Teach First According to the Emotional Age


Ronnie is exceptional. He is gifted. We have yet to get an accurate reading of his IQ. He does not study but sits down and passes his test. When it is SOL time he gets excited because he loves test taking. Not because he enjoys the actual test but because he enjoys the challenge of ruling out which answers are obviously not correct and then making a final decision on the correct answer. He has the method down to an art.

Ronnie does not attend school in a traditional manner. He says that the school environment is too stressful for him, so we listen. The school listens and instead of having a behaviorally disruptive sixteen year old in the school, they send a teacher over a few times a week to work with him. He completes his assignments from the prior week the hour before she arrives. When Ronnie completed his most recent SOLs, he rated in the highest percentile except on one SOL he refused to take. He refused to take it because he was having a bad day. He was upset because a specific person had not been identified as being at the library to pick him up when he was finished and he did not want to walk the five blocks home. Not to mention he had a baseball game that evening and was worked up over that as well. That day was not a good day for Ronnie, but that day had nothing to do with intelligence. That day had to do with a sixteen year old who when stressed literally vacillated between an infant and a very destructive two year old.

By nature of their early experiences, most traumatized children are exceptionally gifted. In his book titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi implies it is no mystery that individuals of genius nature are in fact genius because most have all experienced life-altering trauma. In essence, he explains that in environments of neglect and abuse the child does not receive an equivalent balance of cognitive/social/emotional experience, therefore a neurologic compensation occurs. Whereby what the brain does not get emotionally, it compensates for cognitively, thus a very intelligent child. The catch, though the child maybe cognitively advanced perhaps even brilliant, rarely can this be accessed because of the constant emotional hijacking which occurs when the trauma brain gets triggered and takes over. This is reinforced further by my earlier quote from Joseph LeDoux when he wrote that in times of stress, our thinking becomes confused and distorted and our short-term memory is suppressed.

Additionally in my work with severely traumatized adolescents I have also found a reoccurring theme in that not all are brilliant, certainly not genius, and some are not even smart, book smart that is. That’s an expression my father always used, “Some folks are book smart but dumb as a rock. I may not be book smart, but I’ve got a lot of common sense. Common sense ain’t that common,” he would laugh. Many of these adolescents are low both in common sense and book smarts. In fact, I have one sitting next to me right now playing a video game. He essentially raised himself for ten years, and he has a degree of common sense but really it’s a mask for survival skills. He’ll never go hungry because he knows how to steal, how to create a gang, how to rob people, and how to find a place to sleep. Left without a family he is a prime candidate for jail, but with love and support he just might make it. Anyway, I digress. Children such as the eighteen year old sitting next to me don’t even know how to read and write. Literally, he is at the most elementary level. He probably rates at about a third grade level, yet I have worked with children of the same age that cannot write better than my six year old and she has fine motor skill challenges.

Here’s the big idea. What if we taught children first from their emotional age and then forward, regardless of age? Whether they are chronologically eight, twelve, or sixteen, if they are emotionally three, or four, maybe five, what if that’s where we started them? Learning the same things a five year old would be taught and then advancing them as they progressed? Now this does not implicitly address the emotional delay, but what it does do is support the cognitive system at the level the child may be emotionally. For children like Ronnie who are already exceptional and bright, what if he could be taught in a classroom with other children that were five instead of sixteen? It wouldn’t be as if he were actually being called a student in that classroom but rather that he was a teacher’s aide, who completes his assignments in the classroom and then assists the teacher in working with the other children. He could be assigned to a child that may have some of the same emotional challenges as he does but is just much younger.

Does this feel like a stretch? Perhaps it is; perhaps it is not. “If we always do what we’ve always done, we will always be where we have already been,” says Bishop T. D. Jakes.

And what about the children who are older and have behavioral problems? Maybe they have been sexually abused or are physically aggressive. Use common sense; yet don’t operate out of fear. Keep an adult in the vicinity and be observant; limit the amount of overall time that particular child might be asked to be aide, but most of all monitor their stress level. The neurologic reality is that trauma is buried in the lower limbic system. It doesn’t surface until stress is intense enough to trigger. A regulated environment not only enables the child to tolerate low grade stress more effectively but it also retrains the lower limbic system through repetition, thereby helping it to learn new pathways of reaction. Essentially I am positing that by putting such an older child in an environment that is less psychologically and emotionally stressful, and giving them a purpose that would ultimately help them feel better about themselves, not only would they be learning effectively and making progress, but they would also be indirectly healed!

I wold love to work with a select group of schools and classrooms to test out this very idea. It will be radical but it could also quite possibly be revolutionary. We fear putting the other children at risk but in essence we keep the child who has already been harmed in an ongoing high risk state. We end up grooming them for homelessness and jail.

In the meantime, think on these things.

Choose Love,