The Importance of Curiosity

Teaching should satisfy the curiosity of the children and stoke the curiosity of the teacher. – Sarah Riley

Last week I attended a professional development workshop that had us defining some of our values as teachers. I had done this activity a few years ago because I feel that it is important to know what you value in your life and in your classroom, because it defines what you do, how you act, and… well, it defines pretty much all aspects of your classroom. If you haven’t sat down and defined your own values, I recommend that you do so. It helps so much when it comes to planning, goal-setting, and other aspects of your teaching.

Anyway, because I had already done this activity it was easy for me to write down the three values that were required of us during this activity. Since I finished before most people, I wrote down little sentences to highlight why I find these values to be important. In case you were wondering, curiosity, independence, and exploration were the three values that I wrote down. And the quote above is what I wrote down under the value of curiosity.

I have found that curiosity is a driving force – maybe the driving force – of everything I do in the classroom. I plan around the things that the students show curiosity about, and I learn so much about those things because I have to find resources and plan activities to help them learn about those things. I find myself curious about the things that the children do, how they learn, how they interact with each other, where they need me to take the direction of their learning. There is so much to be curious about in the classroom, and so many ways to satisfy these curiosities.

Reflecting on this quote at this time, I think that I would change it a little bit: I think I would say “Learning should satisfy the curiosity of the student and the teacher, and stoke their curiosities in order that they can learn even more.” When you learn about something, it doesn’t satisfy that desire to learn. Usually when I learn something, it brings about even more questions about even more things that I want to learn about. This is what I mean about stoking that curiosity; it is satisfied about one thing, but it keeps going when it comes to something related or even something totally different.

I heard a great quote on a podcast today (which was quoted from a different podcast that I don’t think I’ve heard yet): the opposite of depression is curiosity. I’m not sure I completely agree with it, but it does make quite a bit of sense. When you are curious, you are striving to figure something out or learn something; you have a goal and a purpose. When you are depressed you don’t have any of those things. No goal, no purpose, no anything. When we are teaching, we should have a goal in mind, something that we are striving for. Interested in how to foster productive relationships in the classroom? Develop a curiosity for how children resolve conflicts, how they learn empathy, and how to teach these skills to them. This is the essence of curiosity in the classroom, and curiosity leads to learning.

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There Are No Bad Children – Three Tips for Discovering the Intent Behind Children’s Actions

I had to give this blog post some time to marinade in my mind before I wrote it because respect to children is at the heart of everything I do. It is inherent in every move I make, every word I type, every book I read to research topics that I want to teach about. I try to make it every part of every move I make in my classroom. Sometimes I don’t succeed (but no human is ever known for perfection), but I know when I do because I enter into a state of flow that only being in sync with the class as a whole can bring.

I recently gave a workshop about classroom environments. This workshop discusses how to create an environment that will be comfortable and engaging to everyone who is in it for the 8-10 hours a day most teachers and children are there. It takes into account the space as a whole, as well as the materials that are in the space. I love doing this workshop because I love seeing what teachers come up with to make their space more comfortable and engaging.

This night, however, there were a couple of teachers who were stressed about the environment in their classroom, and I’m not referring to the classroom or the materials. These teachers were concerned about the children in their class. I’m not going to get into specifics here because I take a firm stand on confidentiality, not just with children but with teachers as well. Suffice to say that the teachers were concerned about the material that I was teaching them because they felt that no matter what they did, how they changed the environment, what kind of materials they put out for the children, they were going to destroy it.

I had no answers at this workshop. I discussed this class at length with these teachers and came up with nothing, but not for a lack of trying. I discussed stress management techniques, which the teachers said that they were using. But when I tried to get to the heart of the problem – the intent of the children – the answer always came back the same: their intent is to destroy whatever they can get their hands on.

I don’t doubt that some children like to destroy things; disconnecting is one of the schemas that children explore countless times throughout their lives. However, these teachers feel that these children destroy things maliciously, with clear intent on destroying materials that don’t belong to them. And no amount of explaining, questioning, suggesting, or hinting was going to make them feel any differently.

