Superhero and Gun Play in the Classroom

Around the age of 4, many children begin to exhibit behaviors, such as gun play or superhero play, which enable them to feel a sense of power or control. Teachers often feel unsure of the best way to handle this type of play. Traditional approaches of banning the play or allowing the play with limits often result in meeting the teacher’s need for classroom control but do not address the developmental issues with which children are dealing. Teachers who actively facilitate children’s gun play or superhero play provide for both children’s needs as well as their own.

Superhero play, gun play, and war play are types of power play that share common characteristics.  Power play generally occurs among children between the ages of four and six. All types of power play share some common characteristics.  First, there are always good guys and bad guys, or good versus evil.  In power play, there is no gray area. You are either a good guy or a bad guy, never a combination of the two.  Children at this age are very “black and white” in their thinking and often have a difficult time seeing two aspects of the same situation.  For example, in the Piagetian conservation tasks, pre-operational children focus on only one aspect of the situation. In the conservation of number task, children concentrate on the length of each row of objects when making a decision about which row has more rather than focusing on the number.  Another common characteristic of children’s power play is that there is always a conflict between the good guys and the bad guys.  Regardless of whether children are engaging in superhero play or war play, it is the responsibility of the good buys to fight the bad guys.  Lastly, control or power is the central theme of the play.  Children are trying to answer the question of who will ultimately win or be in control.

THE APPEAL OF SUPERHERO PLAY

There seems to be a universal appeal of superhero play among young children.  Bauer & Dettore (1997) suggest several reasons for this.  Through this type of play, children have the ability to possess the power that superheroes have enabling them to perform amazing feats.  Since children little control over their world, superhero play allows them to be physically powerful and to have control over the events around them.   Children make the rules for the play and draw the boundaries, thus giving them another avenue for feeling powerful.  They have the ability to stop the game, giving them the greatest power.  Superhero play also allows children to try on new roles and become capable of solving problems.  They have the pleasure of knowing that good triumphed over evil and that they had the power to overcome the bad guys.  It also gives children an opportunity to engage in physical activities such as running, jumping, and kicking.

SUPERHERO PLAY IN THE CLASSROOM

Although power play is common among young children, teachers often feel uncomfortable when this type of play emerges in the classroom. According to Bauer & Dettore (1997) teachers frequently view power play as meaningless and aggressive.  They believe that children will become out of control, disruptive, or threatening.  Power play has a tendency to turn rough and noisy, and often creativity is diminished.   Levin & Carlsson-Paige (1995) surveyed teachers about their concerns of this type of play in the classroom. Their concerns fell into two main categories:  “increased levels of violence among children and violence, imitation, and lack of creativity in children’s play” (p. 69).

Teachers have several choices to consider when superhero play or war play appears in their classrooms.  Carlsson-Paige & Levin (1987) outline the following four options:

Option 1: Ban the Play

With this option, teachers forbid children to engage in the play. They may or may not give an explanation to the children.  This option may address the teacher’s need to maintain a peaceful classroom environment, but it does not adequately address the children’s needs.  Kuykendall (1995) supports the banning of this type of play because children can work out feelings in other areas.  She adds, however, that if teachers choose to ban this type of play then children must have other opportunities to feel power.  Boyd (1997), however, opposes banning superhero play.  When superhero play or war play is banned, children do not have an opportunity to work out their developmental needs.  Banning the play sends a message to children that their interests are not valued at school.         

Option 2: Take a Laissez-Faire Approach

With this option, teachers openly allow children to engage in the play, but do not take on an active role.  Teachers may support this option because they realize the benefit of allowing the play and supporting children’s interests.  However, this option does not usually allow a role for the teacher to actively facilitate the play and truly meet children’s developmental needs. 

Option 3: Allow the Play to Continue with Specific Limits

This is similar to the laissez-faire approach in that teachers are allowing the play to continue, but in this case with specific limits.  The limits may include where the play can take place or the types of materials that are permitted to be used.   These limits help teachers to maintain a peaceful classroom environment while still attempting to address children’s needs.  However, the limits that are set attempt to establish classroom values for the children (such as guns are not acceptable) rather than letting children discover their own values.  Teachers have a limited role with this option as well; therefore children’s developmental needs may not be adequately addressed.

