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A resource for teachers...and books for children about family and friendships


Scolding: Why It Hurts More Than It Helps
Written by Erik Sigsgaard. Teachers College Press, 2005. ($18.95 paperback)


Danish researcher has urged teachers to re-think a disciplinary technique that has been largely ignored or overlooked: scolding.

In Scolding: Why It Hurts More Than It Helps, Erik Sigsgaard refers to scolding as a “verbal, mental disciplinary measure” that teachers use against children placed in their care. Typically a teacher, obviously angry or frustrated, scolds a child saying: “Stop that!” or “Do what I tell you!”

Such outbursts are necessary, according to the traditional view, if children are to learn to behave correctly and acquire knowledge and skills. But Sigsgaard argues, based on the landmark study detailed in the book, that teachers can replace scolding with an attitude of inquiry and helping and thus cultivate a learning environment of appreciation and respect.


The Scolding Project
In 1997, Sigsgaard, a member of the Center of Institution Research in Glostrup, Denmark, began a two-year, in-depth case study of a Danish kindergarten to analyze the effects of scolding. The study consisted of interviews with children and teachers, data collection from various preschool programs and schools, and a review of findings from related studies in other European countries, the United States, China, and Japan.

The results of his study, published in 2002, inspired a number of preschools in Denmark to limit scolding. The book was translated into English and published in 2005.


Scolding in the context of institutions
Essential to understanding the pervasiveness of scolding is what Sigsgaard calls the “institutionalization of childhood.” By institution, he means “an organization that has an independent physical setting and that is intended to perform an externally defined task, typically a public service”—in this case, child care and education.

In Denmark (as well as in other countries), parents must work 70 hours a week to maintain a standard of living that was possible with 50 hours a week in the 1950s. Consequently, children spend 10 hours or more a day in an institution. “Today’s child is institutionalized for some 25,000 hours of his or her childhood, or more than three times as many as yesterday’s child.”

As institutionalization increases, the author asserts, so does scolding. With spanking disallowed as punishment, teachers resort to verbal assaults, including ridicule and criticism, to stay in control.

What they are actually doing is preserving the institution’s hierarchical structure, in which the director and teachers are in charge and the children do what they’re told. Children must conform to rules that may include following a prescribed schedule of activities, asking permission to use the restroom, and sitting quietly and working. Compare that to a family in which children may go from one room to another at will and get food from the refrigerator when they’re hungry, for example.

The amount of scolding varies by school, and many factors come into play. Teachers may be inadequately trained, children may do too much sitting, they may have too many or too few activities, their classrooms and playgrounds may be too crowded, and they may get too little attention from their parents.

Moreover, teachers may be only dimly aware that they do any scolding. In fact, at the outset of the author’s study, teachers reported that they didn’t do much scolding. Early on, however, they realized that almost all the staff had used scolding with a two-week period, and they began to catch themselves doing it.


Why do teachers scold?
Sigsgaard identifies a number of behaviors that trigger scolding, such as children hitting or teasing each other, running indoors, making unnecessary noise, and breaking things. Sometimes children act intentionally, though at other times they do it by accident or out of ignorance.

Scolding is often justified with reasons such as these:
It’s part of the culture. It’s a habit—something we just do.
It’s something the adults experienced as children.
It’s part of a belief system that says scolding makes children change.
It’s a consensus shared by teachers and parents.
It’s a handy tool to use in a power struggle with children who are not respected and unable to defend themselves.
It’s a natural emotional outburst by adults under stress.
It becomes more necessary to preserve order as classrooms get overcrowded and teachers get increasingly overworked.


How does scolding affect children?
Sigsgaard estimates that 10 to 20 percent of children are scolded more than other children in a group. They typically fall into one or more of these categories:
younger children
newcomers to the group
boys, especially those who are physically active
children from sociocultural groups different from those of the staff
children with troubled family backgrounds, who may also be scolded a lot at home.

Children perceive scolding in different ways. Some know they’ve broken a rule and accept scolding to ease their guilt. Others don’t see a link between their behavior and scolding; it’s something adults can do if they want. Other children think that an adult dislikes the child being scolded or that the adult thinks the child is stupid. Many children react with shock and fright: “It’s like hitting someone with your voice,” according to one 5-year-old.

Psychologically, scolded children can experience feelings of humiliation, guilt, shame, anxiety, and stress. If coupled with a lack of positive feedback, children may have trouble forming social relationships as they grow.

