What are rules for? Who makes them? Children, even very young ones, know that some things are just plain WRONG. They also know that they have to follow rules. But children also think some things should be up to them, and they begin the process of sorting out the difference early. Thoughtful grownups can help children to understand and appreciate the need for social rules. At the same time, grownups can contribute to children's sense of themselves as socially competent by helping them to sort between when things are to be governed by social rules and when (and in what contexts) a child's behavior is really a matter of personal choice. In saying this, I make two assumptions.
- Children are acting, do act, and will act according to their understanding of themselves and of the situation.
- The teacher's job with regard to these issues is two fold:
- to support each child's initiating actions and interactions in a way that fosters their understanding of self, and of others.
- to ensure that the group of people (adults and children) involved runs fairly, safely, and smoothly.
For children, the process of sorting social situations involves negotiations between the adults and other children. Who is involved? What will happen? Grownups have an important responsibility for coordinating the group, and preventing children from being hurt. However they must always be aware that the enforcement power they use may not adequately recognize the needs of children to act on their own understanding. Children may comply when they are told to do something, but they then incorporate both the telling and the compliance into their own sense of themselves as powerful initiators,(or participants who are powerless to affect a situation).
In dealing with questions that come up in classrooms, there are often one or more simple solutions to a problem that could be applied by the teacher. But further consideration suggests that the children can figure out solutions for or between themselves if they are given the chance and a little support. Doing this enables children to begin understanding themselves as powerful in co-operative situations. When we as teachers are faced with a complicated situation that involves conflict or some other problem, it is useful to think about the kinds of issues involved so that, rather than imposing answers, we can better support children's efforts.
One way to approach to the question is provided by what is called domain theory. This approach identifies three basic domains of social norms: moral, social conventional, and personal. In addition to these areas of social regulation, teachers need to be concerned with children's personal safety. In domain theory, these are the areas of "prudential" concerns. Actions from different domains call for different kinds of response. In classroom life many issues involve an overlap among one or more domains of social norms. In such cases, knowing how to best respond to a situation is aided by identifying the different domains involved. What follows are specific descriptions of each domain, and ways in which teachers can use domain theory in the classroom. The examples and discussions are all drawn from real incidents involving teachers or home daycare providers, and the children in their care.
Moral: Issues of Harm and Fairness to Others
Most people agree that it is not acceptable to just go off and hit someone. It is not okay to take or destroy something that belongs to someone else. Because they know the consequences of these actions, people consider them wrong whether or not there is a rule. Children come to understand this because they have experience with being hurt. "You shouldn't hit someone--so hard to hurt, because they'll cry". Children's morality is based on their sense of fairness and concerns for others' welfare.
Conventional: Arbitrary Uniformities Agreed Upon to Promote Order
Should children all come to the table to eat snack at once, or may they come and get it at their leisure, between activities, as they wish? The answer to this question has more to do with the organizational needs of the household or classroom than with moral questions of harm. There probably needs to be a decision about the question one way or another in the above situation, but either way can be appropriate. Neither way can be declared better or worse without regard to the specific context. All social groups have conventional rules of this kind in order to make social interactions predictable and to allow the group to run smoothly. Unlike moral rules, the specific conventions of a classroom or daycare setting must be taught. Children learn the rules of the house or the school by seeing them applied, or hearing them. Children may or may not be consulted about such practices, but they cannot come to know conventional expectations without some introduction, either by careful observation or though instruction. Adults let children know what the expectation is, and although there may be some reference to different rules in other places, there is little discussion about whether the particular rule can be changed i.e. "It's too noisy. We don't make noise in the breakfast nook. You can make noise out there, but not in here." Young children have little understanding of the overall social organizational purposes behind conventions. However, all children (especially young ones) benefit from, and appreciate (conventional) rules that provide for predictable and orderly classrooms and family settings.
Personal: Individual Perogative that is Negotiated Rather than Defined by Conventional or Moral Restrictions
This includes matters of privacy, control over one's bodily state or activities, ideas and their expression, and choice of associates. Children from very young ages begin to have a sense of what should be up to them rather than what will be controlled by others. Control over an area of personal discretion is essential to the child's formation of self. Personal needs and desires, however, often bump into or conflict with those of others, and with organizational needs for order. Even young children begin to try and negotiate with others over things they think should be up to them. Parents often allow this i.e. "She wants to wear pink every day, so I let her, as long as there is something pink that's clean. She may not wear dirty clothes to school, that wouldn't be accepted."
Prudential: Questions Concerning Harm to Oneself&emdash;or Issues of Safety
Prudential matters concern one's own safety. One must decide whether or not to take a possible risk. However, adults must pay attention to this for very young children. Children, in turn, expect that adults will keep them safe. As children grow older, they also expect to be able to make these judgments for themselves more and more often.
