Special Education Opinion

Excerpt: Free To Be

By Chris Mercogliano — January 01, 2004 10 min read
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A school reaches problem kids without drugs or labels.

“It is my belief that they are not suffering from an organic disorder,” Chris Mercogliano writes about so-called ADHD students in his new book, Teaching the Restless: One School’s Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed (Beacon). “Rather, their dysfunctional and antisocial behaviors are distress signals: symptomatic expressions of unmet needs and emotional turbulence—not disease.” To demonstrate as much, Mercogliano, who is co-director of the privately funded Albany Free School in New York, closely observed nine of the school’s 50 2- to 14-year-old students for a year to document the school’s drug- and label-free approach to educating “problem” kids. The problem, he makes clear, is not with the students but with “school environments that fail to support their unique needs and natures.” Six-year-old William, who’d been asked not to return to his parochial school after kindergarten, serves as a good test of just how flexible the Free School and Mercogliano are.

William spends his first day like a kitten in an unfamiliar place. Almost constantly in motion, he explores the nooks and crannies of every room in the school, stopping briefly to eat a sizable meal at lunch time. Amid his travels, he begins to establish his personal curriculum. For instance, he infuriates just about everyone with whom he comes into contact thanks to his pushy, entitled way of relating to others. His sense of boundaries is still quite immature. Just like a toddler, he assumes that every interesting object within reach is fair game for him to grab and investigate. His location in the building can easily be tracked by the cries of “Hey, that’s mine! GIVE IT BACK!” or “Please be quiet; we’re trying to read a story in here!”

Chris Mercogliano, author and co-director of the Albany Free School in New York, thinks its o.k. to ‘let the young be restless.’
—Photograph by Jamie Hooper/DigitalDreams.nu

William makes no bones about his disregard for limits. But as is usually the case with newcomers, the school community tries to make allowances for his naiveté. With a certain stretched tolerance, everyone lets him down easy with first and second warnings. Thus, William’s maiden voyage on the good ship Free School ends without serious incident. At 3 o’clock, Nancy gives his mother, Irene, an honest report, telling her that the honeymoon is likely to end sooner rather than later due to William’s proclivity for running afoul of the other kids, particularly those younger and smaller than himself.

The next morning, my wife suggests I bring my eldest daughter’s dog to school with me. A gentle, high-energy eternal puppy, Lakota is a perfect match for kids like William. The two of them spend the first hour roaming the building and backyard playground together. The dog is infinitely more tolerant of William’s rough edges, and this gives him breathing room as he tries to find his place in an environment so full of activity that a great many first-time visitors perceive it as nothing short of chaos.

Although William is technically in Nancy’s 1st grade class, I suspect he will choose to spend a lot of time with me and my group of 2nd and 3rd graders, most of whom happen to be boys. It is already obvious that he is much more drawn to me simply because I am a man. Also, his athleticism is likely to match him up with my boys, to whom he is already equal in both size and determination. We arrange class groupings loosely for just this reason, so that we can meet children’s needs as they present themselves and avoid unnecessary conflict and frustration. Nancy, even with all of her acquired savvy in handling rambunctious, willful boys, would expect to have no more luck with William than his teacher did last year if she too were confined in a classroom with him for six hours a day.

It isn’t until after lunch that William makes his first serious mistake, when he refuses to do his share of cleaning the lunchroom tables and floor. The elementary-age kids are organized into five daily crews, with an older student serving as crew chief. Although participation in this necessary chore is not optional—the school has no custodial staff—the kids generally carry out the cleaning willingly and well.

“I don’t like cleaning, and you can’t make me!” William proclaims defiantly to Janine, his unlucky boss.

This proud young warrior isn’t about to take orders from any girl. But little does he know that Janine is a no- nonsense 12-year-old who has had plenty of practice dealing with recalcitrant younger siblings at home.

At first it’s all a big joke to William. Flashing the same wide grin that at other times is irresistibly charming, he gets Janine to chase him around one of the unwiped tables a few times. Not the least bit amused, she halts and says to him, “Listen, William, everybody has to help clean up here. So come on; it’ll just take a few minutes if you quit messing around and get busy.”

“No! I won’t do it!”

When Janine closes in on William, he suddenly spits at her. “If you do that again, I’ll have to sit on you,” she warns.

William laughs and manages to get off one last goober before he finds out that Janine meant exactly what she said. Careful not to hurt him, Janine grabs William by both shoulders and lowers him to the floor. Then she glares down at him and says, “I’ll let you up when you stop spitting at me and promise to do your job.”

William keeps a smirking game face on for an impressively long time. Clearly, he’s no stranger to passive resistance.

Solely in the interest of seeing the cleanup get done sooner rather than later, I say to Janine, “Well, it looks like you may have to sit on him all afternoon. But don’t worry, if you get hungry or thirsty, I’ll bring you a little snack whenever you need one.”

