Observe and Imagine, Part 2: Super Heroes and Super Powers

exploring super powers

In the last post,  Observe and Imagine, Part 1, the idea of imaginary play and super heroes revealed  the often blurry line between fantasy and real life in the minds of preschoolers.  But there’s more to the story.

Once I determined that not everyone was clear that while pretending to be somebody else, our class guidelines and expectations were suppose to guide us, we were able to more deeply explore those guidelines.  It wasn’t an easy path to travel, but once we did,  got to do some  truly interactive imaginary play.  And grapple with the super powers we’re all possessed with, but often fail to recognize.

(There were some history lessons in there, too! This part dates me, and probably many of you, because really, how many kids out there know what a phone booth is?)

original Superman...a far cry from cartoons of today

We began with talking about ways superheros from today’s media use their powers.  Having not spent much time in the past several years watching children’s tv (nor did I ever watch much…but I knew enough to know what I did NOT want my kids watching), I was a bit surprised.  Much of the Buzz Lightyear story line was the same, but was it somehow blurred with Cars in the minds of these preschoolers?  Or did Pixar really overlap some of the plots and characters?  I couldn’t answer that one, but it became clear that the basic mission of superheroes seemed be consistent both historically and with what is generally accepted:

"What are Superheroes?"
"Ways Superheroes Use their Powers"

However, what was striking was the ways in which superheroes act.  Whether it’s “really” what is seen on tv or whether it is the way those images are perceived in a preschooler’s mind, the connotations that “good guys” can do what they want and disregard the rules, can be the source of conflict and undesirable social behaviors, particularly in young children who are just learning to internalize the rules and self-regulate.  What I was hearing (and heard from dozens of other kids over the years) is that it was “okay” for superheroes to hurt others in the name of saving someone. Or just ‘cuz they are Superheroes (proper noun).  Which begs the bigger question of whether or not it’s okay to harm someone because you hold the power and/or authority.  I wasn’t going there. Not yet. Maybe ever. Just listen to what some experts think on this juicy topic by clicking here.

In a 2003 article, Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: Meeting Children’s Needs in Violent Times,  Diane Levin asserts that preschoolers use war play to “work out an understanding of experience, including the violence to which they are exposed.”  This can lead to both therapeutic and cognitive growth as they struggle to work out and understand conflicting ideas – another good reason to establish a climate for imaginary play.  Children also have a need to feel powerful – whether it’s in the words they use, their own physical skills or in they way they engage in imaginary play.  Levin continues, and the research supports, the idea that children use  “war play to help them feel powerful and safe” and often these  are “the children who feel the most powerless and vulnerable.”

Knowing these children as I do,  I am confident the kids most interested in acting out war play are not personally exposed to dangerous situations or people, but rather are those who are exposed to media violence (cartoons, movies, digital media, etc.).   But watching tv is not child’s play. It requires some carefully thought and even a little soul-searching as to what you want for your child.  Consider these two reports:

  • A 1994 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) report stated that “much of what children watch on television is not specifically intended for children” – as much as 90% of what they watch.  Read the entire Position Statement on Media Violence in Children’s Lives.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics  recommends that preschoolers need to participate in nonscreen media experiences that promote language development, socialization, imagination, and physical activity.”

Read the studies. Consider what you want for your child. Then make your choice and stand by it.  I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s simply  not.  But the choices you make today have a lasting impact. More immediately, their daily play reveals what they see and what they are sorting out.

After a couple more days discussing super heroes and their powers, I happen to mention  that in “the old days” superheroes did take care of people, but that the superheros I knew when I was a kid, saved people and did far less hurting of others. Heads turned. Hands went over mouths. And one small, skeptical voice said, “So what’s so super about that?”

“Well, ” I began, “each of us has our own super powers. It’s how we choose to use them that makes us super or someone who hurts other or something in between.”  The ensuing conversation gave me a sense of relief that those who previously didn’t think “bad guys” had feelings and/or that they deserved to be hurt, were starting to see people as people.  I went on to tell them that the “original” Superman was  a regular guy who went to work in a suit and hat. When he needed his superpowers, he went into a phone booth and changed into his Super Man suit.  Adults old enough to remember this giggled as the passed by our room, particularly when I attempted to explain the whole phone booth part.

To help illustrate my point that we can all call upon on super powers, and to provide us with the feel of a phone booth, we set to work planning how to build one.

