Too Many Kids Are Suffering At School

Where are empathy and compassion in our schools?

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This recent e-mail is typical of the hundreds I get from distraught mothers. 

“Today was not a good day and the reason for my email. We were called to the school where he had overturned pretty much everything.  It was like we were looking at someone else’s child.  And he kept repeating he was a “bad boy.” It was heartbreaking. I was not aware that his teacher is not able to remove him from the room. Instead they are trained to remove the entire class…We are really struggling to find the right course of action for him.  The school is going to have a speech pathologist come in to see if he is struggling with language and speech.  We have made appointments to have his hearing & sight tested just to rule it out.  My gut tells me there is a disconnect with his classroom teacher and maybe a combination of him struggling with worksheets and more structure.  I really don’t know, all we know is this is not the boy we see at home.”

The only thing missing from this e-mail is the recommendation that he be put on medication. I’m sure that suggestion will be made eventually. The solution is always a technical one – professional specialists or medication. It is never a human one. This five-year-old boy needs empathy and compassion. He needs to be held. No one is listening to the mother’s “gut.”

Are teachers to blame for this situation? It’s more complicated than that. We all know there are good teachers and bad teachers. A good teacher has empathy and compassion. You feel for the child, and you act on those feelings. A good teacher doesn’t let institutions get in the way of their humanity.

Unfortunately, teachers become the product of policies, systems and procedures that they feel compelled to follow. Teachers have imbibed more than anyone the central lesson of school:

“Do what you’re told, and don’t talk back.”

Fear keeps people silent. Parents fear their child will be disadvantaged somehow if they speak up too much. Teachers have even more fear.

Students and teachers at The College School for brochures and the website.

They live under the shadow of administrators whose goal is to make the school look good. Administrators, in turn, obey their own superiors. It is a completely top-down system where no one is allowed to talk back, where we are all just following orders.

Kids have no organization to represent their interests – other than mothers and fathers. Teachers do, but even this protection comes at a cost. Teachers are given strict instructions from their unions about what they can and cannot do or say. They are constantly coached about how to protect themselves.

Over arching all these systems of control are professional governing bodies with the power to discipline teachers. At any moment a teacher can be accused of any number of things and submitted to a ritual of public shaming made even more efficient by social media. Fear rules teachers lives, and kids are the ones who suffer.

“If a child comes toward me crying, I was instructed to put my hands in the air.”

Are you saying we should get rid of accountability and transparency? I am saying we need to balance them with humanity – with empathy and compassion. Systems are set up to serve us and safeguard us. When they begin to hurt us and hurt our children, we need to do something we weren’t taught how to do in school – talk back.


Half of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. They report that the culture of school is just too oppressive. There is no tolerance for creativity or innovation. There is no place for human connection. Empathy and compassion are not just ignored; they are frowned upon. And this is the environment into which we send our kids. They can’t quit in the first five years.

What is the solution? Individuals. In the age of conformity and herd behavior, we need individuals who will stand up and speak out – teachers, parents and administrators who will talk back to systems based on fear and have the courage to connect authentically with children.

Advice for administrators

Question policies and procedures that are not kid friendly – that are put in place on the advice of insurance companies to avoid litigation. Schools can practice due diligence without shutting down our humanity.

Advice for unions

Do more than protect teachers’ interests. Protect children’s interests too.

Advice for professional governing bodies

You were set up to “protect the public interest.” Don’t just protect the interests of the fearful public, but the compassionate, progressive public as well.

Advice for teachers

You have as much freedom, humanity and compassion as you claim for yourself. Do not let fear, instilled by systems and institutions, rule your decisions.

Advice for parents

Keep talking back to school – teachers and administrators at all levels. You can be a powerful voice for children’s rights – your own child and all children. Listen to your gut. Always be on the side of your child.

How Do I Motivate My Child?

Psychologists tell us there are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic (coming from inside) and extrinsic (coming from outside). Extrinsic motivation usually takes the form of rewards or punishments. It works with little kids who sometimes need an incentive to do things they don’t see the value of.


