Classroom Discipline: Taking Toys

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During one of my more recent workshops we were discussing observation and what to do if there is a conflict in the classroom. “If we don’t know who had a toy first, and two kids are fighting over it,” said a teacher, “its okay to take the toy and put it up, right?”

Why We Shouldn’t Take Toys

It is almost a reflex that we have, as teachers: if children are fighting over a toy, we put the toy up and give the children a chance to cool off, usually saying something like, “If you can’t play with the toy without fighting over it, then you won’t be able to play with it.” The problem with using this method is that most tug-of-wards over toys happen because children don’t know the words to use to express what they want, so they try to take. If we are simply taking the toy away and moving the children to another activity, they aren’t learning the words that they need in order to prevent a tug-of-war from happening again. Children need to learn how to stand up for themselves and say “NO” to another child that is trying to take their work, or even trying to harm them in some way. This teaches assertiveness, a key skill that children need that will enable them to stand up to bullying and other threatening behaviors later in life. The ability to be assertive also boosts self-esteem as children learn how to stand up for themselves, their desires, and their needs.

What We Should Do Instead

When children are involved in a tug-of-war over a toy, we should first try to figure out who had the toy first. Teachers should always try to know who had what in the classroom so that they can easily solve these kinds of issues. Usually when I am doing a workshop, the words “Observation is SO important in the classroom” leave my lips at least once during the workshop. This is a time when observation is so important. It is important that we observe enough to know who has what, because we are better able to help children solve their social problems the more we know about the situation. Once we know who had the toy first, we can coach that child to tell the other child “NO” or “I don’t like it” if they are a younger child (1-3 years old). If they are older, we can teach them to use even more words: “I don’t like it when you take my toy. Please give it back.” Usually, the words are enough for the offender to give back the toy.

Our job during these altercations is not to hand down a sentence or an ultimatum; when we take toys and put them up, that is what we are doing. Our job is to coach the children to the solution. We have to back up the child that had the toy first by telling the offender, “He didn’t like it when you took his toy. You can ask him if you can use it when he is done with it.” This teaches the child the words to use if they want something that someone else has, and teaches him how to respect the rights of the child that has the toy. For younger children, we can simply say, “He is playing with this toy right now. Let’s do _________ until he is done with it.” This beginning step shows the younger child how to respect the rights of others, and helps them ease into an alternative while they are waiting for their turn.

But I Already Told You, I Don’t Know Who Had The Toy!

Okay, you really don’t know who had the toy, and this can be a real problem for teachers of younger children who can’t tell you who had the toy first. One thing that I have found through trying to solve this problem in my own classroom is that the child who had the toy first will be the most upset when it is taken. It is almost akin to the story of the Wisdom of King Solomon. When I worked with younger children and there was a tug-of-war, I would take the toy just to end the tug-of-war. Usually one child would move away and the other child would become more upset. I would give the toy back to the child that was upset.

Why Do You Do This?

Any time you take something away from a child, it triggers a fight-or-flight response. The child does not feel safe any longer and reacts to this (hostile, in their minds) takeover by becoming upset. Different children can manifest this response in different ways, from crying to an all-out tantrum. Because we want children to feel safe and loved at preschool, we need to do anything we can to minimize the fight-or-flight response and foster connections and relationships with the child instead. This is one of the reasons why I say that it is SO important to be observant and know what is going on in the classroom as much as you possibly can. The more you know, the more you can do to help children who are involved in tricky social situations like this.

Do You Have Any Questions About How To Handle Other Classroom Situations?

If you do, just post your questions in the comments section below and I will try to feature them in an upcoming blog post!

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Mindfulness on the Playground

The word “mindfulness” has been thrown about quite a bit in the education field lately. Usually people use it to talk about meditation in the classroom and giving children a chance to experience the stillness of that but to me, mindfulness means something much greater to me. Being mindful means being aware of yourself in relation to others and being aware of others – aware of their feelings and their physical presence. It means being aware of your own emotions and how they affect you throughout your day. That is a lot for a young child to handle, and every day is a new lesson in what it means to be mindful.

