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  • Writer's pictureCamella Clements

Setting Firm Boundaries

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

"If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." -- Dizzy Gillespie

We have 3 agreements (so far) in our classroom: (1) we don't take things from each other; (2) we exercise consent with the bodies of others (with the kids, this looks/sounds like, "no touching," "no pushing," "no kicking," etc.); (3) we invite each other to play. Toddlers (and adolescents) are hard-wired to be oppositional; this is developmentally appropriate and evolutionarily necessary for them to (eventually) become independent from their caregivers. This is a fact that we, as adults, need to support and work with, and it takes some skill, practice, and lots of patience on our end.

We all know that kids will do as we do, not as we say. We have to constantly model the behavior that we are teaching. If we want kids to sit down at the table during meal time, we must sit down at the table during meal time. If we want them to speak respectfully to each other, we must speak respectfully to them.

If we don't want kids to take things away from each other, we can't take things from them. This includes forced "sharing," which is a word you will probably not hear me say to a child under age six. "Sharing," for most young children, is a bad word because, from what they have observed, it means that an adult or a peer snatches the thing that they wanted. To share requires cognitive development of ALL of the following: object-permanence, time and change over time, ownership/possession, individualism, enough impulse control to wait, and empathy. That's a lot! If they have not developed ALL of these things, they are not really able to share, beyond what we have conditioned them to do.

Instead, I model and teach turn-taking, and I teach them specific language to use to express their interest in using something currently in use by someone else. We have set a hard boundary about not taking things from others, and as teachers we have to help them with this, which generally looks like supporting them emotionally while they express their frustration. I might do this by giving physical support, like holding their hands or letting them sit with me while we discuss their options. I believe in only giving realistic and acceptable choices in all situations, which, in most scenarios are: (1) ask the other person, "When you are done with that, may I have a turn?" (2) find something else to work with while you wait. Occasionally they might also try offering a trade, but again, they must accept the other person's answer, even if the trade is rejected.

While I have noticed a huge reduction in snatching behavior the last few weeks, it does tend to happen when the kids are hungry, tired, or over-stimulated and are thus very likely to need our help with impulse control, i.e. the midday transition. When I sense that these snatching incidents are more likely to happen, I observe from nearby so that I can be ready to swiftly but calmly prevent it from happening. If an object has "heat," i.e. it's a new addition to the classroom and thus in high demand, I quietly observe until i can feel the tension mounting, at which point I will very calmly reach out my hand to physically prevent the snatch from happening, and remind the children of our agreement, that we don't take things from friends.

Likewise, I would not try to "redirect," divert, or distract a child with another object. In my experience, it doesn't work with kids over age two and also I agree with this sentiment from Janet Lansbury: "Our children need practice handling safe disagreements with us and with peers. When our infant or toddler is struggling with a peer over a toy and we immediately suggest, “Oh, look at this cool toy over here…,” we rob him of a valuable opportunity to learn how to manage conflicts himself. Directing our child to another identical toy, if there is one, might be helpful if children seem really stuck, but even then the infant or young toddler usually wants the one that has “heat” in another child’s hands. Often the children are far more interested in understanding the struggle than they are in the particular toy. But whatever their focus, young children need time and our confidence in them to learn to resolve conflicts rather than avoiding them."

No one in the history of being told to calm down has ever calmed down. I have no study to support this claim, only decades of anecdotal evidence and firsthand experience. If preventing a snatch (or reminding them of any other hard boundary/agreement that we have) results in a child becoming upset, I will comfort that child (sometimes by "co-regulation," which literally means holding them while I myself breathe deeply until they have "emptied the pitcher” and been allowed to cycle through their emotions and finish their cry). I never minimize their feelings by telling them that they are okay, tell them to stop crying, or shame or punish them for crying. Likewise, I would not try to "redirect" or distract a child who is upset, for the many reasons listed here.

Here are a few entertaining posts about "sharing":

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