Balancing Between High Standards and Varying Developmental Levels

Balancing Between High Standards and Varying Developmental Levels

I recently co-hosted a webinar, At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, with my colleague Dr. Douglas Reeves from Creative Leadership Solutions. After the webinar, Doug and I received the following question from Dr. Catherine Smith:

What advice can you give elementary school educators who need to balance between high standards and sensitivity about children’s varying developmental levels?

My colleague Douglas Reeves responded with:

The critical issue in elementary school, and every level for that matter, is defining what “high standards” really means. Ideally, our expectations of students include the entire learning process, including not only acquiring knowledge, but deep inquiry, asking interesting questions, displaying a passion for learning, taking risks, admitting when they make mistakes, and demonstrating resilience after failure. Unfortunately, I often see other behaviors masquerading as “high standards” – perfect completion of homework, sullen compliance with adult authority, or the illusion of engagement by hands raised high in the classroom.   So the first issue to address with the faculty is what “high standards” really mean in practice. With regard to the second part of the question, developmental levels, I would again ask for some clarify of definition.  For example, I heard it frequently asserted that kindergartners are not “developmentally ready” for reading and writing, and yet children of the same age in the same district, sometimes in the same school, are reading and writing.  Clearly that is not a matter of childhood development, but of adult expectations. Children are wired to inquire from the first time the toddler endlessly asks, “Why?”  That’s the gift we need to nurture and encourage throughout their K-12 education.  Equipped with that spirit of inquiry, kids can ask some surprisingly important questions in science, literature, mathematics, and every other realm of study.
I then added to Doug’s comments with:
As with many questions of this nature, I am always intrigued by questions involving the intersection of human development (cognitive, social, emotional and physical) and environmental expectations and demands. I strongly recommend that these educators prioritize “sensitivity about children’s developmental needs” over a focus on “high standards,” particularly if such “high standards” – supersede a balanced approach to educating “the whole child.” As we know from those 65-80 years of developmental theory about child development, all elementary school children are in very early stages of their development – cognitively, emotionally, socially, physically – and therefore, are highly vulnerable to any environmental pressures that overwhelm their emerging capacities. We tend to understand and appreciate this point more whenever we hear of young children being exposed to traumatic situations (neglect, abuse, loss, etc.), and then we intuitively empathize with these children, knowing that they are so powerless and vulnerable in these crises. While children’s exposure to traumatic circumstances and their being expected to meet “high standards” in school are obviously very different situations, there are some overlapping features and concerns. Essentially, and as I describe in my book (At What Cost?), subjecting developmentally vulnerable children to consistent demands to meet the “high standards” expectations of their teachers and parents doesn’t usually result in a specific crisis-like event, but instead, it tends to result in children’s “slow burn,” their gradually become exhausted and “out of gas.” These kids look often like they have lost their steam … or have lost their energy and natural joy for life. One of my favorite developmental theorists, Robert Kegan, has warned that when adults expect children and adolescents to function beyond their developmental capacities, the adults create a situation that is dangerous for both the adults (whose expectations are too high) and for the developing children and adolescents. As Kegan asserts, “The cost to a person of being unseen, of being seen as the person-one-might-become rather than the person-one-is … is a bewildering experience of being unfairly demanded of.”   So, my advice for elementary school educators?

  • Prioritize knowing and continued learning about the actual developmental capacities of the children they are hired to educate.
  • Treat (educate) children according to who they are, not according to who they might be … if they were able to meet such “high standards.”

Basically, subjecting young children to expectations and demands that are beyond their developmental status is an example of the “bewildering experience” Kegan identifies, as it risks children’s “being unfairly demanded of,” and that, too often, leads to their unhealthy outcomes.

I am curious to what you think? What advice would you give to Dr. Smith? Let me know in the comments.