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The Four Agreements

Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Children are domesticated the same way that we domesticate a dog, a cat, or any other animal. In order to teach a dog we punish the dog and we give it rewards. We train our children whom we love so much in the same way we domesticate any animal: with a system of punishment and reward.
Don Miguel Ruiz The Four Agreements

If you are interested in learning about yourself then spend time with very young children. I hesitate to use the word teach, because in my experience young children resist being taught. Learning is another matter. Young children live to learn. Or to put it another way living is learning for them.

Don Miguel Ruiz writes that young children are wild, wild in the sense of being undomesticated. They are wild, wild like the wind. And this gives us a strong clue about how to reach them. If you are familiar with Aesop's fables then you will know the fate of the mighty oak. It was uprooted and broken by the storm while the bullrushes prospered by bending with the gale. When approaching small children it is imperative to bend like the bullrushes. The more we assume positions of authority, the more we stand on our dignity, the more we expect to be followed the less we will actually achieve.

This isn't completely true.

Adults are bigger and stronger than children. We can use threat, intimidation and violence to contain and control children. Like Solomon we can imprison the free spirits into bottles and lock them away. We can force children to conform. One has only to look around the World to see the result. This article, then, focuses, on how teachers can 'be' with young children. And since the book is still resonating with me I'll use the model of the four agreements…

Agreement One:
Be Impeccable in Your Word

Young children are in the process of discovering the World. Anything and everything can be a source of fascination to them. They naturally look up to and wish to emulate the adults around them. Accordingly, as adults, we should be very careful about the projections we give. If we wish children to be truthful and honest we need to be truthful and honest with them. So for example, if we agree to play a particular game next time, we should play that game next time. If we promise to do something we should do it. We should resist the temptation to manipulate and confuse in order to get our own way. Further, we should be very careful about our stories. Christmas has just gone. In my classes we came across Santa Claus. But I made no pretence that Santa Claus is anything other than a fantasy. Quite frankly, the idea of manipulating children by telling them to be good or Santa won't leave them any presents is simply psychotic.

Agreement Two:
Don't take anything Personally

Young children are constantly growing and changing. They are also constantly experimenting in order to learn about the World around them. As a teacher I prepare material that I think they will be interested in. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. This is something to accept. No matter how elaborate the preparation, no matter how long I've spent making material, if on the day the children are not interested in it, then that's all. It does no good to feel resentful. I can save the material for another day.

This means that while we may make lesson plans for our lessons, this doesn't mean we should expect to follow them. From this it also follows that the best kind of plan has many small independent elements. There may be a sequence involved but a plan should be flexible enough that it can work without forcing children to follow any particular part of it.

Usually though with young children, it's unlikely that none of them will be interested in the material but that they will have varying degrees of interest. It's important to realise that just because a child is running around the room, this doesn't mean that he isn't paying attention. It may mean that, or it may not. Only by really observing and getting to know the children will you know. So at any given time, a decision has to be made whether to stick with the material, to stick with your plan, or abandon it and do something else. This is a skill that develops with experience. The more we can detach ourselves and our own ego from what we are doing, the more skilful we become.

Agreement Three:
Don't make assumptions

To some extent all planning is based upon assumptions. But beyond this, it is very important that we don't typecast children. Once we start assuming that particular children act in a certain way then we transmit our expectations. Children are very sensitive to this and will act accordingly. If we assume one child will be a troublemaker then that child will not disappoint us. Accordingly it is useful to keep a positive attitude to all the children. This doesn't mean accepting unacceptable behaviour but it does mean trying to find the reasons why the behaviour is occurring.

One of the presuppositions of Neuro Linguistic Programming is that there is (or was) a positive intention behind all behaviour, even violence. For example, I have a class of four two year olds. At one time, one of the girls began 'ja-jaring', that is all she would say was 'ja-ja'. She did it in the class, she did it at home. I guessed it was her way of making some space for herself. She was shutting the world out. Perhaps she didn't want to think or listen at that time. Certainly, her ja-jaring was disruptive to my lesson plans, I simply did my best to accept it and turn it into a game.

More problematic is when small children begin fighting for possession of toys. There is no single reason why this occurs, all though there is some evidence that children in tribal societies are more inclined to share. In my experience, one approach that can work to resolve this kind of conflict is to introduce timed possession. I set the timer for a very short length of time, 20 seconds or so, and insist that turns be taken. Again, the idea is to turn the situation into a game. On the one occasion that this strategy failed to work, two girls (aged 2) were arguing over a book. I threw it in the trash and this reduced both of them to tears. I got the book out and again tried to get them to come to some agreement. I failed again, so I got out a guillotine and asked them if I should cut the book in half. Neither of them wanted that and neither did I but I still failed to get them to agree so the book has now been banished from the classroom. On reflection I think the greatest lesson would have been if I had cut the book in two.

Notice that I used force and this appears to contradict my opening remarks. However, at no time did I use force to bend the children to my will. I made no assumptions about their behaviour, I didn't blame either of them, I just tried to show that their behaviour was unacceptable and model an alternative.

Agreement Four:
Always Do Your Best

In the situation I described above I did my best. My solution wasn't perfect and there were tears, that's part of life. But by doing our best we put ourselves on an upward spiral of growth. We avoid the need to waste energy making excuses. Of course, it's important to realise that our best will vary from day to day and even moment to moment. What I can do when I have a cold is not the same as what I can do when I'm feeling healthy. But by developing the habit of doing our best we free ourselves to take risks, to be innovative and even have fun. We also offer a very powerful role model for youngsters. Ultimately, improvement comes not by comparing ourselves to others but by measuring self with self.

Suggested Reading:

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (1995) How To Talk So Kids Can Learn Rawson Associates ISBN: 0-684-81333-5

Alfie Kohn (1992) No Contest: The Case against Competition Houghton Mifflin ISBN: 0-395-63125-4

Don Miguel Ruez (1997) The Four Agreements Amber-Allen Publishing ISBN: 1878424319

January 2002
(Feature in Teachers Learning with Children
The Newsletter of the JALT Teaching Children SIG)

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