Archive for category Conflict

A Teacher’s Blunder: Part 1

Kindergartener’s are professional subversive artists. They are naturals, especially when the subject is of non-interest or too abstract. And naturally if kindergartner’s are obligated to sit behind desks, while being instructed about arbitrary letters, words, and sounds through rote memorizations and drilling, there bodies are going to squirm and their going to speak out of turn. Abstract concepts being driven into them will initially be met with subversive tactics that send a distress call for something more tangible and authentic to their intrinsic interests. In other words, kids in kindergarten will quickly loose their attention span when boggled down with the abstractness of academics, if they can’t literally put their hands in the concrete. They crave tangible experiences. As a young teacher in the K-2, I am learning to pay attention to those signs that rarely they’ll speak of – where you completely loose their focus, before confusing them into a funk. Yet, this new found practical knowledge comes with mistakes. This is what I have come to know as the “Teacher Blunders.”

Here my latest in teacher blunders. Usually, I plan a mathematical activity or game the evening before. And the day after, before I can pass out the materials (I should have had them set and out before hand…opps) another game emerges and a group of them are playing their own game of poking and prodding another classmate. Teasing ensues before you can mention a word about the teacher’s marvelous curriculum. And you ask them to stop the teasing, remind them of the many discussions we have had on teasing, and try to instill in them a degree of real empathy. And some snarling remarks and under the breath jabs come out of a five year olds mouth and you have an authentic adult response (still keeping in mind he’s five,) but by this time the game had waned further away, in fact we are having trouble just getting starting. And this is a activity that has been successfully tested before by another teacher who only recommended it.

After the teasing seizes, you explain the simple rules of the game because all games have rules. The rules of course are non-competitive and cooperative based. You make a word slip and say the “W” (Win) world when explaining the object of the game. A voice inside that teacher skull of yours says: “Why the hell did I just say that when you want it to be non-competitive and here they are ready to topple each other with their egos.” You hope they don’t notice, but these are kids and there now in this frenzy about winning the game. But, you then try to reassure them that everyone “wins.” And you notice their interest is now fading, but you go through with the game anyway. Then you begin to notice that this simple game of “math bingo” is maybe over the top, because some are having trouble identifying the numbers. Therefore they begin to place chips on top of all the numbers, as if the more chips you have the more likely you take the “win.” Before you know it they’re all wanting to do this. Then you ask if they are interested in doing a vote to find out if their is enough interest for continuing the game. After most have decided to continue, you give it another teacher go at it. But, again there squirming in their seats, talking out loud, express no interest and the whole project comes to a screeching halt. At his point, you decide to quickly switch gears to another project. I pass out illustrations of a right and left hand for them to color and cut out, this time with much less verbal direction. The chaos comes to a calm. And you get out of the way to find your own breath among the stillness and the sound of a little voice asking you to check out their coloring, as if nothing ever happened.


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Give Kids Rope

Here’s a social experiment for teachers who want to expand on the idea of an autonomous child centered environment. Give them about 30 feet of rope, and get out of their way. Be careful not to interject any anxieties, however the obvious inadvertent neck rope around the neck is never fair game. Observe with great detail their interactions, while maintaining vigilance for safety, however don’t impede on newfound experiments, including those pesky verbal disagreements. Sure you may initially hear the bouts of disputes, but do you expect when ten or more kids have their hands on a rope and they all have a different idea, as to what to do with it. Remember to have faith in the fact that allotted the time and space, they’ll figure it out.

Not, that I completely opposed to having adults facilitate a rope extravaganza, or set up a obstacle course with an ideal of forming a line, taking turns, and “spotting,” each other, but there is a sense of authenticity and sheer reliance and creativity that occurs when their up to their own devices. There is also a sort of a benign experience in allowing kids to craft their own structure, as they are more compelled to rely on each other’s peer cooperation. A tug of war game may ensue, and yelling back and forth may endure, but stay patient dear adult as the plan of action uncoils. “Get off the rope, get off the rope…I’m trying to tie it.” “Stop grabbing onto the rope!” “It needs to be tighter!” “Yeah…let’s maker it tighter.” These are just a few of the loud burst of adrenaline your hear before those really interested stick to the task at hand while others may slowly begin to disperse, away from the seemingly chaos – before order.

