(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.)
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:
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.