Control is Control


When cleaning up the classroom a few children decided they didn’t want to clean. I smiled, said okay, and moved on to helping the children who were cleaning. P noticed and said, “If we don’t clean we can play outside?” I know this is a consequence other teachers have used in the past. I replied, “Of course. I can’t make you do anything with your body – including cleaning. We’re cleaning the room so we can dance before we go outside, but if you don’t want to help you don’t have to. You should probably sit on the bench while we clean that way you won’t be in the way of those who are cleaning.”

There ended up being about 5 children cleaning, and 9 kids who chose to not clean. After about ten minutes the room was largely done except for a basket of animals strewn across the room and some block piles, so  I called the class to the carpet to get ready to go outside. “We can go outside now, we just won’t be able to have a dance party because there isn’t enough room to dance without stepping on and tripping over toys.”

John jumped up and said, “But what if we all clean up the rest of the room? Then we can dance!”

Every child got up and the rest of the room was clear within 15 seconds. We had our dance party then headed to the cubbies to go outside

F didn’t want to put his shoes or jacket on. I told him that was fine, that I understood and explained to the rest of the classroom that our only playground choice would be the front yard since F didn’t want to wear shoes and asked if they thought that was okay. They were. So out we went.



In the past, both of these situations would have stressed me out. Largely because I would feel out of control. I would think, “The room has to be clean and I have to make them clean, how can I make them clean?” And then came the sticker charts, the stop light system (yes…I am ashamed to say I once used a stop light system.), and treasure box. Once I realized the damage these methods have, I switched my approach but still aimed for control. I would limit the number of children in each center, I made rules about cleaning up after each activity, I would assign children clean up jobs.

“A child whose life is full of the threat of fear and punishment is locked into babyhood. There is no way for him to grow up, to learn to take responsibility for his life and acts. Most important of all, we should not assume that having to yield to the threat of our superior force is good for the child’s character. It is never good for anyone’s character.” – John Holt

Now, I don’t feel the need for control. This room isn’t mine, it is theirs. If they don’t want to clean it, that will affect them – not me. It will affect how they can play, where they can nap, what materials they can play with. It won’t affect me. So why do we often make clean up about us? Or what they wear outside, about us? Or anything – about us?

Children do not need to be made to be better, told what to do or shown how. If they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves…and they  will make for themselves a better path into that world than anyone else could make for them. – John Holt

Would getting on their level, talking in a calm voice, and explaining why they must conform to my rules make it any less controlling on my part?

To me, control is control, no matter how nicely you control. 




15 thoughts on “Control is Control

  1. Spectacular. I’ve read it ten times already and shared it widely. Beautiful. Bravo.

    A question–some people in my groups were skeptical (as we might expect). Can you say what you might have done if one or more of the other children did not want to go in the front yard to play? Do you have any concerns about children who may not feel free to speak up and say that that’s not okay with them, and the child who did not want to put on his shoes getting the message that he is “in charge” of the options for everyone else? I have my own ideas, but I don’t want to answer for you.

    Thank you!!


    1. Hello! The thing about control, is the more restrictions you have and the less control you give, the more children will feel the need to push back. Things like clean up, clothing, transitions, food – these are areas children who feel like they don’t have enough control tend to push their boundaries. Our classroom culture is not authoritative – the children are used to voicing their opinions and being heard. I know F honestly just didn’t want to wear his shoes, because he had no reason to lie. He easily could have stated that he wanted to go the frontyard and I would have asked what everyone thought. If a few children, or even one child, was not okay with going to that playground they would have had a chance to argue their point and the classroom would have to decide together. Voting is big in our classroom. We have a scale we call “the scales of justice” that we used the first few months with marbles to give them a visual representation of voting. Now, we just talk through it and the visual isn’t needed anymore.

      I identify with being a democratic classroom – everyone’s voice matters. My voice does not matter more because I am an adult, but they are also aware that adults often have experiences they can learn from and therefore our voices should be heard first sometimes.

      And this culture does not happen over night. Children are used to being treated as lesser humans. The first few months we had to work really hard to show them their voices matter, that they could trust us, and that they can trust each other. A few months ago F very well could have been saying he didn’t want to wear shoes when really he just didn’t want to go out. Now he knows, usually, that he can just say what he actually wants or needs.

      I hope that was helpful and answered your question!



      1. Wonderfully helpful, yes, thank you. I have taught for many years with a similar philosophy, but when people asked questions, I didn’t want to answer for you. May I pass your replies along?


  2. How have you handled the walking in class rule? I get so tired of reminding the same kids over and over to walk inside. We’ve talked about why we need to be careful inside and not break things. They have even experienced the natural consequence of running and knocking something over. For some reason a couple of my students forget or don’t control their impulses well enough. I teach 6-9 year olds.


