Nurturing Meaningful Connections with Young Children
by Nancy Carlsson-Paige
First Published in Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, 2001. Linda Lantieri,Ed., Beacon Press.

Celin: Does Mama ever cry?
Mami: Yes, she does. Everyone cries sometime.
Celin: Not dead people.
Mami: Nope, they don't have any more tears.
Celin: And they can't move, so their spirits come out and play.

Celin will soon be going to kindergarten. She often surprises her mother with the questions and ideas she has, especially when they pertain to spiritual matters--these Celin seems very fond of bringing up. But when she gets to school, Celin will probably figure out quickly that these spiritual ideas she has belong to a topic that she should not bring up in school.

From their first days of life, children are trying to make sense of things. They actively engage with the world around them, exploring, manipulating, interacting with everything and everyone within reach. Just watching a baby lay a piece of string on top of a shoe as if it were a shoelace or a toddler cover up a stuffed animal before bed reminds us that children's actions have purpose and meaning for them. This striving to make meaning involves a child's thoughts and feelings as one inseparable whole.

The mounting body of literature known to many educators today as Constructivist Education is united by the central idea that children actively construct meaning for themselves. These meanings, unique to each child, are embedded in family and culture and built over time. Because of this, a basic aim of education should be to begin with children's personal meanings as the basis on which to build new learning. But in order to see young children's meanings fully, those of us who work with them may need to open our lenses more widely, let go of some of our pre-set ideas, and be willing and able to see what children put before us.

Losing Oneself in School

When children enter school, they bring with them their natural capacity for making meaning. But for many children, arriving at school means leaving some of themselves behind. Much of school curriculum requires children to meet the demands of tasks that do not build on their understanding; the emphasis on right answers begins early to separate children from themselves.

A student teacher in my seminar wrote this in her journal:1

(A First Grade Classroom)
Jasper sat with the worksheet page on two place addition in front of him. He was supposed to add 35 and 23 in the first problem. I came over and saw that he was trying to add the numbers horizontally instead of vertically! He didn't understand at all what he was doing. I've done Piagetian number tasks with Jasper and I know he doesn't even conserve number yet!2 This assignment can't make any sense to him. He needs to be working on pre-number concepts with manipulatives. He was getting so frustrated and upset. He said to me, "I think I'm gonna cry. Do I go down? Go down, right? I don't know what to do." I tried to help him even though I knew this was all wrong. He got more and more upset so I finally suggested he stop. The head teacher came over and said, "If he was made to do it through recess, you'd see how quickly he'd learn it.

Unfortunately, experiences in school like Jasper's are not uncommon. When children are expected to complete tasks that are not geered to their understanding, they become confused, begin to feel inadequate, to doubt their own ability to make sense.

In addition, focus on "the basics" in schools forces a large part of children's experience aside, especially the social, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of their lives. Howard Gardner's (1993a) theory of multiple intelligences has expanded our understanding of the ways in which we make sense, but it is still the linguistic and logical mathematical intelligences that dominate our schools. Children's capacities for meaning making through drawing, drama, music, social exchange and inner exploration are largely left out of school curriculum.

But it is the spiritual dimension of children's lives more than any other that has been most completely excluded from school life. Concerns about separating church and state have led to schools that compartmentalize minds, hearts and souls. These areas are not separate for young children, though they learn quickly to divide them once they get to school.

In considering the possibility of a spiritual or existential intelligence, Howard Gardner (1996) writes of the human capacity to engage with transcendental concerns. As an educator who has studied young children for many years, I am interested in how this capacity first shows itself in children. My own two sons began asking questions about God by the age of five (ours was a secular household); each evolved his own theories about the nature of life and things beyond himself and revised these again and again throughout childhood.

Writers Robert Coles (1990) and Thomas Armstrong (1985) have each documented the rich and varied spiritual lives of children of various religious and secular backgrounds. Both comment that Western psychology, rooted in the scientific and secular, has neglected children's inner lives; we cannot see what we have no maps for interpreting.

