Walking into the warm, brightly lit toddler classroom I was immedietly greeted by a little one with a huge smile and a paint brush. Large cardboard boxes sat in the middle of the tables and each two year old swung his paint brush toward the box, covering it with blue, pink, and green streaks.
"Up and down, up and down" a teacher narrated, as a little one used his brush carefully. He grinned at her and changed his brushing to match her directions, up and down, up and down.
At the same time the teacher and I looked up to see one friend in the puzzle corner, paint brush in hand, carefully working on covering each animal in the puzzle with blue paint. And the wall, and the bookshelf. I watched, amazed, as the teacher slowy went over.
"Friend, paint is for the boxes." she said, firmly, kindly, matter-of-factly. There was no anger or frustration in her voice, just a stated fact. "Paint brushes go on the paper or the box." She led him away from the paint to the box, and directed him to paint again. "Paint goes on the box."
Eventually, when he put his brush down and took off his smock, she led him back over to the painted puzzles with a wet cloth in hand.
"Now we have to clean the puzzles" she stated, again, matter-of-factly, no judgement, no frustration, no anger, though not overly sweetly or sing-songy. "We clean the paint off the puzzles."
The child diligently took the wet rag from her and cleaned the puzzle, wall, and bookshelf without complaint.
I couldn't help marveling at the simple, yet powerful even that had just played out before me.
At the think-tank we spend a lot of time talking about teacher language- how to choose our words carefully so we teach through every interaction instead of simply disciplining, how to change a student's behavior without shaming them, and how to empower students with our language instead of controlling them.
(Great books for this are The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton, Choice Words by Peter Johnston and How to Talk so Kids will Listen )
I know what poweful teacher language looks like and sounds like in an elementary school, but until this summer I had no idea how one would apply this to one and a-half to two year olds. I mean, they are so little and developmentally different that it seems like a whole different ball game. Especially when they are going through the terrible twos- shoes off right when you say "let's go outside", turning a spoon into a drum stick and banging on the table as loud as one can- these aren't behaviors I usually manage with my six year olds.
I am utterly blown away by this one teacher's language. It was as though she'd read every book on the subject- every word was perfectly placed to address the behavior, redirect the child, reinforce the good behavior, and remind the child of what the correct behavior is. (The 3 R's of responsive classroom language, redirect, remind, reinforce). Every sentence is firm, clear, and simple.
The simpleness of the language combined with her controlled, neutral tone seem to stop the two year olds in their tracks. They listen, heads turned, contemplate what was said, and then comply. And when they are on task- (which, ok, they are two, when is that ever suppose to happen) her words continue their simple neutral reinforcements.
"Up and down" for the paint brush. "Friend is painting up and down."
"Red. Friend is using the red marker."
The sad thing is that since I'm so engrossed in trying to keep up with the toddlers myself I'm not remembering her words and her reactions to the situations perfectly. I'd like to come in one day and just sit and record- taking in how she reacts to each child in a way that always gives the two year old respect and control while still stopping the misbehavior. It's magic that I want to learn.
A study frequently refered to by scholars showed that by the age of 3, children from poverty have heard an average of 20 million less words than children from professional homes. Of that 10 million words children from poverty have heard, the study found the majority of those words were discouraging statements, while children from professional homes mainly heard encouraging statements. The study concluded that language- both the amount of the type of language children hear as toddlers- was one of the greatest predictors of success in elementary school (Hart and Riley, 1995).
Early childhood teachers like this are everything. Getting our children into early childhood programs is the first step, and then giving them teachers like this- who increase the positive language they hear, instead of adding to the negative statements. Teachers who empower and respect even our youngest with language.