"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh

A Time To Reflect Desk. Really?

 

 

(Attn Unschoolers: Feel free to skip this post. However, you may want to go ahead and scan it just to feel a great sense of relief AND even some smugness…I wouldn’t blame you! You deserve it.)

Next Tuesday our preschool is hosting an evening called: Kindergarten Options Night at which parents who have kids at various elementary schools—publics, charters and privates—will share their experiences of both the application process and their respective schools. As one of those parents I want to use my five minutes wisely. While I think there are just about a million things I’d like to talk about (stuff like the problems inherent in homework, grades, traditional PE and standardized testing), I want to focus on one thing: emotional and social education. Because, whether it is being acknowledged as part  of a school’s curriculum or not, it is being taught. Every interaction with children teaches them something. Teachers are modeling for kids all day long. How they speak, respond, manage and teach speaks volumes. My goal is to encourage parents to to ask this question on their tours:

 

How EXACTLY do teachers at this school deal with a variety of challenging emotional and social situations?

You know, things like,

  • Kids expressing sadness, frustration, fear and anxiety
  • Kids fighting
  • Kids acting goofy when they should be quiet
  • Kids excluding others
  • Kids making fun of others
  • Kids winning. Kids losing.

This is NOT something I was thinking about when I was looked at schools last fall. But it sure as hell is something I’m thinking about a lot now that our child and the children of our friends are actually in kindergarten. Here are some highlights from reports I’m getting from the field:

1) HAPPY & SAD PARTS OF THE CLASSROOM

One teacher divides her kindergarten classroom into two sides: the happy side and the sad side. If you’re not feeling positive, there is a place for you! Away from the happy people—lest they infect you with their joy. (It sounds to me like a kinder and gentler version of being sent to your room except worse because it’s in front of all of your friends. I have to admit, I’m super curious to see this practice in action. Without seeing how this set up actually works, my initial question is: How the hell does singling a child out like that help her understand, process and deal with her feelings? Why is she sad? Not where should she go because she is sad! Personally, I’d be motivated to suppress my real feelings to avoid the fate of having to crossover to the sad side in front of everyone. I wonder if this is just what the teacher is going hoping for—consciously or not. I do know at some schools there is a quiet area that students can choose to retreat to if they need space, but that’s not the vibe I got from the description.)

2) BEAD INCENTIVES FOR KINDNESS

Another kindergarten teacher offers children a bead for their necklaces every time they do something “kind.” One kid is so into collecting beads that she’s just kind, kind, kind all day long. (Her interest, of course, isn’t in being kind because it is in and of itself rewarding to treat people respectfully…it’s just something she’s willing to do to get what she wants. Just what I’m hoping my kids will go to school to learn.)

3) A TIME-TO-REFLECT DESK

Another teacher has a “time to reflect” desk. My guess is that she thinks that by cleverly rebranding a “time out” as a “time to reflect” that all of the sudden, five-year-olds will really take the time to think about what they did “wrong”, why they did it and how they can do it differently next time. As if five year olds are that self-aware, that self-reflective and that  able to assess and meet their own needs. More likely it is the humiliation they’ll suffer for being singled out for their disruptive behavior that will teach them to control themselves instead of the disruption being an opportunity to learn. (Children become disregulated (aka “act out”) for a reason. Perhaps they’re tired or hungry. Maybe they need more attention. Maybe they’re frustrated that they don’t “get” the assignment. Maybe their parents are getting divorced and their home life is chaotic. Lots of things may be happening and a child being shamed in front of his class isn’t going to help anyone. What they may learn, however, is that the world can be a lonely, heartless place.)

4) GOOD OL’ TIME OUTS

Another kindergarten PE teacher just throws caution to the wind and goes ahead and calls a spade a spade. He told the children that if they didn’t behave properly that they’d be given a time out, which, no doubt is just what rambunctious five year olds need! To sit out PE! Brilliant solution. The teacher also said that if it happens more than once they’ll go to the principal and she’ll recommend their parents take their toys away at home. “Got it? Okay kids, now let’s do some laps! This’ll be fun!”

I wonder if the educators at these schools see these practices in line with their school’s philosophy. Today, many schools have expanded their missions to include a desire to educate the “whole child.” Schools aim to facilitate children’s “moral growth” and the development of a “compassionate heart.” One school offers a “Heartwork Program” that has children doing projects that help them reflect on what it means to “be a good person” that was inspired by a Seeds of Compassion Conference that focused on how empathy and compassion develop in the brain and to determine a role for teaching empathy in schools. Others have community service built into their curriculum. And others still, make diversity a priority, foregoing things like fancy gyms in favor of subsidizing scholarships. Other schools truly engage children in the democratic process of self-governence. I’m genuinely happy (and inspired) to hear about all of this. However, what I want to know is: How is this empathy and attention to the whole child stuff being integrated into the minutiae of every day life at school?

Because modeling is the primary way children learn, it is important to know if teachers are being empathetic towards children. If there isn’t time in the moment, are disruptions revisited?  Are teachers showing a “compassionate heart”? Or do they benevolently manipulate children’s emotions and behavior through rewards (gold stars! beads! extra play time! ) and punishments (being yelled at, given a time out, being benched).

