Friday, May 11, 2012

The Kids You Love the Most

I recently told a story about a certain type of kid named Joey. This is a story about a type of kid named Mike. Mike is the kid who is always talking when he's not supposed to be talking. He almost never does what he is told to do. When reprimanded, he becomes combative and belligerent. And, OK, if Mike were my peer, I would think he was kind of a jerk.

But Mike is not my peer. He's just a kid. When you ask Mike why he did what he did (if he can be civil at all), he'll sometimes say, "I guess I'm just a bad kid." Just like Joey, Mike has heard himself called this over and over for years. But Mike is not a bad kid. He's just a kid who messed up. Or one who messes up a lot. That's why I prefer the terminology of the consultant Kristyn Klei, who calls kids like Mike the kids you love the most.

I have not always thought this. When I was first teaching, I had a class full of Mikes (really, they were a combination of Mikes and Johnnys--the kid who will blindly follow whatever Mike does). They drove me nuts. I hated them. And I thought it was all their fault. When people of my generation were in high school (and for sure before), teens were thought of as pre-adults: people who, though inferior to teachers, had the emotional and cognitive capabilities of adults. These teens, so the thinking went, could be told that they had to be more responsible and less lazy. They would do what they were supposed to do if threatened with the proper punishments. And, the good news is, the majority of teens will do what they're supposed to do, most of the time. But if you think that they do this out of fear of being punished, you're wrong.

We now know (and knew when I was in high school, but forget that) that teens are not fully developed human beings. They may stop growing on the outside and start to look more and more like adults (especially kids like Mike, who are often male and of color), but they are still children. The cognitive research is now telling us that the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. And the part of the brain that is still developing is the prefrontal cortex, the part that helps you organize and make decisions, decisions like, "Would it be a good idea for me to blurt something out right now?" or "If I throw this thing across the room, am I likely to get in trouble?" or "Is getting into a fist fight ever a good idea?" or "Homework or video games?" The list goes on and on. A colleague and friend of mine has even developed this sort of knee-jerk response when we tell stories at lunch about the dumb things our kids have done. After every story, she says "underdeveloped frontal loooobe" in a funny voice.

When I was 22 and a brand new teacher, I found the Mikes and Johnnys of this world supremely frustrating, and I decided that they were my enemies. They were out to make sure that I could not conduct my class. And so I began to expect the worst from them--nothing but bad behavior, and certainly no academic work. And, don't get me wrong, I still lose my temper with the Mikes when they're driving me nuts. But you have to see a teen as a kid. When a kid does something dumb, HE REALLY WASN'T THINKING OF WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. In fact, he is somewhat incapable* of thinking ahead like that. So telling him that he has to be responsible and threatening him with punishment is just not going to work in a lot of cases. Calling him a bad kid will just make that label stick in his mind, so that he learns to assume that he is the kind of kid who teachers hate. And that's why these are the kids we have to love the most.

*Of course, the majority of children are able to stay out of trouble, and there are those especially mature children who are constantly thinking about their futures. But most teens just don't understand that getting bad grades now, or getting suspended, or even arrested, will mean bad things in the future.