Children feel. We all feel, but children feel much more deeply and much more intensely than adults do. Most of the time they do not have the self-control to handle their emotions and will act out in ways that seem destructive in an effort to gain a sense of control over their lives. Our jobs, as teachers, is to discover what is causing such big emotions in the children we care for. It isn’t safe to have children destroying everything, and it isn’t okay either, but rather than slapping a label on the child (“He’s so bad” or “He’ll destroy everything”), why not take some time to figure out why this child is behaving in this way?

1. Observe – Watch the child throughout the day – his interactions with others will probably be the most important here. If the child comes into the classroom all wound up, observe to try to discover why. Observation is your friend here – if you can see the destructive behavior in the context of their own frustration, it may help you find the root cause.

2. Communicate – Ask the child why they are destroying materials. Find out if they are upset – and if they are upset, find out why. We can’t help children feel safe until we know what it is that is making them feel unsafe, and sometimes we won’t know until we ask. Be sure not to sound judgmental – as if the child were doing anything wrong. If you approach a child as if you were mad or angry, they will either lie to you in defense (so they don’t get in trouble)or not say anything at all.

3. Breathe – Breathing is important, for us and for the child. Do some stress management with the child and breathe with them, especially before you have any kind of conversation with them. Our own stress management is important if we are going to approach the child in a non-judgmental way.

Destructive behaviors can be very frustrating, but with these tips, you should be able to help the child come up with solutions to their own frustrations that will help them be more productive and less destructive.

“I Don’t Believe You”

So today I got a lot of writing done. I am determined to get a book done; I’ve been talking about it long enough. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback on Facebook for the topic of the book, and that is a good thing. I did start writing a book about six months ago, but what I was writing was way too much for me to start out with. This one is a lot simpler, and it seems to be coming together fairly well so far. I’m under no illusions when it comes to how long it will take me to get this book put together. I know it takes awhile, and I’m sure that I’ll learn a lot along the way. I’m always up for a good challenge, and I’ve always wanted to write a book.

While I was on the playground today I was listening to another teacher discussing a situation with a child. I’m not sure what the child actually did, but the teacher asked the child about it and the child explained what happened, and then the unexplainable happened: the teacher told the child “I don’t believe you.” I couldn’t really believe that I had heard that; I can understand not believing every word that comes out of a child’s mouth, especially if the child feels that there is a threat of punishment involved. However, to actually tell a child that you don’t believe them?

Think about it this way: Imagine that you are telling someone that you trust a story about something that happened, and they say that they don’t believe you. How do you feel then? Inconsequential? Like the story didn’t even matter? Like they don’t even trust you? How do you build a relationship on that? Working with children requires that we build relationships with them with mutual trust on both sides. If a child is telling you something untrue, then that means that they don’t trust you with the truth. And if you tell them that you don’t believe them, that isn’t going to repair the trust issues that are present. It is only going to make it worse.

I try really hard to make sure that there aren’t these trust issues in my classroom. I don’t use punishment at all. We talk through things until we figure out what happened and we figure out solutions to problems. I try to approach situations with as little judgment as possible so that children feel safe telling me the truth. Lying comes from fear, usually from fear of punishment. If you take away the fear of punishment then lying stops.

So how do you make sure that children know right from wrong without punishment? That is a question that I always get asked, and I just answered while writing my book today. Maybe my next post will be an excerpt.

What Are They Trying to Say?

Today was a big day in our classroom. We have been incubating eggs for about three weeks, and over the weekend several of the eggs hatched. Today was the day that the children got to meet the chicks.

Incubator with thirty eggs

Incubator with thirty eggs

We had talked to the children about chicks and birds and eggs a little bit, but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in it. After all, when you look at eggs for twenty-one days, they really don’t do much. There isn’t a lot to get excited about. But when they hatch – oh, when they hatch!

