Bringing Life to Early Childhood

A Blog by Jan Jobey

Tag: Democracy in the Classroom

A Place to Belong: Environments for All

Is there such a thing as an environment that supports democratic principles?  Do we even need to worry about this in early childhood programs?  If there is such a thing, what does it “look” like?

Environment is such a powerful force.  It can make us feel comfortable or tense.  It can support making independent choices or it can control choices. Is it a “yes” or a “no” environment? Does it invite or reject? Does it support group work or does it support competition?  Is cooperative learning embraced? It’s your third teacher: You, the children, and the environment! It can work for you or it can work against you. Educational environments should promote thinking, democracy, and equitability.  Specifically, a learning environment should promote expression of ideas, free participation in discussions, comparing and contrasting of ideas, and lots of interactions. Does your environment support these things?

What is it that you value? What values do you want to instill in your kiddos?  Does your environment provide it?  Be brutally honest. For example, if you want children to be comfortable, do you ensure that there is plenty of soft seating, that they see images of others who are similar to them, that the colors are calm and provide a neutral backdrop to materials, children, and display?  The need to belong is powerful! Creating that sense of “I belong here” can build relationships and may prevent some behavior issues! Belonging is essential for the motivation to learn!  If you want to support democracy, or belongingness, in your classroom here are a few Do’s and Don’ts to think about:


  • Ensure that all ethnicities of children in your group are represented in books, dolls, materials, and display. (Of course you can include other ethnicities!  Just ensure that all children in the group can see “themselves”). But be sure to avoid any stereotypical representations. Authentic and realistic is best!
  • Ensure that there are spaces for children to work together and alone.
  • Provide a “peace table” with a feather or flower or wand that can be used as a “talking” tool. Children can be asked to resolve issues at the peace table.
  • Acknowledge kindness: Add silk flower stems to a live plant to acknowledge kind acts in the classroom.  A child or person must recognize a kind act of another and stick a flower in the plant to represent the kind act.  Watch kindness grow!
  • Read stories, role play stories, conduct puppet plays to illustrate sharing, turn-taking, friendship skills, and conflict resolution. Allow the children to solve the “problem”.
  • Resolve “issues” in the class as a group. Talk about an “issue” rather than a person.  For example, “I’ve noticed that we have a problem with grabbing and pushing to get things in our class” and then, “How can we solve this problem?” Let the problem solving begin! And ask the class to help you with seeing it through.
  • Do include photos of the children in your group. Family boards are great. Photos of children working together on a project…great!  Rules that illustrated by photos of children in the group…fantastic!
  • Offer group projects that are created over time: Murals and assemblages of found materials can be easily incorporated into any study topic.
  • Set up activities and experiments for group learning.
  • Make lists of ideas. Make graphs. Make Charts. Display!
  • Display children’s individual and group art.
  • Plan class parties as a group.




  • Use “population” control. When we control how many children play in an area, we take away opportunities for self-regulation and problem-solving.  Use this as opportunities to problem solve and allow children to self-regulate (they will!).  Also, ask yourself how you can enhance areas that are under-utilized. Maybe you need more dramatic materials in the science area like a lab coat, goggles, and gloves to make it more interesting.
  • Ignore tattlers: Don’t redirect children to a “tattle jar” or a “tattle bear”.  The message with this type of response is you don’t want to hear it.  Instead, ask them how they can help…Help them be a part of the solution, not the problem!  Children will learn that if they bring a problem, they can contribute to the solution.
  • Forget to include parents! What makes their homes welcoming? What are things they have in their homes that could be included in your program?  Familiar objects can not only create that welcoming atmosphere but also provides a sense of belonging.
  • Give the answers to questions. Find the answer out together. Ask, predict, compare, contrast, analyze, discover, and LEARN TOGETHER.


I’d love to hear other ways that you promote DEMOCRACY in the early childhood classroom environment!