Next week, I’ll tell you how these:

Superman's Phone Booth

…became Superman’s phone booth and let us harness our own super powers.

5 Things You Can Do to Encourage a Growth Mindset in Kids

Words of Encouragement

The debate of praise versus encouragement continues. A quick google search will toss-up over 7,000,000 hits. No doubt, the seminal research by Alfie Kohn, Carol Dweck and others have taught us that by offering primarily praise, we create kids who crave approval and validation by adults, rather than developing the confidence and persistence requisite to self assessment, self-regulation, and learning.

Instead of offering empty, vague or cursory praise such as “good job!” or “I like that!”, specific feedback shows kids the value of their effort and persistence. Kohn begged us to Stop Saying Good Job! years ago. We’re still learning what else to say. Then he told us We (were) Punished By Rewards. But why should we offer honest encouragement to children? For a more up to date discussion on the value of encouragement, listen to Rae Pica’s BAM! Body, Mind and Child podcast on the topic “Creating Praise Junkies: Are You Giving Children Too Much ‘Positive’ Reinforcement?

By leading children to discover the problem solving process or understand the rules, we are enabling children prosocial skills and information they can use in other settings. This often allows them to uncover new information or solve a problem or to build skills they can transfer to other situations. If children hear specific feedback about their effort, their skills and their ability to work well with others, they are armed with the skills to forge ahead with new learning, without looking to adults for approval. In Tips for New Teachers Goodbye to “Good Job!”—The Power of Specific Feedback, Margaret Wilson offers concrete steps teachers can take to identify the behaviors in neutral and constructive ways. This type of language is rooted in honest and authentic relationships and observations. It’s an essential tool for teachers, if our goal is for kids are to have a growth mindset and develop greater self-control.

What’s equally important is the encouragement and questions we pose to children that allows them figure things out – part of developing a growth mindset (Flashback: Read how Carol Dweck’s research helps guide how I interact with both my own kids and students here.) By teaching kids that they can try new things, learn new things, and that their brains are wired to change and grow, we arm them with the tools for life-long learning. It’s powerful stuff that increases productivity, happiness, and resilience. Dweck’s research shows that it’s not how smart you are, but rather how whether or not you have a mastery-mindset. Teachers and parents can read more about tapping a growth mindset affects kids. This is very different from praising them for simply being “smart.” The University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development conducted research study which examines the effect of a growth mindset in early childhood suggests that process-focused feedback is a more constructive approach than simply praising a child for an accomplishment. Engaging a child in the process can re­inforce the value of effort and persistence and help a child understand that mistakes are part of learning.

Five Quick things you can do to help develop a growth mindset in kids:

  1. Ask open-ended questions to solve a problem or achieve a goal. “What do you think will happen if…” or “Why do you suppose…” These questions build logical thinking skills and often lead to rich discovery.
  2. Use specific feedback that identifies what the child accomplished. What small steps led to a larger outcome? 

Be supportive when your child attempts something new. It might not be the way you’d try to solve a problem, but if it works, acknowledge it honestly and without judgement. Pick your battles. Hair done by a three-year old might not be ready for the runway, but it brings a child great satisfaction to say, “I did it myself!” Skills that build persistence simultaneously allow children to feel confidence and independence. WHen frustration rears it’s head, offer an encouraging word about what steps worked well.
  3. Encourage kids to take a risk. Watch and listen to your child so you can take cues about what else they are ready to tackle. Vygotsky calls this the “zone of proximal development – when we gently nudge kids to use what they know to try something just a bit out of their reach, but yet developmentally appropriate. By offering small but achievable challenges, confidence and persistence emerge
  4. Be persistent and growth-orientated yourself. Narrate your thoughts as you try something new or frustrating (with a G-rating, of course!). Your child may even be able to offer some helpful tips. This allows children to see we all have to work hard to solve problems and we all continue to learn new things.
  5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Accidents, and mistakes happen. Show your child that there’s something to be learned when we don’t achieve what we set out to accomplish. Maybe someone else lends a hand. Maybe you return to the task at another time. Maybe it’s best to abandon things for a while or break things down into smaller steps. Be specific about what worked, identify the emotions involved, and offer encouragement for the next time.

Help! Won’t You Please, Please Help Me?

