Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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An Ecological Perspective

Ever since my mind-blowing trip to the Galapagos last January I’ve been thinking about evolution, the environment, and organism-environment interaction. Each island in the Galapagos has a slightly different environment, and the islands as a whole are very different from the Ecuadorean mainland. The animals who ended up flourishing on the islands adapted to their environment. Or they moved on.

I’m a psychologist, not an ecologist. The world I concern myself with is that of children and their development. But it occurs to me that we often don’t spend enough time thinking about that from an ecological perspective. An organism is an individual living animal, plant, or single-celled life form. A child is an “organism.” An environment is the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal or plant lives or operates. School is an “environment.” The child and their school are part of an ecosystem, and they have important impacts on one another.

When something is not working well in the child-school ecosystem we often focus on what’s “wrong” with the child and why they don’t “fit in.” We sometimes pathologize the child’s behavior and diagnose ADHD, a learning disability, autism, or a behavioral disorder. The diagnosis may fit, but I often wonder whether the same child would be diagnosed with the same disability if they were in an environment better suited to them as an individual. Would the twice exceptional student who blurts out answers and won’t do what the teacher tells him to do be diagnosed with ADHD in a school where he could control his own pace of learning? Perhaps a move to a different environment would allow that particular organism – that child – to flourish.

I know that we often feel stuck with the school our child attends. We may have moved to a public school district specifically for the highly ranked schools. We may have gone through an onerous private school admission process to get a spot for our child at what we thought would be the best possible school. But sometimes it just isn’t working out and attention should be paid to not just the child and what might be “wrong” with him or her, but also to the environment and what might be “wrong” with it – for that child. The school your child attends may be perfectly fine for some children and even optimal for others. But it may not be the best fit for your child.

Many of us may have had the experience (I know I have) of spending our political capital in the principal’s office requesting a specific teacher because we heard from other parents how wonderful he or she was, only to discover that the teacher we begged for wasn’t so great for our child. Or discovering that although our daughter thrived at XYZ school, our son doesn’t. I don’t think one can always generalize and describe a school as a “good school” or a “bad school,” or a teacher as a “good teacher” or a “bad teacher.” Good for who? Bad for who?

Our children – the gifted, twice-exceptional, learning disabled, differently wired – are unique. They are organisms that need specific kinds of nutrients and environments in which to thrive. If your child isn’t developing optimally, it might be time to consider a change of environment. Optimal development happens when the organism/environment interaction promotes growth.

I realize that changing schools may not be convenient and can involve risks. But it might be among the best things you ever do for your child. I know parents who have made the sacrifice of moving to another state so their child could attend a better-fit school. And heroes who take on homeschooling. These parents have made bold decisions to try to find or create the best environment for their child to thrive.

When my son was 11 he begged me to not send him back to the school he had been attending. This was after spending the summer at two Johns Hopkins CTY camps (let this be a warning: it can be dangerous to let your child experience the joy of an optimal learning environment). We took him seriously, lost our deposit at his old school, and had to scramble to find a new school for him to attend. We ended up finding a small, funky, ‘”unschool” for gifted kids where I’m not sure he learned much, but he was happy. We call this his “first gap year.” He went on to do well at a wonderful middle school, high school, and the college of his choice. To this day he credits the finding of his academic and social “sea legs” to the “gap year” he had in the 6th grade. And he thanks us for listening to him.

I feel badly he had to ask.