by Livy Traczyk
A huddle of blue-and-white–uniformed bodies heaving with laughter in the library meant only one thing to this seasoned preK teacher: someone, in some way, was violating a classroom rule.
Why else would this particular group of four-year-olds choose to gather at the library when they had the option to become a Wild Thing in the Dramatic Play Center or get wet with the water wheels at Exploration Station? We were a few months into the school year and, as was customary, the centers had already undergone stringent evaluation by the preschoolers:
Can I be loud? Can I get messy and not get in trouble for it? Not surprisingly, the library never ranked very high by these criteria.
However, on this particular morning, two groups of students were hunched over a pair of brightly colored board books in the library, each giggling and pointing at a specific page. The girls shared one copy, their hands covering their mouths as their cheeks reddened. The boys, splayed-out, aggressively rotated their own copy across each other’s legs.
What in the world? I mouthed to my teaching assistant.
Getting down on my knees, I snuck into the girls group and instantly laughed alongside them. Before me was the board book Hands Are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi, open to the picture of a boy using his hands to dress and undress.
So, I thought, this is how you teach students to keep their hands to themselves.
Earlier that morning, I had read Hands Are Not for Hitting during story-time with a few students in mind. I wasn’t entirely certain that the message got through to them. But sitting on the library floor I could see that it had.
By showing my students the variety of replacement behaviors illustrated in Hands Are Not for Hitting (albeit seemingly silly and “gross” to some four-year-olds), discussions were happening frequently and organically, in ways teachers often only dream of.
Before that moment in the library, I knew that cultivating empathy was a lifelong pursuit, and one that needed to begin as early as birth. Empathy enables kids to understand, for example, that hitting hurts. However, what I didn’t fully realize until then was that in order to help my students understand this, I had to provide replacement behaviors in addition to explaining why hitting hands were harmful.
After free-play, I had the class trace their handprints onto bright construction paper, and then I helped them write on the hands one positive thing they could use their hands for. Their handprints adorned the walls of our class for the entire year as a reminder.
As far as teaching moments go, I happily admit that the colorful handprints bordering the walls paled in comparison to the copies of Hands Are Not for Hitting in the student library. Students picked up that book nearly every day for the rest of the school year, and they never tired of discussing its many illustrative examples. The book not only encouraged my students to reevaluate the cool-factor of the library, but it also helped them learn an important life lesson about how to keep their bodies safe. And, perhaps just as importantly, it allowed the teachers to smile at a few spontaneous bursts of laughter coming from the designated quiet corner.
Teaching replacement behavior definitely can be tough—sometimes it’s even harder than teaching academics. Do you use Hands Are Not for Hitting or other books to help your students understand how to interact more appropriately? I’d love to hear your strategies in the comments below.
Livy Traczyk is an author, illustrator and literacy tutor residing in Minneapolis, MN. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Creative Writing from St. Norbert College. She has published two children’s books with AppleTree Early Learning Institute, where she also taught Pre-K to at-risk youth.
Livy is currently collaborating with a social worker to create a series of multicultural books based on difficult home life issues, with the goal of providing language, understanding, imagery, and comfort to kids who are often unseen in children’s literature.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.