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Friday, September 23, 2011

On being consistent and fair- or not: the stories of Hiroko and Mia

We all know that consistency is terribly important when we're working or living with children.  We all know that you can't have different sets of rules for different days, or for different kids- that's not fair.

(Er... do we?)

I mean, consistency is part of great discipline, isn't it? Your kids have to know what to expect, and they have to get that same response all the time, or they'll keep pushing buttons and testing boundaries.  And they have to believe that you're being fair, not preferring one child over another.

(Oh, really?)

Okay, I'll stop teasing; it IS true, to some extent.  I'll give you that.  But we have to apply common sense.  We have to be a little careful that by being too consistent, we're not being unfair.

(Pardon me, I hear you say??)

Let me explain that oxymoron, before you burst something vital in your grey matter.

One of my heroes and mentors through my teaching career has been Professor Miraca Gross, who is a guru of gifted education at the University of NSW. She wouldn't remember me; I was just a face in a crowd most of the time when she was giving professional development seminars, though I did corner her once or twice for personal advice.  But without her, my parenting would have been less successful (to say the least) and my teaching would have been far, far less effective.

She taught me a lot about how useless being consistent can be, as a default position.

I used to have these words of hers posted as a sign on the wall above my desk, and every time another teacher attacked me for favouritism, or inconsistency, or any of the other ills they saw in my teaching methods, I'd just quietly point to it.

This is what it said.



Think about that for a moment.

How does that definition of 'fair' help you when your children are very different from one another? For example, if one child responds best to on-the-dot routine and the other fights it all the way and needs time to daydream, did I just let you off the hook?

I sure did.  (Or rather, Professor Gross just did.) Go for it.  Give them the different rules they need.

(Just make sure you tell them why.)

If you have a child in your room who's on the autism spectrum, or a child who doesn't speak your language very well, or a child who's precociously gifted, does that mean you can have different rules for them?

You sure can.  Of course you can. It's not fair to expect a child with autism to sit placidly in group time for ten minutes.

(Explain to the group that this child is still learning a skill the rest of them already have. Talk about other skills that the main group is still learning, like taking turns or speaking up.)

If your child is super-stressed right now because your relationship has folded, or she's got exams next week, does this mean you can cut her some slack?

It sure does.

(Talk to her about her feelings.  Explain what you're doing and why.)

Consistency doesn't mean putting your kids into straitjackets and trying to make everyone march to the beat of a single drum.  Consistency is subject to reason. Being fair and being consistent are not always compatible, and they're certainly not the same thing.

Sometimes it's easier to be consistent than it is to be fair.  Take the case of Hiroko.

I met Hiroko when she had just arrived in my Year 11 music class from Japan.  She spoke very little English, but my goodness, could she play the violin!!  She was totally amazing- and very sweet, and very, very ambitious. She craved a top pass in the hardest music course in the HSC.

I had about 18 months to teach Hiroko not only the subject matter in a language she didn't understand, but also the nuances of a very academic course which was perhaps even more foreign to her than my English vocabulary.  If you've ever studied HSC Music in NSW, you'll realise that it's not just about playing an instrument- you also have to analyse music, compose music and be able to write music down by ear.  It's a killer.

If I'd been hooked on consistency, I would have done my best with her in lesson time and then closed my eyes to the fact that this just wasn't enough. I would have treated her exactly like the others in my class; they all craved my time and help out of class, but honestly, there only so many hours in a day. It would have been easy to put her in the too-hard basket and cite consistency as the reason- I couldn't give all the kids extra time, so I wouldn't give anyone extra time.

But of course, I was hooked on Professor Gross, not on consistency. Consistency wasn't fair. This playing field was so far from level that Hiroko was on a fast slide to oblivion.

So I taught her at lunchtime.  I taught her after school.  I taught her before school. (I fought my own fear of the language barrier, too, because fairness is giving everybody what they NEED.)  Somehow, we got over each hurdle as it came up.

Then, that same year but in a different grade, there was Mia; some might say she was the naughtiest girl in the school, but I'd discovered that she could sing like a nightingale.

Did she have behaviour issues? My word.  Some would have cited consistency with the school rules and put her on a million detentions (in fact many did!), but I decided that wasn't what she needed; she needed to be recognised for a real skill.

To me, what was fair was to win her trust and nurture that talent of hers until she learnt to fly on the wings of ability, not exhibitionism.  And so I spent many hours playing accompaniments for her while she sang, helping her with her technique and confidence.

I don't actually remember how I managed to fit both Hiroko's and Mia's needs into my spare time.  I can certainly remember how many times I was accused of favouritism.  But they were the two most needy students in my sphere of influence that year, and so the time I gave them was proportionate to their needs.  It was only fair.

Did I have to defend my actions to my colleagues? You bet I did, over and over.  Fortunately I had Professor Gross' words to help me.

Did other students suffer? I don't think so. They were all managing okay, or even just fine.  These two weren't.

Think about that the next time you open your mouth to impose a rule or a limit  for the sake of consistency.  Think about it before you say 'no exceptions'.

Are you being fair?

What does this child need?

How does that compare to what everyone else needs?

Can you help?

(Oh, and by the way... thanks to what I'd call a fair level of help, Hiroko and Mia both came in the top 10% of their music courses.  And that's exactly where they both belonged.  The rest of the students in their classes? Yes, they also performed to their ability.  Fairness is giving everybody what they NEED.)


  1. Annie, I love this, it's great, I really agree and take my hat off to your courage in stating that being consistent isn't the be all and end all. Have you read Thomas Gordon's Parenting Effectiveness Training or Teacher Effectiveness Training, he also explains this concet very well, as does Eleanor Reynolds (early childhood teacher) in "Guiding Young Children". I'm a parent educator (also do pd in ECE centres) and I've come to know which concepts are harder for parents to really understand and this is one of them, as well as the difference between natural consequences and enforced consequences.

    I love what you write and how you write it, you're one of my resources that I'm delighted to have to share with early childhood teachers and parents, thanks for being you and your love and advocacy for the child's needs.

  2. Thanks Genevieve. It IS a hard distinction, isn't it? And it's not just parents who don't always 'get it'- it's teachers, too.

    I'm delighted that you feel you can use what I write- that's why I'm here!


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