Disclaimer: I am writing this without any edits. I usually edit two or three times before posting.
Because I wanted to write this article while memories are fresh, I chose to stick it out and write after working an exhausting 12 hour shift. Be gentle! :)
In reality, I was so stumped by this entire situation, I was essentially forced to reflect on my responses and actions as it was happening, which is sort of the opposite of "reflection"--it might be called "thinking"? It was sort of unlike anything I've ever experienced with a preschool aged child, and that's possibly because it happened with an especially emotionally and intellectually mature, outspoken, and deep-thinking child who I will call "Jack".
I like to think I have a very solid, trusting relationship with Jack. My new center being only a few weeks old, we haven't known each other very long but the fact that we're in such a small group allows for trusting, honest, authentic relationships to build quickly like that. I know enough about him to make conscious choices in my responses to his behavior which intrigue, invoke, compliment, and challenge his thinking and motivation, and (and this is what I learned today) he knows enough about me to do the same.
So, we had some snack passed around and we were all in different areas of the classroom. Jack was eating greek yogurt and cereal in a cup and was doing a strange dance with the cup. When he got a spoon full of yogurt, he did a spin that splattered yogurt all over my shirt as I was sitting down before him. Wanting to communicate that I was not offended or hurt by this mistake, I laughed and jokingly said, "be careful with that!"
So he splattered me with yogurt again. Deliberately. So at this point, many teachers in this situation would have said "time out!" or expressed disdain with the behavior, but the reason I stopped using time-out was because I felt like it was a lazy way to avoid the work of digging deep and investigating behavior. Just like this situation, I was actually the catalyst in this behavior; I was causing it. So what would a time-out accomplish?
I laughed again, and looked at my coworkers, while saying something along the lines of "I asked for that one because I was laughing." I didn't have any authentic responses. Did this bother me? Not really. I don't care about messes. I dress for mess. Is this a behavior I want to encourage? Of course not. My response for him was not authentic, and he picked up on it. I threw my voice into an incredibly submissive and vulnerable tone, saying, "I don't like that." It was not believable.
Then, the entire cup came flying at me and hit the wall, yogurt splattering everywhere. My face lost emotion and so did my voice. I stood up and took a deep breath and said, "Lets go get some paper towels so you can clean up your yogurt."
"I don't want to," he said.
I responded. "You are going to clean up the mess that you made because we don't want the yogurt to go bad sitting in our classroom."
"If it's we, why do I have to clean it?" He asked me. I didn't understand that question until the drive home, hours after the fact. If we don't want the yogurt to go bad, why do I have to clean it up by myself?
I retrieved some paper towels and handed them to him. He retreated to an opposite corner of the room, where the art materials are kept, and began ripping the paper towel up. I went over and pressed; "What do you need in order to clean the mess you made?"
"Do you need me to help you clean it?"
"No." At this point, I was the source of enough embarrassment for him. I think he just wanted me to back off. I was forcing a kind of immediate accountability he couldn't accommodate, sort of like he owed me $100, only had $50, and couldn't get the other $50 until next week, but I kept demanding it be paid today. I was loan-sharking his accountability. He had thought I was in on a game he was playing with the yogurt, and suddenly I wasn't. To him, I had this sudden decision to not approve of this game and am now treating him like he's at fault for it. Nothing about that situation is fair. But I wonder how many children are treated this unfairly on a regular basis...
One of his friends came over with her snack in her hand. I asked him again what he needed to clean up his mess. He said he wanted his friend's help. I responded, "that's up to her." She agreed to do so after her snack.
"That's very generous of you." I said. I still sat there, watching Jack as if there was more to this story which had essentially been resolved. He began deconstructing--which is what I call the act of pulling things off of the shelf for the purpose of watching them crash to the floor, sort of like when toddlers just dump out baskets of items because it's awesome.
I didn't get it. Now, I can think of many reasons he'd do this. I'm staring at him still, and he doesn't know what my goal is. He's waiting for his friend to finish her snack, but doesn't know if he's allowed to do anything else while we're suspended in this pseudo-power struggle. My intent was to make eye contact with him and talk to him more, but obviously that's not what he needed right then. Eventually, most of the shelf's contents were on the floor.
"Help me understand what you're trying to tell me, Jack." I implored. I'm not sure if I expected any kind of response. We were so dissonant. We were on very different wavelengths and it was hard to find any kind of common ground, and I so desperately wanted to understand what was going on. Two very strong willed people, a child and teacher, horribly misunderstanding the other's intentions and message, both not using quite the right language to resolve and understand this.
"Can I help you pick this up?" I asked.
He told me he wanted his friend, who'd agreed to help him clean up his earlier mess after she was finished eating, to help him. She chimed in from a table a denial of this request. Plus, at this point, assuming (based on previous events) that his intent was to have her simply do this for him, I added, "I think you can clean up these messes you've made with me."
He crumbled to pieces. He threw his head into his hands. Until this point, he had been really put together. I had no idea there was any anxiety, stress, or sadness going on at all behind this behavior. As far as I knew, we were having a really regular conversation, with very regular voices, and very regular behavior choices. Obviously I incredibly misread the signals he was sending me. There was a lot going on in his head that I did not pick up on throughout this process. He was just as confused by my behavior as I was with his. Only my persistence in trying to force a discussion with him and inviting him to clean something I'd embarrassed him about without the sweet relief of at least doing it with someone who wasn't involved in the embarrassment was making his confusion so much more profound. Like it or not, I had essentially burned my image into the association of his feeling embarrassment in the moment I stopped laughing and got serious and apparently intolerant, and the constant reminder of this was not going to accomplish anything worth accomplishing.
After crying for a moment, he quickly retreated to the top loft of our "bunk bed" in the classroom, and cried into a pile of blankets and pillows. That's when I suddenly understood everything I'd misunderstood. My heart broke. I was truly empathic with him. I felt the feelings he was feeling: dejection, exhaustion, embarrassment, the horror of something you're sensitive about being drug out before everybody like the airing of dirty laundry.
He cried for a while. I thought for a while. We both took a lot of deep breaths. I climbed up onto the side of the bunk bed and looked into his eyes. Remembering the importance of teachers admitting their mistakes and holding themselves accountable to their students, I held his hand and asked him, "Did you think I liked to get messy with the yogurt?"
"Jack, I'm sorry I didn't use the right words to tell you that I didn't want you to get me messy like that. Next time I'll make sure you understand me so you won't get confused and keep doing it."
I believe that children do not just learn their behavior from the people around them. I believe that they learn what kind of behavior to expect from others from the people around them. I want to make sure that the children with whom I interact know and understand that relationships with people who refuse to admit to their mistakes, refuse to make amends for miscommunication or misunderstandings, or refuse to care enough to spend the time to investigate confusion, are not relationships worth having.
It took a while for "Jack" to return to his normal self. Later, when speaking with Jack and his friend, I spoke out: "I learned something today."
"What?" He asked.
"I learned that if I have a problem with something someone is doing, I need to use my words and tell them that I really don't like it so that nobody has to be confused about it."
Jack's eyes lit up "I learned that too!"