Resolve or Rob: Conflict Resolution

As I write on this topic of “democracy” in early childhood, it continues to grow.  It really is a complex topic that involves every level of our programs.  I also know that this is a “hot” topic… but we usually refer to it as “behavior and guidance”.  So, I want to discuss conflict resolution in a little more depth. After all, in any society or group, there will be conflict.  And learning how to deal with conflict is part of the democratic process.

In my many years of providing mental health services for many programs, I’ve had the honor of helping teachers and children practice conflict resolution skills.  In one particular circumstance, a 4 year old boy who had been identified as a “challenging child”, indeed demonstrated his particular way of resolving problems on this particular day:  Trevor had shoved Collin down to be able to play with a particular truck.  I quickly stepped in, and checked the child who had been knocked down, helping him to his feet. Next, I gently reached for the aggressor’s hand and held it gently and with my other hand reached for the truck and simply said: “Oops we have a problem…let me hold the truck while we figure it out”.

The next step was to help each child tell their ‘story’, so I said: “Collin, tell me what happened”, and Collin proceeds to tell me that Trevor pushed him down.  Then, “Trevor, tell me what happened”.  Trevor’s eyes look downward and he shifts his feet.  It was clear he didn’t want to admit what happened. So, I continued by trying to state his side of the story: “So, Trevor, it looks like you wanted to play with the truck too, is that right?”  He nodded in the affirmative.

Time to sum it up: “So, Collin you were playing with the truck, and then Trevor wanted the truck too and so he pushed you down to get it, is that right? It sounds like you both wanted to play with this truck”.  At this point, other children in the classroom, have become very interested in this exchange. I think partly, because they are truly interested in seeing how Trevor (known to bully) is going to respond.  While this conflict is between two children, it is relevant to all the children in this group. They would all like Trevor to stop pushing!

So, I continued:  “What are some ways we can solve this problem? You both want to play with the truck and our rule is ‘Use Your Words’”.  Suddenly, several bystander children are offering all kinds of solutions and tips to Trevor.  They are offering these ideas matter-of-factly.  No one is being mean to Trevor…it’s like they all have a vested interested in helping him…and they do!  Taking turns, playing somewhere else, asking before grabbing…they have great ideas! They know what they want Trevor to do.  But no one is blaming. They have come together to help and whether or not Trevor senses this, he seems to be touched by their lack of accusations.

Next, I say, “These are some great ideas that will keep us all safe.  How would you all like to solve this problem?”  Trevor, still looking downward, says, “Take turns”.  I ask Collin if he thinks that is a good solution.  He says, “How ‘bout I play with it five minutes, then he can have a turn?”  I add, “Trevor, does that sound like a good plan?”  He nods.  I return the truck to Collin, we set a timer and the turns are taken without further incidence. I tell them, “You all solved the problem”.   I stay close by to ensure things go well.

This scenario could have played out very differently.  I could have taken over and solved the problem thereby robbing them of the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills.  I could have shamed Trevor and sent him to the “quiet” area to “think about it” which would have only reinforced his negative cycle.  I could have left Collin out of it (since he wasn’t really at fault) and reinforced the role of victim.  I could have told the by-standers to go back to their play areas robbing them of the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Are we looking for blame or are we looking for solutions?

Are we building resolution skills or are we robbing children of opportunities to learn these skills? What are your thoughts on this topic?

Want to learn about the conflict resolution process?  Check out this online class: Beyond Challenging Behaviors.


