Current Issue Back Issues Cards About Submissions Subscribe
Issue 2, Fall 2008

On Schools of Education, Theodore Sizer
Opening up to Math, Sarah Strong
In Over Our Heads, Stacey Lopaz
African Bushmeat Expedition, Jay Vavra
Learning as Production,
      Critique as Assessment
, Elisabeth Soep
Speeding Race Cars
      & Dying Embers
, Ashley Bull-Carrico
Messy Business: A Student's Perspective
      on Project-Based Learning
, Mollie Davis
The Great Lego Caper, Zoltan Sarda

1: Writing on the Walls
2: San Diego/Tijuana Crossed Gazes
3: Blogging is Writing
4: Public Service Advertising Campaign
5: Science Friction
6: I Am an Artist

HTH GSE » UnBoxed » Issue 2 » theory in practice

Students create patterns with Legos and other toys in Mr. Sarda’s class.

The Great Lego Caper

The author, a kindergarten teacher, analyzes a classroom interaction in light of his own experience, child development theory, and models for socio-emotional pedagogy.

One day about midway through the last school year, my students were cleaning the room and getting ready to go home. We have two large bins of Legos, which are highly popular with my students. My assistant, Carrie, brought one student into the classroom to talk to me from out in the hall, where she had found him filling his backpack with a large assortment of Legos. When Carrie described what had occurred, Anthony hung his head. I asked him what he had been doing and he said, “I was stealing some Legos.” I asked him what the problem was with taking Legos home. He said, “Because then we won’t have any left to play with in the classroom.” I agreed with him, and I said, “But you really wanted to take some home, didn’t you?” At this point Anthony began to cry and nodded his head. I then said, “So why don’t you ask me if you can take some home.” He looked up and said, “Could I?” I responded, “Will you bring them back?” To which he replied, “Yes!”

The next day, Anthony returned to school with all the Legos he had borrowed and put them back in the bin. He proudly told some of his classmates what had happened, and their response was, predictably, “Can we take some home, too?” I told the students that if they wanted to borrow something from the classroom, all they had to do was ask, and let me know that they would return it the following day. I also said that sometimes I might say no, depending on the item, or the day. For the rest of the year, students routinely took home Legos and brought them back the following day. At times they would forget, or might have lost a piece. Michael at one point brought in all the Legos he had borrowed, neatly stored in a Ziploc bag, and said, “I have all the pieces, but I can’t find one guy. I’ll look for it tonight and bring it back tomorrow.” And he did. We did not lose one Lego piece through the entire year. Some of the parents told me that their students had many of their own Legos at home, but the pieces from school carried extra significance, and their children kept those pieces separate while playing with them.

This incident has remained vivid in my mind for two reasons. First, these kinds of things happen in classrooms every day; students take things that don’t belong to them, are careless, and misuse or break things. Second, as teachers, we are challenged with responding to these situations in ways that will help students learn from their mistakes. Our school’s approach is to focus on the socio-emotional aspects of learning and to help children develop an understanding of themselves, their emotions, their behaviors and impulses, and the impact of their actions on others. In thinking about the approaches I take with my students, this incident is a powerful illustration of three areas of research that have guided my evolving thinking and practice.

Reward, Punishment, and Consequences

On the surface, my response to Anthony may have seemed as if I was rewarding bad behavior. In years past, my response would likely have been different. A teacher’s classroom is a very personal space—in some ways, an extension of their home. When our personal effects or classroom supplies are stolen or mistreated, we have emotional responses to those invasions. On one level I felt angry that Anthony had been trying to steal something from my classroom. Earlier in my career, I might have tried to devise a punishment that would “teach him a lesson” about honesty and responsibility and make him unlikely to repeat the behavior. Part of that response might also have soothed my anger and frustration; something along the lines of “You can’t play with the Legos for the rest of the week,” or “We’re going to talk to the principal about this.”

Students share Legos and other toys.

