Director’s Column: A Laboratory for Human Relationships
By Jeanne W. Lepper, Director
How do young adults learn about children? Some come from large families and have siblings and cousins. Some may have served as counselors at summer camp, others as coaches for youth sports. At Stanford, the undergraduate students also have the unusual and wonderful opportunity to learn systematically about children via classes taught here at Bing Nursery School in child development and developmental psychology. Usually in this column I focus on the role of Bing in the education of young children, but this time I want to look at Bing’s role as a laboratory school for Stanford students.
A series of classes is available to students, beginning with Psychology 60A, the laboratory section of “Developmental Psychology.” The developmental course is a centerpiece of the psychology major. Many Stanford alumni, including Bing parents, remember taking this class from one of two very well-known professors, Eleanor Maccoby and John Flavell, both now emeritus. This year we welcomed Susan Johnson as the course instructor. Psychology 146, “Observation of Children,” and Psychology 147, “Development in Early Childhood,” are traditionally taught by the director or a head teacher at Bing School. One of my greatest joys through the years has been to see children through the eyes of Stanford students.
All of these classes involve a weekly seminar/lecture period combined with required observations in the classroom. After learning the normative basics about child development in Psych 60 and 60A, students in 146 complete detailed directed observations recording selected aspects of a child’s development and behavior. This course culminates in a comprehensive child study. The students then move on to Psych 147, where they actually participate with the children.
The children view adults in this setting primarily as either parents or teachers, so the 147 students become “my new teacher” or to some of the older children “my new Stanford student.”What do the undergraduates learn in these classes? Most obviously, they learn theories of human development and how to apply the theories in their classwork. They also learn how to conduct detailed, careful, and meaningful observation, and they become familiar with good practice in early-childhood education. These skills help them after graduation as they pursue careers such as pediatric medicine, teaching, or family and child law. These skills also help them as parents and citizens to advocate good policies and practices for children. Former students often come back and tell us that they most appreciated learning to promote positive human relationships, with both children and adults, and to provide effective intellectual and emotional support based on what we know from psychology.
One recent graduate, Carmel Levitan, wrote a letter about her experiences that eloquently describes how the courses can affect students’ own lives, even when they are not involved with children. “When I first considered taking Psychology 147, I hesitated. Why take such a course when instead I could be taking something else with more immediate direct relevance to my research and thesis? But the seed of interest that had been planted in Psychology 60A continued to grow, and finally, in my last term, I decided to enroll. I was not willing to let this opportunity slip by. Being at Bing before the students arrived in the morning was quite the challenge after a late night lab session, but a motivating one nonetheless. When I walked through the front gate, it was time to put aside other responsibilities for the morning, and get to work. This sense of entering a new world and structure was quite important to me, probably in much the same way that it is to the children themselves. Knowing that others were depending on my assistance put a whole new spin on my day.
“Going to Bing also brought me back into the real, beyond-college world in ways I truly appreciated. Stanford dorm life is highly artificial; one is surrounded solely by people of the same age.
At Bing, I was suddenly involved with students and teachers in a vital way. I saw families and more complex and nuanced interactions than in the dorm room or classroom. This dramatic difference helped reconnect me to my own childhood, and reminded me that while the student lifestyle I was living could be fun, one element had been lacking: family.
“But there was another missing element, perhaps even more important. My days had become fairly routine over the years, and I felt guilty about any time I took for myself. Even when I did make time, I tended to prefer relaxing by reading or sleeping, which, while valuable activities, are ways of putting the rest of the world aside. Really though, I needed more play and exploration. Part of the magic of Bing is that it is OK to try something and one doesn’t need to worry about being “good at it.” A child’s drawing of a mandala is just as valued as a more advanced, representational work. And spending time learning to make applesauce is on par with spending time playing on a computer—neither of which is ever mandatory. I drew so many lessons from this. I reconnected with the pleasure of making things for the sheer joy of making them. Whether the project is a snack, a painting, or a computer program, the process of creation is just as significant as the finished result, if not more. By not focusing so narrowly on the finished product, I gained a new appreciation for the rhythms of my daily life. Instead of trying to hurry up and have dinner ready, I am taking time to have fun with the process of cooking it, and the enjoyment I get contributes deeply to my overall well being.