We decided to make a project out of it. We had the children draw pictures of what they thought the chicks were going to look like before we brought the chicks in for them to meet. The pictures were very interesting, but even more interesting were the quotes. One of the things that I usually do when I have children draw pictures of learning opportunities is ask them to tell me about their pictures, and I write down what they say. It gives me a different perspective – the children’s perspective – when it comes to where the project should go and what topics we should explore.

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The first chick

I usually don’t take a lot of time to look at the quotes and really check them out, but this time was different. I’m not sure if it was all of the work that we had already put into this budding project, or the fact that this time I really wanted to try to do this right, but I really took the time to notice where each child was coming from and what they were trying to explore through their pictures. It was amazing. Some children were focused on gender and how to tell if the chick was a boy or a girl. Some were focused on how the chick would move or fly around. Some were focused on the different parts of the bird. There were many different areas of focus, and each one was worthy of its own place in the life of our project. It was amazing to slow down and really look at what the children were trying to say.

I’ve said this a lot lately, but it becomes increasingly true every time I do something involving my classroom: slow down and look. Listen. Find out what the children are saying through everything that they do. Everything that children do has purpose and meaning, but sometimes we get so involved in teaching that we don’t slow down and listen to them. What are they trying to tell us? What are they trying to teach us? Today, they taught me that if I just slow down enough, I can hear wonderful things – not just in their words, but in their pictures as well. After all, children do have a hundred languages.

“I’m Telling!”

This past weekend I spent most of my time reading a book that I have spent much of the past year saying that I would read: Peter Gray’s Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Now that I’ve read it I really have to wonder what in the world took me so long. Maybe it was school. Or recovery from school. Or switching jobs. Anyway, now I’ve read it, and I will be doing a review of the book sometime in the near future. For now I will just say, if you have wanted a good read about how children learn, this is the book for you.

Today I want to talk about one phenomenon that this book caused me to think about: tattling. Now, before you run out and buy this book because you think that it will help you solve your tattling problems in your classroom, let me make one thing clear: this book never specifically mentions tattling in it anywhere. What it did mention, however, caused me to think about implications in the classroom, one of those being tattling.

Peter Gray talks a lot in this book about how children, when they are left to play on their own with very little involvement or interruption from adults, will negotiate and compromise their way through play. The reason why they can do this is because they realize that if they make someone mad, then that person will leave, and play will stop. No child wants play to stop, so they work on rules and circumstances in their play that will make everyone happy. Gray poses this story in the book to show the point:

Annie (age five years, eleven months) and Beth (five years, two months) were video-recorded by researchers Hans Furth and S. R. Kane as they played an imaginary game in the dress-up area of their after-school day-care center. Annie started the game by saying, “Let’s pretend that we had a ball tomorrow night and we had to get our stuff ready.” Beth responded by picking up a dress and saying, “This was my dress,” thereby demonstrating her implicit acceptance of the play idea and her eagerness to get the prop she wanted most. For the next twenty minutes, the two picked their clothing and accessories and discussed what would happen at the ball. Much of this time was spent haggling over who would play which role and who would get to use which props. They haggled over fancy items of clothing, a telephone, a table, a pair of binoculars, and where each would sleep the night before the ball. In each little argument, each girl gave reasons why she “needed” or “should have” that prop or role, but did so tactfully so as not to offend the other player.

Then, when Annie and Beth had come to a fairly satisfactory agreement on these issues, another little girl, Celia (age four years, nine months) came into the dress-up area from outdoors and asked to join them. They let her in, and then all three began a new round of negotiations about props and roles to include Celia. Each girl felt strongly about such matters as which clothes she would wear, what exactly would happen at the ball, and who was older and had higher status in the play. For the play to go on, they had to reach consensus on every major issue.

Free to Learn, pg. 165

I have done much more in my classrooms to try to allow children the opportunities to work arguments out for themselves, but one of the classroom phenomenons that has constantly baffled me has been tattling. Why do children tattle? Reading this section of this book has put me on a path toward an answer.