Option 4: Actively Facilitate the Play. 

When teachers facilitate children’s play, they intervene to extend the play.  Teachers may offer suggestions to children about new roles or materials, or take on a role within the play to help children enhance the quality of the play.  For example, a teacher may ask a child who has made a gun to show her how the gun works.  She may then ask question to encourage the child to expand his views of the play situation. She may ask, “What if you just wanted to capture the bad guy instead of hurting him.  How would your weapon be different? How could you make a weapon like that?”  When facilitating power play, it is essential that all of the children remain physically and emotionally safe.  No one’s feelings should be hurt during the play.  This option is often more difficult for teachers to accept, but is more beneficial to both the teachers and the children because it aids in children’s development.  Carlsson-Paige & Levin (1987) point out that

The teacher is helping the children to gain control over their impulses, to take points of view other than their own, to distinguish between fantasy and reality, to work out their own understanding about what they have heard about the world around them, and to experience a sense of their own power and mastery through play. (pg. 49).

Teachers have several options when responding to superhero play in the classroom.  Each option has potential benefits for either the children or the teacher, however the best option for handling superhero play in the classroom is to actively facilitate it.  This option allows teachers to meet children’s developmental needs and become active in the children’s play.  Teachers who take on a role, ask questions, or make suggestions show respect for children’s ideas and encourage children to extend their thinking and use creativity within their play experiences.

Classroom Practices During COVID-19

Note: This is an opinion piece only whose goal is to start a conversation. I am not a medical professional nor a COVID Researcher.

Recently I’ve been asked numerous questions about practices within ECE classrooms and the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions have included some of the following:

  • Should we let children play together or separate them?
  • Am I allowed to hug the children?
  • Should we sing at group time?
  • How should greetings be handled?

These are all great questions. I’m certainly not a medical professional or a researcher on COVID, but here is my personal take on questions such as this. I like to think about this with a three-step approach.

1. Adhere to your state guidelines and mandates and/or district or center guidelines/mandates.

Above all else, be sure that you are implementing and responding to all of the state-mandated guidelines. This should be the first step in deciding about any specific practice within the classroom. If there are no specific guidelines or mandates, then proceed to step two.

2. Evaluate your personal comfort level.

As early care professionals, we have to take care of ourselves. If you do not put your own health (physical and mental) first, you won’t have anything left to give. The evaluation of personal comfort may vary from teacher to teacher within the same center, and that’s ok. During this unusual time, it’s ok for things to be a little different. Ask yourself these questions, and be honest about your answers:

  • Is the practice something that I really think should be eliminated for the time being? What about the practice causes the strong feelings for you?
  • Is this something that I feel is putting me at a risk level I’m not comfortable with?
  • Am I adding unnecessary stress for myself by implementing this practice?
  • Are there other factors that apply to me (but maybe not others) that make me uncomfortable with this practice for the time being?

If you answer yes to these questions, then it’s important to consider whether it’s worth the risk to you (physically or mentally). Remember, we all have different reactions to this pandemic. We all have different levels of concern. And that’s ok. Make the decision that is right for you in this moment. Research around this pandemic changes from day to day. If the decision you make today feels right, and in a few weeks no longer feels right, it’s ok to make a different decision. In a nutshell, every teacher will need to assess how comfortable they are being in a classroom to begin with and will have the heavy decision of weighing personal risk against good practice. That’s an individual decision that I don’t think anyone else can/should monitor.

3. Consider what children need for healthy development and what best practice indicates.

Child development and children’s needs do not change just because we are in the middle of a pandemic. To the extent that the teacher is comfortable, it is still important to provide children with the opportunities to develop holistically. Children still need opportunities to interact with both other children and adults. They need opportunities to practice their social skills and pro-social behaviors. They need hugs and touch from adults they have relationships with. They need solid, educational materials to interact with directly because we know children learn through play with hands-on materials. They need to be read to by caring adults. The list goes on and on. Remember that the state guidelines for early childhood are typically slightly different than the guidelines for school-agers because their development is different.

One of my fellow early childhood colleagues, Rachel McDonough, gave this advice:

“The goal is to try to provide as normal an experience as you can while still mitigating risk to the extent that you can. It’s impossible to complete eliminate any risk, and I think that parents understand that when they send their children to us. We are all doing so many things to ensure that children who are entering the building are healthy. I think that singing and reading in small groups is important, and it’s important to build those healthy relationships with children. The focus needs to be on having really good experiences with children and building relationships with them and to not have the pressure on us to eliminate ALL risk.”

