by Travis Tagart
With Ferris Bueller Gifs, Because, Why Not?
Someone else took one for the team in the form of ScaryMommy's article "Our Kids Don’t Need F@*#ing Pedal Desks, They Need Recess". It's a passionate, strongly-worded indictment of what I call "the abuser strategy", even though perhaps author Maria Guido didn't intend to invoke this reality in her exposé. So, let's dig a little deeper.
I've noticed in all of the manipulative and abusive relationships (romantic or otherwise) I've encountered or observed in my lifetime, there's this one running "tactic" borderline sociopaths use to manipulate their partners' or friends' perceptions of them, and that is the idea of slowly and quietly creating an underlying problem that would have otherwise not been in existence, and then swooping in to "solve" it, be recognized as a hero, and gain some undeserved respect, trust, or love from their partners or friends.
For a little real-world application, I had a friend in high school who could never hang out with her friends because her significant other would give her some lame excuse just plausible enough for her to justify cancelling plans. Okay, cool. Eventually, though, this isolated her to the point where we all just sort of stopped inviting her, already knowing that she'd agree and have to cancel last minute. By the time she was isolated enough that we started talking to her about the fact that maybe this was a deliberate plan, she started to worry for herself, and before the worries could become conclusions, her significant other all invited us to participate in a surprise birthday party for her, which she saw as the grandest gesture he could have ever shown her, despite the fact that we wound up doing all of the planning, buying, and decorating, where he mainly just came up with the idea. But wouldn't you know? Every suspicion she had was shattered with this one grand appeal to emotion. When we tried to remind her that he was isolating her still, she brushed us off, because obviously that couldn't have been the case if he came up with this lavish surprise party!
He manufactured a problem, so that when we showed the slightest bit of discomfort with it, he could manufacture a half-baked "solution" that merely served to divert our attention away from the problem.
Take a deep breath.
In through your nose, and out through your mouth like a straw.
American School Districts manufacture problems, and when we show the slightest bit of discomfort with them, they manufacture half-baked "solutions" that merely serve to divert our attention away from the problem.
It didn't end well for my friend, and it's probably not going to end well for children in our school systems.
Consider the following progression of events, as I've observed it:
In the spirit of Maria Guido's article, that's bull s&#t and we shouldn't accept it. Only, a lot of people are.
In the Facebook comment thread I'm looking at for this article, the top 50 comments line up as follows:
We should be letting children play and engage in an environment that allows for most of the learning that would have happened through lectures and workbooks and textbooks to happen through toys and materials and nature and literature, and then fidgeting won't be a problem ever again. Not getting enough exercise wouldn't be a problem.
The expectations of children do not need to change. The expectations of their environments need to change. If a funding organization can agree to drop $12,000 on pedal desks, you can convince one to drop $6,000 on teacher training, a bunch of loose materials from thrift stores, the woods by your house, quality children's literature, and a professional aggregate of research to give to your district.
It might not work with the first try, but throwing up your hands and saying it's impossible or not worth it sure isn't doing children any good.
Need a solution? Let's stop behaving as if "we've been doing it this way for a long time" is a valid excuse for anything. History doesn't very much like that.
Today, I observed as two four year old girls sat with each other smoking cigarettes and drinking beers on my playground as they talked about going over to each other's houses to play.
Okay, well, the "cigarettes" were woodchips and the "beers" were six inch two-by-four segment blocks--but the play was real. When I noticed how they were holding the woodchips snugly between their index and middle fingers, a weird "spidey sense" went off in my brain. When one of them said, "I need more beer", I almost jumped into action to confront them, as if they were misbehaving. Mid-stride, though, I stopped.
Weeks before, I had found myself in a similar situation. A child had fashioned a gun out of a strangely-shaped piece of mulch and was running back and forth on the playground, shooting at a friend, who was pretending to be the Hulk, shouting "pew! pew! pew!" as he ducked and weaved. I had been trained in every childcare program I had worked in up until this point that I should chime in, confiscate the "weapon" and say, "we don't use guns in school."
