Interview: James Comer, M.D.

Excerpts from an interview with James Comer, M.D., Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine's Child Study Center and founder of the Yale School Development Program.

Taped August 10, 2001.

Well, learning takes place along several developmental lines that are critically important. There is the physical, the social interactive, the psycho-emotional, the ethical, linguistic, intellectual cognitive. And it is development along all of those lines that's really important. Up until recently, the school focused on the linguistic and the intellectual cognitive. But it is growth along all those developmental pathways that is important. And the social pathway is particularly important because that is the social context in which the child is learning and the social skills which enables the child to interact with other people successfully. All of that's required to promote good learning. And that is why people are now beginning to think of the social context and the social skills that children need, because you have to make that contact, contact. The child with the teacher, the child with other children to develop the comfort, the competence, and the confidence necessary to take the chances that are important for learning.

**********************************

Well, you have to be aware that children are not born knowing how to manage themselves in the world, and not think of what they do that you find unacceptable as bad, or indications that they're not very smart. We have to understand that you, the adult, are there to help them learn all the things they need to learn - how to handle themselves, how to have a conversation, how to manage disagreement, all of the things that are required to be successful in school, you should help them and not simply see their behavior as bad when they're not able to do things.

**********************************

[Reacting to the way Ken Gillam facilitated a class discussion] Yeah, he, he was doing what my parents used to do around the table, you know. They would have, have us all talk about, we were expected to talk about what went on during the day. Had differing opinions. Respect the others opinion. Listen to the other's opinion and to express ourselves and not talk too long. But if we had something to say that was particularly important, particularly interesting, you go ahead and listen, let that one talk, and then you kind of reel it back in, so that everybody doesn't just jump in, but you manage the situation so that it doesn't get out of hand, and at the same time everybody gets to express themselves. But you don't cut off prematurely things that are interesting and exciting. You don't wanna be too mechanical about it, but you want to manage it so that it doesn't get out of hand.

**********************************

Because if they knew how to do that well and could control themselves then it, it would work out so that the most aggressive children wouldn't take over, and the most timid or insecure children would be left out. That would be okay, but you also have to learn that you have to work in a way so that everybody gets to express themselves and everybody feels free to express themselves. And at the same time, everybody respects the right of the other person to have a chance to express themselves. And that's why you try and manage it so that they come to understand that everybody has to participate, and they should have an opportunity to participate.

**********************************

Well, it's important for a teacher to manage the conversation because it can get out of hand and the most aggressive children can take over, the most timid or insecure children will be left out or forced out, and various view, viewpoints will not be introduced, because a few, or one or two children may take over the conversation. And you, so you manage it so that everybody gets to participate, and all the viewpoints can be heard.

**********************************

Well, the, the social interactions in a classroom, if everybody gets to participate and everybody feels belonging, feels that they have something to contribute, motivates the desire to learn more and to learn everything. Anything that's brought out in the classroom is something that the child will want tolearn, in part because what happens in a good social climate is that the child makes an emotional attachment to the adult leader and also an emotional attachment to the other children. Now, if everybody in that classroom is engaged in learning and wants to learn, and they know that the teacher wants them to learn, and they have a positive emotional attachment to the teacher, they are then motivated to learn, and that's what helps children learn things that aren't particularly interesting or exciting to them, sometimes boring to them. They learn it because the teacher wants them to learn it, and they want tobe a part of a group that, where the group wants to be successful learners. And so it is the social context, a desirable, good, social context that motivates the children to learn anything and everything. And that's why what teachers should know is that they themselves are instruments of learning. It is not the child alone. It is the child's emotional attachment to them that encourages the child to want to learn.

**********************************

Well, the misconception about the, the social process in learning is that it doesn't exist. The problem we have as a society is that we have a very cognitive oriented society. We believe it is very mechanical that you, that you take information and you pour it into the open and willing heads of children, children willing to learn, and that that's all there is. And you will hear, I have heard teachers say that my job is to teach them, as if teaching them is simply pouring in information. And they forget the fact that all the relationships from the time the teacher walks into the class in the morning, even into the building in the morning, and smiles and interacts with the children and speaks with them about various personal things, all of that creates a climate and a tone that prepares the children and enables the children to make the attachment, that makes them want to learn. And that's what is very important.