We need to help our kids move from external motivation to internal motivation.

How do we do this? By letting go. When kids reach an age when they are able to see the consequences of their actions, take a step back. Let them begin to take charge of their own lives. We teach responsibility through freedom and natural consequences.

Many parents get stuck in the time-honored technique of external control known as nagging.

“I have to push him.”
“I’m always ‘on him’ about getting things done.”

This might be good preparation for an assembly line worker or a galley ship rower, but it’s poor preparation for adulthood. Employers want adults who are self-motivated, self-directed and self-regulating. No boss wants someone they have to be ‘on’ all the time.

People become what they are perceived to be. We can instill a negative narrative, “You’re lazy and need to be pushed” or a positive narrative, “You’re a capable, responsible person who knows what needs to be done.”

Things you can say to your child to promote self-directedness:

  • “It’s your choice.”
  • “You decide.”
  • “I trust your judgment.”
  • “Let me know if you need any help.”

Natural consequences are the best teacher. When kids are young, they are not always able to see the consequences of their actions, so we protect them. That’s the way it should be.

But many parents carry on this protective role too long, so kids never learn how to accept responsibility for their own actions and take charge of their own lives. In our attempt to protect our children from negative experiences, we rob them of some of life’s greatest lessons.


Homework and studying are the two biggest battle grounds where the issue of motivation is played out.

Option 1: Natural consequences. If I don’t do my homework or study, I will fall behind and possibly fail. (Sometimes failing is the necessary prerequisite for learning to take greater responsibility.)

Option 2: Nagging. The child shuts down and turns off. The parent ends up wanting it more than the child does. When we push too hard, the result can be counter-will. “I’m not going to do it because it’s what you want me to do.”

Nagging is rooted in our need for control and fear – fear that my child will fail. When we try too hard to control, our fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to trust our kids and give them loving support. Love sees the best in a child, not the worst. People become what they are perceived to be – capable, responsible, trustworthy.

Talking Back to Perfectionism

The perfect body, the perfect house, the perfect child.

Perfectionism affects all of us, and it is taking its toll on our children, our relationships, our health, our politics and the environment.

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Many children suffer from perfectionism. They stress about getting it right, about being the best, about not disappointing Mom and Dad. The other form perfectionism can take is underachieving. If I don’t try, I can’t fail.

Where do our children learn perfectionism?

Perfectionism used to be fueled by organized religion which held up a model of perfection that no one ever felt they could achieve. We were all sinners from birth.

Today consumerism has taken over the job of defining perfection. You are what you buy, and you will be judged by what you buy. You will also be judged by how you look (which can be improved by what you buy).

School also teaches perfectionism. Kids feel that their performance is constantly being evaluated, and the standard is 100% which no one ever achieves.

Finally, if we’re really honest with ourselves, they can pick up perfectionism from us – parents who are victims of the same epidemic.

Perfectionism is driven by shame and fear.

Humans are social animals and one of the ways we keep each other in line is through shame. Like school yard bullies, we criticize, mock and degrade anyone who falls outside our social norms. More subtle forms of shaming include gossip and all the little judgments we pass on each other every day.

This is where fear comes in. We fear that the same kinds of judgments will be passed on us. And so the illness begins. Fit in at all costs. Perfectionism is really about conformity.

How do we talk back to perfectionism?

Here are some things we can say to our children, but we need to believe and practice these attitudes ourselves!

