Tale of two schools

Students from a primarily Latino public school in the South Bronx got together with students from a ritzy private school for an exercise in “radical empathy,” reports the New York Times magazine in The Tale of Two Schools.

Under the supervision of Narrative 4, the students paired off, one from each school, and shared stories that in some way defined them. When they gathered as a group a few hours later, each student was responsible for telling the other’s story, taking on the persona of his or her partner and telling the story in the first person.

I was impressed by the low-income students’ confidence that they can have a better future. Nagib Gonzalez, 18, said: “Being poor is the biggest motivation for me because I come from the bottom, and my goal is to reach the top. People say that success is not determined by income, and I mostly agree, but I want my success to be determined by income. I want to be able to support my family.”

Why dads matter

Dad isn’t dispensable, write Lois M. Collins and Marjorie Cortez in The Atlantic. A third of American children are growing up without their biological father. It’s not just a benign “alternative family.” It’s bad for kids.

More than half of babies of mothers under 30 are born to unmarried parents, they write. Forty percent of married couples divorce.

Father-absent families are four times more likely to be poor, the Census reports.

When couples split, Dad usually moves out. Often a new man comes in. And then leaves. Children in such homes experience an average of more than five “partnership transitions,” one study found.

Most children deal with “family churn” and end up OK, said Andrew J. Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round and director of John Hopkins’ Population Center. But the more transitions a child endures, the worse off he or she typically is, Cherlin said.

“Dad also helps with impulse control and memory and enhances a child’s ability to respond effectively to new or ambiguous situations, for boys and girls,” said Warren Farrell, author of Father and Child Reunion. Children who are close to their fathers tend to achieve more academically, while kids with absent fathers are more likely to drop out. Fathers are the biggest factor in preventing drug use, Farrell said.

The time a father spends with his child predicts how empathetic a child will become, according to a proposal for a White House Council on Boys and Men.

Children who lack contact with fathers are more likely to be treated for emotional or behavioral problems. Girls with absent or indifferent fathers are more prone to hyperactivity.

When fathers are involved, girls are less likely to become pregnant as teens and boys are less likely to become teen fathers.

Simply improving the job market for young adults, especially men, would do wonders to stabilize families—particularly those just starting out, Cherlin said. Experts have been surprised by the real drop in divorce among the college-educated, who still can get good jobs. He said young people need more job training opportunities and apprenticeships, especially if they’re not college-bound. Making sure tax policy doesn’t discourage marriage and providing a modest earned income tax credit for disadvantaged childless young adults would also encourage formation of stable relationships, he added.

“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” President Obama said as he announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to help young black males. “And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”

Swedes fear the kids are all brats

 Is Sweden Raising a Generation of Brats?  In How Children Took Power, David Eberhard, a Swedish psychiatrist and father of six, argues Sweden’s child-centric culture has gone too far. The book has sparked a fierce debate, reports Jens Hansegard in the Wall Street Journal.   

. . . his book suggests the over-sensitivity to children and a reluctance to discipline has bred a nation of ouppfostrade, which loosely translates to “badly raised children.” “All this kowtowing to the kids actually causes kids and society more harm than good,” Dr. Eberhard said in an interview. He suggests the trend could contribute to higher anxiety levels or depression at a later stage in life for these children.

Swedish students have been falling behind on international exams. Swedes look enviously at countries like Finland, which has more discipline in schools and where teachers retain an old-school authority they have lost in Sweden.”

 “The kids of today, who are the children of parents who did not experience much discipline themselves, become very obstinate and self-centered,” says Ida-Maria Lindros, 31, a teacher outside of Stockholm. A typical scene at her school might go like this: “I ask a child to clean up after himself, and he replies ‘No, you’re not my boss, you cannot decide what I’m supposed to do,’ ” she says. “They’re very anti-authoritarian.”

. . . “If you get your way all the time, you won’t develop empathy and you’ll have problems respecting other people’s wishes,” says Beatrice Nyström, a Swedish developmental psychologist.

Swedish parents get long parental leaves in their children’s first year, but then universal day care encourages parents to disconnect, says educator Jonas Himmelstrand. “The state is sending out the message that you don’t have to raise your children yourself,” says Himmelstrand. “Day care and schools will raise your kids, and when the kids come home, you can just be their friend.”

Social, emotional, but where’s the learning?

First graders react to the question, “What face do you make when your mother compliments you?” during a class session called “Feeling Faces” at Public School 24 in New York City. — Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

Teachers are using Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to manage classes, reports Education Week.

