The road to reaching the prophetic play-based, child-led "nirvana" is a little more complex than simply deciding to stop doing worksheets, circle time, group art activities, and enforced schedules. At least, it should be. For many programs, simply jumping on the bandwagon, calling yourself "play-based" while children run wild, destroying property, and hurting each other is sufficient. At face value for some educators, becoming play-based and child-led is equated with the absolution of "work", and washing their hands of accountability. They submit articles and research--which, in all honesty, also have trouble really defining what the adults' jobs are during play--to their parents, coworkers, and districts and resign to their desks or a corner of the classroom while the children run the show on their own. Which begs the question: to build a quality child-led, play-based program, who is running the show?
Part of what attracted me to the idea of a play-based, child-led philosophy is the idea of letting go of control; releasing preconceived notions of what academic "structure" looks like. To me, play-based education is not the absence of structure, but the constant evolution of a dynamic structure. This dynamic structure is not helmed by any one person, but an ever-evolving sense of agreement between children, teachers, administration, parents, and the environment. An ideal dynamic structure is one where teachers trust students to learn, students trust teachers to care for them and keep them safe, administrators trust teachers to invoke educational experiences, and parents trust administrators and teachers to have their child and their family's best interest in mind.
How teachers respond to children and place their "boundaries" is an imperative element of the structure. However, for the most part, American teachers generally aren't trained to provide brain-healthy, effective methods to place these boundaries, especially working one-on-one with a child. In a world where the job of instilling discipline is mistakenly outsourced in the form of punishment to a piece of paper on the wall or a note in the backpack, actually engaging in an authentic conversation with a child that does not impose institutionalized limits on their behavior seems time-consuming and labor-intensive; a waste.
For some reason, our skewed perception of what childhood is supposed to look like also hinders our ability to formulate authentic responses to developmentally normal stimuli. Our authentic responses have somehow intersected with knee-jerk reactions. The first step in separating the two is knowing the difference.
Knee-Jerk Reaction: Tim bites Lisa, and the teacher springs up, yells to Tim, "we do not bite!", picks him up, and plops him in a time-out spot.
What the Teacher Gets Out of It: A sense of accomplishment, vengeance, and the mistaken idea that being isolated will teach Tim why it's not okay to bite.
What Tim Gets Out of It: Confusion. I was over there, now I'm over here. Why am I over here? Does biting mean I have to move away? Why is Lisa crying?
What Lisa Gets Out of It: Confusion, a profound likelihood of being hurt many times in the future, and no skills to stand up for herself.
Authentic Response: Tim bites Lisa, and the teacher walks over to the pair only if it seems like neither of them are ready or willing to work it out amongst themselves. Looking to Lisa, "Oh no! Tim bit you and now you are crying. Are you hurt?" Lisa responds, "Yes." Teacher asks, "Did you like that?", Lisa responds, "No." Teacher requests, "Do you want to tell Tim that you didn't like that?" This conversation continues for a while, Teacher asks Lisa if she needs anything. Teacher asks Tim if he needs anything.
What the Teacher Gets Out of It: A little more peace in the environment. A lot of talking. It's undeniably harder than a time-out, and is time-consuming. But consider the following:
What Tim Gets Out of It: Oh, I did that. I hurt Lisa, and I had to look at her when she told me she didn't like that. Whatever Tim needed that led to the biting incident, the teacher was able to ask him about, and he was able to answer with words instead of harsh actions.
What Lisa Gets Out of It: Lisa now has the vocabulary to stand up for herself and tell other people where her boundaries are.
Because our knee-jerk reactions feel authentic to us, it's really easy to accidentally let one slip. That's why I'm going to suggest something that might seem incredibly inauthentic: know a script for dealing with situations to which you're reactive.
Being reactionary is not a personality trait. It's a habit. It's a habit that is likely born out of very few good coping mechanisms to deal with the fact that the world isn't fair. If your parents spanked, hit, swatted, intimidated, or punished you when you "went against their wishes", those experiences most likely taught you that being reactionary is normal and a habit that is necessary to form. It's an adult version of a tantrum. Losing control when things aren't going as expected or "your way".
If you can identify a part of your pedagogy which is reactionary, you can start filling a script. This is how those of us with this habit, or who were trained to be reactionary teachers, plant the seeds of authenticity in our interactions with children, and other adults. This is how I managed to move past "rewarding" language.
It's pretty clear that rewards and punishments are ineffective building blocks to healthy behavior, and one form of reward that we often look past is "praise." "I LOVE how Alice is sitting!" "Jared is lined up and ready to go outside! Good job, Jared!" It's a pretty manipulative way to push the unnecessarily positive focus on something really simple as a way to brainwash everyone else into doing it. It's forced peer pressure. I was personally able to get past this habit with the following script:
Noticing something helpful or kind, getting down to eye level with a child, speak one-on-one, and saying "You just ______________, that was __________________."
"You just picked up that garbage and put it in the trash can, that was helpful. Thank you for helping keep our classroom clean."
Speaking from a script, maybe fifty times, will start the ball rolling on variations of it, and it will slowly and effectively be part of your authentic response. It starts conversations. It builds character. It helps us have respectful, understanding, and meaningful relationships with the children for whom we care and teach.
For those of us whose authentic responses may have been converged with knee-jerk reactions, either by our own experience as students, education experience, training, upbringing, social groups, cultures, or any combination of these, having a script is the only way to START the journey to building authentic relationships, so long as we know what we're doing, why we're doing it, and what everyone involved gets out of it. The real work begins when our authentic responses have evolved to the point where we no longer need any scripted language.
