Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Accepting No

Can preschoolers know their own minds? Do they know when they want to do something and when they don't?

I've spent my entire teaching life growing in understanding young kids. And what I know at this point - they are people, too. They think differently. They may have odd reasons for what they do. But they do think and they do have reasons.

Often it seems adults have difficulty accepting no. A child says, "I don't want to do that" (either through words or behavior). And adults say, "Sure you do" (either in words or behavior).

Now, I understand that at times kids must do things they would rather not do. A classroom or a family or a society cannot function if everyone just does what he wants and ignores what he'd rather not do. If a child encounters this type of situation, he needs an adult to help him work through it and be successful. (I'll blog about that another time.)

But in our classroom, choice is a key component. And, when there's choice, there's always the opportunity to say no. No is an acceptable choice. If it's not, there isn't a choice and we should act as if there is.

My recent experience with four-year-olds brought this back to me. In this particular schedule, we had specific time when we went to other teachers for various activities. One day we were in the art room, working on a particular project. One child didn't want to do what was offered. Okay, that's the choice she made. But she had to stay with the rest of the group, watching or sitting or whatever. She didn't want to do that either. So there was a clash. The girl moved to another part of the room, fell on the floor, and began a pout.

Other teachers called to her, cajoled her, and told her there would be consequences if she didn't stop. She stayed in shutdown mode. Then we did what is usually the most effective. We focused attention on what others were doing.

Now, sometimes kids don't know how to connect back with the group after this type of incident. After a minute or two, I walked over to her and quietly asked her to stand up. I told her that I wanted to talk about why she was upset. I helped her stand and asked her to tell me what she was thinking. She chose to remain silent. But she was standing near the group, leaning against me. I didn't ask any other questions or try to engage her in conversation. After all, saying no to conversation should be an acceptable choice.

My plan was to let her relax, watch what was happening, be a part of the group, and find her own way back to connecting with us. She leaned against my leg and stood quietly.  I waited. In a few minutes, I planned to suggest she move closer to the group and sit with them. I wanted to offer assistance in connecting her back to the group and let her choose how to do that.

But then another teacher came over to us. The teacher began talking to the girl. The teacher commented on her shirt and asked questions. The girl remained silent. The teacher kept trying to draw words out of the girl. I felt the girl press back against me. I wanted to shout, "Step back!" but I felt that would be unprofessional. (I must admit. I also felt a little angry. The other teacher implied by behavior that I could not handle the situation myself.)

By this time, we had to go back to our regular classroom. We moved down the hall and into our space. The girl reintegrated herself into the group on the trip back to the room and was fully engaged in our next activity.

As you can tell by this long narrative, the incident has stayed with me. We should accept no. We should not force a child to respond when she clearly doesn't want to do so. Yes, I did go and talk with her after she had pouted for a few minutes. If she had shown me she wanted me to stop or go away--with words, sounds, or actions--I would have stopped and moved away.

Here's how I want to handle it when kids say no to a choice--
--Accept the no. ("If you do not want to do this, that's okay.")
--State what is not a choice. ("You can choose not to do this. But you must stay here with the group.") Only state something like this if it is a must. Most of the time, kids can choose not to do something and move on to do other things.
--Don't discount the choice or the child's feeling about it. Don't cajole the child to do it.
--Allow the consequences to happen. (If a child chooses not to paint, then he doesn't have a painting to take home.)
--Learn to listen to the child - both words and actions.
--Help a child find his way back when he gets a little out of control.
--Offer a choice only when prepared to accept NO as an answer.

All of these things may be blindingly obvious to you. These are things I regularly do; they are not new or different ideas for me. I just haven't thought about them so directly before.

Bottom line: NO is an appropriate response to a choice...just as much as YES.


  1. What a great article! I think all of us as teachers have experienced similar situations. Thank you for telling your story. By the way, I would have felt angry with the other teachers reaction as well.

    1. Thanks, Kellybelly. I don't often get really angry in the classroom - but when I do, it's more often with other adults than with kids.

  2. This is a very nice piece, Scott. I would add that as an adult, do not interfere when another adult when s/he is handling the situation unless asked.

    1. I agree, Tom. Definitely a rule to teach by.

  3. I think that sometimes just being there with them is enough, you don't have to be "doing" something or "fixing" - I think sometimes you just have to give kids time. So many people seem to have a hard time with that.

  4. I have had similar instances in the classroom. Other adults would feel that the situation wasn't handled unless the child was forced to do what was asked. I would see the situation escalate and would want to stay out of it because I didn't agree with what was going on. Over time I had some of my co workers notice the words I used and start to use them too and realize that it wasn't a big deal if a child did not want to do something. I was impressed and shocked.