Identifying Domains in Social Situations
Below, I present examples from actual classrooms that illustrate issues within each domain. I will also be presenting ways that teachers have responded to each situation.
To help you follow the discussion, and to generate your own solutions about situations that you may experience, you might wish to use the following questions.
- Is the action wrong or all right to do? Why/why not? (If two children are involved, ask this about each of them.)
- Is there a specific rule about this kind of action? Why is that?
- What domains of social interaction do you think the issue involves? For you? For the child? For other children?
- Which of the domains seems most salient here?
- Moral: questions of harm and fairness?
- Conventional: questions of following the rules?
- Personal: questions of children controlling their own bodies or activities?
- Are there Prudential questions to which adults must pay attention?
- How could the children begin to work on figuring out solutions for themselves? What could you say or do with the children that would help to highlight the issues involved?
- Are there any ways you might want to adjust your setup or situation to make things easier for the individual children, or for your group of children as a whole?
Here are several examples of situations that have occurred in classrooms or in home child care situations After each example, there are 3 kinds of analyses that teachers generated about the situations. 1. Categorizations and Comments lists some immediate reactions about rightness or wrongness, and about rules. 2. Discussion gives a brief summary of conversation that occurred around the issues. Since each example is a very brief description, people sometimes made different interpretations, leading to varying responses. In most cases a primary domain emerged eventually, though other domains were often involved as well. The discussions reflect thinking about the multiplicity of domains involved. 3. Suggestions emerge out of the discussion, and are listed as summaries of possible actions that teachers or children might take to incorporate these multiple domains. In all cases there is provision to allow and support children in negotiating and figuring out their own solutions. As you read these, think about how you view these issues. What do you think you would do, and why?
Example 1. Rashid and the Crayons
Rashid is sitting at the table coloring. After a while, he starts expanding his drawing to all over the table.
Categorization and Comments
- Paper is for drawing, tables are not. He should draw on the paper, or not at all.
- What difference does it make? The tables are washable. Let him express himself!
- We eat at those tables. They have to be cleaned before snack time.
- Personal (teacher)
- Yes, the tables are washable, but who wants to scrub them everyday, or maybe more than once. I certainly don't have time for that.
Most people felt that this was primarily an issue of Rashid's personal expression that should be recognized. The possible work load or health implications made the issue more complicated.
You and the children could discuss questions about the time involved in cleaning and questions of cleanliness with the children to help them develop conventional rules about what kinds of drawings can happen where, and why. If Rashid wants to make big pictures we should try and make provision for that (personal expression). The children might suggest cleaning the tables themselves (negotiation about who will take responsibility), though that is still extra work, especially if large table drawings become popular. You could find some bigger paper for the table, or put big paper at the easel.
Example 2. Chevy and the Milk
Chevy sits down for lunch and insists that she wants only milk to drink.
Categorizations & Comments
- She shouldn't be made to eat anything she doesn't want.
- She needs to eat more than just milk to be healthy.
- It's rude not to taste what is served. She should try some of everything.
Contemporary wisdom suggests that usually if children are left to choose from a variety of nutritious foods, they'll get around to a reasonably balanced diet. But if she doesn't eat, then she'll be hungry later. Can we allow that? Maybe solutions would be different depending on whether this happens once, or many times. Don't let her have any milk unless she tastes then she'll be more likely to try new things, and perhaps like them. But if she really likes the milk, then is it right not to let her have it until she's done?
In general, what one eats is considered a personal issue. One cannot easily force a child to eat. But there are some other considerations. Perhaps one could discuss with all the children the importance and interest of tasting food, and the possibility of being hungry later.
One could insist that all foods be on the plate, served by teacher or student, (an arbitrary rule). That way they would be available for tasting. Then the child could choose whether to taste or not. Discussion about taste and texture that occurs during mealtime with other children might be inviting.
One could ask Chevy to choose one thing that she might try, or suggest that she serve herself an amount she might want. This also allows her to control the situation. Perhaps, she could propose a limit on the amount of milk that she would drink before eating some other foods. This would also allow her to control her own eating, yet provide clear possibilities for experimenting and trying new things.
Example 3. Michael and the Blocks
Recently Michael has been going over to the block corner every time he sees a tall building taking shape. He goes over, watches for a while, then knocks down the building to the loud protests of the other children.
Categorization and Comments:
- He shouldn't knock down other people's buildings. They built the towers, not he.
- You shouldn't go around knocking down block towers, someone might get hurt.
- He gets a kick out of knocking down towers, Isn't that what blocks are for, to knock down and make a big crash? Can't that be part of the play?
It's primarily a moral issue. He can't be allowed to just knock it down. It's not fair to the other children, the block building belongs to them. If Michael often does things like this, then there must be a big problem. Talk to his parents. On the other hand, knocking down is part of the fun for some children, and it does gain him some recognition. Shouldn't he be allowed to have fun too?
