Building Positive Relationships: Teachers Make Mistakes, Too

I read something about mistakes and consequences the other day that made me think back to an incident that has happened countless times in my classroom, usually at lunch or snack time. I will be pouring milk and I will inevitably spill some on the counter or the floor. After this happens, the children start going nuts, talking about how I made a mess.

Of course, this all comes back to stigmatizing mess and mistakes. Everyone makes a mess at some point, and if you are anything like me, you make a mess several times a day. But the key is to clean it up and move on.

So I model this for the children. If we make a mess, we simply clean it up and move on. Since I have been working with two-year-olds, messes happen on a continuous basis. We simply clean it up. They clean up their messes. Sometimes they even clean up messes that aren’t even there. One child was wiping a wall in the bathroom, and I asked him, “Are you cleaning the wall?” To which he replied, “Yes, I am wiping your clean wall.”

Recently I helped out in a different classroom and a child spilled their milk. It was treated as a capital offense, and the child lost it. I instructed her to get some paper towels to clean up the mess, and she cried for half an hour. Over spilled milk. I haven’t seen anything like it in my classroom, so it was a bit unnerving to watch the process of this child go through what looked like humiliation over a cup of milk. I never want to see it again.

Messes happen. All of our lives we will be cleaning up messes. If you are anything like me, your house has several messes that need to be cleaned up right now but this blog post is a convenient way to postpone the inevitable. Teaching children that messes are a part of life that need to be cleaned up in order to move on is a life skill that we should be cultivating. Messes should not be treated as a punishable offense; if they were, we would all be punished, because we all make mistakes. What we should do instead is teach children the skills needed to make less mess. Pouring proficiency only happens with practice. Depth perception is only cultivated if we use the skill. Hand-eye coordination happens when we practice. And we can all use this practice. After all, teachers make mistakes, too.

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Teaching About Tools

In a post I did that feels like it was written ages ago (simply because I haven’t stopped talking about it since I wrote it), I talked about how children need time, tools, and tolerance in order for their productive self to emerge. The idea is great in theory, but the truth of it is that sometimes young children do not know how to use the tools that they encounter. Usually it is a process of experimentation that they use in order to figure it out.

Case in point: I have several pairs of beginner’s scissors that I keep in the classroom. The children seem to understand the concept of how to use them, probably because they have seen them used by me in the past, but they have a hard time getting them to work for themselves. Once they figure out how to get the scissors to open and shut, they begin exploring what to cut with them. The most common exploration that I have seen with young children is putting the tip in their mouth and exploring the open and shutting process with their teeth or lips. Of course, this isn’t the way that they are supposed to be used, and I have had a few cases of clipped lips from that process. Then they move on to their hair, shoelaces, and anything else they can think of to clip with the scissors. At this point, there are a few different options for teachers to teach children about how to productively use scissors:

  1. Hair should only be cut by an adult. Period.
  2. I usually tell the children in my class that scissors are only to be used for cutting paper, but as I type and think about the curious nature of children, I feel that I am selling them short. Of course, they want to know how and if the scissors work for other types of materials as well. And they need that experience. Cutting other types of materials can help increase small muscle strength in the hands. However, they should be told that only the provided supplies should be used with scissors, not their own clothes. Nothing on themselves should be cut at all.
  3. Teachers should be aware of what they are comfortable with. Do not provide an experience for the children that you are not comfortable with, but ask yourself questions about why you are not comfortable with that activity. That will help you in developing future experiences for children.

The children in my class will be moving to a new classroom this week, and I will be moving with them. Because they are older now, the expectations will be a little different than they have been in the past, as well as the materials that they will be using. As I was thinking over the scissor example and the potential for other issues such as this, I ran into an article about teaching children to use tools, from Teach Preschool. Ever since I read the article, I have thought more and more about the lessons that children should learn about tools and how to use them. These lessons have been more and more necessary the older the children have gotten, and since we are in a shared classroom this year, I believe that it will be imperative for the children to learn the lessons about how to use the materials.

Along with the lessons about how the tools should be used come the lessons about the goals that we have when we start a project. Even though goal-setting is a life skill that can take years to master, starting this skill early can make the difference between productive and unproductive play. Around the age of three, I expect children to be able to tell me what they are trying to accomplish with their actions, and if they are unable to I help them develop and carry out a goal. Not only is this skill important for a productive life, but one of the keys of setting goals is the ability to control impulses, many of which could hold us back from achieving our goals.

All of these points are particularly important when we discuss children and tools. Every child is different, and some may better be able to control their impulses better than others, but the key for us as teachers (especially when working with this age) is to begin to give children the tools that they need to be able to be successful in a new classroom.