Childhood is when children’s brains are being wired which is why schools need to foster emotional and social intelligence as well as academic. If children become increasingly self-aware, if they are able to understand that there are reasons for their behavior, then they will slowly become more able to self-regulate which means they’ll be better prepared for life. (It’s not Bill Clinton’s genius that got him in trouble. It was his lack of self-awareness, his inability to put himself in the shoes of a young girl desperate for attention, his inability to have the impulse control that is so highly prized by teachers. It’s the education he didn’t receive at Yale that hurt him and the country most.Yes, I know that as a young man he was particularly sensitive to racism and the poor (but not to impressionable women). And yes I know his Dad was alcoholic etc. I’m simplifying here! My point is that it wasn’t his academic deficiencies that got him into so much trouble that ultimately  wasted an inordinate amount of our country’s time and resources) Emotional and social intelligence are qualities one always needs in every relationship, in whatever field—calculus not so much.

The good news is there is some hope. Some schools are really prioritizing emotional education. Other programs are helping bring it to school in effective ways.

———————— PLAY MOUNTAIN PLACE ————————

I recently discovered Play Mountain Place, an elementary school that does place a premium on cultivating the emotional intelligence of its students:

Tending to the child’s heart, as well as the head, children are encouraged to express thoughts and feelings freely and without judgment. All feelings are seen as “OK.” Indeed, repression of feelings often leads to greater problems later, which further complicate the child’s education and interpersonal relationships. All feelings are treated as a healthy, necessary part of life. Teachers are trained to help children find safe physical, verbal and creative outlets for their emotions.

Teachers also use non-authoritarian methods for assisting children in the conflict resolution process and in finding their own solutions to problems.

A problem between children presents a teachable moment and an opportunity to experience both freedom and responsibility. By learning to “work it out,” children develop personal responsibility as well as respect for others. Many visitors to the school comment on the apparent “maturity” of the children, the confident ease with which they interact with each other and adults. Attention to one’s own feelings, learning to accept others feelings and limits, and learning to tolerate differences and resolve conflicts in a way in which everyone is heard and in agreement, are the keys to this dimension of education at Play Mountain Place.

———————— ECHO PARENTING & EDUCATION ————————

I’ve also recently learned that Echo Parenting and Education offers Educator Training. a course for educators. An entire faculty can get on roughly the same page about how the deal with issues related to discipline. Wouldn’t you love to bring this to your school?

Echo Parenting & Education…will introduce teachers to a new paradigm for classroom management, built on respect and support.  We teach professionals the Philosophy and Practice of nonviolent child raising to better communicate with students.

It’s pretty tough for teachers in most of our schools. They have to handle huge classes, restrictive curricula, and often the only techniques they’ve been taught for “classroom management” are ones that use punishment and reward to attempt to control behavior.

 Our trainings usually will cover:

  • Effective tools for improved classroom management
  • Nonviolent communication skills
  • Managing teachers’ and students’ anger
  • Building students’ emotional intelligence
  • Working “together” with parents rather than “against”
  • Understanding children’s brain development and self- regulation

————————COUNCIL IN SCHOOLS ————————

And finally, another recent discovery is Council:

 Council is a relational arts practice that encourages deep and honest communication. In schools throughout Los Angeles and around the world, it is integrated into classrooms, counseling offices, faculty, parent and community meetings. It is based on indigenous, worldwide cultural dialogue practices, including Native American traditions observed and recorded by Benjamin Franklin, and contemporary organizational management practices.

Council is a formal, structured process that includes sitting in a circle and passing a “talking piece” (an object used to identify the speaker) in response to a prompt from the facilitator. In the classroom, teachers and students might develop their own guidelines (known as “intentions”) or use the four intentions of Council:

  • To listen from the heart by suspending judgment, reaction, and opinion
  • To speak from the heart and with heart
  • To speak spontaneously and only when holding a talking piece
  • To keep it lean: get to the heart of the matter so everyone has time with the talking piece. For many, the first intention is the most challenging, yet one that is recognized as essential to developing a more peaceful and empathic way of relating to others, beyond tolerance. 

I have a friend who has single handedly brought Council to her local elementary school. She says it’s a great start to help bring the children and teachers down to the same level which is helping open up lines of communication. Another friend is working to bring Echo Education to the faculty of the private school her child attends.  My point isL parents can make a difference. As in YOU.

To close this long post, I’d like to repeat myself for the umpteenth time and say that I agree wholeheartedly with Maurice Elias who believes that emotional intelligence is the “missing piece” in American education. While it’s not unusual for a preschool to say they promote “peaceful conflict resolution” it is unusual to see that in the mission of a high school. But like me,  Elias believes that “just as we don’t expect kids to learn a language in a year, we don’t expect kids to learn social and emotional skills in one year.” Hell, 16 year olds have a ton of crap to deal with. Peer pressure. Drugs. Sex. Raging hormones. They need help more than ever. Emotional intelligence is something that should be integrated into one’s entire education. From preschool on up.

