Thursday, February 10, 2011

“Expert Advice” You Can Do Without

A bunch of kids will be playing together in a schoolyard. Suddenly, a newcomer appears and chants, “Oooooooo. Watch out or you’re gonna get in trouble! You’re gonna get in trouble.” What frequently happens next is the children who were playing stop and leave for other places.

If the children are older, one might challenge the newcomer, “How’re we gonna get in trouble?” The newcomer replies, naming a teacher, “Mrs. Smith doesn’t like people doing that. She'll find out and you’ll be sorry.” This will disperse all but the most rarely courageous – generally characterized as “obstinate” -- children.

Take note that the “what it is” that would supposedly get them into trouble was never identified. Neither was the “why” it was unacceptable. Nor was any evidence given that Mrs. Smith in fact would disapprove. And even if she would have, the mysterious “what it is” might be quite acceptable to other teachers and parents.

But these were kids, after all. We wouldn’t expect them to act like little detectives and lawyers. But do adults handle such situations any better?

In a column called “Legal Talk” in the Winter 2011 issue of Educational Horizons the columnist, co-author of a book called School Law for Teachers gives advice to teachers to report suspected child abuse. What is abuse? Physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect are given more or less clear examples. But the category, “Emotional or Psychological Abuse” sounds more than a little bit like “Watch out! Or you’re gonna get in trouble.”

Emotional abuse “is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-esteem.” I have seen many an educator or parent sweat at the presentation of such a definition. I don’t think it was guilt. Rather, it was frustration at the prospect of having to fake a vaguely defined decision.

Is there any science behind this notion of emotional or psychological abuse strong enough and so widely accepted that a jury could determine that
1. a child’s emotional development had been impaired; and
2. the behavior of an accused individual had been the primary cause of that impairment?

And how about the child’s “sense of self-esteem?” Even children can misjudge things. Is this "sense of self-esteem" anything firmer upon which to base a legal argument? One’s “sense” of things, say, of acceptance into a group, can be inaccurate, as proven by later treatment received from members. Self-esteem fluctuates in some people depending upon the advertisements they happen to be watching on TV. Again this brings up difficulties in proving that one or more persons are primary causes of such fluctuations.

Educators are reluctant to intervene in circumstances vague or ambiguous enough to permit their own higher-ups to reverse a decision (for whatever reason.) Nor are educators trained -- as a matter of professional development -- to justify their intervention in the face of such a reversal.

Mere administrative or parental objection will disperse all but the most rarely courageous, or trained – generally characterized as “obstinate” -- teachers.

As a practicing educator, do what thoughtful consideration recommends; but, in order to learn how to construct strong reasons for your intervention, see Rationales for Intervention: From Test to Treatment to Policy

--- EGR