And then the rope begins to get snugger; the knots begin to get tied, as they settle on the suitable height or angle. Or the rope over a pull up bar, attached to a bucket or a stool, becomes a sort of pulley system. And then the real fun begins, after the tension has settled and they are invoked in physics lesson at hand. All physics projects need testing, measuring, and further experimenting, as they’ll find ways to tangle their whole bodies around the subject at hand. The upper torso will lunge towards rope stretched between to anchoring points, to find away to balance. Feet and legs will curl around to suspend themselves in mid air. And then as an adult you’ll ponder how their made up knots has supported the weight of ten frantic kids – wondering if a knot will slip out at any given moment and send them crashing down. But then you’ll notice there only about four feet at max above the playground. And yet the joy on their faces and their non- stop gaiety, will lead you to believe that they’ve discovered a way to fly. Or that no ride at an amusement park could compare to this cooperative physics thrill.

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Kids Can Be Meanny Heads!

Today our classroom was teeming with madness, meanness, and mischief; and no it was not a Monday. The weather between gusts of howling wind, flashes of lightning, an occasion crackle of thunder, and a burst of radiant light – somehow found its way into the classroom. The kid’s behavior seemed to be a direct reflection of the inclement weather. And two teachers were caught in a storm of madness, restlessness, and impulsiveness that sends even radical thinking teachers scratching at the blackboard for calmer seas.

On the brighter side, yes there were merry moments that I gripped like a found jewel, but overall these kiddos were out for blood. Squabbling over who sits where, tangling with twisted arms in the corner over marbles, spitting water in the face of a younger boy in another classroom, screaming at their top of one’s lungs when the point was to sing – and of course a swath of other disturbances that leaves you to begin questioning your own sanity.

Certainly we are two teachers who support anarchistic principles and direct democracy, but today literally wore us out. Our kids don’t know what boredom is because they’re always independent self-directed, and our classroom provides countless opportunities for interacting with a diversity of materials that are thoughtfully presented and mindful of their interests. We also offer weekly fieldtrips, ample time and space for free play, classes in Art, Spanish, dance, music, and cooking. And this is just a small taste of the curriculum. One thing these kids are not is bored.

We don’t supervise over them like prison wardens, we’re constantly conscious of respecting their autonomy, and we bestow a ton of trust in their natural born, indestructible drive to learn. But quite frankly, 19 kids with distinct craves for independence can occasionally bring out a degree of meanness – leaving the teacher to ponder: Are they watching violent movies or too much television on the brain? Did they all eat sugar coated frosted rainbow cereal, along with Pop Tarts for breakfast? Is it the weather or a full moon? Jesus, are they just being punks? Or, what the hell am I doing wrong?

But, in the end a daunting day finds a flicker of light among these darkened clouds. You begin to realize they play hard together four days out of the week, for six straight hours, while they loose their first teeth and learn to tie their shoes. Beneath those nuances and scrapping with each other you notice they all are entitled to poopy days. And you realize between the screams, cries, laughter, hackling, there is the sound of the wind, beckoning for one Ohmmmm… of breath, as they yearn for deeper connection. And you come to find out that meanness is just a distress sign for a need to relate, to find belonging, and to feel deeply loved.

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Brawling In The Pre-K

Does fighting in the preschool have a place?

Frank and Brad are running around the play yard bumping into another, pretending to be hunters. In the play yard Frank begins flailing his arms and his fists collide with Brad’s back. Brad is quick to retreat and begins yelling, “your stupid…what did you do that for.” As a teacher I closely observe the sudden escalation of tension, knowing this occasionally occurs between them; I trust my instincts to allow them to hash it out. After Brad reams Frank with some not so nice verbiage, he flees the scene and blends into the play yard. Frank stands with his face glazed over for a minute, noticing he is alone with out his friend, and runs off to rejoin Brad. Within seconds they are off running together – all smiles in the wind.

