Perhaps it’s the school and not my child that needs to be refocused!

Ok, I may be late to the party on this one, but I came across this article today while following up on some of the ideas emerging from a Professional Network Centre gathering yesterday. One of the groups present was reporting on the work that they are doing to increase self-regulatory behaviour in students that are part of their Full Day Kindergarten Program (FDKP).  The suggestion from the group, and from the Toronto Star article is that kids that are less focused and who may not be good at self-regulation in the early years of school may not be as successful later on.

I’m all for nurturing the attitudes and dispositions in our children that will allow them to become happy and well-adjusted members of their families and communities. But I don’t feel at all comfortable with the articles main thesis that attention span in Kindergarten is an effective predictor of work habits later in life. Now, don’t get me wrong (I seem to be saying that quite a bit lately), I don’t disagree that a child that has trouble focusing in the early years of school might have trouble remaining engaged and interested in school several years down the road. In fact, it’s probably true. In some cases, there may even be a physical or neurological reason to explain the lack of attention. If so, it deserves our full attention.

But check out the words of Linda Pagani, the lead researcher on the project that followed close to 1500 kindergarten students as they made their way from JK to Grade 6:

“For children, the classroom is the workplace, and this is why productive, task-oriented behaviour in that context later translates to the labour market”

What? Did I really just read that?

While I’m not in a position to criticize the actual research (I will find the original journal article later today), I’m in a very good position to criticize the implication that we need to treat lack of attention in all students as a disease to be cured, a problem to be solved or a predictor of future success. Instead of trying to focus my child, let’s listen to him. Instead of trying to getting her to pay attention to what we think is important, let’s spend some time trying to understand where her focus actually is! Where is the somewhere else to which she is attending?

The student that has trouble focusing in Kindergarten could very well have more trouble with engagement later on in school because he’s a divergent thinker, a creative artist…a dreamer. If our schools continue to hold a view of the child that discounts these dispositions, then engagement and focus in school will continue to be a problem for some. But, as so many are beginning to suggest, perhaps the goal should not be to change the child but, rather to change the environment in which we compel our children to be actively attentive for six hours a day. If we want our children to be engaged, let’s make sure that they’re in an engaging place, doing engaging things, with engaging people.

If the 21st century workplace skills of creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are so important, why are we worried about attention, self-regulation and compliance at such a young age. In fact, it could turn out that many of the students that are disengaged with school at early ages turn out to be our most successfull, creative and entrepreneurial citizens. 

I’m not comfortable with the idea that school become a place where our youngest children are rewired to fit into a working environment somewhere down the road. I don’t send my children to school to be altered.  I send them to school to be inspired, to have his passions ignited, his interest piqued and his mind challenged.

I’m concerned about where this type of research is leading, but before going off on too many rants, I’m going to do some more reading, some more listening and some more thinking about this talk of focus and self-regulation in our 4- and 5-year olds. I would love your perspective on this. As a kindergarten teacher, what are your thoughts? As a parent, how does this sit with you? As a thinker about school and schooling, what say you?

Is attention on attention going to improve the lives of our children, or is it merely going to improve the working conditions for our teachers? 

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Stephen Hurley

About Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley has been involved in public education for over 27 years, serving as a classroom teacher, school-based resource, curriculum consultant and teacher educator. He is most passionate about issues and conversations around school change and innovation, and welcomes all voices to the conversation. You can contact Hurley at stephen.hurley@sympatico.ca

3 Responses to Perhaps it’s the school and not my child that needs to be refocused!

  1. Nancy April 4, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    “But check out the words of Linda Pagani, the lead researcher on the project that followed close to 1500 kindergarten students as they made their way from JK to Grade 6:

    “For children, the classroom is the workplace, and this is why productive, task-oriented behaviour in that context later translates to the labour market”

    Welcome to my world Stephen, where children are labelled and treatments are for the most part to change the behaviour, and not the root cause, or the underlying cause of the perceived subjective observations of the adult.

    ” Then, from grades 1 to 6, homeroom teachers rated how well the children worked both autonomously and with fellow classmates, their levels of self-control and self-confidence, and their ability to follow directions and rules. “For children, the classroom is the workplace, and this is why productive, task-oriented behaviour in that context later translates to the labour market,” Pagani said. “Children who are more likely to work autonomously and harmoniously with fellow classmates, with good self-control and confidence, and who follow directions and rules are more likely to continue such productive behaviors into the adult workplace. In child psychology, we call this the developmental evolution of work-oriented skills, from childhood to adulthood.”
    http://www.nouvelles.umontreal.ca/udem-news/news/20120130-lifelong-payoff-for-attentive-kindergarten-kids.html

    I read the above article back in January, and as a parent I don’t think much of the study, and the conclusions, but than again I am not a big fan of solutions that labels a child, as well as focusing on the behaviours of a child, as the cause, and not one of the symptoms to root out the underlying root causes. Stephen, if you do read the original study, no doubt the 3 groupings of high, medium, and low classroom engagement, will follow the classic groupings of high, medium and low literacy and numeracy scores. I have read too many studies over the pass 10 years, where the common reliance on observational scales, is seen as being reliable and valid. But are they reliable, when it is subjective measures of observations being used as the main measure for classroom engagement. Bias interpretations of the data, leads to shallow and sweeping conclusions that condemns the children, as well as repeating the solutions to change the behaviours and attitudes of children, and not the root causes of the behaviour. Very much like giving an aspirin, when the patient has stomach cancer, or in the case of the classroom, the magical thinking of changing the behaviour in the hope that the underlying academic struggles will disappear.

