When Is “No” Best?

Yesterday, I came across two interesting articles on the importance of “saying no” to kids.

I have to admit that at first, I was reluctant to share these articles with our families, as the implied message in these articles and many similar ones is that it’s the parents that need to change. Yes, there could be value in reconsidering that use of “no” at home, but what about at school?

Some may argue that educators have no problem saying, “no.”

  • “No, you can’t use the field today. It’s closed.”
  • “No, you can’t go in the mud.”
  • “No, you can’t sit next to your friend.”
  • “No, you can’t do this project with a partner.”

We’ve probably all heard these words before or quotes that are similar to them. Talking with my teaching partner, Paula, and thinking about some of the suggestions in these two articles made me reflect on how and why we say no and what we might consider in the future.

One thing that came to mind right away is when we say, “yes,” but a “no” might be valuable. This example is one that will resonate with primary teachers, but I hope that some middle school and secondary teachers can think of comparable examples. In younger elementary grades, we often hear requests for help “putting on snow pants, putting on coats, putting snow pants and splash pants over boots” and just about every other dressing problem that you can think of. Because it takes so long to get dressed — particularly in winter clothing — it’s understandable why many educators and parents jump at these requests for help with a “yes.” I know in the past and occasionally still now, I’ve even anticipated the question being asked and helped before it ever is. How are we ever supposed to all get dressed and ready for home in 5-10 minutes without support? It’s not happening. Well, what if we gave extra time? This year, Paula and I have started the year by giving an hour for cleaning up and getting ready for home. You might think that this is too much time, but sometimes, all children are still not quite ready. We can stagger this time with a few kids, and they can read books and tell stories together while others finish getting dressed. I have to wonder if this extra time allows for us to say a few more no’s. Not mean-I-will-never-help-you-no’s, but what-if-you-try-first-no’s or let-me-show-you-and-then-you-can-try-no’s. Just as kids need time to settle into play, do they also need time to settle into dressing?

This is the kind of excitement that makes me think that time and no’s can be valuable.

Then there is the “no” that comes from not every item being the best for every child. With COVID protocols, all students have a forward facing desk space now. This means that it’s easy for them to see exactly what everyone else has all the time. Before COVID, Paula and I never expected children to do all the same things at the same time, nor did we have all of the same materials available for them. Now, one child gets plasticine, and everyone else wants it. The same with play dough. The problem is that these materials are not always best for every child. At first, we tended to say, “yes,” when students asked for these items, as it seemed unfair to not give it to them. Then we thought more about Self-Reg and what might be dysregulating for one child but calming for another. Now we try a “no, but” approach, so “no, the plasticine might not be best for you right now, but what about building with some LEGO or popsicle sticks instead?” Sometimes this is hard to do, and sometimes it’s easier to say, “yes,” but as we get to know kids better, we feel more comfortable with these no’s. What about you?

In the second article, we really love the positive spin on “no.” This makes me think about the conversation that Paula has with the class every time that we go outside. Her question to them is always, “What can we do?” Yes, there are areas off limits. Yes, the field is often closed due to some drainage problems. And yes, the “no” items will always be mentioned by some kids, but so will all of the “yes” ones.

  • Yes, we can go on the mountain.
  • Yes, we can go in the mini-forest.
  • Yes, we can go to the rocks.
  • Yes, we can sit at the picnic tables.
  • Yes, we can take the perimeter to get to the rocks.
  • Yes, we can collect garbage.

Seeing the “yes” does not negate the “no,” but does it highlight more possibilities?

Now this final point is the part where I struggle more: how much of an explanation should we give for each “no?” I understand the value in kids knowing the “why,” and seeing the reason for the “no,” but I’ve also seen how long explanations can lead to unnecessary epic conversations that often increase the arguing and stress around the “no.” As I’m writing this paragraph, I had to go outside to get my dogs to stop barking at people on the street. A “no, stop” worked really well for them. I realize that dogs and people are different, but at times, could less talking be more valuable? Thanks Sammy and Molly for the perfect end to this post and the need to sometimes just say, “no.” 🙂

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