Steven and Greg, two fourth grade boys in my first classroom, had just come in from recess. On their way in, Steven shoved a girl to get inside before she did. Greg followed suit, and left the girl in tears. I hadn’t seen the pushing, but when Caitlin came in the classroom in tears, I was quickly informed. Caitlin explained to me what had happened, and I marched off to go “talk” to Steven and Greg. I got to Greg first. “Caitlin is over there crying. You pushed her to get in the door first, and didn’t even stop to see if she was OK. We treat our friends respectfully in our classroom. Why did you push her?”
Greg responded, “Steven did it first!”
Before I could get the words back in my mouth, they were pouring out, “If Steven jumped off the Golden Gate bridge, would you?”
I don’t remember Greg’s exact words, but they were something akin to, “Why would you say that?”
"...without meaning it, I had participated in the process creating a barrier between the children and me. I was full of accusation, and quick to take sides."
Greg was in 3rd grade, and although my comments were geographically appropriate (the school was in the San Francisco Bay Area), they were no doubt not developmentally appropriate. Greg had the look of a confused Golden Retriever, and it was apparent that he couldn’t conceive of why someone would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. I knew why, and was tempted to swing by the bridge on the way home! My trainers would be so ashamed of me.
As a good Montessori teacher, I brought Greg and Caitlin together to talk about the situation, and the conflict resolution quickly broke down, as Caitlin blamed Greg, and he denied responsibility. In the end, there was no real resolution to that incident. As a matter of fact, without meaning it, I had participated in the process creating a barrier between the children and me. I was full of accusation, and quick to take sides. I questioned Greg’s motives. I took sides, and assumed Caitlin’s side of the story was the full story. I restated the classroom ground rules, as if Greg had forgotten, and didn’t listen to him.
Because of this interaction, I’m sure they both Caitlin and Greg trusted me less to help them resolve their problems and maintain a safe and respectful classroom environment. While my intentions were pure, my actions were counterproductive.
Connection Before Correction
Relationships are built on trust. Not just trust that the other person will tell you the truth. Trust that the other person in the relationship cares for you, and respects you, and sees you as important. That they are likely to put your needs ahead of their own. Trust that the other person will fulfill their responsibility to their role in the relationship, that they will do what they say they will do. Trust that the other person cares about you as a unique individual; that they will listen to you; and that they trust you. These are the foundational elements of a relationship. The foundational elements of human connection, and the basis of connection before correction.
Research has shown that one of the greatest predictor of student success, is the perception that their teacher cares about them, that they like them. In short, children feel better when they perceive the adult cares about them and likes them, and when they feel better they do better! When teachers are able to form positive connections and bond with students, the classroom environment becomes a place where students engage in academically and socially productive ways (Hamre & Pianta 2001). Students take on more academic challenges, as well as healthy social risks that lead to greater social-emotional development. (Hamre & Pianta 2001).
"In short, children feel better when they perceive the adult cares about them and likes them, and when they feel better, they do better!"
20 Years Later
Yesterday, Anna came to me asking to resolve a conflict with four of her peers. They had been playing a card game that afternoon, and Anna had asked to join. The girls who were playing did not want Anna to play, and let her know. However, they did not tell her directly. They used one of the classroom ground rules as an excuse, explaining to her that she couldn’t play because there were only four people allowed at that table and all the spaces were taken. Of course, they could have simply moved to the floor, or a different table in the classroom. Anna knew this, and felt excluded and hurt.
When Anna first came to tell me about her problem I was angry. I had watched the exclusion happening in the classroom since the beginning of the school-year, and hurt for Anna. She was really trying to connect with the other girls, and they kept rebuffing her advances. After Anna came to me to help her resolve this conflict, I knew that we faced an uphill battle. Small group conflict resolution is one of the most challenging forms of conflict resolution to facilitate. Things can devolve very quickly, as students begin to take sides, and speak for their “posse” rather than for themselves. We normally try to resolve small group conflict within our class meeting structure, as the other students help provide peer-support for everyone involved. However, Anna did not want to bring this to the classroom community for help. She wanted to speak to the four other girls directly. So, that’s what we did.
