Participation Medals, No-Score Sports, and Sheltering the Preschool Child from Losing: This Educator’s Perspective

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I know before even beginning to write this blog post, there will be many who do not agree with my point of view on this topic. But that’s ok; the aim is to provoke thinking, start a dialogue, and hopefully challenge some current societal notions on this topic.

As an educator who has devoted the past 19 years to working with the Preschool Child, my opinion on this results from a combination of direct observations and knowledge of early childhood development ages birth to twelve. 

And my opinion is:

The Preschool Child needs opportunities to experience failure. They need opportunities to lose.

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These are crucial socio-emotional experiences that create the building blocks for future self-worth, self-esteem, grace, dignity, internal motivation, healthy self-views of each person’s place in the larger world, and compassion towards others. 

And in order to provide these opportunities, we need to stop:

  • giving participation medals to all who compete;
  • having “no score” sports systems, where everyone walks away the “winner”;
  • only offering games/activites that are designed to ensure no winners/losers are the end result.

“But - Why?” you may ask. And you also may be thinking “What about the children’s self-esteem?? They are so young!! There is plenty of time in the coming years for these opportunities to occur when my child is better equipped emotionally to handle losing!!”

I believe the Preschool Child needs ongoing, repeated, and developmentally appropriate opportunities to practice:

  1. Winning
  2. Losing
  3. Coming in first, second, ninth, and last place

Because out of these moments, they are learning invaluable life skills, and socio-emotional growth.

By Winning: They feel pride in their accomplishment, an internal boost to their self-esteem, and that putting forth genuine effort produced valid, true, and REAL outcomes. They learn to show empathy, compassion, and grace to others who did not win, and it does not detract from their internal positive emotional states - it instead adds to these feelings.

By Losing: they learn they are part of a larger world, and the world is not centred around them solely, they learn that in order to grow you must actively work towards growing your own abilities and skills, they learn to handle defeat with grace, courtesy, and respect to both their peers who have won and to themselves internally.

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When we give children participation medals, whether they actually tried their best or not, whether or not they displayed internal motivators to try and succeed, we are setting them on a very dangerous path. What is the subliminal message the Preschool Child takes away from this practice? That you do not need to work hard, put in your best effort, or even show any internal motivation to want to succeed - because in the end you receive the same feedback from the adults (in the form of a generic medal) that every child received.  And for the children who DID work hard, who did put in their best effort, and who did show internal motivation to want to succeed: they take away that this not validated, noted, or valued. 

 

We know from current early childhood development theory and pedagogy that the window from birth to age six is the crucial developmental window for all four domains: physical, cognitive, social and emotional. And that the experiences, growth, and milestones that are gained during this time affects both positive and negative lifelong outcomes.

So let’s fast forward in the life of a child, who grows up in the system where achievement means showing up, everybody wins, nobody ever loses, and failure is all but extinguished from your world view. Where the life experiences have created a bubble of false security around the child, leading to the expectation (that was cemented as “fact” developmentally in their crucial windows for growth) that whatever they want, they will receive. Whatever goal they set, it will automatically be reached, without any barriers, roadblocks, setbacks, or obstacles. 

But... What happens in Elementary School, when they all want the lead role in the holiday play, but only the best singers are selected? 

But... What happens in Middle School, when they try out for the volleyball team, but do not make the cut because other players have more volleyball skills? 

But... What happens at their first job interview, when the position goes to another candidate who displayed stronger skills?  

But... What happens at their first employee performance review, when they are given areas to improve upon to grow their skills and ability? 

Remember... the Preschool Years are where these internal belief systems and world views were cemented. And those years provide us, as the adults, a choice.

  • Do we create an environment for our children to learn how to handle defeat, how to use failure as an opportunity to grow, and to view barriers as opportunities to overcome? 
  • Or do we create an environment for our children that teaches there is always winning, never losing, that fosters the belief that to lose is unfair and unjust, and that the world will always provide the end gains you seek no matter if it is reasistic or not? 

Because in each scenario above, the outcome differs drastically, depending upon which early years experiences were cemented in the child’s brain development.  

If they were in an environment that supported learning how to succeed, but also how to accept defeat, that supported taking defeat and using it to grow, that supported learning how to handle BOTH success and failure with grace, courtesy, dignity, and compassion, the outcomes would be one way. And, drastically different than if the earliest experiences were those of false sheltered security bubbles keeping out all potential failures, and instead replaced them with false senses of success.  

 But... What happens in Elementary School, when they all want the lead role in the holiday play, but only the best singers are selected?

They would either: 

  1. know that not being the best singer is not a reflection of self-value, recognize and appreciate the abilities of others, and use it as an opportunity to find another enjoyable way to continue to the play. 
  2. Feel confused and victimized, as they should get anything they want to do, feel wronged and anger towards their peers and teachers, and have no internal systems to know how to handle and navigate these negative feelings and emotions.  

