Building Positive Relationships: How Observing Children Strengthens Relationships

My post yesterday about Six Uses for Observation really got me thinking about how I use observation in the classroom. Observation seriously is one of the foundations of my teaching practice. There are several reasons for this, most of which are outlined in yesterday’s post. But one of the most important reasons is that it can change the way you look at children. Sometimes it isn’t even the way you look at children in general. Sometimes it is the way you look at one specific child.

I recently wrote a post about how we as adults are slow to change our views about something. We think we know it all because we have been around a while and we take that knowledge for granted. We forget that sometimes it is important to slow down and try to see things from a different perspective. This is where observation comes in. If we just take a moment to slow down and observe a child in action, we may see something that is contrary to our previous view of the child. We may begin to attribute positive intent to the child’s actions rather than negative intent. If we open ourselves up to the possibility that there may be more going on with the child than we are presently aware of, we may find that to be the case. And if we find that to be the case, our view of that child can change dramatically.

I know a lot of teachers out there shake their heads and roll their eyes when I say that children don’t do things without a reason. But the reason why I say this frequently and with authority is that I have done enough observing of children to know it to be true. The only way that we will be able to know or try to understand the intent of a young child is to observe for ourselves. And even older children may not tell us their intent because they are more worried about getting in trouble because of their actions related to their intent. Observation has allowed me to truly be able to decipher the intent of children and come up with productive ways to deal with behavior in a non-punitive way.

Let’s put this in context: Let’s pretend that you decided to try a different format for circle time because you felt that it would hold the children’s interest better than your current format. Your administrator walks in and wonders what the heck is going on and tells you in no uncertain terms that she does not like the new format and she doesn’t want to see it again. And doesn’t listen to your explanation of why you did it. How would that make you feel? The administrator paid absolutely no attention to your intent, only to your actions. That is what we do with children when we do not try to figure out their intent.

I have had children display physical behavior simply because they want to play with other children but do not know how to approach them. I have had children hit or even bite others because they have issues with personal space. There are a myriad of reasons why children behave the way they do. And this isn’t just about children’s behavior related to other children. It can be related to the way children use materials, as well. I have had children drag chairs into the block area because they have built a television and want to “watch” it. I have had children bossing other children around, only to find out that one is pretending to be a baby and one is pretending to be a mommy, or – even more amusing – one is pretending to be a dog and the other is pretending to be the owner. I have had a house that the class built in the middle of the floor turn into a swimming pool in an instant, and everyone’s shoes and socks become strewn about in order to wade in the pool. I have had countless scenarios happen in the classroom, and the only way to sort it all out without hurting many feelings and tapping into my punitive side is to slow down and observe what is going on.

So how does this strengthen relationships? Well, as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, it changes the way you look at children. You begin to see what they are thinking about, what they are interested in, what they need to learn on an individual basis (as opposed to what the class is learning as dictated by the lesson plan), and you simply get to know the children in your class on a more personal level. If observation happens frequently enough, it helps to form a direction that the class can take in order to achieve the maximum amount of learning possible, because the ideas of the children are present – because you know what they are. In short, it helps you to get to know the children in your classroom better. And that helps you to deal with the children in your class positively, which strengthens and enhances your relationship with them, and their relationships with each other.

strengthen relationships

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In A Reframing State of Mind: The Three Little Pigs

Recently my class began a unit on the Three Little Pigs. I always look forward to talking about this book with young children, because there is so much that you can do with it. I have only picked the book up twice so far, though, and haven’t even gotten through it once. The first time we started to read it, one of the children wanted to build a house. We moved all of the furniture out of the middle of the floor and set to work (you can read about what happened during that experience here). The second time we picked up the book, I stopped reading and started asking the children questions about what was happening in the story, to kind of get a feel for their thoughts and feelings about it. And I was very shocked by what I found out.

“The pigs were being mean and it made the wolf mad!”

“The wolf blew the house down because he didn’t like it when the pigs wouldn’t let him in.”

“The wolf just wanted to come into the house and the pigs weren’t nice because they wouldn’t let him in.”

Of course, being three years old, the kids didn’t have one important piece of information: wolves like to eat pigs. But I was very intrigued by the thought process here, and the connections they had made to reach this conclusion.

See, I am a firm believer that children are mean for a reason. They don’t hit just to hit. Usually their feelings have been hurt in some way; sometimes it is not because of the child that they hurt, but by an outside source such as a teacher. So in my classroom we talk a lot about how our actions affect the people around us. If you take a toy the child isn’t going to like it and is probably going to retaliate. We talk a lot about using language and telling children that they don’t like something instead of hitting them. So the language that they used to talk about how the pigs were treating the wolf helped me to see that they are making a lot of connections between behavior and action.

