Thursday, October 20, 2011

Allow Me To Repeat Myself

I'm a proponent of repetition, which, I suppose, if you read this blog on a regular basis, you probably already know. I have my handful of hobby horses and oh how I ride the diddley-o-dandy out of them. I do, since my readers tend to be adults, at least try to find different ways to express my thoughts and ideas from post to post, deploying new metaphors, evoking fresh images, hoping that if I disguise them well enough you won't notice that it's just the same old ideas. I don't want your adult brain to be bored, but I don't worry about that with the young children I teach. They seem to love and indeed often need word for word repetition.

Normally, I try to include photos that at least somehow illustrate
or reinforce the text of the post, but I just didn't have anything like
that, so today I invite you to enjoy a few totally unrelated photos
of kids playing with coffee beans in our sensory table.

Well, perhaps not all the children. It's a phenomenon I've generally noticed in the kids I teach through about 4-years-old. After that, as they get close to 5, near the end of their third year at Woodland Park, as they prepare themselves for kindergarten, I start to see wider spread signs of zoning out or boredom, even occasional rebellion against the words and phrases they've heard so often. It's not uncommon, for instance, for children who have always jumped up when I say, "I'd like everyone to stand on their feet," to suddenly decide to remain sitting. My friend Teacher Aaron, who teaches the North Seattle 5's program once told me he's constantly scrambling to find new circle time songs because his older kids object to too much repetition. For me, however, this is part of how I know they're ready to move on, a sure sign of "kindergarten readiness."

This, however, is never the case for the younger children I teach. I've had classes of 2-year-olds, for instance -- entire classes, mind you -- who sent up a howl whenever I skip even one of our regular songs at circle time. I've had children ask, "Teacher Tom, aren't you happy to see me?" when I greet them with a simple "Hello," or "Good morning," instead of my usual, "I'm happy to see you." I've had kids angrily call me out when I neglect to notice their camouflage pants by joking, "You have invisible legs today."

I'm totally prepared to learn that this is a dynamic that is unique to Woodland Park, a manifestation of my own personality, but it feels to me like an extension of that craving for routine. A part of what we're doing in preschool is helping children learn that they can trust, and therefore become comfortable in, the world beyond their own familiar home and family. Routine and repetition feeds into that, allowing them the opportunity to develop the competence that comes from mastery, from knowing what to expect and what is expected of them.

To celebrate birthdays in our 3-5's class, I ask that parents help their child assemble a display of some kind (typically on a piece of poster board) with photos selected by the child to illustrate things they want to share about themselves. We then break out our birthday throne and the honored child sits in it as we run-through his board for the benefit of the entire class, giving him a chance to say what he wants to say about each of the photos. I usually prompt them through their presentation by going into a kind of routine, usually repeating myself word-for-word for each child, allowing them to piggyback on the children who they've seen to this before them.

"I noticed this picture." "I see a picture of your baby . . . That's not your baby?  That's you when you were a baby? You're a lot bigger now." "I recognize that person . . . Oh, that's mommy." And after we sing Happy Birthday, I always finish with: "Thank you so much for being our friend, and for coming to school and playing with us every day, and for bringing in these terrific pictures so we can learn more about you." 

So ingrained is this habit of repetition, that I really didn't even know how much of a routine it had become until a few years ago when Jarin got up there and presented his entire board of 15 or so pictures, making all of my statements for me, then responding to them in his own words, even leading his own birthday song, then finishing by thanking himself for being our friend. I might have said two words during the entire 10 minute presentation.

Usually, repetition comes naturally to me, but the one place I need to stay conscious is when it comes to problematic behaviors, like hitting, pushing, snatching things from other children, or any of the other rules the children have made for themselves. I have no problem when it comes to the occasional "violation," directing the child to our list of rules on the wall and saying, for instance, "You and your friends agreed, No taking things." And more often than not, that's enough for the day, but when it doesn't work, when a child continues the behavior and his friends are feeling increasingly violated by the behavior, it's tempting to believe after three or four rounds of this that I need to resort to new metaphors and fresh images, as if somehow the problem is simply that he is not listening.

But he is listening. I know he's listening because with each repeat of the behavior, we've followed up my reminder about the rules with a discussion of what else we could do instead of breaking the rule. We could, for example, ask our friend for the toy we want, or request that she move out of our way instead of pushing. He's not ignoring me, he's not bored, he's simply, in the heat of play, forgetting, and it's always my hope and expectation that by repeating, "You and your friends agreed . . ." enough times, the words will become internal to him, part of his self-speak, just the way Jarin had made my birthday board words his own.

Of course, and as anyone else who employs this technique will attest, there are times when it seems like an unbreakable, vicious cycle. But, this is when I know I need to remind myself to persevere. I've watched pushing, biting, hitting two-year-olds evolve over a few weeks into word using, huggers, but the arc is longer for others. They are still unsure of this world outside their home, they are still not confident that it is safe and predictable, perhaps they are even feeling distrust of the tools of interaction we are trying to teach.

As I wrote about yesterday, the Pre-3 class is a place where block buildings get knocked down by others, intentionally and otherwise, and while most of them, by the end of the year are on board with the "not a knocking down building" concept, some of this teaching needs to carry over into our 3-5's class the following year, especially when it comes to our 3-year-old boys. Yesterday, there were a lot of these guys engaged in building, and there were also a lot of these boys engaged in knocking those buildings down. It was such a tenuous situation at one point that I set myself up in the middle of things, trying to remain silent except with my words of repetition. Specifically, there were a couple guys I was hoping to catch just before a knocking down incident in order to remind them with an oft repeated phrase, "This is Susie's building. It is not a knocking down building. If you want to knock down a building, you can build your own building over there."

Parker was working on a precarious tower, one that was on the verge of falling at any moment. Connor was watching him and I wondered if I shouldn't move a little closer to deploy a bit of repetitive intervention. Luca approached his friends. He didn't appear to have knocking down in mind, but I was poised. That's when I heard my own words coming from Connor's mouth, "This is Parker's building. It is not a knocking down building. If you want to knock down a building, you can build your own building over there."

I don't know how many times I repeated those words to him last year. Now they are his own. At the risk of repeating myself, this is why I'm a proponent of repetition.

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Scott said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who hears his voice saying the same words again and again. Repetition is a key way of learning for these kids. (And I know a few adults that need to hear the same things repeatedly, too.)

Thanks, Teacher Tom, for repeating these things for us.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Absolutely right on the mark, yes young children do find repetition comforting, I think. Wonderful sensory activity, in your pictures as well.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

Just think of how a 2 year old wants to hear the same story over and over and over! In my kindergarten room, we read the same stories over and over again, and the children glean more and more each time, with the same delight. Ditto for our "Good morning" song...when I sing "Your face is like sunshine, it fills me with cheer! I'm so glad to see you, I'm happy you're here!", they're fit to burst with joy, even though I've taught some of them for two years and they've heard it SO many times. Some things are worth repeating over and over: I like you. You're sweet. I love you. That was a nice thing to do! and so on...

Unknown said...

Could you please give me the details about your unrelated pictures of coffee bean play?it looks really fun and I want to try in in our classrooms. Thanks

Unknown said...

The children in the preschool room of my childcare centre constantly amaze me with the things they pick up and repeat. The other day, one of the Fours was reminding a Two of the steps for washing hands... "First, we turn the water on. Then we get our hands all wet. Now we're ready for soap!" and just this afternoon, the child who walked into a doorpost in the hallway right after my oft-repeated reminder to look where we're going was greeted with a chorus of his ever-so-helpful peers: "We look where we are going so we do not crash!"