Bystanders, the children who witness another child being scolded, also experience negative effects. Perhaps they identify with the targeted child, they feel anguish at not being able to help, or they fear for their own safety. In some cases, the effect on the bystanders can be stronger than on the victim.


Can we lessen scolding?
As part of the kindergarten study, teachers brought scolding into the open. They wrote about scolding in personal journals, discussed how they felt after scolding (often bad), and tried ways of avoiding it (first counting to 10). They began to see children less as “objects for the adults to rear and educate” and more as “human beings in their own right, of equal worth, and with their own desires, volition, and direction.”

They replaced the practice of making demands on children with an attitude of helping. Upon seeing children in conflict, they were less prone to jump in and stop them and more willing to see if children could work things out by themselves. They asked more questions of children, explained the reasons behind rules, and gave children more opportunity to describe situations from their point of view.

When asked what adults should do instead of scolding, most children replied: “Just say it in a normal way.” Many children wanted to see scolding abolished altogether. Sigsgaard believes they want the culture of control replaced by a culture “based more on dialogue and guidance.”

He reminds readers that institutionalization dramatically restricts children’s power, and their running in the hall, making noise, and otherwise creating mayhem are attempts to exercise power. By doing so, however, they get scolded, which leads to more conflict and more scolding. The interesting question,” Sigsgaard says, “is not why there is so much scolding in one institution or another, but why there are institutions with very little scolding….”

He suggests that low-scolding schools have shifted the distribution of power. Instead of grabbing a child by the arm, forcing the child to look into the scolder’s eyes, and speaking angry words, the teacher empowers the child to explain what happened and why. Power, for both adults and children, “involves the ability to define reality, to create meaning and understanding through action, to express one’s views, and to be heard.”

In addition, he notes that on a practical level, much scolding could be avoided if schools provided “more adult time, more space, and more outdoor activities.” Unfortunately, however, current education trends indicate the opposite: “more lessons, more requirements, more control, and more emphasis on book learning. This is bound to produce more scolding.”

In the concluding chapter, he describes a dozen schools that have moved away from scolding. One Norwegian kindergarten has a written ban on scolding. “This may be a reflection of the fact that, unlike spanking, scolding is not yet perceived as violence against children…. And perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that a critical view of institutionalization is a new and emerging area.”


All About Grandmas
Written by Roni Schotter and illustrated by Janice Nadeau. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012. ($16.99)

is a celebratory reminder that no two grandmothers are alike. Sizes, shapes, costumes, and interests—from jellying and tickling to mending and pretending—the message is consistent: She’s the one who loves you.
A lovely twist is in the inclusion of grandmother names like Savta, Tutu, Bambi, and Bubbe that reflect the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of these diverse women. The text is written in verse—simple, sometimes vocabulary-building, and always cheering the “one you call grandma.”


Sophie’s Fish
Written by A.E. Cannon and illustrated by Lee White. Viking Books, 2012. ($15.99)


Jake has an emotional dilemma: He’s promised to care for Sophie’s pet fish Yo-Yo for the weekend and is in tizzy when he realizes he doesn’t know anything about fish. What if Yo-Yo wants a snack? What games do fish play? And what if Yo-Yo catches a cold—does he have a special blanket?
Lots of humor and clever illustrations invite compassion, commiseration, and sympathy for Jake and his eagerness to escape the commitment. A simple fish-care lesson from Sophie calms all fears and brings Jake’s emotional roller coaster to a smooth stop.


Road Work Ahead
Written by Anastasia Suen and illustrated by Jannie Ho. Viking Books, 2011. ($15.99)


Clear, colorful illustrations reminiscent of Anne Rockwell invite young readers into the world of big machines and city infrastructure.

A simple trip to Grandma’s becomes an adventure of road work, detours, direction signs, underground cables, overhead lighting, concrete paving, and “…fixing things up everywhere.”


The Hueys in the New Sweater
Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel Books, 2012. ($10.99)


Oliver Jeffers shares a wee fable that is both whimsical and spot-on accurate: differences count. Low-key pencil drawings magnify the impact of a gaggle of Hueys. Each Huey looks the same, acts the same, and thinks the same—until one knits himself a bright orange sweater.

Even the youngest readers will respond to the emotional tug. The sweater is a bright idea, but it makes the Huey different. The other Hueys (rather like people) respond with horror, admiration, interest, sympathy, and eventually emulation until all the Hueys are the same again. But then one decides he likes the idea of wearing a hat….