If you have any thoughts or resources to add to this discussion, please do!

Thank you for reading this long and winding post.

20 Responses to “A Time To Reflect Desk. Really?”

  1. I don’t feel smug either. It’s great that alternatives are popping up. Keep spreading the word and exposing the ridiculousness of some of the accepted practices!

    • Jennifer says:

      glad to hear you both don’t feel smug…more of an attempt at humor than anything. but because i know unschoolers take on a tremendous amount of responsibility so you deserve all of the kudos you can get.

      and yes, i’m grateful we do live in a city where there are numerous progressive schools which are truly trying to educate the whole child…some, however, more than others and / or more effectively than others.

      at my daughter’s kindergarten over the course of a couple of months they are working on their own BILL OF RIGHTS written by and for the children. Jules says “you know we all have the right to feel and think anything we want at any time but we don’t have the right to hit other people. but we have the right to think about it!” just what i want to hear when she comes home from school!

  2. Lis Vizcarra says:

    Excellent Blog! Do you have any book recommendations/ resources on Emotional Intelligence?

    • Jennifer says:

      Thank you Lis. THE WHOLE BRAIN CHILD just came out by Dr. Dan Siegel (Mindsight) and Tina Payne Bryson, a children’s pyschologist. I haven’t read it yet but it has been highly recommended to me. And it’s next on my list.
      “Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson have created a masterful, reader-friendly guide to helping children grow their emotional intelligence. This brilliant method transforms everyday interactions into valuable brain-shaping moments. Anyone who cares for children—or who loves a child—should read The Whole-Brain Child.”—Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence

      And also check out Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence. I’ll post back with other recommendations.

      Glad you liked the post. I think it’s such a vital issue. Please repost elsewhere or send it along to friends if you are so inspired!

  3. Kira says:

    Thank you for your quick reply.

  4. Cindy Hamilton says:

    I have homeschooled my kids, mainly to give them more time to be kids and follow their own interests. I recently spent some time in a Grade 1 classroom because I brought in some SPCA kittens.

    I was astonished at the favoritism shown by the teacher. The kids were in a circle with the kittens in the middle. One child only had to come from his bum to his knees for her to be chiding him not to be rough with the kittens. Another little girl was allowed to hold and pet a kitten and even passed it awkwardly to her neighbour with only positive comments. The rules were fluid and I cannot imagine spending a year in her classroom once she had pegged me as a problem.

    I have vague recollections of ‘bad’ kids in my classrooms when I was in school, but these kids were just acting like normal 6 year-olds, not bad at all. The teacher was just too outnumbered to be able to be empathetic.

    • Jennifer says:

      oh cindy what a sad description. and i’m sure it is very common.

      it drives me crazy when kids are admonished for doing nothing.

      but on another note….i’m happy for your children.

  5. Well, you have done it again. And I have linked to you again.

    • Jennifer says:

      thank you tracey for the link. to be honest, i thought this post would ring more of a bell with people and that it would be shared more. i just think it is such an important issue and i want people talking about it!! i really appreciating you spreading the word.

  6. Keith says:

    Hey Jennifer,
    I urge any parents in the Santa Clarita Valley to check out SCVi. A charter school that spends the first two months of the year focusing on social emotional education. Using the7 habits as the basis for its program. Take a look at scvcharterschool.org. And love your blg!

    • Jennifer says:

      Keith!

      that is incredible! the first two months. i’m definitely checking out the school’s site and would love to hear any of your first hand experiences.

      thanks for the link. and i’m so glad u like my blog. please, spread the word!

  7. Marcia Cross says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and even as an unschooler I do not feel smug. While I appreciate the values being embraced are those we homeschoolers already hold of most importance, we realize everyone cannot stay home with their children.
    These programs sound wonderful, and with children who are being raised by loving, engaging parents I can see great benefits. As sad as it is, there are few classrooms entirely made up of such students. I feel it is wishful thinking that the ones without such needs being met will respond to any educational process well without adversely affecting the rest.
    However, it is what it is, and I applaud teachers and parents alike for striving to make a difference.

    • Jennifer says:

      thank you marcia for weighing in. yes there are some positive things happening…and yes it’s too little. but supporting it where it does live and helping it thrive is so important.

      i wonder how much parents think about this stuff….

  8. Kira says:

    What you would suggest for parent and/or child who just start school and experiences anxiety related to wining/loosing during games?

    • Jennifer says:

      Kira,

      I feel for your child. I honestly don’t think competitive games have any place in elementary school.

      Here is a piece by Alfie Kohn that beautifully articulates why.

      http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/tcac.htm

      here’s a highlight:
      Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth. Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it’s obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn’t build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you’ve done. Worse — you’re a good person in proportion to the number of people you’ve beaten.

      As to how to help your child. I think the only thing you can do is empathize and then contextualize the experience for them as best you can. It’s terrible that kids have to be subjected to competitive sports at such a young age.

      If anyone else has any advice for Kira, please speak up! I know we’d all appreciate hearing it.

      thank you for writing in kira,
      jennifer

  9. Kira says:

    What would you suggest to wining loosing anxiety?

Leave a Reply