Many parents from both religious and secular backgrounds have told me stories of how their children weave spiritual ideas into the meanings they make. Here is Celin's mother reporting on a conversation with Celin at age four: 3

Celín has gotten a little abrasion on the inside of her wrist. It smarts, and we have put a bandaid on it, but she is still a little weepy. I am holding her in my lap telling her all the reasons that I love her, "...Because you are smart, sweet, gentle, strong. You do a spectacular monkey, you're funny, creative..."

Celín: Funny?
Mami: Yes, you are very funny and you make me laugh.
Celín: But I hurt myself.
Mami: Yes, I know. But you know what? Everybody hurts themselves once in a while.
Celín: Not God?
Mami: No, not God.
Celín: But God is everywhere.
Mami: Yes, God is everywhere.
Celín: Even in you and me.
Mami: Yes.
Celín: Well then if God is in me, God is hurt.

While conversations such as this one seem to be fairly common for parents and their children, they are not so common among teachers and children. In my twenty-five years in classrooms, I have not heard a child voice spiritual ideas in a school discussion. The message that such ideas are taboo at school must be learned very early.

In her discussion of separation of church and state, Rachel Kessler (1999) makes the important distinction between teachers espousing their beliefs and children expressing theirs. What has happened as teachers try to keep religion out of school, she says, is the suppression of student's exploration of their own beliefs, longings, and search for spiritual meaning.

Children's spiritual questions and ideas can come to school if teachers can find ways to let them in. Teachers can listen for these ideas and accept them openly. They can facilitate discussions among children who are expressing spiritually-based ideas without imposing their own views.

The need for schools to become communities that embrace the wholeness of the human experience is greater now than ever before. But the current standards driven educational climate has edged out multiple ways of seeing and being and driven even a bigger wedge between curriculum expectations and children's views of the world. Ironically, this is occurring at the same time that alienated young people are bringing guns to school and shooting classmates. This is a time when the need for attending to the inner lives, deeper selves and spiritual longings of students is crying out for educators' attention.

A Culture that Divides

In a country where one percent of the population holds forty-eight percent of the wealth and where twenty percent of children live below the poverty line, stress of all kinds falls unevenly and unfairly onto children. A host of risk factors such as violence, poverty, racism, poor health, add up to what James Garbarino (1995) calls a "socially toxic environment" for many children.

These risk factors are compounded by the negative effects of media culture with its aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at children. This all-pervasive influence affects virtually every child in the country long before arrival at school. The children with the most stress in their lives are the most vulnerable to these influences, but all children feel their impact.

I first began to realize how significantly media culture was impacting young children in the mid-1980's when teachers began telling me that children's play was changing and they were concerned about it. (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1990). It was just after the broadcasting industry was deregulated under the Reagan administration, which opened the flood gates for big business to market TV-linked toys and products to children, a practice prohibited before that time by the Federal Communications Commission. The onslaught of shows, products and toys linked together around a single theme began to saturate children's worlds, especially with images of violence. Large numbers of teachers began to describe how children were imitating TV scripts in their play instead of inventing their own stories and acting out the violence they had seen. The teachers were concerned that the deep meanings that young children construct when their play flows from their own needs and experience were being replaced at least in part by content seen on the screen. Teachers know that children use play as a central vehicle for reordering their experience and making meaning of it. As Piaget (1973) showed, children's active invention and reinvention of ideas, which often occurs in play, is the road to genuine understanding.

If a young child gets accidentally knocked over by a huge barking dog, she will create a host of ways to reenact the experience until she has made sense of it to her satisfaction. She might act out the scene over and over with toy animals, or draw pictures of the scary dog, or tell a story that sounds something like what happened mixed in with elements from her own imagination. This process of active meaning making goes on for young children constantly and is the core process by which they make sense of everything; through it children continually create a sense of equilibrium with their own experience, making it possible to integrate new experiences with the past.

Since those early observations by teachers of media culture's influence on children, things have only gotten worse. Today, media cross feeding has intensified as videos, computer games, Hollywood movies and fast food chains have joined in the marketing mix. Children spend almost forty hours a week consuming media outside of school, much of it violent (Kaiser Foundation Report, 1999). The hours spent alone in front of a screen rob children of vital social lessons they need to be learning from spontaneous play with peers. The lost hours of positive learning with peers are replaced by interactions with antisocial media messages. By the end of elementary school the average child will have witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television (Diamant, 1994). What teachers saw early on is now conclusively supported by research: Viewing entertainment violence leads to increases in aggressive behavior and attitudes in children and desensitizes them to violence (Cook et al, 2000).