Stay Calm and Trust: Respecting and Following Rules

A few years ago, my daughter was nearly killed in an accident by a young man who decided texting was more important than stopping at a traffic light.  My daughter suffered traumatic brain injury and was in a coma and then rehab for months afterwards.  She had to learn ALL her motor skills all over again—swallowing to walking!   At that time, there was not a “law” that specifically prohibited texting while driving and while he was responsible for the accident, the cost to my daughter and her family could never be compensated.  Today, there is a law that prohibits texting while driving.  How her life could have been different if he had had enough self-regulation to wait… Becoming a good citizen is really just about developing self-regulation skills.  I’ve previously discussed how children can be part of the rule-making process as well as how empathy is the foundation to self-regulation.  Self-regulation (and specifically the ability to following rules) is identified as a school readiness skill: children are more likely to be successful in school when they can follow rules.  And it makes sense, of course.  When children can follow basic rules and routines necessary to progress through the school day,  both teachers and children benefit.  No one gets hurt. When children are disruptive or do not possess the skills needed to follow rules, then both teachers and children suffer. We can say the same thing about adult citizens who follow rules…or who choose not to follow laws.  Rules need to be positively stated….in other words, they need to tell children what they can do.   “Don’t text and drive” is a popular slogan nowadays.  Our recent vacation took us through the state of Tennessee and flashing signs over the highway said: Stay alert—Keep your eyes on the road.   What a great way to tell drivers what they expect out of them.  Keeping our eyes on the road would also preclude reading e-mail, getting driving directions, or smearing ketchup on your burger.  One statement–covering a multitude of “sins”.

Rules should also be relevant and reasonable. Frequently, I see the rule “Keep your hands and feet to yourself”.  Don’t like that one much.  That “rule” would mean I could never touch another person…which isn’t very reasonable.  So, how do you expect children to use hands and feet?  We use helping hands and feet” or “we use kind hands and feet” might be better options.  Another question I might ask you would be, how do you expect children to solve problems?  What would be your expectation?  Use your words?  What kind of words?  Get my point?

So, now that you have “good rules”, it just depends on us to be consistent in using them.  Reminding children what the applicable rule is for a situation is easy now.  That “other” perspective that I discussed in the last post provides a “cushion” for the rule.  “Your words really hurt Sarah. Remember our rule is: Use kind words.”  The only thing left to do now is give a choice—yep, this goes back to a recent post too.  So, now, I’d offer this child two acceptable choices or ask her (if she has the skills) to solve the problem:  “Use kind words or find another place to play”  OR “How can you use kind words to solve your problem?”

And don’t forget to provide lots of SPECIFIC positive reinforcement for rules that are followed: “thanks for picking up your toys”, “You are using your words to solve your problems”, or “thanks for walking inside”.

Learning to follow rules takes time…and for some children, even more time.  Patience…a calm spirit, a peaceful presence, AND a belief that all children can learn are essential attitudes in teaching self-regulation to little ones!   So, Stay Calm and Trust (in yourself and your little ones)!

Respecting the Rights and Opinions of Others

One of the many great things about living in a democratic society, is that we all have rights and opinions.  Recognizing however, that WE all have rights and opinions, also comes the understanding that my neighbor, friend, coworker, or peer also has rights and opinions that may be DIFFERENT from mine.  And that’s okay.  We all come from different backgrounds and walks in life which influences our perspectives and opinions.  I love the opportunity to be able to have those conversations with my colleagues that help me to see their perspective.  I may not embrace their opinion, but I can certainly respect it and accept that they have valid reasons for it…and understand and appreciate them even more!  But this is really a very difficult thing to teach preschoolers.  Young children are, by nature, egocentric.  They have a viewpoint from THEIR perspective from which they operate.  AND they have difficulty taking another’s perspective.  But it doesn’t mean that we can’t teach “other” perspective or that they can’t learn from others. In this post, I will discuss a couple of ways to promote respecting the rights and opinions of others.

