I bet it's not the four letter word that popped into your head. We all say them. Thats right, even teachers say them. The Four-Letter-Offender is overused, demeaning, disrespectful, and unoriginal. When adults are around children this four letter word happens like verbal diarrhea accompanied with a smile and small giggle. It's tricky for me because as much as it bugs me to hear it, the four letter word to describe these multifaceted young crowd is also true, but it isn't the point I am making. Have you figured it out yet? Ready?
Children are so _ _ _ _
Blah! I said it. They are so cute. Yup. They are. But come on, people! How would you feel if you just spent 30 minutes working hard to figure something out and someone just told you that it was cute?! Let's say you were on Shutterfly creating a photobook (I am using this example because I know you teachers out there have spent countless hours arranging and figuring out these books finding the perfect background to capture the essence of your photographs). You are almost finished with the book but just when you press the "order" button, your screen freezes, you loose all of the work you did from the past hour and you totally break down. Because you are an adult, you probably didn't fall to the floor crying, screaming about how life isn't fair, while simultaneously yelling at the person next to you that it isn't funny. Or maybe you did because there aren't many things more aggravating than technology glitches when you just spent all of your precious teacher time on Shutterfly and everything was lost. You just wasted all of your "off the floor" time, or lets be honest, your time at home, doing this important project. But, you pull yourself together, eat a bite of chocolate, make a loud and releasing growl and begin again. You begin problem solving, testing out theories, adjusting your actions so you can alter the result. Just like children, right? You redo all of your work using your prior knowledge and experience to make sure this time when you click "order" the project saves (and maybe you even get a coupon surprise for all of your efforts-that would be amazeballs). Eventually, the project saves and your book is done. You triumphantly walk over with some swagger, chest out and chin up to go tell someone (anyone really) about your accomplishment and-whamalooo-they zing you with an, "Oh my goodness. That is sooooo cute!" Go ahead and re-read that sentence and insert the cadence of a high school choir girl who just saw a puppy fall asleep in her lap. You heard it, right?
How would you feel? I know I would be like, "Are you freaking kidding me, cute?! Do you know how much hard work I just did? How much effort and time and thought I painstakingly put into this project and you think it is cute? Come a little closer. I would like to shake you until my arms get tired and your head starts to bobble out of control." Or something to that effect.
Welcome to being a child and having all of your efforts deemed "cute". Learning to ride a bike isn't cute. Writing your name for the first time isn't cute. Tying your shoes is hard flipping work. It usually takes children hours of practice, (usually during rest time when they are supposed to be sleeping but instead are learning a new skill while keeping themselves occupied in the quiet). And when they finally do tie their shoe (and it took 25 minutes of complete fine motor control, problem solving and persistence) they go to show someone their work. They UNTIE their shoe to start the painstaking process all over again because they are that proud of doing something that is to adults so mundane. Well they are not mundane. They are learning everything for the first time. Peeling stickers is tricky! Arranging a block structure using all of the blocks on the shelf to make the ship for the jungle animals to travel to Cancun is an event-it isn't cute. Things that are ordinary and part of our everyday life like using tongs to grab a strawberry from a bowl, is a learning opportunity to them. It isn't cute. It is extraordinary.
What makes this so tricky for me, is that young children can't verbalize the fact that you, by using the four letter word, just demoralized their work. You made their experience insignificant and stupid. They are consciously groomed to actually smile and appreciate that bogus feedback. Could you imagine what would happen if a three year old actually told you how disrespectful you were? Saying their work, effort, thoughts, and ideas are "cute" isn't respectful or mindful of who they are and what they are learning. I am not saying that inwardly, when a child comes to me beaming that they just used a hole puncher to punch a hole into their paper that I don't inwardly smile and think that they are cute. Of course I do-I am not blind. But my response and insights of the past three months of them not being able to use a hole punch and working on this time and time again make me offer more. Perhaps this, "Wow! Look at the hole you made with the hole puncher! You used the muscles in your hand to squeeze so tight that this circle closed inside the hole punch to make a hole in your paper. That was really tricky and you tried until you did it. Thank you for showing me. How do you feel about it?" Notice: I did not say it was cute. I gave specific feedback explaining what they did and how they did it so they are also cognitively understanding so they can verbalize the information to someone. From specific feedback, they are not just being validated for their efforts, they are learning the verbal response for their actions so their words eventually move from, "Look what I did!" to, "Look what I did! I squeezed the hole puncher and it pressed together to make a hole in my paper. My hand muscles are getting strong!" I know this because I watch this in action. It works. I also didn't use the second worst phrase known to early childhood which is... "Good Job." That phrase, my friends, is a soap box for another day.
So what I am asking is that you think about the quality of feedback you give to a child. Are you really listening to them when they talk to you? Are you noticing and understanding the amazing beauty that is learning in action? Next time a child comes to you, think about adding more feedback to your response. You would want the same from others about something you did. And hey, fantastic work on your Shutterfly book. I am sure it not only is visually appealing but also captures the meaningful moments that happen in your classroom.
#ChildrenHavetheRight to receive meaningful feedback.
Brittany Courchesne is an early childhood educator, teacher mentor to teachers in training, public speaker, and blogger.