I'm often asked whether peaceful parenting ideas can work in a classroom. As Erin so eloquently testifies, the answer is YES!
Of course, it isn't easy. It takes regulating ourselves as the adult in the situation. It takes patience. Sometimes you really can't help a child with her emotions because you have 20 more who need you. And as every teacher knows, what happens at home will always affect the child's behavior at school.
But all humans respond to respect. And even very young children love to contribute to the group and to find solutions to problems.
I've been told by many teachers I respect that we can be guided in the classroom by the same ideas that guide us in parenting peacefully. For instance, any classroom of children would benefit if we, the adults in the room, could remember that:
1. Children follow our lead.
If we get anxious and raise our voice, so will they. If we communicate with our calm that it's not an emergency and that we will figure things out together, they will learn emotional regulation more quickly. If we apologize when we make mistakes, they'll learn to do the same. If we treat them with respect and empathy, they're more likely to treat others with respect and empathy. So our positive role-modeling is one of our most effective teaching strategies.
But this goes deeper, to our way of being and relating. When we maintain our own well-being at a high level, we radiate that positivity to everyone around us. Children respond to that positivity like plants to sunshine.
2. Children respond to Connection.
Children are designed to orient themselves around their parents. When kids come to school, they look for an adult to follow. To be the adult that the children in your class want to follow, connect warmly to each child every morning when they walk into your classroom. This is essential to re-connect with each child so they orient themselves around you and are open to your influence. When a child is distracted or not paying attention in the classroom, walk over, smile as you continue speaking to the class, and put a gentle hand on the child's shoulder to regain connection. When a child gets dysregulated, always start by re-connecting with them, to restore safety to the situation. Sometimes, that's all a child needs to pull themselves together.
3. Children respond better to coaching than to control.
All humans resist being pushed around, and children are no exception. Look for any moment when a child is meeting your expectations and tell them how pleased you are, and why. ("When you raise your hand and wait patiently to speak like you just did, it gives me a chance to finish my thought, and it gives everyone a turn to contribute! Thank you!")
What if a child is NOT meeting your expectations? Phrase your request in the affirmative. Instead of telling the child to stop doing something, tell them what you expect them to do. ("Please keep your hands on your own body and sit on your bottom in the circle.")
Children are very interested in questions of fairness (as any parent of more than one child can attest!) So why not talk to three year olds about what rules the classroom needs, and why? Don't worry, they won't advocate a free for all. In fact, kids will usually offer many more rules than you will think are necessary. But when children are involved in making the rules, they're much more likely to "own" and follow them.
Write and post the agreed-upon rules (keeping them to a minimum so the children can remember them), point to the rules as necessary as you remind the children of them, and be open to helping the children revise and add new rules as the need develops.
4. Preventive Maintenance prevents breakdowns.
Since teachers can't just drop everything and respond to a child who is having a breakdown, it's critical to build in preventive maintenance. When you can, respond with empathy to what each child expresses. Be sure you connect with each child daily, even for just a short time. If you see trouble brewing, try to address it BEFORE the child gets dysregulated, by connecting with him and listening to what he's upset about. Remember that laughter and silliness can often diffuse a situation that's getting tense. In fact, when children get a chance to laugh out loud, it reduces the stress hormones circulating in their blood streams and helps them settle down and cooperate. Children thrive on routines. And of course, every child needs to move their body before they can be expected to sit still for any length of time!
5. Empathy can be a magic wand.
"I often do pull-outs to work with children one-on-one or in small groups. I've found that connecting by listening to the students' various "complaints" or worries (about any old thing that is bothering them) for a dedicated 5 minutes before we start the academics works wonders! Once they've unloaded they're much more ready to focus. I almost never offer advice or solve problems, but just listen with empathy. I often say, 'Boy, that doesn't sound fair,' and it's almost a silver bullet." - Christy
6. Children have a reason for what they do.
It may not be a good reason, but if we want to change behavior, it helps to understand that the child isn't just trying to drive us crazy. So while it's unacceptable for a child to hum loudly as he works, kick the desk in front of him, or push the child behind him in line, he has a reason. (Maybe the humming helps him focus, he kicks the desk because he has so much pent-up energy, and the child behind was standing too close for his comfort.) Of course, you need to set limits to keep all the children in your class safe and focused. But understanding that the child has a reason will help you set the limit in a way the child is more likely to follow.
7. Children WANT a chance to repair infractions, so they can feel good about themselves.
Talk to the class about how to repair mistakes. When a child hurts another child, what's the best way to repair that relationship? Punish the child who did the hurting? Or help that child make amends? How can we facilitate a discussion so that both children can learn to express their needs without attacking the other child? You'll learn a lot from hearing the children talk about this. And you'll end up with a protocol to help prevent and address altercations, one that doesn't include punishment.
8. When children get dysregulated, they need support to restore their equilibrium.
Putting children in time-out makes them feel bad about themselves, and doesn't help them learn to regulate themselves the next time they get upset. When we as adults can stay calm and connect with an upset child, we restore their sense of safety and help their nervous systems return to calm. This experience, called co-regulation, helps children learn to self-regulate.
But teachers are responsible for lots of kids and can't always sit with an upset child. Instead of a shaming place like a time-out chair, set up a "Cozy Corner," a positive space that the children enjoy, that has soothing books, worry balls, a snow globe, etc. Explain to your class that they can take themselves to the Cozy Corner when they need to "find their calm place" inside. Get the kids talking about what helps them calm down when they're upset, and practice in class "finding your calm place inside" using breathing, mantras, and other tools that kids can use themselves.
When a child is upset, start by listening, empathizing, and helping her feel safe and connected. Then, ask her if it would help her to take a few minutes in the Cozy Corner to feel better. If you need to have a conversation with her about what she might choose to do differently next time, wait until she's ready to bring herself out of the Cozy Corner and feeling better. And then, instead of lecturing, start by connecting. "That was a hard situation. You were upset. Right?" Once she tells you all the things that were upsetting her, and you acknowledge her perspective, she'll be open to discussing more constructive responses for next time.
9. When children's needs are met, they're ready to cooperate.
Most "misbehavior" results from a child's needs not being met. For instance, a child who acts out in line might get dysregulated with transitions, so he needs to hold the teacher's hand as the line leaves the classroom. A child who ignores the teacher's request that they clean up and get in line might need more warning to manage a transition. A child who finds it hard to say goodbye to parents and responds by starting trouble might need a special job near the teacher so he can connect and feel valued as he begins his school day. A child who "doesn't listen" needs the teacher to connect with them while an instruction is given. All children need to move, often, and it can be very hard for some kids to sit still and focus for long without physical activity. It can be tough to figure out what a child needs in a given situation, but if we watch and listen, children will often show us. And our commitment to supporting the child to meet his needs in a healthier way may help this child get on track for the rest of his life.
10. Children live up--or down--to our expectations.
Children see themselves reflected in our eyes, and they assume we're right about who they are. Most adults have a story about a teacher who made a big difference in our lives. Invariably, that teacher believed in us, and helped us live up to our potential. Believing in a child may be the greatest gift we can give them.
In closing, I want to offer deep gratitude to every teacher who works so hard every day to foster both the emotional and intellectual well-being of her students. Thank you. You're truly making the world a better place.
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that makes the climate, my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. It is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child is humanized or de-humanized.” - Haim Ginott
Dr. Becky Bailey's Conscious Discipline website has many resources for peaceful classrooms, such as Schubert's School. I also recommend The Compassionate Classroom by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson, which translates Nonviolent Communication for the classroom, the Positive Discipline in the Classroom books from Jane Nelsen and Mindfulness for Teachers by Patricia Jennings.