Gum. Hats. What else? Is a firm “no” always necessary?

One year, when I was teaching a junior class, I had a student who used to put everything in her mouth. She’d eat everything from little pieces of paper to chalk. I knew that she was trying to fulfill a sensory need, and somebody suggested that I get her some chewelry. The school bought her some, and she loved it, but chewing on a necklace or a bracelet often produces a lot of spit. This is when I wondered if gum might be a better option. So through consultation with her mom and permission from the principal, I got her some gum. And it worked! We had to work together to figure out the best number of pieces to chew at a time, how she could determine when the chewing might be too much, and when/if she needed a break. The gum chewing though met this sensory need, helped her focus on instruction and on her work, and even seemed to support self-regulation. I’ve shared this story with others before, and most people ask me the same question: what happened when everyone else wanted to chew gum? I let them.

Now there were a few questions for students to consider before the gum chewing started.

  • How can you chew quietly so as not to disturb others?
  • Where will the gum go when you’re finished with it?
  • What will you do if another teacher does not want you chewing gum?

These students were incredibly respectful of each other, of the classroom, and of various teachers, who might feel differently when it comes to chewing gum. When I first moved to breaking the cardinal school rule of “not chewing gum,” I first had to think about why the rule existed. 

  • Choking. To help reduce the chance of this, I made it a requirement that kids couldn’t chew gum if they were engaging in physical activity. 
  • Respect. I love chewing gum, but if I get a couple of pieces in my mouth, my step-dad would joke that I “sound like a cow eating her dinner.” 🙂 It’s true! Nobody needs to hear this loud chewing. In fact, the constant noise might be a stressor for others, and we need to be aware of that. So that’s what inspired my first question above and our rule of respect. 
  • The mess. Nothing is worse than a gum mess on the floor. I still remember when I accidentally got gum on the car mat in my sister’s brand new car. That was multiple cars ago, and more years than I can remember, but I still hear the story. To reduce the chance of similar school stories, there was a firm rule of “gum goes in the garbage when you’re done.” No saving it for later. No putting it on litte papers to throw out at another time. If gum grinds into something, I know that we will all end up losing our chance to chew gum.
  • The sugar content. Yes, there are sugar-free gum varieties, but there are also many gums full of sugar. This can lead to tooth decay. So what if this becomes a case of the person who brings the gum is the one that chews it? I am no longer a fan of the firm “no sharing food” rule — depending on circumstances of course — but I did hold to this rule for gum.

Dissecting the “why” helped me see the gum issue differently than I did before, and allowed me to work around a rule that I would have never considered breaking in the past. Now I teach kindergarten, and the constant movement in the room, the developmentally appropriate desire for many children to only move by running (no matter what might be blocking the path), and the lack of experience chewing, means that I would be far less likely to support this gum chewing. Maybe in a specific circumstance. For one child. If agreed to by the parents and admin, and with certain caveats in place. Different kids. Different needs. A different answer.

But in kindergarten, I might offer a similar argument for wearing hats indoors.

  • For some children, the hat provides comfort. When one day, an unexpected circumstance had us coming inside earlier than usual and combining with another class, children that always took off their hats, didn’t. Some students were anxious about this change in plans. The hats helped. And as the day went on, and routines went back to normal, many hats came off.

  • For some children, hanging up the hat is one more transition. Transitions can be a challenge. This is often when, as educators, we see the most behaviour. And so if we can offer a space inside for kids to put down their hats, or just wait until they come off naturally, we do. 
  • For some children, it’s about an exciting event. When the Raptors won in June, there were lots of Raptors hats the next day. The hats were all about celebrating a win and being part of the larger community of fans!

I keep thinking about my teaching partner, Paula, and a presentation experience from last year. The two of us presented at the Hamilton-Wentworth Principals Conference (HWPC) on Self-Reg. It was an incredibly cold day in Niagara Falls, and Paula bundled up to walk from our hotel over to the conference centre. When she got there, she realized that she would need to take off her snowpants and hat for the presentation, and this required some deep breathing and time to adjust. Hats can also offer adults comfort. In this case, Paula’s dysregulation caused by being cold, would have made the hat the item she needed for success.

Now think about kids. Would students have felt as Paula did, and if so, with a Kindergarten Program Document that supports Self-Reg, would wearing a hat have solved the problem? The Kindergarten Program Document also shares the view of the child as “competent and capable,” so what does that mean when it comes to hats? Just as in my gum experience, maybe this also comes down to children being respectful of different viewpoints:

  • Knowing when hats are permitted and when they’re not.
  • Taking them off for O’ Canada.
  • And being responsible for keeping track of their hats (and other belongings) so that they make them back home.

This works for me, but I know it might not for everyone. As I see a few hats in our documentation, I realize that some children are keeping them on periodically throughout the day. Now I’m left wondering …

  • Why?
  • How do I feel about this?
  • Is this something that we need to change?

Like with gum, I tend to think that the hat argument is not always worth it — aligning with some of my thinking about when we talk to kids, what do we say? — but if we’re going to argue for or against something, do we need to consider the pedagogy behind our arguments? Gum. Hats. What else? Maybe it’s time to explore some contrary views.


