A few days ago, I got some interesting feedback regarding my post on inter-child relationships and allowing children to have their feelings about each other. It seems that what I wrote might have been interpreted as an argument for allowing children to exclude each other, and so I wanted to take a moment and do what I do best-- write about it.
Inclusion is a tricky thing. In this season of heightened awareness of school bullies (I say season because, with our dinky attention-span-of-a-gnat news cycles, unfortunately it will be replaced by some other sensation du jour--- we have always had school bullies), the call to arms is often Include Everyone Whether You Like Them Or Not. Some of this is justified and I'm not going to argue with the idea that everyone deserves to be treated as dignified human beings. I'm aware that parents are the biggest examples of exclusion: we don't want our kid to play with so and so because, well, so and so's a hellion! or so and so's parents let them eat Hostess snacks and play Grand Theft Auto--my kid's never going to their house! I'm of the belief that it's not the obligation of parents to invite every kid to their child's birthday party. And yeah, my kid is probably going to be left out sometimes. It's a good growing-up experience, in some ways, to know that life indeed is not always all about you. Sometimes, classmates find more in common with others and those kids are invited. Just putting my perspective on this out there so you won't think I'm all touchy-feely in the next paragraph.
Aside from those grade-school character building moments (and parental judgemental judgment calls, of which I too will likely be found guilty) I do think there's something to be said for as much inclusion as possible within the preschool and older age classroom environments. There's a certain morality in the act of working toward inclusion, even when the children say "I don't want to play with Bobby", they are more likely to perceive Bobby as an equal if we work hard to find ways to include him. Bobby may have underdeveloped social skills, Bobby may hit when he's mad instead of talking out his problem, Bobby may even be a little hard to play with because he has strong ideas that conflict with his classmates. And still, with all this in mind, we owe it to Bobby to figure out how to become part of the preschool classroom community.
"Bobby" is a phase many kids will go through at one time or another. Some children have seasons of not quite clicking with their peers. Sometimes, Bobby hits those around him when he's frustrated, and they rightfully don't want to be around a person who hurts them. Sometimes, too, Bobby just doesn't seem to be on the same planet. How do we bring this child into the group, while respecting both the group and Bobby?
Number one on the list is an adult presence who is focused on observing Bobby and how he interacts with the group. Like my first post on this subject, knowing who Bobby is and predicting his way of relating goes far in heading off trouble. This means wanting to know Bobby outside of the conflict, to see his potential--his desire to relate to other children, even as clumsily executed as it may be-- and to discover as much as we can the "why" of his limitations or disruptive actions.
Next on the list is Bobby. Bobby has to be invested in wanting to be with the group, and willing to receive help or guidance from a caring adult. If he doesn't truly want to be with the group, the attempt at inclusion should be changed, and a safe place for Bobby to play parallel to the other children should be created. If he's trying to harm members of the group, or is wreaking havoc, then Bobby needs to be set alone to another activity, and allowed to work alone until he's ready to play safely and cooperatively within the guidelines agreed-upon for the play at hand. This doesn't mean excluding because Bobby makes car noises while his friends are playing house-- we can use our imagination to bridge that gap. "Bobby, are you the family car, or are you inside the car? Okay, you're the car. Would you like a garage? Betty, could you grab that scarf over there and lay it on the floor? Bobby, that scarf is your garage. What does your car do now?" By staying close, we can help expand the play to include everyone.
Third in this equation, of course, are the other children. Sometimes, kids may balk at having to share space with someone who puts them off their game. "I don't want to play with Bobby" says Betty, because last week Bobby was too rough with the cupboard and shut her fingers in the door. This is the teacher's cue to find out what Betty's real objection is. "Betty, Bobby would like to play here too. So, tell Bobby what you need him to do so he can play here with you?" With a question like this, we validate Betty's feelings while still continuing to be solution--and inclusion--oriented. Betty may look at her fingers and say "I need Bobby to not shut my fingers." It's our job to make sure Bobby's heard Betty's message. We look at Bobby. "Bobby, Betty says you can play if you are able to be careful for your body. Can you agree to that?" Once again, now it's up to Bobby to decide if he can and will follow through. If he says yes, then we take him at his word and stay close enough to help, but not to hover. If he says no, then we let him know that we'd like to find something else for him to do in a different space.
This follow-up of finding something else to do is different from exclusion. For many young children, a critical part of playing together is honoring the agreements made between them. In the last scenario, Bobby wasn't willing to meet a reasonable request: being safe for Betty's body. If Betty's requirement had been that Bobby had to meet a specific role in the play or do something outside the realm of fair play, then Betty would have been guided to be flexible or find her own activity, because certain areas of the classroom are common areas and some aren't. If Bobby is approaching play in the common area, and he is willing to receive our help, we must include him, even if it means someone else's nose getting bent our of joint.
This happens often with boy/girl relationships; as they get older, the tendency to announce "no boys/girls allowed" overshadows our more positive messages of inclusion. I deal with this by making it clear that everyone who can play safely is allowed and then stand by to help the children should they need ideas. Usually, though, once this contradiction to their own gender-oriented preferences is made, there's rarely any conflict in regard to it.
What's most important, though, is that the adult or teacher present is modeling inclusion and giving children positive examples whenever possible. Adults don't often know it, but when teachers ask a question and skip over the child who hums, hems and haws, they too are practicing exclusion. Better to give that child a few moments to think, and then when met with 'ums' and silence, suggest that we give them time to think more about it and ask them again later. Kids notice this. When a child isn't offered a special job when everyone else is because the teacher thinks they can't quite cut it, that's exclusion. Better to give them that job and be close to help with any difficulties that may arise than not to give that child a turn.
Children are bright. They see what they are missing out on. Their sense of Fair is so much stronger than ours, because they are always watching. Being in the community means being given the choice to be included, the choice to try again and do better--sometimes with much facility on the part of the teacher or adult present--and to feel just as important as the person sitting next to you. For many children who struggle with developing social skills, just seeing that bright look in their eyes when they get it and feel so proud to be part of the group--this is the work worth doing. Positive experiences between these children and the others strengthen the community of the classroom, and open up more future opportunities for fair play.