Yesterday I was watching several boys playing on the playground. They had tipped a wheelbarrow over onto its side and they were throwing rocks at it. Each time a rock hit the wheelbarrow it made a loud, satisfying sound. I enjoyed watching the boys as they threw their rocks at that wheelbarrow because they seemed to really be enjoying their sound effects.

wheelbarrow

wheelbarrow strategically on its side

And then it happened. Since the boys were throwing rocks at the wheelbarrow, they eventually had to retrieve their rocks so that they could throw them again. One boy went to retrieve his rock just as another boy was throwing his, and it hit him in the head. Luckily, it wasn’t a big rock; otherwise this story would have a much different ending. But it was big enough that the boy started crying, prompting me to go over to him and ask him what was wrong (as if I hadn’t been watching their play). As if sensing the gravity of the situation and anticipating getting into really big trouble, the other boys scattered as soon as I came near them. I comforted the boy with the hurting head and called the others back over to me, explaining that no one was in trouble, but that I really needed them to watch out for their friends’ bodies when they get ready to throw a rock. No one wants to be hit by a rock, and getting hit by a rock hurts! I prompted them to make sure that their friend was okay, and then I coached them on how to look and make sure that no one was standing in between their rock and the wheelbarrow before they threw the rock.

Rocks ripe for throwing

Rocks ripe for throwing

This seems like a very counter-intuitive way to handle a situation where boys are throwing objects that could very well be deemed extremely dangerous. After all, someone could seriously get hurt by a thrown rock. Someone did get hurt. But the boys had been throwing rocks for five minutes before someone got hurt. Five minutes is a long time when you are talking about boys throwing and retrieving rocks. The rock that hit the boy was not thrown with malice; it hit the boy by mistake which created a learning experience for all of us.

That is what we need to be aware of when we look at different situations around the classroom and outside: what is the intent of the child. If the intent had been to hurt someone by throwing a rock at them, then I would have stopped the game and directed the children to something else. This was not the case, so there was no reason why the boys could not continue their game. They just had to be aware that they needed to look out for the other boys when they threw a rock at the wheelbarrow. Throwing rocks isn’t an activity that I endorse simply for the pleasure of throwing a rock, but these boys had another end entirely in mind: they wanted to hear the sound that the rock made when it hit the wheelbarrow. Because of that, I felt that there was no need to stop an activity that had such an innocuous goal. A little while later another teacher on the playground commented that the boys should not be throwing rocks and the game was ended. But valuable lessons were learned with the freedom to throw those rocks: the sound they make against metal, and the fact that they can hurt people so we need to be careful with them. Wise mindfulness lessons, indeed.

The Flow of the Project

I’ve been doing some form of project work with my classes for the last two or three years. It hasn’t been quite as structured as I’m learning to do project work because I didn’t have as much knowledge about it, but it has been there, based on what I learned through the reading that I did do. As I work in a center that is more focused on providing opportunities for project work as an educational philosophy, I grow to appreciate the flow of the project and of the day. There are times when the teacher has to facilitate a discussion, or plan an activity, or devise an addition to a center to enhance play. And then there are times when the teacher needs to just stand back and watch it all unfold.

I have long been a proponent of observation as a key – THE key – to high-quality teaching. There is no way to know what the class is interested in without observation. There is no way to know what the children are learning from discussions without observing them as they play to see what aspects of the discussion they are carrying with them and using. There is no way to know what direction to take the project without watching observing to see what the children are wondering or what misconceptions they show through their play. There is no way to truly understand the hearts of the children in the classroom without observing them.

Observation is so important, and taking the time to observe actions, words, and interactions is the key to being able to figure out what truly needs to be taught. Academic knowledge is wonderful and it has its place in my classroom, but I like to think of myself as a teacher of life. In order to teach about life, I have to clue myself in to the lives of the children in my care. I can’t do that by standing in front of them spouting out facts and then viewing their play time as a time for me to get some of my busy work done. I am just as involved in their play as they are, but I am noticing, noting, planning, questioning, and documenting. I am finding ways to help their learning come alive. Taking time to be still and let the children show me their lives is an essential part of the flow of the project.

Connect With Your Values

Values are beliefs about life that people hold. These beliefs cause people to act certain ways consistently. The values that you hold affect your teaching style, as well as how you interact with students. Identifying your values can help you focus your energy and your passion. Creating focus can help you illuminate goals that you want to pursue for your classroom and get you on the right track to obtaining those goals. When I defined my core values several years ago I found that creativity and natural curiosity were very important to me. My mission became finding ways to bring creativity out and allow for the children to satisfy their natural curiosity in safe, productive ways. Identifying and defining these values opened up a whole new world when it came to communicating with children and providing them with unique, creative learning opportunities.