Recently, I attended a fitness class that was a bit out of my comfort zone. Okay, a lot out of my zone. It’s very trendy, with a reputation for being very tough, and is well-attended by regulars. Within minutes, the instructor had her eye on me, The Newbie.  Fortunately, I laugh easily at myself, especially while working out,. However, I am more accustomed to the “listen to your body” and “work right up to the edge of what your are comfortable doing” philosophy than this strict, authoritarian workout. I began to wonder if other people noticed how often she whisked past me and “adjusted” how I was moving, punctuated with terse directions and stern looks.  Then I  noticed in the mirror I was wearing my scowly face. I looked away at the clock. Thank goodness, 34 minutes past the hour. If I was lucky, a 7 minute cool down meant only 17 minutes left of this torture session.  Wasn’t I just enjoying myself?  Clearly, I needed help, but it didn’t feel like I was getting it.

But then, “Oh, that’s IT, Lisa! You’ve GOT IT on this side! It just takes some getting used to…”

“Me? Got it?” I exhaled and pressed on, feeling less like the giant elephant in the room, even if I was seemingly unable to command my body into the correct bend with any semblance of correct form.  Nothing like a bit of role-reversal to make you take a critical look at the words you use with students. It also made me hum “Help!” as I wobbled through the second half of the class!

Granted, this teacher’s job was to push us, not necessarily to build safe and caring community of learners (thought she obviously had and I was just a bit slow on to catch on).  But that  is our job in classrooms – to establish a safe learning environment where children feel known, recognized, and valued so they take academic and social risks.  Teachers need to be diligent  about the words we choose, and how they are perceived. Even when we think we do a good job with our choice of words, we’re all human and we’re all capable of choosing our words with a bit more precision and care.

No matter if our interactions with kids are in a classroom, a temporary relationship (like summer camp) or as parents. Our words, the tone, and our nonverbal language speak volumes. But how easy it is to forget their power.  The repetitive corrections I heard, though well-intentioned, gave me pause to reflect and recalibrate my choice of words with children.

Responsive Classroom outlines three types of teacher language, each with its own purpose and each adaptable to the age and situation of children. Here’s a quick overview:

Reinforcing language is effective when adults notice a child’s effort at self-discipline or skills.

Reminding language – is used proactively or just as inappropriate behavior emerges.

Redirecting language – is used when children are clearly off track and need your help to regain self-control.

While working with at-risk youth at a community arts camp,  I was struck by how effective reinforcing and reminding language can be.  Even with kids for whom this type of dialogue, environment and peers were new, a few simple words executed in a positive tone and paired with sincere acknowledgment for an individual’s strengths or efforts, produced a smile. Then small talk. Then greater effort. And soon, we were building relationships and a community. More than fifty kids came together to work with artists-in-residence, to paint, dance, drum, and sing for one week this summer.  Each session was full of affirmation, laughter, clearly articulated boundaries and logical consequences.  Conversations revealed a consistent use of this type of language, without any formal training, but with positive results and a remarkable ability to see and inspire the best in children.

Simple redirection such as, “show me where your name tag needs to be” delivers compliance with the rule about respecting each other and using first names.

Redirection when behavior goes off course.

Reminding a student to maintain eye contact when a classmate shares  allows teen age boys to more fully participate in a dance class, rather than engaging in side conversations.

Reminders help children get back on track.

Affirming a child’s choice to begin painting and drawing on reflections from a meditation session comes from the use of reinforcing language such as “I see you chose words from the list we made” or “I see you’re working carefully to sketch before you paint.”  Each of these brief statements help maintain a feeling of mutual respect, without judgment or personal criticism.

Reinforcing words facilitate the creation of an affirmation mirror.

At home with teens, it’s often more effective to stick with  reminding and  redirecting language.  Savvy teens, who are working toward individualization, often don’t see the value in reinforcing language.  Nonetheless, they need to hear that we see them doing what’s expected and their steps forward, even if it’s acknowledged with a sarcastic remark or sheepish grin.   “Tell me again what your plan is for cutting the grass this week?” puts the onus on them to set the timetable, but still hold them accountable for a job they are responsible for completing.  A simple, “stop and come back to talk when you can use a calm tone of voice” is the redirecting language that can quell an emotional outburst (often in conjunction with some time alone for both!).

There are countless applications of reinforcing, reminding and redirecting language in the classroom.  The differences can be subtle and need practice to hone. This Youtube video gives an overview or check out the Responsive Classroom website for more resources and suggestions.

What are some ways you can help build a child’s confidence and self-discipline by the language you choose to use?