Creating a positive environment

Creating a sense of ritual can also have a calming effect and help you manage discipline. We need to honor children's sense of play, but we also need to create basic discipline. Discipline need not mean the old hierarchical model of the oppressive teacher, but discipline does require a supportive classroom.

In a supportive classroom, children learn to respect ritual as well as each other. A simple discipline trick I learned as a substitute teacher in my early teaching days was "the thirty-second rule." In the first thirty seconds of class, the children may challenge the teacher's authority in some small way. Children are not inherently rude, but they can be if allowed. At the first indiscretion, simply pause, smile, and make it clear that we always prefer respect. Phrase it in a positive way and never call someone bad, no matter how inappropriately the child behaves. Behaving inappropriately does not make us bad people. Smiles are essential in a positive environment, and offering one can be quite effective at putting an end to whatever quickening pulse is adding to the chaos. If you make positive behavior the norm, it will continue (with an occasional reminder).

If on the other hand you let negativity be the norm, the classroom experience may not be fun for anyone. There's always room for a little creative chaos, but it has to be positive chaos—fun. Discipline is sometimes overlooked in liberal education because we often think discipline is authoritarian, the old power-over paradigm. Our goal is to reach a high level of focus—a preferable term for discipline—based on the power-with paradigm. Getting there, which isn't easy, requires a positive environment in both worship and the classroom.

Here are some ways to create a positive environment:

1. Understand pulse (or pacing). Talking fast will excite children and sometimes lead to chaos. Talking slowly and softly can quiet them down. As we begin to lose control of the group (it happens), we tend to speak faster to get the children's attention. Try the opposite; a slow, quiet pulse will slow them down. The scientific word for this is entrainment. (For more information about entrainment, see my book Sing and Shine On! at

2. Make your language exceedingly positive. Phrase everything in yes terms. I do a mini ritual that reinforces positive behavior. When someone suggests a good idea, I say to the group, "Repeat after me: What a good idea!" The class repeats. Then everyone wants to have a good idea. They will, and each child should be equally rewarded. This approach is simply a playful adaptation of B. F. Skinner's positive reinforcement dictum. E. O. Wilson and other behavior theorists developed a new term, reciprocal altruism: when we do good things, good things will happen in return; when we do bad things, bad things happen in return. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you: a celebrated teacher named Jesus called this the Golden Rule. Similar paradigms exist in all the world's religions. Simply put, positive behavior invites positive behavior.

3. Capture the group's attention. Children need to be taught to listen and pay attention. Music is the perfect tool for this. When I say, "Repeat after me: What a good idea!" the children repeat, "What a good idea!" The act of repetition requires their attention. Keep these simple echoes going throughout your time with the children—but don't dumb down. This is very important. Simplicity never means dumbing down. I will repeat that phrase a lot.

If the children do not echo back exactly what you say, then they are not really listening. If they are not really listening, then they are not really attentive. When I work with five-year-olds, their teachers sometimes tell me not to expect much—the children may be inattentive—so I have the five-year-olds repeat something after me. If they don't get it right I shake my head, smile, and quietly say, "That's not what I said. You need to listen." I say the phrase again, and about 70 percent of the group gets it. I say, "Much better, but still not there." Within a few moments, the class of inattentive five-years-olds is in the palm of my hand. Why? You get what you ask for; I asked them to listen.

Another way to keep the children's attention is to vary the activities. Adding simple transition songs between activities helps move things along smoothly.

4. Engage their emotions. The old power-over paradigm created a learning environment devoid of healthy emotions. It gave rise to negative emotions, fear, and repression. The power-with paradigm works when children fully engage their emotions. Since music is, at its core, an emotional expression, we have the perfect tool. I'm talking emotional expression on the scale of grand operas: robust, jump-in-the-air emotions as well as calm, deep, meditative emotions. When I say, "Let it shine," I mean let the emotions shine. I mean let the spirit shine. I mean let each child have a voice.

5. Engage their bodies. Children need to move. They should sing with hand gestures, swaying motions (both sitting and standing), circle dances, improvisational movement, and isolation exercises (more on all this later). Movement needs to engage the heart as well as the mind.

6. Be playful. I'm fond of a particular mini ritual: I say, "Repeat after me," and I blow on the fingernails of my right hand. The children mirror. Next I polish my fingernails on my collar. They mirror. With lots of emotion I say, "We are the best!" They echo. "The very best." They echo. "We have zest!" My hands fly into the air. They echo. Then I droop down and slowly say, "Blah!" They echo.

We go back and forth between joyous zests and blah-blahs, through the full range of emotions. Throughout my time with the children, if they are doing something well, instead of saying "Good job," I might simply pause (pauses are good), blow on my fingernails, and polish them. It is playful. It is positive.

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