One day, after opening my own program, a colleague brought it up to me that a pretty valid response to "we don't use guns in school" would be, "well, that's why they're pretend!"
That's such a four-year-old thing to say, right? When adults ask loaded questions or make loaded statements, we don't typically expect such literal answers or responses. Sort of how asking a child "why did you do that?" when they do something you don't like is setting everybody up for failure (or more frustration). But nonetheless, it's true, and it's an incredibly valid point for a four year old to make when questioning authority--it's almost like they're saying, "Dude, chill, I'm four years old."
I always say that early childhood professionals have to be skilled detectives. When a child is upset or disruptive, we have to remind ourselves, "something else is going on here, and it's my job to figure it out." But sometimes, we get so caught up in that that we end up trying to step into the roles of psychologists or psychiatrists, and that's just not right.
I watched these girls smoking and drinking--engaging in a reenactment of what most people consider debilitating vices--and I thought, "oh my god; their parents are teaching them that smoking and drinking is okay and if they think that smoking and drinking is normal they're going to idolize it and look at this they already idolize it because they're pretending to do it because they think it's cool and it's going to continue until they're old enough to acquire it on their own and they're going to develop horrible addictions and and and..." and I just want to slap myself for being in that place, because I know that's just not the case.
Just the same, when I would see kids playing rough and tumble, weapon-heavy games I'd be thinking to myself, "oh my god they're developing unhealthy relationships with weaponry and violence and they're going to grow up to be violent people if I don't intervene and tell them about how serious weapons are and how horrible of a teacher everyone is going to think I am that my students think it's okay to play violent games in my classroom and and and..." chill. It's pretend.
First, we should look at what pretend play has to offer for children. The American Psychological Association supports a research-based theory that pretend play might be a tool that helps children realize that thoughts, not reality, guide people's actions, utterances and emotions.
Next, if you're concerned about the subject matter, we should look at how to tell if a child's role-play scenario is actually innocent play or possibly a red flag / call to attention. There are times where children do act out very specific, very detailed, and very unsettling scenarios of which we should take note and be mindful. Just like all pretend play, teachers should ask what the children are doing, what the story is, and where they got the story. If something is unsettling to you, simply plopping in the question "is this something that happened to you?" or "is this something you do at home?". I like to run scenarios through the twelve indicators of play.
The 12 Indicators of Play
The following indicators are adapted from two books on play published by Tina Bruce (1991, 1996):
Are the children...
Based on the list above, if what a child is doing meets these most of the criteria, it's simply play.
We know that children like to pretend to be in positions of power. Children emulate the people in their life who have control and power because they want to understand how those people think; what makes them tick, not because they want to emulate them or "follow in their footsteps". It's possible to argue that some children will choose to emulate if they find a measure of efficacy in the that power. Sadly, fear is an effective (albeit unhealthy) way to boost the efficacy of power.
When adults react negatively to hearing a bad word from a child, that word gains power. When adults react negatively to a child with a pretend "cigarette", "cigarettes" gain power. When adults react negatively toward pretend "guns", "guns" gain power. Eventually, in adolescence or adulthood, should that child ever be in a situation where they feel completely and utterly powerless, there will be that subconscious pull toward those "powerful" items. It can be argued then, that "zero tolerance policies" about this kind of play are actually counterproductive, just as "zero tolerance policies" toward bullying have proven to be counterproductive.
Additionally, if we stop play to step up on a soap box and lecture children about how smoking, drinking, and guns are bad, (assuming they respond at all to a lecture in the first place) not only are we giving these concepts an enticing illusion of power, we're setting that child up for a whole lot of confusion when they see their mother smoking, their grandparent drinking beer, or a family friend who enjoys hunting. You can severely damage a child's sense of safety, security, and their place in the world if you create an aura of opposition toward who their parents are or what their parents do. That's an unfair abuse of power.
