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Reflections on Grass Root Changes in Educating Children

Today the American family is a very diverse group, but the dominant reality is that either both parents are working or there is only a single parent in the home. This means that many children are unsupervised after they are dismissed from school. The majority of teen drug use and crime occurs during those unsupervised after-school hours. Younger children often participate in after-school programs, if they are available and the parents can afford the costs. In addition, many children are highly scheduled with sports, arts, and other interests, resulting in mothers playing the role of stationmasters and taxi drivers, an enormous burden that robs both children and parents of down time and family time.

It is in this context that the vision of schools as children’s community centers has emerged, a vision I strongly support. Spending a full day in a school that incorporates significant time committed to physical activity/sports, cultural and social activities fills the full range of needs that all children require to create a strong base of experience to help prepare them for a meaningful role in the real world. Schooling that limits its vision to maximizing test scores and getting more students into college are too narrow in focus. Good social and communication skills are essential to a successful life. For many children, the academics-only approach guarantees failure, for they lack the personality type or academic ability to succeed in school. Their intelligence may be more in art, drama, visual-spatial tasks (found in many trade jobs), emotional sensitivity and leadership…there are many forms of intelligence but schools fail to bring most of them into the classroom in any meaningful way.

We know that children develop at different rates. Even students who ultimately end up reading at similar skill levels may arrive at those levels at different ages. Yet schools are age-based and children who may simply be delayed in some areas are quickly identified as having learning problems and end up labeled as special needs students or placed in lower level groupings, creating a stigma that turns them off to learning. Yet how often is it said that the real goal of public education is to nurture an interest in learning that will continue throughout life. On that count, our schools are failing miserably.

So picture this. Young children (all-day kindergarten should be mandatory) leave home the earliest. The teens get to sleep later, something their development requires, and can be left on their own to get to school so parents can leave for work if necessary. Children are in school all day, getting home by 5-6. Eliminate town sports and music lessons by providing these activities as part of the school day. Teams can be comprised of children within the same school. Individual lessons in art and music for the children who are more gifted in these areas can be paid for by parents; the rest will do these in groups. There is no homework except for special projects for older students (teens) that cannot be done in school. This means the extra assignments are done in school with access to educators who can make sure the children are actually mastering the skills. Thus, when children get home after their long day, they are through with school and the focus can be on family time and pursuing personal interests.

Since probably half the students in four-year colleges don’t belong there, public education should be less focused on getting their students into college and more focused on identifying children’s strengths and getting them on a path that will encourage those students to get the maximum benefit from those strengths. There is a huge need for trained people in many industries. Two-year colleges or vocational programs make more sense for a large number of young adults. I have seen struggling teenagers come to life when they ended up in cooking school and becoming chefs or going to specialty vocational schools and learning violin repair and stained glass restoration. These are but a few of hundreds of high-paying careers in dire need of skilled workers. Generations ago,mentoring and apprenticeships filled these needs. Now it has been given a second-class image instead of being treated as an equally important goal for our young people. Only going to college is seen as the successful route for a young adult. Meanwhile, the dropout rate for college is substantial, many who graduate remain lost with regard to careers, and college is absurdly expensive.

High school students should have block programming (more time given to fewer classes) and should be taught basic life skills around money management, communication skills, problem-solving, and marriage and family. Mandatory classes requiring being daycare aides with the related child development courses would not only raise the level of parenting skills and improve the quality of daycare centers but I believe it would also reduce the amount of child abuse.

I also strongly believe that students from about sixth grade on should be reading contemporary books that are of higher interest and describe a world that they can recognize and relate to. This is especially important for minority students who need to become familiar with adults of similar race whom they can look up to and continue to read their works after graduation. These students need “heroes” that offer more than the arrogance and poor role modeling of our professional athletes (or our politicians…or our greedy corporate leaders). The classics can be reserved for advanced placement classes.

Finally, there needs to be much more focus on cooperative learning and less of the competitive, student vs. student model that currently dominates. Grades should reflect the ability to work together as much as developing individual skill sets. This will reinforce the concept of each student finding what she can best contribute and help everyone see strengths rather than the chronic focus on individual weakness and failure. It’s almost ironic that teamwork is such a critical workplace skill yet it is not what our students are being taught. By the way, this focus on a cooperative model has been demonstrated to reduce bullying and school violence.

Yes I’m very passionate about the value of more time spent in school if schools are restructured to truly meet the needs of children and properly prepare them for the adult world. I realize there are many issues that would need to get worked out. There does need to be some reasonable vacation time. There would be a major need for adequate space and equipment for sports, music, and arts along with some technical training. Besides some federal monies to jumpstart this maybe some of the billionaires who are contributing to education around the world could include the U.S. in their grants!

The issue of the cost of teachers working longer days would need to be carefully examined. While raises would be required, the type of system I have described would allow for different levels of teachers as well as returning to a meaningful role for specialists. This would allow teachers more free time to get all their work done during the school day as well. Right now it is a joke to say that teachers work a short day. Most spend many hours per night correcting assignments and preparing lessons. In reality, a true school day that ends at 5 or 6 might not actually involve working more hours, just different hours. That could do wonders for the family life of teachers as well.

I know this doesn’t cover every aspect of this issue, but I hope it has stimulated your interest in seeking change for an out-dated, out-of-touch public education system. As parents, you are paying the salaries of the administrators and teachers. As the book on homework clearly demonstrates, when parents join forces and push for change, change happens. So I hope I will be reading more media articles in the months and years ahead about changes that you have generated for the benefit of your children.

Reflections on Grass Root Changes in Educating Children

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Reflections on Grass Root Changes in Educating Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.