Is age appropriateness appropriate?

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Antony Morris questions age appropriateness.

In special education and other services for individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) you will often come across a concept known as age appropriateness. While it is an idea that can work several ways, it is typically invoked when a professional deems that an individual is too old for a certain theme. For example, it might be considered inappropriate for a 15-year-old pupil to play with a Peppa Pig toy. This article argues why this form of age appropriateness is a concept born out of past failures and professionals, for the most part, should not be applying it.

In 2013, when I began in special education, the school I worked in had several teachers and support staff who, it is reasonable to note, were from a different generation, professionally speaking. Some of these colleagues, while very experienced and good at their jobs, were proponents of age appropriateness. Common examples of their use of this in practice might include a secondary teacher prohibiting their pupils from accessing nursery rhymes or resources that are typically aimed at children in lower age groups. While these examples seem fairly innocuous, it is a concept that relies on an individual enforcing their own perceived social norms onto another person, often to the detriment of learning opportunities and further development. 

Before expounding on the benefits of discarding this form of age appropriateness, let us explore some of the context surrounding this concept. 

It is important to note, while I am arguing that it is inappropriate for professionals to decide that an individual with ID is too old for something, there are a couple of caveats. Firstly, I take zero issue with introducing newer themes to an individual. It only becomes an issue when the newer themes are enforced contrary to the person’s preference. For example, refusing to read certain books or view certain programs because they are aimed at a younger audience. A second caveat is parents and their wishes. While this is not a concern of most, it is understandable that due to environmental factors, often social and cultural, some families may state a preference for themes and activities their child partakes in to be representative of their typical biological age group. It is important to understand that such requests may be born out of a sense of social stigma, and that while the pupil’s development is paramount, the wellbeing of their family unit is intrinsic to their health. Therefore, adapting appropriate activities to reflect themes considered relevant to an individual’s mainstream biological age group may be necessary. 

Some who used this style of age appropriateness retired, while others kept up with the times. Overall, I am proud to say that during my time working in what was a progressive special school the enforcing of this highly flawed concept was not a priority. On the frontline in classrooms, staff matched what is the prevailing zeitgeist; they cared more about what was developmentally appropriate to each individual and, just as importantly, what was meaningful to them. 

Outside of parental concerns, any justifications for using such a stigma enforcing, education limiting concept often come down to vague comments about ‘society’, ‘dignity’ and ‘how it looks’. But luckily, it is 2021 and we have a much more tolerant society, that, as a whole, does not care if a pupil in secondary education likes CBeebies.

Historical Context

As I alluded to in the introduction, this form of age appropriateness is the result of past failures. Firstly, centuries of considering and treating those with intellectual disabilities as second-class citizens and worse, but more poignantly as uneducable. It was not until the 1970 Education Act that people with disabilities were granted the rights to an education (Legislation.gov.uk, 1970), and with that came a slew of ideas and approaches. One philosophy that gained traction and influenced education during the Seventies and Eighties was known as Normalisation. Made popular by Wolf Wolfensberger, and sounding like something out of a George Orwell novel, this philosophy promoted the notion that disabled people should be taught to be ‘normal’ (Culham & Nind, 2003). Whatever that means. Probably to ‘act their age’.

As the Nineties rolled on, medical philosophies that underpinned how we treat disabilities shifted away from trying to change individuals to fit social norms. Instead, a new person-centred social model emerged, one that placed an emphasis on minimising environmental barriers that were debilitating for people with disabilities (Haegele & Hodge, 2016). This included concerted efforts to raise public awareness and has resulted in a society that has been increasingly understanding and accommodating to disabilities over the last two decades (Oliver, 2013). Although, we still have some way to go. Nevertheless, while Normalisation is a thing of the past there are still some lingering relics, namely age appropriateness. 

There is a strong case to say that society really does not care if an individual, particularly one with intellectual disabilities has interests that are typically aimed at a lower age range. So, anybody in a professional capacity justifying age appropriateness with ‘how it looks to society’ arguments in 2021, is only contributing to a social stigma that has in a large part gone. In addition to this, enforcing such a relic in an educational setting is almost certainly going to reduce learning opportunities. 

This brings us nicely to the elephant in the room – at least for me personally.

Developmental appropriateness 

In any modern educational establishment, for people with intellectual disabilities, it goes without saying that pupils are not beholden to standards set by their mainstream peers. Progressive special schools utilise pupil-centred approaches that adapt all aspects of learning to be appropriate to the individual’s developmental level. Ultimately, none of the learning is ‘age appropriate’, so it would seem odd that professionals might enforce this concept on the themes that pupils might choose to engage with. 

Instead of using themes that are already meaningful to the individual as an entrance point to learning, age appropriateness would provide a less familiar and potentially less engaging alternative. Why inflict this concept on ourselves? Especially when it cannot be sustained stringently by anybody. For instance, no professional would withhold a children’s toy from a secondary student with intellectual difficulties if there might be concerning consequences. Additionally, baby and toddler toys are regularly used in special school classrooms at all ages because they are often the most appropriate for specific areas of physical and cognitive development. 

So, given that the vast majority of pupil’s work won’t be ‘age appropriate’ and that learning is more important than enforcing our own, highly subjective, social norms, do some practitioners still use this concept?

I would like to end on what is, for me at least, the other elephant in the room. In a time when it is more acceptable than ever for adults to wear Disney clothes or to collect children’s toys, can you really imagine imposing this form of age appropriateness on any other group of people in society? No, certainly not! So why would we continue to do it to those with intellectual disabilities? So, professionals, if you are guilty of this, it is probably time to stop perpetuating social stigmas that have mostly gone from British society. While there are certainly educational benefits to discarding this concept, the question of age appropriateness really is one of choice, autonomy and accepting people for who they are. 

References

Culham, A., & Nind, M. (2003). Deconstructing normalisation: clearing the way for inclusion. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 28(1), 65–78. https://doi.org/10.1080/1366825031000086902

Haegele, J. A., & Hodge, S. (2016). Disability Discourse: Overview and Critiques of the Medical and Social Models. Quest, 68(2), 193–206. https://doi.org/10.1080/00336297.2016.1143849

Legislation.gov.uk. (1970). Education (Handicapped Children) Act 1970. Legislation. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1970/52/enacted

Oliver, M. (2013). The social model of disability: thirty years on. Disability & Society, 28(7), 1024–1026. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2013.818773

Wolf Wolfensberger, Bengt Nirje, Olshansky, S., Perske, R., & Roos, P. (1986). The principle of normalization in human services. National Institute On Mental Retardation.

Antony Morris
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Former Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA) and Special School Governor, currently studying to become an Occupational Therapist.

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