Questioning Mental Health Theories Because Our Kids Are at Stake
If any health condition affected 1 in 5 human beings, we would leave no stone unturned in trying to find out why. Mental illnesses are impacting 1 in 5 of all humans, young and old alike. Our solution is to call for more mental health care services, but I think we need to look under more stones because there has to be something we are not getting right.
After spending 35 years as a childcare giver, educator, and parent, I have had the chance to observe developing children and adolescents with a wide range of cognitive and intellectual abilities in 3 different states, 7 different cities, and 17 or so different schools.
My observations have shown me the only consistent pattern among our well meaning, earnest, and devoted teachers in this country for how they interact with our children is there is no pattern. We have no uniformly applicable theory that can guide teachers in how to interact with the developing brains of our children to foster healthy brain development. Instead, we have at least 4 to 8 dozen theories.
Our teacher prep courses give us a background in psychological theories of personality, emotion, socialization, behavior, and child development. But each category has dozens of often conflicting theories taught to us pot-luck style. Our only option is to pick and choose, cut and paste, and make up our own theories because we are told with full disclosure, none of the theories have been scientifically verified, but all of them are given equal weight and validity. Each of the many theories in every category are guesses. There is no way we educators can be consistent in our interactions with students because have no guidelines allowing us to be on the same page with one another.
If we take a different approach to mental health and start with what we do know about the brain instead of guesses about it, I believe we can develop a theory and subsequent methods that will safeguard the mental health of our nation’s children.
My observations and research tell me predictive abilities and not behaviors are what we should be focusing on to guide our interactions with our students. Behaviors are private, personal, and involuntary responses to what and how a child is thinking about and predicting at any given moment. Trying to influence our children through their behaviors, I believe, is confusing, humiliating, destabilizing, and possibly at the heart of why 1 in 5 students suffer a mental instability.
If we start with the fact that every single child is interpreting information and forming conclusions in the ways he is (intellectually) able given his unique array of mental abilities, we would shift the way we understand mental health and development. Starting with this premise would cause us to revise all our psychological theories which now begin with the premise that to be mentally healthy, one must interpret information in the ways that make sense to the authority in place.
Our psychological theories are also deficit based. The vocabulary we have in place to define mental illnesses and disorders is denigrating and humiliating. If we assume each brain is always making sense of information in the ways that make sense to it, then no brain can exist from the standpoint of a deficit or a disorder. But psychological theories have no way to account for individual perspective. They are all written from the point of view of an authority observing the individual from his perspective as if the observer can know what and how each individual is thinking and should think.
We know for certain no two brains are alike and this must be reflected in how we treat brains. The child with special needs has a brain that regardless of how it compares to other brains, or to the observer’s brain, is his only brain. It has deficits compared to other brains, but that has nothing to do with his individual life as a human being. He must optimize the use of his abilities to optimize his life.
How a child’s brain compares to other brains or to authority generated standardized norms helps us organize instruction but has nothing to do with his or her individual mental health and development. Instead of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, perhaps the most demeaning term we could possible give to a child to wear as a cloak of humiliation, we could instead consider him from the perspective of his brain and use a term like, Action Based Learner.
ADHD assumes the child has a deficit in attending to how and what the authority wants him to attend to. If we consider that child’s individual brain, we would seek to understand how he can optimize his attention in order to make sense of information in the ways that make sense to him. We might use many of the same strategies we have in place today, but we would treat this child’s attention as integral to how he makes sense of information and therefore would not see it as existing from the standpoint of a deficit.
There is nothing more important for educators to get right than how to interact with students. If we do not develop guidelines educators can interpret uniformly and consistently, guidelines that can solve for cognitive differences in the teachers themselves, then we are doomed to be stuck with more of the same scary mental health numbers each year.