This is why we show children what they can hit after they hit a friend. This is why we show children what they can rip when they rip someone's drawing. This is why we show children where they can play out these fantasies. We cannot shield a child from "negative influences" in other people's behavior. That's not our job at all. Our job is to be a positive influence, to exude an amount of power that is all at the same time, effective, just, kind, loving, unconditional, empathic, human, deep, talented, etc. When children have adults in their lives showing them what adulthood looks like, we can show them that it can look differently than the other influences in their life.
We know that children role play with subject matter that excites emotional responses. Heck, even reality television nannies know that children attach to what stimulates emotional responses from themselves and other humans. Children play drawing from subject matter and experiences that excite them, make them happy, curious, anxious, sad, angry, and afraid. I can think of multiple times as a child where I would role play about things that made me so afraid, I'd almost have panic attacks and have to think about puppies until the fear was pushed aside.
Speaking of puppies, have you ever watched puppies play with each other? It looks bad. It looks like a real dog fight sometimes. However, when puppies play, and they're biting and pawing at each other, they are biting softly. They are pawing more gently than they could be. When they bite a little too hard, their playmate yelps, and they make note of that boundary. Too rough. I am not going to imply that children are like dogs, but the nature of youth is extremely widespread amongst species. This is how children play, too. They play with no intent of harm. They will inevitably play too rough, and if the game is to continue, someone will have to adjust their exerted force. Therefore, there's not much that a caregiver has to do to box this play in.
There is very little need for teacher intervention in power play. When it comes to living out scenarios with alcohol or smoking, there is virtually no need for teacher intervention. We just observe, make a mental note of it in the event that patterns have to be assessed, and move on.
Eventually, there will be something way more interesting to try, some scenario way more fun to role play. Children role play to try on different personas, different lifestyles, different characteristics, different habits, different roles for so many different reasons, and very rarely are any of those reasons cause for concern.
When I started teaching preschool, I remember colleagues and supervisors telling me I had a gift for early childhood education. You would walk into my room and see kids quietly and neatly sitting at the tables coloring, a few kids peacefully playing in the dramatic play area, several children engaging in Montessori works at rugs, and soft ambient music (thank God for Brian Eno) playing as I stood off to the corner observing.
Every now and then if you walked in at an inopportune time, the serenity remained but a child would be almost silently sobbing at his or her "wall spot", a dedicated, laminated circle on the wall with their name on it--the place they were sent if they broke a rule or I needed the group to look at books without going near one another.
It was a tight ship. When I wanted to transition into the next activity, I'd say "class!" and they'd all respond "yes!" and I'd say "clean up!" and they'd say "okay!" and in seconds my classroom was spotless and well-organized. If I said "Line!", everyone would stop what they're doing and form a perfect, military-grade single-file line.
Then I took a brief break from early childhood altogether. I took up an office job. It didn't suit me at all, but, as many in this field can attest, it paid a whole lot better. But, at a certain point the extra pay just wasn't worth the long, eventless days. I needed more action. I needed more creativity.
I took a job at an early childhood center and was told that I needed to curb a whole lot of behavioral issues in the specific classroom. I honestly didn't really know if I could so easily be thrust back into that groove, especially with such a daunting task. I brought in a few of the Montessori materials I owned, and went to work.
I started my usual thing. I made the wall spots. I started implementing the chants and responses from Whole Brain Teaching. The classroom was turning around, and just as quickly as I was thrust into this new position, I was about to be thrust out of my entire understanding of who I was as a teacher.
It happened like this: I had just instructed the class to start cleaning up the room after the serene, quiet work time I described before, a little boy was working with the Cards and Counters. He had been enthralled by them since the day I had brought them in. I walked up to him and said in my cookie-cutter, preschool teacher voice, "Did you hear me? It's time to clean up!" and I'll be darned if this little boy didn't look me right in the eyes and say "no."
