How Adultism Happens in Schools

On the 20th anniversary of SoundOut.org, I want to acknowledge that after all this time with teachers, building leaders, counselors, support staff and other adults in K-12 schools across the nation, there’s a reality that few people are willing to face: Adultism in schools is rampant and deeply affecting education in many ways. This article explains how adultism happens in schools.

Adultism is the bias towards adults which often results in discrimination against students. Bias towards adults means that the ideas, opinions, actions and outcomes of adults are more valued than those of students. Students experience adultism in every grade level, each subject, all activities, and almost every outcome of schools. Whether its apparent in the ways adults talk to students, in how buildings are designed, in what types of assessments are delivered, or in who graduates from school, adultism is present throughout the entire education system. However, in order to address it we have to understand how it happens.

Through my research and practice focused on adultism, I have found that it happens in three primary ways in schools:

  1. Personal Adultism: The attitudes, opinions, beliefs and actions every person takes that show bias towards adults.
  2. Cultural Adultism: The shared beliefs, joint actions, and common traditions within a classroom, school and community that demonstrate, reflect, uplift, or ensure bias towards adults.
  3. Structural Adultism: The formal and informal systems, processes, organization, and outcomes of schools that ensure, reinforce, sustain, or transfer bias towards adults.
Affton, Missouri teachers in an adultism workshop with Adam F.C. Fletcher of SoundOut.org
Teachers in Affton, Missouri in an adultism workshop with Adam F.C. Fletcher of SoundOut.org

These three ways are present in every school, pre-K through 12th grade, as well as school districts, state education agencies, and the federal government. Within these broad categorizations, there are many specific ways adultism are demonstrated in schools. In the last few days I’ve talked with more than 50 educators in the Affton School District outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Dissecting this issue, they share some of the ways they express and witness adultism everyday in school. Here are some things they shared.

How Personal Adultism Happens in Schools
  • The language we speak
  • Teacher and student attitudes
  • “No interruptions!” and other arbitrary or irrelevant commands
  • Writing off new media’s usage in schools
  • Banning phone use in classes
  • Assigning unneeded homework
  • Enforcing the Queen’s English in schools
  • Apathy towards students
  • Respect (or the lack thereof) for students
  • Self care
  • “My job is to keep you safe”
  • “My job is to teach you; your job is to learn.”
How Cultural Adultism Happens in Schools
  • Adults know best
  • Behavior management expectations
  • Must create confident, capable consumers
  • Social grouping and friendships
  • Demonizing social media
  • Enforcing the “proper way” to speak to an adult
  • Assuming school is the best way to instruct all students
  • Unspoken socio-economic dress codes
  • The teacher is responsible for all the students’ needs
  • Expecting respect for “those in charge”
How Structural Adultism Happens in Schools
  • Time schedules
  • Graduation rates
  • Diplomas
  • Grading
  • Teacher-driven lesson plans
  • Testing and assessments
  • School start times
  • Career and College Readiness Plans
  • Rules
  • Procedures for classrooms, buildings and the district
  • Seating styles
  • Dress codes
  • Standardized tests
  • Standardized curriculum

Every person in schools is capable of showing, supporting, uplifting and sustaining adultism in schools, including students themselves. As the barriers to student voice show, adultism can force students to preserve their personal best interest by undermining group success.

This is a poster showing how teachers in Affton, Missouri thought adultism happens in schools from August 2022.
This is a poster showing how teachers in Affton, Missouri thought adultism happens in schools from August 2022.

How to you think adultism happens in schools? Share your thoughts, ideas and knowledge in the comments section!

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