Least Likely To Succeed

Welcome to Format Free Fridays at AskDrDarcy.com, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions and I dispense that which we rarely welcome in life:  Unsolicited Advice.

At least once a week I receive an email from a frantic parent whose child isn’t living up to his or her academic potential.  Periodically, that parent will persuade me to work with their family in the hopes that I might identify roadblocks to the child’s success.  Invariably, those roadblocks include a rigid educational approach to learning.

The idea that our educational system, generally speaking, teaches all students in one standardized way, ignoring differences in learning styles and in aptitudes, is explanation enough for America’s outrageous high school dropout rate which, in 2008, hovered at just over 8%.  Dropout rates have a number of negative correlations.  For example, in 2008, the median annual income for individuals who did not complete high school was approximately 23K, whereas income for those who received at least a GED was 42K.  If you think the disparity between those numbers is significant, ponder the lifetime loss of $630,000 in earnings for dropouts.  Click here to view my source for those statistics.

It doesn’t take a public policy scholar to identify a primary cause for our youth’s disenchantment with the educational system:  We value only one type of intelligence in our society and in the process of “educating” our youth, we annihilate and invalidate all other aptitudes, along with passion and creativity.  Studies have confirmed this phenomenon for years.  Children enter the educational system with curiosity, creativity and a willingness to take risks.  Shortly thereafter, (around 4th or 5th grade), they learn that making mistakes is wrong, embarrassing, and often punishable.  Most of us remember this within the context of a particular subject.  Mine was math and I can remember the very first time I became math averse.  It was in 5th grade and Mr. Sierchio had just asked the class to solve a math problem.  As student after student failed to properly calculate the answer, his temper increased until eventually he was so angry that he began kneeing desks into the chests of some of the boys – not hard enough to hurt anyone, but hard enough to scare the shit out of some of us.   That day marked the last time I raised my hand in a math class.

Society stigmatizes mistakes and teaches children that there are ‘right’ answers.  Soon children begin associating mistakes with humiliation and negativity.  In the course of trying to avoid making mistakes, many children fail to develop problem solving skills and a willingness to engage in new activities, both of which are fundamental to any professional success, and both of which necessitate making mistakes.

Those most affected by our educational system tend to be the most creative.  Not surprisingly, creative children are often difficult to ‘educate.’  They question where others comply.  Their answers are often absent from those contained on multiple-choice tests.  They have trouble sitting, they have trouble focusing on that which doesn’t interest them, and they are often more interested in their social rank than with their class rank.  Year after year, the classes that tap into the creative child’s strengths are less and less available because they are less and less valued.  By 9th grade, schools are lucky to offer art and music, and forget about dance.  Dance is the third world country of public education, as it exists in urban areas where sheer desperation drives administrators to include it in the curriculum, or in the suburbs where wealthy parents absorb the cost of private extracurricular activities outside of school.  Middle class children who show a talent for dance are screwed unless their parents are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to fork over private tuition.

With diminishing outlets for creativity and academia’s blind eye towards multiple learning styles, children are slowly educated out of creativity and curiosity.   It’s as though society views imagination as a stage of development which we tolerate for just a short number of years, biding our time in eager anticipation of children ‘maturing’ out of it.

Whenever I meet one of these ‘unmotivated’ students, I have the parents authorize me to engage in what I call active sessions. Conducting active sessions mean that I’m not confined to holding sessions in my office, which works out wonderfully for me because frankly, sitting still in a chair is often the most difficult part of the job for me.

During active sessions I take the student out into the streets of Soho and we walk together.  As I listen to them talk, I’m trying to determine three things:  Their passion, their learning style, and how movement affects their cognitive functioning i.e., their ability (and willingness) to communicate. Once I’ve determined these answers, I begin the battle against the school district to make accommodations for the student’s “differences,” which is to say, their individuality.

The fight against the schools is never brief, very expensive for the family, and often bloody.  Since the beginning of time, schools have rewarded homogeneity and frowned upon diversity, particularly as it pertains to learning styles.  Here’s a news flash:  We all have unique learning styles, but the vast majority of us have been beaten into conformity by the time we earn our high school diploma.

We need to reconstitute the fundamental principals through which we educate our children.  Imagination is a gift and we need to stop eradicating it through our educational system.  In addition, we need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.  We assess for one type of intelligence using standardized tests, which, if you ask me, indicates a flaw in the intelligence of those who designed the methodology.  Nothing provokes my hives faster than hearing a kid say to me, “So and so isn’t very smart.  She isn’t in AP classes.”  So and so isn’t smart by the stupid standards set forth by a society that died nearly 200 years ago.

For me, it’s personal.  I was first diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 26 when I was in my first job, which, ironically, happened to be in a private high school run by professionals who were sophisticated enough to recognize the symptoms.  A second, third and fourth opinion later, and I was put on a regime that would alter the way I walked through the world – and which would alter my narrative about who I was growing up. You see I was that creative kid who was interested in everything but who responded to most things by asking, “Why?”  It didn’t start out as a belligerent question but it eventually morphed into one when time and again I was met with the same rote answer by exhausted teachers: “Because it just is.

I’m not going to oversimplify my elementary, middle and high school experience by blaming everything on having learning differences/ADHD, but I will tell you that I began to flourish in grad school when the tests took on the form of essays and I was no longer limited to finding an answer among a short list of multiple choice options; when I was permitted to excuse myself from class whenever I needed to stretch my legs (or my brain) and come back 2 minutes later refreshed and able to focus; when classes became interactive and a place where debate was a welcomed sign of intelligence instead of a target for ridicule.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to recall that I’m the same person who barely graduated from high school; who needed to attend one year at a community college (without credit) to make up for the education that I either didn’t receive or failed to absorb in high school. Without a doubt, I was one of the least likely to succeed in my high school graduating class.  And I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if my earlier experience with public education had been a better fit for me.