  • We begin by modeling “Do what I do” is much more powerful than “do what I say”, right? The essential, most fundamental, most important, aspect of developing self-regulation in young children, is empathy.  Empathy is knowing how others are feeling. And when someone has empathy for me, I learn that someone cares.  I might also hear “feeling” vocabulary.  I learn the facial expressions and the gestures that accompany those words.  I learn how it feels for someone to care about me and my feelings.
  • From infants to grown-ups, we can simply reflect another’s feelings. You are really upset.  You are so excited that you did it by yourself. You are very sad that she doesn’t want to be your friend.  You’re upset that you didn’t get invited to the party.  It’s so easy…but yet, we frequently skip this step–a ten second step to show the other person you know how they feel.
  • Another strategy is inform the child how “others” are affected by their behavior…but matter-of-factly. No shaming here because that only defeats your purpose.  “I’m really concerned that others may not want to play with you if you use hurtful words.”  “Jaxon didn’t like it when you said that to him.”   Additionally, what’s even more powerful, is to have an injured child tell the offender how his behavior made him feel.
  • Children love puppet shows…even impromptu ones. The perspective of a cow and a pig might be quite different when discussing their favorite place to play.  To have puppets act out a scenario that happened just a few minutes earlier in the block area, can be very intriguing! And it can be very surprising the insight that children can have!
  • Want to try something a little more benign? Find a beautiful work of art (maybe about your topic of study) or a photograph that evokes feelings.  Try an “art appreciation” exercise: Ask children to tell you how it makes them feel.  Make a list of children’s names and their identified feeling.  Or ask them to tell a story about the picture.  “Stories” for children may only be 1 to 3 sentences….so you aren’t asking for a novel here!  But the point is, that we can begin to learn that different perspectives are a fact of life.
  • Ask children’s perspectives and opinions about all sorts of things: what they think this book is about, how that story made them feel, what do they think will happen, how do you think the turtle in this story felt, how do you think Goldilocks felt when she got lost, how do you think Baby Bear felt when he found his chair broken to pieces?

So, while children are egocentric, we can do a lot to develop empathy. From what I’ve experienced this week, I think the world could use more empathy…more caring for others…and less thinking about themselves!  I’d love to hear if you other ways to teach empathy to young children!  Stay tuned for more about teaching “democratic principles”…respecting and following rules!

The “Right to Vote” and Preschoolers Voting Rights

For Preschoolers, voting can be about more than the democratic process!  And while that’s important, think of all the numeracy and literacy connections that abound when preschoolers “vote”.  Let’s get started!

  • Vote for class pet: A fish, gerbil, or hamster?  Cut out pet animal shapes (that you find acceptable) out of heavy paper.  Give each child a clothespin to attach to their fish shape. Graph the results!  After the pet arrives…Discuss Pet names and then vote between the favorite names.
  • Vote for class party treat: popcorn or pizza?
  • You hear children talking about the construction going on next door and one little boy exclaims how he loves the big dirt shovel. Another child joins in and states that he’d like to study machines.  At meeting time, you might relay what you heard and offer children an opportunity to study big machines or continue your current study.  You decide to take a poll by offering yellow and red craft sticks. Children select a yellow stick for big machines or a red one to continue studying fish.
  • Children vote for the new study topic but some materials may be needed. Have children/families volunteer to contribute with found/gathered materials.  Volunteering and contributing to the larger group are great ways to spread democratic principles.
  • Take a poll for places that children would like to visit for their class field trip.
  • What’s your favorite lunch or snack foods? Take a poll and share it with the cook.  Are there foods that you like to eat at home that you don’t get at school?  What are they?  Make a list of those foods.  Allow children to vote for their top 2 to share with the cook.
  • Decide on classroom rules together as a group. We all appreciate laws or rules when we understand them or agree with them.  You can facilitate a great discussion about “what are ways we can keep ourselves and others safe” in our classroom.  You can also help them formulate the rules into positive statements.  For example, a child might say, “no hitting” is a good rule.  That’s a great rule, so how do you want your friends to touch you?  Or why do you think our friends hit?  So, what is something we can do instead of hit?  How about if our “no hitting” rule is “Use Your Words”?  Who all thinks this is a good rule?  If you think this is a good rule, raise your hand. If you don’t think this is a good rule for our class, put your hands on your hips.
  • There are many things you can use in the classroom as voting tokens: stack lego blocks, clip on clothespins, craft sticks, post-it notes, counting bears, chain links….

So, you get the point: There are many things that you can vote on.   Allow children to learn about voting about things that are meaningful to them.  While not everyone’s opinion or preference “wins” all the time, it’s also important to understand that “the group decided” and children learn that everyone’s vote matters.  Just like in the adult world.

