Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"If We Did That, Teacher Tom, We Would Die!"

I suppose some people would think I'm a bit cold hearted when they hear me say, "Crying is a sign that someone is learning." It's not that I want a child to cry, it's rather that I've come to accept that tears are an inevitable and important byproduct of how young children learn. When I first started teaching, I instinctively reacted to crying as a sign of failure, rushing to the scene to sooth them through to the other side as quickly as possible. I'm still concerned when a wail goes up, after all it could be a sign that my first aid training is being called into play, but more often than not, I'll pause, then say to the children in my immediate vicinity, "Someone is crying. I wonder if they're sad, mad or hurt."

Of course, as a teacher in a cooperative preschool, I'm counting on one of our several parent-teachers to let me know if I'm needed, which frees me up to engage in a speculative conversation with other children about the reason for our classmate's tears. Often one or more of the kids will scout out the situation and return with facts to aid us in our guessing game. Aidan hit his head on the cabinet. Sophia pinched her finger in the doll house.

Armed with these kinds of details we can really sink our teeth into things. When it's about injuries, it's striking how often the adult solution differs from that arrived at by the children. Adults, more often than not, instinctively come down on the side of removing or altering the situation to prevent future injuries. We'll put padding on the cabinet or somehow alter the doll house hinge so that it will no longer pinch. Children, however, nearly always come down on the side of be more careful.

The kids are right, of course. Even if we could pad all the corners and alter all the hinges in our classroom, we can't pad the world beyond our fences, and that is, after all, what education is all about: preparing children for the world beyond the school.

That's why we, as a community, have started focusing on helping children get in the habit of performing their own risk assessments, taking responsibility for their own safety.

Some children are "reckless" or "impulsive" by nature while others have been lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of having lived so much of their lives in "child proof" settings. I've come to the realization that contrary to keeping children safer, what we've come to call "child proofing" is in many cases actually increasing the odds of injury down the road. At conventional playgrounds, for instance, kids just swarm up ladders without hesitation, but in the real world ladders are fraught with hazard and must be carefully tested and stabilized before they're safe to climb. When "fall zones" are covered in spongy tiles the consequences of knee drops aren't nearly as severe as those on real world pavements. 

The idea of preschool "risk assessment" is to ask children the questions you want them to learn to habitually ask themselves, "Does this look safe?" "Can I walk on it/jump from it/play with it without injuring myself or others?" "What can we do to make it safer?" And unless a child is on the verge of an impending serious injury, we try to avoid unsupported declarations like, "That's not safe!" or "You'll hurt yourself!" because those kinds of adult statements tend to supercede the child's own judgement, leading them to doubt their own ability to assess the situation.

Of course, I might say something like, "I'll bet it would hurt to pinch my finger in that hinge." I might even follow that up by saying, "Maybe you should try it and tell me if it hurts." No child ever tries it. While plugging in a glue gun, I once said to a group of older kids, "Have you ever tried sticking your finger into an electrical outlet?" They came down on me like a house of bricks, "If we did that Teacher Tom, we would die!" This was a group of kids prepared for the real world where most outlets aren't protected by those little plastic covers.

When Lachlan later burned his own finger on a glue gun, through his tears, he said, "I burned myself because I wasn't paying attention." This is a boy who knows that safety isn't a mysterious adults-only activity. Avoiding injury is his job too.

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Kiera said...

This post reminds me of Rousseau's "Emile:" "To bear pain is [the child's] first and most useful lesson. It seems as if children were small and weak on purpose to teach them these valuable lessons without danger.... What is there to be said for all the paraphernalia with which the child is surrounded to shield him on every side so that he grows up at the mercy of pain, with neither courage nor experience, so that he thinks he is killed by a pin-prick and faints at the sight of blood?"

Kiera said...

... and it's funny that Rousseau was complaining about overprotective parents (who shield children from important life lessons while exposing them to age-inappropriate things and consumerist attitudes, no less!) in the 18th century. Things never change, I guess.

Saya said...

I have to agree with the statement, "what we've come to call "child proofing" is in many cases actually increasing the odds of injury down the road."
We worry about them getting hurt so much, that we prevent them from learning why did they get hurt... Well, not just us, we are worried about law suits and administrative punishment on us too.

