A Guidance Matching Game

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 on guiding behavior with me. 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.



“But They Need to Learn To…”

“Heather, I think this is the first time that I’ve encountered a center that doesn’t request children to ‘sit’ when in group. I understand the philosophy, but children also need to learn that by sitting while in a large group, others are given a better ability to see what is going on. I’ll have to ponder on this one a bit.”

This is feedback I received after singing the praises of a PreK teacher (4 and 5 year olds) who allowed children who were not engaged in group time to leave the group and work on their own. This is not the first time I have heard the argument that if children are allowed to choose not to participate in group time in their child care setting or preschool, they will never be able to sit when an elementary school teacher expects it of them.

I wonder how this person would have responded if I had said that I appreciated that infants who are not yet ready to walk are allowed to sit, crawl, creep and cruise instead. 

Of course, that seems perfectly rational. But couldn’t an argument be made that we want children to be able to walk when they go to kindergarten? Aren’t we cheating them by not forcing that walking?

Two of the core considerations of developmentally appropriate practice explain why we allow infants to sit, crawl, creep and cruise before walking. First, we base our expectation on what is known about child development and the skills and experiences a typical infant needs to have before she can be expected to walk. Second, we observe the development of that specific infant to learn where she is in that developmental continuum, knowing that developmental variation is the norm. So why do we so often abandon that process when children are 4 and 5 years old?

I’ve got some news for you, folks. There’s plenty of time for sitting still and lots of experiences children need to have before we can expect it of them. And too often our attempts to force this “readiness” backfire. How? I’m glad you asked….

One way forced participation in group time (and punishment for pushing back) can backfire is by sending a message to young children that learning is not fun and doesn’t work for them. More and more attention is being given to desirable “approaches to learning” that contribute to school readiness. We need to pay closer attention to children’s FEELINGS ABOUT learning than we do to whether they are sitting cross cross applesauce with their hands in their laps, waiting to be given permission to express a thought or emotion.

A second way that we actually work against readiness is to force children who aren’t developmentally ready for group time  to develop escape behaviors. A child who is bored, scared or has learned that he cannot be successful in meeting the teacher’s expectations will find ways to get away from the group. She will learn that if she wiggles enough, talks when she shouldn’t or touches her neighbor too much, she will be sent away from group time. This is a behavior that her kindergarten teacher is going to have to spend a lot of time “unteaching,” further proving the child’s view of herself as someone who doesn’t fit and can’t succeed.

Let’s spend some time really reflecting on what children really need to learn. It’s just possible that unquestioning obedience is not the first thing on the list.