Every day after lunch recess the K-pals have free choice centers (inside). The students find their name card as they enter the classroom, and then "sign in" to the center of their choice. Generally two students are allowed at each center, and the centers change monthly or so.
In the first few months of the year, this opportunity to choose served as a great incentive for the K-pals to transition quickly from recess into the classroom. The kids picked their center based simply on what activity they wanted to do, and what centers were still available. They were able to be pretty flexible about it.
Then, just a few weeks ago, we noticed that who was playing in the center was beginning to be more important to the K-pals than the activity itself. All of the sudden, the stakes were higher, and so was the stress level. At first this seemed to be an authentic opportunity for the students to practice the art of negotiation, to identify and ask for what they wanted in an effective way, and to manage disappointment, if needed.
But after a few weeks of facilitating this important practice, the tension and anxiety around choosing a center (or choosing a friend to play with) only seemed to mount. Partners for free choice time were sought as early as arrival time - first thing in the morning - and alliances shifted and were broken right up until the name cards were in the centers. The kids would race from their hooks to the classroom and jostle for position in front of the centers sign in area, but out of a sense of panic, not excitement.
My first instinct was to take away the source of the stress - to simply get rid of free choice time, and assign centers. Happily, I checked that knee-jerk reaction, and realized that that would run counter to one of the main guiding principles I use to make decisions in my practice: will this help my students become happy, healthy, successful adults? As adults, we constantly face "free choice" decisions, decisions in which the stakes feel high, feelings - our own and those of others - are risked, and disappointment is a real possibility. Taking away free choice time did not make sense.
So I took a deep breath, and took the problem back to the people who were experiencing it most acutely: the K-pals.
We settled into a circle, and I told them I was feeling worried. I described what I had seen in their faces and bodies, and what I had heard in the way they were speaking to each other: stress, anxiety, fear that they might get disappointed, or hurt. I explained that I feel that way sometimes, too, but that I really wanted our space and community at school to feel safe.
Then the floodgates opened.
"Someone tricked me about what centre they would go to!"
"Someone moved my name!"
"Someone pushed me out of the way!"
"Does anyone have any ideas about what would make things feel easier, or a bit less stressful?" I asked, hoping and trusting the K-pals to be constructive now that they had had an opportunity to express their experiences.
"We could try having three people instead of only two in each center."
"We could be allowed to change our centers so that we didn't only get one chance."
My trust was rewarded. Having had their feelings acknowledged and identified with, and having been empowered to solve their own problem, the K-pals (together with some ideas from Miss K. and I) were able to propose a solution that is still working for us, two weeks in: instead of rushing from the coat room to our classroom with a sense of panic, the K-pals settle back into the classroom as a story is read aloud (an enduring motivation to transition efficiently!). Then, their names are drawn in a random order so as to avoid any need to race, and three students are allowed in each centre. Sometimes we even have double free choice centers!
The K-pals know that we can revisit this set-up at any point if it becomes stressful again, that they can initiate the discussion themselves - it doesn't have to be started by a teacher, that their emotional safety is important to us, and that we trust them to be able to solve their own problems.
Thank goodness we didn't ban free choice!