Recently, when visiting a friend (Andrea), I noticed her son’s class picture hanging on the refrigerator. Will, her six year-old son attends kindergarten in a local public school. We laughed as she showed me a picture of the girl he has a crush on and shared some stories about funny things he had said about attending school. Next, I asked her about Will’s teacher. What she told me next broke my heart and infuriated me at the same time.
Several weeks ago while Andrea was at the school to drop off a book for her older son in fourth grade, she decided to stop by Will’s classroom and say hello. When she walked in the room she was puzzled because she did not see him sitting at the tables with the other children. She also noticed that there was a substitute teacher in the room. As she walked over to introduce herself to the sub she heard Will’s voice from the other side of the room say, “Mom!” Thinking that he had probably just come from the restroom, she expected to turn around and see him running toward her. Instead, she turned around and saw Will sitting at a desk, in a corner, facing the wall. He was totally separated from the other children. Still confused, she walked over to greet him and asked him why he was sitting over there. Will, being a typical six year-old was reluctant to say anything because he thought he was in trouble. Whatever the case, the sight of her child, her baby, sitting in a corner, facing a wall, totally isolated from his classmates was too much for her to take. She gave him a hug and kiss and rushed out of the room. In the hallway she burst into tears. A million thoughts and questions flooded her mind. Maybe the sub had just moved him there for the day or had he been there longer? Why was he there? She called Will’s father (Mark) and was so distraught that he could barely understand her. Once she calmed down, she explained what she saw.
After returning to work, Andrea composed the following message,
This morning I had to bring a book to school for my oldest son, so on the way out I stopped in to say hi to Will. When I got to his classroom, I noticed that his seat has been moved away from the other kids and facing the wall. I asked him if he had been moved because he was talking too much and he said yes.
Can you give me details about why he was moved away from the rest of the class? Is he there all day, and how long has he been sitting there? I am concerned that his behavior was disruptive enough that he has been separated from the class, but neither Mark nor I were contacted about it. More than anything, we want to support what you are doing at school and we definitely want to know about these issues so that we can address them at home as well.
I know you had a sub this morning and might not be able to respond to this today, but we look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.
When Will got home that night she once again tried to talk with Will, but she could tell that he was clearly upset about being separated from his peers, so she didn’t say any more. The next day, Andrea received the following message from Will’s teacher,
Will was moved a few weeks ago. He was moved for repeatedly visiting with others at his table instead of doing his work. He sits there for the reading, writing and math, that requires independent work time. He is always able to return to his original table, if he feels he can work well there. He hasn’t been able to do that.
His quality of work is better when he is away from others and where it is quieter. It wasn’t presented as a punishment. It was presented as a place where he could work better.
I will ask him if he thinks he can work well back at his original table and we will see if he can stay focused. I will remind you at this point that Will is six years-old and in kindergarten. You can imagine that the knowledge that Will had been separated from his peers for “several weeks” did not sit well with Andrea and Mark. Something I have not mentioned about Andrea is that she also works in the same school district where Will attends and has been both a teacher and counselor. She knows firsthand how important it is to keep an open line of communication with teachers and she has the utmost respect for teachers. At every conference Will’s teacher gave glowing reports and every day Will came home with three positive sticks (the teacher’s classroom management system). Therefore, Andrea and Mark were completely blindsided and devastated that Will’s teacher never once expressed the slightest concern in regards to his behavior. This was a message that Andrea sent in response to the previous message sent by Will’s teacher,While we certainly understand that Will’s work quality might improve away from the other children, it’s also important to us that he learn the self-control necessary to work around other kids, since this is a skill he will need throughout school and in life. I don’t believe Will truly understands why he is separated from the class, and I believe he may see it as a punishment. From an outside perspective, it seems like one. Had we known that this was a concern for several weeks, we would have addressed the situation at home as well.
We would like to see Will return to sitting with the class. If there is a specific time that it would benefit to him to work quietly, such as on a writing assignment, that is fine. But we don’t want him separated from the class for the majority of the day. We are more than happy to reinforce your expectations at home and hold him accountable for any negative behaviors as long as we know about it. I will plan on emailing you once or twice a week to get updates on his progress.