The conversation went well. Prior to the discussion, I expressed my concerns for resolving conflict in a small group, and everyone agreed to speak for themselves only, to use “I language”, and to speak directly to the person they were talking to (rather than speaking about them in the third person). These elements are critical to a group conversation going well and are fundamental to the practice of connection before correction. Anna spoke first, and et the girls know that she felt excluded and unwanted when she asked to join the game, and they gave a legalistic response. The other girls agreed that they had been being exclusive and understood why Anna’s feelings would have been hurt. Then, Alia, spoke to Anna. She said, “Anna, I am sorry that excluded you that way. But, I feel afraid of you sometimes because when I say no, you get so upset and emotional, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings. So, I avoid saying no, and say yes, and then I get angry because it’s not how I really feel. I feel like I can’t be honest with you.”
Remarkably, Anna really heard this, and acknowledged that she gets very emotional if someone doesn’t want to work or play with her. In the end, both the girls who did the excluding, and Anna took responsibility for their part of the problem. The four girls told Anna that they would work on being direct and kind with her, and Anna agreed to work on accepting a no answer from her friends. And, to cap it all off, one of the girls said, “Mr. D, I was frustrated because it felt like you took Anna’s side when this all happened. But, I can see how you might have felt that we were just ganging up on her” It was the truth. I got pretty upset, because from my view, it appeared like they were ganging up on Anna. I acknowledged this, and let them know that I’d work on asking more questions before jumping to conclusions.
What happened? Why did things go so much better 20 years later? Experience is certainly part of that answer. There has been a lot of practice in solving problems with children over that period. However, it’s only part of the answer. To have that conversation with children they needed to trust me. They needed to know that I cared about each of them, that I knew them, and that I had their best interest at heart. They also needed to know that I was fair and set clear and consistent limits. Those components of our relationship had to be in place well before the discussion.
20 years ago, I was still learning to set clear and consistent limits, and was still learning how to create a sense of community and connection with the students. I confused being a friend with creating connection. I confused being punitive with setting limits. My own behavior, was, no doubt, confusing to my students, and did not inspire trust and connection. A tricky discussion involving group conflict was likely to devolve into something unproductive.
"When people feel listened to they feel connected and important, and their willingness to cooperate and contribute blossoms."
In order to build trust and connection, let’s take a look at some ways to do that, and some behaviors to avoid.
1. Checking vs. Assuming
In a recent workshop that I did with a small Montessori school, one of the elementary teachers shared that she had some negative leaders in her classroom. One of the children in the class was constantly interrupting the work-cycle with silly behavior, and other students were joining in and appeared to be enjoying the distraction. When it was suggested that the teacher bring this up at the class meeting to see what the group thought of the problem, she said, “Why would I do that, they are having fun, and don’t see it as a problem.” Her colleague, responded, “Is it possible that you don’t trust that the children want to cooperate and have a peaceful environment?” The teacher responded, “I guess there’s only one way to find out.”
By checking in with children, and asking questions about their experience, we often find that children want some of the same things for the community and for themselves that we do. They want to be successful, they want to cooperate and they want to contribute. When we check and truly listen, rather than make assumptions based on our perceptions, we learn what children’s priorities really are, what’s important to them, and how we can support their growth and maturity. When people feel listened to they feel connected and important, and their willingness to cooperate and contribute blossoms.
2. Exploring vs. Rescuing and Explaining
“Never do for a child what he can do for himself.” (Montessori)
When we rescue a child by explaining, we steal an opportunity for a child to figure it out for themselves, and discover how capable they are. This gets tricky, though, when children are still learning how to be independent. By asking questions and exploring a situation or struggle together, adults can help children make connections on their own, just like they do with self-correcting materials in the classroom. Rather than saying, “If you don’t put your lunch away, it’s going to get stepped on.” What if we said, “What will happen if to your lunch if you don’t put it away?”