 

But... What happens in Middle School, when they try out for the volleyball team, but do not make the cut because other players have more volleyball skills?

They would either: 

  1. recognize and respect the skills of their peers, and either decide to work towards improving their own skills to tryout again in the future, or decide to try out a different sport that their skills and abilities are better suited for - all while being able to recognize internally that their self-worth is not tied to being selected for the team at first attempt. 
  2. Feel confused and victimized, as they should get anything they want to do, feel wronged and anger towards their peers and teachers, and have no internal systems to know how to handle and navigate these negative feelings and emotions.  

But... What happens at their first job interview, when the position goes to another candidate who displayed stronger skills? 

They would either: 

  1. feel discouraged yet motivated to improve their own skills in order to meet competitive standards, use it as a learning opportunity for how to achieve growth, recognize it does not mean they won’t achieve their goal - it just will take more work in order to achieve it.  
  2. Feel confused and victimized, as they should get anything they want to do, feel wronged and anger towards their potential employer, and the employer who was selected, and have no internal systems to know how to handle and navigate these negative feelings and emotions.  

But... What happens at their first employee performance review, when they are given areas to improve upon to grow their skills and ability? 

They would either: 

  1. be open to the feedback, and see it as an opportunity to grow and refine their professional skills and abilities, while being able to recognize they it is not a reflection of their performance, and that growth is a positive life experience.
  2. Feel confused and victimized, as they feel wronged and that any productive feedback is an attack on their self, feel anger towards their employer, and have no internal systems to know how to handle and navigate these negative feelings and emotions.  

Have you noticed a pattern that is being created, in both scenarios? It is a pattern that was first begun back in the early years, and was cemented into their world views and sense of self.  

    At my centre, we offer opportunities for children ages 2.5 to 6 years, where they participate in games with rules, games with winners, and games where they will at times lose.  

    We have freeze dances, where the last person to freeze when the music stops is out - and they move to the side to cheer on the remaining students until we are down to one person - who wins that round.  

    We play tag, where once you are tagged you are out, and you move to the side to cheer on those still in the game, until we are down to the last person - who wins that round.  

    There are many more games and activities like this, that we incorporate into our play. Not all games have a winner/loser, but many do. And as educators, we watch, wait, and then use all teachable moments that arise (and they will!) to help each child one-on-one learn the skills I have been talking about today - how to emotionally handle not being the winner, how to feel happy for a friend who won, how to show pro social skills during moments of defeat.

    Because the Preschool Child WILL feel these emotions - and they are visceral and real. And in order to help each child build that foundation of emotional stability and self-esteem, it takes actual, concrete, and focused attention, time and support from the educators. The Preschool Child cannot navigate these emotions and concepts on their own - but that is why we are here. To help. To teach. To educate.  

    Just because it is a difficult, hard, and emotional concept does not mean we should avoid it. We would never choose to ban our child from learning to ride a bike because of the fear they will get physically hurt. We just make sure we are there to help, to try and catch them as they fall, and support them.

    We would never consider banning the bike to avoid the fall.  

    So why do we ban the winning/losing concept, to avoid the emotional fall?

    As long as we are there for the child, to help, support, and catch them emotionally - loss and failure are just as safe and just as important to the Preschool child’s life as the bike.  

    So let them ride it. Take away the bubble wrap padding, acknowledge there will be emotional bumps and scrapes, but that in the end our children will be much healthier and happier for having experienced it.  

    That’s just this Educator’s opinion. 

    The Pitfalls of Correcting Children's Work

    It can be VERY tempting to correct a child's spelling, letters, numbers, and mathematics. Many of us who did not get to experience a Montessori education were even taught using this style from our own early years teachers. However, the Montessori Method really strives to allow children to correct their own mistakes, when they are ready.  

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    In the above photo, two of our students and practicing their Phonetic Spelling using some Common-Word Objects and the Movable Alphabet.

    You will notice errors in their spelling choices; KEY is spelt "keu", CORN is spelt "kon", and FROG is slept "frag". This is completely ok!!! And there is NO need for adult correction!!

    When your child is practicing their Phonetic Spelling Skills (which is sounding out words to figure out which letters are within), it is VERY important to remember the Aim of this work; it is not about correct spelling - it is about learning to distinguish phonetic sounds and letters within words!

    So, as hard as it may feel in the moment, please hold back on correcting any spelling mistakes your child WILL make (and yes, I do mean WILL, and not MAY!) and let them know you are seeing the true accomplishments they are achieving - their phonetic spelling skills refinement!!

    The Montessori Child will eventually see any spelling mistakes for themselves as a self-learner, and make the necessary adjustments moving forward. This could be at age 4, age 5, age 6 - and keeps going higher as the complexity of the words increase.

    This is the same principal for inverted letters and numbers (which is a very common preschool stage - printing some, but not all, letters or numbers backwards). And the same goes for Mathematics, like Addition, Subraction, Multiplication and Division. Children will self-correct their mistakes when they are READY - this means when the connection forms cognitively, they see the error, and understand why it is incorrect.