Already dubious about SEL’s claims to make children nicer and prepare them for the 21st century, Katharine Beals sees SEL for classroom management as intrusive and manipulative.

It starts with an obvious tactic: “Giving students input in classroom rules and making them make amends and apologize when they hurt someone’s feelings.” Students also learn simple vocabulary words related to feelings, practice identifying their emotions and act out their feelings.

It all takes more time than a traditional incentives-based classroom management system, a teacher tells Education Week.

The program also invades students’ privacy, writes Beals.

Students convene for class meetings, during which they express their feelings and solve problems.

. . . Ms. Diaz said she has conversations with the class about not repeating what they hear from members of their “class family.” In addition, she explains that as a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect, she must pass on certain information to counselors and administrators.

Also, Ms. Diaz said, she warns parents at the start of the year that their children may open up to her about what’s going on at home.

One activity sounds like “emotional abuse” to Beals.

Maria Diaz’s 5th graders were revisiting a lesson in social-emotional learning they’d done recently in which they drew pictures of themselves and then listened to a story. Each time students heard a “put-down,” or a hurtful statement about someone in the story, Ms. Diaz had them tear off a piece of their self-portraits in a show of empathy.

. . . The “put-downs” activity . . . brought much of the class to tears.

The goal is to make kids “more responsible and empathetic,” writes Beals. These are “two traits which the teachers we’ve read about, as well the architects of these programs, appear to be lacking in spades.”

“SEL-based classrooms also do not work for every child,” Ed Week admits. “Students with behavioral issues may require an extrinsic-rewards system or a more structured approach.”

Beals asks: “Why are we forcing students who don’t have behavioral issues to waste so much time on these privacy-invading, time-wasting exercises?”

Is SEL useful, harmless or manipulative?

Reading for emotional intelligence

Reading literary fiction develops empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence, according to a new study reported in the New York Times.

Understanding others’ mental states, known as “Theory of Mind” (ToM), is a critical social skill, researchers write. People who read a short piece of literature did better on ToM tests than those who read excerpts of popular fiction, nonfiction or nothing at all.

“Literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity,” researchers believe.

 “This is why I love science,” Louise Erdrich, whose novel The Round House was used in one of the experiments, wrote in an e-mail. The researchers, she said, “found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.”

“Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries,” she added.

The study could give ammunition to critics of the Common Core standards, which call for students to read more nonfiction. Inevitably, that means less time reading literature.

Participants were tested on their ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs. For example, in one test, they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion shown.

Is the woman with the smoky eyes aghast or doubtful? Is the man whose gaze has slivered to a squint suspicious or indecisive? Is she interested or irritated, flirtatious or hostile? Is he fantasizing or guilty, dominant or horrified?

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says researcher Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research. “You know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

ADHD or narcissism?

Many children diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may simply be slow to grow out of “normal childhood narcissism, writes psychologist Enrico Gnaulati in The Atlantic.

In the 1970s, a mere one percent of kids were considered ADHD. By the 1980s, three to five percent was the presumed rate, with steady increases into the 1990s. One eye-opening study showed that ADHD medications were being administered to as many as 17 percent of males in two school districts in southeastern Virginia in 1995.

ADHD symptoms — “problems listening, forgetfulness, distractibility, prematurely ending effortful tasks, excessive talking, fidgetiness, difficulties waiting one’s turn, and being action-oriented” — aren’t all that different from normal childhood challenges, he writes. In the past, a distractible, fidgety child would have been considered slower to mature and learn social skills. Now that child is quickly diagnosed with ADHD.

The core symptoms of ADHD resemble childhood narcissism, which is characterized by “overconfident self-appraisals, attention-craving, a sense of personal entitlement” and weak empathy for others, writes Gnaulati.

“Jonah” falls apart when he can’t master a task immediately. It could be a symptom of ADHD, writes Gnaulati. Perhaps he can’t retain the information needed. But it could be the “magical thinking” common for young children.

He believes mastering tasks should somehow be automatic—not the outcome of commitment, perseverance, and effort. Jonah’s self-esteem may also be so tenuous that it fluctuates greatly. For instance, when Jonah anticipates success, he productively cruises through work, eager to receive the recognition that he expects from parents and teachers. He is on a high. He definitely feels good about himself. But in the face of challenging work, he completely shuts down, expects failure, outside criticism, and wants to just give up.

“Parents who think their kid has ADHD often describe scenarios at home where the kid reacts to minor setbacks with bloodcurdling screams or to modest successes with over-the-top exuberance,” writes Gnaulati. For kids who really have ADHD, completing homework can be torture. But, for others, “dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort.”