We cannot eliminate all risk. We can mitigate to the best of our abilities. Centers are checking children for symptoms upon entering and cleaning and sanitizing as best we can to minimize the risk. We cannot eliminate all practices that we know are healthy for children. I don’t think any teacher should put added stress on him/herself because of a particular practice. The teacher’s mental health is important during this stressful time. I think Rachel said it beautifully. Honor the state guidelines, honor yourself, and respect the choices of others.

What is my best advice for challenging behaviors?

Check out my newest feature, the 5-Minute Professor, in which I answer questions about teaching and parenting young children.

Read the transcript or watch the full video below!

Hi. I’m Dr. Jenni Jacobs, Founder of The Learning Professor. Welcome to the 5-Minute Professor where I answer your questions about early childhood. One of the questions that I’m often asked is, “what’s a quick tip that I can implement to help children behave better or to help them get through difficult times or misbehaviors?’ And my quick answer to that is to show empathy. When we tap into children’s feelings, it has a truly magical effect. And it’s not just children. It’s really any person that is going through a rough time. So an example of this: If you have a young child who is playing on the computer and you tell them that their time is over and they start to throw a temper tantrum, we often want to talk to the child about appropriate behavior. But the thing is, when a child is having a struggle like that, they’re not in the thinking part of their brain. They are in their primitive brain, and all they can think about is their own feelings. When we tap into that part of the brain and we help the child process those feelings, it enables the child to grow back up into their thinking brain and know what the right choice is. We just have to wait for a little bit for them to get there. So to help them grow back up into that thinking part of their brain, we want to talk to them about what they’re feeling. Now, I know sometimes it’s hard to put yourself in their shoes because their struggles seem so little compared to what our struggles are. But remember how young they are and that for them, this is a real issue and a real struggle. So what are they feeling in that moment that they wanted to keep playing on the computer and they couldn’t? Tap into that feeling, whatever you think it might be. You might say something like, “Wow, it looks like you are having a really hard time giving up the computer. You were really having fun with that. It’s hard to give it up when you still want to keep playing it, isn’t it?” And let the child talk about their feeling. Or you might say something like, “you’re really angry that you have to give up your turn on the computer. You really want to stay there.” Just talk about their feelings, and what I like to say is sit in the feeling for a little bit. Help the child process it, let them know that their feelings are ok, it’s alright to feel that way. And when the child’s feelings start to dissipate or go away, now you can talk about the rules of the classroom. Then you can say, “When your time is up, I can help you find something else to do” or you can give them a choice or whatever your next strategy might be. One of the problems I find with a lot of discipline programs is that they talk about this kind of thing and they say to talk about the child’s feelings and acknowledge the feeling and then state the limit. Well the problem with that is that when you state the limit immediately after talking about the feeling, it just negates the whole thing. It’s kind of like somebody saying to you, “Oh, you look really good in those jeans, but you still need to lose 20 pounds.” That second statement makes the first statement completely null and void. I don’t even care that you just told me I look good because all I’m focusing on is the last part of the statement and what I need to do instead. And that’s a lot of times how it is with children. You say something like “I know you’re having a really hard time leaving the computer and you wish you could stay, but the rule in the classroom is that you get 20 minutes and then it’s someone else’s turn.” Well all they’re hearing now is the rule, and they don’t feel acknowledged at all in their feelings. So we need to sit with the feeling, just talk about the feeling, until they’ve processed it and then move on to whatever the classroom limit is. You’ll find when use this strategy it works amazingly well, and it’s really going to feel like magic in your classroom. For more tips and tricks, check out my website www.learningprofessor.com And try to influence someone’s life today in the most positive way that you can!

To Trace or Not to Trace?

Of all the topics about preschool literacy that I teach, the most hotly debated among teachers is that of tracing. A simple google search on preschool writing or curriculum ideas will no doubt result in some form of tracing. In fact, even some handwriting curricula encourage the practice. Whenever I introduce the idea of no tracing activities in the classroom, I am often met with a barrage of arguments defending the practice. Some teachers are so tied to this practice that they almost become angry at the idea of giving it up, insisting that tracing has helped their children learn to write.

