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Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know

Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know

One week years ago, when my third-born was 2 years 10 months old, my husband and I noticed he was being more opinionated and defiant than usual. When I picked him up from child care that Thursday afternoon, I asked his teacher whether she had noticed any changes in his behavior.

She thought for a moment and then said, “Well, he keeps shouting, ‘I don’t know’—just like he’s being real stubborn about things I know he knows. Today at circle time I was trying to get the children to name something that you recycle, and he just kept shouting, ‘I don’t know!’ I know he knows because I’d spent a couple of days this week talking about it in the small group. But he’s a stubborn one. He sat there for 20 minutes, and I wouldn’t let him go out to play. Finally, he said, ‘Plastic.’ I knew he could do it. I don’t know what gets into him. Usually he’s a real sweetie.”

I leaned over and asked my son—who rarely cried—what he had learned about recycling that day. He began to sob (and didn’t stop until we were 20 minutes down the road). The teacher said, “Look at that—that’s what he’s been like. I wonder what’s gotten into him?”

As a developmental psychologist with a research focus on early childhood language and learning, I was stunned on several levels by this episode. I wondered about the content of the teacher-directed group time, which carried with it:

  • the expectation that 2-year-olds can gain information from language only;
  • the insistence on an individual child’s reply after he has said he doesn’t know (never mind his being kept prisoner for 20 minutes); and
  • the teacher’s location of the “problem” as being with the child.

The shock was all the worse because I considered this teacher to be absolutely wonderful in terms of sensitivity to and awareness of individual children. Her openness in telling me about the episode showed me she thought the problem was in the child, not in her way of interacting with him.

My family recycles daily, and while I could imagine the possibilities of including my 2-year-old son in this activity and explaining the concept in very simple terms, recycling was outside his reality. The garage where the blue recycling box is located was off limits to him; materials to be recycled were left on a countertop above his eye level; and, because he was discouraged from putting anything into wastebaskets, he had no context to understand that some things should be discarded in a different way.

In other words, he had no experience to tap into that could help him understand what the teacher was talking about. The situation demanded that he create “understanding” about recycling entirely on the basis of things the teacher said about unfamiliar activities and materials. Then from this “understanding,” he had to come up with words that satisfied the teacher’s demand to name something that could be recycled. I’m pretty sure he didn’t even know the meaning of “plastic” at that point, but it seemed to fit into the slot of “I don’t know” that the teacher wouldn’t accept.

For preschoolers, learning from language alone is extremely difficult—and often impossible. It is easy to believe that a child knows something just because the teacher has talked about it in the child’s presence. But it doesn’t work that way. Even if the child is paying attention, the words he hears don’t automatically translate into knowledge in his mind.

Even a small group of preschoolers is likely to include children at very different developmental levels. Anything a teacher does may be more meaningful, understandable or motivating to some children than to others. This is not necessarily a problem: Children benefit from easy as well as challenging activities. But problems arise when teachers demand participation at a level beyond a child’s developmental abilities. A child should be able to say “I don’t know” without being pressured or labeled.

Unfortunately, many teachers concerned with supporting the development of language skills turn this concern into an insistence that individual children speak-up in group situations. This can be an uncomfortable, even frightening, experience for some. Language development involves not only speaking but listening, not only public displays but private conversations. Sensitive teachers find ways to help children develop the many different types of language skills in lots of different ways.

What did my son learn by having his “I don’t know” response rejected, by being required to sit in one spot and miss out on other opportunities for play until he could do the impossible—recall something he never knew?

Imagine that this sort of teacher-child interaction didn’t happen just once but went on day after day. What would a child learn? Worse, what would it mean to his learning down the road? Developmentally inappropriate instruction can inadvertently set up a vicious and interminable cycle of failure. It can easily create learners:

  • who realize that school is not a place where they can be successful;
  • who feel anything they say may be held against them (so they say nothing or play the fool);
  • who are labeled as difficult;
  • whose lack of involvement leads them to begin falling behind and then perhaps being labeled as slow learners or language delayed.

This is a bleak and disturbing scenario. DontTellMeYouDontKnowBut as an observer in early childhood classrooms and as a leader of a discussion group in which classroom volunteers report and reflect on their own observations, I am becoming increasingly concerned that it is an all-to-common scenario.

Teachers almost always have good intentions. The problem is the unintended consequences of automatic or poorly thought-out actions. Teachers must understand general developmental principles of how young children acquire knowledge and use that understanding to be sensitive to the wide range of individual differences that their students may bring to a situation.


Adapted from Dr. Lucia French’s article I Told You All About It, So Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know: Two-Year-Olds and Learning through Language, published in Young Children in 1996.

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