So what does this have to do with creativity? Creativity is about making these connections, and the children in my classroom who have been able to make these connections have come up with some creative ways to deal with each other socially rather than just having an all out free-for-all. They have begun to learn to work together toward a common goal, such as creating original ideas (like the swimming pool) because they have moved beyond thinking simply about themselves and what they want. They have come to see how their actions affect other people.

Reframing is a powerful tool in this respect. When you practice reframing and teach it as well, it can totally change the dynamics of a classroom environment. It is extremely difficult and time-consuming to implement, but the rewards are totally worth it.

Especially when you see a class of two- and three-year-olds assigning blame to the pigs in The Three Little Pigs!

In A Reframing State of Mind: Finding Leaders

Yes, I got a new idea for a new series, called “In a Reframing State of Mind”. This series is dedicated to looking at children’s behaviors in such a way that we will discover positive intent rather than negative intent. And nine times out of ten, I am sure that they will detail some of my own personal experiences in the classroom. I hope you will enjoy.

Recently I began a new topic of study in my classroom: Houses. The story we are using to facilitate this study is The Three Little Pigs. I began reading the story to the children, but only got halfway through it when one of them suggested that we build a house. So we got up, moved some tables out of the way, and proceeded to build walls for a house.

Building a house with two- and three-year-olds is an interesting process because they haven’t developed the ability to think abstractly. When they think about a house, they visualize the outside of the house. Therefore, most of their building of a house involves the outside of the house. They don’t even think about the inside of a house.

Bear with me here. I am brainstorming as I type because this thought actually never occurred to me before. It occurs to me now because I have wondered how our beautiful house – complete with walls, a bedroom, a kitchen, a front door, and a garage – quickly became a swimming pool. But it makes sense. The square walls totally resemble a swimming pool to a three-year-old mind, especially now that it is June and swimming with families is becoming more frequent.

One child in particular was responsible for this change of direction involving our house building. Granted, it was probably way too early in the house-building process to start discussing rooms and such, but – like most teachers – I had a vision of what I wanted to do with this theme.

Swimming pools was not it. But I let it ride, mostly because I had a parent come to pick up in the middle of the process, and I was discussing with her some of the things I had seen her child do that day. And when I turned back around after the parent left, every child in the room had their shoes off and was wading in the “pool”.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else’s center, but in my center we have a policy that states that shoes must be left on in case we have to leave the building in case of an emergency. In my own space and on my own time, I would not have a problem with the shoes being off as long as we knew who’s shoes and socks were whose and could pair them back up with the appropriate children at the end of the exploration. But I was not in my own space or on my own time, so the long process of putting shoes back on began.

It was actually a pretty sobering experience, because all of the children let me know, with words that I had taught them to use in situations such as this, that they were very mad and did not like it. The child who came up with the idea began to cry, because it was a pool! We don’t wear shoes in the pool! And I totally got it, but rules are rules and we can’t have our shoes off in the classroom.

At the time I was very upset with the child who came up with the idea. At first because it messed up my plan, but when I finally came to terms that swimming in a pool was what we were going to be doing that afternoon, I got over that. But it was harder to get over the fit over the shoes, because this involved rules.

Later, when I got home and was able to reflect on the day, I realized something: this child has consistently shown amazing leadership. The fact that she came up with a plan to dramatize the pool so completely, and got her friends to go along with it when we were intent on building a house, showed leadership. She comes up with games all of the time, or new ways to dramatize ideas. She “bosses” other children constantly, but this can be redirected into constructive feedback and positive coaching. She can be taught how to be a constructive leader by being given leadership responsibilities (appropriate for a three-year-old, of course) that will teach her skills that she needs to be a productive leader. Words that she uses that could be construed as hurtful can be retaught to be constructive so that she learns how to be a leader without being hurtful to others.

I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it before. I had taken so much time being frustrated by her attitude toward others, her use of language toward them, and her disregard for some of the rules of the classroom, that I hadn’t seen how she used her inner creativity and mixed it with her leadership abilities. But these traits only became obvious to me when I took a step back and looked at her in a different context. In the moment, it is sometimes hard for us to see what is right in front of our face, especially when we are so fixated on rules and safety. I thought that I had gotten myself past that by being able to ask myself why I was not allowing a certain behavior in the classroom – and if I wasn’t able to come up with a good enough reason, then allowing the behavior. But that was before some things changed. My intent changed because of outside circumstances. This affected the ability of the children to fully dramatize what they wanted to, the way they wanted to, and get the most out of the experience that they could. It affected their creativity and my sanity. And in the end – as I think back on it now – my little leader’s creativity and leadership may have suffered from it. She isn’t trying to flaunt breaking the rules. She is trying to express her ideas with her friends. And she should be allowed to do that, within reason. It is the “within reason” that I have to discover – what is reasonable? What can I allow? What suggestions can I make that will enhance their game the way that they want to enhance it but not cause a safety issue within the classroom? How can I frame the suggestion in a way that will be acceptable to everyone involved?

How can I allow her to be a leader and still keep everyone safe? That is the question.