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.
The Questions: "How do children learn right from wrong when you let them freely explore their ideas constantly? How do they learn common sense rules?"
Well, today, I was working in the classroom with the lead teacher. She and I brought our school family inside after playing outside for what seemed like enough time to wear just about anybody out. Almost immediately, a little boy had a "what would happen if...?" moment. He stood up on a table and used that table to stand atop a half-wall. Balancing on it, he took the risk to jump off and (gasp!) survived. This immediately triggered other children to try the same thing.
Facilitating the opportunity to learn rather than instigating an unnecessary conflict, my lead teacher asked the children if maybe, possibly we had something soft we could put down where the kids were landing when they jumped. We all paused the action and piled pillows on the floor.
This led to a plethora of other "what would happen if...?" moments, including "what would happen if we held hands while we jumped?" Naturally, this led to a poorly timed tandem jump that ended in a bonked head (which made a horrid noise!), and a very upset little guy after the shock wore off and the eye test was passed (thank goodness!).
It would have been easy to say "okay, that's it, we're done with this!", right? Not in the long term, and not for the children who were still interested. For them, it would be confusing to navigate our thought process. "Why was this okay earlier but not now?" "Why does someone getting hurt mean nobody gets to try?"
That's right! Just because he got hurt doesn't mean we had the right to end the entire game for everyone. Interestingly, though, as his cries turned to whimpers and dissipated in his teachers arms, magically, so did all of the other kids' interest in this risky game.
After nobody was interested in this game anymore, a little girl walked up to me and said, "maybe we shouldn't jump off of the furniture anymore" and I told her that was a fabulous conclusion to come to.
The absolute worst thing we could have done was stop the risks from being taken, and then the second worst thing we could have done was end the opportunity to take risks the second someone was hurt.
Now we have a group of children who have made their own decision to avoid doing something despite knowing they have the freedom to do it. More importantly, they know WHY they are choosing to avoid it. So, so, so much easier than barking "we don't stand on tables" 20 times per day, every day of the week.
Now, is this game ever going to resurface? Probably. Novelty is amazing. Children crave it. Inevitably, there will be natural consequences every time the game resurfaces, until you've just got a group of children who can admit to themselves, "I don't want to do that because it's too unsafe for me."
There's a war against cell phones in early childhood classrooms, and, quite honestly, it's the most ridiculous aspect of the job for so, so many people. Different childcare centers have catch-all rules in which teachers are required to leave their cell phones in little personalized cubbies in the office, teachers must leave them in their cars, and the simple sight of a cell phone on the job can result in immediate termination.
My first case for cell phones is the case for trust. Administrators everywhere are mortified about how difficult it is to staff a childcare center with qualified, quality teachers. Even where I operate my center, the unemployment rate is so low that when I put out an ad for 20+ teachers, I got three responses, five days later. This is where an administrator can make one of two decisions: hire anybody who "likes to be with kids" or hold out for someone they wholeheartedly trust to work in their center. If an administrator can't trust their employee's discretion with a cell phone, they shouldn't be trusting the lives of other people's children to them. That is the lowest common denominator. Once the issue of trust can be solved, actual, adult policies can be put in place.
My second case for cell phones exists within the concept of a child-led, play-based program. Nobody has a perfect environment for natural learning, and a teacher with a cell phone can help facilitate an expansion on a child's interests with images or videos sourced from the internet.
For example, the other day, our playground was a swamp of water from the most recent rain. When this happens, the kids usually pick up the loose 8 foot PVC gutter, place it at an angle against the fence, and send water they scooped from the ground down it like a river. Tons of important science, awareness, and muscular learning is happening during this time, but beyond that, one of the children placed a wooden block in the gutter and it got stuck. Water flowed over it, so he placed another one on top of it. He was building a dam. I asked him, "Is that a dam you're building?", and he was confused. I pulled out my cell phone and quickly searched a video of beavers building a dam and this child and a few others gathered around to watch the beavers building a dam. This gave them an idea.
Suddenly, after seeing that, they were using clumps of wood chips to create dams, since the beavers use sticks. They used the wood blocks from before to set the dams and then removed them to check the wood chips' efficacy.
