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.
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.