After years of observing children as they learn to write, I suggest that asking children to trace alphabet letters actually does more harm than good.  The typical tracing activities involve broken line letters to help children make a “correct” letter. The problem with this is that children pay more attention to the broken lines than the actual letter and letter shape. In their attempts to connect the lines, they start at random places to connect the lines, go repeatedly over their marks to ensure the broken lines are completely covered, and often create letter shapes that do not have a written fluency to them. These actions, if repeated enough times, will result in habits that later interfere with both legibility, muscle memory, and writing fluency.

Although the end product may result in a letter that seems satisfactory, it is likely that the lines were traced back and forth and started at a point of convenience with no regard for the sequence of how to create the letter. To account for this, teachers may stand over children with specific directions of where to start and how to make the lines, resulting in low feelings of self-efficacy (i.e., I’m not good at this).

Another issue that arises with tracing involves the control that it takes to stay within the lines. In order to hold a pencil correctly and make letters correctly one has to develop the small muscles within the wrists, hands, and fingers. If a child is struggling to hold a pencil correctly or stay within lines on a paper, this is a clue that the child’s fine motor skills need to be more developed. The best way to develop these skills is by giving the child more manipulative activities, such as searching for pony beads in playdough, picking up small pieces using a pincer grasp, or using puzzles with small knobs. I’ve seen many teachers attempt to correct the pencil grip of a child only to see the child revert back to the “comfortable way” after the teacher walks away. This demonstrates that the correction of pencil grip does nothing to promote control…rather the teacher must look to see what is causing the issue to begin with.

When children have the fine motor control to create letters free hand that are similar in size and shape on paper without lines, they now have the motor skills needed to write on lined paper. By the time children reach this point, they do not need tracing activities because they either are already making the letters or already have the skills to create recognizable letters.

This begs the question, how will children learn to write their names or letters if they don’t have tracing activities? The answer is actually quite simple. Children need many opportunities throughout the day to write freely on topics of their choosing. They need access to writing materials and blank paper. They need models of the alphabet that are on the same surface on which they are writing, name cards to look at so they can recreate the names, and words that they are interested in so they can view the model and then attempt to recreate the letters. There is no shortage of appropriate and interesting writing activities for preschoolers. The key is to find activities that the children want to participate in. Here are just a few examples that you can easily incorporate into your environment:

  • A writing table that is related to an interesting book, topic, or song. Your writing table should include blank paper, an alphabet sample, name cards, interesting word cards with pictures, and writing utensils. I like to use half sheets or quarter sheets of paper to encourage children to refine their writing and write smaller letters rather than larger letters.
  • Clipboards in appropriate areas throughout the room so that children can practice controlling the pencil or writing words, such as in the block area so they can draw and label buildings or signs or in the science area where they can write observations about a science display.
  • Opportunities to write in dramatic play, such as taking an order, writing their name on a train ticket, copying their address for a flower delivery, or filling out a patient chart for their pet. The ideas for implementing writing within dramatic play are unlimited. Children love imitating the adults in their lives by writing lists and filling out forms.
  • Opportunities to write their name using a model. Have a basket of name cards in the art area, at the easel, at a morning sign in sheet or anywhere else children might need to or want to write their name. We often ask children to write their names on their art work, but often they don’t have a model close by to look at.
  • Allow children to create lunch requests in which they fill out a form indicating who they would like to sit next to at lunch or snack. This can be a great way to motivate children to write who might not otherwise be interested.
  • Tactile activities that allow children to feel the shape of a letter, such as writing in the sand or sandpaper letters. With activities like these children are less likely to engage in the bad habits they would create when using pencil and paper to trace.

Research supports this idea of allowing children to free write. Neuroscience research has discovered that there is a specific area of the brain that must be activated in young children in order to become a good reader. This area, the visual word form area, is often called the letterbox region. In the research studies, seeing letters, typing letters, and tracing letters did not activate this letterbox region in four year old children. However, free-writing letters (no lines, blank paper, no dotted letters) did activate the letterbox….further proof that free writing is a more productive activity than tracing. Why is this? It’s thought that as the child produces the letters, he makes them a little different each time. The brain is really, really good at recognizing patterns. So the process of writing the letters free form helps the child differentiate which parts of the letter are important for letter recognition and which things are not important. It activates something in the brain that begins to recognize that this isn’t just another shape…this object is a little different…it connects to a word I know that has sounds in it. In FMRI studies, children who just traced the letters didn’t activate the letterbox area and had less letter knowledge and understanding than children who were free writing.