  • Dare to be different. There is no one right way to be (weight, appearance, intelligence, personality). It is OK to be different. In fact, it is good to be different.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be people with more possessions, intelligence, whatever. It doesn’t matter.
  • The only person you need to compare yourself to is yourself. Are you growing, learning, changing for the better?
  • Your value as a person does not depend on your performance or your appearance.
  • You do not have to accept the judgments (real or imagined) that others pass on you.
  • Talk back to media images of perfection: beauty product ads, home renovation shows, bridal magazines – the list is endless.
  • Avoid shaming language: How could you? What were you thinking? Is that the best you can do?
Perfectionism and procrastination

Perfectionism can lead to procrastination – rooted in fear that the outcome will be less than perfect. “Any job worth doing is worth doing poorly.” As a perfectionist, when I first heard this, it drove me crazy. No way is that true! The older I get, the more I see the truth in it. It lets the perfectionist off the hook. It calls the perfectionist’s bluff. Just do it. Don’t use the fact that it might not be perfect be an excuse for doing nothing. Do something – even if it’s not perfect.



Beyond Fundraising

Schools need parents to create change

As we begin a new school year, parents will receive newsletters from school with information about what’s going on, what’s coming up and maybe even an invitation to participate in some way. My advice – get in there!

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Schools are like dysfunctional families. They exist in a kind of bubble where they create their own reality and come to believe in their own definition of “normal.” Dysfunctional families behave better when visitors are over. What schools need are more visitors from the outside world – reality checks – and parents can be that.

No shame and blame

In every school there are great teachers and every board has its great principals, but there are still too many dysfunctional situations. Schools need to be challenged – not attacked and criticized – but spoken to in a rational, adult way about the choices they are making – about technology, about rules, about so many aspects of our kids’ day-to-day lives.

Here is a list of questions I have received from parents:

• Why are they learning from blurry, disconnected photocopies instead of textbooks?
• Why are they watching Disney movies in grade 3?
• Why do they take away recess as a punishment?
• Why are they so quick to suggest medication for my son?
• Why is EQAO causing so much stress?
• Why are kids not allowed to run or use a ball at recess?
• Why does our playground look like an abandoned parking lot?
• Why is my child still being bullied even after I’ve reported it?
• Why does my child say he hates his teacher?
• How can I get my child to like school?

Parents “hand their kids over” to the school system, and then feel shut out. Too many parents do not feel welcome in their schools or feel like they are simply being tolerated or patronized. Others simply keep quiet out of fear of repercussions for their child.

Parent councils too often are just token illusions of involvement. At the monthly meeting, parents are told what is going on in the school, but they are seldom asked for their input, and any input they do give is seldom acted upon. Parents come out in September eager to have an impact on their child’s education, and within a few meetings realize that this is just going to be about fundraising.

Parents need to be part of the discussion about how money is spent, curriculum priorities and school culture. What makes a great school? Ownership and a common core vision. This can only happen through meaningful discussion and participation.

The principal dictates what happens in the school and the teacher dictates what happens in the classroom. Too often our schools resemble small dictatorships. They need to become more democratic. That means more parental input at the local level.

Have meaningful discussions

• In every school there are great teachers who feel the same way you do. They are often parents themselves. Get to know them and support them.
• Get to know your child’s teacher on a personal level and have meaningful discussions about education and child development.
• Get to know your principal on a personal level and have meaningful discussions about school culture.
• Get to know other parents and find out what their concerns are.
• Discuss issues of concern to you – issues relating to your own child as well as issues affecting the whole school.
• Attend parent council meetings and make sure important core issues get discussed.
• Look for follow up on these discussions – what has changed?
• Challenge items on the agenda that are trivial or don’t really create change.
• Does your school use social media? Is there a way you can open up discussion there?
• Don’t be afraid to say what you think. There are many parents who feel the same way you do.
• Don’t allow yourself to be written off as a crazy parent. The vocal parent is sometimes isolated and ignored.
• Adopt a thoughtful, patient, intelligent, respectful approach – and don’t go away.

THINK before you speak. Is what I’m going to say…

T     Thoughtful
H    Honest
I      Intelligent
N     Necessary
K     Kind

If it meets these criteria, then speak. It is the only way things will change.

(In many American schools, parents have been incredible agents of change – transforming individual schools and whole school districts. Rent the 2012 movie “Won’t Back Down” with Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter. (It’s on Netflix) Based on real events in California, it shows how parents can change schools.)

“I don’t want to go back!”

