Tuesday, September 13, 2016

"I'm Using It!"

“I’m using it!” I don’t know how many times a day I hear this phrase – yelled, called out loudly, emphatically, repeatedly. The four year-olds sometimes run to teachers with a complaint: “But I was using it!” Some of the two-year-olds know this phrase, but more often than not, they say it without words, by clutching the desired toy as tightly as possible.

Sometimes “I’m using it” means, “Don’t take it away from me.” Sometimes it means “Leave me alone.” Sometimes it means, “I want what you have.” But too often, instead of addressing the emotional meaning of the child’s words, teachers respond to any of these situations with lectures and rituals for sharing. 

Sharing isn’t an activity that comes naturally to very young children.  Being able to share objects, materials, and physical space comes later in early childhood, when children have the cognitive skills to consider another person’s point of view. Sharing also comes from relationships. Children who feel secure that their needs will be met, their feelings will be validated, and that they can trust other children and teachers to treat them with respect
will share when they are ready. 

But even knowing this, teachers still push sharing rules on children who are not ready, not interested, and even adamantly opposed to sharing. “We all share at school.” “You can use it for two more minutes.” “Do you want to use it for two minutes or three minutes?” “We have to share with our friends.” Forcing children to share doesn’t make them more altruistic or more empathetic – it makes them feel a loss of control and increased stress about their surroundings. Imagine that you are at a meeting and the person next to you forgot their pen. They ask you to borrow your pen – but you need your pen for taking notes. How focused on the meeting can you be while wondering when you’ll get your pen back, or whether you’ll get it back in time to write down the things you need to. Imagine if at work, you were using the computer and were told, “Someone else wants to use it, you need to give it to them in two minutes” – even if you weren’t finished with your work? If we adults would feel stressed or uncomfortable in these situations, why do we expect children to feel any differently?
Instead of forcing sharing on children, we can create environments in which children feel secure that they have what they need and that their feelings are respected:

1. Provide enough materials.

A common situation that causes children to argue over materials or hesitate to share is that there aren’t enough to begin with. When there is only one of a certain toy, especially a desirable toy, conflict will often follow. Depending on the toy, the size of the group, the personalities of the children, and what other activities are available, even two might not be enough. If there’s an object that always seems to spark “sharing” discussions, consider ways to provide similar items in the classroom, and if that’s not possible, consider whether that one single item is really all that necessary to begin with.

2. Provide alternatives.

Even with the best intentions, it’s not always possible to actually provide “enough”, especially since what is “enough” changes so often based on the situation. One way to work around not having enough of a particular material is to have multiple attractive materials or activities available at the same time. Asking, “What do you want to do while you wait for a turn?”, and being able to provide suggestions (e.g. “While you’re waiting for a bike, you can go on the swings or dig in the sandbox”) can help the child focus on something other than the discomfort of waiting.

3.  Allow children to use something until they are done.

We spend so much of our time trying to “teach” children the language of turn taking by expecting them to say a number of minutes until they’ll be done, or by telling them that they have to be done in a certain number of minutes that the teacher chooses. Linking turns to “how many minutes” doesn’t make much developmental sense, since young children have a very fluid sense of time, and can’t accurately judge how much time has passed. A three-year-old answering “When will you be done?” with “Five minutes” is repeating a phrase, not making a logical assessment of time. In most cases, telling a child, “Let her know when you’re done” or “When you’re done it’s his turn” leads to the child finishing their turn even sooner. Removing the stress that there’s someone waiting in the wings to take their toy frees children up to be able to offer the toy, instead of waiting for the allotted time to be up.

4. Make time reminders visible and concrete.

If you choose to give children a specific amount of time to finish their turn, use a timer or other concrete way that they can see when their turn is over. Knowing that “when the timer goes off, it’s her turn” is easier for children to accept than an adult simply announcing, “it’s time to give her a turn.” If many children are waiting for a turn, writing their names on a list can help them feel control over the process (as adults, we like to know that our names are on a waiting list too!) The more that the children feel the turns are following a natural process, instead of being controlled by the teacher, the more willing they will be to accept the process.

5. Follow through.

Whatever method you use for taking turns, make sure that every child gets the turn that they expect or that they were promised. If you tell a child that they can paint at the easel in five minutes, but five minutes later announce it’s clean up time, that child’s needs and feelings are not being respected. It’s also important to measure time accurately. If the child has five minutes to finish their turn, then give that child the full five minutes. Even though they can’t tell time yet, children are starting to recognize the environmental and personal cues that are related to time. If we want the children to trust that their needs will be met, then we need to be sure to meet their needs.

In the end, sharing will come from respect and relationships. It will come when they are ready. Until then, we have to accept “I’m using it.”