Juveniles are developmentally different than adults. As a society we get it, right? In the 1930s child labor laws were established when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, recognizing that juveniles are fundamentally different than working adults. They are in a state of developmental maturation which requires special safeguards because of their immaturity. In the United States juveniles are not allowed to vote until their 18th birthday and are not allowed to consume alcohol until their 21st birthday. Why? Because juveniles are in state of developmental maturation. They are not ready to be held fully accountable for the ramifications of their actions or inactions in the same way that adults are. In recent years the United States Supreme Court has taken this metaphorical football and has run with it. In 2005 (Roper v. Simmons) and 2010 (Graham v. Florida), the Court passed laws rejecting the death penalty for juveniles, and life without the possibility of parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses. The Court did it again in 2012 (Miller v. Alabama) when they rejected mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders. Why? Because the Court recognized that juveniles are in a state of developmental maturation. In all three cases the Court relied upon scientific evidence regarding the development of children’s brains. Neuropsychological research has shown persuasive evidence that the juvenile brain differs substantially from the adult brain in several key ways, and as a result the Court reasoned that juveniles should be held to a different standard than adults. The scientific evidence considered by the Court was summarized in three amicus briefs filed by the American Psychological Association which can be viewed here: (Roper v. Simmons amicus brief; Graham v. Florida amicus brief; Miller v. Alabama amicus brief).
So as a society in the 21st century we finally seem to “get it.” Juvenile brains operate differently than adult brains, and as such they cannot be expected to perform the same cognitive tasks with the same degree of reliability than their adult counterparts. So why then have so many professional educators in our elementary schools missed out on receiving this news flash? This lack of understanding recently played out in an Arizona charter school where a 5th grade student was docked half of all total possible points on a major class assignment (tantamount to receiving a grade of “F”) for simply forgetting to put his name on the paper. To metaphorically rub a little salt in the wound and squirt some lemon juice in the eye, this was the first time this student made such an error on submitted school work. Was this omission a developmentally expected occurrence for a 5th grader? You bet. Not to mention forgetting to take out the trash, forgetting to turn off the lights when leaving a room, or forgetting not to talk with one’s mouths filled with food. These are all things one would expect a 5th grader to occasionally drop the ball on. Would you “hammer’ a child for making such a developmentally appropriate mistake? Probably not if you know anything about child development, positive reinforcement strategies or techniques for motivating children towards success. An inquiry posted to an APA (American Psychological Association) listserv asking for feedback regarding the teacher’s grading strategy produced a flurry of replies. Academics and clinicians from Harvard to Berkeley (and many places in between) sounded off in a unanimous chorus that the teacher’s response was inept and inappropriate. What was most interesting, however, was the listserv feedback indicated that the teacher’s response was not an isolated incident. Similar occurrences were reported from around the country regarding other examples of harsh and unfair grading practices that severely punished students for simple, developmentally appropriate oversights having nothing to do with their academics. One example reported a middle school teacher from Kentucky who was known to keep a paper shredder by his desk and routinely shred in front of the class any student assignment turned in without a name on it. Aside from bad teaching practice, this is a moral and ethical issue at its core because it involves an excessively harsh response to behavior that is at least partially determined by developmental factors. Moreover, what ethic does it teach the child? Not unlike the court cases cited above, we as a society find ourselves in “ethical quicksand” if we allow ourselves to dole out excessively punitive sanctions for behavioral errors or omissions that are tied to development. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this not once but three times within the past decade. Why then does it seem that so many professional educators are so far behind the learning curve on this one? Better yet, what can psychologists and moral educators do to nurture much needed enlightenment and understanding in this critical area? In-service trainings on positive behavior modification strategies is one possible solution that could help classroom teachers develop a more effective and positively oriented set of tools for use in their classrooms. Compulsory behavior modification training is also something that could be required in all university based teacher training programs. Lastly, one would expect the landscape might begin to shift simply by providing “education to the educators” that it does indeed represent a moral, ethical and pedagogical failure to harshly punish children for errors and omissions that are rooted in their development.
Just as the U.S. Supreme Court ran with its metaphorical football on this issue over the past decade, now it is our turn to take the ball and run with it….
D. Scott Herrmann, Ph.D., ABPP, is a licensed psychologist and board certified diplomate in clinical child / adolescent psychology and police / public safety psychology. He is co-founder of Arizona Child Psychology, PLLC in Phoenix, Arizona, PSU director of the Superior Court of Arizona, and an adjunct professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University.