Corporate Educational Structures Don't Just Turn Children into Numbers, They Turn Teachers into Hypocrites
I'm back! It's been a while since I've written here, as I've been swamped and going one hundred miles per hour with the new center, but I did feel it to be incredibly important to write about something I've been thinking about over the past few weeks: childcare is not an office job.
So often, we want to structure the way our programs work as employers in the way other professional employers--even schools--do. We want there to be a clear and definite hierarchy, each having its own rights, purposes, and duties. We want there to be a centralized location where questions, complaints, and conversations can happen, perhaps in part to take that load off of others' shoulders, but more likely so that nobody says "the wrong thing".
I don't know about any other states' environmental norms in the childcare field, but I can tell you that it's not uncommon for large childcare programs in my state to be hostile work environments, sometimes due to unkind or overstressed administrators, but more commonly due to conflict amongst teachers.
Prior to starting my own program, I had worked at only one center where I wasn't constantly getting complained to about how horrible this job is, how horrible the kids are, how horrible that teacher in the next room is. It was like high school. The complaining and badmouthing would fester and fester, reach a boiling point, and that's when someone would go to the administrator to file a complaint about the person they didn't like.
For instance, I started in a program where I was asked to overhaul disciplinary practices. Everything was going extremely well. I was having a blast, my coworkers were kind and receptive, and the parents were seeing positive changes in the dynamic of the classroom. This was fantastic, until one day, the director sat me down and said, "Look, [other 4-5's teacher from a different room] is upset because you've changed so much in your room and she feels like you're changing too much because your classes are doing completely different things every day". I was dumbfounded. Not that this was a ridiculous thing to be upset about (because it was ridiculous), and not because it was outrageous that my director was humoring it (because it was outrageous)--I was dumbfounded because I couldn't have just been told, in person, by the person who had the problem with me.
Good practice in child development revolves around trusting children--that they can solve their own problems or know how to get the right tools to solve their own problems. To me, that also means that if a child comes to me to "tattle" on another child, I say, "do you have the right words to talk to her about it?" rather than jumping in and fixing the problem. It just hurts that often times, we as adults can't meet that expectation ourselves.
Part of it has to do with having these corporate structures and hierarchies. We're so afraid of conflict that we think having a human resources person means the issue can be brought out before it becomes a conflict. I believe, however, that once there is an issue, it is a conflict, and only the people experiencing the issue or are impacted personally by the issue should be on a quest to resolve it. Nothing is more frustrating than being "told on". Nothing makes a conflict more severe than being "told on". Being complained about to an administrative body only serves to contribute to a hostile work environment. I can promise you no misunderstandings, general disliking someone, or heated conflicts have really been resolved by bringing the boss into the equation. Perhaps calmed, perhaps thrown into a resentful silent treatment, but never resolution.
So how do we solve conflicts with our coworkers? Well, we can model what we want to see children do. If someone is complaining about their job and their complaining is annoying you, use your words! "If you have an issue with your job description, I would really like you to talk to administration, not me." If someone is telling embarrassing stories about the teacher down the hall? "I would really prefer you not talk about my coworkers like that, it's disrespectful." If someone is taking too long of a break? "Hey, your break went over its time today." Sure it might be awkward right then and there, but I can promise you it's only going to be 100 times more awkward if your boss has to tell the other teacher that you have a problem with them.
Also? If you're going to be the complaining type, just save the complaining about your job, coworkers, or administrators for sometime other than the time you're supposed to be caring for children. They don't need to be there for that. However, if you're in the room with someone who does choose to complain, you have the responsibility of modeling to the children that that behavior isn't healthy, right, or conducive to a positive environment by requesting that it stop, because simply nodding and throwing in a "wow" or "okay" here and there is the kindling that keeps that fire going. Enabling bad behavior is a bad behavior, right?
Use your words!
by Travis Tagart
Disclaimer: I am writing this without any edits. I usually edit two or three times before posting.
Because I wanted to write this article while memories are fresh, I chose to stick it out and write after working an exhausting 12 hour shift. Be gentle! :)
The ability to reflect upon choices made in the classroom throughout the day, and have those reflections impact pedagogy indefinitely is what separates teachers from great teachers. I really aspire to be a great teacher, so it's time for some reflection. Which essentially means I've got a story for you.
In reality, I was so stumped by this entire situation, I was essentially forced to reflect on my responses and actions as it was happening, which is sort of the opposite of "reflection"--it might be called "thinking"? It was sort of unlike anything I've ever experienced with a preschool aged child, and that's possibly because it happened with an especially emotionally and intellectually mature, outspoken, and deep-thinking child who I will call "Jack".
I like to think I have a very solid, trusting relationship with Jack. My new center being only a few weeks old, we haven't known each other very long but the fact that we're in such a small group allows for trusting, honest, authentic relationships to build quickly like that. I know enough about him to make conscious choices in my responses to his behavior which intrigue, invoke, compliment, and challenge his thinking and motivation, and (and this is what I learned today) he knows enough about me to do the same.
So, we had some snack passed around and we were all in different areas of the classroom. Jack was eating greek yogurt and cereal in a cup and was doing a strange dance with the cup. When he got a spoon full of yogurt, he did a spin that splattered yogurt all over my shirt as I was sitting down before him. Wanting to communicate that I was not offended or hurt by this mistake, I laughed and jokingly said, "be careful with that!"
So he splattered me with yogurt again. Deliberately. So at this point, many teachers in this situation would have said "time out!" or expressed disdain with the behavior, but the reason I stopped using time-out was because I felt like it was a lazy way to avoid the work of digging deep and investigating behavior. Just like this situation, I was actually the catalyst in this behavior; I was causing it. So what would a time-out accomplish?
