Long Term Trauma Caused in Children by Conventional School Experiences, Society, Some Teachers’ & Parents’ Lack of Basic Understanding of Developmental Psychology
by Pamela L Chubbuck, PhD © 2010, updated/revised 2014
The great hoax andtragedy is that parents are led to believe that if their 5 year old is made to learn more in kindergarten (or elementary school in general), they will excel later on in their school career and beyond; the opposite may be true.
No research that I am aware of shows that more homework for elementary kids equals smarter, more successful kids later in life. Studies, including recent, fail to conclusively support the idea of assigning homework (*1) at any age, but most impressively, the younger kids may suffer. Every parent needs to know this! Teachers need to know this! School administrators need to know this!
Alan, toilet trained at 4½ years, is now 5½, and still occasionally wets his bed. Alan’s school requires writing homework even of kindergarteners! His parents are alarmed because he is unable to write and his 3½ year old sister already seems to get great satisfaction in playing “school” and writing letters. Alan doesn’t want to sit and do anything. He wants to run, jump and climb. The more worried Alan’s parents are, the more obstinate Alan becomes. Last week he threw a full-blown tantrum when his parents tried to make him sit at a desk and practice writing letters. Kids, who are barely able to control their sphincter muscles, rarely have the fine motor skills needed to write.
I say, “Bravo, Alan!” – his protest shows me his independent spirit has not yet been crushed. I worry, however, about what the next ten years of Alan’s schooling will do to his spirit. If Alan is not ready to sit and quietly work at his desk, (and 5 year old kids are not biologically ready to sit for prolonged periods), teachers will likely call his parents for a conference, compare him with other students in his grade, most of whom are not like him. These teachers may suggest measures that could force him to try to do what he is not ready or able to do.
Every kid is different and unfortunately our school system is geared to treat them all the same. Of course this is horrible for children’s emotional health and dampens their spirit. Children must be treated as unique beings, calling forth their very essence in order for them to fully thrive. Kids need time to mature emotionally and be allowed to be themselves in every way before they can be creative adults who help heal the world in their own distinctive and wonderful ways.
John Holt, innovative educator and author, wrote, “… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.” (How Children Learn)
Sarah told me that when she was six, her father showed her how to write the number 4. When she did not make it exactly the way Dad wanted her to, he hit her. Then he proceeded to hit her each time she made a mistake with the number 4 and later she was hit for other school work she made mistakes on. As time went on she made more mistakes, not fewer.
Sarah, of course, was left with self esteem issues. At age 34 she has trouble believing she can do any task correctly. She is afraid of men and authority figures in general. Now engaged to be married she realizes that she is having transferential issues with her fiancé, experiencing him as potentially punishing when she has no practical here-and-now experience that should make her fear him.
Fear is Not Conducive to Real Learning
“Even in the kindest & gentlest of schools, children are afraid, many of them a great deal of the time, some of them almost all the time. This is a hard fact of life to deal with. What can we do about it?” ~ John Holt (How Schools Fail)
Many children are just plain scared at school. When someone is afraid, they tense up. Fearful people hold their breath by tensing their diaphragm, trapezious, and even the psoas gets tense. In a fear response muscles constrict around the neck, throat, jaw and eyes; the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and orbicularis occuli, masseters and other smaller muscles of the head and neck contract. With all that tension, literal blood flow to the brain is impaired. The brain needs blood oxygen to function smoothly so tension creates a physical environment where the child (or adult) can’t think well.
We also know that: fear arousal, initiated by an environmental threat, leads to activation of the stress response, a state of alarm that promotes an array of autonomic and endocrine changes designed to aid self-preservation. “The stress response includes the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex and catecholamines from the adrenal medulla and sympathetic nerves. These stress hormones, in turn, provide feedback to the brain and influence neural structures that control emotion and cognition.”(*2) Cognition is then hampered.
These chemicals are rushing into the blood stream during a fearful experience. The human body is programmed over millions of years for fight or flight so when frightened a child wants to run away or fight. Teachers expect and require kids to sit and be still. Even when scared, kids try their best to perform as requested – they cannot. Often they are frozen in fear. Even when able to accomplish rote, short-term task performance in order to stay out of trouble, long-term, foundational understanding and abstract learning are diminished.