Frank and Brad are constantly making forts, building sophisticated weaponry out of toys, making “setups” (a term Frank’s mom uses when he organizes several toys into groups and rows), and running around in a imaginary world of battle.

Brad has said it before that the battle is just “pretend.” Cognitively these two boys run at light speed, they are always restless and wanting to engage physically through their rapid-fire imagination. And they are not alone, as we have a few others who exhibit idiosyncratic, spasmodic physical play. Between the two of them there exists a non-verbal tribal pack of full on contact, until it reaches a certain thresh hold, where they are both not afraid to voice their rejection.

Frank and Brad are quick to settle their differences much faster then any adult intervention, such as pulling them a part from each other or giving them “time outs.” I have bestowed the trust in them to figure out most of their problems by themselves, as long as no one is threatened, harmed, or interrupted by their play. As there are a few in the class who sometimes feel intimidated by their behavior, however these kids are not frightened enough to voice their concern, often telling them to “stop” or “I don’t like that,” and either walking away, standing their ground or calling on an adult.

Lets face it, they don’t always heed the word of anothers, request and a teacher can tip off a subtle reminder or a friendly request – “to take their play or game elsewhere.” And then there is the method of other kid “holding their ground,” from surly, rude behavior, with a shove.

Every school has a group of kids who interact with their world mostly through physical play. Like most kids at a tender age of four and five they are also sensitive, and often their rough play exudes insecurities they may be having about themselves.

There is always the blurred line on when to interject as an adult, and as concerned adults we want to reassure that young people find a sense of power, and can feel secure about their sense of self in the world. As teachers, parents, and adult mentors in a child’s life we walk the fine line to not cripple their confidence to scream “stop” or to protect themselves physically, when feeling threatened or harmed, as this is an important tool of communication they need to apply within their lives leading well into their adult years. As educators it is our job to listen to their needs and to coach them through these adversities by setting examples of effective, yet strong communication.

Some times a teacher or parent can pick up on non-verbal clues, of a child being mistreated by another child. One key sign is their willingness to stay clinged to your side. This is a prime time to give these kids verbal tools, sometimes often providing a verbal example: “You need to make sure you tell them to stop, and be sure that it is loud enough for them to hear,” a teacher will commonly reply to a complaint a child may have about another. Often I let kids know that they don’t have to play with the person who is upsetting them and can play with someone else, if they so choose.

And then there’s the question: What if they don’t stop the behavior? Is there a point where a physical response can be an effective means for children to stand their own “ground.”? As teachers we don’t advocate for violence, but is there a point where…enough is enough?

Often times in a preschool classroom I have witnessed where a physical altercation has proven to strengthen bonds between kids at school.

A typical scenario where close play can turn physical can look like this: “I had that first…no I had it first, as they both pull back and forth, hands gripped tightly around a fire truck. “It’s mine,” the two boys shout back and forth, and then there is a shove and arms begin to flail across each other’s faces. Both parties wind up crying and they separate, to regroup together moments later, as if a non-verbal bond of trust has just formed. Minutes following their struggle, they cooperate on putting out a pretend fire outside, with the water from the sensory table.

At Albany Free School kids learn a safe alternative with dealing with other youth who are non-compliant with their wishes and insists on being physical with others. A child can sit on them, until the one causing harm, agrees to stop. Chris Mercogliana, the author of Teaching The Restless, explains this method of where the kids send a clear, yet safe message. At Albany Free School age gaps among students runs rampant – from preschool to eight grade, as they find having this age diversity as an effective means to empowering mentorships, positive communication, a diverse community, while enriching experiences for learning. When the word “stop” becomes ineffective while the child is incessant about being physically unsafe, the kids at the Free School know a technique which is effective, and a very last resort to keep their community safe.

In Teaching The Restless, Mercogliana explains:

“Preset rules and punishments, such as “time-out” chairs, and later detention rooms, quickly loose their effectiveness. They seldom bring about any real change in a child’ overall attitude or character. They reinforce anger, resistance, and resentment instead of fostering personal responsibility.”