As teachers, we position ourselves as the final authority in the classroom. Children are expected to follow what we say, the schedule that we impose, and the rules that we put into place. We are like the president or policeman of the class, I suppose. So if a child gets into a disagreement with another child and something happens that they don’t like, it is much easier to go to the policeman of the classroom than try to work it out on their own. And we perpetuate this by choosing sides in these disputes rather than teaching children how to settle the disputes on their own. It is a lose-lose situation for us and the children; the child we agree with comes out of the argument feeling good, and the child we don’t agree with comes out of the argument feeling angry or upset. No one has learned how to compromise, and no one is more mature about how to work through relationships after an exchange like this. Relationships are all about compromise and working through disagreements. All relationships are built on this, from friendships in preschool to marriages in adult life. We all must learn how to negotiate and compromise so that everyone in the relationship is happy; if we can’t do that then the other person in the relationship will walk away.

I’ve done a little bit to try to turn this trend in my classroom, but to be honest, the children in my classroom don’t tattle too much. But when a child comes up to me with a problem that I think can be worked out, I usually say to them, “That sounds like something that you need to talk to (insert name of other child here) about. How about you say to them (insert appropriate words that can begin a negotiation between the children)?” And then I will observe what happens in an unobtrusive way. Usually one of two things happens: either they go over to the other child and begin to work things out or they decide that it isn’t worth it to them and they walk away. I don’t push them one way or another, and I respect what they decide to do. Even though I recognize that they need to learn how to negotiate, they will only begin to do that when they recognize that I will not be their safety net. And sometimes it really just isn’t worth it, which is why I try to accept what they decide to do. It is their play, after all. Not mine.

This is one of those situations where we have to trust the capabilities of children and trust their ability to learn how to get through those sticky social situations. After all, they aren’t going to have the policeman watching their back and their interactions for the rest of their lives, and they have to learn how to get through those moments. It is time that we gave them the skills they need to work it out on their own, rather than just handing down our own judgments.

 

The Art of Noticing

She was standing by the slide. She put one foot on the rim of the slide and then the other, taking care to balance so that she wouldn’t fall. Then she looked at me.

“I see you balancing,” I said.

She hopped down onto the slide, and then put her feet up on the next rim. And then looked at me again.

“I saw you hop down. And I see you balancing again,” I said.

She hopped down onto the second slide, and then put her feet on the final ledge. After a second of balancing, she jumped down onto the ground and then looked at me.

“I saw you jump down,” I said. “That was a big jump.”

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She ran around the slide and climbed up on the rim again. She kept looking at me when she repeated an action and I kept telling her what I saw. At one point a boy tried to join in her game. “Let’s do this!” he said. “No,” she said. “I’m hopscotching.” I took note of her verbiage and used it the next time she looked at me. “That was a big hopscotch!”I said when she jumped down.

There was an amazing thing happening as I continued telling the girl what I saw her doing. She smiled and she seemed to become more confident in her actions. She also became more careful in her actions, as she discovered that the boots that she was wearing were slippery against the surface of the slide. Each time she slipped I noted that action as well, highlighting in my own way her need to be careful. I kept noting and acknowledging her actions for about ten minutes, until she became tired of the game.

Later in the day I noticed her acting more open towards me. She has always acted shy around me, and sometimes has actively ignored me in favor of other teachers in the room. It has been hard to develop a relationship with her because she has been so cautious towards me that it almost comes across as hostility. But after I actively noticed what she was doing and acknowledged her actions for an extended period of time, the cautiousness seemed to start to melt away. She started talking to me more, and when she looked at me a light danced in her eyes that I hadn’t seen when she looked at me before.

Sometimes all it takes to develop a relationship is to notice what the other person is doing and acknowledge it. It is almost like a support that the other person can use to grow and expand. And it lets them know that you see them. Sometimes that is all that children need – to know that you see them.

Feeling Fall

Today I spent the day reflecting on “concentrating on the forest and forgetting the trees.” This phrase really spoke to me and I spent a lot of time trying to be present and with the children as they played.

