Sunday, September 6, 2015

5 Things We Say To Preschoolers

Recently I read an article called,"13 Common Sayings To Avoid". The list seemed geared to middle and high school teachers, and most of it seemed pretty obvious. I continued reading smugly until I came across one saying that I once used frequently, but that I’ve worked to eliminate from my teaching vocabulary. The phrase was well intentioned, with a clear rationale for using that particular wording, but as the years went by, I started to realize that those words might impact children’s emotional and social understandings in ways that I didn’t anticipate.

That started me thinking – what other phrases do early childhood teachers use, that, no matter how well-intentioned, might carry messages that we don’t intend?

1. “I like the way that Jenny is sitting”.

This was the phrase that caught my attention in the original article. Teachers use this phrase to call attention to desirable behavior, and it’s often seen as praising the behavior, rather than praising the child. “I like the way that you’re sitting” “I like the way that you’re cleaning up” might be motivating for the child who is performing the behavior that’s being praised, but what about the child who doesn’t hear their name? How does it feel for Amy to hear “I like the way that Jenny is ____” over and over, but not hear her own name?

Even if all the children were praised equally, this saying still focuses on praise to motivate “good” behavior, and to manipulate the other children to behave a certain way. Children shouldn’t do things to get praise from the teacher. As Alfie Kohn has written about extensively, teaching children to respond to praise is a manipulative practice that doesn’t lead to long term results.

Another way: A more emotionally honest approach is to acknowledge children with specific feedback for their behavior. “Jenny, thank you for sitting down so the people behind you can see.” “You’re being responsible by cleaning up the toys that you took out.” These phrases help children understand the effects that their behavior has on those around them, instead of reacting to praise.

2. “I need you to….”

Years ago, I was taught that I should give directions in the form “I need you to…” because this is less directive than a command. After many years of saying this, it doesn’t seem less directive at all. The words may say “I need you to pick up the blocks”, but in my position as the teacher, I’m not actually giving a choice. “I need you to” really means “I want you to” or “I expect you to” or “You have to”, and the children know that. This is another emotionally dishonest and somewhat manipulative phrase. If I say “I need you to pick up your toys”, I’m not being entirely honest, because I don’t actually “need” that. And, this is another example of manipulating children to base their behavior on what will please the teacher, instead of on what should be done out of a sense of community or shared responsibility.

Another way: Be honest and genuine when you talk about your feelings. Adults’ use of terms like “I need” and “I want” are models for children as they learn to talk about their own needs and wants. Give authentic reasons for what you’re asking children to do. “I’m going to ask you to sweep the sand that you spilled on the floor.” “We’re all having snack now, I’ll help you find a place at the table.” Linking directions with reasons for the directions help children develop a sense of responsibility and self-regulation.

3. “We’re all friends at school.”

I struggle with this one a lot – using the word “friend” when I really mean “child.” In our desire to model inclusiveness and friendship, and our fear of bullying, teachers use a lot of language referring to everyone as friends. But saying that everyone is friends diminishes the real meaning of what friendship is. And it prevents children from expressing their feelings about different people. Children can be expected to act politely or civilly to each other, to work together and cooperate, but we should not expect them to be friends with every person in the class. Also, when children say that someone isn’t their friend, there’s usually an underlying issue going on between those children that needs to be addressed, not dismissed.

Another way: Use words like “children” or “everyone” or other inclusive terms that don’t imply a specific relationship between people in the class. Respond to statements like “You’re not my friend” by trying to figure out what the underlying issue is, and help the children to work out the problem, instead of only focusing on the words they’re saying to each other.

4. “The More We Get Together the Happier We’ll Be.”

Many classrooms songs convey messages that we might not actually say to children in conversation. Like the statement about friends in #3, songs like “The More We Get Together” or that have lyrics like “We’re all in our places with bright shiny faces” dictate to children how they are expected to feel at school. The good intention of building classroom community by singing these welcome songs also carries the message that children aren’t allowed to have negative feelings about school, be unhappy there, or not want to be friends with the other children.

Another way: Think about the words of the songs that you use, and choose songs that have authentic messages about feelings and emotions. For example, a song that has the teacher welcoming the children, or the teacher saying “I’m so glad you’re here” sounds more honest than the teacher saying that all the children are happy to be there.

5. “You can’t say you can’t play”.

As a way to prevent bullying and exclusion, we often insist that children play with anyone who wants to play with them. As well meaning as this seems, telling children that they have to play with anyone – or let anyone join in their play – removes their choices about who they spend time with and how they spend their time. If we believe that “play is children’s work”, by dictating children’s play partners, we are interfering with their planning and decision processes about that work. As adults, most of us would resent it if a friend or co-worker insisted on telling us the solutions to crossword puzzle, or walked into our kitchen and started adding ingredients what we’re cooking. A child not allowing others to join in might just be protecting their own work space.

There’s also the issue of how controlling children’s choice of play partners teaches them about consent. When we tell children that they have to play with someone, we could be preventing them from bullying, but we’re also teaching them not to say no to bullies in the future. If we want to raise children who have the confidence to express their opinions and choices, especially when exposed to social pressure, we need to respect their choices of who to play with.

Another way: Respect children’s choices, but also model positive social interactions. Teachers can model inclusiveness by inviting children who don’t usually play with each other to join in an activity initiated by the teacher. If a child seems to be avoiding or excluding a peer, try to figure out the reason behind it, and find ways to alter the environment or materials to encourage these children to be more comfortable playing with each other.

If our goal is for children to develop social and emotional competency, and to be able to honestly express their feelings in a constructive way, then we need to provide environments that encourage children to do this. Teachers should say what we mean, and respect children’s rights to express their emotions in the classroom.


  1. I love this list! I especially dislike "You can't say you can't play." It teaches children to be complacent with feeling uncomfortable. I don't want children to be okay with having people near them that they aren't interested in at the moment. I want them to be confident in their choices and stick up for themselves, all while being polite and empathetic.

    1. It's a hard line to balance between respecting children's play partner choices, and encouraging children to be inclusive. I think a hard fast rule like "you can't say you can't play" doesn't take into account individual situations and individual children's feelings. And it brushes the emotions involved under the rug. Creating rules that control children's expression of emotions doesn't change the emotion - it just teaches children to hide it. I'd much rather help children deal with - and work out - whatever is making them uncomfortable about playing with another child.

  2. I too dislike "You can't say you can't play". If a child doesn't want to play then that's fine but they have to be nice and use their words towards the other child. I'm all about talking and expressing in my class. It makes things run much smoother and helps them feel in control.