This past quarter, I spent one morning every week in a classroom at Bing Nursery School, basically working as an assistant teacher for a class I was taking. The class focused on the development of young children (3 to 5 years old), and our journal entries (posted on this blog) and weekly discussions were structured around our experiences in the classroom. Going into the class, I only cared about the children’s cognitive development: their ability to make inductive leaps, learn new skills, and progress towards literacy. I quickly learned that there’s a lot more to school than just how children think: they also interact with each other, develop emotionally, and become a complete person. As a teacher, I learned a few techniques with dealing with different situations. Some are a little cliche, others depends on the naivety of children, but all are good to know for children, if not people in general. I don’t know whether these are really useful in real life, but you can kind of see where I think the extensions are.
1. Don’t pose a question if you don’t intend on giving them a choice.
It’s typical politeness, I think, for people to pose orders as questions. “Would you open the door for me?” “Can you grab that book off of the shelf?” It turns an order into a request, and you expect them to be polite enough to follow through with it. Often, it actually is a request, but in a classroom, there’s a hierarchy, and orders are meant to be followed. When posed as a question, however, an order might be declined. “Would you like to clean this up?” “No.” Well, there’s not much left after that.
Instead, give a limited choice. Children live in a controlled environment, and they do appreciate having choices or power*. To appeal to this and make them far more compliant, give a smaller choice. “Would you like to walk to the toilet, or would you like to fly to the toilet?” It sounds silly, but it totally works. At the end of the day, we needed to clean up the blocks, and the children had built 2 prisons. Instead of telling them to clean up directly again (they had already been told), I instead asked, “Would you rather put away this big prison first, or the small prison first?” Things got cleaned up quickly.
2. Don’t give judgmental feedback on creative activities.
Bing is an unstructured, play environment, so children are free to move between activities. Within those activities, many are creative in nature, and even in more structured activities, they’re allowed to make what they want of it. We’re very careful never to assume or judge a painting or other piece of art. I think the classic joke is a child showing a parent a painting, and when the parent says, “What a nice cat!”, the child responds, “It’s a dog.”
Admittedly, it’s sometimes very hard to tell, and frankly, not everything is good. To tell them, “Your picture is amazing!” or something positive like that sends the wrong message. In creative activities, they aren’t working towards receiving praise; they should be working towards developing their own abilities and creativity.
Instead, make observations about what they have accomplished. Since Bing is so focused on developing skills, you can absolutely respond to what they show you, or engage with them during creation, by discussing what they’re doing. “I noticed you blended the colors along the edge here.” “Your circles are rounder here than they are over here.” “You used a lot more finer lines around the head here.” This way, the children are attending to what they’ve done and the specific techniques that they can compose into a creative piece.
3. Always explain why.
Schools have a lot of policies, and Bing’s #1 policy is to always be safe. Different teachers have different comfort levels for what the children do, but when they hit a boundary, we have to be firm, but also explain why. We don’t want children running inside because it’s crowded and there are lots of things they may break or hurt themselves on. We don’t take toys that other children are playing with because it’s not a sustainable way to play, especially if it happened to the taker his or herself. And for the teachers, it’s a good reminder why policies and rules exist.
An interesting extension of this is that rules don’t always have to be consistent in all situations. Many books recommend absolute consistency, but frankly, the world isn’t consistent, and rules exist in context. For example, running is bad above for the reasons mentioned, but is fine outside in the grass area. The children seem to do pretty well with these rules as long as they have a reason.
4. Don’t worry about screwing up.
In the first 2 weeks, we got lots of suggestions on how to deal with the children, and most of them were “don’ts,” not “dos.” I myself ended up being very paralyzed by this and slowly needed to recover a more natural interaction with the children. When I mentioned this to one of the instructors for the course later, she recommended simply that I not worry about it.
A lot of what I posed above are also “don’ts,” but frankly, most of the time, it doesn’t matter. If you say that a sand castle is “very nice,” you’re not going to permanently hurt the child. If you can’t resolve a conflict between two children or tell a child something that isn’t true, it’s fine. They’ll get over it, and it’s life.
So those were some of the things I learned. It was a great experience being able to discuss techniques and topics, then immediately try them out in the classroom, and I appreciate the opportunity to do that. For any Stanford students, psych 147 is highly recommended.
*in early education, people seem to agree that boys pretending to play with guns is a manifestation for this need for power; I don’t entirely know how I feel about that