Lately I have been spending a lot of time enjoying the beautiful fall colors around; driving has become a lot more difficult because the trees are so beautiful! When we went out to the playground today all I noticed was the leaves all over the ground! It was so beautiful, and it took me back to the days when I was a kid and we made huge leaf piles to jump in! Sometimes jumping in leaves was not the greatest idea in my yard, though, because our primary leaf tree was a black walnut tree. Have you ever jumped on walnuts? They don’t feel too good. This time I wasn’t going to be doing the jumping, though. I grabbed a rake tool that we had on the playground and began moving leaves into a big pile for the children to jump in. They were so happy about this new activity! They were throwing leaves up in the air and helping me gather more leaves into the huge pile. These kids are only three, though, so their attention span is not very long when it comes to piling up leaves without jumping in them. There was a LOT more jumping than there was piling.

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This is what it is all about. These moments are the trees. It didn’t take much for this moment to happen – just a little work from me, a rake, and the wonderful season of fall. And of course, all of the energy from the children that was used for all of that jumping and playing! More moments like this happen all the time. It just takes being present in the moment with the children, listening to them, and figuring out how to turn each moment into a magical one like this. Are all of the moments magical? No, they aren’t. Children have their moments, as do we. But if we really listen to the children we can find the magical moments that happen every day.

Later in the day a crowd of children were sitting in the art center playing with foam letters. They were peeling the paper off of the backs of the letters so that they could stick them on paper. One child had a hole punch and was working with it. I hadn’t seen the children working with the punch before and I was watching him. After a while I remembered that my director had let me borrow a flower punch and I hadn’t given it back to her yet. I got it down for the children and they took turns experimenting with the flower punch. It was another magical moment as I showed the children the flowers that they had made. They all wanted to take flowers home to their families. This activity can be expanded with other punch shapes, and the magic can continue.

These are the trees, and this is what it is all about.

Changing Mindsets Part 3: Observing Classroom Behaviors

In my last two posts I have covered the first five steps that teachers can take to help change their mindset about classroom behaviors. In this post I will focus on the sixth step. These steps are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey.

Step #6: Observe and Understand

The key to changing our mindset about problem behaviors is reframing the intent of the child. For example, if there is a child in your class who constantly hits other children, it is easy to say, “This child is bad,” or “This child just wants to hit for no reason.” Reframing involves observing the child to understand exactly why this child hits. Maybe another child is taking toys from them. Maybe the child feels threatened whenever another child comes near them. It is important to observe so that we can understand as much about what is going on with the child as possible.

When you have a behavioral situation that causes a lot of stress in the classroom, it can be hard to take a step back and simply watch what is going on. Teachers have been conditioned to believe that if there is no punishment happening for bad behavior, then nothing has been done to correct the problem. However, punishing a child for hitting does not teach them why they should not hit, and it does not get to the root of the problem, which is why they are hitting in the first place. Asking yourself these “why” questions can help you begin to reframe the situation and the behavior.

After you have asked yourself why, it is time to find out. The best way to find out why a child behaves a certain way is to watch them and their interactions with others. When observing, it is important to write down what you see so that you can refer back to what you have seen and discover patterns in behavior. Writing down the time that the behavior occurred can also reveal patterns, especially if separate observations are done on separate days. Does the child become more aggressive around lunch time because of the many transitions involved in sitting down to lunch? Or maybe it is because he is tired? Writing down the time while observing behavior can lead to many insights that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Write down as much as possible about the behavior of the child and the children that he/she interacts with. It is okay not to write down every single thing, because at some point you will have to look up to see what is going on in between writing. Through practice you will likely develop your own short-hand, which will make it easier to record more information. When the child exhibits the problem behavior during your observation, you may already have seen why the behavior happened. Be sure to write down that the behavior happened so that you can refer back to it later. It may also be a good idea to allow a co-teacher handle the misbehavior so that you can continue observing the situation. That will make it easier for you to see the progression of behavior after the problem behavior is handled, as well.

