There are few things as complicated and changeable as the emotional lives of kindergarten children. I learned this through 3 years full-time in the classroom myself, and it’s a lesson I constantly revisit as I work with my youngest charge, Peter.
Peter is the “ten minutes, twice a day” child I referenced in my Day in the Life post. He is, most of the time, a positively delightful child–diligent, inquisitive, keen to learn and proud of his many successes. But Peter, like all of us, does best in a highly controlled universe, and the absolute preference is him in control. When things happen that Peter does not like or expect, he experiences strong emotions that can spiral pretty fast.
A few weeks ago, Mr. F’s class experienced a perfect storm of emotions. It all began innocuously enough–the students were all asked to choose 3 table blocks, build a structure with them, change it around, and then draw it in their sketchbooks. The student next to Peter disregarded the rule that one must keep the same three blocks, which caused Peter, lover of all things predictable and regulated, significant consternation. Which he addressed by threatening to tell on Levi, which caused Levi significant consternation, which he addressed by…lather rinse repeat.
In Mr. F’s own words, expressed in an email to Peter’s parents…
Flash forward to the end of after-lunch recess (c. 12:20): When I picked up the class from the yard, Levi was crying, Peter was crying and agitated, and everyone agreed that Peter was in possession of Levi’s Chuck E. Cheese token. Many kids had urgent opinions on recent events, so after the token was returned to Levi, we came into the room and held a class meeting.
I am deeply saddened to have missed this class meeting, in which Mr. F deftly honored, balanced, and mediated the feelings of 20-plus five year olds regarding an enormously trivial object which took on enormously great significance, touching in the meeting on themes of justice, fairness, the role of bystanders in conflict (Mr. F’s email again: “there was also a sub-plot of various boys joining opposing “teams” in the affair”), grudges, alliances, and forgiveness v revenge. Many adults would have confiscated the token and moved on with math. But Mr. F, in his patient way, recognized this for exactly what it was–a teachable moment, not only for his one needy student with emotional challenges, but for every child in the room, who has felt those same feelings. He helped them get to the root of something which plays out in all of our lives, even if we, unlike Peter, have the skills to keep from escalating. Sometimes, a little problem can seem very big.
Mr. F. led his class through a visualization exercise, asking them to imagine a snowball, starting pebble-small and then rolling down a hill, gathering speed and mass as it grew. In just that way, strong emotions can grow from the tiniest seed, especially if they’re left unchecked and unrecognized. Peter didn’t, in the moment, have the skills to communicate to Levi that Levi breaking a rule makes Peter feel unsafe–there are things behind that dynamic that Peter doesn’t see yet. There are skills he doesn’t have yet, work he’s not ready to have us do yet, to help him separate out his own inner anxieties from his current coping mechanisms, to help him develop inner resources and release his need to impose external control. Levi didn’t have the skills to navigate Peter’s criticism about the rule-breaking. The rest of the class could not resist the pull of the strong emotions around them: their nascent senses of justice demanded their involvement, but their actions made things worse. A tattle, a token, a snowball. Tiny things with big responses. And Mr. F’s own response, taking from a little conflict a lesson with perhaps the biggest ripples of all.
He had the class imagine that emotional snowball, the way in which little feelings can turn into big feelings and big fears. And then he invited them to look around the room at all the kids in the meeting, to remember how worked up everyone had been, and to look at each other now. Still bodies, calm faces, after the discussion. I can say it no better than Mr. F’s own words:
We realized that the giant snowball had really melted mostly away, because we had figured out the problem, and we weren’t trying to point fingers, but were really trying to understand one another. It was as though we had the power of the sun’s warmth at our fingertips. And we could choose to use it.
The meeting ended with Peter and Levi walking hand-in-hand to the main office, to pick up the medicine that Peter takes for ADD. The rest of the day went smoothly for all. Mr. F and I met, after the kids went home, and I offered to teach a follow-up lesson to introduce the concept of Big Problem, Little Problem, with the intention of eventually getting kids to rank the challenges they experience on a version of the Incredible 5-Point Scale.
But there is no teaching, none at all, I can plan and deliver for that class that has the power of one teachable moment seized by Mr. F. And I’m cool with that, because a part of my work brings its own teachable moments–the opportunities I seize to go beyond the lesson plan and into the deeper, more lasting knowledge kids develop, the connections I make which supplement what’s happening in the primary classroom. It is every day a privilege, to watch and work with other teachers as all of us navigate the emotional currents of the little people around as as well as addressing their academic needs. The ripples are infinite. The snowball only grows.