Fighting, as a non-verbal reaction, is a natural response to feeling threatened or unsafe. This is one way a child can protect themselves and to regain a sense of power and well-being.

However, there are ways of reducing these areas of tension, while creating a safe environment for kids to explore. There are the “hot spots” among certain groups or individuals in the preschool school setting that can be carefully watched before things “boil over.” We can suggest other activities of play, invite them to take on a certain responsibility or we can ask them, “if they are feeling safe about the play their involved in.” And we can remind them that words to have POWER and meaning. As educators or parents we can make a query into their reasoning for their actions and share some communication tools to give power to their voice, when faced with conflict.

But, punishment is not the answer nor is the enactment of a non-violent policy. This is never a case of violence. Violence is a behavior taught and can never be perpetuated in an environment where a child is surrounded by loving and compassionate support.

Preschoolers usually are in a crowded environment and intimate relationships and close play is a product of this. In close quarters of the classroom conflict is inevitable. When a group of twenty preschoolers are herded into a classroom, a bout is bound to happen. Play is an intimate situation, kids are not afraid of closeness – in fact they crave it. Play is an innate part of their development and it creates an external disorder because they are naturally thirsty for learning. In the fast pace world of play and imagination, bodies move in the classroom, like comets in the universe. You never know when one kid will collide with another or a serious disagreement will arise.

In a close community environment in any preschool, taunting, degrees of tension, and testing of the waters is bound to happen, as relationships develop. These are healthy developmentally appropriate social interactions, as kids who are four and five years old learn significantly through making mistakes. Yes, teachers and parents have important roles of providing examples of clear, concise, and respectful forms of communication, but kids also need the ability to express themselves physically if they are feeling frightened or angry. And a fair punch in the face can have it’s place, if a kid seriously needs to protect him or her self. I’m not talking about “bullying” but if a child has a knee jerk response to push someone else out of their way because they are feeling unsafe by the behavior – then this is not grounds for a “time out,” nor “ a “pat on the back,” but perhaps a suggestion that they use “words” instead of fists. After all many relationships can form out of these physical altercations and these relationships can be an important bond, which just may last a lifetime.

Preschool Punks. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Paul at

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Super Heroism and War Play In The Preschool

Does Super Heroism and War Play Have A Place In The Preschool Classroom?

Parents and educators often show concern about superhero and war play. More recently there has been a greater concern for “violent activity” after the events of 9/11 and the war in the Middle East. Television, movies, video games, and comic books are constantly saturated with the depiction of violence, and children are at our front lines – looking and listening.

However, war play and “super heroism” play have always existed well before the advent of television, comic books, video games, as nations are commonly found on the premise of hostility, violence, destruction, and death. The “good versus evil” psychology is heavily indoctrinated into western society and is quite evident historically.

The American Revolution War, the Civil War, the World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and more recently the war against Iraq, constitutes our western pathological dependency on “power,” through violent means. Yes, the world of war is deeply entrenched in a militaristic and political landscape, and our children are being exposed.

Understanding super heroism and war play

Violence is often in the home, on television, and in our communities. According to Diane E. Levin, in Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play, (Meeting Children’s Needs in Violent Times) comments, “children who seem most obsessed with war play have been exposed to the most violence and have the greatest need to work it out.”

From both therapeutic and cognitive perspectives, children use play to work out an understanding of experience, including the violence to which they are exposed. Young children may see violence in their homes and communities as well as in entertainment and news on the screen. We should not be surprised when children are intent on bringing it to their play. Children’s play often focuses on the most salient and graphic, confusing or scary, and aggressive aspects of violence. It is this content they struggle to work out and understand.

Kids who are feeling powerlessness or insecure have a higher need to create power through play. And this is evident by a child’s real need of creating a superhero or princess character. A strong need for creating a superhero or princess persona, is a sign of the internal struggle occurring to control and understand, a rather complicated world.