Exploring can be as simple as rephrasing an explanation as a question, like we did above, or using the class meeting to explore what caused a problem to occur, how children felt about it, how the problem affected other people, and what could be done to solve the problem and prevent it from happening again. Not only can children discover how capable they are, when they the social/emotional environment allows for it, but adults learn how capable the children are, and how wise they can be when given the opportunity to solve their own problems.
3. Inviting vs. Directing
While directing encourages passivity or rebellion, inviting encourages helpfulness and cooperation. Consider this concrete example. For a moment, pretend that you are a child in a Montessori classroom, and a teacher approaches you and takes your hand and pulls you “respectfully” over to a mess that you and a friend made. What is your response when she takes your hand and begins to pull you towards the mess? Now, imagine the same situation, and this time the teacher approaches you, squats down to your level, looks you kindly in the eyes, and says, “I noticed that there is still a mess in the snack area. I would really appreciate your help in cleaning it up.” Then the teacher offers you her hand to take, if you like. What might your response be this time?
There is no magic bullet or matrix to get children to cooperate. However, when children are given the freedom to make respectful choices with a kind and firm approach, and trust in their desire to helpful, the likelihood that they will make respectful choices is much greater.
4. Acknowledging vs. Expecting
When adults expect children to behave in a way that matches their potential, all the time, the inevitable result is an atmosphere of criticism and feelings of inadequacy. Acknowledging movement and progress towards potential creates an atmosphere of encouragement and support. Many of us who grew up in product oriented schools and families are quick to point out mistakes, with the best of intentions, but with the mistaken idea that our illumination of errors will be helpful, because aren’t we all striving for perfection.
Children do better when they feel better. They feel better when they are encouraged and feel supported. It is not the teacher’s job to be the sole dispenser of encouraging words and support. In a teacher centered classroom, the teacher sees her role in encouraging and acknowledging students as “catching them doing something right.” The teacher’s job in a Montessori classroom is to create an environment that supports the development of the whole child. We prepare the environment. In a child centered classroom, the teacher prepares an environment where the community itself is encouraging and supportive. She does this through modeling, by encouraging progress and not perfection, by focusing on the process over the result, by directly teaching social skills (grace and courtesy lessons) that include learning how to acknowledge and encourage one another, and by making time and space for such activity. Later, in the section on class meetings, we will learn how to start creating such an environment, with intention.
5. Respecting vs. Judging
Children have different priorities than adults. It is not our job to get them to have the same priorities that we do. That doesn’t mean that our priorities are always wrong, or that the child’s priorities are always right. However, as the adults, it is our responsibility to take the time and make the effort to understand the child’s priorities, to meet them where they are, and to establish an environment of mutual respect and cooperation where everyone’s priorities are respected.
Jacob was 4. Marcia, his teacher, was feeling worried and annoyed because Jacob would push to get to the front of the line every day when the class lined up to go outside. Children were getting hurt, and many of them started labeling Jacob as the bad kid, and wouldn’t play with him outside. Each time Jacob pushed to get to the front of the line, Marcia would take him by the hand and lead him to the back of the line. Sometimes, when she was doing this, children in line would stick out their tongue at Jacob when Marcia wasn’t looking. Marcia decided to give the connection before correction method a try to see if she could better understand the problem. One day, Marcia was sitting with Jacob at lunch, and said to him, “I noticed that it seems really important to you to get to the front of the line when we go outside.” Jacob replied, “Yes, I really want to be the first one to get to the swings because I want to get the low swing. I can get on that one all by myself, and it goes really high. Everyone wants that swing. Monica always gets there first, and then I don’t get a chance.” Marcia teared up. He wasn’t trying to be mean. He just had different priorities. Her priority was to keep the children safe. His was to get a swing that he could use independently. She realized he was just trying to get what he wanted, and didn’t know how to go about getting it. With this new understanding, she asked Jacob, “What would happen if you and I lowered the other swings to the same height?” Jacob replied, “Then everyone could have a low swing.” “Would you like to do that with me before we go outside?”