A Question about Controlling the ‘Structure’
In recent Newsletters I have outlined techniques to develop structure in the classroom and have advocated a method of ‘rule making’ that assumes the students are capable of making ‘appropriate’ choices. There is no fundamental problem with this approach however it is important to keep in mind that children are works in progress and we assume they understand what we would consider appropriate.
Until relatively recently it was believed that the brain was fully developed by the time a child turned seven. Since the advent of more sophisticated instruments to examine the brain this assumption has been dismissed and it is well established that the brain does not fully develop until the mid-twenties. This development is not straightforward; there are periods, ‘windows of time’ when the brain prepares itself for the acquisition of new ‘behaviours’ such a sight, personal attachment and all the skills that make us human. At these times the child experiences the particular properties of the environment and learns how to behave in a way that allows them to function in that environment. At the risk of getting ‘off subject’ it is this learning how to behave relative to the environment that is critical to the long-term functionality of that behaviour. In other words if the behaviour, say attachment is developed in a dysfunctional setting, perhaps the mother or father is over anxious, disorganized or suffers from an addiction the behaviours learned by the child at the time will create unhealthy behaviours in a future, functional environment.
The brain matures in two ways, from the bottom up and from the back to the front of the structure. The latter development is through the cerebral cortex where the skills of sight, sound, language, etc. are acquired and situated. The last stage of this development is in the frontal cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex.
The bottom up development goes from the brain stem, up through the midbrain on to the limbic system and finally the cortex. This is not to say all these parts of the brain are not being used until they are ‘turned on’ of course they are but they are not sculptured, not exquisitely structured until the correct neurological conditions are in place, that is abundant myaline to reinforce developed neural pathways and effective pruning of unused neurons at the end of that process.
And so it’s the prefrontal lobes that are the last to be developed and this task is not complete until the mid to late twenties.
In 2004 developmental psychologist Slywester described the early development into two ten-year cycles. In both cases the first four years were characterized by an awkward period of learning followed by the gradual mastery and confidence.
During the first ten-year cycle children learn to be ‘human’, to move, communicate and master fundamental living skills. The second ten-year period they focus on becoming productive, reproductive adults. They explore emotional commitment, sexual expression and a ‘vocational’ interest. They learn these skills through testing behaviours in their environment.
The repercussion for the teacher, and for parents is how much choice about what consequences are appropriate for behaviours when we include the students in the construction of their classroom structure. In crude terms the amount of appropriate responsibility is related to their age, their stage of development. The graph below gives a simplistic illustration of how much freedom of choice is appropriate at a given stage of development.
It can be seen that very young children are dependent and it is the carer’s duty to tell them what to do. I often despair when I hear parents ask a six year old what would they like for dinner. Children are incapable of making appropriate decisions about the food that is good for their long-term health just as they are ill prepared for deciding what time to go to bed.
As they get older the issues that you can introduce choice must be those that do not have a direct bearing on their physical or emotional development. As you introduce them to limited control this must be linked to the consequences and their responsibility for those consequences. This is the balancing act all caregivers must satisfy, that is when ever possible you should only allow the child to make choices when the worst case scenario is tolerable for the child.
And so it is in the classroom. As a teacher there are times when you impose conditions that you know are right for their current level of development. You need to know when they can, and should take responsibility and only when they are able to make those decisions. This is true for lessons and for the setting of behaviour standards.