Discipline. Behavior management. Guidance. Whatever you call it, there is no topic that early childhood teachers want to talk about more, in my experience as a trainer and mentor, than what to do when children “won’t listen.”
I spent several years trying to come up with new and more insightful ways to talk to teachers about guiding children’s behavior. I’ve talked about changing the language we use from “punishment” to “discipline” in an attempt to change the adults’ focus. I’ve tried talking about how teachers can use “helping behaviors” when children’s behavior is challenging to them. I talk about “discipline” meaning “to teach” and not “to punish.” I see nods of agreement, I see note taking…and then I see a struggle to change when they are back in a classroom.
About a year ago, I had an epiphany. I developed a matching game to use with a group of teachers who were about to go through a four-session series with me on guiding behavior. At the beginning of the first session, I gave each teacher a copy of this matching game handout and asked them to read both columns, then draw a line from the behavior in the left hand column to the appropriate response in the right hand column. It looks like this:
Then I sat back and watched. Most began the work eagerly, grateful to have something other than a lecture in this mandatory training. I watched as the pencils dropped slowly, as the participants stole glances at other’s pages to see if they were drawing any lines. I waited. Finally, a pair of brave souls said, “What if none of them are right?” and “What if only one is right?”
And then we were off. We talked about how the behaviors in the left hand column illustrated mistakes children make in cognitive, language and physical development. We all agreed it would be ridiculous to respond with any of the punitive choices in the right hand column. We took each of the behaviors from the first column and brainstormed ways we could teach the child the skills he needed to do better and how to offer experiences and practice in those skill areas.
And then I asked them: if it makes sense and we all agree that the appropriate response to mistakes in children’s cognitive, language and physical development is to teach and provide more practice….why is it so hard to believe that to be true for mistakes in social and emotional development? If we all agree that it would be outrageous for an adult to take away outside time or to put a child in time out for looking at a book from back to front or for being too short to drink from the water fountain….why is it so difficult to accept that those responses would not be effective for a child who has bitten another child or knocked down another child’s block tower?
Let’s give our children what they need to do better. We will love our jobs more. We will have better relationships with children. We will be better teachers.