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.
They're not just all over pinterest. They're all over early childhood classrooms, and they are actively damaging children every day that they're in use.
Behavior charts are not a classroom management technique. They are a symptom of a teacher's devastating control issues. A product of the need for more socio-emotional developmental education on the teacher's part or a teacher's misguided, willful decision to contribute to a system that works to crank out compliant, stifled children rather than confident, free-thinking children.
Check out my article about my journey as a teacher discovering my own control issues, and coming to terms with them.
When I travel to early childhood centers to help remedy their practices, I rip these suckers off of the wall in front of the teacher who probably spent two or three hours of prime "connecting with children" time cutting and laminating them so that they could bang the metaphorical gavel on these kids' heads whenever they "stepped out of line". And I do it with pride in my heart. I don't damage the thing, I don't burn it in front of them, but we take a look at something that has so much power and weight being lifted off of its throne and I say, "this should not be replacing your understanding and connection with these children." I then work with the teacher to address their concerns and needs and I help find a developmentally appropriate way to meet them so they can work in a stress-free environment that works to do best for the children in their care. The goal is to solve problems for the teacher so the teacher can go forth and solve problems rather than reducing them to a rainbow behavior chart on the wall.
If I were to make a job performance chart that rated every teacher's job performance on a scale of green to red and pinned that teacher's name for all of their students, peers, colleagues, administrators, and the students' parents to see--based solely off of my opinion of their job performance--these same teachers would be livid with me, right? Usually at that point, most teachers are on board.
The pushback when I wage war on public shaming--and that's what it is, no matter how "nice" you word the chart--is that there's no other way to manage behavior. But here's my ammo: if a teacher needs this at all, if they have this hanging on their wall, they're not managing behavior, they're threatening it by holding a child's reputation hostage. They're trying to make the negative behaviors go away because they're too routined with this lazy technique and too steadfast in their control to actually deal with them in a developmentally appropriate way. They're telling kids: the most important reason to meet my requirements of you is because you need to care about what the teacher and all of your friends think of you.
Positive peer pressure is still peer pressure, friends. It's still just as damaging and sets just as dangerous a precedent.
These charts effectively teach children that they should be compliant so that they can gain their dear leader's love. These teach children that they should be compliant so that they can be like the other kids who are "good". These teach children that if they don't behave, it will be posted for everyone to see. These teach children that if they're not compliant at school, they will be ratted out. That is not acceptable. If you're dealing with behavioral problems through the transitive property, nothing is being solved. The child isn't benefiting, you are.
I visited a center a few months ago where a preschool teacher had given behavior charts up because one day, a child who was "on red" was spanked in front of her very eyes by his father because of that. It had visibly shaken her to the point where, even six months after the fact, it reduced her to tears. She, at that moment, realized why that child often acted out about the color chart. She decided that children feeling completely safe, secure, and open with her was more important than having control over them. I had a very similar experience to turn me off of these horrific tools, so this hit home with me as well.
Beyond the strong-willed kids, we have to think about those kids who always stay on the green. Think about how incredibly resented they become because their teacher is constantly looking at them and saying in the nicest, kindest way, "you're doing such a good job staying on green today!" because apparently ostracizing the bad from the good and ostracizing the good with the love of only the teacher is "behavior management". Me? I think it's abuse. Teachers that do this are not just cranking out compliant children. They're cranking out real, human persons with severe social deficits. But, like, in a totally cute, pinterest-worthy way.
Our job, as early childhood educators, is to build children up, regardless of their behavior. To teach children how to resolve conflict with words instead of threats and punishments. To model healthy power by not making them compete for our positive attention and affection. To be present and empathetic of every "behavior problem" rather than passive, disengaging, transitive, and brutal.
Our job, as early childhood educators, is to deal with conflict resolution by teaching the importance of talking it out, rather than making children feel ashamed that they had a conflict to begin with.
Our job, as early childhood educators, is to get over it when kids tell us "no", because we are not always right, and children have all of the same rights as any other human being. If you wouldn't be comfortable saying it or doing it to a stranger on the street, then you definitely shouldn't say it or do it to a child that trusts you.
If I asked for a discount at the store, and the clerk told me "no," I wouldn't tell them to go sit in a corner. If I asked for a raise, and my boss told me "no", I wouldn't tell them "I guess you're on red then today." If the table next to me at a restaurant was talking too loud, I wouldn't turn around and tell them to be silent or say "I shouldn't hear your voices!" You see, all of these things would be called "being a jerk". So, let's stop being jerks to kids. Let's stop raising kids to be jerks, too, while we're at it.
There's just absolutely no way around it. If you have a behavior chart or any behavior scale located in your classroom, you are failing the children in your care. It's time to let them go.
No child should be having hyperventilations when their parents show up and they're "on red". Isolating children from their peers to reflect how isolated they are from your heart is only going to lead to more isolation. Stop pushing problems under a rug, and get a grip on them. If you're strong enough to be a teacher and choose this profession, you're strong enough to be an introspective one.
Burn it, and release your control issues with it.
If you find yourself struggling with the information in this article, would like to explore alternatives to the behavior chart, or your counter-argument involves any sort of tone-policing, please refer to this follow-up article.
Check out this article about my experience with control issues of my own.
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.