Opinion
Early Childhood Opinion

Who’s in Charge?

By Louis A. Chandler — November 15, 2000 6 min read

Whatever formal learning takes place in school, schooling itself will provide a child with what psychologists call “secondary gain.” Going to school gives young children an appreciation for the importance of individual achievement, inner motivation, self-discipline, respect for authority, and responsible social behavior. Development of such qualities will help them succeed in life and contribute to a civilized society.

Going to school gives young children an appreciation for the importance of individual achievement, inner motivation, self-discipline, and responsible social behaviour.

The school experience should aid in this development and give the child both a heightened sense of security and greater self-confidence.

Children’s emotional development is influenced by their parents, but a similar influence is exerted by the adults they encounter at their schools. Like parents, teachers can provide young children with the structure they need to feel basically secure, with the comfort that the world is not a chaotic and meaningless place. Teachers impose external discipline, the necessary first step toward developing inner discipline. Like parents, they are adult authority figures. Many of the qualities children attach to parents are transferred to teachers and, by extension, to other adult authorities. It is the concept of adult authority that’s important here. The adult is the “person in charge,” the person who deserves respect and attention—simply because of his or her special status.

In their role as “adults in charge,” teachers set limits, mediate, and interpret the world for children. In the process, they foster children’s emotional development, helping them learn how to cope with stress. The crucial relationship between adults’ roles and children’s emotional development makes it vital that we sustain and value the roles traditionally given to the teacher: as parent surrogate and adult-in- charge.


Changes in society and in educational practice, however, may be devaluing these roles in today’s schools. Here, for example, are four current practices that have at least the potential to undermine the traditional roles of teachers:

  • Cooperative Learning. In cooperative learning, children are instructed in mixed-ability groups. Typically, students in these groups are expected to choose roles among themselves (for example, as “leader,” “secretary,” or “judge”). Group members are told that they have a responsibility for the progress of the group; brighter students are expected to “peer tutor” the slower students. Such methods promote child-centered rather than teacher- directed instruction.

During cooperative-learning experiences, students are seen as capable of charting their own learning, answerable to one another, with the teacher being relegated to the role of a sideline monitor. The teacher does less direct instruction, assuming less control of the processes occurring in the classroom.

This new role of teachers as sideline facilitators removes them from the position of prominence and authority that the teacher traditionally has enjoyed. Whatever pedagogical advantage cooperative learning may ultimately be shown to have, one of its consequences thus will be a lessening of the central role teachers play for young children in the classroom as adults-in-charge. Moreover, since other children are made to fill the void left by the teacher’s absence (a role for which they may be developmentally ill-prepared), the broader implications of this pedagogical approach for normal growth and development should be explored.

  • Constructivist Methods. Constructivist philosophy holds that there is no fixed knowledge, or “truth,” independent of the knower. Rather, knowledge is constructed; individuals make their own meaning. Therefore, all knowledge must be tentative, subjective, and personal. By logical extension, then, such a philosophy supports the notion that those who claim to be sources of knowledge (for example, teachers) should be met with some skepticism. What they have to say should be questioned.

Constructivism, when applied to educational practice, leads to educators’ speaking of students as “constructors of their own knowledge.” And methods of teaching based on this approach are being implemented even in elementary classrooms. But, again, no matter what such practices may contribute to instruction, they are also unintentionally undermining the status of the teacher as an adult with knowledge to impart. This is an important aspect of being an “adult in charge.”

  • Peer Mediation. In recent years, as concern about violence in the schools has increased, various educational techniques have been put forward to deal with the problem. One of them is peer mediation, which advocates training schoolchildren as “conflict managers” to mediate their schoolmates’ disputes.

Originally proposed for high school students, peer mediation has found its way down to the lower grades. It requires the following: shifting one’s perspective to that of the other person; applying creative solutions to interpersonal problems; relying on language rather than action; and finding mutual agreement on peaceful methods of conflict resolution. But a young child’s ability to perform each of these tasks will be contingent on his or her level of development. And insofar as it lessens the teacher’s responsibility for managing the classroom and resolving disagreements among children, peer mediation, too, could devalue the role of the teacher.

  • Fun and Games. By far the most blatant undermining of the respect and authority traditionally granted to educators, however, can be found in activities in which school leaders allow themselves to be held up to public ridicule by their students.

One district, for example, holds a contest in which the principal volunteers to endure the humiliation of being hit with wet sponges thrown by his students. In another, a principal is dunked in a tub of water by children who have earned that privilege by signing a promise to read more books. Still another principal, one with a fear of heights, agrees to sit on his school’s roof for a specified amount of time as an incentive for children to read more.

And then there is the elementary principal who allows one of her 1st graders, as a reward for exhibiting reading prowess, the priviledge of hitting her in the face with a pie.


It seems unlikely that hitting one’s principal with a cream pie will inculcate even a transient, let alone lifelong, desire to read. But even should such dubious educational exhibitions have some effect on a child’s willingness to read, they surely cannot be worth the loss in respect for the school authority involved.

And we should make no mistake: Our society’s growing mistrust of authority and pervasive cynicism about leaders and institutions are having a profound effect on our children.

We must be mindful of this and other dimensions of the social context in which children are being raised and educated today. We should examine all of the practices schools and teachers adopt and take care to assess their impact on children’s social and emotional development.

While encouraging innovation, schools must remember the caretaker’s primary injunction: Do no harm.


Louis Chandler is an associate professor in educational and developmental psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the former director of the university’s Psychoeducational Clinic.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Who’s in Charge?

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