First Principles

It is raining…and raining…and raining some more today.  In fact, it rained so hard this morning that my school district canceled for the day, due to dangerous levels of street flooding.  So I’m just at home, catching up (finally!) on The Last Ship, watching the rain, and thinking about what happens when the “establishing” has gradually and subtly changed in to the “building” of a classroom community.

It’s easy to take a simple system and adapt it to fit your classroom community.  Make the chart, using colors that you like.  Put the right names on the clips.  Find a good place to hang it in your classroom.  Explain to the kids what it all means, and start moving clips around, in response to whatever happens: up for good things, down for bad things.

It’s easy.  Except…it doesn’t work.  At least, not the way I want it to work.  In March, you will still be moving the clips and giving the consequences.  I want students who are different in March than they were in September.

I want students who have more or better strategies for solving problems and expressing big feelings in March than they did in September.  Because, I want my students to be kinder, more compassionate, more responsible people after spending 180 days in my classroom.

I want classroom management to be less work for me in March than it was in September.  Because, less minutes I spend managing behaviors means more minutes I can spend teaching readers and writers and mathematicians.

If those two things are my goals, if those are the things that are important, then my “system” needs to be more complex.  It needs to be based on a way of treating people, principles about how we interact with one another.

Principle #1:  Children are not born innately hurtful.  They are simply born innately self-centered.

Children don’t innately want to hurt each other, or their parents or teachers.  They don’t carry an inner goal of seeing how far they can push you, or doing as much damage as they can, or making someone mad.  They do learn these things, and most kids have an understanding of how to hurt someone out of revenge or anger well before we see them in elementary school.  But this hurtfulness isn’t naturally inside them from the beginning.

Tiny children innately want their own needs met.  And as long as they are only aware of themselves, anything and everything feels like a need to them.

As soon as we start gently and kindly helping kids be aware of the feelings of the people around them, the majority of kids will express empathy and kindness in whatever ways they know how.  They need to be gently awakened to others-centered thinking.  They need us to model others-centered kindness and empathy, and sometimes to teach it explicitly.

Principle #2:  Problems will arise.  We don’t avoid problems.  We solve problems.

If there are no problems, it is possible that I am not allowing myself or my students to act like the human beings we are.  It is possible that I am expecting machines that always respond to a command with a certain response.  School (or dare we say, life) is for learning, and learning is for humanity, not machinery.

Embrace the problems.  Take time for the problems when they happen.  Having problems is how we can become problem solvers.

Principle #3:  The teacher is not the only problem solver in the community.  The teacher is a mentor for the other problem solvers.

Scenario:  Miles tells me, “Taylor keeps calling me ‘Moles’!  He just keeps on doing it, even though I asked him to stop!”  It is so, so, so tempting to walk over to Taylor and try to squash the behavior.

Don’t do it!

You are not the only problem solver in the room, unless you keep solving all the problems!  Be a problem-solving mentor to Miles, and leave Taylor alone.  Empathize with Miles’ feelings.  Discuss Miles’ options.  Ask the class for ideas for Miles.  Suggest a couple of ideas that Miles could try.

Over time, being a problem-solving mentor empowers Miles to solve his own problems.  Being the only problem-solver in the room sends a message to Miles that he has no power in these kinds of situations.

Earlier, we left Taylor alone, but let’s talk about him, too.  Being a problem-solving mentor to Miles sends Taylor a message that you will help him solve his problems, too.  If Miles has more things to try to get Taylor to stop, it gives Taylor more chances to see how his choice affects Miles, and more chances to learn to empathize with Miles.  And it sends Taylor a message that his choices matter, not just when the teacher is around, but when it affects any other human being.

Principle #4: Everyone is doing the best they can right now.  

Toddlers throw tantrums because it’s their only strategy.  Preschoolers grab toys away because it’s the best way they can think of to get what they want.  Second graders call each other mean names because they don’t have anything else to do with these big feelings of hurt or exclusion.

Many problem solving sessions in my classroom start off with me saying, “It looks like you wanted ____, but you didn’t know what to do, so you tried ____.”  Lots of times I have to guess or infer what they might have wanted, and sometimes I make it up altogether.  But choosing to speak in a way that assumes they were doing the best they could at the time leads the way for learning other strategies.

Choosing to speak in a way that assumes they were doing something bad and they need to be punished leads the way for the child to shut down, assume I am mad at them, be mad at me, and not learn a single thing that can actually help him the next time.

Before you move on to respond to a behavior, acknowledge out loud that the child is doing the best thing he can think of.  Even if you’re mad.  Even if you don’t think he is.  Even if your very big feelings say this child should move all the way down the clip chart and never have recess again.  Or worse.  Nothing positive will be accomplished if the student feels attacked.

The Real Miles and Taylor

I am looping with most of my students from last year, since I switched from 1st grade to 2nd grade.  So after a year of community building and problem solving, it didn’t take long for the class to fall back into the routine of solving problems as a class, with my guidance.  (I haven’t witnessed much independent problem solving yet, but I am on the lookout!  It usually appears in January or February, so I’m interested to see if it comes back sooner.)

The real Miles and the real Taylor, names changed of course, have experienced these principles, imperfectly implemented, for a year.  I’ve seen growth in them and the other kids, but it becomes visible in small moments.  I notice growth hours or days later as I’m remembering the conversation or the conflict.

A couple of days ago, Miles said, “I have a problem.  At recess, I was playing basketball with Taylor, and he kept missing.  Every time he did, I said, ‘Fail!’  I don’t think he liked it.”

That was it.  That was Miles’ problem.  He was doing something, someone didn’t like it, and he didn’t want to do it anymore.  He wanted help to treat someone better.  It was unprompted.  Taylor had not tattled on him.  It was after recess, not in the moment.  It was bugging Miles, and he trusted his community with his problem.

His classmates had two suggestions:  He could clamp his hand over his mouth when he felt himself wanting to say that.  He could say, “Try again!” instead.

And let me remind you, we solve problems like this all the time, but usually, it starts with Taylor tattling, and maybe I present Miles’ problem as a secondary problem, after we’ve solved Taylor’s problem.  This took A YEAR!!!  One year before Miles had an others-centered enough community mindset that he could present a problem where he was the one doing something hurtful.  One year before Miles could trust his classmates enough to ask them for help, unprompted.

Have patience and perseverance, my friends!


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