I spent all of last week shuttling back and forth between my old job teaching (mostly North American) pre-schoolers at an International school, and my new job, teaching ESL at a Japanese after school preschool program. The whole experience was exhausting (imagine working for nine hours straight, all of your students under the age of six) but the experience got me thinking.
Are Japanese and American three-year-olds really all that different?
My Japanese boss believes that answer is a definite ‘no’. She believes all children are basically the same, especially at the preschool age.
My ESL teacher friends have all sounded in with a resounding “Hell yes”. As more than one friend put it “Japanese kids are really, really weird.”
Here are some of my observations from the last few days.
Five Differences Between Japanese and American Children
* Japanese children tend to ‘shut-down’ when they’re upset. I’ve noticed that if a Japanese child is either angry, sad, bored or just doesn’t want to do something, he or she will give you this blank, expressionless ‘poker face’ look (that is, if they look at you at all). They won’t acknowledge they’ve heard you and won’t even respond when you tap them on the shoulder or say their name. It’s perplexing because you’re left try to surmise why it is they’re upset, (or if that’s even the case). I used to think that it was because they couldn’t articulate their feelings in English, but I’ve watched them do the same thing with the Japanese staff. The Japanese teachers will usually try to joke around in order to coax a smile out of them, or else cuddle them and heap lots of praise and encouragement.
My reaction is to assume it’s an attention seeking behavior and ignore it, but maybe I’m wrong?
American children do this too and might say things like: “I’m not talking to you!” and then go sit in the corner and pointedly ignore you, but it usually doesn’t last more than a minute or two. I find with American children, it’s fairly easy to discern what they’re feeling, mostly because they won’t hesitate in telling you. Or it’ll be written all over their expressive little faces. But then, perhaps someone not familiar with American children wouldn’t say that it’s easy.
* Japanese kids are used to being ‘man-handled’. I’ve observed this happening a lot, especially when mother’s drop their children off at school. If the child is in a bad mood and doesn’t want to go, he won’t say a word but will instead, just sit on the floor and refuse to budge. No screaming. No crying. No tears. Just the silent treatment and the ‘poker face’. It’s uncomfortable to watch, because the mom (embarrassed), will whisper and speak softly in the child’s ear, pleading and trying to gently pull him into a standing position, but to no avail. After about five minutes, she’ll pick him up and carry / drag / yank / pull / push the motionless child into the room. He’ll then silently walk back out of the classroom and drop like a dead weight onto the hallway floor and the whole process will start all over again.
When teaching, I’ve found that I can quite easily maneuver a child around by gently pushing him or her in the direction I want her to go. Or if I want a misbehaving child to sit, I can simply pick them up and place them in a chair. This isn’t true with American children. If you try to coax a child into a line by pulling them by the hand, for example, he or she will likely shout: “I can do it by myself!”
* Japanese children are fiercely competitive…from a very young age! They seek adults approval and are perfectionists. They won’t offer an answer to a question unless they are sure that it’s the correct one. This makes games hard to play at times, because the children are hesitant to just ‘take a wild guess’, which is often necessary for a game to work properly. It’s interesting because even though they’re competitive, it’s usually only with themselves. Every time we play a game and a child is struggling with an answer, another student (even someone from the opposing team, will whisper the answer in the child’s ear. It’s sweet and adorable but I’ve got to wonder: Why? Does it have to do with the whole group culture orientation, (“I help you, you help me”?) Or is it that they can’t stand to see one of their classmates uncomfortable or embarrassed?
American children, on the other hand, have no problem volunteering an answer, and won’t hesitate to shout out an answer, oftentimes when the teacher hasn’t even asked for one. For the most part, they’re a lot more uninhibited and more willing to take risks. I guess that can be attributed to the American educational concept that “there are no wrong answers”. They also have an ‘every man for himself’ attitude towards games and will be quick to shout out “Hey, he cheated!” or “That’s not fair! You helped him!”
* Japanese children need ‘genki’teachers! It’s funny, because when I first started working at the international school, one of my boss’s criticisms was that I was ‘too energetic’. “Speaking in a loud, overly-excited voice, just adds to the chaos and will make the children more rowdy and disruptive. Speak in a normal, quiet, soft tone of voice and they will calm down and listen to you.” This is more or less what I was told, and it really worked. At the Japanese school, however, my boss told me that I need to be more ‘genki’ (excited, energetic and expressive). At first, I balked at the idea. I follow the philosophy that if you plan an interesting, fun lesson, you shouldn’t have to work hard to encourage the children to participate. They’ll naturally want to join in because it’s fun. But I think that because Japanese children are quieter and more timid than American or Western children, they need an energetic teacher to ‘show’ them how to have fun.
* Japanese children love silly, physical humor! That’s another reason why the ‘Genki teacher’ thing seems to go over well. Children love it when the teacher ‘accidentally’ trips over a chair or messes up the words to a song. One of the best teaching tricks to use with Japanese children, is to intentionally get an answer wrong and have them correct you. They never seem to grow tired of this and will gleefully shout out: “Noooo! That’s wrong!” ‘High Fives’, sound effects, funny drawings on the board…these all go over amazingly well in the Japanese classroom.
American children aren’t so quick to buy into it, however. If a teacher ‘accidentally’ dropped his flashcards in front of a class of pre-school American students, for example, they’d more than likely roll their eyes in annoyance.
My boss pointed out that perhaps a lot of my observations have less to do with the fact that my students are Japanese and more to do with the fact that they’re non-native English speakers and in an ESL setting.
What do you think?