Monday, December 5, 2016

"You're Not My Friend!"

Lately, this has been the phrase of the day at the Preschool House.  Variations on this include "you're not invited to my birthday party!" or "I'm never playing with you again!"  These are powerful statements, which are almost never substantiated by actual behavior -- there are any number of conflicts that arise throughout the day and resolve themselves with negotiation, time, and/or space, and things go back to normal.  After all, children have an incredible resiliency and gift of forgiveness, able to move forward from strife with a fair amount of ease.  So what is behind these statements?  What are children processing and testing with these exclamations?

Some time ago I wrote a post about testing certain behaviors in order to cause significant reactions from others. This was written almost exactly two years ago, when the children of Cohort 7 were all beginning to turn two.  Naturally, this meant that the behaviors being explored were physical in nature: what happens if I take this toy from you? What happens if I block your body from doing something I know you want to do?  The children were incredibly curious to discover that their physical actions had deep power behind them.  They could affect their friends and the environment by doing certain things, often receiving very loud, emphatic reactions.  Whoa! Once this realization had clearly been made, it was my cue that the children had left a stage of simply exploring cause and effect, and were wanting to experiment with a very specific effect again and again, already very much aware of their physical power in these situations.

At Tumbleweed, we view this stage of focused exploration as one in which we give children clear limits about what does and doesn't work in terms of treating others at our school.  Along with these limits, we practice safe and effective tools for asking friends for toys or space, as well as easy and clear statements like "no!" and "mine!"  Children who try these behaviors again and again are offered reminders and space, always in a safe, anti-shame manner.  Over time, their interest in these behaviors subsides, as children internalize the idea that in our community, it is our job to keep everyone feeling safe and welcome.

In my reflections on our current exploration of "you're not my friend!", I have seen some parallels to the physical experimentation that happens at a much younger age.  Our group of 3-5 year olds have recently become very aware that their words and the intentions and feelings they express have immense power.  We celebrate this!  We foster each child's unique identity, voice and sense of having an impact in their community.

And as we celebrate the beauty in this discovery, we are also met with challenges: what happens when certain phrases/statements are used again and again in order to instigate a negative reaction?  As teachers, we feel strongly that a) this doesn't work for our school and b) any redirection around this needs to be framed by our anti-shame approach.  What does this look like?

First, we engage in group discussion and bring thoughtful attention to the behaviors.  We stop and notice reactions together both in small groups and even during our circles with everyone -- we reflect on how certain phrases and words have been making people feel, and always agree that they bring negativity to our school and make people feel unsafe/unwelcome.  We then invite the children to brainstorm what they can do or say in response to such words, as well as alternatives to saying these hurtful things in the first place (especially if the phrases are being used in response to a frustrating interaction with someone).  We sometimes even act this out, which everyone feels excited to do -- it feels good to practice powerful, safe and effective ways of interacting and helps children to remember these strategies in the moment, when emotions are high and it is especially easy to fall back on impulses. When we discuss these behaviors openly with children and engage them in practicing safe alternatives, together we forge new neural pathways leading to adaptive, pro-social behavior. 

In the event that the behaviors continue in the classroom, we intervene calmly but firmly, reminding children of our agreement that the behavior feels unsafe.  As with physical testing, we offer a verbal reminder, and if that is not enough to stop the behavior, we gently but firmly lead children away to take space, deep breaths and to make a new plan.  We offer compassion to everyone involved in these situations, and if children are later tempted to point out specific children who have said mean things, we always draw attention to the safe, positive things they are doing and saying now.  It feels crucial that we create an environment in where there are no "bad kids", namely the children who are most drawn to this exploration.  After all, we view this kind of exploring as a very normal part of development, and we always strive to send the message to all children that they are loved and accepted at our school, no matter what.

Outside of our conversations directly relating to hurtful phrases and statements, we are always reinforcing and discovering with the children what it means to be a friend and a member of our precious community.  The health of our school and all of the families and teachers who are a part of it is something we all share responsibility for, and indeed, this is a message we have conveyed to children even as young as infancy: every person at our school is cherished, and viewed as powerful, competent and capable.  It is our work to keep ourselves and each other safe, both physically and emotionally.