Thank you, Jeremy, for teaching me early on about belonging and rejection.
(I’ll return to him in a moment.)
This past fall I returned to teaching a course in guidance at my community college. The course focuses on students’ understanding of young children and how to effectively manage a classroom. It’s often referred to as the “discipline” class. But it’s really a course on supporting children’s emotional intelligence — the ability to effectively read others’ feelings, manage one’s own feelings, soothe oneself, build empathy, and delay gratification (Daniel Goleman).
Whew. What a tall order for a child. Do you recall your own tussles with siblings and friends? How your parents corrected your behavior, and how that felt? How did you express your feelings, and was this supported (or not) by adults in your life?
For me, one of the most important aspects of this class is not only to help students truly understand child development — but to encourage them to appreciate the complexity of children’s experiences as they work to navigate all of their relationships with family, friends, peers, and teachers. The truth is that they will inevitably make mistakes while doing so (Gartrell). This is natural in early childhood. And if you buy that idea, congratulations: you have respect for our tiniest creatures. The other idea you have to buy, though, is the powerful impact adults have on children’s sense of self, their ability to get along with others, and their ability to tap into a reservoir of resiliency. They are absolutely going to need it as the years unfold. Without those elements in place, they’ll find themselves in that dangerous place — being on the edge of the group.
The thing about emotional intelligence is that we all need it, but we all have it in varying supply. My guess is that the vast majority of us did not have emotional intelligence modeled to us in our families, primarily because our own parents were doing the best they could with whatever baggage they brought to parenting from their own childhood. Most experts in the field argue that we can learn these skills in adulthood. In my class we talk a great deal about understanding ourselves and how critical that is to being effective in our interactions with children. That also means recognizing when we’ve made mistakes with them as well, and how we work to take responsibility for them. The most effective teachers are those with a good supply of emotional intelligence — or who are self-reflective enough to be working on it.
In the guidance class, I often share anecdotes from my own teaching experiences to illustrate a principle or support a discussion theme. One topic we must discuss, of course, is the ever-popular intervention technique popularly referred to as “time-out.” You probably know it, either from first-hand experience, witnessing it, or employing it yourself as a parent or teacher.
In a nutshell, time-out involves the adult removing a child from a situation in which a conflict has developed, and isolating the child physically (e.g. on a chair, or in another room) as punishment for an offending behavior. Often the child is told to “think about” what (s)he did. In nearly every case, the child is highly emotional and agitated at that moment — and the adult may be also.
News flash 1: time-out is perhaps the most misunderstood, misused, and over-used intervention technique of all. Children placed on time-out typically are simply stewing in their juices; do not have the ability to reflect on their behavior; and learn nothing from the experience. Not a whole lot of emotional intelligence being taught there.
News flash 2: time-out can be effective when it is used as an absolute last resort, in an effort to help an out-of-control child regain control and composure — with the adult’s help. This is the time when the adult sits with the child until (s)he is calm. Talking about the incident and the feelings that erupted are critical at this point — the adult is the emotional intelligence model and coach here, assisting, not just now, but over time, to help the child build those critical life skills, and by doing so, sustaining membership in the classroom community. The child must know that the adult is in his corner. He has to know that he belongs, and that you have not given up on him.
My own lesson in time-out came during my first year of teaching, through Jeremy, the child mentioned at the start of this essay. I tell my students this story for the purpose of helping them learn from my mistake.
It was sometime during the fall of that year, and on this particular day the energy level in the classroom was especially high. Jeremy had been all over the room all during free-play, the broad point in the morning schedule when most stations in the room are available to children and they move back and forth among them. It typically lasts a minimum of 45 minutes in a play-oriented classroom.
During clean-up, Jeremy delightedly draped dress-up clothes atop classmates, “visited” various stations to check on peers’ progress, and made projectiles of the wooden unit blocks by wrist-whipping them onto the shelf.
I got hooked. Taking him by the hand, I walked him to the door of the classroom and sat him down in the hallway right outside.
A few minutes later, with clean-up over, my co-teacher and I began small group time with our individual groups. After singing the gathering song and sitting down in the circle, I did the usual quick head count prior to the planned activity. Then I asked, “Where’s Jeremy?”
A forlorn voice came from the doorway: “Remember? You put me out here.” The doorway framed Jeremy’s pained, reddened face and wounded eyes, making him look smaller than he actually was.
Mortified, I jumped up and took him in my arms to hug him. I told him I was sorry for forgetting him in the hallway and said I would never do that again. The children stared quietly as I walked him to the circle and sat him in my lap as we began the activity. I was upset myself, but regained my composure as the activity unfolded. The session went well. What a relief.
I was very fortunate here. This child forgave me, and our relationship remained intact. But I know I frightened him, and that was horrible. Had this happened today I would have lost my job.
Guidance and emotional intelligence is messy , difficult, and long-term. It’s easier said than done — no technique works smoothly every time. But it boils down to helping a child build his own sense of self, make connections with others, and weather the inevitable ups and downs of life. He’ll need all of that for the future — for a true sense of well-being and that the world is a good place.
I wasn’t a classroom teacher nearly as long as many of my colleagues, and I realize there is still so much to learn. Still, I’m fortunate to have received this one lesson very early in my career. Jeremy will never know the impact he had on my teaching. He helped me be a one-time-only-time-out teacher. What a gift.