“Perhaps the most valuable skill I took from my time at Bing is negotiating the trickiness of interacting with others. The children’s problems and conversations often were simply younger, more transparent versions of adult issues and interactions. For example, when the children would have conflicts, there was often a failure of perspective taking. Not surprisingly, this is frequently a very adult failure as well. After working at Bing, I was a resident assistant in a dormitory. So often, crises and disagreements arose from not seeing the other side or from not communicating about feelings. By helping my residents understand this, I gave them a valuable tool in problem solving. And in helping the children to use these tools, I internalized them so that I myself can use them.
“There are other extremely useful lessons I have drawn from Bing. A major realignment in my thinking came from the guideline of offering positive suggestions instead of making negative statements. So instead of saying, ‘Don’t play that way,’ I had to be retrained so that my instincts were to ask, ‘What about playing this way? You play well this way,’ or to give some other alternative direction of energy. This has proved amazingly useful in working with others; so often, someone will be diligently working away but in a sub-optimal direction. Making negative statements halts everything and dissipates the positive atmosphere. Redirection doesn’t abruptly stop and require a restart; instead it allows a healthier, smoother flow. I have come to look at this as redirection of the flow of a river; it’s much easier to gently change its flow than to stop it altogether and expect it to reappear elsewhere.
“A similar change in attitude came from the encouragement to ask open-ended questions. In the past, I had tended to take a more cut-and-dried approach to situations. I figured I knew what was going on and moved quickly to find solutions or to integrate myself. But at Bing
I learned to slow down and take the time to listen to other people’s theories and explanations. So in a meeting, the best approach might not be to take a yes/no vote right away on a proposed decision; instead, it might make sense to adapt a more open-ended approach. Often, simply asking ‘What do you think of this?’ or ‘What do you think the consequences might be?’ can lead to a far better understanding than one would think. This definitely requires giving over some control—one must let the questions and answers guide the process instead of an agenda—but the rewards can be well worth it. Instead of favoring formulaic answers, this approach leads to brainstorming less obvious solutions. So many times, just asking the children ‘How do you think we should do this?’ led to results more relevant and productive than I could have thought of. Similarly, with adults, this has been an important lesson for me.
“Perhaps the most rewarding part of my time at Bing came from my interactions with a boy who didn’t always fit in well. When I first started at Bing, he was having some issues with some of the other children. When angry, he did not always deal with his frustration in the most positive ways, and the other children picked up on this. Not surprisingly, they did not always choose to interact with him, and this of course only worsened his frustration. There was a negative cycle at work. I spent a lot of time trying to help him sort through his issues or simply sitting with him and letting him read to me. Other children would come by, the ones who naturally gravitated to the teachers. This led to some interactions between the boy and his classmates. I served as a sort of scaffold, and he felt more comfortable in my presence. Similarly, his classmates probably felt more comfortable around him when I was around, because I was monitoring the situation and diffusing some of the tension, keeping the overall situation as relaxed and calm as possible. Making the boy part of the social structure was no simple task, and I never fully succeeded. But there was definitely an overall sense of progress that gives me pride and the feeling that I may have made a slight difference.
“There are so many more lessons I drew from my time at Bing. The suggestions imparted in class and by the teachers have stayed with me in the ‘real world.’ Though I do not work with children or plan on having any in the near future, I learned lessons about people that I use and treasure daily. When I do have children of my own, I know I will be a better parent, both because of the experience within the classroom and because of the valuable work in learning how to interpret and understand what I saw. And as a human being, I have become a better person—a bit softer, kinder, and more communicative. Psychology 147 was one of the highlights of my Stanford experience. While other classes merely stretched my mind, this one also enriched my heart. I consider myself so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the course. Thank you.”
We at Bing in turn say “Thank you” to Carmel and to all the other bright, enthusiastic, talented Stanford students who contribute so much to make Bing Nursery School exemplary.
See page 13 for texts used for Psychology 147.