Tracing does not activate the region of the brain necessary for good readers. Free writing does.

At this point, teachers hearing this information are generally convinced that free writing is a good thing, but they are still reluctant to let go of tracing activities. I often get the question, “Can’t I do both?” My answer to that question has multiple layers. First, is the child establishing bad habits in the way he/she is making the letters. If the answer is yes, then I would avoid the activity. If the answer is no, I would probably ask myself if the child is really benefiting from the activity. The answer is likely that the activity is nothing more than busywork. I hear many teachers complain about the pressure of getting the children in their classroom ready for Kindergarten. With this type of pressure, it makes sense that we would want to ensure that any activity we do in the classroom would promote development. I just can’t seem to find a good reason to trace. I’d rather spend my time on other types of phonemic awareness activities.

The second layer for me involves thinking about whether children actually enjoy the activity. It’s completely possible to engage in an activity without putting forth any mindful effort. When this happens we have to ask ourselves how much learning is actually taking place. Also, forcing children to do an activity that is not enjoyable often results in behavior issues. For the child that doesn’t enjoy the activity, it’s important for teachers to consider whether the child is really gaining anything from it, and whether the battle is worth fighting if behavior issues ensue.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours. However, DAP guidelines, neuroscience research, and literacy experts do not endorse tracing activities. So my final answer to “Can’t I do both?” would be, “Why would you want to?”


For more information about Literacy and the Brain, check out our course, Creating Neural Pathways for Reading.

Language Matters When it Comes to Shame

Recently I’ve joined several parenting (mom) Facebook groups online to get a sense of some of the topics that parents are struggling with. It’s supposed to be a place of support, where mothers can ask questions without fear of judgment. I have found it is quite far from that. I think I naively assumed that other people would obey the rules and stay silent if they didn’t have something nice to say. It’s far from that in fact. It’s a cesspool of judgment. But that’s not actually what I’m hear to talk about. One of the other things I found interesting in the groups was the way some of the moms were responding to discipline related posts. They weren’t just recommending spanking…but their ideas of how children should be disciplined were filled with rage, power, humiliation, embarrassment, and shame.

Shame was the one that really got me though. I’ve been reading and listening to a ton of Brene Brown’s work, and that’s the topic she studies. So these responses just kept coming back to me. In her work, she tells us that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. Guilt, she says, has the opposite correlations. So what’s the difference between guilt and shame? Shame is focused on the person (you are bad) and guilt is focused on the behavior (you did something bad).

Isn’t that just semantics, you say? Actually, it’s not according to the research. Language affects the way we internalize messages, and how we internalize those messages color the way we view the world. I doubt there is any parent out there that would want their child to grow up with the list of things associated with shame, yet many of our discipline strategies are entirely shame based.

It’s embedded in our language and our daily interactions with children. I remember as a young mother playing with my toddler and laughing as I said “You’re bad” as she was being sneaky in a game we were playing. It was an innocent comment on my part, said in jest, but did it affect her in a negative way? I’ll honestly never know for sure.

But what I do know is this: given the knowledge I now have around shame and its affects, I will make every attempt to focus on behavior rather than character in all of my interactions…whether those interactions are with children or adults. If shame has all of these negative correlations, I don’t want to be part of it. Do you? 

Spoiling Babies???

A friend of mine has a 7 month old infant in a group care setting. She came over with him the other day and told me that the day care had asked her not to hold him so much on the weekends because she was spoiling him. Apparently he was expecting the teachers to hold him during the day like his mom did when they were at home. She was heartbroken and devastated. She already felt like she wasn’t spending enough time with her son because she had to work, and now the precious little time she did have she wasn’t supposed to hold him? You can see why she was upset. She asked me what to do.

