by Julia Steiny
Ironically, Child Trends (CT) has long been among my most reliable sources of data about the state of American kids, almost all of which is depressingly negative. Their briefs cover substance abuse, grandparents taking over for parents, obesity, and other sad social indicators.
But getting away from this intense negativity is precisely the point. As their site notes, “There is a critical need to monitor positive development among children and youth.”
Yes. What gets measured, gets valued. What gets valued get attention and resources.
So they want to balance our obsession with kids’ deficits and problems — teen pregnancy, poverty, juvenile incarceration — with attention to the qualities we want to see in kids. What do we hope for them? Only to graduate and get good test scores? Really?
What else does it look like when we’ve got it right? Not for the schools, not for the tests, not for meeting state accountability standards — but for the flesh-and-blood kids themselves?
What, in Child Trend’s words, does a flourishing kid look like?
They’ve come up with a draft of 19 qualities, under six domains. Under the largest domain, “Personal Flourishing,” includes Gratitude, Forgiveness, Hope, Goal Orientation, Life Satisfaction, Purpose, and Spirituality. Environmental Stewardship stands alone in the smallest domain of the same name.
With these and other qualities in hand, the next task is to find or invent ways of measuring whether we’re getting better at helping kids develop them. This will be a big job, to be sure.
But as the site insists, “It’s good science. The study of child development, and of human development more broadly, encompasses both positive and negative developmental processes.”
Education as a field is terrific at measuring the negative. Or at least coming up with negative conclusions thanks to narrow measures.
So, for example, the Project will develop reliable measures for characteristics like “educational engagement.” Test scores indicate what kids have learned, but tell us nothing about whether they actually give a fig about the stuff.
When educators, officials and the public — though definitely not parents — look to see if students meet goals, they look at a few bits of data. Winning scores and graduation rates keep the state and federal accountability police at bay. Schools with low scores are named, shamed and in some cases threatened with take-overs and job losses.
I’m all for accountability and test scores, but where on earth are the kids in all this? We don’t measure whether students are kind, generous or civic-minded? And if those qualities don’t matter, what does? Do we just want schools to feed a workforce to the Economy — a goal that’s not working out all that well anyway?
I love Child Trends’ use of the word “flourishing.” It’s organic, like juicy apples and happy babies.
Under the right conditions, all children can flourish. They may not finish college, though there should be more of that. However, they might thrive in a trade apprenticeship that will lead to good money and useful occupation. They might be content supporting themselves in a dumb day job while pursuing an art or personal passion. They might know how to gather a team around themselves to help the struggle through illness, a parent’s death, a bad break-up, or major disappointment. They might develop the critical combination of altruism and thick skin allowing them to become effective leaders.
Whatever their test scores, these are adults-in-the-making whom we would love to have among us.
And it only stands to reason that kids who are flourishing would, oh btw, get better test scores.
So Child Trends will counter-balance miserable indicators with measures of healthy kids. Qualities like self-control, empathy and optimism can all change for the better under improved conditions.
For example, it’s possible Child Trends’ research will show that girls with a strong sense of purpose reliably avoid premature pregnancies. Okay. Well, both community service and career exploration are very good at helping middle-school kids get their heads in their futures, sparking dreams and ambitions that give them a sense of purpose. Both initiatives have slipped out of fashion in recent years. But surely they’re a wiser, never mind cheaper investment than paying the expenses incurred over the lifetimes of the roughly one million babies born to unprepared teens each year.
The Project is hoping that documenting trends in such data will be able to convince the folks with the purse strings to invest in kids’ positive development, instead of spending gobs of resources on prisons and other failures to clean up our social messes after the fact.
The Flourishing Child Project is an overdue effort to shift to a more satisfying conversation about kids. What do we want? How do we measure it? A love of learning is innate. So the healthier the kid, the more she’ll take charge of her own learning, on her own, for her own reasons.
Given decent teachers, an optimistic focus, and juicy opportunities, students will make sure the test scores take care of themselves.
Accentuate the positive.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.