Do you remember as a kid either being “that kid” or being one of the kids who told “that kid” in your class, “You can’t play with us.” The scenario would happened on the playground when you were out of earshot of adults. One kid just did not fit in for whatever reason. Shyness, poverty, social awkwardness, being too loud, or just being “odd.” For that kid building up the courage to even ask to join in with the other kids was a big huge deal. The devastation when the rejection came reinforced all the negative thoughts and feelings that were already there about being not good enough, not fitting in, being “weird.”
Vivian Gussin Paley was a veteran teacher who witnessed this in her kindergarten classroom year after year. One year she put a stop to it by instituting the rule that her students were not allowed to say “You Can’t Play.”Once her kids had a rule for this, they apparently complied easily. Where they had once turned their back on the weird kid, they found a way to incorporate them into their play. The kids who were often excluded also developed more self-confidence because they were included and did not have to risk rejection.
A few things about this stand out to me: First, I was one of the kids who often felt awkward. I did not know it then but in addition to ADHD I also had a significant vision problem in my left eye which made me horrible at sports because I could not track movement in my left visual field. As a result I was never picked on sports teams. I tended to stick to my one friend and was otherwise alone at recess. As I got older I tended to move frequently (not a military brat) and would spend a good deal of time playing alone until I “found” a new friend. I tended to be friends with other kids who played alone. We would be awkward together.
This also strikes a chord because when my kids were in elementary school they had a day at the beginning of each year during which they learned about diversity, tolerance and acceptance of people with various handicaps. Usually this focused on ethnicity, physical handicaps, and mental retardation. During one year my son was in a class in which the teacher had little knowledge about learning differences (ADHD, specific learning disorders, dyslexia, etc…) and how to manage the challenges this posed in her classroom. She tried using shame by writing kids’ names on the board when they were “bad.” By the spring she was so frustrated she had a class meeting and pointed out the kids who were “bad” and referred to them as “babies” in front of their peers. The other kids quickly picked up on this and the name calling ensued. It had escaped the teacher that people with learning differences also deserve tolerance and acceptance. Learning differences cannot be seen like ethnicity or being in a wheelchair, but they cause the person who has them to suffer, just the same.
By implementing the rule “you can’t say you can’t play” Ms. Paley caused the kids to have to think differently about the situation, the other person, and their own automatic responses. They had to learn to pause, problem solve, and be more flexible. They had to recognize what each kid could contribute to the play, rather than just playing in the way they usually would. When I think of my work with executives I have to think that these kids ended up with an invaluable learning experience that would potentially make them great leaders and team players. I also have to think that “those kids” ended up being much more successful as well, because they learned where they fit in with the larger group, rather than just playing alone.
If you are the parent of a kid with learning differences you may want to suggest this to their teacher. You may want to implement this on the playground in your neighborhood. And you may want to implement this in your own home- because it can happen even among siblings. As an adult you may want to challenge yourself to play nicely with others who you might normally not include.