Monday, June 11, 2018

"I'm Sorry I Scared You"

There are always kids in our 4-5's class who spend their days together playing "super heroes." They might call it something different (good guys, bad guys, Star Wars, Ninjas, Minecraft), but it's essentially the same game: they form a team, negotiate their roles, discuss in detail just how powerful they are, then race about talking tough, making fierce faces, and striking assertive poses.

And just as predictably, there are some children who come to fear the super heroes. It's not something the kids usually talk to me about, but rather their parents, who then attempt to coach their kids through it with varying degrees of success. A couple weeks ago, an adult brought up the topic during a parent meeting, and we discovered that there were a handful of children feeling uncomfortable at school because of the super hero play.

The following day, when the children assembled for circle time, I knew I wanted to steer the conversation that way. We started off talking about our classroom rules, the agreements the children have made with one another. It's a long, comprehensive list by this point the the school year, but that doesn't mean we don't keep adding to it. Children began taking turns suggesting new rules, which we accepted or rejected. I was prepared to broach the subject of super heroes myself, but was hoping that it would emerge from the kids. I knew that one girl, H, via her mother, had been attempting to summon up the courage to suggest an outright ban on their play, and this was the day.

I said, "H has something to say," and she replied, "No super hero play."

There was a moment of dead silence as her words sank in. Then the super heroes, their expressions full of shock and outrage, raised a chorus of, "Nooooo," which was followed by a more scattered chorus of, "Yesssss." It was obvious that we were not going to reach consensus on this rule, but that wasn't the point: the point was to have the discussion. Once we'd settled down we took turns making our cases. We started with those who were feeling afraid. Several classmates joined H. As they spoke up I watched the superheroes who were listening the way one does when the topic is of utmost importance. As they listened to their classmates, their expressions turned from outrage to what I can only describe as stunned.

When it was the superheroes' turn to talk, one of them said, emotion rising in his throat, "But we're good guys." Another said, "We protect people." They were simply astonished that they had been so misunderstood. They definitely did not want anyone to be afraid of them.

The discussion that followed was long and rambling, and atypically, I worked to steer things back to the topic of the day. We knew we couldn't agree to H's suggested rule, but we talked about things we could do like being more aware of one another's feelings, being more direct with one another about how we were feeling, and figuring out better ways to share the space and resources. As we discussed, we learned that most of the children were neutral about the super heroes, sometimes joining them, but not every day. They had concrete suggestions, but perhaps their most important contribution was to let their friends know that they weren't afraid, which I think helped some of the more fearful children see that there was an alternative to either-or. I didn't check the clock, but it was a long, productive discussion in which the kids learned something about one another.

This won't be the last time we will need to talk about this, but it was a good starting point and the parents of the anti-super heroes have reported that their children came away feeling much better, empowered even. As for the super heroes they have been quite sincere in their desire to not frighten their classmates going forward, even if they sometimes forget as they immerse themselves in their dramatic play. And we adults now have a convenient reference point for supporting the children as they work this through.

On Wednesday, one of super heroes was running full speed near the swings. A boy standing nearby flinched as he passed, which caught our caped crusader's eye. He slowed briefly and said, "I'm sorry I scared you," and his friend replied, "That's okay. I was only scared for a second." Like I said, we're going to be working on this for the rest of the school year, but man that was awesome.

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