So how about you? What are the values that are important to you? How do you define them?

The first step to defining your values is to define who you are at your best, so take a moment and think about who you are when you are at your best.

Now think of someone that you deeply respect. What are three qualities that this person possesses that you admire the most?

Now you are going to define your values. It takes about five core values to create a foundation for a great teaching practice. Pick your five from the list below:

Authenticity Happiness Balance
Harmony Caring Enthusiasm
Joyfulness Justice Flexibility
Cooperation Courtesy Honor
Beauty Commitment Health
Compassion Honesty Humor
Integrity Courage Reliability
Love Orderliness Creativity
Empathy Kindness Knowledge
Excellence Loyalty Openness
Fairness Faith Perseverance
Respect Family Peacefulness
Truthfulness Self-Discipline Tolerance
Freedom Friendship Responsibility
Security Generosity Genuineness
Service. Serenity Self-care
Gratitude Patience Trust
Prayerfulness Reverence Mercy
Self-Expression Gentleness Bravery
Discovery Energy Community
Community Connection Practicality
Individuality Fearlessness Imagination
Control Depth Encouragement
Challenge Calmness Serenity
Playfulness Change Strength
Gratitude

After choosing five core values, can you identify the one that is the most important to you?

When you have decided which value is the most important to you, it is time to make it you yours – you need to own it! Explore this value and what it has to offer. Find out what the definition of the word is, and look up quotes from people who have talked about your value. Doing this will help bring this value into greater focus in your mind, and will help make your path clear. After you have done some research into your value, write down what your value means to you and why it is important to you. Really take the time to identify with this core value, because this will become the foundation for the next section in the R.E.S.P.E.C.T.ful Classroom Management series.

Let Them Be

I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to some of the teachers that I worked with at my old school. We had a great time talking and catching up, since it has been about a month and a half since I have seen any of them. They are all doing well, and I was glad to hear about how their lives have been since I left.

One of the things that we talked about was different types of teachers. “There’s the paper pusher,” said one girl. “And there’s the nurturer. And the by-the-book teacher.”

I really didn’t want to sound like I was fishing, but I wanted to know. “Which one do you think I am? I am definitely not the by-the-book teacher. And I’m not the paper pusher. And I’ve never really felt all that nurturing.”

“Oh, you are definitely the nurturer,” they assured me. “You let the kids be kids. You let them explore and play and enjoy childhood. And you let them experience independence, even if you have to get on the case of other teachers to do it!” One of the girls told a story about how she had attempted to help a child carry a bowl of milk to the sink, saying that he was getting it all over the floor. “Then he will clean it up!” I had snapped at her. That was toward the end of my tenure there, and I was really stressed out at the time. But one of the things that I have always tried to teach children is that messes aren’t a bad thing. We clean them up and we move on. But if that boy hadn’t had the experience carrying his own bowl of milk, he wouldn’t have had that practice balancing objects or developing his hand-eye coordination. A few drops of milk spilled is worth the development of those precious skills.

I had just had a talk with a co-teacher at my new school about children and letting them be. She was worried about how the children in the class were going to be when they got to kindergarten, because they were acting crazy at the time. “You can’t worry about how these children are going to be when they are in kindergarten,” I told her. “They are three years old. Right now we have to let them be three years old. If we worry about how they are going to be in kindergarten, and worry about getting them ready for that, then we are taking away their chance to experience being three.”

I believe in letting children be. I believe that their time is now, and we have to let them be what they are right now. Does that mean that we should not teach them, with an eye toward the future? No, it doesn’t. We can teach them, but not to the detriment of where they are now.

This brings new light to the yoga wisdom ‘be present’. To me it says that we need to be aware of where we are right now. But as a teacher, it also says that we need to be aware of where the children are right now, and we need to remember that, no matter what they have coming in a month, six months, a year, or two years from now, we need to meet them at this present time and enjoy where they are right now, in this moment. We need to bring our present selves to enjoy their present selves.

It also brings to mind the call of emergent curriculum advocates to capitalize on the current interests of the child. Children are interested in exploring different aspects of life, and their interests can take your teaching in unexpected directions. I have always loved the spontaneity of emergent curriculum because I never know what we are going to be learning about. Learning winds down unanticipated roads, and I confess to learning many new things simply by doing research into the areas of interest that the children in my class exhibited. This is ‘being present’ at its finest: paying attention and observing the children to the point that their interests are plain to you, and then planning lessons based on what you have observed.