    Apparently, my youngest child had attention span difficulties according to the school, and not a reading problem. That magical thinking, just led my child to disengage from school, to hate school and to firmly implant in her mind, that she is just too stupid for school work of the academic kind.

    More than likely, focusing on attention span in the early grades will just make the classroom easier to managed, but unlikely to improve the futures of children, especially when children are seen as little workers to strive for conformity in productive behaviours such as following directions that imitates the behaviours of the book learners in any class. The same book learners that have excellent literacy and numeracy skills, to which the observation scales were based on, and in the end is really sorting the students by their abilities in reading, writing and numeracy. Would it not be nice, if behaviour indicates the future academic success of student? Just change the behaviour, but humans are a bit more complicated than that, and as such behaviours are as diverse across the span of an average primary classroom, where individual student behaviour is an expression of individualism. And in the classroom of 5 to 6 hours, the expression of individualism – the behaviour of inattentiveness – could very well be a sign of early learning struggles that leads to weak work-oriented skills in the future. And yet it is the behaviour that is focused on and never the learning struggles that emerges sitting in a classroom for 5 to 6 hours.

  2. Stephen Hurley
    Stephen Hurley April 7, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    Thanks for your very meaty response Nancy. I’m concerned that the primary focus of school success still centers on literacy and numeracy. I’m not saying that these are not important indicators. They absolutely are. But we tend to grab the low hanging fruit and don’t spend enough time observing and assessing school quality in terms of the other things that draw students in and allow them opportunities to explore the world in different ways.

  3. Nancy April 7, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    But what type of literacy and numeracy is being assessed when the behaviour of students is one of the basic measures being used to determined the evaluation in literacy and numeracy?

    I sort of asked that question, in more simple terms when my child was in the primary grades, and the response was always not being focus enough, not being attentive and other like responses describing behaviour. I was confounded by it, because overall behaviour of my child was never an issue, except when it came to the extremes of grading; the low and high grades within literacy and numeracy sub-topics. At the end of the conversations, I would state a reading problem, and the responses would be describing inattentiveness. Yet, the primary teachers and it is my own opinion that they are prevented from assessing and observing school quality variables, that may impact students in various ways. In the case of my child, it was a combination of the policies and practices of inclusiveness and special education services, that prevented the teachers from exploring the area of education policies and practices in order to help my child. The main reason being my child was passing, and my child’s difficulties in literacy and numeracy became the teacher’s job. In effect, the board policies of the day, my child’s learning difficulties became a behaviour problem in their eyes, and hence no further exploration was warranted in my child’s literacy and numeracy learning problems.

    “. They absolutely are. But we tend to grab the low hanging fruit and don’t spend enough time observing and assessing school quality in terms of the other things that draw students in and allow them opportunities to explore the world in different ways.”

    But how can teachers spend more time observing and assessing school quality that draw students in, when the policies and practices being employed by the school boards actually prevents teachers from doing so? The emphasis being on literacy and numeracy, what is actually lost is the future potential of students, and disengagement because the policies and practices prevents not only teachers to observed and assessed school quality variables, but hinders students from exploring the world in different ways, that are not in keeping with practices and policies of the school and its board.

    On the WISE math site, a parent who is now home schooling, a principal stated to her – “The straw that broke the camel’s back for us, was at the end of our meeting, the principal stated “QUIT TRYING TO CAUSE TROUBLE, THIS IS THE BEST WAY TO TEACH MATH, AND IT’S NOT GOING ANYWHERE” We will not take this lying down, we want our children to be a successful.” A grade 4 class, doing grade 3 math curriculum and I bet a school filled with teachers who are prevented from observing and assessing school quality variables of the curriculum kind.

    What is really scary, the behaviour of children becomes the focus, and not the school quality variables that impacts behaviour and achievement of the students. In the current classroom environment, a child with reading difficulties will obtained the new label of an anxiety disorder under mental health, with the attached inattentiveness label for good measure.

    “I’m not comfortable with the idea that school become a place where our youngest children are rewired to fit into a working environment somewhere down the road. I don’t send my children to school to be altered. I send them to school to be inspired, to have his passions ignited, his interest piqued and his mind challenged.”

    How it should be Stephen, but in reality it is the students that are being rewired to fit into the working environment with questionable literacy and numeracy skills starting in the primary grades.

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