**********************************

Well, there are ways in which, it's almost automatically integrated because of what I just said, that, that belonging in, motivates you to learn. But, and learn almost anything. But there are ways to take what's going on in the life of the child - if it's election day, if it's something very exciting that all of the adults are concerned about, like the last election where there was conflict and disagreement and so on and it's on television and people are talking about things. All of those are activities that are, you know, on the minds of children. If your spelling words, if your, your geometry, if your whole variety here, your literature and all can pick up some of the things that are current and in meaningful and important to the child at the moment because there's a lot of emotion and tension around them, you don't forget those things. The, the things we remember are the things that happen to us during emotional, emotionally important moments, and we remember those things better than anything else. And so you grab, you seize the moment in a way to, to make, make it relevant to the core curriculum. But the core curriculum can be made relevant by picking out things. For example, an African-American youngster was asked about the Missouri Compromise and he was not interested in the Missouri Compromise, but he was at the age where he was beginning to establish an identity and his father pointed out, asked him about the, the thirteen, and pointed out that the decision was based on whether the states would come in, slave or free. Now he's interested. He wants to know more about the Missouri Compromise and he wants to know more about learning in general because they picked, he picked out something that was relevant to the child, emotionally important to the child. The child in the process of establishing his own personal and racial identity is very interested in that question. Now, whenever a teacher has an opportunity to find something in the life of the child that's exciting, important, and emotionally important, then you try and tie it, and it's in the core activity, then you try and tie it in.

**********************************

Well, you know, if you keep in mind that children are born underdeveloped and that they develop along the critical pathways that I mentioned, through all the experiences that they have. Now when you look at their behaviors, whatever their behavior is, you think about whether, what's going on that shows underdevelopment or a lack of development. If a child has a fight on the playground, what is that about? Is that just a bad child? Well, sometimes the child lacks a, lacks negotiation skills. Or the child may have impulse control problems. It doesn't know how to work things out, tends to store up his feelings and then explodes. Teachers are in the position to do more than control that situation and punish the child. The teacher's in the position to explore it, help the children learn how to manage, express themselves, negotiate, discuss, work things out. So you take the activity, whatever it is, whatever comes up, and you keep thinking about how will, how can children manage this better and how can I help them manage it better. And when you have that approach in your mind, you can be helpful in all situations to help children learn to handle themselves socially and develop overall. The children themselves, once you begin to do that, begin to function different, differently. An example, last week I heard a teacher using her school program where one of the ideas, one of the concepts is no-fault. We don't point the finger of blame at anybody - the teachers, the parents, the children. We try to solve problems. And so they had a substitute teacher come into that environment who didn't know the rules and the way they worked. And she began to yell at the children and to blame. A seven-year-old stood up and said, "We don't do that in this school. We have no-fault." And the substitute teacher went to the principal, what is this no-fault business? And so the child had internalized a way of working and thinking and working out problems that he and the other children were now living by because they had been given those skills by their teachers. And that made for a better environment in the school. The outside teacher wasn't prepared. She had to be brought in on it so that she could understand it. But the more everybody understands and is thinking all the time, how do I create a condition that will help the children grow and manage themselves better? That's the social process that we want to create that leads to good social development.

