The kindergarten class was gathered together on the rug, sitting and waiting for me to lead them in our daily math meeting routine. We had gone through a few of the exercises when a young man, 5 years old at the time, raised his hand. He said, “If the red light means no talking, and the green light means we can talk, and the yellow light means listening to music and no talking, then when we put up the yellow light, why don’t we put up the red light with it?” Now, I had a choice as a teacher to make in this moment. Certainly, this was not a question that was relevant to what we were doing at the moment, and clearly, his mind was off somewhere else and not paying attention to what was at hand.
Despite his inattention, this is quite common in kindergarten, happening many times throughout our day. For instance, we will be discussing how a plant grows, and when I ask what a plant needs to grow (after reading all about it), a student raises his hand and says, “My friend is coming over to my house today.” I would then respond in a kind and patient tone, “That is wonderful; now what is one thing a plant needs to grow?” Another time, I might be reminding the students to bring their "show and tell" item. I then ask the students, “What are we bringing to class tomorrow?” A child raises their hand and says, “My dog died.” I then say that I am very sorry your dog died and ask how long ago that happened. The student says, “A long time ago. We have a new dog now.” I offer my sympathies while tactfully redirecting the question to the student once again. This is such a common occurrence that I must keep the students on track and teach them to answer the question at hand, or we would be distracted all day long.
So, when the red light/yellow light question came up, I was certainly tempted to say, “Let’s stay focused on what we are doing.” However, the intenseness of the child’s voice and the obvious thought process that went into this question was apparent on this child’s face and it caused me to pause. I responded, “Well, I think that is a great idea! The next time we put the yellow light up we will do just that!” He looked at me with almost a shocked look on his face-- as if he could not believe that I actually listened to his idea, much less was going to take it seriously and do it!
This opened the door to many more “suggestions” from the students about how we could improve our classroom environment, organize our materials, or work processes in a different manner. This may seem like chaos, which is a word our kindergarteners are very familiar with, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. I am still the teacher, and you are still the parent. We will still direct the children as to which ideas we can implement and which ideas we cannot do-- and then explain (in a few quick words) why we cannot. It is surprising how children will respond to the “no” in a more positive manner when they know that they will still be listened to at other times.
This is not a story to boast about my abilities as a teacher or as a parent. I certainly have been busy many times trying to just get through the day or am tired and don’t have as much patience to listen or am rushed and trying to get things accomplished. I can remember when my son was little, and I would be tucking him in bed and he would say, “Mom, can I get up and help you clean up the kitchen?” My response was, “No, you just need to go to sleep now.” I was so tired myself at the time that I just needed my children to go to sleep so I could clean up the dishes in quietness. In retrospect, I wish I would have let him get up at least a few times and help me with the dishes. Has he been scarred because of me refusing to let him? Certainly not. In fact, he has grown into a thoughtful, respectful, and caring young man. However, I am always surprised at how just a handful of letting those moments happen in other areas would speak volumes of love to my child. They remember those moments.
It can be easy to dismiss our children with a quick response or really no response at all when they are talking to us. It is not easy to take a few moments to stop, look them in the eyes, and really listen to what they have to say. Believe me, I know when I have seventeen students who all would like to be heard. It takes practice, but it is a worthy practice to pursue both as teachers and as parents. Our children will grow in confidence. They will realize it is okay to speak up and share their thoughts and ideas. We will benefit because who knows? Maybe a five-year-old or a ten-year-old or a sixteen-year-old will have an idea that will change the way we do things for the better! The rewards are worth the practice. Just imagine...