Needless to say, after several more email exchanges, Will is now seated back with his peers. As Andrea shared this story with me, she was still very emotional about the entire ordeal. One reason she was so frustrated was that moving Will away from his peers seemed to be his teacher’s one and only strategy for addressing her concerns about him talking too much. She was also sure that had she not intervened, Will would have been in the seat away from the rest of the class for the rest of the school year. Even though Andrea’s background is in working with middle school students, she knew that the strategies used by Will’s teacher did not make sense for a child in kindergarten.
In fact, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC; 2009), “in developmentally appropriate practice, practitioners create and foster a “community of learners” that supports all children to develop and learn” (p. 16). In a true classroom community there is no place for practices such as those used by Will’s teacher that intentionally isolate a child from his or her peers. NAEYC highlights several key elements that teachers should include to develop a sense of classroom community, including, a focus on relationships, helping children develop self-regulation and responsibility, helping children in developing their own community rules for behavior, and ensuring that all members of the community feel psychologically safe, among others (NAEYC, 2009).
By isolating Will from his peers his teacher was not including him as a member of the classroom community. Rather, she was setting him up to be a target for bullying. She might as well have put a sign around his neck that said, “Hey everybody, Will is different and he is not a part of our classroom community.” Of course, I don’t think that Will’s teacher had intentions of ostracizing Will, however, sometimes actions speak louder than words. And for me, as a teacher educator, I would ask, what does moving Will away from his peers teach him? Does he really know why he is separated? How does it make him feel? Do his peers treat him differently when he is separated from the group?
If our goal in early childhood is to teach children important social and emotional/life skills such as self-regulation and how to effectively communicate with others how is that accomplished through isolating children? Although teaching children self-regulation and problem-solving strategies is not always easy and requires time, experience, and patience, the goal of establishing and promoting a sense of community may be a more worthwhile endeavor than just “managing” children’s behavior (Freiberg, 1999; Oakes et al., 2013). Ultimately, early childhood teachers are responsible for creating these environments (NAEYC, 2009; Stone, 2001).
So what can be done as an alternative to managing children by isolating them from their peers. TEACH! Consider this,
If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.
If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.
If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.
If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.
If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we …………teach? ………..punish?
Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?”
Tom Herner (NASDE President, Counterpoint 1998, p.2)
Here are some ways to teach children important self-regulation skills that will help them for the rest of their lives:
1) State expectations clearly- if you don’t tell children what you expect, you cannot expect them to know.
2) Set reasonable expectations- it is not reasonable to think that young children are not going to interact/talk. Instead set up guidelines for times when it is appropriate to talk and teach them these expectations through role plays and opportunities for practice.
3) Teach children strategies for regulating emotions. For example, when a child begins to get frustrated talk with children about what that might feel like and teach them how to take deep breaths by pretending they are blowing up a balloon or blowing out birthday candles (See http://move-with-me.com/self-regulation/4-breathing-exercises-for-kids-to-empower-calm-and-self-regulate/ for examples). Also set up a space in your room where children can go to calm down and take a break when needed (see http://www.positiveparentingconnection.net/chill-out-corner-a-positivetool-for-learning-emotional-self-regulation/ for an example- this example is from a home setting, but would work the same in a classroom).
4) Teach children strategies for problem-solving. For example, create a solution kit (see- http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/strategies.html for examples), a wheel of choice (see- http://www.positivediscipline.org/Resources/Documents/FREE%20Resources/How%20to%20Use%20the%20Choice%20Wheel%20082012%20blue%20and%20red%20bottom.pdf for an example), or a peace table ( see- http://www.delmarlearning.com/companions/content/1418048658/resources/pdf/Ch14_Insight.pdf for an example) to promote problem-solving and conflict resolution.
5) Hold class meetings in which the whole class meets to discuss possible solutions to problems. This is an empowering process for children to express their concerns and help develop solutions to their problems and those of their peers (see http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/profdev/profdev012.shtml for more resources).
By using these strategies, teachers will set students up for success by teaching valuable life skills. Also, using these strategies will promote a sense of belonging and support within the classroom, which will result in more positive outcomes for students and will provide more time for classroom instruction.