One of the more sweltering questions I catch from teachers, when I describe my philosophy, is how on earth I could possibly approach children who “do not follow directions”. The assumption, I believe, is that when you trust children to engage with their childhood in a natural setting, all hell is ordained to break loose, and children will be dangling from the rafters and driving stakes through each other’s hearts, because without constant adult interference, children are reckless, self-destructive animals. It’s startling to me how educated adults can simultaneously be aware that 50 million years of evolutionary data in our bodies have made us incredibly self-preservative and resilient creatures, but also believe that we, as adults, are the single barrier between children and death, destruction, and anarchy.
The phrase “follow directions” sounds reasonable enough; when I hear it, I imagine a child running wildly with scissors in her hand and a teacher walking over to the child, and coolly explaining the reasons how and why that’s hazardous, that the teacher cares profoundly for the child and doesn’t want them to get injured, and then directing the child how to safely grip the scissors going forward. When people say it though, that’s generally not the scenario they have in mind. See, they’re not talking about giving directions to help guide children on their own tasks, they’re talking about brazenly barking orders to control children and enforce compliance. If that sounds overly forceful and authoritative, it’s because most of the time, it is. The hard truth to swallow is that we mistreat children on a widespread scale under the guise of “training them up” or “discipline”. We value compliance in our children, and for some reason we keep declining to learn the lesson of just how treacherous that is.
Setting up a precedent for a child that they are to comply and “follow the directions of” any adult whose care their parents place them in should, just at the surface, raise at least fifty red flags. We know children are abused more often by people their parents know and trust—most of the time family members—and children are frequently thrust into recurring victim roles because they feel compelled to comply with their abuser’s instructions in performing the abuse and comply with their abuser’s instructions in keeping the abuse secret. We cannot expect children to be able to decipher whose authority reigns over them when we consistently push the narrative that “adults are correct and must correct you when you’re bad”. But, like any manipulation strategy, this notion is supported by reasonable sounding arguments—just reasonable enough to continue this unfortunate trend.
Ask any teacher why children “need” to learn to “follow directions” and you might have your ear talked right off. Ask any teacher when the last time they truly “followed directions” they thought were professionally assistive was, and you might hear crickets. Ask any childcare director how they feel about their regulations, and you’ll start to notice, the whole idea of following others’ directions in adulthood isn’t very respected. So, why on earth do we believe it’s some skill children need to possess?
I hear quite often that learning to follow directions aides in children’s learning because it sets up an environment where children value the patterns and chronology of learning. Children must follow directions on how to make this shape so that they can make this letter. In reality, however, we know that children already recognize and value patterns and chronology, to an extent that we as adults often mistake as chaotic or spontaneous, but which is far more profound and which evolves into a heightened comprehension of presented concepts, because the connections were made genuinely and naturally.
The other argument is that children “need” to learn to “follow directions” because the directions are meant to neutralize the environment for optimal group focus. Things like sitting on the floor, at your desk, or standing in line “the right way” or knowing “when to be quiet” are purported to be life-long academic skills, when in reality, we know the greatest academics in history are and were the kinds of people to whom these types of rules struck as restrictive and arbitrary. We can blame the corporations who fund the tests we use to evaluate our schools and therefore sponsor the curricula we use in our districts because they want to build compliant future employees, but the problem truly is deeper than that: we don’t know how to teach anymore.
Ditch Skinner, and ditch everything you know about him, or were taught in your teaching program about him, unless you are now a dog trainer. A good portion of teachers engage in behaviors that look less like teaching and more like training—or, conditioning—and while, for the most part, their real-time results seem rationally apparent, the fact of the matter is that because conditioning doesn’t involve any kind of executive functioning for the conditioned party, it’s pointedly not the same as learning.
Conditioning can happen a number of ways, but it always relies on the power of the party doing the conditioning. It’s how we train dogs, and, for some reason, how we feel obligated to teach kids. We can condition with what might look like positive reinforcement, but when used on children, such action also requires a looming fear of a negative deterrent. For instance: behavior charts. Teachers can say “it’s positive reinforcement because I reward children who are ‘good’ by placing them on the green,” but they’re also relying on children fearing being placed on the “red”, so it’s not really positive reinforcement. Frame it however you like, it’s just not positive reinforcement.
When children are caught up with desiring the currency of a manufactured reward or fearing the humiliation of a punitive deterrent, the subtext as to why they’re learning what they’re learning, how to apply it to their daily life, and how to expand on it in the future is lost in that transaction. If I’m sitting still and “turning on my listening ears” because I’m afraid of being placed “on red” or losing my recess, I am not making any vital connections with the concepts I’m being presented with, and I’m certainly not making any life-long connections to being a team player for my future employer, I’m just afraid of being humiliated and will do what it takes to avoid that.
I believe anyone who is called to the teaching profession—myself included—is susceptible to conditioning as a strategy for completing the horribly involved task of implementing an institutionalized curriculum, so none of this is to say that all teachers are horrible and the school system is set out to abuse children. That’s very much so not the case. Circulatory and institutional misguidance is part of the fabric that weaves through the parts of teaching and education as a field that rely on science. It’s very easy to tumble into this groove of desperately needing children to stop acting like children so you can complete the unit and not be punished for unfavorable test scores. That part of the system is decidedly broken, no matter where you stand. Teaching has to be an act of love—an act of sharing.
This act of love can’t necessarily be lectured into existence. It starts with constructing sturdy relationships with each child, as well as tending to and maintaining those relationships over time. When you’re teaching as an act of sharing, the incentive for a child to follow your lead and flow with your guidance is that the child respects you and knows—whether or not they can articulate it—that you have their best interest at heart. Sure, there may still be a deterrent to where the child may fear disappointing you, but that can subside with time if you just simply permit them to disappoint you and prove to them that you won’t allow that to shape how you perceive them as a human being, and that you’re there to help.
Most importantly, when we learn from people we respect, whom we feel are here to encourage and inspire us, whom we know will let us expand on our own to build upon our education ourselves, that knowledge is more likely to stick with us forever.
So what can we do as educators to change this? It sounds simple but in reality, it’s too complicated to even fathom at face value, and requires a personal, unduplicable journey for each educator:
We have to shift our expectations of children to be more in line with each child personally, and a more comprehensive understanding of their development, and not allow children behaving like children to stress us out.
We have to defer our sense of self-importance and refuse to demand reverence and respect.
We have to focus on building authentic relationships with children.
We have to understand that trust and respect are things you earn, and you don’t earn them by punishing people or sending harsh notes home when they aren’t giving it to you.
And finally, the part I find the hardest, is opening the lines of communication with parents to take responsibility when our relationships with children are lacking: rather than “your child refuses to follow directions”, “we’re working on building our trust and respect to where we can accomplish our individual goals together and here’s how we can do that moving forward”.
Because that’s what the world needs right now.
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.