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?
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.
"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.