I find it absolutely heartbreaking that a parent would be asked not to hold their baby. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence. It stems from the belief that babies that want to be held a lot are spoiled. But here’s the thing….it’s not possible to spoil a baby until about 9-12 months of age. Before then…babies are just communicating their needs. Being held is just as legitimate of a need as wanting to be fed, wanting to be changed, or needing to sleep. Human touch is fundamental for development and survival, and helps to establish a secure attachment to caring adults.

During the first 9-12 months of life, children are in the sensorimotor modulation stage of self regulation. This means that they really don’t have any prior intentions in their behavior, and they don’t yet understand the meaning of a situation. Infants react to things that the caregiver does, but they are not able to reflect on the action, the meaning, or the consequence at all. All of their actions are doing one of four things:

  • Engaging in voluntary motor acts – learning how to move their bodies in different ways in the outside world
  • Learning about cause and effect – every thing is a new experience for them…they are figuring out how things work
  • Exploring their environment – this is a brand new world and it’s exciting to see what’s out there!
  • Trying to get their needs met – they can’t use words to tell you what they need, and they haven’t always developed enough mechanisms to be able to self-soothe all the time

Since their have no prior intention or awareness, their desire to be held is not manipulative. In an way. In fact, infants need to be held a lot to develop a sense of trust, which is critical to healthy development. Science agrees with this. You simply cannot spoil a baby.

So what about the baby that comes to child care on Monday crying to be held, but by Wednesday has stopped? It’s simple. He’s just learned that his cries for help aren’t answered so there’s no point in trying. If you ask me, that’s a sad place for a little baby to be. I know that in a group care setting it may be impossible to hold a baby as much as they might be held at home. So what’s the answer? You do the best that you can at meeting EACH child’s needs. And you talk to the child to let the child know that you will be there as soon as you can….that they aren’t alone….that you haven’t forgotten about him.

So my answer to my friend? Hold your baby as much as you want to. That’s what he needs, and that’s what’s healthy.

Goodness of Fit – Do we really practice it?

As I prepare to teach a temperament class today at a conference, I’ve been reflecting on the topic of temperament. As I thought about the 9 different temperament traits I became very aware that the importance in knowing about these traits isn’t actually in the traits themselves, but rather in knowing how to approach, accommodate, and adapt to the traits. Sure…it’s always beneficial to have information about yourself or someone else to understand how that person approaches the world..but that information is pointless if you don’t actually do something with it.

Therein lies the importance of the term “goodness of fit.” Goodness of fit is a term used in a variety of context, but when it’s used to talk about temperament it means matching your caregiving style to what the child needs. This is especially important at an infant and toddler level. What I often see happen is that teachers try to force children to adapt to a behavior that they find easier to handle. For example, a teacher that has a child that is highly active may try to help that child calm down. This isn’t what’s intended when we ask caregivers to practice goodness of fit.

To truly understand this, we need to take a look at the developing brain. There are two aspects that are particularly important to understanding goodness of fit:

  1. First, the limbic system, which is the system that experiences and controls emotions, has two components: The lower limbic system which experiences emotion and the higher lymbic system which regulates emotion. The higher limbic system is located in the cortex…the part of the brain that doesn’t really start developing until children are a bit older.
  2. Young children (kindergarten age and below) tend to live more in the right side of their brain than the left side…and the right side of the brain is the one that is processing things like emotions, facial cues, gestures, and body language..while the left side is what processes the language.

So how does this relate to temperament then? Well…first, infants and toddlers do not yet have the brain skills to control or regulate their natural state of being. For young children…it’s the things unsaid that make a huge difference in their self-concept. What is the unspoken message you are sending when you try to make an infant or toddler adapt to your preferences instead of honoring the child’s preferences?

The key then in promoting a positive sense of self and honoring the way the child’s brain is developing is for the adult to make the adaptation. Have a toddler in your classroom whose activity level is extremely high? Provide a climber for the child. Have a child who is slow to warm to new experiences? Provide extra time for that child to become comfortable. Meeting the child at his/her developmental stage will allow the child to develop the positive self concept and regulation skills that will help the child to be able to adapt to situations at an older age.

Remember to always ask yourself: What is the unspoken message I’m sending…and is that what I really want this child to hear?

The Problem with Behavior Charts

I recently taught a class in which we engaged in a discussion about the use of behavior charts in the classroom. These come in all different varieties….from forms sent home with parents to charts on the wall to flipping cards to those infamous stop light systems. Do these types of things really work? And are they fair?