**********************************

Well, the six developmental pathways is just a way of thinking about overall growth and development. You don't develop separately along those pathways. It's all happening at the same time, and development, a social kind of situation effects the cycle of emotional, the ethical, the linguistic, all, all are effected at the same time. But they're – we live in social environments, and it is usually the social situation that leads to an activity, an incident, a problem, a challenge that causes an adult to interact with the child, and the adult interacts with the child in a way that helps him or her manage that situation and grow along developmental pathways as, as a result of that. And so the, and, and you have to have some sense of where a child is to be able to deal with it. And so, I was in a meeting the other day where a legislative aide spoke with us, and he had brought his son to the meeting. Son was about eight years of age. Now he had prepared, he gave his son his business cards to hand out. First, so he had something meaningful and important to do. But that's social development also. He had his son introduce himself, and we introduced ourselves, too. Social development. He sat there for a while, and he began to get restless. The father sensed and knew - physical development - that children can't sit there that, can't sit still that long. So he asked him if he wanted to go out, and he said, "No." So he was able to sit a little longer. And then when he really got restless the father asked him again and allowed him to go out. And so it was knowledge of the social development, the importance, the skills that he taught in that little situation, the knowledge of the physical development as well, going on at the same time. But those activities and being there gave that child competence, confidence. He didn't leave him there long enough for him to have a bad experience, because that would be a loss of confidence. And so confidence and then comfort to be able to operate in that kind of setting came from the activity along those two pathways. And then the ethical pathway is really about what's right, and what's wrong, and how children think that out and figure it out as that teacher was doing in, in the video I observed. There was this discussion about slavery and whether the, the masters were right in what they were doing and wrong. And there were moral and ethical issues being discussed there. And it is important, I mean it doesn't have to be at that level. It is in the level of relationships - child to child, and child to adult, and adult to children where discussions about what is right, wrong, good, or bad can take place. But listening to the child and how they think through what's right and wrong, and what, what your options are, and what you can do, what else you can do. But helping them think through that is what's very important. In fact the seven-year-old who told the substitute we don't do that in this school was confronting and suggesting another way of behaving. So, that, that's psycho-emotional development as well. What is so very important, and we take for granted that children come to school having already managed to handle all of the impulses that they have and to have the comfort and the confidence that they can sit and take in the information that we're trying to provide. Many children have not received that, and so the teacher has to help, has to help create an environment in which children can have psycho-emotional comfort to be able to engage in the social and intellectual activities that are going on in the classroom. And so it is more than anything else, it is an awareness of what children need to function in various areas intellectually and socially, and the kind of psycho-emotional conditions and social conditions you need to make that possible and creating those. Teachers have great power. You know, you're the adult authority in a situation where all of the children are, have less power than you, and you use your power to create desirable conditions for all the children. If you favor one or another, you're creating doubt, fear, suspicion, lack of confidence - who am I? Does the teacher like me? Does she like Johnny better than me? Why? There are all kinds of things and feelings that children have that can be troublesome in a classroom because of the way the teacher behaves. And so all of the time it's a consciousness of how your behavior effects the child's feelings and the child's comfort, competence and confidence.

**********************************

You know, you know the, the, I told you about the legislative aide. That's the question he asked us when I talked about development in school. And what I told him was, is that, it is what you just did with your child. Good child development along all those pathways is no more than good child rearing. It is helping the children learn to manage themselves. And when you do that, they grow, social and interactive, psycho-emotional, ethical, linguistic, intellectual cognitive, physical. Physical also includes the development and growth of the brain. And so every interaction you have with your child helps your child grow along all of those developmental pathways simultaneously. And so rearing your child well, creating conditions where they have confidence and at the same time not allowing them to do things that will get them into great difficulty or, or have them viewed badly by other people, having them behave in ways that are fair, and just, and responsible gets them good feedback, helps them feel good about themselves. And so permissiveness is not good, either. And overcontrolling and, and punitive behavior is not good. There is focus on helping your child, rearing your child in a way so that you help them grow in all of those important areas. That's what's important.

**********************************

It's unfortunate that most teachers do not have the experience in their pre-service that allows them to understand how children grow and develop and then must be supported in their development in the school. What they really need to understand is that the child is born totally dependent, and yet at eighteen years of age we expect them to be able to do everything. Now, if that's so, that means that we have to help them grow along all the critical developmental pathways from birth and all the way through, to teach them all of the skills and ha..to have all of the growth necessary to be able to carry out adult tasks, and functions, and responsibilities, and to be successful in school and in order to be successful in life. And that, that starts at the beginning. And at the child-rearing that takes place where the parent provides the warmth and the closeness and support of the, of the child is the beginning of the kind of support necessary to promote growth and development. It doesn't stop there. When the child enters school, the child has to make an emotional attachment to the teacher, and to the other students, and to the program of the school, the activities of the school in order to be motivated to be a learner. A child has to have a sense of belonging, and that's why participation, making contribution to the activities of the classroom, all very important and that gives a child a sense of belonging. A child also has to experience fairness and to believe that the teachers care about him and, or her, and want them to be successful, and the teacher has to serve as a model. Children are watching teachers. If teachers behave in troublesome kinds of ways, the child is very likely to behave in a troublesome way and that, your use of your authority in a classroom to make it a fair, good place is what causes children to want to behave in that same way. And so the teacher has to be aware of their great power, and that they have to use it in fair and just ways in order to have good outcomes for the children, and that they are helping the children grow developmentally when they do that.

**********************************

Well, the key aspects of child development that effect learning is, is the motivation that grows out of the growth along all the developmental pathways. When a child has a good experience, you can just see them grow, with a good social experience, a good learning experience. For example, I watched a child step on the mat that opened the door at the, at the counter, just beyond the counter as his mother was checking out. The mother was busy checking out and the child started a little experimenting. He was surprised when the door opened. And so he went back, he stepped off and the door closed. And he went back and he stepped on it again, the door opened and, came back. And by that time the mother noticed that the child was carrying out this experiment. And then the mother got into it and began to talk to the child about the connection between stepping on the mat and the door opening. And it became a good learning, teaching experience and that child walked away happy with his arms swinging. He had had a good learning experience. He had something, he'd grown. He'd grown intellectually, socially. He, he, he had gained some knowledge ove..of his environment and how you manage it. Those are the things that good parents and good teachers do. And that's the benefit for the children is growth and a, a feeling of confidence and ability to manage themselves in various environments.