I laughed again, and looked at my coworkers, while saying something along the lines of "I asked for that one because I was laughing." I didn't have any authentic responses. Did this bother me? Not really. I don't care about messes. I dress for mess. Is this a behavior I want to encourage? Of course not. My response for him was not authentic, and he picked up on it. I threw my voice into an incredibly submissive and vulnerable tone, saying, "I don't like that." It was not believable.
Then, the entire cup came flying at me and hit the wall, yogurt splattering everywhere. My face lost emotion and so did my voice. I stood up and took a deep breath and said, "Lets go get some paper towels so you can clean up your yogurt."
"I don't want to," he said.
I responded. "You are going to clean up the mess that you made because we don't want the yogurt to go bad sitting in our classroom."
"If it's we, why do I have to clean it?" He asked me. I didn't understand that question until the drive home, hours after the fact. If we don't want the yogurt to go bad, why do I have to clean it up by myself?
I retrieved some paper towels and handed them to him. He retreated to an opposite corner of the room, where the art materials are kept, and began ripping the paper towel up. I went over and pressed; "What do you need in order to clean the mess you made?"
"Do you need me to help you clean it?"
"No." At this point, I was the source of enough embarrassment for him. I think he just wanted me to back off. I was forcing a kind of immediate accountability he couldn't accommodate, sort of like he owed me $100, only had $50, and couldn't get the other $50 until next week, but I kept demanding it be paid today. I was loan-sharking his accountability. He had thought I was in on a game he was playing with the yogurt, and suddenly I wasn't. To him, I had this sudden decision to not approve of this game and am now treating him like he's at fault for it. Nothing about that situation is fair. But I wonder how many children are treated this unfairly on a regular basis...
One of his friends came over with her snack in her hand. I asked him again what he needed to clean up his mess. He said he wanted his friend's help. I responded, "that's up to her." She agreed to do so after her snack.
"That's very generous of you." I said. I still sat there, watching Jack as if there was more to this story which had essentially been resolved. He began deconstructing--which is what I call the act of pulling things off of the shelf for the purpose of watching them crash to the floor, sort of like when toddlers just dump out baskets of items because it's awesome.
I didn't get it. Now, I can think of many reasons he'd do this. I'm staring at him still, and he doesn't know what my goal is. He's waiting for his friend to finish her snack, but doesn't know if he's allowed to do anything else while we're suspended in this pseudo-power struggle. My intent was to make eye contact with him and talk to him more, but obviously that's not what he needed right then. Eventually, most of the shelf's contents were on the floor.
"Help me understand what you're trying to tell me, Jack." I implored. I'm not sure if I expected any kind of response. We were so dissonant. We were on very different wavelengths and it was hard to find any kind of common ground, and I so desperately wanted to understand what was going on. Two very strong willed people, a child and teacher, horribly misunderstanding the other's intentions and message, both not using quite the right language to resolve and understand this.
"Can I help you pick this up?" I asked.
He told me he wanted his friend, who'd agreed to help him clean up his earlier mess after she was finished eating, to help him. She chimed in from a table a denial of this request. Plus, at this point, assuming (based on previous events) that his intent was to have her simply do this for him, I added, "I think you can clean up these messes you've made with me."
He crumbled to pieces. He threw his head into his hands. Until this point, he had been really put together. I had no idea there was any anxiety, stress, or sadness going on at all behind this behavior. As far as I knew, we were having a really regular conversation, with very regular voices, and very regular behavior choices. Obviously I incredibly misread the signals he was sending me. There was a lot going on in his head that I did not pick up on throughout this process. He was just as confused by my behavior as I was with his. Only my persistence in trying to force a discussion with him and inviting him to clean something I'd embarrassed him about without the sweet relief of at least doing it with someone who wasn't involved in the embarrassment was making his confusion so much more profound. Like it or not, I had essentially burned my image into the association of his feeling embarrassment in the moment I stopped laughing and got serious and apparently intolerant, and the constant reminder of this was not going to accomplish anything worth accomplishing.
After crying for a moment, he quickly retreated to the top loft of our "bunk bed" in the classroom, and cried into a pile of blankets and pillows. That's when I suddenly understood everything I'd misunderstood. My heart broke. I was truly empathic with him. I felt the feelings he was feeling: dejection, exhaustion, embarrassment, the horror of something you're sensitive about being drug out before everybody like the airing of dirty laundry.
He cried for a while. I thought for a while. We both took a lot of deep breaths. I climbed up onto the side of the bunk bed and looked into his eyes. Remembering the importance of teachers admitting their mistakes and holding themselves accountable to their students, I held his hand and asked him, "Did you think I liked to get messy with the yogurt?"
"Jack, I'm sorry I didn't use the right words to tell you that I didn't want you to get me messy like that. Next time I'll make sure you understand me so you won't get confused and keep doing it."
I believe that children do not just learn their behavior from the people around them. I believe that they learn what kind of behavior to expect from others from the people around them. I want to make sure that the children with whom I interact know and understand that relationships with people who refuse to admit to their mistakes, refuse to make amends for miscommunication or misunderstandings, or refuse to care enough to spend the time to investigate confusion, are not relationships worth having.
It took a while for "Jack" to return to his normal self. Later, when speaking with Jack and his friend, I spoke out: "I learned something today."
"What?" He asked.
"I learned that if I have a problem with something someone is doing, I need to use my words and tell them that I really don't like it so that nobody has to be confused about it."
Jack's eyes lit up "I learned that too!"
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.
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.
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.
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.