Young children are easily desensitized to violence because they can't make sense of it. They are drawn to the action and excitement without understanding its negative effects. They develop an appetite for violence before ever understanding that it's not really fun and it hurts.

Because of this popular culture influence in children's lives, the meaning making efforts of many children are undermined long before they ever get to school. These cultural forces taken together tend to separate children from themselves and from one another; they lead to the social, emotional and spiritual disconnection that many young people feel today.

Schools cannot possibly solve problems created by societal influences of this magnitude, but we can do a lot to help children connect meaningfully to themselves and to others in school. Children need to come to school with all of their feelings, all of their ideas, all of their questions; they need teachers who can reach toward them and the fullness of who they are, who can build new ideas onto the meanings children have made; they need help learning about their own inner feelings and the feelings of others; and, they need to experience the joys and struggles of being part of a group.

What we are seeing currently in education is a general trend in the opposite direction of these needs. Nevertheless, many teachers continue to find ways to nurture the growth of the whole child, to open up channels for deep connection among children. What do classrooms that nurture this kind of wholeness look like?

Inviting the Whole Child In

Kirsten's kindergarten classroom is in an urban public school.4 Kirsten holds daily class meetings where children are free to talk about their school work and their lives. She listens a lot, for the meanings behind what children say.

One day at class meeting Carlos asked if he could share something with the class. He began to talk about the fighting that had happened at his house over the weekend.

Here's how Kirsten tells what happened:

Carlos asked if he could share something with our class at sharing time. He said that his parents were fighting over the weekend and it made him feel scared. Then he said, "I'm ready for questions and comments." One of the students told him they were sorry that had happened. Another student wanted to know if they were fighting with words or with their bodies. Carlos told him that it was a fight with words, but it was really loud and lasted for a long time. He felt really scared because he wasn't sure what to do. The same student wondered if they fought a lot, and Carlos told him that they didn't which was why he was so scared. When all of the questions were finished, we asked Carlos what we could do to make him feel a little bit better. He thought we could send him lots of love and hugs (something that our class sends to each other when we are feeling sad or vulnerable).

During lunch and nap time, my student teacher and I talked a lot about this because Carlos had obviously been very upset, and the children had a lot to say. We talked about our own feelings when we heard arguments between family members as children. We decided to focus afternoon work time on this idea: What happens when you hear or see other people fight? How do you feel? We centered this in four areas of the classroom:

WRITING: In the middle of the table we wrote: "When I see people fight, I feel _____"

ART: We taped the words "ANGRY" and "SAD" on the four sections of the easel and children painted pictures of how those emotions looked, times that they had felt that way, and what they did when they felt angry or sad.

DRAMATIC PLAY: Children built houses out of blocks and used our play people to act out fights and arguments and what happened after.

TABLE TOP: We put out small wooden cubes and teddy bear counters for the children to act out arguments and what might happen when arguments occur.

Before work time, I talked with Carlos to find out if there was an area where he would like to be in charge to recreate what happened with his friends around to help him work through it. He really liked that idea. "You mean I get to show what really happened?" he asked. He chose to be in charge in the dramatic play area. The other children rallied around the idea of Carlos being in charge. They wanted him to feel better about the whole thing.

Our work time was spectacular. Everyone had their own experiences to draw upon to enrich what was going on in each area. Magical conversations occurred between children at the easel as they were painting. At the table top, the "fight" pulled in more and more teddy bears until there were so many that the children decided to have the police come to stop it. Children were writing down their feelings at the writing table, as well as specific incidents where they had seen people fighting. In the dramatic play area, Carlos directed the construction of his house and how the fight occurred. The children with him had ideas about what the Carlos doll could do when he saw the fight; they were actually giving him strategies for how to cope with a situation like this in the future!

I am lucky to own a digital camera, so I took pictures of each of these areas during work time. At our afternoon circle, we talked about what happened in the areas and I took notes. I told the children that I was going to try to write on the computer what we had done so we could post it in our class. The next day a few children illustrated a few key pieces of our book and I assembled it that night: the writing, digital pictures, and student illustrations. We laminated it and posted it on the back of our easel so we could all see each page.