And so the question arises: are humans innately violent? And young people take on these highly physical roles in their play? Alfie Kohn in Psychology Today (1988) states multiple references stating why war is not humanistic trait, but a product of politics:

We conclude that biology does not condemn humanity to war, and that humanity can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism. Violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes. The same species [that] invented war is capable of inventing peace.

However, we need to be cautious of places that are exclusively labeled as non-violent or peaceful places because this sets the stage for standardizing and stereotyping behavior. For example a liberal parent may propose maintaining a “peace house,” where “aggressive” behavior is not allowed. Restricting the natural emotions instincts, especially among boys to engage in physical play and free expressionism, only suppresses a human need to explore. In other words the need for some to have physical dramatic super heroism or war play will be robbed of this freedom of expression and of greater understanding of finding self empowerment. A “peace house” is also an illusionary approach to child rearing in a society where dissent and resistance is fundamental need for democracy. Instead the home or school need to be places where young people can have honest and authentic reactions to conflict, unfettered at times by adult expectations in behavior. Youth who are more apt to use super hero or war play, should never be punished – this only perpetuates a cycle for rage, resentment, and confusion.

There are many schools that have a zero tolerance for playing guns at school. Penny Holland from the University of North London focused her research on a book titled: We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years (2003.) Holland discovered that a zero tolerance on toy weapons is “ineffective” enforces further gender demarcation, and results in boys “receiving negative attention.”

In her conclusion Holland has found that adults need to:

“Model the use of power in our relationships with children . . . and must use it wisely” especially at a junction in history where the world is witnessing “an unending spiral of resistance and revenge” as a result of terrorist events unleashed by the events of September 11th.

Adults need to rethink their want to interrupt or deter fantasy and play if it is physical in nature. There are countless times when working at a preschool that I have heard the words “kill” and “gun.” Yes most schools don’t endorse weaponry at school but educators need to use their wise discretion about what is appropriate developmentally and what would be considered threatening. There is a difference between a four year old sticking tinker toy in someone else’s face and saying, “I’m going to kill you,” then a child who has built a tinker toy gun and is firing it imaginatively across the room. The concern with the tinker stick in front of their peers face is that it may intimidate or disrupt the other person’s play. I am not advocating for superhero or war play that completely disrupts another person’s play. However, some youth this age won’t hesitate to tell you: “oh…I’m just pretending.” And this is a sincere response, as young people often are absorbed in a world of fantasy and mean while are measuring up to the complexities of life, especially around exploring subjects such as mortality. “Heroism” and war play is their vehicle to finding ways of indentifying individually and socially, to their natural environment.

When is super heroism and war play acceptable in the classroom?

I would argue that it is developmentally appropriate for young people to engage in super heroism and war play. Physical play is acceptable as long as no one is being seriously threatened or hurt, and those involved have each other’s consent. Our rule of thumb at a independent school I teach at is: as long as the play does not disturb other peoples play or provide a unsafe environment, then there is a place for it. The kids in our class came up with the rules: no hitting, punching, or hurting each other. It certainly does not mean that rules are not broken or stretched dependent on individual needs. Normally, if I observe super heroism or war play, I’ll ask them if they all are “o.k.” or if they “feel safe” with this sort of play. And if someone is not “o.k.” with, it then we request that they ask the other person to Stop or find another activity.

If a conflict arises out of super heroism or war play into full on physical contact, it commonly does not last longer then it took for the short-lived tension to develop. Often a sticky conflict among playmates amounts to laughter and smiles. Preschool age kids are resilient when it comes to conflict and seldom hold grudges or animosity for long; love takes care of the rest.

Punishment for violent play is not the answer?

Understandable, teachers and parents become concerned when fists and feet our flailing and young people are upset. The number one goal is to provide a safe playful environment for learning. But, the reality of fantasy in play often contributes to some unpleasant and often annoying instances of tension. The worst we can do as teachers to inflict punitive measures during these times and set unrealistic limitations. Punishment of play, only breeds dishonesty, while they wait for the teacher to turn their back.

