Understanding The Wild Child, Or 'Nonconformist' Kid

We all knew the "wild child" in school, the one who couldn't sit still during story time, or raise her hand to speak in class. Elizabeth Weil has written a piece for the New Republic, asking if it's the child's fault, or the education system's. She talks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we turn to another story about education, specifically, about educating that kid. You know, the one we all remember from our school days? Maybe we were that kid, the one who was always cracking jokes, who couldn't sit cross-legged for very long, who just didn't or couldn't follow the sit down, stay still, keep quiet program. More and more these students are being given clinical diagnoses, whether it's attention deficit disorder or something else. Sometimes they're even sent to therapy to address their behavior but author Elizabeth Weil is asking teachers and parents to think twice about labeling school children this way. She wrote the cover story for this month's issue of the New Republic. It's called "American Schools are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here's How." And she's with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ELIZABETH WEIL: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Now you've approached this from both a personal and professional standpoint. And apparently, this sparked your interest when your younger daughter's teacher gently suggested that she might benefit from occupational therapy, what that is, presumably you'll tell us what that is. What sparked that conversation?

WEIL: Well, my younger daughter is that kid. She's the joke teller. She doesn't like to sit still. She does not make life easy for her teacher. And her teacher very understandably wanted her to behave better. And so he suggested, very gently, you're right - and absolutely with the best of intentions - that we might want to send her to occupational therapy. And occupational therapy helps kids behave better in school. It does lots of other things also, but one of the things it does is help kids, you know, get with the program.

MARTIN: And what's wrong with that?

WEIL: I think it can really be damaging to a kid's sense of self - to be told that what's wrong in this situation is that something is wrong with you. There's something wrong with the whole setup, the teachers don't have enough resources, there are too many kids in the classroom, there's a whole list of things that we've left teachers accountable for. And passing that off to the kid I think can have really damaging effects on who the kid grows up to think they are.

MARTIN: How is what you're describing different from punishing a kid, like saying sit in the corner until you settle down or something like that?

WEIL: Punishment says you can't do that. Punishment doesn't say, you as a person, need to be fixed in some way. And I also think punishment lets a kid be in a proud and defiant position instead of sort of having this internal, somewhat crushing, sense that you are not normal. You are wrong.

MARTIN: You tie this to kind of the educational reform movement. Talk to me a little bit about that.

WEIL: So I think we've taken away a lot of teachers' autonomy to engage and address the very particular kids they have in the classroom. And as we all know, bored children behave badly. Children who don't feel acknowledged behave badly and we've tied teachers' hands. We've left them a very rigid curriculum, and we're also in a point in our schools and in our society where very strong punishment is discouraged.

MARTIN: Well, you mentioned a particular Seattle classroom in your piece where every male student had been referred out for learning difference testing. I don't know how you found that out, but tell me why you think that happened.

WEIL: There's been a lot written about how schools are not very well designed, particularly for young boys. And there were many books about this years ago. Lots of people were addressing this - that, you know, school is hard for boys. And I think this combination of things that I mentioned has led us there, where there's just so much pressure to get through a certain curriculum in a certain way in our schools. And to do that you need sort of a certain kind of kid. You need a kid who's going to sit still and take in that curriculum.

MARTIN: Well, you mentioned that, for example, you have your own focus group at home - that you have another daughter who's much more of a follower of the rules. And, presumably, you don't have the same - you don't get the same calls about her.

WEIL: No, not at all. You know, I think lots of parents experience this. You have two kids, you have the same home and they are extremely different. So yes, my older daughter is a rule follower and she thrives in a school setting where there are lots of rules. And my other daughter, she pushes. She wants to be very particularly herself.

MARTIN: I think some people would listen to this conversation and say, well, that's fine for you, but what about all those other kids in the class who, presumably, their parents want them to take in whatever it is being taken in. And in the time that it takes to kind of help your daughter self-regulate, you know, all these other kids want the attention, too. What would you say to that?

WEIL: I am not opposed to teachers having very strongly enforced expectations in their classroom. The thing that I think we really need to pay attention to is labeling children. You know, a label can get a kid put in a different bucket, so to speak, in the school system where maybe their tests aren't timed anymore and the label is beneficial in the system we've set up in schools. But is it beneficial to that kid? I'm not sure.

MARTIN: What about looking at it from the standpoint of what's good for the country? Why should everybody else care about this?

WEIL: Well, I think that we should all care about children in general and I think we should care very much when we label all people as not normal. And when you give a kid a mental health diagnosis, you are labeling that kid as not normal and I think that's very serious.

MARTIN: I was hoping I could also get you to take another look at why there is a broader social reason to address the educational issues of nonconformist kids. And I think one of the points that you made in the piece is that sometimes these kids are brilliant and that a lot of the most creative people are people who, as kids, were labeled as having something wrong with them. And it turns out that they're just actually amazing.

WEIL: Yes. So there's a very interesting theory in behavioral genetics that's getting a lot of traction, that some people call the Dandelion and the Orchid Hypothesis, which basically says there are certain kids who will thrive in almost any environment - the dandelion kids. They're really hearty. You throw things at them - they do just fine. Then there's another population of kids who is very vulnerable, but they can also be completely miraculous. So these same kids, that if they're in an environment that's not so good for them, will misbehave, they'll look like they have ADHD. But if they're in an environment that's very positive for them, this same group of kids will be the innovators, they'll be the people who push things forward and make us thrive as a society. And we need to value those kids and understand that it's two sides of the same coin.

MARTIN: I think there will be people listening to our conversation who would say that a lot of parents of color, particularly those with sons, would say that this is old news. That their kids have been getting kicked out of class, labeled, referred for medication or therapy over subjective classroom behavior issues for decades now. And in the course of your, you know, reporting, I wondered if the racial element or the gender - you touched a little bit on gender - but the racial element of this has been part of the reporting. And what would you say to that?

WEIL: To some extent, it has. And I think it is old news. I think these are issues that have been growing. We need to find a way to make the big changes, to give those resources to our schools and so we're not passing the buck onto the kid and saying this is your problem.

MARTIN: What's your better idea?

WEIL: My better idea is, until we fix the education system, to have warmth plus rules. A lot of people in psychology will tell you that this is the way to best get what you need out of kids.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Weil is a contributing writer to the New York Times magazine. Her article "American Schools are Failing Nonconformists Kids. Here's How" is on the cover of the current issue of the New Republic. And we caught up with her in San Francisco. Elizabeth Weil, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEIL: Thank you.

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