An Elementary Student's Bill of Rights

Human Rights

I recently read a blog post in which a mother and former teacher, Laura Eberhart Goodman, details putting her young children on the school bus everyday with one, simple wish: that they have a good day. But she knows that is not what will happen.

“The children that I get off of the bus are exhausted. They are frustrated. They are overworked. They are burned out. I feel as if I should make them a weak whiskey on the rocks, hand them their pipe and slippers and leave them alone for an hour to decompress.”

It’s a feeling that will resonate with plenty of parents today. Our Constitution guarantees every child living in the United States the right to a free public education, “no matter what their race, ethnic background, religion, or sex, or whether they are rich or poor, citizen or non-citizen,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. But the quality of their experience — particularly regarding how their education is delivered to them and on what timeline — is something that’s too often forgotten in our race to more or less nowhere.

And our children are owed more than just an education — they are entitled to the same basic human rights guaranteed to all Americans, including, most certainly, the pursuit of happiness. Yet in some cases, our schools treat them no better than dogs being put through obedience training.

Think that’s an overstatement? Here’s how one of my grandchildren, an eager and compliant student, described the rules of school to me: No talking in the hallway or at lunch. No going to the bathroom during a test or an important lesson. Sit at your desk and stay there. Don’t get up to sharpen your pencil unless you have permission. If you break a rule, everyone in the class may lose a privilege like recess, the only time kids are actually allowed to socialize and play. 

Another grandchild confessed he was sent to the “refocus chair” in kindergarten for squirming or whispering to a friend when he was supposed to be listening quietly. He was only five, but he had to learn the rules of proper behavior by being conditioned to obey.

If you pause to think about it, the approach isn’t all that dissimilar from how we approach training animals. The basic commands we now expect students to master are:

  • Sit – in your seat for long stretches of time. 
  • Stay – until the teacher allows you to get up. 
  • Heel – follow quietly in a straight line. 
  • Speak – only when and where it is permitted. 
  • Quiet – don’t talk, even in places like the lunchroom. 
  • Wait – you may be hungry or need to relieve yourself, but I decide when you may do so.

We appear to want children, like animals, to know their place. But what we rarely seem willing to ask is, at what cost?”

Toward an Elementary Student’s Bill of Rights

Emily Kaplan, an educator who about wrote about her experience as a teacher in a “no-excuses” charter school, describes the most extreme example of denying children their rights as human beings. Her second-graders began their nine-hour day reciting a “creed,” complete with gestures, being drilled in reading and math, and being held to behavior standards more appropriate for soldiers or prisoners than 7-year-olds. As she points out, the more at-risk the population, the more harsh, demanding and obedience-focused the school climate tends to be. And yet, the children do not thrive in the long run; the achievement gap still looms and is largely correlated to family income.  

Though you might not know it from looking at our schools, how children are taught goes to the very heart of education. In all of the fuss over educational reform, we seem to have forgotten that children learn best when their fundamental right to happiness is upheld through a developmentally appropriate approach to learning. When the joy of creativity and discovery are absent, replaced by rote instruction and the myriad of rules necessary to keep their attention and compliance, children’s humanity takes a back seat to behavior management and obedience. 

No one disputes that all children must be educated; we know that an educated citizenry is essential to a successful democracy. Nor am I advocating for a school climate without rules and clear expectations. But it does seem to me that in our ever-present zeal to impart knowledge, we often forget that children are people with their own fundamental rights and needs.

In my own community, for example, a simple request by parents and a school board member to adopt a policy making recess a right rather than a privilege created a firestorm of negative response from teachers and administrators. My shock over this reaction drove me to compose what I call an elementary school child's bill of rights:

  1. The right to what Franklin D. Roosevelt called, “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear.” To do well in school, children cannot come to school hungry, tired, inadequately clothed, or in fear of harm or bullying on their way to and from school and in the classroom. Schools can address some of these concerns, but need to work with parents and the community to find solutions.
  2. The right to dignity. That means a bathroom break, even if it's during a test or when important material is being presented. It also means not permitting students to be publicly shamed. Charts that display behavioral ratings or test scores should not be posted.
  3. The right to socialize and play with their peers. Recess is to be regarded as an essential part of a student’s day and a right of every student, regardless of classroom behavior that requires discipline. Children whose recess behavior is dangerous to themselves or others should be asked to sit on a bench outside for a reasonable length of time as a logical consequence for their actions. Otherwise, recess should not be withheld as a punishment. If outdoor recess is not possible due to weather conditions, children should have the right to active play indoors. Staff supervising recess must be trained and aware of children’s special needs.
  4. The right to be treated fairly. An entire class should not be punished for the misbehavior of one or more students.
  5. The right to a lunch break that is reasonable in length, comes at an appropriate time for lunch, permits them to socialize with their peers, and is supervised by trained staff that is aware of children’s special needs. Students should be allowed to talk at lunch and should not be required to eat lunch in their outdoor clothing to facilitate the transition to recess.
  6. The right to reasonable homework policies that are consistent within a school district and within a given school, and policies that reflect research into best practice and developmentally appropriate education. Homework should not be assigned to children in grades K-2. Instead, parents should be encouraged to read to or with their children. Appropriate books should be provided for children who may not have them at home. Children in grades 3 and above may receive homework under the condition that it reinforces material leaned in school, is doable by the child without adult intervention and is limited to a reasonable amount of time. The child should record how long it took to complete the assignment. Teachers should look at this homework and make adjustments for individual students who needed more than a reasonable amount of time to complete it.
  7. The right to have their parents informed of any behavior plan instituted by a teacher and to have their parents’ questions answered. All email or other communication from parents should be acknowledged within 24 hours and addressed in detail within three days.
  8. The right not to be punished for behavior that is beyond their control. Teachers need to understand the difference between can’t and won’t and address the meaning of a behavior in order to change it. Students with special needs in self-contained classrooms who are unable to report on what is happening in class should have the right to have their classroom videotaped.

So how do we turn this into more than just an idea? It starts with the school districts: this much-needed bill of rights for elementary school students will only be effective if it becomes policy at the school district level. Principals tend to set the tone for school climate, and as such, rules may differ greatly across various schools in a community. Worse, within any given school, many teachers establish their own rules. Parents know that being assigned to a particular teacher will result in more or less punishment, homework and communication. To mitigate this kind of inconsistency, educators should have clear directives from the school district about how to manage these aspects of teaching. When principals and teachers receive guidance from the school district about research-based policies that reflect best practice and protect the rights of their students, they are less likely to make arbitrary and inconsistent decisions.

Parents and community members who want to ensure that elementary school students’ basic right to happiness is not denied are often reluctant to approach school boards and administrators. But we shouldn’t be. We elect and employ these people. It’s time for us to tell them through correspondence and through monitoring and attending meetings that we want a more empathic and appropriate approach to learning in our elementary schools. Our children have every right to be what they are: children.

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