Working with three, four, and five year olds, the “good versus bad” interaction is constant. War like play is not going away, it is a natural course of childhood development. It does not need to be warmly embraced, but rather an accepted as an exploratory part of the growth of a child.

As educators may we create places understanding of our young “superheroes,” with more attention on the internal needs then what is occurring on the surface. As there is much more going on then meets the eye.

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Superman Deserves A Punch In The Nose

My hope is that all superheroes get punched in the nose, or are at least brave enough to face mortality. Or for the sake of this article, I would rather have seen Super Man in a hospital as a result of picking up a car. Most people have been exposed to superhero cartoons or movies; “superheroism” has left a permanent image on our psyche. From the Ice Man freezing a villain, to Bat Man punching the lights out of a crook on top of a building, or Cat Woman batting her paw like hand, many young people are infatuated with superhero or heroine drama. America has been accessorized and inundated with a superhero image. And many kids at school want to act out their favorite superhero.

It starts with just one superhero want to be coming into the preschool classroom. “Good morning Matthew….”I’m super man today, he proudly says.” “OK,” I say with a smile…”I’m super Paul.” Matthew is quite passive with his demeanor and to identify with a superior character is necessary to his play. As an adult it would be a crime to break him from this world of fantasy or squelch his wish to be like a superhero. Being a super hero or heroine is where kids have access to their own creative power.

And all through out the day, the boys are superheroes, jumping off the playground equipment, bumping into each other, tugging at each other’s arms, shooting each other with invisible projectiles – and the occasional handful of wood chips being flung in the direction of someone else. (In my observation of aggressive superhero play it is mainly boys who take on this role. Girls on the other hand are involved in a heroine play, which involves less physical activity.) As a teacher I get annoyed with the superhero play because I find it at times aggressive, inhibits other possible play, and may exclude other people. Yet as a teacher I recognize the value of not intercepting or impeding on their world of fantasy, because it would be wretched and dull. Superhero, war play, and other fantasies where the ego is charged, is a normal part of childhood development and robs them of their imagination and their way of exploring self-confidence. However, the common mantra in the superhero play of the “good versus evil” paradox is hard to swallow when war is so prevalent within society. Meanwhile I observe the behavior and wrestle with either interrupting it or finding a positive way to redirect it. As it commonly results in someone getting punched in the face. Usually the latter strategy seems to be most effective, as I pitch a proposal for freeze tag, a game less competitive.

Since, superheroes is so culturally entrenched, they are not flying away or disappearing any time soon. Is identifying with a superhero a normal and healthy part of childhood development? Is there a problem with kids acting or mimicking their favorite superhero character or developing war games?

Superhero drama spreads a common myth that supreme use of force (violence) is justifyable and “good” in the face of “evil.” And it begins at a young tender age. (TO BE CONTINUED)

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His and Her Pull-up Bars

Joshua grips on to a pull up bar, where below a pile of tires are stacked on top of another. The tires serve as a step to reach the bar. There are two bars beside each other, one higher then the other. Joshua asks for my assistance so that he can perch himself safely on top. Joshua has figured out a way to walk his legs up a wooden post, (which supports the pull up bar) and using this leverage is able to wrap his legs around the bar, until I spin him around to where he can then sit on top. Whenever assisting youth with physical challenges, I am careful not to do the work, which they are fully capable of figuring out for them selves.

This particular physical challenge however, involves a extra step beyond and a guiding hand is needed to fulfill the goal. Sara, one of Joshua’s preschool classmates, attempts to squeeze in to a tight space, also wanting to try it out. Joshua is quick to comment that the bar he is using is for boys and that the other bar is for girls. I ask him why this is so – and there is a dead silence among us. Loud enough for both of them to hear, I comment that these bars are actually for everyone to use.

Exploration of gender is usually just beginning around age four. From listening to preschooler’s interactions with each other the topic of gender demarcation often occurs within the dynamic of play. It is often conflicting but a necessary part of developing an understanding of gender. And our duty as thought provoking and compassionate adults, is to challenge any gender stereotypes that may arise, at whatever age.

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