Sunday, November 20, 2011

Really Seeing Children

No matter what age they work with or what grade they teach, teachers all bring unique strengths, beliefs, approaches and methods of teaching and interacting with those children. Some teachers prefer to lead the instruction, planning well ahead of time, sometimes following themes they have chosen at the beginning of the year. Other teachers prefer to follow the child's lead, choosing materials and potential activities based on what they observe the children doing, incorporating the children's interests and allowing the children time and space to use the materials in their own way as they generate their own ideas and learning.

Most early childhood teachers fall somewhere in the middle, using a blend of teacher-initiated and child-initiated activities. The longer I teach, the more I move toward child-initiated activities.  While I don't see as much value in direct instruction or having children learn based themes chosen by the teacher, if it works for that teacher and group of children, then who am I to tell them what to do?  There is such a continuum of what teachers are comfortable with, what they know about learning and children and the ways different children learn that it helps to have a full repertoire of ideas, approaches and methods.

But, there is one aspect of teaching that I will never understand. That is the teacher who talks in absolutes and tends to only see the negative. I imagine everyone has a story they can share about the teacher who seems to  hate children, is suffering from burn out or just doesn't understand children. This teacher may say things like, "Mark is always breaking the toys," or "Jenny never cleans up when she leaves a center."  He or she might not go so far as to say a certain child is bad although I have heard that more times than I care to remember. These teachers have a tendency to focus on the negative and what the child can't do. I've heard teachers of three-year-olds panic that a child or groups of children can't identify all of the letters of the alphabet our count to 10 or beyond without missing a number. They criticize two, three and four-year-olds for not sitting still, on their bottoms, with their legs crossed for fifteen minutes or more during circle time or not being able to stand perfectly still in a line while they wait for the whole class to get their coats on in order to go outside.

Negativism in the the classroom

When I hear teachers focus almost exclusively on the negative, it really makes me wonder why they are working with children. Every teacher or caregiver has had at least one child in their group that they really struggled with. Usually this struggle revolves around behavior. Even the best of us have reached a point where we have exhausted all of our tricks, ideas, and skills to try to help that child. A teacher who understands young children will not place blame on the child for their behaviors. After all, aren't we here to help them learn what behaviors are socially acceptable?  If we aren't going to support them through conflict, emotional outburst and all these other social-emotional things that are part of normal child development, then who will? Yet I still hear teachers place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the child and often the family as well.

And no matter how much they talk about these challenges and issues, they come back year after year after year.  The reasons for these attitudes toward children are as varied as the teachers themselves. Sometimes it is a simple case of burn-out. The push-down of curriculum that has escalated since the passage of No Child Left behind likely plays a role. The fact that many early childhood professionals have no training in child development before entering the field probably doesn't help, either.  But, I see trained professionals struggling with this almost as much as the untrained teachers. There comes a time, though, when the teacher becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.

I feel the main issue here is that these teachers never take the time to really see the children they are spending countless hours with.  They get so focused on a set of skills or behaviors that they think children should have that they fail to see what these same children can really do. Because, let's face it, infants, toddlers and preschoolers can't do a lot more than they can. It's a simple fact. They are here to learn, explore, experiment, test, form ideas, and ask questions. Quite simply, they are here to just do. When teachers are able to see children in light of their abilities, accomplishments and interests, a more positive and deeper relationship generally develops between them. This relationship is the foundation for all children to feel secure enough to explore and engage in their environment.

Understanding each child

In order to change the focus from what the child can't do and to start seeing children as having “preparedness, potential, curiosity and interest in constructing their own
learning…and in negotiating with everything the environment brings to them,” (Lella Gandini), there needs to be a shift in focus and what the teacher's role is.

  1. Slow down to the children's pace.  Let them choose their activity and how to play with it. Don't offer suggestions or show them the proper way to use it.  This is not an easy thing to in education today. With all the pressure to have children ready for school, the fact that they are learning very important skills during play is often overlooked.
  2. Take some time each day to observe. Focus on one or two children or a small group.  Write down what you see and hear, what they are playing with, how they are playing with the materials and interacting with each other.  Give them this time to explore and let them show you what they know and can do.  The more you observe, the better able you can determine the child's strengths and interests.
  3. Talk with the children, not at them. Take some time each day to have conversations with the children. For the youngest children, these conversations and exchanges typically happen during routing care activities, such as diapering or feeding. Taking the time to sit down with a group of toddlers or preschoolers at lunch and talking about their day,  what they like/dislike, what they had for dinner the night before and so on, will provide invaluable information about the children. Taking the time to really listen and focus shows them the teacher respects their thoughts and ideas and values them as people. Waiting patiently for a response after a question gives the children time to process the question and recall the pertinent information without feeling rushed.
  4. Use the information. Take the information you are learning and use it when selecting new materials, activities and even themes. If there is intense interest in an activity, give them more time to explore. Having the ability to repeat activities and projects again and again builds mastery over time.  Talk with them about the materials and why you chose them or, when you see an interest developing, talk with them about ways you can expand on it or materials you could add to help them take their play to the next level.
When teachers and caregivers view children as capable, competent learners, their confidence and security grows. When they feel secure, they are more likely to explore. When we show them we value their ideas, they are more likely to share new ideas and to want to test them out. Every opportunity to  explore, test materials and social skills helps children learn how to learn.  And isn't that the point?

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