Let’s not forget what we learned this summer. We learned who our boys are without school.

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If we were lucky, we saw our boys as they are in nature. We saw our boys as they are with unstructured play. They may have complained about boredom at times, but we had the chance to see them as relaxed kids who were free and natural and happy. We have to remember that this is who our boys really are.

The great educational theorist, John Holt, said, “In school, we do not see children as they are. We see them as school reveals them to us.” This past summer we got to see who our boys really are. They love to move, they love to have fun, they love to laugh, and they love to have the freedom to be themselves with all their spontaneous, wonderful energy!

Now it’s time to go back into “the system.” Let’s remember that it is a system; it is not a natural environment. Some kids manage OK in school; some actually like it, but for many – especially boys – school is not a pleasant place. A.S. Neill asked the fundamental question, “Do we make the child fit the school or do we make the school fit the child?” In our school system today, the child is expected to fit the school. “Sit still, be quiet, and do what you’re told.” We must work to make the school fit the child. Eventually our schools will become more boy-friendly. Parents will become more active in advocating for change, and teachers will become better trained in gender differences. But we’re not there yet. So how can I help my child this fall?

7 Tips for transitioning back:

1. Mental rehearsal. Talk about the first days of school. Talk through the routines of morning and dinner time, of homework time and bedtime. Part of this will be a discussion about how can we manage these times better than we have in the past, but just as important is the mental rehearsal. When children have a mental picture of how a process will “look,” they will find it easier to comply.

2. Get to know your child’s teacher as a person. Don’t wait until there are problems. Establish a positive rapport early on, so that if you do need to talk to the teacher about anything more serious, you will be talking to someone you know and get along with.

3. Always be on the side of the child. When your child expresses frustration, boredom or anxiety, don’t try to talk your child out of their feelings. Just listen. “I hear you.” Let them keep talking. That is how they work their feelings out. Do not take the side of the school against the child. You are always the child’s number one ally, providing coaching and strategies but most importantly affirmation – best expressed in the form of a hug!

4. Have a routine. Have backpacks and clothes ready the night before. Do homework at the same time and place every night. Bedtime rituals such as a bath, pyjamas, teeth brushing, reading with Mom or Dad are all visual and tactile cues that signal it’s time to “come down.”

5. Have a family policy around screen time. No electronics until homework is done. No electronics in bed. Recharge devices overnight in Mom and Dad’s room. Two one-hour sessions of screen time would be a reasonable maximum between getting home and bedtime.

6. Read to your kids! The printed word still rules at school. Only 21% of children in grade 3 report that they read together with a parent on a regular basis. Reading together is bonding and stimulates the parts of the brain that screens don’t.

7. Keep summer alive. Just because we’ve all gone back to the institutional routine, we don’t need to let that rule our lives. We can still have fun. We can still get out in nature. Every week end (and maybe some evenings too) can be a “little summer” – a chance to be free, spontaneous and relaxed. Stress is the number one issue in kids’ lives and the greatest obstacle to learning. Let’s keep summer alive during the whole year.

The Positive Side of ADD

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One of the best writers on the topic of attention deficit disorder is Edward Hallowell. In his books he talks about the positive aspects of ADD and calls for a change in our thinking about the subject. We can call a child who appears distractible by the more positive adjective: curious. A child who appears impulsive we could just as easily call spontaneous. And why not reframe hyperactive as energetic? The language we use reveals our biases: distractible, impulsive, and hyperactive all have negative connotations. They also all imply a positive contrasting word: single-focus, obedient, still. It is clear that this bias comes from school. In many other contexts these attributes would be a liability. There are many situations where the ability to take in multiple inputs simultaneously or to switch between multiple inputs, and the ability to respond quickly and move quickly would be far more advantageous.

