“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.

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!

“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.

 

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.

 

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.

Fight or Flight

In my last post I talked about the stress response and what happens in the brain during a stressful situation. Today I am going to talk a little more about fight-or-flight and what happens during a fight-or-flight response.

Fight-or-flight is the body’s way of trying to survive through a threat. If the body feels that something is threatening its survival the brain stem sends the message to release several different neurotransmitters, along with adrenaline, that prep the body to either stand and fight the threat or run away from it. The neurotransmitters and adrenaline affect how you perceive what is going on around you:

  • You cannot think clearly or make decisions based on logic.
  • Most of your fine motor muscle control is lost.
  • You develop tunnel vision so that you can easily focus on the threat.
  • Your entire body is focused on simply surviving the threat.

When you find yourself “seeing red,” or when you are so focused on punishing the behavior that you forget about teaching through the behavior, you have entered the brain stem and have very little control over your actions. In children, fight-or-flight presents itself as tantrums, screaming, hitting, biting, or other high-intensity behaviors.

Another way to think about the areas of the brain is to think about a car. When you are using your higher-order thinking skills you are in the drivers seat and you are 100% in control of where you are going and what you are doing. When the stress hits and trigger thoughts begin going through your head you have moved to the back seat of the car. You have a little bit of control of where you are going and what you are doing, because if you reach over the front seat you might be able to steer – a little. Since most of your decisions are based on your emotions when you are in the backseat of the car you have a little control and you are able to make a few decisions based on some sort of logic – the kind of emotional logic that results in impulse buys when shopping at department stores. Once pure anger hits you are in the trunk of the car. You have no more control over where you are going or what you are doing; you are simply along for the ride. You don’t feel safe when you are in the trunk, and you would probably do anything that you could to get out of there.

I think we would all agree that we want to stay in the driver’s seat as much as possible, but how do we accomplish that when a class of children has us feeling threatened throughout the day? Stay tuned for the next post.

Observations for Behavior: Step by Step

In my last post I talked about observing children to discover patterns in behavior. While I outlined why we should observe children and touched on the how. I really didn’t take a lot of time to discuss how important observation is. And for a teacher in early childhood education, observation is extremely important because it allows us to learn more about the children we are trying to teach. We can’t know what interests to base class projects on if we don’t observe children to discover what they are interested in. We don’t have an understanding of what a child can really do until we observe them using a skill in the process of play. And we will have a very limited idea of why a child behaves a certain way until we observe to discover the “why”. Observation is one of the most important tools that educators have in their tool box, but it is one that some educators seem unsure about using. There are several different methods that can be used to observe, and one of the keys is to find a method that works best for you. While my method of observing problem behaviors works well for me, you may have to change or tweak the method a little in order for it to work better for you.

The first thing I do when I am preparing to observe a child for behavioral reasons is to make sure that my classroom is adequately staffed. When observing a child in this context your attention will be completely on him or her, so it is important that there is another teacher available to watch the other children who are present. Sometimes this may not be possible depending on the circumstances; if you work in a daycare home and are the only teacher, just know that while you are observing the child in question, you also have to be very aware of what is going on in the rest of the room.

Next, I ready the materials that I need: a notebook, pen, and watch. Whenever I do an observation for behavior I like to write down the times that everything happens. This way I can see if there are any patterns in time-of-day for the behavior if I have to do multiple observations in order to determine a cause.

After that I take my materials to a spot close too where the child is playing – but not too close! I want to be within earshot, but not close enough that I become a distraction to the play that is going on. While I am watching the child play, I write down anything notable that happens along with the time. I am usually constantly writing, because when I am doing this type of observation I never know what might be important. Something may happen early on in the observation that might set off a chain reaction – it may not be noticeable that the child is upset until much later, but when I backtrack through the observation I can find the original cause of the upset. So my observations look a lot like this:

10:00 – L picks up a block and places it on top of the tower. J asks L if he can play and L tells him “no”. L knocks over the tower.

10:01 – L walks to the science area and picks up a magnifying glass. He takes it to the block center and begins looking at a tree block with the magnifying class.