Several times throughout the year Carlos would talk about "that time that I was in charge in the blocks when my parents were fighting." He later told me that the students in our community are his friends and he knew they could make him feel better; that is why he shared that day. What a testament to the amazing children in our class and the safety they create for each other...

Kirsten understood right away that Carlos had said something very significant to the class. He had described a potent family scene and his feelings of fear. I have heard many teachers quickly dismiss similarly potent statements made by children in school, but Kirsten wants a classroom climate where children feel safe expressing what is of true meaning to them.

Kirsten gave Carlos her full attention. She acknowledged his feelings of fear. She understood that the children listening might have stories similar to Carlos' or that they might feel worried this could happen to them. She wanted to help all of the children explore and work through the powerful feelings that arise around a topic such as this and to come to some sense of closure; even to feel that they have some ideas about what to do in emotionally charged situations.

Kirsten and her student teacher spent time talking together about their own childhood experiences with family fighting, making space in their planning time for their own feelings. They planned curriculum activities that helped children construct their own understanding of conflict. They used open-ended materials, which allowed for children's experience to come forth in a dynamic mix with the materials and the ideas of others. The open-ended nature of these tasks invited children to bring their full personal and cultural identities into the process. There was room for the children to invent their own story and invent a safe ending for it. Children were engaging in the active process of meaning making through play that can transform and heal. This opened up an avenue to feelings of empowerment and generosity as children gave their ideas and strategies to Carlos.

In these activities, academic skills such as literacy and math5 were connected to the meaningful content of children's lives, instead of being taught as isolated skills to be learned apart from experience. The book Kirsten made captured children's first-hand experience in writing and pictures. Deep personal meaning fueled the children's interest in literacy; the pages spoke of their reality in their own words.

Learning About Emotions in School

If we ground our curriculum in children's own meanings and in their experiences, then feelings will come to school along with thoughts. Because of exposure to antisocial cultural influences, many children will need help from teachers connecting to their own feelings and to the feelings of others. For many children, school may be the only place where this learning can happen.

Even for teachers who want to connect to the inner lives of children, knowing how to do this is a real challenge. Most teacher education programs do not offer training in emotional literacy. And most of the literature on the topic offers little guidance for how to approach this work developmentally. How might teachers begin to encourage young children to express and learn about feelings in school?

Kirsten shows us how we might begin in the example above. She invites emotional experience into the classroom by how she listens to Carlos and the other children. This practice is sometimes called active listening--an approach of listening with acceptance and full attention, a way of reflecting back what is heard without judging it. Kirsten listens with openness and is fully present even when hard feelings get expressed. Because of how she listens, children are encouraged to look more deeply within. Perhaps we could say that Kirsten is listening with "soul" (Kessler, 2000). When a teacher listens as Kirsten does, children learn that the sense they make of things is important and that it is safe to express whatever they feel.

Teachers are notorious for not listening deeply to what children say, of hearing only what they want to hear, of evaluating what children say, of framing questions to get only the responses they want. It can be scary for a teacher to let go of the control over what will be said in class. It is especially hard when teachers are under extreme pressure to meet requirements and have to impose more and more agendas on children.

Kirsten enlists the natural meaning making capacities of children as she helps them develop emotional literacy. She begins with children's own emotional lives as her starting point and builds from there. Her work is developmentally rooted in how children see the world. When it comes to learning about emotions, developmental insights are a valuable guide.

Young children's thinking tends to be concrete, but feelings are abstract and can't be seen.6 Children tend toward static thinking--having one idea at a time--so it is difficult for them to relate ideas logically in the emotional arena just as it is in other areas. Also extremely difficult for children is understanding how someone else feels. Even adults have a difficult time taking another perspective, but because of egocentric thinking, young children's minds are often filled with their own point of view.

These developmental ideas can be a starting point for identifying goals for working on emotional literacy with young children.

Emotional Literacy Goals for Young Children:

• Help children identify their feelings.
• Help children learn to "read" the feelings of others.
• Help children learn to express their feelings; help them develop a repertoire of words for feelings.
• Help children develop empathy for how others feel.
• Help children connect feelings to the actions and words that caused them.
• Help children separate feelings from action, to learn to think before acting.

