(Listen to the PODCAST based on this blog post.)

How is it that children appear to completely miss the inevitability of the terrible outcomes of some of their awful behaviors, especially the ones they keep repeating?    How is that they do not foresee the consequences of some of their habitual poor choices?

Consequences are naturally occurring reaction
Young children are definitely capable of making better choices based on awareness of the consequences of their choices – but lectures + scoldings are not the most effective ways to help them grow in this important way.

You know, like the kid on the playground who hasn’t developed any patience yet … she’s that pushing kid who has to be first one up the slide or onto the swings.  Or, you know, the kid who gives you a heart attack every time you’re walking with your group of students on a city street near traffic, and he needs to be reminded, over and over, to look both ways before leaving the sidewalk.  Or, what about that child who will rarely shares toys or food with other kids?  And then he wonders why the other kid started crying or hitting or biting or doing whatever it takes to make that un-sharing kid as miserable as she is.  Sound familiar?  

Of course it does, and dealing with those behaviors can be sooooo exhausting.

Sooooo tired.

So, consequences. How do we get young kids to think before they act?  Well, we know what pretty much doesn’t work: scoldings, time-outs, lectures, shaming, blaming, etc., etc.

The thing is, most kids are pretty smart. Smart enough, at least, to not actually have forgotten our instructions and our repeated corrections about their behaviors, and about the consequences of their choices. 

Once I realized that fact about kids’ intelligence, I figured there must be something else going on to explain their poor choices, because all the kids in my class had the same responses to being pushed, to avoiding being hit by a car on a busy street, to getting hurt feelings when another kid wouldn’t share with them, to playing fairly and playing by the rules.  But, I wondered: Did they all know that they all shared pretty much the same feelings and values?  And … how could I help them to help them to know how much understanding and values they all shared?

Hmmmm … What if, instead of endlessly correcting the behaviors that lead to those kinds of unpleasant consequences, I brought them all together, and designed ways for them to preemptively think about and evaluate familiar challenges, so that they could discover and decide, together and for themselves, what were their own best ideas for better choices for better consequences?

WHAT IF?    

Seemed like a good enough experiment, so I thought about some of the kids’ biggest challenges, the challenges that left them the most unhappy when they made choices that resulted in the consequences they would never choose IF they actually thought about them ahead of time.

I wrote down lists of questions that were NOT directly pointed at correcting those troubling behaviors and choices.  Instead, I asked questions that drew upon the kids’ own ability to put on their “big picture thinking caps.”  In other words, I got them thinking about all kinds of connections and interactions and elements around a wide range of familiar challenges in totally neutral, completely objective ways that completely protected them from needing to feel defensive or singled out.   Eureka!!!

Together, the kids came up with brilliant solutions to all the old familiar challenges.  Solutions that made perfect sense to them, because those solutions were their solutions, not my solutions.

Peer group shared-thinking for active engagement
Kids learn more when they’re actively engaged in subject matter (rather than passively compliant).

Next part of the experiment was to see if their future ‘real-life’ choices would actually reflect the choices they’d made in their peer group discussions.  Yep!!! The kids were reminding each other about what they had all discussed around pushing,  being more careful around cars, about different ways to handle situations in which there was one toy and two kids … all that good stuff. 

Some of their solutions were far and away better than mine,  and therein lay the power of ownership, of identifying and defining problems and solutions in their own terms, with their own words, with peers who could best relate to each other’s perspective and values and feelings.    

So much better for them to discover their own best solutions, and so much easier and less exhausting for me to support them in their process of discovery. 

Consequences can be understood, and kids are open to that understanding ... just not lectures.
All actions have reactions. When children consciously discover their ability to influence the consequences they have to live with, they make better choices.

Kids do understand consequences, and they are capable of making choices that result in happier consequences more and more of the time… without constant reminders from us.  They just need opportunities to consider their own answers to the right kinds of questions.  What are the right kinds of questions, you ask? Basically, the right kinds of questions “… show students where to look, but do not tell them what to see.”  When groups of students are asked the right kinds of questions, their natural desire to share answers that they all know are correct is how they all get on the ‘same page,’ because after answering those RIGHT kinds of questions … they ALL know that they ALL know the same things about feelings, safety, fair play … everything.  And that changes everything.  It just does.   

There’s fascinating brain science that validates this type of approach, which is effective, in large part, because it is preemptive, in other words, never is this approach introduced in the heat-of-the-moment nor soon after any challenging behaviors have occurred.   Because what we don’t want to do is try to engage the logical parts of kids’ brains when their amygdala might still be fired up. 

A physiological explanation for emotional responses hijacking reasoned responses.
The emotional response area of the brain (limbic system / amygdala) receives incoming signals 2 or 3 times sooner than the rational part of the brain (prefrontal cortex).

Preemptive peer group discussions involve the prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain most responsible for logic, self-regulation and executive function skills.  The brain, not fully formed until the early to mid-20’s is the physical foundation of emotional and psychological health and well-being.  Preemptive exercises like the one I’m describing, can influence the brain’s foundational structure and wiring, and even, with enough consistency, help to balance negative, traumatic or careless experiences. 

We teachers have a HUGE responsibility to expose our students, as often as possible, to experiences that activate and engage children’s natural born instincts to constructively collaborate for all-around positive and satisfying solutions… so they can own the decision-making process that will create happier and more positive consequences for themselves and others.

Sound good?  Got questions?  Let us know what you think about these ideas. We’re here for you and because of you – and for students everywhere, of course. Kids need us to expect the best from them, and they need our help to draw out the best from within themselves.    


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