If parents give in, “these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.”

I think the technical term is “spoiled brat.”

Gnaulati is the author of  Back to Normal, which is subtitled “why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders.”

Brainy, introverted boys are over-diagnosed with autism, he writes in Salon. “If we don’t have a firm grasp of gender differences in how young children communicate and socialize, we can mistake traditional masculine behavior for high-functioning autism.”

No time to play

Today’s children don’t have time to play independently – and to develop social skills — writes psychologist Peter Gray on Aeon. The adults are always in charge.

Growing up in the 1950s, Gray had a “hunter-gatherer education” in addition to formal schooling. The neighborhood kids played after school, often till dark, in mixed-age groups. They played on the weekends and in the summer.

We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us.

Since then, adult-directed sports for children have replaced “pickup” games, Gray writes. free-to-learn Adult-directed extracurriculars have replaced hobbies. Parents are afraid to let kids play without supervision.

As children’s free play has declined, children have shown more signs of anxiety and depression, he writes on psychological surveys. Since the ’50s, “the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.”

In addition, surveys show “a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism.”

Children aren’t learning social skills through play, writes Gray. At school, an authoritarian setting, they learn to compete rather than cooperate. Extending the school day will widen the “play deficit” even more, argues Gray.

A Boston College professor, Gray writes the Freedom to Learn blog, and is the author of a new book, Free to Learn.

Kids who want to work — mowing lawns — face “safety” barriers, writes Mollie Hemingway. On the neighborhood listserv, someone asked for feedback on “a group of adorable and entrepreneurial kids (young, maybe 9-11 years old)” looking for mowing jobs. “We didn’t see a parent with them supervising.”

A link was provided to Mowing the Lawn Can Be a Dangerous Chore, which recommended “polycarbonate protective eyewear” for anyone mowing — or in the vicinity.

Field trips really are educational

Visiting an art museum improved children’s knowledge about art, critical thinking skills, historical empathy and tolerance, concludes a University of Arkansas study. It broadened their minds. Benefits were particularly large for students from rural areas and from high-poverty schools.

Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Susan Tobin
War News from Mexico

Artist: Richard Caton Woodville , 1825 – 1855 

When the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Arkansas in 2011, many school groups wanted to tour.

Researchers created matched pairs among the applicant groups based on similarity in grade level and other demographic factors, and then randomly assigned school groups to receive a tour that semester or at a later time. Students in selected schools took a tour lasting roughly one hour, during which they viewed and participated in discussions about five different paintings.

Asked to write a short essay on a painting they hadn’t seen before, the field trippers “noticed and described more details.”

 To measure historical empathy, researchers employed a series of statements and asked students to agree or disagree, including, “I have a good understanding of how early Americans thought and felt.”  Tolerance was also measured with statements to which students could express agreement or disagreement, ranging from “People who disagree with my point of view bother me,” to “I think people can have different opinions about the same thing.”

Students who toured on a field trip were more likely than expected to return to the art museum with their family.

More than half of schools throughout the country eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11 according to an American Association of School Administrators survey.

Every kid needs a champion

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like,” says Rita Pierson, a teacher, counselor and administrator for 40 years, in a TED talk.

TED Talks Education, a one-hour program on teaching and learning, will air May 7 and May 9 on PBS.

Study: TV can teach empathy to preschoolers

When 3- to 5-year-olds watch less violence on TV and more shows featuring cooperation and friendship, they’re less aggressive toward other children, concludes a study published in Pediatrics.

One group of parents received guides highlighting positive TV shows for children and newsletters encouraging them to watch with their kids and discuss  the best ways to deal with conflict. Researchers called monthly to help parents set television-watching goals for their preschoolers.

The control group got dietary advice, but no guidance on TV watching.

After six months, parents in the group receiving advice about television-watching said their children were somewhat less aggressive with others, compared with those in the control group. The children who watched less violent shows also scored higher on measures of social competence, a difference that persisted after one year.

Low-income boys showed the most improvement.

“It’s not just about turning off the TV; it’s about changing the channel,” said Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, the lead author of the study and a University of Washington pediatrics professor.

Preschoolers average 4.1 hours of television and other screen time daily, according to a 2011 study.

“Law enforcement sources” believe Adam Lanza was motivated to kill Newtown’s children by “violent video games“and his desire to outkill Andres Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, reports CBS.  “Call of Duty” was his favorite.