We can do a lot with young children to develop democratic principles: Voting is one way to promote functioning as a group.  Please share your ideas for preschool voting!  I’d love to hear your ideas! Next, I’ll be moving to another Democratic principle:  respecting the rights and opinions of others. See you at the next posting!

The Right to “Vote” and Infant and Toddler Voting “Rights”

We usually don’t think of children as voters, but there are plenty of ways to teach the concept of “voting” to young children.  Voting is a method for a group such as a meeting or an electorate to make a decision or express an opinion, usually following discussions, debates…(Wikipedia).  Do young children have opinions?  How about babies?  Do you?  An opinion is really just a preference for someone, something, or some way something is being done.  So the answer is a resolute “YES”.  Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers have opinions. They exercise their opinions when they choose the toy they want to play with, or the person they hold their hands up to be picked up, or the peer they want to play with, or whether or not they eat the peas on their plate. There’s a choice…a decision to be made.   To really grasp what this “voting” option means, let’s consider the opposite of  “voting”:  to appoint, prearrange, select, or determine something; for example, to control what happens when, what we study, where and or with whom I play.  I cannot help but think of what over-control does to young children—control prevents the development of autonomous morality (making decisions based on logical thinking), with morality stalling out at the heteronymous level –doing things simply because we have been told to do them rather than thinking on our own and developing self-expression and problem-solving skills.  We rob children of developing self-regulatory and citizenship skills when we don’t offer choices.

So before you stop reading this post completely, let me say this: There are many things in our early childhood programs that we do and should control–things like providing a nutritional dietary plan, having classroom rules, setting a schedule or routine, or determining operational hours of our program.  But even within the things we control, there may be ways for young children to voice opinions.  Let’s look at some:

For Infants, it is about recognizing and accepting their preferences.  Before you can “vote”,  you have to learn that your preferences are valued–that someone cares about what you want or need!  Young babies prefer their mother’s voice to anyone else’s…and her scent. They have preferences for how they like to be held, what they like to look at, or which blankie or pacifier becomes the favored one.  Babies will look at both objects when given two items, but they will continue to gaze at the preferred item.  They tell us what they are interested in learning if we’ll only just observe. But more often than not, we tell them what they’ll be learning today or this week.  Take an infant who has discovered their hands or feet…they study them, play with them, kick them, put them in their mouth. Think of the sensorial richness of this “study” and really all we need to do is ensure that we “follow the child’s lead” by playing “This Little Piggy” with baby’s toes, counting toes, reading 10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes by Mem Fox, putting toes in sand or water, and so on!  Just look! We’ve done creativity, language and literacy, numeracy, social/emotional, and science.  The child tells us what their study topic is…we provide experiences to expand learning.  This individualized approach sends the message to the child that we value them and their preferences!

For Toddlers, we can also follow their interests…whether it’s cars and trucks, baby dolls, or potty training.  What we need to remember for both infants and toddlers is that the processes for learning are relationships, routines, and play!  Relationships, in which infants and toddlers feel secure, promote exploration.  Exploration leads to learning.  But we all know that toddlerhood can be fraught with tantrums and power struggles.   Their favorite word is “no” and so they are in their own way asserting their opinion, casting their vote if you will.  The problem here is that they think they know what they want and they haven’t been convinced otherwise, right?  Simple choices make life a lot easier for you and the toddlers in your life.  Two choices that are BOTH acceptable choices:  You want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?  Do you want to play with the truck or the blocks?  Would you like to wash your hands by yourself or would you like me to help you?  Once again, everything can’t be a choice, but offering choices when you can makes the times when there is no choice much easier!

In a democracy, your opinion matters.  In a dictatorship, your opinion doesn’t matter “one iota” (as my mother would say).  Babies and toddlers are people too and learn so much by how we respect their opinion!  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!  Next post…Preschooler voting!

By the way, check out ELI’s online course about Individualized Lesson Planning for Infants and Toddlers!!!