Using these goals as a guide, teachers can invent a host of classroom activities that foster emotional literacy. Some teachers use feeling photos--faces expressing a range of emotions--as a way to make feelings more concrete. When children have actual conflicts, teachers point out how someone's face looks as a way to help a young child realize how the person feels.

Alison also teaches in an urban public school kindergarten. She made a book with her class of five year olds on the theme "how we feel and what makes us feel that way." Children wrote and drew pictures, Alison took photos of their faces showing how they felt, and bound it all into a beautiful book. One child wrote, "I feel furious because my brother keeps coming into my room and kicking my stuff around." And another wrote, "I feel frustrated when my mom knocks down my blocks and says, 'OOPS, sorry', then I get frustrated."

Bill used puppets to work on put-down statements with a second grade class. Hurtful put-downs had been on the rise in his classroom, so Bill acted out a scene with the puppets who made comments to each other much like those Bill had heard the students using. He wanted to explore with children the feelings of hurt and what causes them. Part of the discussion the children had follows:

Lisa: My older brothers call me mean things, like they'll call me a monkey.
Monica: My brother tells me my haircut doesn't look good.
Lisa: It just makes me very sad.
Joey: I feel baddest when someone says "you're dumb" because it's YOU and when they say it about a thing it's just a THING.
Laura: I have two older brothers and when they say that I feel really bad.
Shea: Everyone is going to feel bad if you say that to them. It really hurts the person's feelings.
Omar: YOU includes everything about you and it's not like anything you like, it's YOU. YOU'RE a bad person.

In a kindergarten classroom where I spend time, I tried to use developmental goals for emotional literacy as a guide for dealing with a conflict. Maya had just come into class, not looking very happy. She headed for the attendance sheet to sign in, pencil in hand. But then she turned and poked Timothy with the eraser end of the pencil (he was not really hurt by this). I quickly took the pencil from Maya, but I didn't want to scold her; I wanted to show her how her actions had affected Timothy. I said, "Look Maya!" and I poked the pencil into my own stomach dramatizing how it hurt. Then I said to Maya, "It hurts when you poke someone with a pencil in the stomach." She looked at me very seriously, then resumed writing.

Later that morning Maya drew a picture all on her own. She dictated to the classroom aide, "I poked Timothy in the stomach with the pencil. Then I felt bad." Her teacher told me what a breakthrough this was for Maya. He had been so concerned about her frequent aggression toward other children and her seeming lack of awareness or empathy over having hurt them.

My assumption in this situation was that Maya, who is five years old, did not really understand how her jab felt to Timothy and that understanding more about how he felt could call forth her empathy. While many adults see their role with children as one of teaching right and wrong by telling, I wanted to teach by showing, to help Maya build her own connections to feelings. Many adults would tell Maya, "No, that's wrong to poke someone, you can't do that". Or they might send her to the time out chair for awhile to "think about" what she had done. But it's hard to think about what you've done if you don't really understand it. Children need our help learning about how others feel in ways that fit with their developmental understanding. Working with them in this way, gives us the best chance to open up their capacity to feel for others.

Nurturing a Spirit of Generosity

I visited a preschool classroom where one of my students was practice teaching. At the end of the morning as children were sitting with coats on to go home, the head teacher took out some stickers and began handing them to individual children and complementing them on their good behavior that day. Three of the children didn't get stickers. One of them got very upset, he cried and pleaded for a sticker. The teacher told him he hadn't behaved well enough that day, maybe he would get a sticker tomorrow. The child went out the door with such a look of dejection.

It is painful to watch children's hurt and disempowerment in school situations like this. At the moment the stickers were dispensed, this little boy was filled with wanting one; how the sticker related to his behavior earlier in the day as seen by his teacher was not something he could comprehend given his developmental understanding. Reward systems such as this one pervade schools, along with similarly divisive systems such as grading and ability groups. They undermine children's sense of safety and ability to form caring relationships with one another.

