• Suzanne Axelsson

Putting out fires

Over the years I have both worked at various early years settings and visited/observed settings - one of the things I have noticed in some preschools is that they have an approach which I call "putting out fires" (släcka bränder).. this is an approach where the educators come in actively when the children are having problems to put out the heat of the argument, fight or whatever the problem is between the children. What I have observed is that these educators often have to work very hard putting out fire after fire, and there is a sense of chaos, and many children are in "need" of support.

What I prefer is a fire prevention approach. This is an approach that focuses on enabling the children to develop the skills they need to work out their own problems, scaffolding their social development and their relationships, supporting the children with their self regulation - empowering the children. This means the children spend more time playing and less time in negative arguments, as they are able to resolve issues in a positive way (even if they can be passionate about their cause). The children are also empowered because they do not need an adult to put out the fire, as the heat of the disagreement is manageable for them.

Why does the "putting out fire" approach develop? I am not entirely sure, but my guess (through observation) is that there is this desire that children should be happy - so rather than focussing on giving the children the skills to collaborate, to compromise and to self regulate (which will involve a full range of emotions and not just happy) there is the focus that each child should be happy... this is not something that is possible - what makes one child happy can make another miserable... I have observed children who behave in a way that is not socially acceptable... they hit and say things that offend the other children (and sometimes the adults too) - and instead of supporting this child to self regulate and to become a part of the group the adults come in and say no, take the child away and do something else with them... sometimes the something else is more fun that the original activity - and for me this is only re-enforcing the behaviour - of course the child is going to do things if s/he is rewarded. Why do I think this happens... because there is a fear that this child will be sad, or it will break the child's self-esteem. But real consequences are not going to break a child's self esteem if they are fair - by taking the child to the side and sitting with them, doing nothing other than being there waiting for them to calm down and then explain why, and the affect their behaviour has on others (especially if many children feel anxious due to the behaviour) and that every time they behave in this way we will step to the side to calm down and think about how we could better interact with peers... and at the same time doing activities in small groups that enable self regulation to develop and to form positive relationships with peers. It is my responsibility to ensure other children are not being hit or offended (kränkt) - and this means ensuring the offender has a space where they can feel calmer and gain control over their emotions in order to interact with other. I, as the educator, must find out why this child is behaving this way and meet those needs. Not just try to make the child happy in the hope that will stop the behaviour.

Part of the reason for the "putting out fire" approach is that the educators lack the competence - they need the support of their director/leader to give them the training they lack to be able to support the children's needs.

Another reason is that there seems to be a fear of adult intervention - that children learn through play - which is true, but they still need us as adults to facilitate their learning, to provide the social tools they need to interact positively with others, to learn about the norms and also how to expand these norms to be more inclusive. Letting children "just" play is not going to adequately support the children in their development - to learn self regulation, to develop good listening skills, to deepen their social understanding of the world. My theory of Original Learning refers to the fact that learning is based on play, but that learning is woven in... the more children learn the deeper and richer their play becomes, the more time they get to play the better understanding and creative reworking of what they learn will occur. Play and learning are interwoven.

This will mean that the children will be more dependant on the adults to solve problems for them, if we have not being facilitating their learning... so the adults need to provide opportunities that are safe to practice their social skills and for the children to reflect on them individually and together as a social group - in this way the children will be empowered... and there is a kind of fire prevention - or a firewall/break created that does not let the heated arguments/emotions get out of control.

Another observation of the "putting out fire" approach is that the adults are listening to answer rather than listening to understand - they hear the words of the children but are not fully comprehending what the children are meaning. For example the environment will be set up for children... but not necessarily the children they are working with... so the adults are constantly trying to battle with a third teacher who is working against them rather than working with them. In this sense the third teacher creates problems/fires rather than prevents... for example having a space that is a room AND a corridor at the same time can be problematic for children who struggle focussing, or need small spaces with few distractions to feel safe - these children can feel anxious by the constant movement through their play space and can act out. The educators then react to the acting out (time and time again) rather than setting up the room to ease the situation (fire prevention).

