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Breaking the Rules in Early Childhood Education

Cherry Preschool – not too many rules to break

Published in ChicagoNow, August 27, 2014

My 4-year-old grandson, who lives in another state, wondered when his teacher would get her time out? After all, he got one for a major preschool offense – LOL during circle time. And a second time out for saying “pee-pee head” to a friend. His sweet young logic dictated that she should also get one the next time she made a mistake or raised her voice.

It’s stories like this that make me wish all preschoolers could go to schools like the one I founded and directed for 15 years, Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois. As a developmental preschool, Cherry believes that stimulating and enriching play-based early childhood education provides children with many opportunities to:

  • Interact with materials and construct knowledge about their world

  • Form better problem-solving strategies

  • Stimulate curiosity, imagination, and greater innovation

  • Learn to take the perspective of others

  • Develop a positive self-image

  • Respect classmates as unique individuals

  • Think independently and creatively

What is does not provide children with is the punishment, shame, and exclusion associated with time outs for breaking the rules. The only time a child is removed from the group is for his/her own safety, the safety of others, or to give a child in the throes of a tantrum the opportunity to regroup.

Since my grandson wonders when teachers get their time outs, I guess his teacher should consider this post my time out for her. Perhaps she could take a few minutes to reflect on what constitutes developmentally appropriate practice when working with preschoolers.

During her time out, I hope she will reflect on her behavior and consider some of the following:

  1. Laughing and silly behavior are part of the joy of early childhood.

  2. If you don’t want children to be distracted during circle time, be interesting and entertaining. Take your cues from the children. If they are becoming squirrelly, it’s likely the content is not engaging or they have been sitting too long.

  3. Give the children assigned seats on the rug, as well as for snack time and lining up or choosing partners. I say this not to create perfectly quiet behavior. To the contrary, children jockeying for a spot next to a BFF leave other children out, hurting their feelings.

  4. If you can’t take some noise, you may need to get out of the classroom – this may not be the best age fit for you.

Perhaps if my grandson’s teacher adopted these four basic rules from Cherry Preschool, there would be much less punishment for breaking the rules:

Be Fair. Encourage children to evaluate their interactions with others based on “fairness.” Work with the children to understand what would be the appropriate fair way to relate to one another.

Respect (each other, places, and things). Teach children to respect and accept one another as unique and special members of the classroom community. Acknowledge and value differences.

Be safe. Ensure each child that hurting another child in any way (physical or verbal) is not allowed.

You can’t say you can’t play. Vivian Paley said it best in her book of the same name: All children are to be included in play.

These rules help children feel safe, valued, and accepted. Breaking them should be viewed a teachable moment rather than an automatic time out. Preschool-age children recognize situations that aren’t fair. They need the adults in their lives to validate their perception and empower them to stand up to injustice on their own.

When children are able to internalize these basic principles of inclusion of and respect for others, they will not need so many other rules. And there will be much less need to punish kids for breaking the rules.


by Laurie Levy
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