Treat them Like Adults?

“To demand consistent, adult-level competence of all k-12 students is inappropriate. We have to help students become mature decision-makers and time managers.” 
Rick Wormeli

Several weeks ago, I participated in a version of Instructional Rounds at an amazing middle school in our district. In our version, twelve educators from around the district conducted a series of fifteen-minute classroom observations in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classrooms. Many of the teachers participating as observers were K-5 teachers in the district. Our charge, as observers, was to spend the morning looking for examples of Innovation and the 4 Cs (Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking) in action.

At the end of the morning, we concluded our observations and began the debriefing process in an effort to provide feedback to the school hosting the Rounds. During this debriefing, one K-5 teacher commented that she was struck by and impressed with the way the students and teachers interacted. She said something along the lines of, “It’s amazing! The students talk and interact just like mini adults; they seem so grown up and adult-like compared to how they are at the elementary school.” As a district level educator, I have the luxury of frequently observing teaching and learning at all grade levels across the district, from Pre-K thru 8th grade, including the K-5 teacher who made this comment. I reflected upon these observations quickly and responded, “You know, in some ways, interactions between teachers and students in all great teachers’ classrooms are 'adult-like.' In fact, when we were observing in a Pre-K classroom the other day (whose teacher is widely regarded as one of the most effective teachers anywhere), we commented that the teacher spoke with these 3- and 4- year olds much like she might speak with adults--yet, in a way completely appropriate to the fact that these children were not adults at all, but, instead, 3- and 4- year old preschool children.”

Now, please do not get me wrong; taken out of context, there is a great deal more harm than good that can come about from “treating children like adults.” See Rick Wormeli’s sound advice above as but one example. No one--including me--wants our teachers to expect our students to make decisions, manage time, behave, or perform academically like mature adults; indeed, we expect great teachers to take children where they currently are and help them become all they can be as they move forward. Yet, in some ways, it seems to me that our best teachers--whether at the Pre-K or high school level--do treat their students as "mini adults" in a few critically-important ways. They do this not, of course, by demanding adult-level behavior or learning performance, but simply by not treating students in a condescending manner and, instead, speaking with them respectfully, in a way that communicates high expectations for their learning and behavior along with confidence in students’ abilities to perform to high--albeit developmentally-appropriate--levels.

When I observe masterful teachers “treating students like adults” in a positive, supportive, appropriate, and encouraging manner, I typically observe students flourishing. Five ways I see such teachers “treating students like mini adults” in this manner include the following:

  • High Expectations: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we have high expectations for all learners--and ourselves. We do not expect some students to not meet standards, nor do we put any ceiling on how far any individual student can learn and grow. Instead, we view our standards as the floor for all students, but the ceiling for none.
  • Level of Control: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we give up some of our control, and turn that over to students. Whether teaching 12th grade or 1st grade, we allow for student voice and choice and do not feel the need to be the sole arbiter of what happens, when it happens, and how it happens in our classrooms. We may observe more, but do less. When we do less, our students may do more and when we do less and students do more, everyone enjoys learning more as a result.
  • Respectful Dialogue: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we do not speak in condescending tones nor do we speak to them as if they were babies, even at the very youngest grade levels. Instead, we speak to them with clarity, precision, and using age-appropriate language but not selling them short in terms of what they can understand. Our tone is friendly, warm, and energetic, but it also communicates seriousness about the work that lies ahead and the importance of doing it well.
  • Approach to Failure: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we acknowledge that a certain amount of failure is not only inevitable and to be expected, but also a productive part of the learning process. We encourage risk taking and try to normalize errors--with the understanding that we reflect on our failures and grow from these.
  • Accountability: When we treat students like adults (in an appropriate and productive way), we also hold them accountable to established group norms, work standards, and patterns of behavior. Although we know that no student in any class will meet these standards of performance 100% of the time, we remind them of our expectations in these areas and hold them (and ourselves) accountable when we fall short. 
Many years ago, when I moved from teaching 1st grade to teaching 4th grade, I was amazed at how much more “adult-like” my students were. The same thing happened when I moved from 4th to 8th grade, and once more when I moved from teaching middle school to high school. At each stage, my students were just a bit more adult-like, in terms of appearance, academic capabilities, socialization, and independence. At the same time, some things about these widely-varying young people did not change, including the overarching way I treated these students and the way they responded to my treatment of them. When I expressed a bit of nervousness about teaching 8th grade after only having taught elementary students, the principal who was interviewing me said, “Don’t worry; what made you great as a 1st grade teacher is what will make you great as an 8th grade teacher. You will do the same things but on a different level.” In time, I learned that she was absolutely correct. My 1st grade classroom was an environment in which the teacher and all students worked hard, had fun, and were nice to each other every day. That recipe stayed the same when I moved to teaching 8th grade and then high school. The depth and breadth of our learning experiences varied significantly, but the way we treated each other remained largely similar.

We would no sooner expect adult-level competence
from our students any more than we would turn over the car keys to our 3rd grader, so I am wary when I suggest we treat our kids like adults in our classrooms. At the same time, our very best teachers manage to do this appropriately in several critical ways without losing sight of what the developmentally-appropriate activities and expectations are at each step along the journey to adulthood. Treating our students with the respect and dignity we offer our adult colleagues is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Cultures of Excellence

“ Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. ”  from the NfX Company Culture Manual “Culture”...