The following, by Lois Holzman, originally appeared in Special Children, July 1997, as “Developmental Stage.”
Which picture comes to mind when you hear the phrase “stages of life”? A stepladder or a theatre? If you’re like most people, it’s probably the former or some other step-like image. After all, from the late and great experts on human nature—Freud, Piaget and Erikson—to their lesser known contemporaries, researchers have told us that the human life process is best understood as a series of progressively “higher” stages that people pass through.
I prefer the theatre image and here’s why. I believe that we human beings create our development—it’s not something that happens to us. And how we create it is by creating stages on which we can perform our growth. So, to me, developmental stages are like performance spaces that we can set up anywhere—at home, school, the workplace, all over. I’m going to tell you about some of the developmental stages I’ve helped to create. Try to “perform” reading them as rehearsals for creating your own stages with the children with whom you work.
But first, a theoretical word or two about environment. This term is typically understood as a place, location, background or context in which things happen. In child development studies, for example, claims are made that certain environmental factors accelerate and others retard the “normal” process of development. Homes filled with books supposedly foster early literacy development. Growing up in an abusive environment is said to be a good predictor of whether a child will be overly aggressive or violent. Recent studies have found that talking a lot to infants is critical for later enriched cognitive development. This understanding of environment goes along with the view that development happens to us.
You won’t be surprised that I have a different understanding of environment—it’s not something we find ourselves in that impacts on our development, but a life space (or stage) that people create together. More an activity than a context, environment is created, shaped and reshaped as an inseparable part of people developing.
Research suggests that most abuse has to do with people feeling they have no choice. In my own research, elementary school children tell us that “something came over them” or “they had no control” or “no choice” when they hit another child. Merely telling a child that he can do other things, even suggesting some to him, might stop the behavior for awhile – or it might not. What I advocate and what I have seen work is supporting children to create options. One of the things I try to share with parents and teachers in as many ways as I can is how important it is to help children create new options for how to act and think. If we want them to become good choice or decision makers, then they have to have a lot of practice in making choices and decisions.
Here’s where creating developmental stages comes in. The following example (taken from, Schools for Growth: Radical Alternatives to Traditional Educational Models, Erlbaum) relates an incident that occurred at the Barbara Taylor School in Brooklyn, NY, a laboratory primary school that was one of our developmental stages.
Justin (age 11) was lying still on the rug, surrounded by several children and an adult kneeling beside him peering at his bare stomach (his shirt had been hiked up to his neck). Len, the adult learning director, was holding a roll of paper upright above Justin’s belly button. Caught by the scene and the children’s rapt attention, I asked what was happening. “We’re performing an operation,” they told me, “the surgical removal of immaturity.”
Later that day, Justin and Len performed a commercial break during a circus scene created by Alice (age 8) and Julia, another learning director. Len and Justin entered the stage walking. Len said, “Justin, you won’t be going to your speech therapist today.” Justin stopped in his tracks, yelled, cried and fell to the ground in a screaming temper tantrum. Len looked up at the audience for a moment, took some wads of paper out of the manila envelope he was holding and said, while he arched them toward Justin’s mouth, “The miracle cure – ‘Matchore Partz’ [Mature Parts].” Justin “swallowed the pills.” He stood up and he and Len began the scene again. Len: “Justin, you won’t be going to your speech therapist today.” Justin looked up at him and calmly said, “Oh well, I guess I’ll go home then.” The audience applauded.
Diagnosed as learning disabled, Justin had attended special education schools until he entered the Barbara Taylor School (about three months prior to this incident). His parents were concerned that he had “reached a plateau,” as they had heard often happens with children like Justin, and that he just wasn’t developing any longer. Justin had a long history of temper tantrums, which the staff and students at the Barbara Taylor School had been working very hard—with Justin—to change.
Justin is a performer. We all are. Performing is how we learn and develop. The renowned Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky told us that way back in the 1920’s. It is through performing—doing what is beyond us (if only for that moment)—that when we are very young we learn to do the varied things we don’t know how to do. Vygotsky vividly described how babies transform from babblers to speakers of a language through performing. When they are creatively imitating others, they are simultaneously performing (becoming) themselves. Performing is a way of taking “who we are” and creating something new—in this case, a new speaker—through incorporating “the other.”
