Sticking it to Kids Who Are Different

by Bill Brenner on April 9, 2010

The author on why the school sports mentality is leaving kids who are “different” in the dust.

Mood music for this post: “Mandocello” by Cheap Trick:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kH6H8wzfl4&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how schools tend to deal with kids who are different. Kids like the one I used to be.

The school we send our kids to, a private Parochial school, is wonderful on many levels. My favorite thing about it is the other families who send their kids there. Many people who have become dear friends. Most importantly, the kids are getting a daily dose of God there, which is something Erin and I care deeply about.

But I see something there that bothers me. But it’s something that’s a problem in a lot of schools.

It’s the sports mentality. The idea that the ONLY way to measure a kid’s potential is by how he or she does in sports.

My children are not much into sports. Both are more focused on art, science (especially Sean) and music (Duncan’s passion).

Some might call that different. And because sports is such a huge deal in their school, I don’t think their talents are being put to the test as they should be.

There’s practically no music program to speak of. Sure, someone comes in to teach the kids songs and put on a musical performance each spring (though that teacher was cut loose for this year because of budget woes), but there’s nothing more than that. This is where Duncan misses out.

Last year, Erin pitched the idea of a “Mad Scientist” program for kids who love science. The program would cost the school nothing and the principal expressed interest. But then it went nowhere. Kids like Sean lose out on this one.

But the sports. Oh, how the school is passionate about its sports. The teams win big. And that is encouraged at all costs, even if it means only a quarter of the kids on a team get to play while those who “aren’t good enough” spend all their time on the bench.

The goal is to win. If you’re not good enough to make that happen, you take a seat. Not the best way to challenge kids to reach their full potential, even if their potential doesn’t look like much to judgmental, competitive eyes.

This isn’t just a problem where my kids go to school. Everywhere you look, it’s all about the sports. The football team. The softball team. The hockey team. The basketball team.

Sure, sports are important. Sports bring out the best in many children, and can be as important an outlet for troubled kids as music was and still is for me.

The problem is that sports isn’t for everyone. And a kid should never be set adrift because sports isn’t their outlet. Yet that’s what happens.

I feel strongly about this because as a troubled child, I was often dismissed by educators as a troublemaker who was on the road to nowhere.

Some wonderful teachers did note my affinity for art and encouraged me on that score. And for a kid going through a lot, that encouragement kept me going.

But in junior and high school, the sports thing kept me in a box. I sucked at every sport out there. I was different. And so I was tossed into the group of so-called C-students, the ones who had a tendency to come up short and some of whom were trouble.

Other talents, like writing, lay dormant until after high school. Giving a kid guidance on writing is never done with the same zeal as encouraging kids with sports.

Now for what really burns me: A lot of children with mental disorders — I was one of them — tend to get dumped into the troublemaker bucket. Talents that can help them build character and find direction are not nurtured. Being good at a sport is really their only hope.

I call that failing kids who are different.

Educators should focus like a laser beam on those differences; not as a problem to complain about, but as something to cherish.

It’s those differences that make each kid special and beautiful, even if it means they have trouble focusing or sitting still in their chair. Or sucks at sports.

That’s one of the things I like about the Montessori concept. I’m going to borrow this description from Wikipedia, because it works in this case:

The Montessori method is an educational approach to children based on the research and experiences of Italian physician and educator Maria Montessoriwhich happened in the process of her experimental observation of young children given freedom in an environment prepared with materials designed for their self-directed learning activity.

The method itself aims to duplicate this experimental observation of children to bring about, sustain and support their true natural way of being. It arose essentially from Dr. Montessori’s discovery of what she referred to as “the child’s true normal nature.”

Applying this method involves the teacher in viewing the child as having an inner natural guidance for his or her own perfect self-directed development. The role of the teacher (sometimes called director, directress, or guide) is therefore to watch over the environment to remove any obstacles that would interfere with this natural development. The teacher’s role of observation sometimes includes experimental interactions with children, commonly referred to as “lessons,” to resolve misbehavior or to show how to use the various self-teaching materials that are provided in the environment for the children’s free use.

I don’t think this is a perfect concept. I think kids also need to be taught boundaries and to play by a certain level of rules, and the Montessori concept unfiltered can be a problem in that regard.

But boy, it sure is good for the kids who are different. Not bad, not even troubled. Just different.

This post will piss some people off. I don’t care.

No education is perfect. No teacher or principal is perfect. Nor should we expect them to be. At my kids’ school there’s an abundance of love for every kid, and I adore many of the teachers there.

Most of them are doing their best with dwindling resources.

But as a kid whose path was littered with minefields, I know that the cookie-cutter approach to education leaves a lot of good kids in the dust.

Sports should never be the be all end all in determining a child’s power to shine.

If the sports is all a school cares about, it will ultimately fail.

God made us all complex and loves us all, even though we don’t fit nice and tidy into perfect little boxes.

We could learn a thing or two from that.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Victoria Seavey April 9, 2010 at 7:16 am

I think you bring up a great point here Bill. As a mother of two children who aren’t “sport-crazy”, I relate to this blog in so many ways. My daughter is very interested in art. She loves to create her own artwork – not color a precut, predrawn picture. She likes to create. My son enjoys history (primarily the history around the military) and does feel like somewhat of an outcast because he doesn’t watch sports on tv, doesn’t play sports (except spring baseball which we gently nudge him to do). Growing up, I wasn’t interested in sports, either. I was an outcast in school and cherish my few true friends for accepting me as I am. I know how I felt and I certainly don’t want my children feeling the same way.
Thanks for the great blog,
Victoria

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