I’m all for communicating with parents so that they are informed about what is going on with their child’s behavior while at child care. However, too often, these forms become nothing more than a way to communicate negative behaviors rather than a true communication tool. I think to evaluate whether any of these are helpful, we have to look at the purpose of discipline in our classroom.

One of my favorite quotes is this:

If we reflect on this quote, our true intention with any type of behavior management system is to teach children. These behavior management systems rarely do that. Let’s look at some of the reasons that teachers should stop using these systems:

  • They don’t work. Look at the stop light systems. The kids that are on green are always on green. And the kids that are on red are always on red. That should tell you something. If the system was really working, then the kids that are on red should quickly start moving to yellow and green rather than always landing on red. What was it that Albert Einstein said…….Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is….insanity. When we implement a system like this and see the same results day after day….we should notice that it’s not really working and try something different.
  • They are shaming to children. When you post the chart in the classroom or announce to the class that someone’s card is being flipped or their clothespin is being moved, you are shaming and humiliating children in front of their peers. No one wants their indiscretions announced to the world, including children. Being shamed rarely results in a child learning a better response. You wouldn’t share children’s academic progress with others….why would you share their behavioral progress?
  • When you consistently label a child with a bad report or constantly put them on the red stoplight, you are giving that child a role to play in the classroom and announcing it to everyone in the room. You’re labeling that child as “the bad kid” even if you never use the words. Everyone that walks in the room….parents…teachers….children….they all see who is being “good” and who is being “bad”. Give a child a role to play, and he/she will play it. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • What makes a day “good” or “bad”? What happens if a child has a terrible morning but a good afternoon? Or what happens if a child makes some bad decisions in the morning but then does something really nice for someone in the classroom? When we label children’s days as good or bad, we create a dark shadow that follows them around. When a child misbehaves, teachers and parents need to deal with the misbehavior in that moment and then let it go. Moving a card or filling out a behavior report is like double jeopardy. It’s two consequences for the same behavior. Instead of creating this dark shadow, give the child every opportunity to start fresh and turn things around.
  • Behavior charts rarely account for baseline behavior. If Johnny never hits anyone, but today he hits two people…..he had a rough day. But if Emily typically hits 20 times a day, and today she only hits 15 times….that was a really good day for her. Even though she hit people, she made some improvements. We need to make sure that we are measuring children’s progress against their own baseline behaviors…not some imaginary standard of perfection.
  • And speaking of perfection, we often expect perfection from children. We expect them to never do anything wrong, to never be distracted, to never be disrespectful, to never be in a bad mood…..that is completely unrealistic. We need to allow children to be human.

So if we don’t use behavior charts in the classroom….what do we do? We use techniques that actually work. There is no magic wand, but when we approach children with empathy, view misbehavior as communication, help children deal with their difficult emotions, and look for the reasons and/or unmet needs behind the behavior, we find that we actually don’t really need these tools after all.

Engaging Students in Physical Science

Physical science is one of the three content items in science. (The other two are life science and earth & space science). Physical science deals with the properties of materials and objects. This includes things we can observe, such as height, weight, color, and transparency, but it also includes how objects respond in different situations. A big part of this is exploring the position and motion of objects. This is perhaps one of the easiest and most fun ways to incorporate science into your classroom. As you attempt to put physical science materials into your space, consider these four criteria of a good physical knowledge activity from Constance Kamii:

  • The child produces the movement.
    This means that the child is in charge of the activity, not the teacher. This isn’t just an observation activity…the child is really involved and is in charge of producing the movement.
  • The child must be able to vary his/her actions.
    There must be something the child can do differently in order to learn more about the object(s). For instance, can the child place the car in different places along the ramp, or make the car start or stop, or make the car go faster or slower. These all provide the child with an opportunity to figure out how these materials work, and how his/her actions influence the position and movement of the objects.
  • The reaction must be observable.
    The child must be able to observe the result of varying his/her actions. Without this observation, the child will be unable to draw any conclusion. Remember that observable doesn’t just mean seeing the result…you can observe with any of your senses.
  • The reaction of the objects must be immediate.
    When the child varies his/her actions, he/she must be able to see the results of that action right away in order to construct knowledge. If the reaction is delayed, the child may not be able to form proper conclusions.