But what happens, as we perform our way into cultural and societal adaptation, is that we also perform our way out of continuous development. A lot of what we have learned (through performing) becomes routinized and rigidified into behavior. We become so skilled at acting out roles that we no longer keep creating new performances of ourselves. We develop an identity as “this kind of person”—someone who does certain things and feels certain ways. Anything other than that, most of us think, would not be “true” to “who we are.”
Justin’s emotional development was at a standstill; he repeatedly did what he knew how to do—have a tantrum. Like most of us, he was unaware that this particular emotional response to frustration, change or disappointment was (and is) constructed by himself and others. It did not (perhaps would not and could not, for whatever reasons) occur to him that there are an infinity of things one can do or say upon hearing that the plans have changed.
Creating an environment for Justin to perform – both his tantrum and something other than a tantrum—can reinitiate his emotional and social growth. Participating in creating the stage and performing on it, Justin goes beyond himself, creates other responses, experiences being other than who he is, develops. Performing challenges the widely-held belief that our actions follow from how we feel. (When it comes to ourselves and those we know we forget that if this were really the case, there could be no such thing as theatre or other cultural entertainment. Depressed actors would act depressed on stage regardless of the play in which they were performing.) Creating the stage and creating the performance changes Justin’s location and relationship to his so-called emotional state, helping him to create, with others, new emotional forms of life. It creates a changed environment (which is inseparable from him and others). The difference between Justin performing his temper tantrum and his typical behavior of having a temper tantrum is the difference between developing and not developing.
Another program colleagues and I have implemented is Pregnant Productions, an after-school project designed to deal with teen pregnancy in a developmental way. The very first time the program was tested, a social worker and performance artist trained in our approach went out into one of the poorest and most devastated inner-city communities in New York City with a flier announcing the program, recruiting pre-teen and teenage boys and girls (all “at risk” young people). Pregnant Productions was to be a production company, which the young people build—creating stories and skits out of their lives, producing fliers to invite the community to public shows, rehearsing and putting on the shows. Six weeks later, 500 people—neighbors, parents and other family members, most of whom had not set foot in the school for yearscame to their first show in the school’s auditorium.
In working together, these young people are constantly involved in activities that are fraught with decision-making and opportunities to create new options—to participate or not, to make fun of someone or not, to take risks to talk openly about sex or not, to take responsibility for entertaining others, to create a song or draw a flier. They have the experience of creating something successful together and of building their community. Producing cultural events that address the complex social, economic and emotional issues of sex, sexuality, growing up and pregnancy, creating their own production company and performances, these teens and pre-teens learn that they can make all kinds of choices and take responsibility for them. These may or may not include whether and when to become pregnant.
Another of our projects is the All Stars Talent Show Network. In its twelfth year, the All Stars is recognized as one of America’s most effective anti-violence programs for inner-city youth. (Over 30,000 young people, ages 4-21, participated in producing and performing in over 65 auditions and shows in New York and other major US cities in 1996.) What it means to be in the All Stars is to perform—not only music, dance, and skits but everything necessary to produce talent shows, including stage managing, audience building, running sound systems, and handling security. Together, and with a small number of trained adults, young people take full responsibility for what they produce and how they produce it.
In building their own cultural organization—many, many developmental stages—rather than simply appearing on stage in talent shows run by others, members of the All Stars create their own emotional, social and cultural development. Since 1995 they have produced the annual Phat Friends Awards honoring adults in government, education, entertainment and other fields whose work supports the development of young people. In 1994, I traveled to Moscow with the producer and three young people from the All Stars to present a symposium, “Developing in a Violent World,” at an international conference of Vygotsky scholars (where, upon request from the psychologists and unplanned for, they successfully organized and ran a talent show). The All Stars supports young people to be other than who they are in a culture in which they are typically overidentified with destructive behavior, defined by others as having nothing to give, and in which all too many of them adopt the appropriate identity and act out the expected roles. But participating in the All Stars requires that they perform as builders and givers. In doing so, they discover that they can do so. In this process, they create new options for who and how they want to be—given the often terrible objective conditions of their lives, which include abusive behavior and violence as rigidified rules and roles. The All Stars is not focused on stopping violence; it’s focused on creating development. It’s not designed to teach young people about the impact of violence; it’s designed to teach them to create their development. Why? The best way I can put it is in the words of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (he was talking to philosophers, but no matter): “What is your disease? You ask this question again and again.—How can one make you stop doing this? By drawing your attention to something else.” Developing—creating stages for life—is that something else.