Tuesday, March 11, 2014

SOLSC #11 What are you supposed to say?

I am posting every day during March as part of the annual "Slice of LifeChallenge for Two Writing Teachers.  Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


The following vignette uses pretend names for the dear students involved!


We dance a hello song.
We transition, settle in, together, sitting in a circle.
He leans over her.
She roars back at him, and, with an angry, reactive claw of a hand,
she scratches him on his thigh.

He cries out in pain.

I sternly demand
"Mary, sit in a chair, right now!"

She moves immediately to the chair,
perhaps stunned by my accuracy,
my knowledge of her actions.
She begins to sob.

I am overwhelmed.
Words fail me.

That juggling feeling - so many plates in the air:
we need to start our day
we need to continue our Gathering
the children need to know what they are to do next
oh, that was such a mean behavior!
so unexpected!
we need to start our day
I need to have time to work with her, with him
yet we are all gathered together,
how can I take the needed time, right now?
we need to start our day
I need to take a deep breath

Words fail me.

Gathering continues,
and I am ignoring her sobs from the chair,
as she sits just to the side of us,
taking it all in.

Didn't I just blog about NOT using a "sit and think" chair?
This feels different, I rationalize.
That feisty, challenging, angry, uncontrolled, hurtful behavior must be stopped.

Words fail me,
so the chair works.

I can't trust my own ability to say the right thing just now.
I can't trust my own ability to be patient and soft.

Gathering ends,
just a minute or two later,
and Melissa [Teaching Resident] takes over,
opening up centers.
I lift Mary from her chair,
as she continues to sob,
and I hold her to me,
as we walk outside the room and
then sit together on a cozy couch.
There we are,
me holding her,
as she sobs.
And I take a deep, cleansing breath.
And the crying slows.

Me: "Mary, what was that? I saw you scratch John."

Mary: "He was touching me. I don't like to be touched."

A moment of silence.

Me: "Remember our classroom rule - 'take care of the community'? You hurt John."

A moment of silence.

Me: "If you had a 'do-over,' what might you do that would be gentle and kind, but let John know that you don't want him to touch you? What's another approach?"

Mary: "I could tell him 'NO! Don't touch me!' "

Me: "Right. You are letting him know that he has hurt you. Gently. I like that. Let's go back in and talk to John."

Sobs gone,
teacher's breath more even,
we went back into the classroom and talked with John,
who may very well have forgotten about the scratch.

I have learned,
I know,
if I give children a little space alongside my guidance
we can arrive at a gentle conclusion.

It seems to me,
when I take the time,
I find out
there is always a reason for the challenging behavior,
something that makes sense to the young child,
some perceived grievance that they are trying to make right.

Preschoolers don't know what to do in these situations.

Truth is, sometimes their teacher doesn't either.

Even after many years of teaching,
I can be so reactive,
so reflexive,
so automatic.

I surprised myself with my own sternness.

It is good to take a moment just to breathe,
before talking.

Trust that there is time to work things out.

(A daily share by a preschooler, in their own words)
A Story Collage by Eloise

Once upon a time, we lived in a new apartment and there was a boy named Wes.  We all go to school but Daddy go to work and Wes goes to Lala’s. The whole family went out for dinner. There was a snowstorm. They went out to play. Then there was no more snow and they played hopscotch on the grass. It was me and there was Mommy and there was Wes and Daddy and Nava. They didn’t want to do hopscotch, they wanted to play on the grass. And those fish are in the school. And the sun was up. The End.


  1. It can turn on a dime, can't it? I think we have always to realize that we are human, and sometimes sternness also teaches. It's like a punctuation mark on your words. But she did do something mean, and slowly will realize that using words are effective too. You started her on that path, Maureen!

  2. This piece captures that feeling so well, "words fail me" repeated, that rapid flow of thoughts that runs through our mind, the pressure of time and waiting children influencing our response. . . I have been here in school and at home. . . sometimes I used to forget the deep breath. Now after struggling with my own children at home, I find it easier to stay calm at school. (and sometimes the chair serves a purpose, it can give you time and space--though I too have been questioning the use of the chair)

  3. Wow! What a way to start the day. And yet, with that rough start you managed to take a deep breath and give Mary exactly what she needed. I love this: "If you had a 'do-over,' what might you do that would be gentle and kind, but let John know that you don't want him to touch you? What's another approach?" I am going to use that phrase do-over. You too analyzed your response in this way. You thought about how you would react differently. Mary may not get it right next time and we may not get it right until after a few tries either. The key is to keep trying. It's in that hope that we make a difference, that hope that allows us to take the deep breaths we need and keep going so that Mary's do-overs become less necessary.

  4. JUGGLING! Yes! That is what it feels like. I have been doing this juggle over and over and over again lately with my crew of challenging friends. There is an inner monologue of triaging needs, figuring out how to meet needs without somehow setting off someone else's need while still maintaining control of the class and not ignoring all the other kids who aren't being challenging... and all the while there is that pulsing voice "We need to start our day." Or "it is important that they hear this information." We, like the kids, have come up with our own list of what is important, what is fair, what needs to be done to "make things right and we are looking for it to be met just like they are. But you're totally right that in these flurried moments where our heads spin and adequate words escape us, it is important to remember that whatever is driving the behavior feels SUPER important to these tiny guys. Very powerful piece, Maureen!