Rethinking Priorities

We spent last week on the East Coast for a wonderful three-day family reunion. Fifty of us gathered in a heated tent, somewhat protected from the cold, damp weather. On Sunday, though, when the crowd was smaller, we spent more time inside my cousins’ lake house. Nine children with ages ranging from 7 years to only 1 ½, played together quite happily in a small room off the great room. We could see and hear them through the French doors, and they rarely needed any adult intervention. Six of the children are cousins who see each other more frequently, and they’re remarkably good about sharing and playing.

Their ability to have such a good time inspired me. I found myself thinking about the remarkable book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, by Katherine Reynolds Lewis. In it she describes the importance of free play for young children and the way it teaches them to self-regulate. She warns that over-scheduled, always supervised children lose that opportunity to their detriment.

Her warning seems particularly valuable right now, as students struggle to re-adapt to school after the disruptions of the pandemic. As I’ve written about before, teachers report poor behavior, lack of cooperation, and lack of engagement. Surely the months of isolation, already proven to have taken a severe toll on the mental and emotional well-being of students, have also disrupted their shared experiences of working together in a classroom. I acknowledge the legitimate concerns about lost skills, about poor reading and math test scores, but I remain convinced that we cannot turn those around until our students are in a better place emotionally and mentally.

This weekend I began to wonder if we also need to work more directly on rebuilding the skills needed for collaboration and cooperation in the classroom. Students who are not ready to learn will not accomplish the academic progress we seek. Do our students need to re-develop their ability to function as a unit in the classroom? Should we be focusing on that as well as their emotional and mental health?

If those needs are as real as they appear to me, how do we support teachers trying to do far more than teach math and reading? What kind of help and professional development do they need? And how do we convince school boards and administrators and parents that these tasks are urgent and take precedence over pure academic achievement, that they will pay off with better academic achievement in the long run?

I don’t have the answers, but I am convinced that these questions deserve answers, that we need to redirect our efforts to achieve the eventual outcomes we all hope for.