I was offended. I don't know why I was offended, but I was. I told this boy to go to his wall spot and he cried. I started to pick up his work for him when I looked down at the neatly, carefully, and purposefully placed counters, and a sudden wave of intense realization hit me like one million bricks. I had just punished this boy for wanting to learn. I had just sent a message to this boy that he was only allowed to learn when it was convenient for me. I wasn't being an effective teacher, I was being controlling.
I went home that night shaken. Just a week into this brand new job, where everyone was telling me I was a blessing and an amazing teacher, and I had just realized that all of those complements and rewards completely blinded me to how damaging I was to the children I was caring for. What was worse was all of the other teachers were coming to me for behavioral advice. So not only were people in love with my style of teaching, others wanted to adopt it. I had to stop.
I started researching developmentally appropriate practice--something I cling to to this day--and the fabulous works of Dr. Becky Bailey. I was easily distracted from this "road to recovery" by the simple notion that how I taught children was considered totally normal in the early childhood field, and I could easily just stop trying to make myself better and remain in my old ways, but I decided that this work meant more to me than my admitted love of being lazy now and then.
I started to realize that I did have some control issues--possibly passed down from past teachers--that gave me this adult idea of how things were supposed to go with children. Adult tells child what to do, child does. I had no concept of the importance of mutual respect. I seriously had never stopped to think that maybe the class would almost always use quieter voices if I just whispered all of the time. I thought back to every time in my career that kids were putting their dolls in time out and just being totally brutal to these poor dolls, and realized that what they were acting out was their childish perception of me--a scary, brutish, jerk.
It took months for me to get to this place where children had the freedom to think and act as they felt they needed to. It took me months to get rid of the regulated centers. Months to get rid of the trace and copy worksheets. Months to get rid of the Pinterest art activities. This all led to emails from my supervisors accusing me of slacking in the job. I started to communicate with parents and colleagues that parents don't need receipts for their child's learning. That little panda you made out of the letter 'P' didn't teach that child anything any more than the worksheets taught them how to write.
Other teachers started to attack me because I didn't have interesting art on the walls (e.g. I didn't have 22 identical Pinterest crafts hanging on the wall). I had to be strong enough to tell these teachers that I didn't believe that any craft that I had anything to do with was appropriate for an early learning art activity. I would let them do art for themselves.
I had to explain the concept of child-led hundreds of times. I had to explain that I still had boundaries in my classroom that were to be respected. I had to explain why I didn't use "time-outs" any longer. It took a lot of explaining from me, and after a while, the explaining started to get useless. My words were falling on deaf ears, despite the constant, often totally ignorant and mean, requests for my explanation. I had to take a lot of deep breaths and be compassionate, because I was that teacher months prior to this. The parents were always on board with me through my learning, but the teachers made the struggle unbearable.
I chose to leave that position. I applied to several other programs and was offered positions at each of them, but the directors all warned me that it would be an uphill battle with the other staff members to be able to use my own style of teaching in my own classroom.
That's when I started my own center. Child-led, play-based, teacher-facilitated, early learning. I find myself having to explain myself a lot less often. I find myself surrounded by a staff that is eager to work on the next big thing to ensure we're aligned with D.A.P. and other early learning guidelines.
Here's me not stressing about cleaning this mess up because I'm wearing a shirt that says "Let Kids Be Kids", which you can order (with or without my logo) here.
It always takes people a while to get on board with child-led/play-based. It can take up to a year sometimes. We get so judgmental of younger generations over their need for instant gratification that we forget that most of our problems as adults stem from that exact same need as well.
Some teachers just need to see the proof that it does lead to a less stressful environment. Some teachers just need some proof that a classroom that looks like a tornado went through it isn't such a bad thing after all. Some teachers just need proof that you can have a handle over the behavior in the classroom without time outs and behavior charts. You can't force that proof. You just have to let it show up organically with a teacher who is willing to try, just like I was willing to try years ago.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I should have known after my first high school psychology class that accepting authority on the basis of authority is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I was so sick of worrying more about what my classroom looked like than I did about the development and education of the children.
I ditched the compliant classroom because I knew that proving that "learning happened" with paperwork and teacher-led projects was a blatant lie meant to keep parents pleased with their choice of childcare.