For dramatic effect, and with nods and winks between us that William fails to notice, Janine and I discuss her favorite junk foods. This does the trick. William’s stubborn posture quickly crumbles, and he begins to thrash and yell with raging indignation. When the tantrum reaches its crescendo, William vomits, which immediately brings him back to himself. Like a kind big sister, Janine helps him clean himself up, and when she asks him again if he will do his job, he nods and heads straight for the bucket and sponge so that he can wipe off the table the rest of the crew has left for him.

Twenty minutes later I see William, for the first time, happily playing outside with a group of kids his own age.

Some may question my allowing Janine to deal with William in such an abrupt, physical way. Had I any sense that William was being harmed, either physically or psychologically, I would have intervened immediately. But it was evident that Janine was going only as far as she needed to limit effectively William’s blatant disrespect for her. It was only after every attempt at reason had failed that she spoke to William in a language every 6-year-old can understand, careful not to hurt him in the process. William, for his part, knew he was wrong and was relieved to be set straight so firmly and compassionately, as was evidenced by his genuinely happy demeanor immediately following the incident. I should note that William and Janine later became friends and that he did his job more or less faithfully every week.

Some may question my allowing Janine to deal with William in such an abrupt, physical way.

I should also note that children sitting on each other, a technique Free School founder Mary Leue came up with as a way for children to set limits without anyone getting hurt, is not an everyday occurrence. It is a technique of last resort employed only with inordinately willful children who are in the habit of overstepping reasonable bounds, and it is an effective alternative to the adult intervention to which such children quickly grow immune.

The significance of William and Janine’s exchange is that William didn’t butt heads with a rule or a policy but rather with another person—whose response was not to punish or in some way label him. He came around so quickly, I suspect, because the person establishing limits was another child, not an adult authority figure.

William’s confrontation with Janine brings us to the critical issue of “structure.” Sadly, the conventional classroom is so crushingly saddled with standards-driven curricula that it’s become a place of confinement, where learning tasks are broken down into repetitive bits devoid of excitement or meaning and where there is little room for individual differences. In such a setting, an energetic, highly intelligent, and capable child like William was bouncing off the walls from understimulation. To him, the structure of his previous school was akin to a large cage—the teacher related to him as though he were a wild animal whose impulses had to be guarded against and controlled.

Meanwhile, a common misconception about our school is that we are unstructured. What a great many uninformed observers don’t realize is that the reason they can’t perceive our structure is because they are looking in the wrong places. When they don’t see the desks, textbooks, and all the other accouterments of structure to which our society is accustomed, they make the false, but easily understood, assumption that we have no structure.

The Free School has a very definite structure.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Free School has a very definite structure; it’s just that we try to keep it fluid and individualized so that we can meet the unique needs of every child. For instance, instead of a single standardized curriculum, we have 50 “curricula,” each one based on the student’s own interests and passions as well as his or her own rhythm and pace. At the same time, we try to let individual situations and individual children dictate the necessary limits and boundaries rather than relying on a set of predetermined rules and regulations.

Freedom, a cornerstone of our structure, means being able to chart your own course and negotiate your own terms. It does not mean getting to do whatever you want whenever you feel like it. That, as A.S. Neill—who founded a freedom-based residential school in England in the 1920s known as Summerhill—was careful to emphasize, is called license. Freedom always includes being held accountable for the effects of your actions on those around you.

The structure of the Free School, more than anything else, is a matrix of relationships—student with teacher, student with student, teacher with teacher. A great deal of the learning that takes place does so within those relationships. And many of the most important lessons end up occurring spontaneously, as in the case of William, and not according to a scripted lesson plan.

The irony of the structure of the conventional classroom is that all too often, it causes the very problem it was designed to prevent.

The irony of the structure of the conventional classroom is that all too often, it causes the very problem it was designed to prevent. When disorder is viewed as an enemy that must be fought off by structuring every moment of every day, it’s inevitable that spirited children will fight back. Some do so overtly, as William did in kindergarten, by mouthing off and by other forms of defiance. Others will engage in passive resistance by not paying attention, forgetting what they’ve been taught, and constantly losing their things.

In either case, the children who either can’t or won’t conform to classroom routine become the enemy, too, and the conventional classroom’s response is increasingly resolute. If William were still in his old school, or in one similar, he would currently be on Ritalin and quite possibly other biopsychiatric drugs—whatever it would take to squelch pharmaceutically his boundless curiosity, his ardently self- centered point of view, and his creative ability to avoid anything he doesn’t think he should have to do. The net effect of these so-called medications, an Orwellian term if ever there was one in this context, would be to internalize that school’s structure. William would find himself in a chemical straitjacket, one from which even an artful dodger like him could not escape.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as Excerpt: Free To Be


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