A Lesson for Life

It occurred to me recently as I was talking with a member of the parish that not many know of our unique program in our Junior Kindergarten classes at All Things Bright and Beautiful. Several years ago, our Junior Kindergarten teachers, Heidi Higgins and Wyn Gilbert, initiated a classroom program they named "Friend of the Week."  It began as a way to deal with the exclusive play habits of some of the Junior Kindergarten students.  Human nature draws us to certain individuals or activities, and in children especially, there is little opportunity or need to step beyond that comfort zone.  What starts as a natural, even innocent, connection between children in the classroom, can (and does) turn to a physical and verbal exclusion of classmates they chose not to include in their circle.  Comments like "You're not my friend," "You can't play here," and "You are not invited to my birthday party" were so unacceptable that the teachers were compelled to intervene. And so was born Friend of the Week.

Friend of the Week pairs two students together as determined by the teachers.  It is not gender specific and through the course of the year, there will be as many pairings as the calendar allows. For a minimum of ten minutes each day, the Friends of the Week will have an activity together. The activities in the classroom offer many choices; puzzles, Legos, coloring, blocks, the kitchen and so on.  For a child who doesn't naturally gravitate to one of these areas, someone else making the choice puts them in the situation of exploring a new activity as well as getting to know the Friend of the Week better. As a way to introduce the program, the teachers will role play the process of choosing an activity.  When the teachers role play an inappropriate way to resolve a difference of opinion, the children see exactly how not to behave with their Friend.  When they are asked for their input on a better way to make a choice, the children are eager and quite able to offer positive suggestions on how they will work with their Friend of the Week.     

The list of pairings is sent home on Friday. This allows the parents to arrange play dates with the designated Friend that might not otherwise have occurred. The response from parents is supportive and encouraging. On Monday, the child in the first column picks an activity that the two will do for the Friends time period.  The following day the second child picks the activity as they alternate through the week. On Friday, they have to decide together what the activity will be.  If they can't decide, the teachers intervene with the offer to select for them.  This results in an almost immediate resolve between the two classmates.  At the end of the time, the children can continue to play together or they may move on to another activity or group of children.  Before the Friend program, chairs at the snack table were pulled out from under a classmate if that isn't whom the child wanted sitting next to him or her.  Now the adjacent chair is saved for the Friend of the Week.

In discussions these days regarding children, there is a considerable amount of concern about bullying.  And as I write the description of this program, I am reluctant to call the need for its implementation "bullying."  But in researching the topic, I found this quote by Dana Smith-Mansell: "Bullying is any continuous inappropriate behavior directed toward one individual or a group." Smith-Mansell has a BS in Special Education, MS in Behavior Disorders and 25 years experience in Preschool Special Education.  She also identifies the fact that children will model the behavior of adults around them; parents, teachers, caregivers.  To help children develop tolerance and understanding of differences, as the adults, we must be cautious in remarks about other people, activities, religions and cultures.  I agree with Smith-Mansell that we must model appropriate behavior and be cautious in our comments, but we must also take it a step further. We must be intentional in facilitating appropriate behavior for children.  Children are so ego-centric by their very nature that unless told that what they are doing may be hurtful, they most likely will not see it.  Our experience in the classroom has been that when a child is advised that language or behavior is unacceptable, they will adopt more appropriate actions.  To assume that children, even as young as two years old, will not understand, does them a great disservice.  They can, and do, "get it."  Although they do not fully comprehend what it is they are "getting," with consistent reinforcement, the ability to include a child rather than dismiss becomes the conscious and deliberate choice of the child.

Adding to Smith-Mansell's comments, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development released the results of a study linking early childhood experiences and the increase in aggression and bullying.  Richard Tremblay, professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and psychology at the University of Montreal ,has researched the topic of aggression for two decades and has concluded that "a high quality preschool environment can teach children ways to channel aggressive impulses in constructive ways, such as how to use words, negotiate, and get along with all those other pint-sized aggressors." Tremblay states that if children don't learn how to regulate their behavior, they are likely to experience difficulties with impulse control throughout their lifetime, leading to a whole host of issues including juvenile delinquency. 

And how will children learn unless they are taught? Members of the All Things Bright and Beautiful staff attended a day-long workshop in which the nationally celebrated early childhood expert advised us, as teachers, to neither prompt nor expect children to use their words in conflict resolution. She even went so far as to say we shouldn't expect children to say please and thank you.   She stated that they just can't do it.  We all looked at each other and respectfully disagreed with her statement.  We believe children can - and do - learn to use their words, including please and thank you; even as young as our two year olds.  If they can articulate; "you can't come to my birthday party" or "I don't want to play with you," they can most definitely learn please and thank you.  But as I said, how will they learn unless they are taught.? With consistency it will come.  A good example of this is our routine at snack time.  Even as young as the Mommy and Me classes, we wait until everyone is seated at the table before we begin. Some of the children are so small that moms sit behind them and prop them up in the chairs.  The first couple of weeks of class, the moms are skeptical.  There is no way these children will wait until the last one comes to the table before they get their cup and graham cracker.  But even before we reached this Christmas break, they would wait until all in the class were present. Many have begun to say please and thank you as the snack is distributed.  By the last week of school, the moms marvel at how capable they are.  This snack routine continues in all the classes through Junior Kindergarten.  And now, with the Friend of the Week program, the simple courtesies have been expanded to reflect a social and emotional component that we believe will serve these children well. A parent of a third grade student and an ATBB alum shared with me that Friend of the Week has given her child the confidence to work with any student in the class as they are now working on small group projects in their curriculum.  While other parents have expressed the anxiety their child is experiencing when paired with someone who is not "their friend," this parent said for her child it is not an issue.  So even after preschool has ended, this is a lesson for life!