Monday, February 18, 2013

You are NOT my Friend: From Literacy Skills to Interpersonal Interactions

Fights are common in preschool: in a world where children are just beginning to form conceptions of sharing and empathy, personal space is constantly invaded, communal tubs of paint constantly upset, and toy animals constantly commandeered. As the students in one of A.O. Sexton’s classrooms, where I am part of Jumpstart sessions twice a week, learn to interact with another, with their new Jumpstart friends, and with the ever-more regulated educational day, they are developing behavioral skills which will help them succeed. However, this process of developing interpersonal skills is by no means easy or fast for children, who are still learning that when others’ feelings are hurt, it is the same as when one’s own feelings are affronted. [...]

A major part of Jumpstart’s work—one which you wouldn’t necessarily expect from an organization geared toward literacy—is reinforcing positive interactions between child and others, whether through solving conflicts, mediating limited resources and supplies, or modeling the Jumpstart rules of listening, sharing, saying kind words, and using gentle hands. Of course, that work isn’t instantaneous, and a common feature of sessions is dealing with whatever latest conflict arises. The preschoolers’ personal favorite at the moment revolves around friendship, that ultimate commodity which for preschoolers has been hollowed of any meaning other than the fact that they know “friendship” is supposed to signify some kind of mutually beneficial relationship. For preschoolers, friendship is merely a feature of a certain language about friendship, not a reward for doing/giving something, but certainly a possible punishment for hurt feelings.

As I sat at the puzzles center one session, two different boys—I will call them Loki and Odin—sat down and promptly began punching, hitting, insulting, and generally bothering each other. Odin turned to me and said: “Loki is NOT my friend.” That was it, conversation over. Of course, my role as mediator was only beginning, so, wondering what Loki’s offense was this time, I gently asked Odin why Loki wasn’t his friend. Usually this conversation runs along the lines of so-and-so hurt my feelings, stole my paintbrush, hit me, etc. (often on accident), and is resolved when the offending party apologizes. This time was different. After thinking for a moment, Odin said quietly, “Loki isn’t my friend because he hasn’t asked me.”

“Well,” I responded, “do you want him to be your friend?”

“Yes,” Odin nodded furiously.

“Then why don’t you ask him to be your friend?” While it was clear Odin had never considered this option—which gave him agency and showed him that friendship is certainly not passive and requires active communication to sustain—he quickly took up my suggestion, turned to Loki, and asked him if he would be his friend. The answer was a clear, unhesitating yes.

The impact Jumpstart has on preschool children is not limited to simply learning to read a book. Perhaps what is most surprising about the impact of Jumpstart sessions is the way in which reading—and developing literacy and language skills during the different activities of Jumpstart sessions—informs behavioral and interpersonal development. The same processes, conversations, and modeled behavior that I initiate during reading resurface in children’s interactions; learning to give each other a turn to raise questions or make comments about a book we are reading, for example, returns when children start to reinforce the idea of taking turns during their own lunch-time conversations. Learning that each opinion about a book is valid equally with other opinions is drawn on when children start to value each other’s differences, as well as similarities. The children in my reading group often like to point out which scene in the book is their favorite; as they learn to let each other speak, they start to see that not only is each person’s view important, but that they can get something more out of the book by learning to appreciate what other children think is great about different parts.

While I haven’t seen massive changes in children’s reading skills after a few months in Jumpstart, I have seen a large improvement in interpersonal behaviors as they use the language and literacy skills they gain by reading to communicate with one another. 

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