This was originally posted at www.msgl.org on 2/7/2015.
February in Indiana is tough. It’s 28 days of Arctic cold, howling winds, and brown slush everywhere you turn. The air hurts your skin and the gray sky steals your hope. Do you know why February is only 28 days long? Because no one would survive if it lasted even one day longer. February is the Chuck Norris of our calendar year.
I think February brings out the worst in everyone, even the sweet little children at the Montessori school. So it's often in February when I remind myself that the primary purpose of preschool is socialization. Sure, our Montessori classrooms have these beautiful materials and teachers trained to present them, but our primary goal is for each child to develop naturally into a well-rounded and well-adjusted individual. And for that to happen, each child must learn many, many social skills. Here’s a partial list. Lucky for me, blog inches are cheap!
- How to talk to others.
- How to listen.
- How to respond to positive events.
- How to respond to negative events.
- How to express emotions.
- How to read emotions.
- How to move gracefully across the room.
- How to walk peacefully in a hallway filled with people.
- How to be part of a group.
- How to speak in front of a group.
- How to listen as part of a group.
- How to lead.
- How to follow.
- How to make decisions.
- How to choose an activity.
- How to clean up and put away.
- How to sit next to a friend.
- How to ask for help.
- How to offer assistance.
- How to comfort others.
- How to share.
- How to ask to share.
- How to say “No, thank you” to sharing.
- How to improvise.
- How to make do.
- How to say “I’m sorry” and mean it.
- How to stick up for yourself.
- How to show respect.
- How to be worthy of respect.
Preschoolers do all of this really challenging work surrounded by 23 other children who are all trying to do exactly the same thing. (Twice that many, if enrolled for a full day.) Preschool can be very hard work!
Sometimes a child will do something inappropriate to another child and a well-meaning parent will ask me, “Did you tell them not to do that?” Of course. Every day our teachers remind children that hands are not for hurting and to use their words. But listening is not the way young children learn morals and social skills. (Although it IS the way they learn language.) Preschoolers learn by doing and that means that sometimes - lots of times, actually - they do inappropriate things. And gradually, they learn from them.
So, since young children are not born knowing the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and they can’t simply follow our instructions, the grown-ups have to give them lots of opportunities to figure it out with other children. We must provide them with an environment that allows them to safely - with close supervision - make many, many bad decisions. In our preschool classrooms, the teachers expect inappropriate behaviors and respond to them consistently with each occurrence, knowing that they will lessen over time. A child’s “bad” behavior might keep us on our toes, but it rarely surprises us.
And thank goodness for that! Imagine if doctors were shocked to see so many sick patients every day. Or if plumbers were bewildered by clogged pipes. Or firefighters were stymied when houses caught fire. They would not be very effective at their jobs. In order to be effective at my job as a teacher in a Montessori classroom of three to six-year-olds, I have to first: like children, and second: understand that all of the terrible things that children can do to each other are not failings, but simply a natural part of their development. A child who hits or bites or kicks is showing me that she is upset about something and has not yet learned to respond without hurting. It’s my job to help her develop a new, appropriate response while doing my best to keep the other children safe.
I admit that my best isn’t always enough. And it’s not easy to watch these children suffer through the process of dealing with separation anxiety, or a friend’s harsh words, or simple frustration at being unable to dress themselves. I love the children in my care and it hurts to watch them hurt themselves or others when their anger literally comes out of their fingers and toes.
Recently, I was sitting next to two children who had been playing very actively all morning. I will call them Danny and Sandy. They were having trouble working together but they just couldn’t stand to be away from each other. They are each learning how to be friends with someone who drives them a little bit crazy. I stayed close to them so I could intervene and help them resolve the issues that were bound to arise when things got out of hand.
At group time the children got to talking about which animals they liked the most. Danny laughed and said, “My favorite kind of animal is Sandy.” I turned to them just as Sandy pulled back her arm and punched Danny squarely in the face. Danny was really surprised. He thought maybe he was hurt for just a moment, but quickly regained his composure.
Seeing that he wasn’t hurt, I said, “I don’t think Sandy liked it when you called her a name. What do you think?”
“I was just saying it to myself,” he said.
“Well, I'm pretty sure she heard you," I responded.
Having made herself clear already, Sandy had nothing to add.
Did Danny deserve to be hit? No. But he did need to know that Sandy didn’t like the way he treated her. Should Sandy have hit him? No. But she did need to let him know that it wasn’t okay to call her a name. Did either of them “get in trouble” by me? No. We talked about other possible responses and there was no more name-calling or punching that morning. But it’s not over. I will keep those two on my “Watch List” for the rest of the year and when I hear their voices get loud or see them chasing each other I will do my best to be right there to help them work through their next disagreement. That’s my job. Not to punish or shame children, but to help them learn to express themselves and to be good listeners and… ah, just refer to the previous bulleted list.
I have read about preschools with zero tolerance policies for hitting and biting. My question is always, "Where will they send all of those children?" If a 4-year-old is banned from preschool because she has not yet learned to get along with others, what’s next for her? Reform school? Prison? Dr. Phil?
Preschool is THE BEST place for young children to learn how to get along with others. Sometimes it’s tense, sweaty, gritty, even frightening work. But the mis-steps children make in preschool prepare them for a future that is much less secure. A time when they won’t be surrounded by loving adults waiting to step in and guide them to resolve problems peacefully. A time when using hands to hurt can have lifelong consequences.
I am not complacent about children hurting each other and I put myself between thrown punches and sweet little faces every time I can. But I also know that "bad" behavior is not a fault in a child, it signals an important learning opportunity. A child who lashes out is showing us how we can help her. Maria Montessori put it this way,
“The undisciplined child enters into discipline by working in the company of others; not being told he is naughty. Discipline is, therefore, primarily a learning experience and less a punitive experience if appropriately dealt with.”
Please try to be patient with your children and other people's children as we all wait for the Earth to travel just a little further around the Sun. February will become March, winter will become spring, and children who are not yet peaceful will develop a little more self-control and gradually, gracefully learn to cope with the many frustrations of being a small child.
Thanks for reading,