Another explanation can be that there is the need to meet the curriculum requirement of "child influence" which I sometimes think has been misinterpreted - it is not about letting the children choose whatever they want to do - especially on an individual level (and I have seen this where some children are allowed to do whatever they want, experiment with things in an almost destructive way, because that is what they want... with no regard to the rest of the group). For me, child influence is about getting the children involved together, about me listening to them, not just their words, but also what is being unsaid. It is about creating a community of learners where the children are aware of each other's needs and can make decisions together that are do-able and inclusive.

When I was working with the board of children in Gävle I handed over the reigns to the children to design a game - at first the children were quiet and my colleague kept wanting to help them (despite me saying that we should not be afraid of that awkward silence at the beginning of the meeting)... it took 6 minutes for them to get into the flow... but in this time my colleague tried to help twice... my strategy was to write the time we started in my documentation and give at least 15 minutes of silence if needs be... but time feels different when it feels awkward... I could see that it was not much time, my colleague could not... and her well-meaning was because she wanted the children to stop feeling uncomfortable. I think this happens a lot in learning situations.... children are not given enough time to get going on their own, so they need more time to get going as they are not used to it especially as there was no designated leader (which the adult usually takes) Another reflection from this session is that of the role of leader - at the end I asked if they thought there was a leader - all the children said no, because they had all made decisions and they had all come up with ideas. In my observations it was clear there was a leader. When I mentioned that a good leader is not a person that has all the ideas or makes all the decisions but guides everyone to do that together there was a change of heart and they pointed out the same person I had also identified as leader. For them the term leader was synonymous with decision maker - which I think comes from the fact that the teacher/educator is often seen as the leader of a classroom and a clear decision maker rather than a facilitator of the children's learning, their ideas and enabling them to make active decisions about their own learning.

It is in this way I refer to child influence (barn inflytande) that we re-examine how the word leader is being used, work out who is making the decisions, and what kind of decisions are being made, and also whether the reasons for these decisions are being shared with the children. I think it is essential to share with the children why there are certain safety rules put in place, why we have lunch at certain times together, why there is rest time... the benefits - and to allow space for the children to talk about these.

This way the children can explore their own influence on the setting. They understand the educators are not just decision makers, but are trying to create a space that allows the children the freedom to explore through play, to evolve as a social beings and to understand the world around them... to make sense of it all... not to be controlled.

The "putting out fire approach" is much more about adult control... as we are trying to control the fire that the children have created... despite the fact that I think this approach often is based on the belief they are giving children control. Handing over the reins to those who do not understand how to use them, without guidance, is not handing over the control, it is putting them into an unsafe situation.

You would not put a person behind the wheel of a car and let them learn how to drive themselves. The person needs to understand the theory, the practice... needs to be guided... for their own sake and the sake of others... in the same way children should not be left to steer their own learning... they should be active participants of their own learning but they need to share the wisdom of the adults around them who guide and facilitate them. Allow them to develop the skills to explore all their emotions safely, to learn to self regulate, to collaborate with others, to think critically and creatively and to listen - not only to the adults, but to their peers and to their own inner voice.

Yes, we need to trust children - but we can't just send them out into the world unequipped. We need to give them the social tools and then trust them to use them - to give them the space and time to practice using them. Not come in and correct them when they are simply doing the best they can with the skills they have. It's like a carpenter... to create, a carpenter needs a variety of tools. If all we are giving to the carpenter is a saw and a hammer then we can't come in and admonish the carpenter when they use the hammer in the wrong way... they are simply using the toolset they have... We need to equip the carpenter with a full set of tools and also let them know how they can be used safely... and then trust them to use these creatively. As we need to equip the children with social and learning skills and then allow them to express themselves creatively, to interact with adults, peers and materials, to explore the world and to discover new skills.


as educators we need to be creating play and learning environments that reduce the risk of fires breaking out. That allows us to have positive interactions with children rather than being the controlling power that steps in when things go wrong.

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Interaction Imagination

© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com 

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