents keep getting evicted, that they're surrounded by violence in their homes or maybe just their neighborhoods.  And this is, as the people This American Life talked to, screwing up their brain chemistries something horrific, they're always ready to fight or run, this is shorting out the parts of the brain that deal with foresight and consequence and boosting the parts of the brain that deal with aggression and knee-jerking--all of which, again, is wonderful if you're a primate on the savannah trying not to be eaten by a tiger but not so swell if you're supposed to be learning about The American Revolution.  And so the kids' big problem is stress, and they act out and what's our response?  Oh yeah, it's to put them in a stressful situation and threaten them.

Good plan, Joe.  Can't see a single flaw with that one.

I don't know what to do.  The messianic part of my brain wondered how unrealistic it would be to go get a teaching certificate and quit my job and go in and be the proverbial Cool Teacher Who Made A Difference To These Kids, you know, the ones you see on TV and in movies.  That idea, of course, is really stupid, and the rest of my brain helpfully pointed that out to me.  But that's not the only thing I mean when I say, "I don't know what to do": I also mean that aside from however helpless I am personally, I also don't have an institutional solution to all these fucked-up kids being dragged up here to the courthouse.  It seems kind of obvious to me that what we're doing is actually even less-productive than I already thought it was, that it might be outright counterproductive, and what do you do with that bit of information?

So This American Life made me sad.  I guess that was the point, or part of it.


Nick from the O.C.,  Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 10:23:00 PM EDT  

Mrs. Nick from the OC liked this post very much. It resonated with her focus these days, as she pursues a Masters in Social Work.

TimBo Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 12:06:00 AM EDT  
This comment has been removed by the author.
TimBo Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 9:09:00 AM EDT  

I deleted my comment above because written at a low point at the end of the day, I thought it a little raw.

Great post Eric.

Steve Buchheit Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 7:37:00 PM EDT  

What can we do? Economic programs, cultural educational programs, making sure that we don't completely abandon the poor in some austerity progrom, and not forget what they're going through and how different that is from what we consider "normal." And maybe adjusting the social security net to be just a little bit higher.

But it's easier to say we need to test kids better/tougher, because it's an educational program, not a sociological one. And keep telling ourselves that until we believe it and sell it to ourselves.

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