Opal School closed in 2021. You can continue to access these resources for free at teachingpreschoolpartners.org/resource-library/.

When learning community becomes discipline

A child’s most sought after goal is to recognize himself in others, and to find in others (objects and the natural world as well) parts of himself. This is a most complex and delicate process in-as-much as a child’s cognitive, affective, and social network is constantly changing. This sense of self, of one’s own self which is a vital component of self-seteem, learning and development, even if it is part of a never-ending process, is a quality that the child must set in motion, with adult help and cooperation, as soon as s/he can.

-Loris Malaguzzi (founder of the pre-primary schools of Reggio Emilia)

Productive conflict is a critical part of a healthy learning community and not something we shy away from at Opal School. We invite children to work so closely together because we have a strong image of the child which includes the expectation that all human beings desire to be in relationship with one another. They desire to collaborate, communicate, and connect. A neuroscientist in Parma, Dr. Rizzolatti, explains: “We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others.”

These attempts to connect upon which our very survival depends, as we know, sometimes mis-fire. We’ve all experienced this. With the best of intentions you make decisions to interact with others. Sometimes you get in the way, sometimes you offend, sometimes you say the wrong thing, sometimes your timing is all off, sometimes you interrupt. You make an attempt to connect and it just goes all wrong. Sometimes this surprises you. Sometimes your attempts to belong and connect lead you to hurt others intentionally.

At Opal School we expect children to make these mistakes and we see them as vital experiences for learning. Instead of shaming or punishing, we invite problem solving, “do-overs” and time to listen to each other’s points of view. When our children are hurt (or when we are, for that matter) it can feel better to know that someone with authority has delivered just punishment to the one who hurt. But we are safest when we are assured that the person who hurt us maintains status as an equal member of the community who does belong and whom we expect to make mistakes, learn, and do better. When we demonize and blame, we need to worry that we might some day be seen as the demon.

Of course it is not ever, ever okay to hurt someone. But when we take the position that a young child’s hurtful behavior is an uninformed and ineffective attempt at belonging– because we know that this is what humans do– ALL children are offered the opportunity to learn from productive conflict whether the victim or the aggressor.

Every school year brings a multitude of reports from parents and children that others in the community have done wrong. Consequences for mean or otherwise hurtful behavior vary based on the situation and the child, but often include removal from the group. Children get the message that, if they’re not safe to be around (emotionally or physically), they don’t get to be around others. Natural consequences are a powerful learning tool. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, countless hours of meeting, and planning responses between parents and staff and staff alone, take place. And the truth is, if your child is not involved, this process is invisible to you.

What we hope is visible to you is our deep respect for every child and family who is part of our community. For their prior experiences, their world-view, their developmental level, their gifts and their challenges. We also hope to keep visible our deep commitment to and optimism for a child’s capacity to learn. The structures of our responses to conflict are in synch with an image of the child who we know intends to belong in this world. We have an opportunity to direct the behavior choices that lead to belonging to be good for the group and the individual. That takes practice, and practice we provide.

Click here for the New York Times article that is the source of the quote from the Italian neuroscientist above. It was published several years ago and is a fascinating explanation of what are called mirror neurons. Understanding that humans are wired to empathize provides even more support for discipline policies that teach children to understand how their behavior effects others and how to make decisions that effectively support children to value diverse perspectives.

This week we will make an effort to share experiences in the direct instruction of social and emotional learning in the classrooms. Please browse the blog for those stories if they are of interest to you!