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Putting Kids' Happiness on Our Educational Radar | The Nation

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Putting Kids' Happiness on Our Educational Radar

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In 1729 Jonathan Swift proposed that the people of Ireland erase famine by eating their children. He reasoned that in this way, Ireland would not only dramatically reduce its population, but would have an ongoing and robust source of food. A Modest Proposal implied a searing disregard for children. While contemporary middle class Americans suck in our breath at the brutality of Swift’s joke, we too seem to hate our children. Our magazines and stores are filled with merchandise aimed at feeding, dressing and entertaining the youngest generation. But meanwhile, we have built a school system that treats students with little regard for what they feel and think. We push them into crowded classrooms, pay teachers as if they were doing unskilled labor, and refuse to pay for books, comfortable attractive workspaces, outdoor play areas, and good food for lunch.

About the Author

Susan Engel
Susan Engel teaches developmental and educational psychology at Williams College, where she also directs the Program in...

Meanwhile, as we begrudge schoolchildren basic decencies, we obsess over whether they are being prepared for a useful adulthood. We insist that schools teach children skills that will enable them to get jobs, make money, and stay out of jail (to name the top three on the list). While there is no doubt that children’s experiences help shape who they will become, childhood is not simply a road to adulthood. It is a significant and vital phase of life in its own right. Children feel joy, sadness, satisfaction, boredom, accomplishment, anger, and anguish. Why not give a little more thought to designing schools where children can be happy? Ironically, research shows that if we were to emphasize happiness in school, we might ensure a happier adult population. While some people are temperamentally more optimistic than others, children can acquire new ways of thinking and spending their time that increase their general sense of wellbeing in the long run. Now that the Obama administration is wisely freeing states from the counterproductive burden of No Child Left Behind restrictions, we have a wonderful opportunity to rethink our national educational goals.

How might our schools cultivate happiness? Psychologists agree that the route to happiness lies not in lollypops and television but instead thrives when children have a strong sense of connection to others, opportunities to create things (ideas, art, machines, for instance), some sense of choice in what they do and whom they do it with, and a feeling that what they spend their time on has some purpose and meaning. Spend a day in many of our public schools, and you will see that the opposite abounds: children are told who to sit near, given little time to talk and become close to other children or adults, forced to spend lots of time ingesting information and practicing skills rather than creating work, and certainly little opportunity to exercise autonomy. In many schools, recess is limited and the school day lengthened so that children can spend more “time on learning”. This practice may be good for test scores but it’s bad for children. One former teaching student of mine said that in her first year of teaching in a New York City charter school, the amount of time children were chastised for wiggling in line, or failing to march properly to the lunch area made her feel she was in a military program for children.

When I have asked teachers to document signs of student engagement in their classrooms, they tend to record signs of compliance instead. They’ve been given little encouragement, and even less guidance in identifying and nurturing the behaviors that indicate a child’s interest, engagement, or sense of fulfillment. Happiness is just not on our educational radar.

One of the biggest obstacles to a realignment of our educational goals is our contemporary dependence on assessment. Teachers are encouraged to nurture only those abilities that can be measured, and policy makers support only those models that lead to quantifiable improvement. It is fair enough to hold teachers and schools accountable. But instead of measuring how many long division problems a child can solve in 30 minutes, why not measure something valuable, like happiness? There already exist several validated measures of wellbeing in childhood. One or more of these could be given on a periodic schedule to a random sample of children in each school. You wouldn’t need to track every child’s happiness to get a reliable measure of a school’s success at promoting wellbeing. Additionally, schools could fairly easily assess the activities that have been shown to lead to happiness. We could collect data that show which classrooms are giving children time to talk, opportunity to work on things that interest them, and interactions that promote close relationships.        

Making happiness a substantive and measurable educational goal might transform the lives of children ages five to 18. It might also have a significant impact on the adults they become. Instead of eating our children, perhaps we can show them that we value and love them, by making sure that during their long days at school, joy does not come only when the dismissal bell rings.

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