By Yanet Mengistie
The term adultification has been used in academic settings to explain what is occuring to Black children in schools. While many believe school is a place of safety and learning, for Black children this can prove to be the opposite. Adultification explains that Black children are not permitted to make any of the mistakes other non-Black children are allowed to make, and are robbed of any sense of childhood innocence. Among Black girls and Black boys, adultification displays itself differently. In both cases, adultification has damaging long-term consequences.
What is adultification?
Adultification is the practice of treating children, especially children of Afro-Caribbean or Indigenous descent as one would treat an adult or more mature individual. This is a form of prejudice in which Black children are treated differently from non-Black children. Teachers and school faculty view Black children as less “innocent and more adult-like.” Adultification results in Black children being treated as if their actions are intentionally malicious or spiteful, as opposed to them simply making mistakes due to their age. Black children are treated as if they have the minds of adults. For example, if a Black child misplaces an item or toy, it is deemed as purposefully hidden. Losing track of the time during recess break and coming in late is perceived as intentionally wasting the teacher’s time. Asking multiple questions is seen as deliberately taking up class time. The underlying occurrence here is that Black children are having their actions viewed as nefarious as opposed to a result of them simply being children.
With Black boys, adultification results in greater punishments severely compared to non-Black boys. In the United States, the over-representation of Black youth in juvenile facilities is alarming. The Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization that advocates for “effective and humane responses to crime” revealed that “Black youth are more than four times as likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities as their white peers.” Adultification causes Black boys to be treated as inherently malicious which translates to them facing harsher penalties and pushed into institutions that punish them, such as juvenile detention centres.
Adultification in Toronto
In Toronto, the adultification of Black boys is represented through the high numbers of expulsions. This began when Minister of Education Janet Ecker created the Code of Conduct and set a zero-tolerance policy of what it deemed as inappropriate behaviour, making expulsions and suspensions mandatory for violations of the code. This policy promotes racism as it leaves room for educators or school officials to decide when a student is breaking the rules. This decision is influenced by the adultification bias of the school official. If the official views the child or youth as more “adult”, the official can deem the student as a threat and will be more likely to expel or suspend the student. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) found that these zero-tolerance policies have a “disproportionate impact on racial minority students,” finding that Black boys represent a large number of expulsion hearings.
One of the main outcomes of adultification is that Black boys are viewed as dangerous due to school officials misconstruing their actions as malicious due to their race.
School to prison pipeline
Students who are expelled from school are more likely to drop out of school entirely and as a result, will spend the time they should be in school becoming entangled in criminal activity. This can increase unfavorable contact with police and lead to imprisonment. So, despite adultification occurring within a school setting, its impacts extend outside of schools. Having a criminal record interferes with one’s ability to become employed, as many employers will not hire anyone with a criminal record. As a result, adultification can lead to Black men struggling with finding jobs as they get older, so they are systematically punished multiple times for mistakes they made as a child or youth. The long-term livelihood of Black men is directly affected by how they were treated in schools.
Toronto’s Africentric Alternative School
Toronto’s Africentric Alternative School aims to put an end to adultification for students in kindergarten to grade eight. The school still uses traditional assessments such as the EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) and overall emphasizes wanting “high levels of academic achievement” for its students. The difference is, the school focuses on building a positive sense of Black identity through applying Nguzo Saba principles, a few of which are:
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
To build and maintain our community together, and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems to solve them together.
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
Practices like these aid in undoing adultification as they do not focus on undermining the success of Black students or making racist assumptions. Instead, the school pushes students to be their best academically in a supportive environment.
Ending adultification starts with acknowledging its existence and how it impacts Black children. Although many studies have been conducted and authorities such as the OHRC have declared the disparities between Black and non-Black students, there is still more work to be done. Optimistically, this research can be used to influence policies and stakeholders to take the right steps to create positive change in the lives of Black children by creating an equitable system for Black children.