In both cases of being present, we are being respectful of who the child is and letting them be that person. I believe that teachers should have respect for the unique individuals that come into our classrooms, and should not try to force that uniqueness to conform to our ideas of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’. I am not saying that we should let children get away with hurting others or acting out-of-control. There are respectful ways to teach children how to respect others around them. What I am talking about is not forcing children to constantly do what we want them to do, but let them do and learn the things that they want. They will learn more that way, and they will grow to love learning. We need to let them explore, let them grow, and let them be who they are. And most of all, we need to be present with them through all of that.

Reconnecting With Yourself

Teachers have a knack for putting the needs of others before their own. Children cry out for attention, and very young children have constant needs for teachers to meet. Teachers must also meet the needs of the program that they work for. Demands on teachers are constant, and it is all too easy for teachers to focus on the needs of the others around them to the detriment of themselves.

I struggle every day with keeping a feeling of authenticity in my classroom. Being an authentic teacher can mean many different things to different teachers, but to me being authentic means teaching from the heart, from the wellspring of passion that lives inside you and comes out in the classroom. Teachers do what they do because they are passionate about teaching, but a lot of teachers have lost touch with the passion that they had when they first started teaching. Meeting the demands of everyone around them at the expense of their own needs can quickly push teaches towards burnout. Some teachers find themselves stuck in a rut when it comes to their teaching, preventing the same information year after year until the material feels old and uninspired. Some teachers just feel so drained from the energy that it takes to meet the demands of others that they have nothing left to create new and inspiring material for the class. These feelings directly affect the relationships with the children that they teach.

Are your classroom relationships run down because of a general lack of magic and fire throughout the day? How do you get that fire back and re-ignite the passion and joy that you have for teaching?

The key is to take a step back and reconnect with yourself and with the passion that had you excited to teach . You have to reconnect with the passionate, purposeful teacher that you were and rediscover the reasons why you wanted to teach in the first place. Take a moment and write down any thoughts that you have about the reasons why you started teaching.

Now that you have reconnected with that part of yourself that wanted to be a teacher, it is time to reconnect with that part of yourself that truly loves to teach. You need to define what makes teaching meaningful to you and what part of teaching you enjoy the most. Write down your thoughts and really connect with that part of yourself that is passionate about teaching.

Next you need to think back and remember some of the activities and projects that really got you excited. Some projects that excite you may even be those that you have seen but feel like you can’t accomplish. What kind of projects get you excited? Be specific, and use lots of descriptive words to define the projects.

Finally, think back to the days when you couldn’t wait to get out if the bed and teach. What was it that had you so excited and eager to be in the classroom back in those days?

Hopefully the answers that you have given to these questions have built up a spark, a reconnecting with that passion to teach that is inside you. In later posts we are going to build on this spark and use it to build a foundation for passionate, authentic teaching. Whenever I begin to feel burnt out or stressed about my teaching, I always return to this exercise because it is truly inspiring to reconnect with that passionate part of myself and remember what it is about teaching that I am so passionate about.

Moving and Stretching for Stress Management

Moving helps increase blood flow to all areas of the body, including the brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, movement increases the production of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that help you feel good. These neurotransmitters can counteract the ones that the brain releases during the fight or flight response and put you back in the driver’s’ seat. Sometimes lowering the stress in the classroom can be as simple as taking the children outside to let them run and play for a while. However, in some child care centers or schools the day can be quite scheduled. Sometimes the weather may not allow for the children to be outside. There are many reasons why children may not be able to go outside. In those situations it may be worth it to try one of these methods instead:

  • Yoga – A lot of people are intimidated by yoga because they have seen pictures of skinny, flexible people bending themselves into impossible poses. Those poses and that stereotype are not the essence of yoga. Yoga is about accepting what you can’t do and focusing on what you can do, no matter who you are. Yoga pairs breathing and movement in such a way that you can’t help but relax. There are several resources available for doing yoga with children, including sets of cards that have pictures of different poses on them (these are the ones I use). You can use the cards as a large group activity, or children can practice with them independently.
  • Simple stretches – Developing a series of simple of stretches can help your class relax and increase blood flow. Touching your toes or doing a windmill are just a couple of examples of effective stretches. Doing exercises that cross the body can also help stimulate both sides of the brain, as well.