    1. Hello Cailin,

      I actually don’t have a rule about walking in the classroom! In fact, I think blanket rules are rarely fair. There are times where running in the classroom would be perfectly fine – in fact, most of the time it’s fine for us. There are times we have to limit running in the room. For example, u had set up an entire side of the classroom with a drop cloth, paper, and water colors. Clearly running on that side would have been risky – so if children started to run around I would explain to them the situation and offer them an alternative such as running on the other side of the classroom or going outside. I am lucky in this case to have another teacher in the room, so if we need to split up the classroom we can.
      I find the less rules you have, the more likely children are to listen when you do have to enforce a rule. I really don’t see a reason, most of the time, to limit running inside. So I don’t.


  3. I do a bit of outdoor education. Over the years I have developed strategies on camp. One of the main ones is that I tell the students that it is their camp not mine. I am a facilitator not a control freak. I facilitate their experience. It’s not about me, it’s about the group. I am outside the group and so are the teachers who bring the students on camp. Of course there are consequences with this policy on camp. The program must allow time, space and place for them to learn that I mean what I say. I give them timings so that we can do fun stuff and over to them to meet it. If it is not met then fun stuff can’t happen until they have completed say sorting the toilet issue out. It all happens in it’s own time. I love my job. 😉


    1. Hey Phil! It sounds like you’re doing some wonderful work. I too often have the “learning curve” at the beginning of the year as they learn to trust me, their peers, and themselves with this much freedom. It is an incredible journey to watch children develop body autonomy, trust, and interdependence with their peers and facilitators. Keep up the good work, our field needs more facilitators like you!


  4. The one thing that struck me immediately was the child that didn’t want to put on his shoes. First I wondered what the heck kind of school allows children to take off their shoes in class? then I wondered about safety issues going out into a yard without shoes on for protection. As a parent I have a real problem with children being safe in their environment. Then as a former educator/counselor I think about liability issues. How do you respond to these concerns?


    1. Hey Suze! What exactly is wrong with not wearing shoes in a classroom? Do you wear shoes at home? Most families take shoes off as soon as they hit the front door. Why is it dangerous to not wear shoes in a classroom, but not dangerous in the home?

      We do wear shoes in public places – most of the playgrounds we go to children have to wear shoes because there could be things like broken glass. The reason we had to go to the front yard if he wanted to keep his shoes off is that it is our private, fenced in playground and we have more control over the environment. Of course, parents are always going to be able to choose for themselves if they are comfortable with certain risks and what rules they want enforced. We have one child that must wear shoes outside even on our own private playground. Otherwise, we start a conversation at the beginning of the year with our families, discuss everyone’s thoughts and ideas on the subject matter and then decide as a whole how we want to approach these subjects. That takes liability issues away because it is open, transparent, and agreed upon expectations.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on why shoes should be worn inside, these conversations are really important to have so we can all challenge our own thinking. Of course, there is always more than one way of doing something. This is what works for us, maybe it wouldn’t work for you, and that’s okay too!


      1. Growing up in Queensland which is a sub tropical paradise I might add there was no requirement to wear shoes at school. I never wore shoes until I got to high school. I could walk across a bindii prickle patch and not be bothered. My feet are extremely robust even now at 60. Ot actually bothers me more that the safety culture is so inculcated into society that there are absolute rules on the wearing of shoes and all sorts of other non issues. The bubble wrap and cotton wool we wrap our kids in is actually doing them greater harm in later life. They grow up in a risk free over engineered society. They think they are bullet proof because they have never experienced the pain of self discovery. Kids need to be allowed to touch that oven, light that match, fall off that double bunk bed, climb that tree etc. etc. By preventing all injury we never inoculate them from the inbuilt warnings from a life time of small amounts of harm. Then we give them the keys to a car and wonder why they axe themselves.


      2. I almost never have shoes on, I love the public playgrounds in our area but would rather stay on ours with my shoes off if I can. I have worked in many schools that would not allow the kids (as young as 1 and 2 years old!) play without shoes on. It’s so strange to me.

        I was in Haiti when I was about 17 working with an orphanage and felt so…fragile…compared to them. No one wore shoes, and they easily ran over rocky paths while I -in shoes! – struggled to get by.

        Risk is so important for early childhood and beyond – but I honestly never even considered taking shoes off as exploring risk.


  5. This post is brilliant, and it is what I needed to tip the scales in my mind. I’ve written, “control is control” above my writing space, and it is definitely one of my centers of thought right now. This sentiment flies in the face of everything most of us are taught about how to engage in meaningful relationships with both children and adults. Reading this, I was reminded of the work of philosopher David Hawkins. I am not into everything he subscribed to, but his notions around power vs. force are applicable and feel right. Thank you for sharing these shining pieces of light, I’m inspired!


  6. I love the post! I love your way of thinking and am slowly progressing my multiage preschool classroom(2-5 years old) over to something similar to yours.
    I love the age range of the children because of the many benefits but it also some challenges.
    How would you handle the situation about the shoes if you only had one teacher and your playground was across the street?


    1. Thank you!

      Would it be possible for them to wear shoes and take them off at the playground, placing them on a bench or central location of some sort?


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