And by hacking I mean to carry out a beneficial change. My reasoning is based on experiences with young people in counseling and some of their common challenges. The first is that of social bullying in the classrooms, playgrounds and hallways. The issue of bullying has grabbed attention in the headlines of newspapers and highlights on the evening news. What we usually see are the end results of kids, teens and young adults who have come to the end of their rope after many incidents of aggression, humiliation and rejection from peers.
What we don’t see on the news is the subtle erosion of confidence and personal direction of kids who are erroneously guided by character assassination and detachment from relationships with supportive adults. Something else that does not earn air time on television is reality of each student’s role in navigating the tide of emotional issues that others bring into the school environment. Some kids have the upbringing that helps to cut through the pecking order drama and veils of insecurity. But many don’t.
The typical school day is seven to eight hours long. This may not include time on the bus trip to and from home. Let’s say that the average period for a child to be in school is forty hours of the week. Most people who work forty hours a week start to become acclimated to the nature of their tasks and place of business. It becomes a habit. Whether or not an adult likes their job, it trains the brain to do things a certain way. The job becomes normal. Expectations, no matter how these may seem are hardly as big of a deal, compared to the very first day.
A child can train himself to believe that he does not matter. Whatever it takes to survive another day, will become the only expectation. He starts to believe what other people tell him, without solid evidence to the contrary. Day by day, the child hears from well-meaning adults “Why can’t you just shake it off.”
He doesn’t know how. His training leaves out the part about relying only on solid facts, instead of the convenient and uniformed remarks about looks, ability and character. This only leaves the influence of random thought and emotion. A six or seven-year-old student is expected to handle powerful feelings of anger and confusion. He is assumed to be a master of differentiating between truth and fiction, in the glib statements of observance that are driven by ignorance and passing thoughts. Most adults cannot ignore the pressure of office politics regarding who gets the promotion and how the game is played. There wouldn’t be gripe sessions at the water cooler if everyone blissfully accepted their lot. Yet we expect elementary students to advocate for themselves, without proper insight into the art of self-advocacy and the jungle of emotional ups and downs.
As adults, we learn how to do our work and pay special attention to learning the required skills. This ensures a smooth operation and flow of the job. Such an expectation makes perfect sense. Everyone gets paid for fulfilling their role and place in the company. But employees are people who each have different needs and values. Employees are more than a skill-set. Each one brings their humanity to the job environment. If needs and rights are being stepped on repeatedly and there is no insight into how to solve the problem, then none of the skills matter. Anger and anxiety take precedence. Cooperation takes a nose dive. The employee who is supposed to maintain loyalty to his boss and company starts to think “What the hell am I even doing here?” A preoccupation with hate and hurt feelings become more of an occupying priority than the attention to detail and continued learning.
Far from the classroom, we as adults expect children to face harassment from peers and continue to march through their lessons like good little boys and girls. We shake our heads and ask why some children can’t get through the day without bullying others. Student targets and their aggressors both struggle with the same problem, which is a poor understanding of how to stay centered in the midst of difficulty. Environmental pressures from home and life are carried to school. We expect children to wipe adult-sized conflicts out of their minds and get on with learning how to write and get along with others, no matter what. Even if a lot of us are changing jobs in the effort to meet our needs and reduce pressure, we expect little kids to automatically find a way calm down and persevere through the year.
I hope to provoke some thought into the way mandatory curriculum is designed for the young minds we are trying to shape. If elementary education is a primer for readiness in a tougher landscape ahead, can we consider academic skills to be only part of what’s needed for the journey? Does it make sense to look at how management of self-doubt could lend to greater productivity? Imagine if a child was able to recognize symptoms of anger in himself and put it in check until the work is done. Imagine that he is able to reserve a specific time and resource for asserting his issues and be able to get on with playing. Let’s pretend that a child’s regular education at school requires knowing how to describe personal strengths just as easily as he can tell the difference between red and blue. He automatically knows how to relax and recognize stress in himself and others. He knows how to say “I’m feeling angry” about whatever is triggering the emotion. He is able to stay present and recognize facts, instead of letting emotion be the influence.
Please let me know what you think.
David Peace MS LPC, Author of Jungle Pack: Therapy Workbook and Journal