One of the most obvious environments in which this is true is the world of business and entrepreneurship. Many of the most successful entrepreneurs of our age report being completely bored with school and diagnose themselves as ADD/ADHD. While they were able to put their “gift of ADD” to good use as adults, they often report a huge loss of self-esteem that resulted from their constant sense of failure and inadequacy in the school system. Some had the resilience to overcome this and redefine success by harnessing the innate power of their natural tendencies. Others accept the judgements passed on them by the system and never achieve their potential.

From What Every Parent Should Know About School

The “Three Rules of School” Don’t Work for Boys

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One of the first things we can do is examine our attitudes toward boys. We all have certain “programs” downloaded into our brains that we’re not even aware of — personal, family, and cultural biases passed down over time. One of these commonly held biases is that “boys are a problem,” or to use William Pollack’s term, “toxic.” There seems to be a pervasive attitude that boy energy is difficult to manage and innately disruptive. Great sympathy is often expressed for teachers with a high ratio of boys to girls. Mothers with many sons are told, “I don’t know how you do it.” We must change our thinking about “boy energy” and see it as something positive to be harnessed and channeled rather than something innately disruptive.

Boys are especially seen as disruptive to institutional decorum, which is a fancy name for the three rules of school: sit still, be quiet, and do what you’re told. If you follow these, not only you will do very well in school, and there’s a good chance you’ll become a teacher. Teachers like these rules; they make perfect sense, and, generally, teachers were students who followed them. When they start teaching and meet students who can’t follow them, they grow very frustrated.

One of the ideas I like to discuss with teachers is the notion of the “perfect classroom.” For many teachers (and parents) the image is one in which students are all quietly working on a task, facing the same way, not talking. The teacher is either instructing at the front of the room, circulating among the students, or sitting quietly at her own desk. All is peaceful and orderly. As any teacher will tell you, these moments do come, and we relish them (and hope that our principal will walk in at just that moment), but most also know this is an ideal picture. We need to revise our picture of the perfect classroom to include the noisy-busy variety.

There are two kinds of noisy classrooms. The first is the noisy/busy classroom, where students are engaged in a variety of activities alone, in pairs, or in groups. In this classroom students are relaxed, attentive, and learning. There is freedom within boundaries. All the students know and respect those boundaries, and lots is happening within them.

The other kind is the out-of-control classroom where the boundaries are unclear or inconsistently imposed. Here, there is a lot of acting out and a lot of stress. Needless to say, there is not a lot of learning going on. Barbara Coloroso talks about three kinds of families: the Brick Wall family, the Jelly Fish family, and the Backbone family. These three categories can be applied to classrooms as well. The out-of-control classroom is the Jelly Fish variety, and the noisy-busy classroom is the Backbone one. Our concepts about institutional decorum and the need to have all students dutifully on task can lead to what Coloroso might call the Brick Wall classroom. Another name for it is the “tight ship” classroom.

The Brick Wall or tight ship classroom is usually based on fear. These kinds of classrooms may “show” very well, and the Brick Wall teacher is often held up as a model for parents and other teachers, but I would argue that this is not a healthy environment. Fear leads to stress, which leads to the release of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and inhibits brain activity, among other things.

Not only are students in such a classroom living in fear, they simply do not learn as well. The three rules of school have been taken to the extreme. It is an environment inhospitable to all children, but especially to boys.

From Raising Boys in a New Kind of World

Drug Use as a Spiritual Practice

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Many of the kids I have worked with over the years who struggle with addiction have what I would call a spiritual temperament. They are often very sensitive kids who are looking for meaning in their lives. This complex inner life is amplified by a strong emotional life. These kids have so much going on inside them. When you add all the things that are going on outside them, it can be too much. Someone said the modern person experiences as much in one day as a medieval peasant experienced in a lifetime. There is just too much going on for some kids to process. Add to this the fact that kids are growing up today in a world where spirituality is seen as some kind of eccentric hobby, or, if it takes the form of organized religion, as a kind of cult where each sect requires you to check your critical consciousness at the door.