Why is this important? We have talked about fight-or flight and what that means. Sometimes teachers can trigger a fight-or-flight response by how they react to a behavior. For example, if our child that has been hitting is hitting because another child has taken a toy from them, and we punish the hitting but do nothing about the toy that was taken away (because our focus is solely on the hitting and not on why the hitting took place) then the child that was hitting will likely continue to stay in fight-or-flight because his stress has actually increased. This may lead to even more aggressive behavior that may seem to be “for no reason,” when the actual reason is because they are still upset about their toy. Situations like this are common in classrooms with two-year-olds or other children who have not developed the verbal skills to articulate what has happened in their social interactions. After observing the child in action, you should be able to determine why their behavior is taking place.

Your action steps for Step Six:

  • Ask yourself why the child is exhibiting the problem behavior.
  • Observe the child to see if you can discover the answer.

In my next post I will discuss using this observation to make a positive connection with the child. To return to Steps Four and Five, click here. To return to the first three steps, click here.

Changing Mindsets Part 2

In the last post, we discussed how important it is to change your mindset when it comes to children’s behaviors. We also worked on three action steps that can help you change your mindset when you become stressed or angry. In this post we will look at two more action steps that will build on the answers that you gave in the previous action steps. These action steps are adapted from the Conscious Discipline program by Dr. Becky Bailey.

  • Step Four: Identify the action that the child does that causes you to feel stress. Does the child:
    • Throw toys?
    • Run around the classroom?
    • Hit other classmates?
    • Bite other students?
    • Some other action?
  • Step Five: Recognize what your actions are when you become upset. What do you feel inclined to do when you are upset? A good place to start is to fill in the blanks in this statement:
    • While upset, my inclination is to punish by ________________ or get the child to feel bad by _______________ or to blame ________________.

In the next post, we will focus on Step Six. To return to the first three steps, click here.

Forming Relationships With Children

In my last two posts (here and here) I have been contemplating forming relationships with children and why it is important. Today I want to talk about how to form those relationships with children.

It all started when I went crazy with planning activities for children on the night after my first day at my new job. I felt crazy doing it, and when I talked to the director about my wild night of planning, she told me that I need to slow down and concentrate on forming relationships with the children. As I began to reflect on why relationships are important, I realized that relationships are formed through doing things with others.

Think about it. When we want to begin a new relationship with someone, we begin doing things with them. We try eating out together to discover what we have in common when it comes to our tastes for food. We do other activities together to discover what we have in common as far as our interests go. And we talk to each other. A lot.

As I was thinking about the processes that we go through to begin new relationships, I realized that I wasn’t too far off the mark. Sure, I didn’t know  what the children are interested in, but I was creating a foundation for finding out. I was making a plan for activities that we could do together to find out more about each other. I didn’t put any of the plan in motion, but I have had several opportunities to find out what some of the children like, and have been able to base the beginning of a relationship on that. For example, gardening is a big part of the school community where I work now, and I have found out which children are interested in gardening and which aren’t. I have even done some gardening with some of them. I have dug up grub worms with some of the children, and we learned more about the life cycle of a Japanese beetle through this activity. Some of the children are wildly interested in airplanes, so we have done a couple of small activities having to do with airplanes. The lead teacher has given me the go-ahead to try to plan a transportation project for the beginning of the year. I have found that a few of the boys are passionate about superheroes, and have already seen some of the negative effects of that passion.

The children and I have even worked on communication. I have talked to the children a lot about their interests, their families, and school life. But we have all practiced communication that helps to heal broken relationships and repair damage done by our actions. These are important lessons that all children should learn, because the skills needed to communicate through relationship issues is a life skill that all people need. Letting people know when what they are doing hurts in some way, and being able to empathize, apologize, and make the situation better is important to every relationship that we have in our life. As teachers, it is important that we are not only teaching these skills to children, but using them ourselves throughout the day as we interact with them. Through these interactions trust is built and relationships grow. Children come to see teachers as not just a disciplinarian or someone who is there to teach them things, but as someone they can talk to and share ideas with, who will take their ideas seriously and help them grow those ideas into something meaningful and fun.

That is what the teacher-student relationship is all about.