I chose the child-led, play-based classroom because when I let them play, the proof that learning happened is right in front of me, as it's happening.
I made a post the other day that started a really wild debate about what kind of discipline is and is not acceptable for children. What I got in return were 450,000 views from people who are hotly passionate about the issue, and rightly so. I also got a lot of push back--the exact style of pushback I referred to in the article. Everyone who is part of this profession in any way wants what's best for children, but if the few negative responses from dedicated teachers were any indicator, not everyone is in agreement as to what that is.
Almost all of the negative reactions to my article focused on a few topics:
Behavior Charts are Required By My District
Now, with this one, I was taken aback. I know that elementary schools often implement these charts. However, in my post, I was exclusively referring to early childhood education, i.e. age groups that range from zero to eight. This does not mean that I think behavior charts are acceptable for older ages, though.
I understand, and empathize in my last post, that public and private K-12 teachers are under a LOT of pressure. I understand that K-12 teachers have to focus on what is most cost-effective when it comes to time. These behavior charts are effective at gaining compliance from children. I don't think anyone can deny that. But "effective" for the teacher and "appropriate" for children are two very different things.
For instance, hitting children is an "effective" way to keep them compliant. It's also not appropriate, because we know now that hitting children rarely teaches any sort of lesson other than "I have to behave when this scary adult is around". It does not teach children "why" something was unacceptable, it does not give children the skills to control themselves when they're taking risks, and it sends mixed messages about what is socially acceptable ("why is this adult allowed to hit, but I'm not supposed to hit my classmates?")
I empathize with K-12 teachers who have to use these charts because their work climate has made it to where there is no way for them to properly discipline children and get all of the teaching they need to get done accomplished by the end of the day. It's just a terrible place to be in, and my heart really, truly goes out to the teachers who have to use it but know that it's not doing anything positive for the children.
Behavior Charts "Work for my Class"
I don't empathize with the teachers who say it's the "only way" to discipline children in this day and age. I can come up with hundreds of proper consequences for unacceptable behavior for each specific scenario. There will never be a "one size fits all" or "one stop shop" for discipline. No rewards bucket, sticker chart, behavior scale, pom-pom jar, or point system is going to actually help children develop socio-emotionally. The teacher has to create discipline by facilitating proper positive and/or natural consequences rather than punishments and rewards. This is because human behavior cannot be contained into the confines of a rainbow chart. This is because putting a child on red doesn't teach them why it's not okay to throw paper balls at another child's head. This is because putting a child on red doesn't teach them why it's impolite to disrupt the learning environment.
So, when I would challenge teachers to tell me why these charts were necessary, I would get "because they work." That's not an answer to the question. I ask "Why are these charts necessary?"
"Because I need to control my classroom."
"Okay, so what do the charts do?"
"They help me control the children so I can teach."
"So who exactly is the chart for?"
When the answers include, "I, my, me, I, and me," the practice does not work for your class, it works for you.
The Author is Publicly Shaming Teachers
This one was actually very confusing to read. I mulled over and over again how on earth a teacher can honestly, fully, and completely believe that the act of me pulling something off of the wall in their classroom is harsh and an example of public shaming. That right there is a symptom of the control issue I mention in the post--"challenging my control needs is harsh and bullying" is just illogical and irrational.
When I pull these behavior charts off of the wall, I explain to the teacher that the charts are unhealthy. I explain to the teacher that, yes, I used to use these charts. I explain to the teacher that the charts are sort of like a pain drug--it stops the symptoms, but the problems remain there. The problems just go home and fester there, return to school and, despite compliance, become a serious, horrific deficit in socio-emotional behavior. I explain to the teacher that I am there to help them find away to let go of the stress and embrace D.A.P. through coaching.