A.S. Neill (founder of Summerhill School, author, and good friend and colleague of Wilhelm Reich) knew that children who are free and not coerced into being what adults try to make them, are happier kids who learn better. Neill said, “Free children are not easily influenced; the absence of fear accounts for this phenomenon. Indeed, the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child.” (Summerhill)
Michael was consistently criticized or berated by his 3rd grade teacher when he could not answer questions correctly. “What is wrong with you?” she would ask loudly. Michael did not want to go to school but he could not verbalize his distress to his mother. He often threw up on the way to school. At 55 he still struggles with the image of his teacher shaming him in front of the class for not performing correctly.
Michael suffered from performance anxiety which now extends to sex, speaking in front of strangers and any sort of test taking. His pulse still raced and his face flushed when he first told me about his teacher “Miss Jones”, her demeaning tone of voice and her angry eyes as she glared at him in disgust when he was a child. He still felt like a vulnerable 9 year old, often losing his erection during sex with his partner.
After two years of Core Energetic therapy Michael no longer has much anxiety when talking about those school years. He feels more angry and can express his anger in sessions toward Miss Jones and others he is angry at. He very rarely loses his erection during sex now but when he does he has learned to stop and wait awhile, talk it over, with his now fiancé, cuddle or proceed with some other type of sexual stimulation that does not require an erection. In times like these his erection usually returns and he can continue receiving and giving pleasure.
Patricia did not understand math as a young school girl. It made no sense to her and no one could explain it in a way that made sense. She had no idea what purpose knowing math would be in her life. And no teacher ever tried to excite her enough to want to understand or learn. Once in Core Energetic therapy Patricia started having what she called her Math Anxiety Nightmares. For awhile there were many – vivid and recurrent.
Her Dream: I was in 4th grade and the teacher wanted me to recite my times tables. I could not. I did not know them, and felt so ashamed and frightened that I jumped out of the classroom window and climbed down a nearby tree to escape. I awoke trembling with my heart beating furiously. I was terrified!
Patricia had not been frightened at home. Not breastfed; she had mostly an oral body structure. Her parents were “pretty good” parents. School was her major trauma in her early childhood years.
Patricia had years of Core Energetic therapy to assist her to relax, allow the blood to flow through her brain and breathe deeply and fully. Now she can do mental work she could not do as a younger person. She easily remembers long lists of things whereas before therapy, she could not even recall a list of 7 numbers to write down a phone number.
I interviewed retired teacher Betsy Orlando, who taught kindergarten for 25 years. During her undergraduate education she majored in child development. “Most teachers do not study nor understand child development,” Betsy told me. Thirty years ago that was true, and even more so today. “I’m glad I am not teaching today – there is too much pressure to make kids perform beyond their readiness levels.”
I asked seven teachers if they studied Child Development and all seven said they had one undergraduate class in Child Development. They considered their educational psychology studies to be paltry as well. In addition, teachers I encounter often tell me they feel ill-prepared as well as unable to address students’ emotional needs due to class size and overwhelming paperwork/computer requirements which takes valuable time and focus away from individual time with students.
Consequently most schools and teachers are not taught to, or aren’t able to, pay attention to and accommodate where individual kids are in their development. Schools are trying to keep up with government regulations that say – kids must perform – or else. No money for school, no raise for teachers. The No Child Left Behind strategy just didn’t work. It forces teachers to compel children to try to be like some average or strived-for result.
In Core Energetics we call this – teaching kids to live in their Mask – their false selves.
We in Core Energetics also know that treating them all the same, and demanding similar results, stunts their emotional and spiritual growth. Later they will probably have to be in body oriented therapy to find their true creative selves as adults.
Forcing Kids Doesn’t Work
Charley Orlando, PhD in special education, said that we need to teach teachers [and parents and students] that some failure is in fact good. To learn how to do something, we have to know how not to do it. We need to encourage the trials and errors not punish them with bad grades.
Charley wrote, “Thomas Edison said when someone asked why he wasted a lot of time not finding a suitable material to use as a filament for his light bulb, he stated that he didn’t waste his time because he found a thousand things that did not work, which was knowledge in itself. It is that attitude that allowed him to be one of the best inventors of all time, and has allowed others to learn and master many other skills. But you really have to want to learn whatever that is.”