Right there, I was able to expand learning tenfold by providing an information dump that I didn't organically have in my environment. I was able to do this because I had my cell phone on hand.
I think a lot of the reason for not having cell phones in the environment is stemmed from good intentions. We do not want children to believe that we are dependent on our electronic devices. I get that. However, here in the real world, we do use our devices for a lot of things. I use mine most often to search for things I don't know about. That's something I think we should be modeling for children. Adults don't know everything, and access to the internet can help us learn new information. I think modeling the use of these devices as a secondary mode of personal education and problem solving serves to create a better understanding than their ban all together.
Children will be exposed to electronics no matter what. We have two options: model for them how they can be used positively, or let the only exposure they get to them be the people who have unhealthy addictions to them and the negative connotations thereof. If we are to prepare children for this world, a healthy understanding of technology is important, as technology in general is only going to become more complex and more inviting. Technology is going to become a key resource in nearly any profession.
Studies that explain "screen time" as being a negative thing are flawed. They often don't take into account the host of situations surrounding children who engage in excessive screen time. One can say that in these studies, the reason the studied child is acting out is more likely the fact that his parents ignore him so that he'll use the device, than it is that the screen time is causing the behaviors. Screen time studies only serve to link two aspects of a child's life together as if one causes the other. They essentially say, "Child A watches a lot of television. Child A is diagnosed with depression as an adult. Therefore, if you don't want your child to develop depression, limit screen time." That's like saying, "Travis drives a car. Travis gets cancer and dies. Therefore, if you don't want to get cancer and die, don't drive a car."
Here's what the NIH has to say about screen time:
Now, I'm pretty sure that screen time is actually a side-effect of these issues. Of course it's going to be hard to sleep at night if you're watching television. Of course you're going to watch a lot of television if you already have anxiety, attention problems, or depression. Of course you're more likely to watch television if you're not physically active. That's just common sense. It's just ridiculous, however, to try to say that screen time causes these things. I think that parents using screen time as a pacifier might cause these things. I think parents ignoring their children and putting them in their room with a movie so they won't be bothered might be causing these things.
I'm not saying that every child should have unlimited access to technology, but, I think the way we model it should always be in a positive light to ensure that the exposure the children get contributes positively to their understanding. We shouldn't ban technology, as long as we know how to use it correctly. We can allow the use of cell phones for educational expansion (and to be checked during breaks) without a slippery slope into suddenly becoming the center that has TV time. Pulling out my phone to take a photo or expand on a topic the children are interested in is not going to cause depression, anxiety, or obesity.
Obviously, if your licensing regulations have anything to say about cell phones, you do always need to follow them. However, most of the people I talk to who think cell phones aren't allowed through licensing were told that by a previous employer and never questioned it, yet the regulation doesn't exist. If you trust your staff, you trust their discretion. It's as simple as that. If they need assistance in knowing what is and is not acceptable, that's okay--give that to them. But creating a catch-all rule to imply that there's no trust sends all sorts of wild messages about the climate in your facility.
For my own purposes, if anyone has a copy of their licensing book with a clause on cell phone usage, please forward it to me, as I love learning about the different regulations in different areas.
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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If you're a licensed program with your state, accrediting, or aligning with quality rating scales, the likelihood that you are required to post a schedule is high. I am in no way advocating for people to defy the powers that be. They exist for a reason and their purpose is a good one.
However, just because you're required to post it, doesn't mean it has to be in-depth, and it, by no means, requires you to abide by it. We'll get back to that in a minute.
Early childhood classrooms are not governed by core curriculum standards. Read that aloud. Early childhood classrooms are not governed by core curriculum standards. This has got to be the greatest part about the difference between early childhood education and traditional K-12 education. This is a privilege that we have over K-12 teachers. We need to acknowledge this. Unfortunately, for a vast majority of early childhood teachers, we're still behaving as if we are bound by core standards. We're behaving as though the children in our care are required to be able to do X, Y, and Z before they go to kindergarten.