I also know that this type of response would most likely have been ineffective. Anthony’s actions were impulsive, and in my experience children learn very little about self-regulation and how to manage their impulses through punishment or extrinsic reward. As Alfie Kohn (1993) asserts, the use of punishment and reward instill “temporary compliance” in children, but do very little to help them internalize altruistic behaviors and attitudes. This is because learning is a reflective process. For emotional and social learning as well as academic learning, part of the learning process is the struggle to rationalize and integrate existing knowledge or behaviors with new information.

Boud, Keough and Walker (1987) argue that the way to enhance learning is to strengthen the links between the experience and opportunities for reflection. These opportunities require the learner to recall the experience in intentional ways while attending to feelings that are associated with the experience; drawing on positive feelings or removing “obstructing feelings” (p. 26). To do this effectively the learner’s attention must be focused on the salient aspects of the problem—not, for example, on the adult handing out the consequence. Part of my response to Anthony was based on my understanding of this process. I asked him what the problem was, and he responded appropriately, demonstrating that he knew the consequences of his actions: “If I take them, we won’t have any left to play with.” Any continued attempts on my part to make a lasting impression on him would only have diverted his attention from his own actions, and focused them on me, or on the consequence he would be required to endure.

Furthermore, one of the outcomes of punishment is that it makes children self-centered (Kohn, 2006). They become focused on what the ramifications of their actions are for them: I’m going to get in trouble, or I need to take steps to avoid the punishment. An example of this self-centered focus can be seen in many children’s responses to the question, “Why is it not okay to hit someone?” A common response is, “Because you’ll get in trouble.” The real problem, however, is that you’ll hurt them.1 In Anthony’s situation, I wanted his attention to be focused on the fact that if he took the Legos, they would not be available in the classroom.

Authoritative Practice

Anthony’s ability to be openly reflective during this incident is due, in part, to the relationship I cultivated with him throughout the year. He knows he can trust me. If he had been fearful of my response, it would have inhibited his ability to engage openly with me. He needed to know that I would handle any response from him with empathy and understanding.

The way I relate to my students can best be described as “authoritative,” which is not the same thing as “authoritarian.” In studies of the relationships between parents and children, Diana Baumrind (1991) identified a typology consisting of two ways of interacting with children: responsiveness and demandingness. Responsiveness refers to “the extent to which parents intentionally foster individuality, self-regulation, and self-assertion by being attuned, supportive, and acquiescent to children’s special needs and demands” (p. 62). Demandingness, or “behavioral control,” refers to “the claims parents make on children to become integrated into the family whole, by their maturity demands, supervision, disciplinary efforts and willingness to confront the child who disobeys” (p. 61-62). Authoritarian practices are high in demandingness and low in responsiveness, while permissive practices are high in responsiveness and low in demandingness. In contrast, authoritative parenting styles are marked by high levels of both behavioral control and responsiveness, which fosters higher levels of social competence, self-efficacy, and self-regulation in children.
So what does authoritative practice look like in my classroom? My daily interactions with my students include many opportunities for defining and articulating both academic and behavioral expectations. We have regular conversations and role-plays that clarify in quite exacting detail what these expectations look like. At the same time, I work purposefully to nurture and support each child’s emotional needs, getting to know and understand them, anticipating their emotional responses to experiences, and helping them communicate these emotions in effective ways. When I do have to correct a child’s behavior, as I did with Anthony, I do so calmly and gently, while trying to gain an understanding of the emotional factors that contributed to the behavior. What I try to do, in effect, is to maintain a high level of responsiveness within the interactions in which I am being demanding with my students.

I’m not just doing this to be nice. By responding to Anthony in a responsive and nurturing manner, I am helping to “wire” his mind in ways that fundamentally influence his sense of self, and his relationships throughout his lifetime. As children develop supportive and secure relationships with caregivers—be they parents or teachers—they gain the confidence to explore their expanding world (Pianta, 1998).2 They also begin to self-regulate, which increases their ability to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, to sustain attention, and to regulate their emotions (Howes and Ritchie, 2002). All of these predispositions are critical factors associated with success in school and interpersonal relationships.

