On Complex Learners

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees
Back to school

My eyes are met by the blue glow of the browser screen in the dusky morning light; pictures of smiling parents, school buses, cooly coordinated clothing and backpacks filled my feed.  I sipped my coffee and scrolled past looking for the morning’s news–the new-age version of the morning paper and cup-o-joe .  Typically I waited until I was a full cup in to read any news; these days my soul can’t bear world affairs without a full infusion of java.  But, the happy school pictures, no matter how buffed of their reality and internet polished, tugged at my gut too much for the mere sips I was in to my first cup.


My kids are still a couple weeks away from returning**, and while I am certain I will likely look near internet meme worthy in my triumphant glory upon their return the truth is much more complicated.  When I send my kids off to school I am sending two very complex creatures out into a system that is not intended to receive such complexity.

Let me pause here before I go farther and lose anyone…

There is currently a lot of push back to the idea of “uniqueness.”  It is often lamented that parents all see their children as “special snowflakes.”  This is not the subject on which I am writing.

Fundamentally, people, including the tiny ones, fall into a general distribution on many attributes–height, weight, intelligence, reading ability, etc.  This is called the Bell Curve.  The majority of the population falls in the middle and the rest spread thin on both ends.  For example, Albert Einstein fell way out on the far right tail end of the Bell Curve.  Those with Intellectual Disabilities fall somewhere on the lower end of the left side of the Bell and its tail.  The majority of us fall in the under the largest bell shaped portion of the Bell Curve.

bridge with lights during nightime
Bridge in shape of Bell Curve

Complexity could be defined as the tail ends of the Bell Curve–the very top and bottom outliers of the population.  The American public school system is not well equip to handle learners who fall in those tail ends–complex learners.

The public school system and compulsory education was developed and took hold during the Industrial Revolution; this was a time when mechanization, assembly lines, and rote style tasks were prized.  Much has changed in the last century and in many areas education has lagged behind.

All children enter the same education system, if they enter public school, and for those who fall outside of the center of the Bell Curve it can be disorienting.  The classroom is a foreign and unwelcoming place for children whose senses are like superpowers tuned far past the pack of typical learners.  The other students are overwhelming for students who lag behind in social skills.  Desks are confining to the child whose insides are wound up and humming like a motor and must move in order to listen and learn.

There are inordinate ways that complexity finds its way into every corner of every classroom of every school.  Sometimes the complexity is quiet and docile and is overlooked–a child who is passed year to year and still cannot read.  And, sometimes it shouts and screams, throws books, and scares teachers and students.

This is the type of complexity that the other parents speak about in hushed tones at the bus stop or in anger voices at the PTA meetings.  “Those kids” discussed by parents, teachers, and administrators with wrought hands and tense faces in coffee klatches and administrative meetings, “those kids” referred to as behavior problems said to be ruining the education of other children–no one never really quite understanding that it is the system’s failing not the child’s.

What most people don’t understand is that “those kids” are at the very essence complex learners being jammed into a system that was not made for them.  And, yes, we must all learn to live in a world with certain rules and certain socially acceptable behaviors but as young ones we do not have as many choices as we do when we are grown.  As adults, we often choose to enter into systems that accommodate for our complexities and exceptionalities.  We do not choose desk jobs if we are on-the-move, physical, and energetic beings; or, if we do we find outlets during our day.  But, children are all placed at tiny, confining desks no matter the exceptionalities they pack in our backpacks.

All kids, even the ones who fall within the meat and potatoes of that Bell Curve, carry with them untold treasures, secrets, and burdens in their proverbial backpack to school each day.  All of said backpack detritus is often unpacked in the form of behavior.  Behavior is communication.  And, behavior can be much more dramatic for the complex kiddo.  It takes kindness and flexibility in the system to help decipher this communication into meaningful information–to move through behavior towards availability for learning.

As the new school year begins, I hope that my kids and all the children out there who need it most are met with champions with in the system.  There are many with in the system who we have been lucky enough to work with already who understand the need for flexibility and innovation.  We need more who work tirelessly to remove the word “those” from in front of “those kids” and simply see the “kids” in front of them no matter the noise or complexity.



**this means more back time for back to school blog posting 😉

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