    So give them time, and fight back that urge to say "are you SURE ten plus eight is eighteen? Maybe count again..." Or "hmm... Is the bumps on the inside of the "B", or the outside...". As harmless as this may seem, it is derailing all of the hard work and foundations your child has built as a self-learner; because they will start to become dependant on an outside source (like a parent, teacher, etc) to check the accuracy of their work. Instead, be patient - and trust that your child will see the problem, when they are able! 

    Because they have formed a solid foundation of self-motivated, self-correcting learning styles, this will evolve on its own organically!

     

    Montessori Children are both Students and Teachers

    Here's another throw-back IG Post from back in March 2015, that I wanted to share here too. 

     Mixed-Age Classrooms hold so many benefits for all students! SJMS goes from 2.5 years to 6 years! 

    Mixed-Age Classrooms hold so many benefits for all students! SJMS goes from 2.5 years to 6 years! 

    Many people may look at this picture, and see two young students interacting at a table; and not see the many different types of skills being developed.

    A huge part of the Montessori Method is "students leading students".

    We believe that through encouraging and empowering students to be both students and teachers, there are amazing opportunities for both sides to gain skills development.

    In this photo, one of our students is assisting another student with one of our Math Materials: The Fractions Puzzle.

    The child stepping into the role of "student" is not only learning how to use the materials, she is also:

    • Learning that socially and emotionally, she can turn to her peers for guidance and support, without fear of judgement.
    • Forming a solid base of being comfortable going to a peer for help, which encourages life-long traits of how to work in a team, how to collaborate, how to work in partnership with another person, and how to function productively in collaborative projects.

    Fast forward 20 years from now, and you can picture Montessori Graduates being the coworker that effectively leads high performance teams, mentors others but also accepts mentorship, and overall is successful in any team setting!

    And for the student being the "teacher"; they are not only:

    • Helping to reinforce their own understanding of this learning material (as it is proven that teaching another person a skill assists the teacher in their own knowledge and understanding of that same skill),
    • They are also gaining incredible socio-emotional  skills!
    • They feel pride in helping a peer, in being a peer that others turn to for assistance, and in pride in their own knowledge and abilities.
    • They are also practicing their own skills of working collaboratively, expressing thoughts and directions clearly, and how to problem solve to reach a goal - the goal in this situation being to help a friend learn how to complete the Fraction Puzzle!

    This core aspect of the Montessori Method - children being both students and teachers - is one of my favourite parts of the philosophy! 

    Another core aspect that I love - that we as Educators are both teachers AND students.

    I learn from my students every day - and what can be more rewarding than that. 

    What is the "Control of Error?" in Montessori?

    If you've done some research to see what the Montessori Curriculum and Methodology is all about, then you've probably come across the term "Control of Error" many times! 

     A student working with a Numerals and Counters Lesson from the Mathematics Area. 

    A student working with a Numerals and Counters Lesson from the Mathematics Area. 

    Plainly speaking: it is an aspect built into many Montessori Learning Materials that enables the preschool child to check the accuracy of their work without the assistance from an adult or peer.

    Let's use the Math Lesson picture above as an example for explaining the Control of Error. To understand how the Control of Error works, we need to understand the Purpose of this Lesson; what is it's goal for the student. 

    Prior to working with this lesson, children need to have already Mastered their understanding of the concept "Zero", be able to recognize numbers 0-9, and understand that each number consists of the correct amount of "objects".

    For this Lesson, the child first spreads their red wooden numerals 0-9 on the bottom of their work space. Then they begin at the number "zero", and add the correct number of wooden counters (in this photo, wooden ladybugs) above it. Then then move on to the "two", and place the correct number above that red number. They repeat this action all the way to "nine".

    As we said, in Montessori almost every lesson has a built-in "control of error"; and that the control of error is a way for the child to self-check their work to see if they performed it correctly.

    With this specific material, the child will know they placed all the ladbugs in the correct places if they have none left over when they are finished - and if they have some remaining unused,  they can see for themselves there is an error somewhere.

    This is key - by seeing and recognizing there is an error SOMEWHERE, the child then learns to go back and check their work - it isn't a adult informing them of a potential mistake, or telling them how to fix it - it is the child himself. That concept is the foundation for a child learning they have the ability to learn independently. 

    Then they can re-check their work (by starting back at "zero" and counting each line's total ladybug) until they find the error.

    This Control of Error is a key part of the Montessori Method, as the philosophy teaches that children learn much more intrinsically, and are more advanced in their true understanding of the various concepts if they are taught how to check their own accuracy of their work - in short, that they do not need to rely on an adult to give them this feedback information. They are able to become self-directed, self-motivated learners!

    And MANY key early learning studies have shown that children learn more when they have these skills, as well as translates into a true love of learning!