Lots of people have been asking me over the past two days about the meeting with my son’s kindergarten teacher late last week. She’s a veteran teacher, and she runs a very organized classroom, where everything is designed to further the goals of not just increased literacy and numeracy, but getting children used to the schedule, routine, behavioral control, and increased attention span required of formal schooling. She’s not mean about it at all, but the expectations are high. All this is fine, or it would be if I actually believed that children need to sit still and be quiet in order to learn best (but that’s a different story), and I admit that there are plenty of children in the class who seem to be thriving on the structure (mostly girls, but again, that’s a different story). But it just isn’t working for my kid.
He’s a brilliant child, but he’s extraordinarily strong-willed, and so in order to get him to do what we want at home, we typically have to cajole him, reason with him, give him incentives, or offer him some small amount of choice in the situation so he feels in control. I explained all this to his teacher the very first week when she wondered what he thought he was doing walking away from “circle time” and trying to get out a puzzle instead. I explained that this was an option at his preschool, and it will just take him a while to get used to the new set of expectations.
But it’s been two months now, and despite the fact that he doesn’t just leave an activity he finds boring anymore, she still is unsatisfied with his behavior, saying something about how it takes up too much of her time to have to give him directions three times before he complies. (Yeah, it takes up a lot of our time too.) She’s already figured out that punishing him or forcing him makes things worse. (Yeah, we figured that out when he was three.) At first she thought he wasn’t ready for kindergarten, until she discovered that he already knows all his letters and the sounds, that he not only knows all his numbers but he can add and subtract already, and that he speaks in sentences longer than most 3rd graders. But in terms of his behavior, she was “at the end of my rope,” hence this meeting.
I came to the meeting prepared. Seriously, I think I had more notes with me than I used for my undergrad class on “Motivation” two days before (there’s some synergy for you, right?). I talked about what being a strong-willed child means, I talked about the value of giving him some small measure of autonomy or choice and how well this works at home, I talked about the importance of picking your battles strategically and only working on a few behaviors at a time. But she just wouldn’t budge, until I gave her an example of what happens when she meets each student at the door with a “good morning!” and a handshake. The conversation went something like this.
Me: So, for example, when he shows up in the morning, everyone is supposed to shake hands. But sometimes he gives you a hug instead, or yesterday he was carrying his library book, so he put out his other hand. And you correct him! After he hugs you, you then make him shake hands. Or yesterday you actually told him that he should shake with his other hand. So from the very minute he walks in the door, he has already done something wrong.
Her: Oh, I don’t think that’s right. I’m always happy to have a hug from a child.
Me: Sure, but then you tell him that he still has to shake hands. So his face just falls. And I think when I watch this, “Really?”
Her: Oh, well, I don’t know. Um…..
Me: I’m sure you don’t do it on purpose. You usher in 25 kids every morning. But I think you’ve unconsciously pegged [my kid] as the one who needs to be corrected all the time. It’s just heartbreaking.
Her: [silent for a while] Does he think I don’t like him?
Me: You know, I asked him that the other day, and he said, “She likes when I’m good.”
Her: Oh dear.
And from that moment, the conversation changed dramatically. All the suggestions I had made about how to help my son, which she had seen only minutes before as impositions on her tried-and-true method, suddenly seemed reasonable and like things we could try and see if they help.
So the next day when I picked him up from school, he waved at me with a big smile from behind the kindergarten fence, proudly holding up his Halloween-themed art project, and as he passed the teacher on the way out, he asked her, “I had a good day, right?” She smiled at him broadly, rubbed his back, and said, “You had a great day. Have a fun weekend!” It was all I could do to say “hi, sweetie,” hug my son, and ask him about the bats on his poster, rather than break down into tears of relief.
I don’t think this will solve everything. There’s still a pretty bad fit between my son’s tendency toward chaos and self-determination and his teacher’s extreme need for order, routine, and compliance. But maybe it will be better, such that he can meet enough of her expectations so that they can get along. I just find it fascinating that playing the expertise card was only helpful in the sense of being able to provide concrete suggestions and explanations of why they work. But in order to get her to accept those suggestions, I had to appeal to her sense of identity, to show her that, with my child in particular, she wasn’t being the warm and nurturing teacher she wants to be. I guess we all need to be reminded of our better selves sometimes.