Personal Narrative as Prophesy

Anthony is an exuberant and enthusiastic little boy and brings a great deal of energy to the classroom. By his own admission, he “gets in trouble a lot.” One of my concerns for my students is that the narratives they use to think about and describe themselves can become self-fulfilling prophecies. My response to Anthony, asking him to ask me if he could take the Legos home, came from my desire to help him develop a positive sense of self, to see himself as an honest person. In my experience, repeated consequences or punishments often have the effect of creating and reinforcing negative internal attributions in children: “I’m a trouble maker.” These internal narratives can profoundly influence an individual’s self-concept and, I believe can become predictors of future behaviors.

My response also came from my desire to help Anthony see that he had control over his choices and behavior.3 Many children explain their impulses in negative external ways: “I couldn’t help it.” It’s as if some external force came over them. By asking Anthony to ask for the Legos, I was hoping to help him understand that he could monitor his emotions and be proactive in taking care of them, rather than developing a view of himself as dishonest and a victim of his own whims.

Summing Up

While one interaction is not sufficient to help children internalize a positive self-concept and develop emotional and behavioral regulation, episodes like this one with Anthony serve to remind me of some of the complexities at play in human development. Most people, myself included, have grown up and gone to school with the adults in our lives using some aspects of behaviorist principles to manage our behaviors. These principles include rewarding desired behaviors with reinforcing stimuli, or discouraging behaviors with negative stimuli. Given our own histories, these practices can often become the default way of teaching and redirecting children. They are seen as the natural way human beings learn. Current research—discussed here and in more detail in the endnotes—provides us with overwhelming evidence that this is not the case.

Throughout my career people have told me that I am a “natural” with children. This is only partially true. Parts of me are temperamentally suited to working with children. What has been most helpful to me throughout my career, however, is an interest in finding out why children behave and respond and interact the way they do. I want to know what is going on in their minds as they learn and develop. Developmental learning theories provide insights to these questions. They also profoundly inform my practice, day by day, moment by moment in interactions such as this one with Anthony—in a way, I hope, that contributes to my students’ development as independent, autonomous learners and thoughtful citizens.


1 At Explorer we recently conducted an informal, unscientific study about this very idea. Twenty children from various grade levels were asked, “Why is it not okay to hit someone?” Ten of the children had been attending the school for more than one year. The other ten were new to the school. Nine of the first group’s responses reflected the impact on the other child (“It would hurt them”), while seven of the children new to the school responded in a way that reflected the impact for themselves (“You’ll get in trouble”).

2 These ideas are grounded in Attachment Theory, an area of developmental research focused on the attachment relationships between children and their caregivers. Infants and toddlers form attachment relationships with primary caregivers who provide nurturing social interactions for them (Siegel, 1999). As the child grows, these relationships become stable anchors that allow children to explore their expanding worlds and that facilitate their learning (Pianta, 1998). They also become models for future relationships through childhood and into adulthood.

3 People construct different types of theories everyday to explain why something happens. Attribution Theory refers to the internal cognitive theories that people develop to explain their experiences and behaviors (Weiner, 1986). Some of these theories locate control within the person; positive and negative examples of internal theories are “I did well on the test because I am a good test taker, and I studied hard,” or “I did poorly on the test because I’m bad at math.” Other theories locate control outside the person; positive and negative examples of external theories are “I did well on the test because my teacher is good at communicating and cares about my learning,” or “I did poorly on the test because it was unfair.”

There is an aspect of controllability to each of these attributions, in how much control the person feels they have over events or outcomes. If a person views effort as controllable, they can do something different the next time and achieve a different outcome. If they feel an attribute is intricately linked with their personality (“That’s just the way I am”), they may assume that the outcome will be the same no matter what they do. My hope, in working with children, is to help them separate particular behaviors from presumed personality traits, and to assist them in developing a sense of control over their responses to external factors.


Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11(1), 56-95.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1987). Promoting reflection in learning: a model. In Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (Eds.) Reflection: Turning experience into learning. New York: Nichols Publishing.

Howes, C., & Ritchie, S. (2002). A matter of trust: Connecting teachers and learners in the early childhood classroom, New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Kohn, A. (2006). Unconditional parenting; Moving from rewards and punishment to love and reason. New York: Arria Books.

Pianta, R. C. (1999). Enhancing relationships between children and teachers. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: The Guilford Press.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.