When teachers would say to one of my more "reckless" kids "that's not safe!", he would answer "Yes it is!!" And most of the time, he's right, he won't get hurt by whatever he's doing. We still insist that he MIGHT get hurt so he shouldn't do it... ha ha ha

Anonymous said...

This post comes at a good time: I've been wondering how to rethink crying in the classroom (K-1) not over physical pain but emotional pain -- embarrassment, frustration, etc. Crying is often a by-product of emotional learning, too, and as an adult I over interpret or over dramatize crying as a sign of deep shame, for instance. I have been trying to move away from a comfort response to a more inquisitive/supportive response, but it is very difficult for me personally. This post (and your others) is helpful for thinking this through -- though there is a distinction to be made between physical/emotional pain and its role in learning.

Michelle said...

I agree with you Teacher Tom. I had a little girl cut her foot on some mulch in the yard, she came to me very stoically, and said, "I should have worn shoes, but I don't mind my cut." She knew that there may be a consequence for not wearing shoes, but she was both willing and able to make the choice to endure the possibility of a cut, to ensure the freedom of running in the yard shoeless. I still go barefoot, knowing that those same consequences are there. We went to a park nearby, where there was some mulch, she choose not to take her shoes off because, "there isn't bandaids here." She's learning so much more than we think.

Play for Life said...

Oh boy I can just hear it now ... so Donna I believe you said to Junior yesterday ... "Have you ever tried sticking your finger into an electrical outlet?" WHAAAAAAAAT??
Yep ... I would definitely need to pick my subject VERY carefully for that 'little joke' Tom ... hee ... hee ... hee!

Donna :) :)

Let the Children Play said...

I love this post Tom - and as always we are living the same lives on opposite sides of the earth :) Last friday I was stung on the toe by an enormous soldier ant (this guy was huge), and as I was sitting with an ice pack on my foot and trying to be brave, my little friends offerred little sympathy, but much advice:

"You should have been wearing shoes"

"If the ants didn't get you the bindiis would"

"You don't have to wear shoes but you need to think"

I loved these comments - it showed that the kids were thinking about the consequences of how we play in our preschool environment. Although a little sympathy would have been nice ;)

Kate said...

Teacher Tom, you are so wise. If you ever think about moving to Australia, I would kill to have you as my little boy's kindy teacher :)

billie ognenoff said...

Two thoughts came to mind as I read this... I love the idea of pondering what the root of tears might be before rushing to stop them and another possibility for tears is that of being moved by deep emotion. My littles see those tears as a good thing and will even say "She's having deep feelings, that's why she's crying I think". Your post also reminded me of an incident that happened yesterday when two 3 year olds were both wanting the same bike. One began to wail and her friend went to her and said "What can I do to help you feel better?~an ice pack?" To my surprise, the first child stopped crying and said "yes, I need an ice pack" so her friend went and got a stool, climbed up to reach the freezer and brought her an ice pack. She held it to her heart and after a minute said-"there now my feelings don't hurt anymore-thank you" and they went off to the sand pit. So often we impose our adult rules or expectations on what tears mean and what is an appropriate response without trusting the children to figure it out for themselves!

Angelina said...

I always enjoy reading your blog. Your passion and dedication are palpable and inspiring. Thank you for sharing.


Michaele Sommerville said...


Teaching life-capable students is a joy, though this year I have my work cut out for me: our first cold snap occured mid-week. Nineteen out of twenty four students had no idea how to maneuver wrong-side-out coat sleeves or how to "start" their coat zippers. Truly.

Are they over-protected, or over-indulged?

Darcey said...

What a great post! It's so true that kids need to take some responsibility for their own safety. In our center, there are a lot of statements like, "That's not safe," but there's not much discussion about what exactly is not safe or why it's not safe. I think your approach is a lot more educational and prepares the kids for their world outside the classroom. I will keep this in mind and I've linked to your post on my blog.

Renee Schuls-Jacobson said...

Oh Teacher Tom!

Please please! Let me re-post this on my blog! Our mutual love of Lenore should seal our deal. But I've always loved a man in uniform.

I'm at Lessons From Teachers and Twits. Let me know if you are interested in some cross pollination. ;-)