Among other hats, one of mine is “teacher.” I teach workshops to adults, art to children in after school programs, and more. One of the most powerful tools I have found I have as a teacher is the choice to allow what I call unconventional freedoms.
Kids in my class can talk about controversial subjects, go to the bathroom whenever they wish, and choose whether to sit or stand. These freedoms are allowed by some teachers, denied by others. What I mean when I say unconventional freedoms goes beyond this.
My kids can cry in class if they want to. They can walk away from their projects and go lay down on the floor. They can stim (engage in repeated body motions that cause no harm to themselves or others). They can do things considered strange or inappropriate by adults in larger society so long as they are not interrupting me, distracting other students from their work, or causing harm.
These unconventional freedoms allow children the space to grow as people and to explore who they are and how to exist peacefully with others.
Dr. Carol Dweck‘s research about the growth mindset (a mindset which involves believing in one’s own ability to grow in terms of skills) tells us that when children have the support to build a growth mindset, they are able to grow more than children who have a fixed mindset (the belief that they cannot grow in terms of skills). This doesn’t just apply to academic topics, Dweck tells us. It also applies to behavior.
Dweck’s research supports treating behavior like another subject students learn right along with English and math. This means supporting them through conversations meant to help give them the tools to grow and do better rather than tearing them down with punishments. Besides, as most teachers or parents can tell you, when children feel supported, they act out less to begin with.
In most of my art classes for children, there are one or two kids who are easily and vocally frustrated with projects. “I can’t do this” is a common refrain among them, indicative of Dweck’s framing of the fixed mind set. “It’s too hard, do it for me?” they ask. “I can’t do it right,” they pout, staring at the project, either dejected after a single attempt or afraid to even start.
To “I can’t do this,” I say, “Yes you can. It’s just hard. You have to try a bunch of times before it will work. This stuff isn’t easy.”
To “It’s too hard, will you do it for me?” I say, “Of course it’s hard. It’s something new. It’s only easy for me because I’ve done it a lot of times. Unless you do it a lot of times too, it will always be hard for you. Try again, okay?”
To “I can’t do it right,” I say, “That’s okay. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s part of learning, and that is valuable. Besides, sometimes in art our mistakes take is in new and interesting directions, and that can be exciting!”
By the time they are done working with me for the semester, they try. They attempt. They give themselves the space to fail and try again, just like the other kids. I see them go from a fixed mindset to a mixed or growth mindset. Of course, it helps that it’s an ungraded after-school art class. I have a lot of freedom in my class compared to the daytime teachers.
Which brings us back to the point: Freedoms. How do unconventional freedoms play in to all this stuff about transforming young minds from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets? I consider them to be a highly useful tool set. Here’s an example of why:
On the first day of class one term, a child sat staring silently at the project on the table. Everyone else happily worked away. This child remained still. I checked in with the kid, who then began bawling. “I can’t do this,” the kid wailed. “It’s too hard!” We had the same talk I always have with kids who say these things, but this kid was having a huge emotional response to the situation. The kid understood what I was saying and accepted it, but first needed to cry to get all that emotion out of the way. I let the kid cry on the carpet at the other end of the room, but not before making sure to say, “Come back whenever you’re ready, okay? Take as long as you need.”
Weeks passed and that kid continued to struggle. “It’s too hard,” and “I can’t do this,” came out every single class session at first. One day the kid even moaned, “Don’t you have anything I can do that is perfectly easy for me to do on the very first try?!” Talk about an explicit fixed mindset! I didn’t give up. The more I encouraged that kid to try anyway, the easier it got. Eventually the trips to the carpet to cry without distracting others from their projects stopped. By the end of the semester, the moment that would have prompted “I can’t do it” instead inspired mere hesitation, and a glance at me for encouragement.
None of this would have been possible if I had told this kid not to cry in class. Or not to lay on the floor. Or not to do both at the same time. The unconventional freedom of crying on the floor without shame allowed this child the emotional space to develop a necessary life skill, and it harmed no one.
Speaking of harming no one, that is one of the major lines I draw. Boundaries are necessary after all. In my art classes, there are three main types of rules that everything else I list to my kids as rules comes down to:
- Consent. Do not touch other students or their projects, or me or my bins of project supplies, without first asking for and receiving consent.
- Class Focus. Do not distract other students from their projects or from me when I am talking. No yelling or other loud noises unless it is an emergency.
- Do No Harm. Do not harm others or their projects, or any other property.
These underlying foundations mean that when I ever do stop a child from doing something, I have a really good reason. I will explain it if asked, or sometimes without prompting. The kids appreciate this. After all, kids are people, and people do not like being controlled arbitrarily. Kids just don’t have enough world experience yet to guess at my reasons sometimes without it being explained. On that note, children also thrive when given genuine connection and discourse in lieu of punishment, just like adults do. Here is an example of that:
Two kids in one of my classes were friends outside of class. They always picked the same colors on purpose and got along really well. One day, one of them kept grabbing the other’s arm and pushing and shoving. After the second time I verbally reminded this kid about the relevant rule, and heard it broken a third time, I said, “Hey [name], why don’t you come over here with me? Let’s have a little talk.”
As we walked, the kid looked troubled and closed off. Away from the class, at the other end of the room, I knelt down to be on the same level of the kid.
“What can I do to support you?” I asked. “What do you need to follow this rule?”
By the time I finished the first question and began asking the second, the kid was bawling. The moment this poor kiddo realized I wanted to provide support, all the walls went down and the tears came out. We talked about it through the tears, and I learned that this first-grader wanted the other kid to stop engaging in conversation. “Does [name] know you don’t want [pronoun] to talk to you?” I asked. Turns out this kid had never even thought to use words to establish a boundary line. Skills like that are things people have to learn. Heck, I know adults who still need to learn that one! Anyway, by engaging this kid in conversation with the same amount of respect we give adults instead of giving in to frustration over broken rules or conventional punishment systems, I was able to use the unconventional freedom of “have a discussion instead of a time out” to help this kid learn a valuable life skill. This kid went on to employ that skill in the classroom.
When kids actually do cause harm, they need to be stopped and educated so that they do not continue to do harm. However, much of what adults stop children from doing does not constitute harm. How much harm does that do, especially when we remember that children are people too? What is the point in curtailing freedom when no harm is being done to any person or any thing, if firm boundaries are in place around those very important lines?