**********************************

No, no. It's all, it's like an oasis. When you give a child a good experience, it's like an oasis. The child really wants that. But children are very good, you see. They learn how to make it in school and how to make it at home. They know the expectations of the home and the expectations of the school. Better that they have a good and necessary experience at school than not to have one at all. But it's very important to get parents involved in the work of the school so that they themselves, without having to raise their hand and say I don't know certain things, can be involved in a way that they learn the connection between their behavior and the way they rear their children, and the ability of the children to perform in school. Now, when I shop at the grocery store, I can predict the students that are gonna do, the children who are gonna do well in school and those who are probably not gonna do well in school. It has to do with the way the parents interact with the child to give them learning experience in pre- and non-school situations and to support inquiry, and thoughtfulness, and reflectiveness, and the desire to know it, manage their environment better. When parents do that, then their children are more likely to be successful in school. But what happens is that parents who are less, well-educated or do not understand - even some who have degrees don't understand what it takes for the children to have good educational learning experiences. When parents understand that and provide those at home, then they're more likely to be successful in school. But where children don't receive it at home, the teacher really has an obligation to provide it and to try and involve parents in the work of the school, so that they can also join with the teacher in giving the children the kinds of experiences they need to be successful in school.

**********************************

You know, you know, many children gain what they need to be successful in school at home. And so, many children learn to take in information and sit, be able to sit still and take in information when it's important to do so. They learn that at home. They learn to be spontaneous and curious when it's important to do so at home. And they learn how, all of the, they have all the social skills necessary to be successful in school. Many children don't have it and so the teacher has to not see the behavior of a child who's spontaneous, and curious, and impulsive, and who doesn't know how to sit still. You don't wanna see that child as simply bad or troublesome or so on. You see that child as underdeveloped. You understand him or her as underdeveloped. And so, you help them learn what is appropriate, and how to express themselves, and when to wait and you give them all that they need to be successful. It's that simple to think about it in that way. It is, "What is it the child needs to be successful?" and to explain and to help them, rather than to control and punish for not doing what they've never been taught to do, and for not doing what they've never been helped to do. There's another thing about children that you have to remember. They need practice doing things. My favorite story is of the teacher who told Johnny not to run down the hall, and the teacher after several times, Johnny was running down the hall. Finally, he was doing better, but finally he was running down the hall again and the teacher said, "Johnny, didn't I tell you not to run down the hall?" And Johnny said, "Oops, Mrs. Jones, my head remembered, but my feet forgot." And that's a child, you know, children have energy. They're thinking about lots of things, they're doing lots of things. They are not well-disciplined yet, and you have to help them. And you have to help them by repeatedly calling upon them to respond in a certain way and understanding, and sometime you're gonna get frustrated, but understanding, and having them understand that you got frustrated, but you really expect them to respond in this way, and you just have to keep doing it over and over until they develop the capacity and don't understand it as simply not wanting to do it, being troublesome, trying to give you a bad time. They don't have the capacity. And so you have to help them develop the capacity to manage in desirable ways. You also have to look at the way you expect things to be done, because maybe your classroom is to rigid, too tight, is unreasonable. What you're asking may be unreasonable. And so you have to look at what you're doing in asking of the child, and you also have to ask the child to live up to the expectations of the school in the classroom.

**********************************

Well they bring, in a cultural context, children come, you know, with their holidays, with their food, with the songs from their culture, music, their style, their ways. And all of it can enrich an environment if we respect the differences that children bring. You know, the school represents a mainstream culture, and children from all backgrounds have differences and activities and ways at home that may be different from the school. You have to honor those and at the same time if they're truly unacceptable you have to call on them to, to behalf differently. And now that's also where you involve the parents and why it's important to have the parents involved. Because if there are cultural ways that are unacceptable and will get the child into trouble in the mainstream environment, then you and the parents will have to have a discussion about why you want things done a certain way and expect certain behaviors in the classroom because of what it permits in the way of school, the classroom, people in the classroom living together and what the child will need to be successful in the larger world. And they can maintain those cultural ways outside of the classroom and in, at home and in their own environment. But you rarely run into that. Most of all, it is the richness and the fullness of cultures brought together that makes a school an exciting place.