All children look for ways to feel empowered in their lives. Under the influence of a competitive school atmosphere backed up by antisocial media messages, they often find avenues to empowerment through teasing, bullying, or putting down other children. These offer a kind of fleeting, pseudo-power, a slim reward compared to a deeper, more sustaining sense of empowerment that comes when we learn how to create positive relationships that engender feelings of joy and caring. But in today's world, teachers have to open up the channels for this to happen and even show children where and how to find these feelings with one another.

I visited Stuart's kindergarten class over the course of a year. Over that time I saw Stuart figure out how to build a classroom where genuine caring among children could thrive. First he introduced a host of predictable structures for managing the classroom that children could learn to use on their own: a job chart, a list of daily tasks, activity centers-- all rotating according to predictable systems that children learned to use with mastery. This is a necessary first step--establishing a climate of predictability and fairness--to building a social climate where feelings of genuine caring among children can develop.

When Alison joined Stuart midyear as his intern, she brought new ideas for developing the social curriculum. She introduced conflict resolution skills to the children and the idea of a Peace Corner-- a place where children could go to talk over their conflicts with cozy cushions, paper for drawing, puppets to use for acting out conflicts. There were photos on the wall showing different ways children had solved their conflicts and their own words below each photo:"Share, Cooperate, Rub the hurt spot, Take turns, Say sorry." These gave children a repertoire of ideas for exactly what actions they could take to make things better. Children began to feel a sense of empowerment about being able to solve their own problems; the more they did, the more they could do. On one of my visits, I heard Marcel, a child who'd had so many behavior problems all year, say to two children who were arguing,"Do you two need to go to the Peace Corner?"

Early in the spring, Alison suggested to Stuart that they introduce the idea of a Peace Watch to the children. They began simply by noticing the helping behavior that occurred in the classroom and writing it down.

Their list looked like this:

Derrick rubbed Marcel's knee to make him feel good.
Jamal let Kevin wear his hat so his head wouldn't be cold.
Clarence helped Teresa tie her shoe.
Janeen made Danisha feel good by rubbing her back.
Adriana helped Jorge put away the snap cubes. It made Jorge happy.
When Wendy was crying, Leland gave her a hug and Christian rubbed her knee.

Each day at class meeting children dictated new ways they had discovered to help each other. Then they began going up to the list during the day and adding helpful acts to it in their own invented spellings. Eventually the list grew down to the floor so the class decided to start putting beans in a jar to mark the helpful acts instead--one bean for every act. When I got there, they were marveling at the jar already half full.

On my way into class that day, I walked through the coat room and saw a five-year-old girl comforting a sad friend. Soon after, I noticed a boy who was playing with blocks offer one from his pile to another child. Then I saw a child's arm go around another child. None of these acts was happening in the presence of the teachers. I hadn't observed this on any of my previous visits.

The Peace Watch fostered caring connections among the children that must have felt very satisfying to them because of how it seemed to take on a life of its own. As the helpful acts were described out loud and written down, it gave children a concrete understanding of what the abstract word "helping" actually means. Children could experience themselves as a "good person," someone who helps others. For some of the children, this was a new way to see themselves. The writing of the list in children's own words and the repeated counting and estimation of the accumulating beans in the jar brought both math and literacy into the social curriculum.

Children need lots of opportunities in school to help them discover the powerful energy unleashed by positive connection to others. This forceful energy diminishes the appeal of the pseudo-satisfaction children get when they use their power over others by teasing or hurting them. Teachers can intentionally set up classrooms to foster the kinds of experiences Alison and Stuart put in place in their classroom. In so doing, they will make available an expanse of joy and loving connection that can be an unlimited source of meaning and purpose for children.

The Inner Life of Teachers

The teachers described in this chapter have a lot in common. They are all teaching in urban public schools7 where academic achievement is a high priority, yet they are finding ways to build curriculum and skills starting from how children see things. These teachers all value social and emotional skills along with other basic skills that schools need to teach. And they all teach in a way that shares power with children rather than uses power over children.

There are many external obstacles--expectations put forth by administrators, parents, school boards and state legislatures--that make it hard to teach this way. But there are internal obstacles as well. It can be very scary to teach as these teachers do. They can not predict everything that will happen in their day when so much emerges from the children. They have to trust that learning will happen when children have a say in what and how they learn. They have to trust that children can learn to regulate their own behavior, make choices, and join with teachers to solve all kinds of problems.

