I noticed something interesting as I walked around my office the other day. Apparently, none of the adults with whom I work would define “comfortable” in the same way; as indicated by the postures they adopt while working. Some are on their feet with their computers elevated to accommodate their need to stand and move while typing. One colleague sits on a large inflated ball, bouncing ever so slightly while he works. and another has an inclined yoga chair. Even those who are in traditional chairs have altered them to meet their individual needs. Some are leaned back, others are sitting straight up, and all have adjusted the height of the chair so that they can comfortably cross their legs, rest their feet on the floor or tuck them up underneath their behind. Each person has found a working stance that best allows them to get done what they need to do.
Can you imagine if someone walked through and insisted that each person work in a specific way? They might mandate that each person must sit up straight with both feet on the ground. Or, that each stand for most of the day. I can only picture what would happen to morale – it would plummet. And, let’s not even discuss what would happen to productivity. In the face of this mandate, a sense of powerlessness would probably also emerge. And, when people feel powerless, they often find ways to lash out and regain a feeling of power – some might interpret these reactions against this situation as challenging behavior. Instead, it is merely a human being communicating that an expectation is not reasonable nor does it meet the needs of the individual exhibiting the behavior.
While the above scenario may seem a little ludicrous, it illustrates an important point. It would never occur to a workplace to try to control something as mundane as how people sit (or stand) while they work. But, teachers do this every day in classrooms across the world. “X’s” made from masking tape mark where a child must sit on a carpet during circle time. Children are made to wait until all are sitting quietly with “eyes on me” or until all are standing with arms down and “bubbles in their mouths”. Labels on table indicate where children are required to sit during meal or small group times. These attempts at control often backfire as children react to these constraints with challenging behaviors.
Instead of focusing so much energy on controlling children’s postures, teachers will increase engagement and lessen challenging behaviors when they focus on the objective of the activity they are facilitating. The objective of having children stand in a line to go outside is to transition as efficiently as possible. That efficiency flies out the window and frustration mounts when an inordinate amount of time is spent trying to get everyone to be in a straight line and to move in the same way. Instead, we can say to children, “we are going to the playground. I need you to find a way to move that keeps you and others safe”.
The goal of circle time is to engage children as a community and the goal of story time is to build literacy and help children fall in love with literature. If a child is more focused on sitting in a certain way or is not comfortable (like when they have to sit in a hard, plastic chair); it is not likely that these goals will become a reality. Instead, a teacher can encourage children to find a comfortable way to listen that does not interfere with the comfort/engagement of another child. And, yes, this might mean that a child chooses to not even come to circle or story; and that is OK.
As I walked through my workplace noticing how people worked, I had a revelation. We sometimes have more stringent expectations of children’s behaviors than we do of adults. Yet, we know that they are less able to control their bodies; so they are less likely to be able to meet those expectations. In that way, we are setting them up to fail. So often, in the early childhood classroom, a challenging behavior is not really challenging, it is a child telling a teacher, “it is not that I won’t – it is merely that I can’t”.
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