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01 August 2012

What's School Got to Do with It?

Why is how well our children will perform in school the end all and be all of every discussion about early development? (Or, for that matter, any period of development?)

I especially ask this question amidst a culture of underachievers, because we're one of the only developed nations in the world whose young people now earn fewer college degrees than its now older generations did in their time. In fact, we hear from American business leaders that "too many" young people are in college "for their own good." What!? I digress.

Let's, for the sake of argument, focus on this school performance issue: even if we're only interested in how our children perform in school (assuming that this performance translates to success in the 'workplace'), do we not recognize that pretty much every emotion humanity experiences effects a child's ability to learn? Shame, anger, frustration, pride, confidence - yes, love.Children (especially from zero to three years of age) learn best from the people they love, and children love people who love them. That's why, PC or not, it's best for babies and toddlers to be home with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles- as much as possible. I've always put it this way: small children should be cared for by people who will be a part of their lives for the rest of their lives. Because love is a huge part of learning.

Yes, love is patience, love is kind, love is selfless, and asks nothing in return. But love is focus, love is determination, love is staying power, love is investment, love is commitment. A mother or father, a teacher or principal who makes a mark, who actually helps a child learn is committed, is emotionally involved, is observing and meditating on a child's growth, is creative and determined to help that child master a topic or a skill or improve his or her writing. This teacher is determined to see progress, and his or her investment brings focus to the child. A child who knows her teachers are invested feels her importance to this community, and wants to live up to not only what's expected, but the effort everyone else has put into her. She becomes committed, she is focused because she cares, she is determined because of this love.

In fact, its been repeatedly shown that the most important factor in school design affecting positive student performance is not curriculum, mission, or location, not even class size. It's school size. Because when a school is small each child experiences growing involvement in the community. From one year to the next children are not just moved from one teacher to the next, forgetting Ms. Rodriguez from first grade, and Mr. Henson from second grade, and unknown to each new teacher they meet, year to year. No, each child sees Ms. Rodriguez every day, just like he did in first grade, and second grade, and will again next year in fourth grade. And Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Henson are friends, and they talk to the third grade teacher every day, too. This child is known, and he knows everyone else. And through that knowing and sharing comes love. When we are known and loved, we know we are important, we want to live up to others' expectations, we want to make them proud, we want to live up to the potential others see in us. This is the social contract that defines human beings pack animals. We care what other people think about us. And thank goodness, because we're better together. We're more than just ourselves, together. We're more than what we would be alone, when we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

We care what others think about us because we're social animals, because we want meaningful relationships. Relationships make our lives meaningful. And where all of that begins is at home with our families. This is the first pack, this is the first experience of being a part of something bonded by love, being in relationship with people we need, and who need us. This is where we learn about our place in the world, in a meaningful world we want to be a part of. This is where we learn that we are important.

We care about how our children will do in school, and how they will do out in the world because we love them and want them to live good lives. What we give them by loving them no one else can give with the same importance. At the end of the day, your children know they are part of you, and that they will carry you the rest of their lives. The gift we can give our children by keeping them close is themselves.

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