A student of mine described an incident she had observed while student teaching:

In our kindergarten class (it's a morning program) children come in and hang their coats up first in the coat room which has cubbies for their things. Then they enter the classroom. Last week, a little boy came into the classroom with his coat still on. The head teacher told him to go back outside and hang the coat up. The child didn't say anything. He just stood there. She told him again to take his coat off, that he couldn't come into the room until he did. He was still quiet. Finally the teacher said to him, "Go out to the coat room. If you want to wear your coat, then you can't come into the classroom. You'll have to stay in the coat room." The little boy went out to the coat room and sat there. He stayed there for the entire day.

What happened inside this teacher to make her act this way? Was she angry? Fearful? Why did she see this child as an adversary? Her own internal obstacle, whatever it was, blinded her from looking into the child's meaning and purpose for needing to keep his coat on. If she had been able to reach toward his meaning, that could have begun a process of solving this problem with him. The child's need for autonomy and sense of empowerment could have been met through a positive process. Instead, he preserved his sense of self in the only way he could figure out to do--by sitting all day in the cloak room. Developmentally speaking, young children have difficulty thinking of options other than the one directly in front of them. It is the teacher who has to think creatively enough to prevent or break through power deadlocks such as this one.

Teacher education programs, with all of our theories and techniques, focus students on a lot of content that is outside of themselves. Parker Palmer (1998) asks us to find more balance between our inner selves as teachers and our emphasis on objective knowledge, intellect and technique.

Especially in the area of teacher preparation commonly called "classroom management," teachers tool up with techniques and discipline approaches that focus attention on how to control children's behavior. Framing the topic this way leaves little or no room for attention to the inner feelings and tensions that arise in teachers when we interact with children. When we focus our attention on children, especially in ways that view them as untrustworthy and needing to be controlled, we distance ourselves from them as well as from ourselves; then, it becomes a lot harder to connect to the deeper meanings and purposes that underlie children's behavior.

Alfie Kohn (1996) points out that most discipline programs show teachers how to get children to comply without encouraging reflection on whether a demand a teacher makes is reasonable from the point of view of the child. Had the teacher in the example above thought about this, she might have been able to see that the child needed to have some say in what happened to him. But perhaps there was an obstacle in the way of her seeing the child's point of view in this situation. Perhaps this teacher needed to ask herself some other questions first: How do I feel when a child challenges my authority? What happens inside of me when I feel myself losing control? How do I want to use my power with children?

Everything that a teacher does emanates from how this last question gets answered. Not only discipline decisions, but decisions over class routines, schedule, what gets studied and how, the organization of space all are deeply rooted in who has the power and how it gets used (Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1998). Looking at how and why we as teachers use power with children would be a good place to begin exploring what Parker Palmer calls the "inner landscape of a teacher's life." It might help us get beyond some of the internal obstacles that keep us from seeing more creative ways to teach. It might help us break down some of the barriers between ourselves and children and lead us into a bigger humanity that encompasses both children and ourselves.


These are difficult times for teachers. Outside forces such as state standards and high-stakes testing, and the influence of a violence-saturated commercial culture put conflicting pressures on teachers: a more holistic, student-centered curriculum is needed at a time when it is harder for teachers to give it. In the aftermath of school shootings, the need for schools to implement social curriculum that reaches every young person is heightened. For many children today, school may be the only place where they can learn positive social and emotional skills and experience the joys of genuine connection to a larger community.

Even under the weight of conflicting political and cultural forces, many teachers are finding ways to teach that draw in and nurture every dimension of humanity that children bring to school. More than ever before, we need teachers like these who can support children's active learning process; we need classrooms where all dimensions of every child--including the emotional, social and spiritual--can be seen, valued and nurtured. Moving in that direction means moving into the heart of teachers too. As we look within and examine ourselves, we will be better able to take in the whole of every child we work with. If we can look at how our inner lives shape much of what we do in the classroom, we will find new ways to dissolve some of the barriers that divide us from children and we will open up to more of our own empathy and compassion for children.


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Levin, D.L. & Carlsson-Paige, N. (1995). The mighty morphin power rangers: Teachers voice concern. Young Children,50, 67-72.

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Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch.  Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.