Being “Fair” To Students

“Not fair” is a cry most teachers and parents hear regularly. What is “fair,” do you even have to be fair–and if so, how can you be? Below are some suggestions on the concept of fairness:

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As this poster suggests, the first step to students perceiving that they are being treated fairly is for them to change the way they view fairness. lists the definition for fairness to include being considerate of others. Depending on how young the students or children are, this can be nearly impossible; studies suggest that children aren’t able to see another’s point of view until around age five, but that doesn’t mean that once they turn five, they suddenly can be fair. It still takes coaching and an understanding adult to help teach the concept.

The University of Illinois did a study wherein they determined that children can understand a difference in treatment if given a reason. Simply saying “because I said so” is insufficient for extracting the desired behavior in most cases, and creates resentment. All people, including children, want to be able to choose their actions and have a sense of control. This can be hard to achieve in the classroom, because maintaining order requires that some individuals don’t get to do what they want for the benefit of the whole. So where’s the balance?

According to Dr. Richard Curwin, fair does not mean treating everyone the same. No two people are the same, and treating every student the same is akin to mass producing future citizens in a manner where the disadvantaged students are left to find their own way or fail. Dr. Curwin has a great article listing 7 steps for classroom fairness, read that here.

Being fair doesn’t mean treating everyone the same, but it does mean that teachers must try to avoid favoritism. Some suggestions from the National Education Association are things like calling on students based upon drawing their name.

“It really put a stop to the ‘You never pick me’ comments,” a Las Vegas educator wrote.

As far as the reasons behind being fair, it mostly concerns giving each student the opportunity to succeed in the way that is relatively easy, yet challenging. Anyone who has not been treated fairly knows that fairness is simply the right thing to do.

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Sources: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Featured Image Credit: Deathtothestockphoto

4 Replies to “Being “Fair” To Students”

  1. I’m high-functioning Autistic (Asperger Syndrome), and I struggled with understanding that definition of fairness even in high school. Most middle school/Jr. High and high school kids realize that the definition of fairness the adults and older kids in their lives used when they were younger (usually “everyone gets the same”) isn’t always accurate. They have realized that fairness really means each person gets what s/he needs, rather than using the exact same tactics with everyone.

    The truth is that not everything is always fair, but young children (like preschool and elementary school), might not understand that in the way adults and older kids do. But here are some things you can try saying to a younger child:

    “Fairness means being nice to everyone, but it does not mean treating everyone exactly the same.”

    “Fair doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing, but it does mean making sure everyone feels included.”

    If you need to explain that something is not fair, make sure to give a reason why it’s not fair (other than just because it’s not the same). Say, for example, “it’s not fair that you took three cookies and you only left one for Alex. And it’s not fair because now Alex feels left out.” Or, “it’s not fair that you get more time on the computer than Jordan does. And it’s not fair because it’s not nice.”

    Young children and people with pragmatic language difficulties tend to understand things very literally. So using more specific explanations of the rules might be beneficial to them and people around them, as this might help reduce the number or severity of tantrums, and confrontations, just because the person with pragmatic language difficulties thought someone was being unfair (or breaking another perceived rule). If someone is being treated differently, and you just say that the other people’s actions aren’t fair (even if you add that it’s because it’s not the same), then a person on the Autism Spectrum might understand that fairness means treating everyone exactly the same. If you explain that the other people’s actions are not fair because they’re not being nice, or because the other person feels left out, then a person on the Autism Spectrum might understand that fairness means being nice to everyone and helping to make sure everyone feels included, but it doesn’t always mean treating everyone exactly the same.

    1. Thank you, Leanne! I absolutely agree! Thank you for sharing your perspective–I especially love the point of helping everyone feel included, and to understand the rationale.
      Mary Wade
      HGU Website Content Manager

  2. Another thing you can do is explain the difference between fair and equal. Here are some examples of ways you can word it:

    “Equal means everyone takes exactly 2 cookies. Fair means everyone is only allowed 2 cookies, but it’s ok to take less than 2.”

    “Fair means everyone is happy with the presents they get on their birthday. Equal means everyone gets the same number of presents on their birthday.”

    “Equal means everyone has the same rules and the same consequences. Fair means everyone has the same rules but different consequences.”

    The reason I suggest this is because I have Asperger Syndrome (now called High-Functioning Autism or social communication disorder), so I have difficulty understanding what people say vs what they actually mean. For example, when my parents said stuff like, “Leanne, it’s not fair that you get 3 cookies, and your brother only gets 1,” I thought that to be fair, everyone should get the exact same number of cookies. If an adult or older kid explained that something wasn’t fair because it wasn’t equal, it would lead me to think that things are supposed to be fair, and fair means everyone gets treated exactly the same.

    If you explain the difference between fair and equal, your kids might just enjoy the birthday presents they get rather than thinking, “that’s not fair! Alex got more gifts than I did!” Your older children might only focus on the consequences they get rather than thinking, “that’s not fair! Jordan is getting off soooo easy for that! I would have been reprimanded if I pulled the same crap (or even smaller stuff) at that age (or even younger)!” Your younger children might be more focused on the freedoms they have rather than thinking, “that’s not fair! Alex was allowed to go to the mall without an adult when s/he was my age! Now I have to get an adult to go with me, even if I’m going with my friends?!”

    Another thing you can do is remember that young children and people with pragmatic language difficulties tend to take what other people say literally. We don’t generalize well. To us something is either always right or always wrong. Either it’s always this way or it’s always that way, with nothing (or almost nothing) in the middle. To us, always really means, “it’s always this no matter what,” and never means, “it can never be this no matter what.” If you say, “you always need to be fair,” that tells me that things always need to be fair no matter what, and it’s not acceptable for things to be unfair. If you say, “you don’t always need to be fair, but you should be fair whenever you can,” that tells me that sometimes it’s ok if things are a little unfair.

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