I’m sure every parent, upon sending their child off to school, recites the words, “Listen to the teacher” in some form or another. What I realized just last week when my son started preschool is that maybe it’s good advice for us parents, too.
My son is at a Parent Involvement Preschool, which means that once a month I get to be in his classroom to help out and clean up after the kids because goodness knows I need more things to clean in my life. I was scheduled for the very first day of school which was awesome, because it meant his transition from never, ever being away from mommy to being in preschool for 2 hours went very smoothly. It also meant I got to observe first hand over the course of a couple hours exactly how a teacher, trained specifically to wrangle a group of threenagers into order, deals with the kids.
I learned a lot.
The learning even started the week prior when we had had a meet the teacher session. It’s a one on one meeting and the parent brings an info sheet with all sorts of information about the child’s likes and dislikes and behaviours so that the teachers get to know a bit about each kid before the first day. One of the questions was ‘What does discipline look like in your home?’. Oh the pressure! Answering that felt like some kind of trick test question, with child services lurking behind the door, but I responded honestly that it was a mix of time outs, taking things away and lots of talking about it, plus reward charts and – embarrassingly – occasionally some yelling. They read that and nodded, then informed me that they don’t do time outs, or take things away or use any kind of ‘punishment’, nor do they use rewards. (they didn’t mention the yelling, because I suppose it goes without saying that they will not be yelling at my preschooler). They then explained their approach, which was geared towards teaching empathy.
Say a child hits another child. Child A, the one hit, is asked how he feels. The obvious answer would be not so great, as he just got the smack down laid on him. Child A is encouraged to tell Child B that they do not like that behaviour. (ie. “I don’t like it when you hit me, it hurts.”). Child B is then encouraged to think about that. “Did you hear what Child A said? He doesn’t like it when you hit him.” And that’s the end of it. No forced apology, no artificial “kiss and make up”scenario played out between the kids.
We moved on to other topics but that sat with me. See, I have always believed kids need discipline, without a doubt. But when I say ‘discipline’, I really mean training, guidance, and correction. When I looked up the meaning of the word discipline, the first definition was punishment. The second, which they had marked as obsolete, was training. Kids need boundaries, and rules, and to know that certain behaviours are absolutely not acceptable. I don’t want to punish my kids into knowing that, I want to train and guide them that way. But how?! I have to say that it feels like saying, “Hey, he doesn’t like it when you hit him.” doesn’t really seem like enough when you first consider it. I mean, I’ve been doing that – there is an awful lot of, “Can you see how your brother is crying? That is because it really hurts when you pull his hair. ” happening in my house, but then I follow it up with a time out because, you know, I feel like I should. I have never felt that the time outs are particularly effective, however. The majority of the time my oldest will just happily skip to his time out chair and sit there til I ask him a few minutes later what he was in time out for, and then he’ll happily tell me it’s because he smacked his brother, and then just as happily he’ll go back to playing and/or smacking his brother. And a small percentage of the time the time out will actually escalate things and lead to more acting out behaviours.
Since I’ve never really loved the time outs, I said, “What have I got to lose?”, and for the last week I’ve been ditching them. I have been sticking just with the empathy chats and I have to say, we have had a lot fewer incidents of brotherly abuse! It may be just a coincidence, of course, since I have also been working hard to be super zen in my parenting, and that obviously has a direct impact on the kids behaviour. Only time will tell for sure, but so far so good.
There is still the question, “What if they don’t stop?” I mean, I have told my son at least a hundred thousand times that it hurts his brother when he hits him, and I seem to keep repeating it on an endless loop. And there are times when that endless loop seems to be playing on fast-forward, when the behaviour is repeated 10 times in a 5 minute span. No time outs? No rewards? So what on earth do you do?! What they encourage at his preschool is redirection. But not in a, “Oh you did something bad so let’s just ignore it and take you over here” kind of way, or a “Sit in the corner because you are a terrible person” way, more like, “Ah, I see that you’re getting a bit frustrated/agitated/angry/whatever, let’s find a quiet place to regroup.” They then allow the child to choose between two quiet activities.
I gotta tell you, I’m on day 7 of this and I love it. Before this shift in my approach occurred, I would redirect to some degree, but truthfully I felt a bit like to redirect all the time would be to take the focus off the behaviour, when I want him to KNOW his behaviour is not ok, (hence the time outs!). But when I thought about it, he does know the behaviour is not ok. I tell him that Every. Single. Time. The redirection is not ignoring his actions, it is actually teaching him self-regulation. Feeling angry? Agitated? Frustrated? You need to take a minute to calm down and regroup. It’s not forgetting the behaviour, but teaching a child how to prevent that behaviour in the future.
This makes total sense to me, and all I can think is WHY DO THEY NOT MAKE PARENTING COURSES MANDATORY, TO BE TAKEN THE DAY YOUR CHILD TURNS 2?? I guess I’ll start lobbying the government for that change, but until then, my best advice is to listen to the teacher – you never know what you might learn.
****For the record, I wrote this a month ago, when he was a week into preschool. Around the same time he started school, a bunch of other things changed as well… Mommy got a little better at staying calm even when I was up to my eyeballs in kid crabbery, Istarted taking care of another little girl between 2 and 4 days per week, and also, he’s getting closer to being 4 every day. Whatever the reason though, our house is very peaceful for the most part right now. The lack of time outs have in no way increased his negative behaviours – those have only been on the decline, though I can’t say whether it’s all parenting choices or also because he’s maturing or whatever, but we’re happy. So there.