Does Dysregulation Build Empathy? A Different Look At Re-Org.

Re-organization. In our Board, it’s a reality at this time of the year. I’ve been through re-organization numerous times in the past 19 years: from the teacher that had to leave a school due to seniority to the teacher that lost or gained students due to a shuffle in class size. After forming relationships with kids and developing routines, the thought of change can feel overwhelming. Recently, we found out that we had to re-organize some of our school. These changes had a big impact on the kindergarten classes, as I shared in this post of mine from the other day.

Paula and I wanted to try and reduce some of our stress with this re-org, by using some time on our recent PA Day to move materials.

We were feeling good about the classroom environment … until Thursday. When Carey and I brought our class back inside from our outdoor playtime, I noticed a huge number of boxes on the countertops and the shelves. Where did these come from? It turns out that Paula and I didn’t move everything the week before, and as the domino-effect of classroom moves started to happen, more items came our way.

I appreciate the time that this other classroom teacher put into the packing process, but as I stared at the pile of boxes, I was taken back to weeks before when Carey and I began to unpack. We managed to get all the boxed up materials organized and into cupboards, and now it looked like everything was out again.

I knew that I wouldn’t have time to touch the boxes until my prep at the end of the day, and yet, these piles of materials were all I could focus on.

  • What was inside the boxes?
  • Where was everything going to go?
  • Where would I put the materials that we didn’t need?

At this point, I realized that kindergarten students would be slowly integrated into their new classrooms the next day, and we couldn’t have boxes everywhere. Poor Paula though was off sick with strep throat, so now I needed to rely on my visual spatial skills — or lack there of — to get everything unpacked. 

I realized then the impact that biological stressors can have on a person’s ability to self-regulate. The visual noise overwhelmed me. The minute I could dig into those boxes, I did, and I finally felt as though I could breathe again the moment that they were all gone.

I thought a lot about this experience yesterday, as classes merged and Paula and I began to teach together again. While we’re not new to working together, there was a lot of “new” yesterday.

  • Since Paula was away sick for most of the week, I finished organizing materials in the classroom. She’s still figuring out where everything is, and we’re still figuring out — with the help of the kids — if the locations of items meet their needs and ours. 
  • Our very routine schedule was different yesterday due to The Terry Fox Run. Couple this change with a change in rooms and classmates, and some students were working through this additional stress. 
  • With Paula’s absence, there was a supply in her classroom for most of the week. It takes time to build relationships with kids, which means that their “normal” was slightly off, and now we were changing things again with re-org. 

Considering all of these factors, it was a very successful first day together.

But maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that LEGO and sensory play were as busy as they were, for Self-Reg may have been an even bigger consideration than on other days.

As Paula and I were reflecting on this very point after school yesterday, I began to wonder: does experiencing our own dysregulation help us empathize and view the behaviour of kids differently? I began to think about our kids yesterday, and if my own unpacking woes on Thursday, helped me remember to use some soft eyes when they might be needed the most. What do you think? Maybe those overwhelming stacks of boxes served a purpose after all.


Reframing Francis: Is It About More Than Us?

The other day, I read a fabulous new post on The MEHRIT Centre Blog, which I quickly went to share with others.

This post has been on my mind ever since, and I’m now starting to wonder if the solution for Francis is beyond even the adults in the room. What role might children play in his success? 

I agree with Sonia Gregory’s message that Self-Reg starts with us. This was one of my biggest take-aways from reading Calm, Alert And Learning many years ago … and multiple times since. The more that I learn from Stuart Shanker and Susan Hopkins, the more that I find myself considering my own stressors, and the impact of my tone and actions on others. It’s why I’m far more conscious now of what helps me self-regulate. But I’ve also started to wonder if adults are always the answer.

I think back to the large class that we had last year, and the need that my teaching partner, Paula, and I had at the time to have children support each other. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be there for kids, but we also knew that their success rested on more than just us. And so we actively supported kids in supporting each other. Throughout the year, we captured many moments, such as the ones below, where children were able to emerge as leaders, co-regulate each other, and turn difficult experiences into positive ones.

Now I’m not implying that any of these children have the same needs as Francis, or that we didn’t also actively support all of these students and more. But as we watched our kids take on these caring roles in the classroom and outside, we saw that we don’t have to own all solutions. Sometimes it’s amazing what a gentle touch, a quiet word, or an offer of support can do, and all of these things can be done by kids for kids. By letting students support their classmates, are we not only building empathy, but also reducing our own stress that might come from the belief that we have to “do it all?” How might this then change our tone, actions, and the trajectory of the students in the classroom? When kids seem to be the most dysregulated, as educators or as parents, we are often looking to ourselves to fix things. Maybe though, the solution rests in the connection with a peer, and the ability to wait, watch, and slowly, at times, walk away. 