That's not true. No quality rating scale or state regulation explains an "end point of aptitude" for the children in early childhood environments. We need to take advantage of this freedom by implementing developmentally appropriate practices. It's important to mention that D.A.P. defies boundary within NAEYC. It just so happens that NAEYC has a very good handle of what those practices are. A program can be 100% aligned with developmentally appropriate practices and still never accredit through NAEYC, and that's okay. Accreditation does not determine a program's true quality.
I am all about releasing the archaic need for control in a classroom. I am all about giving up that age-old notion that "I am adult. You are child. You respect me. I scare you. I love you. You fear me. You love me. You have no option." Not only is that wrong and setting a horrible precedent for social awareness in the future, it's just stupid. Plain stupid and useless. One of the most controversial ways I encourage teachers to release control is by killing off the role lesson planning plays in the early childhood classroom. Think about being in control versus facilitation this way: When you "control your classroom", every time you get a new student or group of students, you're back at square one and have to go through all the stresses of acclimating these brains to your rigid, developmentally inappropriate set of expectations. When you don't "control your classroom", that won't matter to you.
I walked into a classroom the other day with a schedule that listed the following:
8:00am - 8:30am: Breakfast
8:30am - 9:00am: Circle Time
9:00am - 9:30am: (Monday/Wednesday/Friday) Science (Tuesday/Thursday) Story Time
9:30am - 10:00am: Writing/Language/Literacy
10:00am - 10:30am: Math
10:30am - 11:00am: Outside Time
11:00am - 11:30am: Art
11:30am - 12:00pm: Lunch
12:00pm - 3:00pm: Nap
3:00pm - 6:00pm: Snack & Play
Two and a half hours of what this teacher considers "learning". I hate this. I hate this about so many of the teachers in our profession. Not only does splitting up Art, Science, Writing, Language, Literacy, and Math imply that these subjects never overlap, it also signals a gross lack of trust in the students.
If you can't trust that little Johnny is going to gain some language and literacy skills by hearing you talk while you play together, you aren't trusting Johnny as a student or yourself as a teacher.
If you can't trust that little Mary is capable of using her own imagination to make art out of mud outside, you are stifling her ability to believe that she can succeed on her own.
If you can't trust that there are materials in your classroom or outdoor areas to explain, by the very nature of their existence, concepts related to science and math, it's time to buy items worth having (i.e. get rid of the "Frozen" toys).
What hurts most is that this implies that playing comes secondary to learning. Which shouldn't even need further explanation: total, unabridged, unexplained play is the ONLY way to fully grasp new concepts.
Assuming this schedule required mealtimes to stay the same, I made it better.
8:00am - 8:30am: Breakfast
8:30am - 8:45am: Storytime / Stretches / Songs (Exploration Available Elsewhere if Needed)
8:45am - 10:00am: Outdoor Exploration (Play)
10:00am - 11:30am: Indoor Exploration (Play)
11:30am - 12:00pm: Lunch
12:00pm - 1:00pm: Outdoor Exploration
1:00pm - 3:00pm: Quiet Time or Exploration for Non-Sleepers
3:00pm - 3:30pm: Snack
3:30pm - 6:00pm: Indoor/Outdoor Exploration As Requested
A cookie-cutter teacher may be asking, "How am I supposed to lesson plan for that?"
My answer is "don't".
You can plan novel activities by just dropping the materials in the middle of the room and seeing where the kids take it. You can plan science activities by sitting in the middle of the exploration time and mixing ingredients to make different ooey gooey materials, and letting the kids play. You can plan writing activities by buying a movable alphabet, putting a word together, and letting the kids touch the letters and copy them once they're ready and willing to do so. You can plan art activities by throwing down some butcher paper and paint and saying "go for it!". You can plan a math activity by counting every child who is in attendance aloud with the children.
If you're really interested in doing what's best for the children in your care, you don't need any more proof that learning happened than the smiles on their faces, the messes on their clothes, and their willingness to do it all again the next day. No more schedules. No more worksheets. No more dedicated activities. No more group lectures and rules.
Let it go.
Strive to be the kind of teacher that students aren't going to try to prove wrong 20 years from now.
Stop telling them things that aren't worth listening to.
Well that was a short post.
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.