A decade ago, I happened upon a story that shook me.
In the midst of an emotional outburst, a 6-year-old kindergartener had been removed from her Florida classroom in handcuffs. The handcuffs, too large to fit around her tiny wrists, were instead fastened around her biceps. Police officers loaded her into the back of a cruiser and took her to the county jail. She had not yet lost her baby teeth, but she already had a mug shot and a felony charge to her name.
Her case was extreme, but far from unusual.
Across the country, police are a regular presence in schools, called upon to discipline unruly students at the elementary level. This result is the infamous “school-to-prison pipeline,” funneling “problem” students out of the classroom and into a criminal justice system built for growth, entrapping the children before they have a chance to develop.
Teaching, Not Jailing
Emotional outbursts should be viewed as teachable moments, not jailable offenses. But, like increased bullying, suicides, low performance and school dropout rates, the school-to-prison pipeline is just one of a series of alarm bells pointing us to a deeper challenge—one that we must train ourselves to see.
A student can’t think through a difficult math problem if he or she is in emotional distress. But our schools and curriculums simply aren’t designed to take into account cultural context and social and emotional well-being.
Too few of our school administrators and teachers are equipped to manage their students’ behavior productively and compassionately. Too few are given the time, space and freedom to nurture the whole child—to foster social, emotional and creative growth.
This compartmentalization is a relic of America’s colonial past. Even as our world has evolved our schools have remained frozen in time. Their form and function have only marginally changed over the last 150 years.
U.S. schools are modeled after the Prussian education system, which was designed to meet two objectives: promoting nationalism and developing the technical skills needed to power an industrial economy. The (White and male) founders of America’s public school system conceived of schools as mechanisms of assimilation and control—anyone who did not, or could not, conform faced swift and sometimes violent consequences.
A Sad (And Avoidable) Case Study
Some of the worst abuses took place in American Indian boarding schools, where Native American children, ripped from their families, were sent for more than a century in a federal program of forced assimilation. These schools relied on harsh disciplinary practices and proudly proclaimed their mission to “kill the Indian, but save the man.”
Generations of Native Americans were uprooted from their communities and alienated from their ancestral heritage. Now, a new generation is finding its way back.
Today, leaders like Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, director of Indigenous Tribal Studies at North Dakota State University, are working to help Native communities reclaim their stolen identities and rebuild after decades of trauma and cultural erasure. Much of this work focuses on unlearning the rigid definitions and value systems forced upon students in boarding schools, a process Yellow Bird calls “decolonizing the mind.”
Schools like the Native American Community Academy in New Mexico, following the lead of its creator Kara Bobroff, are naturally integrating native culture, community building and a focus on students’ holistic health and well-being into regular classroom instruction.
These practices hold essential wisdom for all schools. As we seek to build a better educational system for our future, our greatest clues can be found by reaching further into the past. Not surprisingly, many pre-colonial ways of teaching may be exactly what’s needed for students in our rapidly changing environment, an environment that has increasingly become transactional rather than relational.
These ways of teaching bring children into the world of knowledge—at appropriate developmental stages—through support, engagement and experience. They provide learning environments that understand and respect context and culture, that recognize that children learn in different ways and that embrace the idea that there’s a complex interdependent ecosystem at work—both inside each student, and also in the world at large.
From experiential learning programs that connect kids to members of their broader communities, to buddy systems where kids learn to look out for one another, to self-directed programs that put students in charge of goals and action plans, these approaches value relationships and experience and offer a better way to foster kids’ natural and innate ability to learn. At their best, they model a commitment to making sure children are safe, seen, celebrated and inspired in the context of a caring community.
By remembering and restoring educational practices that nurture—rather than negate—the whole child, an entirely new world of learning, growing and becoming could be within our reach.