Discussing major difficulties with parents is important and useful, but the problem is a classroom problem. Perhaps the teacher would want to encourage the children to claim their building more explicitly. Perhaps also, Michael could voice his desire to join the group and/or to hear the crash. There is room for negotiation between the children. If he wants to join the group, what can he do that won't make others angry with him? Perhaps the other children can tell him. If he wants to hear the crash, the children could discuss possible strategies or times for knocking down. They could also discuss, with possible advice from the teacher, ways to allow building crashes that are not likely to cause injury.
Example 4. Lovar's Blanket
Lovar has a blanket that he insists on carrying around with him--sometimes leaving it on the floor if he gets involved. Sometimes he flips the corner of it around as he holds it when he is sitting at group time.
Categorization and Comments
- If he's flipping it like a rat tail, that's a moral issue. He might hurt someone. You can't let that happen.
- He just flips the corner of it back and forth. That's not going to hurt anyone. Why shouldn't he be able to do that?
- We just have a rule, you can't bring things like that to the group time.
- You can't have children leaving their blankets all over the floor, it's messy, and could pose a safety hazard.
- We (at an infant center) simply don't let the children get started on blankets as "loveys". We don't have any problem with that.
This child does have a blanket, and really seems to miss it if he doesn't know where it is. He seems to need it to feel secure, especially for group time. One should be able to use the things one needs to feel safe. What about leaving it around on the floor? Does he really need it so much if he forgets about it? You can't just let kids leave things all over. The whole room would be a mess. Besides, that could cause safety problems, because people could trip. He should pick it up and put it away. But if you ask him to pick it up, then he remembers it and wants it. You could just have him keep it in his cubby. Make a rule, blankets and personal things have to stay in cubbies. You have to go to your cubby if you want to hold your blanket. If a child really wants the blanket, then that could mean that he would spend an awful lot of time in the cubby. Do we really want to isolate children in that way? Are there ways in which one could allow blankets or other "loveys" and yet keep them from being distracting or harmful to others?
For the group time, the teacher could explain the need of the other children not to be distracted. They may have voiced complaints which could be discussed. Lovar could propose a solution to keep the blanket contained (perhaps sitting on it), or the teacher could. Perhaps he could sit on the blanket at group time so that he could have it but not be distracting. During playtime, the teacher could begin by proposing that she will put it up (in his cubby?) herself when he forgets it, because of the safety and order needs of the classroom. This allows him to retrieve it. The solution could change as the child feels more comfortable. The teacher is very busy, and doesn't really have time to pick up after children all the time (she has personal needs also). The child could decide a place to keep it until he needs it, and then return it there when he feels better. A solution such as this would recognize both the needs of the group to not be distracted or messy, and the child's need for security, giving him the chance to control the blanket without imposing on others.
Example 5. The Tricycle
There are three tricycles available for the class to use along with several other riding toys, some balls, and climbing equipment. All the tricycles are in use. Marie comes up to Renee and tries to take the tricycle away by making Renee get off. Renee says, "No, I want to ride it all day!"
Categorizations and Comments:
- Marie can't just take a trike away from someone else.
- Renee ought to be able to do what she wants and continue until she's finished.
- If Marie wants to be able to ride a tricycle, she should have a chance.
- Personal (children)
- There should be more tricycles. (Note that there is no mention of the size of the group, but there are plenty of other activities available.)
You could have an automatic time period i.e. five minutes a piece. The children could manage this themselves. But suppose Renee really wants to ride for a long time, and can benefit by the continuity? Shouldn't children be able to determine when and how long they continue an activity? If you make an automatic rotation (arbitrary rule), then haven't you taken away the children's right to determine their own activities? What will happen if Marie is continually asked to wait and therefore never gets a turn?
Ask Renee to consider Marie's request. Could she hear Marie say that she's been waiting a long time, and really wants to ride? Marie has needs also. There are possibilities for personal negotiation here. Ask Renee when she might be done. This allows her to make the decision, but also notifies her that someone else needs the trike, and that her turn is expected to end. A timer could be available for the children to set, if they choose to use it, as a reminder to themselves. The number of times around the play area could also be a convenient limiting strategy. Knowing that a desired activity will be available and not lost, can help a child to wait for someone else to finish. Knowing that one still has control over one's activities often helps to make the giving up, sharing or turn taking easier.
How would you approach these examples? While there are no definitive conclusions here, there are possibilities. Most situations in classrooms are complex. In any one situation a teacher may feel the need simply to act. However beginning to consider interactions from the perspective of different domains may allow adults to notice ways in which children can be both engaged in negotiations about their own personal activities, and participate in developing conventional ways of proceeding in group interactions.
Portions of these discussions took place at Purdue University, Calumet, in March, 1996; at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater Early Childhood Conference, April, 1996; and at the conference of the Wisconsin Family Day Care Association in May, 1996. My thanks to all the participants.