Charley said that the problem with the school system/educational system is the “Lock Step curriculum”. Teachers are too often required to treat every kid of a certain age the same… give them all the same work to do. Expect the same results. But – Kids aren’t all the same!
Consider: Kids who are less mature, live in homes where parents are mostly absent, are not read to, are not conversed with, whose parents do not speak English, obviously cannot keep up with children who have these benefits; especially upon first entering school at age 5.
And we know that many kids these days enter school at a very early age, perhaps 18 months, a time when these – still “babies” – should be home with a good caring mom or dad. My friend taught preschool kids starting at 18 months and 2 years. Pediatrics names up to 24 months old as infants. These infants were taught to sit in a circle and not to touch each other. Touching was not ever allowed. Young human beings need contact and touch. Human beings are naturally touch-oriented beings. But I digress and the Human Need for Touch will be the topic of one of my next articles. Now back to 5 year olds who are still tender and very vulnerable, and very much need to be allowed to be themselves.
Readiness Hugely Affects Motivation
Betsy tells us to: leave [kindergarten] kids alone. They will grow into their readiness. “For example,” she explained, “I could spend hours – days – trying to teach 5 year olds to tie their shoes. They would be frustrated and so would I. But when a kid is ready he or she will learn to tie his or her shoes in 5 minutes and enjoy it!”
What about Motivation?
A 2010 Newsweek article told us that motivation is the #1 reason for learning; however, the blame is somehow put on the students. Schools blame the parents and kids. Parents blame the schools and kids. In Core Energetics and The Pathwork, we know blame doesn’t help. The kids are losing in this blame game, and feeling worse and worse about themselves. Anyone who pays attention to young human beings knows that when a child wants to learn something there is no stopping him/her.
When they do not want to learn something there is no forcing them. When the system tries to force kids to do something they are not ready to do or don’t want to do, the child fails. Charley says that when kids fail they quit trying. Psychologically when the kid is set up to fail they fail throughout their school years. Maybe for life.
Teachers often complain that a kid doesn’t want to learn something that s/he is required to learn. Charley told me that he asked this question to teachers: “Why should s/he want to learn this? A kid has to have own reason to learn.” He told teachers, “If you can figure out how to motivate kids they [and you] will have success.”
If Patricia (above) had a good reason and a real desire to learn math, she would have.
Frustration = Failure
Most teachers have been through the same system that is now failing, therefore the ball keeps rolling toward non-understanding. Teachers, like most adults in our society, learned early on to be in their Mask, to try to fit in, and to believe what they are told. They were not taught to think for themselves. They usually teach by the same methods they were taught by that lacked psychological depth and individual creativity. And they are often afraid to change.
No Child Left Behind made all this worse. We know how to educate groups to be something someone else tells us to be or expects us to be, to quietly go along with the crowd. In most conventional education we do not know how to educate individuals to think for themselves, and to speak up when they have a different view. This has extreme results which are in creating a society of people who can easily be led, manipulated and fooled.
Rodney Grainger MSW, former elementary school teacher says that teaching kids to “be sheep” – is “why Calvin and Hobbes [comic strip] became so popular among children and some adults. Calvin shows that the adults may rule his body but not his heart and mind.”
Our educational system is in a sad state. We need new, creative, loving solutions to many of our world problems. We need to help our kids develop into innovative, thinking, authentic leaders. Our world needs them.
Are Schools Creating ODD?
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) (DSM IV 313.81) and other conduct disorders are often misdiagnosed and may be “created” by incompetent school systems. No one likes to be made to act like everyone else.
No one likes being lumped in with the crowd and therefore not seen as an individual. In natural, healthy rebellion to this forcing, kids often act in ways that are consistent with the diagnostic criteria for ODD but not necessarily true ODD. The actual problem is – often schools fail our children. Their non-creativity and non-understanding of children, is blamed on the kids. Kids are sent for help and may then be misdiagnosed by many mental health professionals who are not paying attention, have overwhelming caseloads, do not understand developmental psychology well, and were no doubt treated badly in school themselves. Being treated “en mass” creates a teacher that employs or overlooks techniques that do not meet the psychological needs of children. The adults are acting out of their Masks and cannot be expected or trusted to know when children are being harmed by the same behavior that they had to endure. Bad teaching seems usual and OK to them — a vicious circle.
