There has been concerning news about an increase in aggressive and disruptive behaviours of young children in kindergarten. Fingers are pointed to parents, teachers, children’s nature, the media or a changing society. Many families enrol children into preschool to learn social skills with their peers. It is however rarely considered that behaving as expected in a new setting and with new people requires learning. The same way, misbehaviour, thus, could form a part of these learning processes of how to be with others in these educational environments.
Many times a finger is pointing to parents, who are claimed to neglect teaching children good behaviour. Others argue that it is the media that teaches children violence. Educational psychologists easily evaluate teachers as lacking appropriate skills, approaches or techniques to keep children under control and promote positive school environments. Yet again others, locate the problem in the social background, biology or personality of particular children. For example, teachers may act differently to children based on their skin colour.
Much of the advice directed at improving children’s behaviour focuses squarely on eliminating so called problem behaviours. This often happens through labelling children or devaluing teachers and parents. What happens if we consider ‘bad behaviour’ as an instance of learning or voicing something that is important for a child in a particular context. It becomes possible to move away from our strong urge to fix quickly what we first perceived as a problem behaviour and refocus the issue: What children can or like to accomplish through those acts?
The first issue that we need to immediately set aside is that behaviour is something that is independent from learning. The general assumption is that first every child needs to behave so learning can take place. This way of looking at the issue separates learning and behaviour.
In an example situation we show how assumptions about ‘bad behaviour’ and strategies to eliminate those might operate and how we can refocus our view of the event as part of children’s learning.
Miriam (3 years old) often goes into her room and closes her door after forcefully stressing ‘No one should disturb me’. Once a crayon drawing appeared on the wall. As she was asked about those drawings she said:
Miriam: ‘George did those drawings. He is very naughty. You should tell him off’. She says all this with a straight face.
George is an adult family friend who sometimes looks after Miriam and her sister and on those occasions he slept in Miriam’s room and Miriam slept in her sister’s room. When George came next to visit, Miriam confronted him:
Miriam: ‘Why did you draw on my wall? It is not nice, you know’.
George, knowing he did no such thing, started to laugh but didn’t protest. Miriam seemed content with this outcome.
A possible response to this scenario would likely have us concerned about this child’s behaviour. First, she possibly drew with crayons on the wall in her room. Second, she blamed someone else for her transgression. In other words, it would have us understand the scenario in terms of deceit and manipulation that could ignite a long discussion or punishment so this will not happen again.
Another option is to examine the example from the perspective of learning. If we understand behaviour-as-learning, our reading of this child could be that she playfully and quite competently explores the transgression of rules. She demonstrates that she knows very well that drawing with crayons on the wall is ‘naughty’, as she immediately knows how to name the culprit. She also demonstrates that she knows that in order to successfully blame someone else, she needs to be able to keep a straight face (not let on that she is lying). She also shows that she knows that in order for her story to hold, the culprit needs to be someone who has, in fact, had the opportunity. Further, she appears to also know that this kind of transgression requires some form of confrontation, which she carries out next time she sees her chosen culprit. As such she manages to create a credible story and to follow up on it, which is a highly complex task for a three-year old! Young children are faced with the complex task of figuring out when ‘pretend stories’ are acceptable (to adults) and when they are not, and if they get it wrong, to bear the consequences of being called a liar or deceitful. Adults around children could recognise these as competencies and act upon them.
Understanding this event this way has little to do with keeping control or winning power games. This literacy would acknowledge children’s competence in reading events and others’ actions, instead of their shortcomings. Yet, teachers feeling of need to keep control is something that can’t be overlooked. Teacher’s decision-making in an institutional context is like solving a Rubik’s cube: the daily life of the preschool resembles a combination puzzle with around 43 quintillion possible positions, with finding an optimal solution being complicated by the fact that every move affects the other parts and the following moves as well. Teachers make arrangements to cover the absence of other staff members because of sick leaves, they have conversations with other children, they supervise the yard to be sure that everyone is safe, they provide materials and equipment that children express they need, they have meetings with special education teachers, speech therapists, or with parents, they mind when they need to finish their meal so that kitchen staff are able to finish their shift on time, they give advice to substitutes and try to take into account wishes of parents. Like in solving a Rubik’s cube, it is impossible to engage in an act that would not have an influence on some other acts as well.
Engagement with children requires time to reflect and think through possible actions and also enough leeway to make situational changes to plans in the everyday life of kindergartens. In the busy lives of kindergartens this might not always be possible. What we need to think about is how to change the situation so that teachers are able to find time and possibilities to support children in learning to be social. In case those behaviours that we deem inappropriate occur, the first questions should be: What do children try to achieve with those acts? What competencies are they demonstrating and what are they in the process of learning?
Zsuzsa Millei is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Social Research, University of Tampere, Finland. She has widely published on discipline, including a book titled: Re-Theorizing Discipline in Education. This blog contains part of her article co-authored with Prof Eva Bendix Petersen published in the Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties journal.
Maiju Paananen is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Tampere, Finland. She has done research on teachers’ decision making in preschools. Her dissertation Imaginaries of early childhood education in a transnational era of accountability illustrated how governance systems of early childhood education take part in formulating everyday life of preschools.
 Kronqvist, E. L. & Jokimies, J. (2008). Vanhemmat varhaiskasvatuksen laadun arvioijina: Tuloksia Vaikuta vanhempi-selvityksestä. Raportteja/Stakes: 22/2008.