These spiritual kids find themselves adrift in a culture where the commonly accepted yardstick of value is a material one. Value and importance are given to things that are expensive, current and popular – the code word for this is “cool.” There is a cool version of everything; there is a cool way to act in any given situation. Our lives are spent trying to figure out what this is – a constantly moving target – and keep up with the latest thing. Steve Jobs called it, “The next big thing.” He became a billionaire by capitalizing on the rule of cool and being there to provide the masses with the next big thing. He once said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” When Steve Jobs died, his picture was everywhere. Like a modern-day Gandhi, he was the dead messiah who had delivered us all from our mundane existences and given us a tablet not made of stone. Steve Jobs embodied in one person our three greatest gods: fame, fortune and technology. For the spiritual kid, this is not enough. The soul is not fed by these gods.

This vacuum of meaning creates stress and depression. Kids feel a pain they can’t name, a hollowness they don’t know how to fill. In a culture that has accepted the use of chemicals to alter mood, it is only natural that they would turn to alcohol and marijuana to “manage” their pain. It is referred to as self-medication.

From What Every Parent Should Know About School

Some Kids Are Touchers

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Seven-year-old Connor is a toucher. He does not really believe he has seen something until he touches it. His hands are just as important to his understanding of the world as his eyes. He finds great pleasure in touching and being touched. Ever since he entered school, there has been a daily effort to get him to stop touching other people, objects in the classroom, and his own body. What does this daily effort teach a child, and what will the long-term effects be? He learns that there is something wrong with him, and that touch is a bad thing. Whenever the topic is raised, his face takes on a guilty expression. He has been shamed many times about his natural desires. While children do need to learn about socially acceptable behaviour, they should not be shamed out of their intrinsic way of relating to the world. I practice sensory processing exercises with Connor whenever he comes to see me. I squeeze his hands, flap his arms, give him bear hugs, or squeeze his feet. He finds great pleasure in this, but more importantly, he feels affirmed and accepted. The child must be led gently to a compromise between what he or she wants and what the world expects. For some children, this process takes longer than it does for others.

Some kids have a stronger tactile need than others, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they hold on to this need longer than others. We have a low tolerance for the child who does not develop in sync with his peer group. We immediately see it as a problem to be solved. This is a by-product of our education system, which segregates children by age. All five year olds are put together in a room and are expected to behave more or less the same way. The sad truth is that eventually they will, but this does not mean it is natural. Those who are ahead of their peer group may slow down or become frustrated; those who are behind their peer group may feel compelled to let go of “childish” behaviours they may not be ready to let go of. They may feel sad at having to do so and inadequate for finding it hard. They might also feel inadequate about not being able to do some of the cognitive tasks the other kids can do. It is interesting to note that we often equate “immature” behaviour with lower intelligence. Connor’s behaviour would be judged the most immature in the class, yet his psycho-educational assessment shows that he is the most intelligent. Connor’s cognitive development is progressing at a rapid rate, but he simply refuses to let some of the pleasurable behaviours of childhood go. I admire his tenacity and his integrity. He refuses to give up what he values. He refuses to give in to arbitrary norms of behaviour. This is a very positive trait that should be affirmed and accommodated.

From Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys

Mom and Dad Can Play Too

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We can learn so much about boys by looking at the games they play. This is where their true selves find expression, where their deepest needs are met. Play is not an imposed activity; it is a chosen activity. This makes it a form a self-expression. Whether it’s rough and tumble play, fantasy play or video games, play provides a reliable window into our boys’ hearts and minds.

One of the most powerful ways we can connect with our children is to play with them. This does not mean organizing and controlling the play. It means enjoying the play on an equal footing with the child. Play, at its best, is democratic. When we give ourselves over to play, we relinquish all roles and power structures. We become children ourselves, and our children see us in a new and positive light. Many fathers feel unprepared to interact with their children because their own fathers did not spend much time with them. I tell them all they have to do is lie down on the floor — the kids will take it from there. They know what to do! Many mothers fall into the responsible authority figure role. They feel as though they are always being “the heavy.” The solution is the same: get down on the floor and play.

From Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys