A Road Forward: Five Democratic Life Skills for a Civil Society
What can educators do to grow children to be strong citizens in our democracy who can think through issues, problem solve, and positively engage with others and participate in society? The focus on problem solving, recognizing and responding to emotions, and building relationships in early childhood education can serve as a model and a place to start.
As I wrote in my book Education for a Civil Society: How Guidance Teaches Young Children Democratic Life Skills (2012: NAEYC), it is through teacher leadership and developmentally appropriate practice that young children gain the cognitive, social and emotional, and physical skills they need to participate fully in democratic society. Five democratic life skills provide a model for the holistic education and development of children, guiding them along a continuum from showing resilience in the face of trauma to demonstrating ethical and intelligent decision-making as members of society. The following focuses on each of the democratic life skills and how they can be taught and modeled in classrooms for children (see below).
Safety-Needs Democratic Life Skills
1. Finding acceptance as a member of the group and as a worthy individual
2. Expressing strong emotions in non-hurting ways
Growth-Needs Democratic Life Skills
3. Solving problems creatively—independently and in cooperation with others
4. Accepting differing human qualities in others
5. Thinking intelligently and ethically
Effective early childhood education long has been conducive to guiding children to develop these five skills. The education practices are found within an encouraging classroom community that features the use of
- developmentally appropriate practice
- secure teacher-child relationships
- guidance methods instead of traditional discipline
- a teaching team rather than a professional-paraprofessional staff arrangement
- family-teacher partnerships
Safety-Needs Democratic Life Skills
Adverse life experiences that any child can face result in amygdala-generated stress hormones in the brain that overwhelm emerging cognitive processing and skills. As unmanageable stress builds up, the child hits a breaking point and displays the survival behaviors of “freezing” (seeking to become invisible), “fleeing” (escaping the group situation psychologically if not physically), or “aggression” (acting out to defend oneself). These behaviors signal that safety needs are not being met and safety-needs skills need to be learned. The adult who uses guidance leadership builds secure relationships with these children, which makes stress levels more manageable and nudges them toward gaining the two safety needs skills.
NAEYC’S position statement on developmentally appropriate practice provides a helpful classroom context here. Principle 1 holds that development and learning are dynamic processes that reflect the complex interplay between a child’s biological characteristics and the environment, each shaping the other as well as future patterns of growth. Guideline 1 states that by building a caring community, adults create nurturing learning environments where each child feels safe and in which strong relationships mitigate stress. As children find social and intra-personal acceptance and are better able to manage strong emotions, they set the foundation for building the growth-needs skills.
Democratic Life Skill 1: Finding Acceptance as a Member of the Group and as a Worthy Individual
Head Start teacher Deb holds Abreu’s hand and reviews with him and Wyatt the posted timeline for the day. Abreu continues to look downcast even after Deb shows him that his mother will pick him up at the end of the day. When she explains it is now time to clean up and go outside, Wyatt falls down on the two box-corner-ramps he was rolling balls down and howls. Deb says, “You’ve got some strong feelings today, Wyatt” and tells him he can put the ramps in a special place to use when they come back in. Wyatt immediately stops crying and with Abreu and Deb (still holding hands), stores the ramps.
The children come in from outside, and Deb observes the two taking turns rolling balls down the ramps. Another child, Mark, asks Abreu for his ball. Abreu says, “My ball!” At Deb’s suggestion, Abreu helps Mark find another ball.
Unmanageable stress can be a result of factors within and outside of the child. Deb knows that Wyatt becomes easily overloaded and shows this unmanageable stress through explosive outbursts. Wyatt is prone to significant behavior swings when changes occur in the program—changes that would not bother other children. Concerning Abreu, Deb is aware that he and his mother have recently left a refugee camp and arrived in northern Minnesota to stay with family. She understands that Abreu must be feeling unmanageable stress from these challenging circumstances in his young life and from being in this new classroom without his steadfast Mom. Abreu’s first words that day (“My ball!”) made Deb smile.
Deb recognized that in their own ways, Wyatt and Abreu both needed to gain DLS 1. Deb and her team set up a schedule and staffing that allowed teachers to have more time with individual children throughout the day and that prioritized helping the two boys find acceptance as group members and worthy individuals.
Democratic Life Skill 2: Expressing Strong Emotions in Non-Hurting Ways
Kayla likes to shoot hoops with a favorite ball, but today Shoggie has it. Kayla approaches Shoggie with another ball, but the smaller boy won’t trade. Frustrated, Kayla knocks the “ball for big kids” out of Shoggie’s hands. She grabs it and starts to shoot hoops. Shoggie sits and yowls. Teacher Kiko calms Shoggie and looks at Kayla, who comes over holding the ball and says, “Shoggie wouldn’t trade.”
“I think we have a problem here,” Kiko says. “Let’s sit down, get cool, and work this out.” Kayla and Shoggie both know Kiko is going to mediate. They sit down. Shoggie follows Kiko’s lead and takes deep breaths. Kayla watches and waits.
“Let’s hear from the youngest first,” Kiko says. “Shoggie?”
As Shoggie shares, Kiko guides Kayla not to interrupt. Then Kiko gives Kayla a turn to share. Kiko repeats each child’s account, and the children nod that Kiko has it right. Kiko then says, “How can we fix this problem?” Realizing that she is not going to be punished, Kayla becomes less defensive. “Maybe Shoggie could have a short turn, and then it is my turn.” Shoggie agrees and soon gives the ball to Kayla. Kiko has a private guidance talk with Kayla and has the child think of and share a better response for next time.
Kiko had built a relationship with both children outside of conflict situations, which helped Shoggie continue to feel like a worthy member of the group and Kayla to realize she was not going to be stigmatized by punishment. Through guidance practices (mediation and a guidance talk), Kiko was able to teach Kayla that she can learn to express strong feelings in ways respectful of others and herself. With guidance rather than punishment, children learn to build secure relationships with teachers, manage stress levels, express strong emotions in less hurtful ways, and avoid being stigmatized by the group—a danger for Kayla. They then can move on to the growth-needs democratic life skills.
Growth-Needs Democratic Life Skills
Safety-needs skills are learned in sequence. Once learned, children can begin working on the three growth-needs democratic life skills. Progression on the growth-needs skills overlaps. Each child works on DLS 3, 4, and 5 together. A certain degree of developed executive function is required for these skills, so we tend to see them practiced more consistently in children 4 years and older. A challenge for teachers concerning the growth-needs skills is to nurture and support each child’s intrinsic motivation to learn and grow. An essential understanding here is that the child is more important than the curriculum.
Democratic Life Skill 3: Solving Problems Creatively—Independently and in Cooperation with Others
Just before going to the active playroom with her group, Cynthia gets all five puzzles off the puzzle rack, mixes up the pieces, and puts them together simultaneously. An assistant teacher starts to tell her not to get the puzzles out just before cleanup and to do them “the right way,” but teacher Sage intervenes. Sage tells Cynthia, “You like doing puzzles, Cynthia. (Pauses for a response.) You can finish doing these ‘easy ones’ as soon as we get back to the classroom.” Cynthia does.
The next day Sage brings in a 30-piece puzzle. She does the puzzle with Cynthia, then asks if Cynthia would be willing to put the puzzle together with other children. (Cynthia does a lot of things on her own, and Sage sees this as an opportunity for her to build social problem-solving skills.) For the next week, Cynthia starts the puzzle and invites other children to join her. Some do and stay for a short time; others stay until the whole puzzle is done. Cynthia is patient with the little ones and enjoys the social experience of the puzzle work with her classmates.
Developmentally appropriate practice is important when guiding children toward this life skill. As stated in Principle 8, “development and learning advance when children are challenged to achieve at a level just beyond their current mastery and when they have many opportunities to reflect on and practice newly acquired skills.” Teachers should limit their fixed expectations and open up materials for varied uses by different children. Sage did that for Cynthia with the puzzles as she supported Cynthia’s problem-solving in her solitary play and in her play with others.
