“We treat everybody the same.”

It was an innocuous comment really.  Assuredly said with the best of intentions.

So why did it get under my skin?

Let me make a few things clear before I begin to blur the common definition of fairness.  I do think children need consistency and that they do rise to our (appropriate) expectations.  That said, however, I don’t believe that “fair” means everyone gets the same thing.  To me, “fair” means everybody gets what they need.

It’s certainly easier to work with absolutes.  And it’s certainly a challenge to ascertain individual needs and address them appropriately.  There’s plenty of room for error.  But there’s also a better chance that you can effectively get to the heart of a child when you see them as that.  A child.  Each one.  Not a cluster of children, but an individual.

Perhaps my personal philosophies regarding the whole child, the individual learner, implementing developmentally appropriate practices, and working within the zone of proximal development are to blame. 

Maybe it’s years of experiences working with children seeing their uniqueness and trying to meet individual needs. 

When I taught first grade, for example, I had two or three children in particular who struggled more than your average first-grader when it came to sitting at the rug.  A one-size-fits-all philosophy would suggest that anyone who can’t sit at the rug like everyone else earns the consequence of sitting with their head down at their seat, spends some extra time inside during recess, or takes a time out.

“We treat everybody the same” seems to suggest that you either sit at the rug like everybody else or you receive a negative consequence.  But I saw it differently.  These kids weren’t like everybody else.  The task of sitting knee to knee with their friends on the rug was particularly challenging for various personal reasons.  Why would I treat everybody the same when they weren’t?

Our solution?  Whenever these children came to the rug, they could choose to sit in their chair at the rug (near the back so it wouldn’t get in the way).  Sometimes they chose to sit on the rug “like everybody else”.  Sometimes that worked.  Sometimes it didn’t, and all I had to do was ask if it would be easier to bring over a chair.  They either worked harder at this challenging task and succeeded or they used appropriate accommodations to help them succeed.

Perhaps the most ingrained experience I’ve had with “treating everybody the same” was when I worked as an alternative language aid for new immigrants in an elementary school.  It was a position I enjoyed, but toward the end of the year, it was my job to administer the standardized tests to some of the students I had worked with.  Some had been in this country for only a few months, and yet, because we had to “treat everybody the same” I was not allowed to give directions to them in their own language. 

It killed me to look at these bright children looking blankly at these papers.  They were bright kids.  But we couldn’t treat them any differently.  That wouldn’t be “fair”.  “We treat everybody the same.”

The truth of the matter is no one treats everybody the same.  And no one should.  We don’t expect children in wheelchairs to climb the front stairs, we don’t ask children who are blind to read from the same books as the rest of the class, and we don’t insist that deaf children take oral exams.

We’ve learned to recognize the special needs of children and try to meet them where they are and lift them higher.  But doesn’t everyone have a special need?  Some are less obvious and may take great effort to discern, but it’s the same reasoning I use for all children.

Some children need more personal space, others need more social scaffolding.  Some struggle with anxiety, others with impulsivity.  Some need more attention, others need more privacy.  We owe it to the children we love and teach to know them well enough to find their special needs and give them the support they need.  Even if that means treating them differently.

Fair doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing.  It means everyone gets what they need.

How do you balance the concept of fairness with individual needs?

Photo source.



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