Young children, even very young children, need consistent opportunities to wrestle with age-appropriate challenges, conundrums, complications, obstacles, issues and “big fat botherations.”
BEWARE: Obvious answer ahead… because life is full of problems (always has been ~ always will be) and resisting them, complaining about them, or running away from them is just no way to live.
What kinds of problems do children need to solve?
SHARING & INCLUDING, for starters: Kids don’t always want to share. They don’t always want to include others, either… BUT kids do always want others to share with them, and they do always want to be included. How do we, their teachers, put those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites together?
If we’re going to really succeed at supporting our students in resolving their own challenges, then we must view our role from a big-picture point of view, rather than attempting to implement immediate ‘fixes’ or behavior modifications. Kids need help with honestly exploring their own and others’ feelings about challenging situations that are oh-so-familiar. Children need gentle *guidance (where to look, but not what to see) in order to understand that all kids in their group feel pretty much the same when it comes to sharing. (*Guidance is best achieved with the right kinds of questions that invite kids, within peer group discussions, to safely express themselves and listen to each other, in a non-judgmental setting.)
The more kids learn and experience how much they genuinely share feelings and understanding, related to a variety of situations, the less alone/shy/isolated they’ll feel, and the stronger will be their sense of belonging to, and being part of, the group. Sharing is easier in that kind of environment. And if not sharing, then shared understanding about why “it’s just too hard to share that last cookie with someone else.”
Communication is key for real problem solving to occur.
- Need for approval
- Desire for external validation
- Fear of failure
Young children, even by age 4, generally have strong reactions to always being told what to do … especially when it comes to their feelings and their interactions with others. Their strong reactions often show up as challenging behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t.
From Challenging to Cooperating
The key to successfully creating more cooperation in early childhood environments is to provide young learners with multiple opportunities to discover how much they have in common with peers. This very practical approach is NOT achieved with lectures, books or videos … at least not nearly as effectively as it is achieved with peer group discussions.
We were never blank slates!
When children are treated as blank slates, most of them automatically resist. It’s almost as if they’re wired to resist … but is that such a terrible thing? Well, sure, it can be, when resistance turns into challenging behavior. But resistance can be interpreted as a signal that children have a solid sense of who they are and how “things” should be. Rather than treating children like blank slates who need to be taught everything, especially when it comes to their behavior, wise educators use relevant peer group discussions as one powerful key to successful turnarounds in their students’ behavior.
Five easy keys to designing successful peer group discussions
- Make sure discussions never, ever isolate or point to specific individuals.
- Use visual examples of the topic around which you want your students to discover solutions, (Google IMAGES is a great resource for pictures of: pushing, not sharing, pulling cat’s tail, street safety issues, whispering in front of others etc., etc.) but …
- … do NOT start discussions about specific behaviors – even though you’re showing a picture of that behavior. Instead, start discussion with broad where, what, who or how’s the kids will easily succeed at identifying and describing. (Neutral successes are important at this point.)
- After a few of those kinds of questions, then everyone is ready to “unpack” what’s going on in the picture you’ve shown them… just be sure the questions are open-ended and non-leading! If ever the questions you ask are not open-ended, then be quick to follow with, “Why is that your answer?” or “Will you tell us why you think that?”
- Paraphrase kids’ answers. Of course, that doesn’t mean ‘parrot’ their answers. It means saying, in your own words, what you think each child said for the purpose of making sure you really understood. (Other benefits of this 5th key: √Fully acknowledges each student’s contribution to the discussion. √Keeps you really, reeeeeally listening. √Because they’ll be especially interested in how you paraphrase their thoughts, when you add vocabulary-enriching synonyms for their most commonly used words they’ll be paying LOTS of attention.)
We all want to belong, and – actually – we all pretty much do… we just need to discover that fact together.
When you get right down to it, we all have a lot more in common than we have differences that separate us. For instance, none of us likes to be interrupted or pushed. None of us really likes to fight or interact with people who don’t consider fairness a value to live by… but …
… trying to reasonably and logically explain that to young kids, who function mostly out of the emotional part of their brains, is rarely – if ever – productive.
The good news is: getting groups of kids engaged in discussions around subjects that really matter to them, with questions that communicate respect for their intelligence and collaborative problem solving abilities …. well, that’s a horse of a different color !!!
As educators, it is our profound responsibility to activate and exercise students’ thinking skills every day. Peer group discussions, based on open-ended questions, can get kids engaged with current events, especially if we don’t start out with lectures.
Making Politics RELEVANT for the Purpose of Activating and Exercising Middle Schoolers’ Thinking Skills
The GOP’s recent use of the Nuclear Option, in order to blast through the Democrats’ attempt to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, offers plenty of potential to increase kids’ awareness and involvement with the world they’re growing into – if we open the subject by establishing relevance. (Actually, when it comes to successfully educating today’s youth, nothing – NOTHING – is a more essential responsibility of teachers than establishing relevance.)
Suggestions for Open-Ended Questions to Activate and Exercise Thinking Skills for Relevant Peer Group Discussions
(Start broadly in order to create relevance through known associations.)
- Have you ever been playing a game with some kids, and out of no where one (or more of them) announced different rules? Who has a story about a time like that?
- How did you react? If other kids were involved, how did they react to the sudden rule changes?
- WHY do you think that person (or people) made that sudden rule change? HOW did they justify their new rule to you (and to the other players)?
- Did their justifications (reasons) make sense to you? Why or why not?
- What happened next?
- Name some of your favorite sports and favorite teams. What is it that you like most about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
- Is there anything you don’t like about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
- What does the term “Nuclear Option” mean? (Encourage students to say the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear that term. Be open to all their contributions. Explain that you’re all exploring new ideas together – so “mistakes” demonstrate effort, and nothing negative.)
- Does anyone know what it means when it’s associated with interactions and decision-making in the U.S. Senate? (Very brief explanation: The nuclear option is a parliamentary procedure that allows the U.S. Senate to override / change a rule … with a simple majority of 51 votes, instead of with a supermajority of 60 votes … effectively ending a 60-vote requirement for confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee or the passage of legislation.)
- How could this possibly matter to your life?
- Do any of you know how the Senate responded to Obama’s candidate for Supreme Court Judge – just a few months before he left office?
- Let’s think about some reasons that might have been behind the recent implementation of the Nuclear Option.
- Again … how could this possibly matter to your life?
- The role of judges is to interpret laws objectively. Is anyone ever completely objective? Why do you think that? What examples can you give of people being completely objective? What about examples of people (coaches, referees, parents, teachers, police, friends, teammates, etc.) being partially objective?
Educators’ Critical Responsibility: Activate and Exercise Students’ Thinking Skills – Their Futures Depend On It.
“In our evolving world, the ability to think is fast becoming more desirable than any fixed set of skills or knowledge. We need problem solvers, decision makers and innovators. We need to prepare our children for their future, not for our past.” – Mike Fleetham