10:02 – S attempts to take the magnifying glass from L. L says “no” and pushes S away. L then looks at (teacher) and waits.

This scenario may actually happen during the observation. If a child looks to you for guidance, it is important to not get involved in altercations unless the children’s safety is at risk. The reason for this is because you will want to see how the situation plays out until the behavior that you are looking for happens. If L is a biter, it is quite possible that L may try to bite S, but you won’t know that unless you see L moving to bite. In order to figure out what the cause is for any behavior the observer must be that – simply an observer. This can be hard to do when we are so used to reacting to what is going on around us, and if the safety of the children is at risk it is very important to react. In order to find out why L is biting, it may be important for us to see how S reacts to being pushed because that may be what causes the escalation to biting. If L does go for the bite we should stop L before the bite happens, but not until we know it is coming.

These types of observations can be very eye-opening as you discover just what is going on with children. I have found myself surprised by the reasons why some children do things, but at the same time it has caused me to slow down and do a lot more observing overall rather than jumping into a situation without knowing what is going on.

 

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.

The Hierarchy of Change

One key to unlocking the secrets of effective classroom management is realizing that there are many pieces of the classroom puzzle that a teacher can change. However, the child is not one of them. The Hierarchy of Change shows different elements of the classroom that teachers can change in order to realize a less stressful classroom environment. The Hierarchy of Change looks like this:

Hierarchy of Change with Header

 

 

The Hierarchy of Change lists items according to their importance. Thus, while it may be easier to change the classroom environment, it is more important to change the teacher’s mindset first. Because teachers can’t change the student, the student is listed at the bottom of the diagram.

So what does it mean to change teacher mindset? In previous posts I have discussed how our brain reacts to stress, and that is something that will be covered more in future posts. One way you can change your mindset is by realizing that there may be more going on with a situation than you can tell at first glance. For instance, if a child is hitting another child, our automatic reaction is to punish the child that is doing the hitting. However, what if the child that he was hitting had taken a toy from him or hurt him first in some way? Changing our mindset means understanding that social situations are complicated in any situation, and in order to teach children how to navigate their own social setting, we have to be willing to get to the bottom of negative social interactions in order to help children repair relationships. In fact, changing your mindset means that you need to shift from a punishment mentality to a teaching mentality when it comes to any situation in the classroom. There are several other ways that you can change your mindset, and these will be covered in future posts.

Changing the environment means making it more engaging and more open to the exploration that children enjoy. Children are naturally curious, and children love moving. One of the ways that we can change the environment is to allow children to satisfy their curiosity more often and allow them the opportunities to move that they need. More will be covered on this in future posts.

Changing how we implement curriculum is probably one of the hardest pieces of this hierarchy to change, especially if you work in a school or childcare center that has a very specifically defined curriculum. However, you should familiarize yourself with the ways in which children learn best and use that knowledge to teach lessons in a way that is engaging, fun, and connects learning to the real world. More will be covered about how you can adapt lessons and make them more engaging and fun in future posts.

 

The Teacher’s Choice

In my last post I talked about the stress that teachers face in the classroom. Most of them face this stress every day, and a lot of teachers do not have adequate support to help them handle the classroom situations that cause them so much stress. I have been a teacher in a preschool classroom for many years; the majority of my years teaching have been spent in classrooms by myself with no extra support.

Any time you find yourself in a stressful classroom situation you have a choice about how you will react to that situation. You can react to the situation in a calm manner or an angry manner; it is ultimately up to you. Or, as Dr. Becky Bailey puts it, “No one can make you angry without your permission.” This may seem easier said than done, but allow me to explain.

When you say that someone makes you do something, you are ultimately saying that this person has control over you – enough control that you would not be able to stop yourself from doing what the other person wanted you to do. When you say that a child is making you angry, you have effectively given away your power to a child.

It is time for you to take your power back. That is why I say that you have a choice. Do you choose to give your power away to a child or do you choose to keep your power for yourself?

In my next post, I will discuss what goes on in our heads during stressful classroom situations.