Wondering About WHMIS: When Compliance Training Makes You Reflect On Assessment & Evaluation

Yesterday, our Board had a PA Day. Half of the day was devoted to Compliance Training, which we all did individually. This included watching and answering quiz questions around a variety of topics, from asbestos to bullying. We also had to complete our updated WHMIS training. It was the WHMIS component of this compliance training that inspired this post.

For the past couple of years, the WHMIS training included not just answering a quiz, but achieving an 80% or higher on it, within three attempts. That’s scoring a minimum of 12/15. This is probably my 19th time doing WHMIS, and yet, the very thought of achieving this score makes my stomach clench and causes a #pukealert every single time. It’s not as though the information is new, and I even know the hazard symbols and the key information on Material Safety Data Sheets. All of the questions are multiple choice or true and false, and most are even asked throughout the training module. Despite that, the fear of not passing causes me extreme stress every single time.

I’m not the only educator that looks or acts worried. I’ve even heard others discuss the added anxiety if they get to attempt #3, and haven’t passed yet. (Thankfully I passed on attempt #1, but not without questioning just about all of my answers first.) I share this story because as I was working through this testing situation, I couldn’t help but think about some comments that Gerry Smith, our principal, made during our morning PD session. He spoke about assessment and evaluation, and the weight that we give to observations and conversations, and not just tests and culminating tasks (work products).

The WHMIS test is all about knowledge and understanding, and just about every question could be Googled, if you chose to do so. As educators, we hear all the time that we need to get kids to think, apply their learning, communicate their thinking in different ways, and move beyond questions that can just be searched online or in a book. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t value to quickly being able to recall some facts, or knowing certain information so that you can manipulate it with ease. Maybe this is the thinking behind WHMIS. Quick recall. I’m just thinking about what I learned from reading the text and watching the videos. Imagine if I could talk to someone about my learning. Would this help me truly capture how much I understood, and without the stress of a standardized assessment? 

Maybe WHMIS each year gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we’re evaluating kids. What makes a test better? Is a big assignment always necessary? If kids are feeling the same kind of stress that we feel as adults, how might their performance be impacted by this stress? I wonder if testing situations give us a true picture of what a child knows, just like I wonder if a test like WHMIS gives us an accurate picture of what an adult knows. My reflections from the WHMIS test may have me thinking even more than the test itself. What about you?


Is “Play” By Any Other Name, Still “Play?”

Yesterday afternoon, I caught a conversation between Andrew Campbell and some other educators on this article around worksheets in kindergarten.

I don’t always get involved in what I know will be longer Twitter discussions, but in this case, I did. I had a couple of different comments to make about the article, one of which focused on the worksheet component, and one of which focused on play.

The play comment in particular, coupled with a follow-up conversation, led to a fair number of responses. One of these was from Peter Cameron.

Peter’s comment reminded me of an intentional change that I made this year: changing the words “free exploration” to “play.” I mentioned in my reply to Peter that I would blog on this topic, and this is that blog post.

As I said in my tweet to Kaitlyn, most of our day is spent playing. This decision aligns with the pedagogy embedded in the Kindergarten Program Document. It does not mean that we avoid instructing kids. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We spend the majority of our day working one-to-one or in small groups with children to extend their learning, all within the context of play. This means really knowing the child, the next steps, and how the expectations in the Program Document connect with the play in the classroom. It’s a very different approach than I used before I started teaching Full-Day Kindergarten, but it’s one that I would now employ in other grades.

Even with large blocks of uninterrupted play, we have a schedule posted for kids. The schedule provides structure to their day, which decreases stress and allows for more student engagement. Until this year, I always wrote “free exploration” instead of “play.” This was true in our daybook plans, flow of the day, and schedule pictures. Why did I use the term, “free exploration?”

  • It seemed more formal.
  • It made “play” sound more like “inquiry.”
  • I thought that it gave more value to what we were doing.

But I keep thinking back to the numerous blog posts that I’ve written about the benefits of play. If we …

  • believe in play,
  • tell children that they’re going off to play,
  • and co-create an environment conducive to play,

then why shouldn’t we call it that? I wonder what message we give to kids, to parents, to administrators, and to other educators when we avoid “play” based on how others might respond to it. Maybe it’s time to share our playing success stories, and show how playing and learning really do intersect. 

Now I think it’s also worth noting that not everything is “play.” How we define play is also important. I wonder if as educators, there’s value in looking at what constitutes play and what doesn’t. Would this change our opinion of play and how we approach it? I know that my response to play now is not the same as it was 19 years ago when I started teaching, and used to use play as an opportunity to clean the room and organize things for the next day. I now look at how to immerse myself in play, observe it, extend it, and make connections between the play and the expectations. Play is rich. Play is purposeful. And it really does connect with the quote at the top of our class blog.

“Serious play is not an oxymoron; it is the essence of innovation.” – Michael Schrage

Why does this kind of play need to end in kindergarten, and if it doesn’t, why do we feel obligated to call it something other than play? I would like to believe that our combined voices and stories of playful learning might change a mindset. It might help us embrace the thinking that we don’t need to focus primarily on preparing students for the next grade, but instead, focus on moving forward the children in front of us now. Play does that. I’m a proud play-er. What about you?