Remember, just like breathing exercises, moving and stretching should be performed throughout the day to fight stress build-up. And moving should be fun! Fun releases stress, too, so don’t take yourself too seriously during these exercises! Kids are only kids one time, so give them good memories of stress management and don’t make the process add more stress to the situation.

 

Breathing Techniques for Stress Management

In my last post I discussed why breathing is a wonderful tool to use for stress management. In this post I am going to highlight some breathing techniques that have worked wonderfully with the children in my classrooms. They have been so engaging that the children usually voluntarily perform the techniques on their own when they become stressed. Some of these techniques are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey.

  • S.T.A.R. Breathing – S.T.A.R. stands for Smile, Take a deep breath, And Relax. The technique involves raising your arms up to the sky when you are breathing in and lowering them to your sides as you are breathing out. Pairing the movement to the breathing helps get blood flowing to the brain, as well.
  • Balloon Breathing – This breathing technique is bound to be a classroom favorite. The technique: interlace your fingers on top of your head. As you breathe in, raise your arms like you are inflating a balloon. As you exhale, purse your lips to make a ‘pfffft’ sound, similar to the sound a balloon makes when you let the air out.
  • Smell a Flower, Blow the Petals – Students should imagine that their finger is a flower and pretend to smell it as they inhale. Then, as they exhale, they should pretend that they are blowing the petals of the flower away.
  • Smell a Cookie, Blow the Soup – This technique is similar to ‘Smell a Flower, Blow the Petals’ except that students are pretending to smell a cookie and blow soup instead.

There are a couple of key things to remember when it comes to using breathing for stress management:

  • Encourage children to breathe slowly and be mindful of completely filling their lungs with air. One thing that I have learned to do is ask students to put one hand on their belly so that they can feel their stomach rise and fall with their breath. This will help them think about what happens as they breathe.
  • Sometimes children will try to perform the breathing exercises very quickly. While this is just as fun to do as the breathing techniques described above, there is very little stress management benefit from breathing quickly because the lungs do not fill all the way. One way to get children to slow down is to highlight the contrast to them: “Wow, you were breathing very fast! Now let’s see how slowly we can breathe.”

In my next post I will highlight some stress management techniques that emphasize movement.

 

Using Breathing to Relieve Stress

Breathing is the simplest and easiest stress management tool to use, but using breathing for stress management requires more than the type of breathing that we normally do throughout the day. When we become stressed our breathing becomes shallow. Some people even involuntarily hold their breath when they are under stress. The American Institute of Stress states that “abdominal breathing for 20-30 minutes each day will reduce anxiety and reduce stress. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a sense of calmness.” While we don’t have time to stop everything and practice deep breathing for 20 to 30 minutes every time we run into a stressful situation, stopping long enough to take a couple of deep breaths is enough to move us away from the trunk of the car and toward the driver’s seat.

Because stress tends to build up over time, teachers should stop and breathe throughout the day. Because of this continual build-up of stress, some teachers find it helpful to conduct breathing exercises with the entire class at different periods throughout the day. Breathing before entering into particularly stressful periods of the day or difficult transition times, such as the period around lunch and nap time, can help ease the class through these transitions and create a more pleasant atmosphere for the children and the teachers.

Children are more likely to use breathing techniques that are fun and stimulating. In my next post I will highlight some breathing techniques that have been a big hit in my classroom.

Talking About Stress Management

In my last post I discussed the fight-or-flight response and what happens in your brain and body during the response. These responses are pretty universal, whether you are talking about teachers, children, or the guy next door. Sometimes, no matter who you are, anger and frustration can cause you to slip out of the driver’s seat when it comes to your actions or reactions and end up in the trunk of the car, where you have no control. Te key to staying in the driver’s seat is to utilize stress management tools. These tools are easy to use and can even be taught to children so that they can use them during their own stressful moments. The key to learning how to use stress management tools effectively is to practice using them during calm moments, especially when teaching them to children. Since we have little or no logic or reasoning skills when we are in a fight-or-flight response, trying to teach a child how to manage their stress while they are in the middle of a meltdown will probably produce nothing but more screaming.

In the next few posts I will be discussing several different stress management techniques that I have found useful in the classroom. These techniques range from ones that are incredibly simple to ones that are full of fun and connection.