**********************************

I, I, when we have our training, I always ask teachers, veteran teachers, how many of you had a child development course? Ninety percent had child development courses. And then I say, "How many of you had an applied, hands-on, in-practice child development course?" And out of 200 people, three to five will have had that kind of course, where there was a discussion about what a fight on the playground might mean other than a child being bad, and where a supervisor or someone could help them think about that behavior and help them think how to help the child, use that to help the children grow. My point is, I want all teachers to think development and to realize that you are in a social setting, a social context that allows, as a school that allows you, it gives you great power and authority at a time when the children are very dependent. It allows you to help them grow along those developmental pathways in a way that few other people in the lifetime of the child will have. So that you are very, very important in helping children develop very early patterns and skills that will serve them for a lifetime. And if you ignore or pass up that opportunity or simply…and control the children when you could be helping them grow along the developmental pathways, then you haven't served them well. Now, what does that have to do with academic learning? As I pointed out, it has everything to do with academic learning. It is confidence and competence, and that allows the child to have comfort that motivates them to learn the academic material. And when they're motivated they will learn anything, because Mrs. Jones wants me to learn. My teacher wants me to learn. And I'm important to my teacher. And so understanding that, you are really an instrument of learning, and that you can help the child grow all, all the developmental pathways and that growth along all the developmental pathways is what makes academic learning most possible. If you can think that, then you will find all kinds of opportunities to help children grow, and develop, and learn, both what it takes to be successful in school and as adult, and to get the academic material they need to be successful as adults.

**********************************

Children are taught how to manage themselves at home by parents and others in the neighborhood, and they learn from people in their environment. And sometimes they're taught to fight rather than to cooperate, collaborate, work things out, negotiate. Sometimes children are told that if you don't fight when Johnny bullies you, you will get another beating at home. Or, children may be taught to cheat, lie, steal. Sometimes not directly, but because they observe their parents doing it, or they deserve other people doing it, or they see it on television. And so they bring all of what they have learned to school with them. But they're not expected to do that in school. They're expected to perform differently in school. It is up to the teacher to understand that wherever that undesirable behavior came from, you're not dealing with a bad child, you're dealing with troublesome behavior that a child has learned that a child must learn another way of behaving, and that you have to help them learn that the troublesome behavior is unacceptable and will get him into trouble in school, in the classroom, with other people, and that here's a better way of doing it, or to think about with the child a better way of doing it, because they also know better ways. And you call up on them to think about ways that will be more helpful to them, more helpful to the people around them, more helpful to the school as a community. Again, that's why it's important to try and get the parents involved, because the parents need to hear that discussion and be a part of supporting the more desirable, successful ways. It's also important for parents to understand that a child can learn to be courteous, responsible, a nice boy, in school and still be a rugged, tough kid who can take care of himself on the playground, in the housing project or in a variety of other places. The children are very good in understanding the behavior that is required here as opposed to there.

**********************************

Many children, particularly those from mainstream backgrounds where their families participate in the mainstream, come with experiences almost from birth that prepare them to be successful in school. They know how to get along with other children. They know how to sit and take in information when it's important to do so and to be spontaneous and curious when they're engaged in activities. And, and they are curious and interested and they know how to handle themselves. And it needs to be reinforced in school, but they come with those experiences. Other children do not come with that kind of preparation. And sometimes children, even from mainstream backgrounds simply because they're an only child, or parents working, or a whole variety of circumstances do not have what it takes to be successful. But many children, particularly mainstream backgrounds, come with all of the social interactional skills necessary to be successful. Also if they've had good psycho-emotional experiences they come with a kind of comfort and confidence and belief in themselves that allows them to be successful, whereas many other children do not come with that, and you have to provide it in the school setting so that they can develop that type of comfort.

**********************************

Well, culture, most cultures provide a sense of belonging, activities that give you traditions and rituals that give you a sense of comfort and belief in yourself, belief in your group, and provide you with what is really necessary to be able to function well. Unless your culture is marginalized or under economic and social stress so that you're not dealing with culture anymore, you're dealing with the effects of economic and social stress. Your culture…so that your culture becomes destructive, and harmful, and is not a source of support and pride. But whatever the circumstances, in school you can create comfort, support, belonging, opportunity to participate that will give children the kinds of experiences that allow them to be successful.

**********************************

 
close window