The assumption that I rip the chart off of the wall and that's all I do just kind of goes to show that the more controlling teachers are so extrinsically motivated that a single challenge to their belief system sends all ability to reason out of the window. I used to be that way, too. My heart is right there with you. It hurts to feel like you've got something under control and then realize that maybe what you're doing isn't best for the children in the program. But what you do with that hurt ultimately defines how effective you are as a professional in any field--especially early childhood education.
This is a shameless profession. Good teachers don't care if they look like idiots dancing with children. Good teachers don't get defensive if they make a mistake and their mistake is pointed out to them. They pick up themselves up again. To reduce all teachers to this level of helplessness that an article like mine severely damages their self-worth and fragile sensibilities is a lot of bologna, because I know from personal experience that teachers are neither fragile nor helpless.
This is also a profession where the words "lazy" and "uneducated" are not bad words. There is so much knowledge and information to share in this field. I am uneducated about a lot of things. I'm also lazy about a lot of things. For instance...
Today, I was sitting on the floor at the quiet time of the day and a child across the room was screaming. I chose to say her name over and over again from where I was at rather than walking over to her and helping her practice respectful words with her friend. That was a lazy choice. I was being lazy. I willfully chose to ignore what I know to be effective because I was busy with another child.
No teacher should fear those words, because here in the adult world, we should be motivated by our own introspective perception of ourselves and say, "that was lazy of me, perhaps I should try something else next time." If we're going to shut down every time someone calls what we're doing lazy, what kinds of things are children going to say that will shut us down? Personally, I am thankful for the outside forces that can tell me, "that looked really lazy" or "what you're doing isn't aligned with D.A.P." because I am so caught up with the other nine billion things I have to do every day, that sometimes things like that go unnoticed by me, and to have that honesty and that organic response is important. I know other teachers can relate.
I've never worked with an early childhood teacher who was offended when I call something they're doing a lazy technique or an uneducated choice. Most early childhood teachers are self-taught or trained by other early childhood teachers in the environment, and that's how these weird, inappropriate routines start up. This is why there are four year olds who are expected to do worksheets for a portion of the day. So, I help teachers define what they're doing that's lazy and we figure out how to move out of that rut. I call out the uneducated practices, and I help them find sources to look at to help them make more educated choices rather than doing what they "thought they were supposed to do."
You Shouldn't Say It's Wrong Without Offering Alternatives
This one also threw me for a loop because I must have missed the part where the title was "Rip those behavior charts and burn them and then try these other things." There are articles out there that offer that information. A commenter shared Beyond the Stoplight which was a very good resource to look through. For me though, and a lot of other readers, it was kind of obvious that my choice alternative was "nothing." If I repeatedly say something is unnecessary and useless for child development, the odds that I'm going to suggest you do something instead are pretty low. My advice was to just cut it out. My advice was written clearly in the title of the post.
I'm not a fan of the word "punishment", but for real, "let the punishment suit the crime" is always going to be my mode of conduct. "Let the consequence suit the act" is more appropriate. I believe in natural consequences. I'm not going to bark orders at a two year old and ruin their sense of wonder when they're doing something that I think is unsafe. I'm going to observe them, and if they fall, they'll either get back up and try again or they'll decide for themselves that that wasn't worth it. When a child hits another child, I'm not going to hover down like a helicopter and bark "say you're sorry" because nobody learns anything. I'm going to facilitate a conversation that lets the victim speak up for themselves and lets the perpetrator look their victim in the eye as they do so. You can't teach empathy by putting that child in time out or cutting their outside time or putting them on red. You actually have to get down on the floor and facilitate a conversation between the children. If you brush this off because it sounds like too much work, especially with the 900 conflicts that arise between young children, then don't be upset when a consultant calls you lazy.
If you're not comfortable saying, "That was lazy of me" or "I need to do more research on that" multiple times in your daily life, then you're probably not engaging in developmentally appropriate practices. No amount of angry comments or death threats to the guy writing blog articles is going to change that. Hop off the defensive and engage in an actual bout of research and discussion.
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Our posts are created by several early childhood professionals. Most stories will include the author's name and a link to their "About Me" or the program they own or represent.