Let’s look at some activities that meet these four criteria:

Catapult by Joyce Brewer

In this simple catapult activity, children are exploring simple machines and determining how the placement of the marker cap (fulcrum) influences how far the pompom travels.

Created by Melinda O’Connor

This simple balance is created out of popsicle stick. Placed on a V-shaped cardboard to enable the popsicle stick to balance, this is then glued to the cardboard base with a bent paper clip wrapped around the V-shaped cardboard holding in place the popsicle stick to form the balance.

This pendulum activity is always fun for children. Make modifications by using an adjustable length (such as using baby links or paper clips), adjustable weight of the pendulum bob, or adjustable weight of the materials being knocked over. Remember to only change one variable at a time though so that children can make accurate observations about the materials.

Inclined Planes by Rebecca Scholtz

Make your ramp area interesting by changing the texture of the ramps so that children can make comparisons about how the texture influences the speed and distance.

This adjustable ramp was made out of cardboard boxes and allows children to determine how the incline affects speed and distance. Remember to use the same materials for all three ramps until after children have had an opportunity to create some conclusions. Then you can experiment with different materials, such as the ones in this picture.

These are just a sampling of physical science materials. Each one has so many options for extending the activity…..what ideas do you have? How could you use these in your classroom?

Teaching to the Brain

We’ve all heard of teaching to the test, and we all know that this strategy has no long-term success for children’s learning. Instead, I suggest “teaching to the brain”….using what we know about how the brain develops to influence what we do in our classrooms. During the first five years of life, the brain develops at a rapid speed. Although the brain can be trained to memorize pieces of information, true learning and understanding comes from experiences that are tailored to the way the brain develops during these important years. So how can you apply what we know about the developing brain in connection to plan appropriate environments and experiences for young children that maximize the foundation for later learning? Here are 9 Brain-Based teaching strategies.

  1. Build Healthy Relationships
    Healthy development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life, both within and outside the family. Children who have positive relationships with their teachers are more excited about learning, more positive about coming to school, more self-confident, and achieve more in the classroom.
  2. Promote Communication
    Just as children want to connect with us, they want to communicate with us. There’s a very predictable pattern to language development, and it happens pretty quickly. Have extended discourse with children, go beyond the here and now in your conversations, and use sophisticated vocabulary.
  3. Encourage Curiosity and Creativity
    Exploratory behavior and creativity is a talent that is highly prized in the working world. That’s because good ideas make money. Children are naturally inquisitive. They are naturally curious and creative. Unfortunately, they learn from school that teachers value right answers more than provocative questions, so they learn to stop asking questions. Use open ended materials, ask thought-provoking questions, allow for trial and error and problem solving, and allow a lot of time for exploration.
  4. Value Play
    Play is the highest form of research (Albert Einstein). Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions. Play is important. Play is how we learn.
  5. Improve Executive Function Skills
    Executive functions lay the groundwork for school success. Executive functions are a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Children who are behind their peers in these skills show more aggression, have difficulty getting along with others, are disruptive in class, and are slower to master academic skills in school.
  6. Plan for Physical Activity
    Voluntary gross motor activities, such as games, running, dance, and other active movements wire the brain to make more efficient connections. This supports later academic learning. We should be encouraging more, not less, physical activity in our classrooms.
  7. Develop and Teach Emotional Intelligence
    Human beings have an incredible ability to display many emotions, but only six of them are built in at birth. Unless children are taught these emotional states early (ages 0-3), when they enter school, they’ll be emotionally narrow. Teach children to recognize their own emotions, those of others, and how to manage their own emotional states.
  8. Practice Stress-Relief
    Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students. Recent studies suggest 30-50% of all students felt moderately or greatly stressed every day. For those from poverty, the numbers can be higher. Teach children better coping skills, offer them predictability, social support, and control over some of their choices.
  9. View Differences as the Norm
    Don’t expect children to be ready to learn the same thing at the same time. This contradicts research that says all children have different rates of brain maturation. Celebrate the unique differences, abilities, talents, and interests that children bring to your classroom.

Does much of this sound like good DAP (developmentally appropriate practice)? Yes! That’s because developmentally appropriate practice is based on what we know about the developing brain and the developing child. What are ways that you put these strategies into practice in your environment?