Kids get depressed, lose interest in school, feel hopeless, have trouble sleeping, and experience digestive problems when they are not treated as individuals who are worth getting to know, assist, and cherish. The DSM IV listed these exact symptoms as partial criteria for ODD.
George was a very bright, energetic school student who refused to do the work that teachers assigned. He was oppositional, for sure, but did not harm anyone. As an adult with a doctorate degree, he says that no one understood how to get him excited about learning what they wanted him to learn. He was bored in school and acted out. Today he would probably be diagnosed as Defiant and be on the slippery slope toward a life lived unfulfilled and far below his potential. I know many very bright adults who were bored in school and would not “get with the program.” Kudos to teachers and parents who know that these kids need freedom to be themselves and who help them in getting excited about learning.
Just this summer (2014) the New York Times published two articles in their Sunday magazine section challenging the notion that kids need to be made into what adults think they should be. (*3)
What is the Remedy?
…”let’s fix schools so that kids find joy and relevance and purpose and reward and autonomy and mastery and creativity and productivity and collaboration in their classrooms every day.”
~ Jonathan Martin (*4)
But, how can we fix schools? We have to “fix” ourselves as individuals first.
What is the remedy for society making us and our children into fearful non-thinking adults? Wilhelm Reich knew the answer and we must continue to follow his lead and move forward toward becoming healthy, flowing, joyful, kind adults. We must consistently seek our true selves that the school system, political system, family system, inadvertently tried/tries to crush. We do this by working with our bodies, minds and spirits.
Freedom to be our true selves is what we must seek and protect.
Life is not about being better than, smarter than, doing a lot of homework or getting good grades. Kids need balance – we need to support kids to be kids and grow up slowly, always looking inward to their own essence to find who they are and what they want to do in life.
Robert Fulghum wrote: “Live a balanced life–learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” (All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten)
One good way to heal is by following the stages of the Core Energetic work laid out by John Pierrakos, MD, who was Reich’s student:
John Pierrakos’ 4 Stages of the Work
- Find and uncover our Mask/false selves. Admit the part of us that operates from the defensive false front. Our Idealized self Image.
- Let out our spontaneous urges and feelings, and express our negativities.
- Find our Higher Self, the inner beauty of our Core. We must continue to work toward choosing love above fear. When we do all this we are not afraid of who we are. We love life and we do not allow others to tell us what to do or what or how to think.
- John’s 4th step is to – Find our life’s work. That comes more spontaneously when the first 3 have been moving along for some time.
Reich, Lowen and Pierrakos each had a vision that people need to individually heal and then groups of healthy people may wish to gather in a free, healthy environment. Only with healthy individuals can we have free, joyous societies and happy, free children who are able to spontaneously let out their deep Core creativity.
Creativity that can then be gifted back positively to the world.
1. Alphie Kohn, The Homework Myth (2006): “When Cooper and his colleagues reviewed a new batch of studies in 2006, they once again found that ‘the mean correlation between time spent on homework and achievement was not significantly different from zero for elementary school students’ (Cooper et al. 2006, p. 43).” [italics mine]
2. Annual Review of Neuroscience, vol. 32: 289-313 (July 2009)
3. New York Times, Magazine section: Why Does Everyone Hate New Math? (July 27, 2014) and After Autism (Aug 3, 2014)
4. Newsweek Article on Motivation, Jonathan Martin responds: http://21k12blog.net/2010/09/13/samuelson-in-newsweek-blaming-students-for-lacking-motivation/
John Holt, How Children Learn and How Schools Fail
Alfie Kohn, The Homework Myth and Punished By Rewards
Jean Leidloff, The Continuum Concept
A.S. Neill, Summerhill
John Pierrakos, MD, Core Energetics
Wilhelm Reich, Children of the Future
Wilhelm Reich & A.S. Neill, Record of a Friendship: The Correspondence of Wilhelm Reich and A.S. Neill