Democratic Life Skill 4: Accepting Differing Human Qualities in Others
When student teacher Ali offers Brian a seat at the lunch table next to Charlie, Brian mutters, “I’m not eating by him. He’s got dirty skin.” Ali stops getting the table ready and kneels next to Brian. Softly, she says, “Brian, Charlie doesn’t have dirty skin. His skin is just a darker color than yours. We have lots of different skin colors in our group, and that is just fine. It looks like Charlie is all set to pass you a milk (carton). Better sit down so you get one.” Ali helps Brian to the seat next to Charlie, and with a hand on Charlie’s shoulder asks if he can pass Brian a milk. Charlie does, and Ali says, “Thank you, Charlie.”
Later, Ali and the cooperating teacher, Marsha, smile when they see the two boys playing together. That evening, when Brian’s dad comes to pick him up, Ali initiates a brief conversation with him. She tells Dad what happened and mentions he might want to reinforce the message that people have lots of different skin colors, and it’s fine. We all can get along. Dad flushes a bit, but the next day Brian is back as though nothing had happened. Teacher Marsha thinks about these events. She decides that as a member of the teaching team, Ali has done not one, but two courageous things. The next day before the children arrive, Marsha tells Ali she is proud of her.
Modeling is central to teaching democratic life skill 4, in this case for both the child and a parent in the program. Modeling happens best when staff intentionally prepare materials and activities that teach acceptance of differing qualities as “routine” parts of the program. The teaching team (including assistants and student teachers) needs to watch for opportunities to talk about acceptance of differing qualities both with the children and each other. Only then can the courage shown by Ali here become the norm and not the exception in early childhood programs.
Democratic Life Skill 5: Thinking Intelligently and Ethically
Jared often has difficult days at school, and this one goes from bad to worse. He tips over his desk and chair and goes under a table in the corner. Ms. Juneau, the special education teacher, accompanies Jared from the room.
Teacher Marta knows the children are bothered by what happened, so she decides to call an unscheduled class meeting. “Sometimes we have deep feelings that we need to share with someone,” she says. “If we can’t, sometimes the feelings sneak up on us and cause us to get very angry. That is what happened to Jared today, and Ms. Juneau is helping Jared to talk those feelings out and feel better.”
The class has just finished an Ojibwe story about a boy and a butterfly. The story is about people and their feelings. One of the girls says, “Jared is like the butterfly with the broken wing.”
“Yes,” Marta says. “Jared is like the butterfly.”
When Jared comes back to the classroom, the children treat him with respect. When he shows mistaken behaviors thereafter, the class seems to understand that he needs his space.
Group meetings serve a variety of purposes in the encouraging classroom. As Marta learned, they can help children understand their classmates. They make the classroom a community inclusive of all. They teach careful listening and thoughtful sharing, language arts, and real-life social studies. They are a potent preventative for a classroom-induced fear of public speaking. Classroom meetings give children a chance to progress with all the democratic life skills, especially DLS 5.
The girl who said Jared was like the butterfly with the broken wing was showing DLS 5, and the rest of the children in the group were learning, through modeling and teaching, how to progress with this highest democratic life skill. One morning 4-year-old Benita came into Head Start with an unexpected blue buzz-cut. When Benita asked her friend Ansha what she thought, Ansha said, “I’m still getting used to it.” The two went off to play. Even 4-year-olds can show intelligent and ethical decision-making. If our precious preschoolers can, then so can we.
More than high test scores, good grades, solid class rankings, and successful graduations—which some young people may achieve and some may not—the five democratic life skills represent the capacities that our children, our grandchildren, and their children need for our country and our world to make it and, indeed, flourish now and in the future.
Editor’s Note: Between 2005 and 2014, Dan Gartrell was the primary author of the “Guidance Matters” column in Young Children. He has published six books about guidance and the importance of guidance for children, including his most recent, A Guidance Guide for Early Childhood Leaders: Strengthening Relationships with Children, Families, and Colleagues. For more information, visit dangartrell.net. Dan’s 2014 textbook, A Guidance Approach for the Encouraging Classroom, has a thorough discussion of many of the ideas in this piece and especially “whole group meetings.”
Dan Gartrell, EdD, is an emeritus professor of early childhood education and a former Head Start teacher. The ideas here come from Guidance with Every Child: Teaching Young Children to Manage Conflict and his upcoming book, A Guidance Guide for Early Childhood Leaders. To learn more, visit www.dangartrell.net.