The Mega Milk Box Debate: Student Experiences With Some Good Stress

As I’ve blogged about before, I believe that there’s a lot of value in teaching kids how to solve their own problems and giving them opportunities to do so. Since teaching kindergarten with Paula, I’ve become better at letting kids problem solve more. It’s not always easy though, and some days, I know that I intervene more than I should. Yesterday, really taught me just how much kids can do if we give them the chance.

It all started soon after Paula went on her lunch. Two groups of children wrote me notes, asking to return the milk box. I got the notes at almost exactly the same time, so what should I do? I decided to let the kids do some problem solving. Instead of writing each of them back — as I often do — I wrote one note to the four of them. This note led to an hour-long problem solving experience, which then extended past that when two of them returned the milk box. I think that these Instagram posts tell the “milk box problem” the best, so I’m going to try to let the documentation speak for itself.

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This experience from today evolved into one of my favourite learning opportunities of all time. I had a problem. Both Duncan and Joshua and Mya and Leah wrote me milk notes. We only return the milk bins now, so who could go? I got the notes at the same time. They thought that all four of them could go, but I said only two at a time. Now what? They started to discuss some solutions, which at first was going to be resolved by a thumb war. I gave them a calendar, and wondered about the possibility of a schedule. There was still a problem, as for different reasons, they all felt as though they should go today. The conversation continues … I watched, but with no fighting and respectful dialogue, I kept my distance. ❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram

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This is where things got really interesting. They couldn’t resolve the problem by talking, so Joshua and Duncan walked away from the table to converse privately. They decided to write a note to Leah and Mya instead. They’re really considering what details to add to convince them that they should do this job today. Their note inspired Leah and Mya to write back, and resulted in a note writing exchange that moved from the table to the carpet. They were so independent and respectful here, that I had to watch from a distance. As hard as it was, I wanted to let them solve this problem. I then went on my lunch, and returned to the problem solved and everyone happy. How?! If I made the decision, there would have certainly been tears. So how did they figure this out? Leah said that they said “please,” and Joshua agreed to let them bring back the box. Joshua explained that he got to “write the names with Duncan,” and they took back the box. So Joshua and Duncan did the work and Leah and Mya got to return the box? Joshua feels as though “it’s all part of the same job.” Maybe they see the job differently than us. Maybe for them, the name writing is just as enjoyable. So what did these notes say? Joshua thought that they were on the carpet. Leah and Mya went looking. Stay tuned! SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram

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Here’s just some of the note exchange around the milk box delivery. Somehow I managed to miss taking a photograph of my favourite note, in which Leah and Mya say that they will be “heart broken,” if they can’t deliver the box back. The best find though was at the end of the day, when @paulacrockett and I found Leah and Mya’s “thank you note” to Joshua and Duncan. Not prompted. Not edited. And totally child-initiated and from the heart. ❤️❤️❤️ Such a good reminder to me to let kids work through some stress on their own. I could have intervened so many times, and was tempted to do so, but I didn’t. Kids showed just how “competent and capable” they are! ❤️❤️❤️SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram

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There were so many times during this problem solving experience that I was tempted to intervene. When Joshua and Duncan first walked away from the problem, I saw their stress. Joshua told me that he “really, really, really wanted to return the milk box today and tomorrow.” I said, “But there’s no milk on Saturday.” Holding back tears, he said, “But I still really want to return it.” I saw that the two boys were upset, and I tried to interrupt the problem with the suggestion to grab their lunches and take a break. Joshua looked at me and said, “No, I don’t want to eat right now. I need to talk to Duncan.” And so, they sat down and spoke, and this is what eventually inspired the back-and-forth letter writing experience, which ended in a way that I did not expect. 

I kept trying to watch the students from afar. It’s why my photographs are a little blurry at times, as I knew that if I got closer, I would somehow get involved. There was no question that these kids were stressed, but they were also working it through.

  • They decided to write the notes.
  • They decided to respond to each other in notes.
  • And they eventually decided how the situation would end.

There were no hurt feelings or angry students when I returned from my lunch break. Even though Paula and I were surprised with the outcome — and how they eventually decided to split the task it worked for them. As Joshua said, “It’s all part of the same job.” Maybe as adults, we see things differently, and maybe what we consider is important to kids is actually not as important as we think. If nothing else, this highlighted for me why we need to let kids work through problems — even some challenging ones — on their own.

I think that stress — especially stress when it comes to kids — is something that we often try to avoid. I understand why.

  • It’s scary.
  • It often causes upset.
  • And we truly wonder if our students are equip to work it through.

But yesterday, I watched some of our youngest learners struggling with some good stress, and I started to see the value in this kind of struggle. Our Kindergarten Program Document, emphasizes the view of the child as “competent and capable of complex thought.” Without a doubt, this milk box experience highlighted just how true these words are. I couldn’t be happier that I resisted the urge to intervene and let these four students embrace the struggle. It makes me wonder how I might respond in similar situations from now on. How do you let students deal with stress? What might be the benefits in doing so? These four five-year-olds definitely showed just how much hard work and problem solving can go into something as simple as returning a milk box.


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