I guess every teacher goes through this – that first day of school you almost hold your breath waiting to see “who shows up” in your classroom. This is probably especially true of Kindergarten teachers because the names on our list are often totally unknown – of course sometimes we have had a sneak preview – happy or not! My family often joked about knowing which childrens’ names they would be hearing all year by our dinner conversation on the first day of school.
One of the quotes I posted on a wall in my classroom said “Teaching Kindergarten is like trying to keep a tub full of corks underwater, all at the same time!” I absolutely loved my job – it was what I always wanted to do, I found it fulfilling, exciting, challenging …. and exhausting sometimes! But there were times that those first weeks of school almost did me in – all the children were so needy! In my district we could have up to 28 students, with no paraeducators. But it usually wasn’t too long before most children learned our routines and gained some independence, and I loved talking with them, playing with them, watching them, guiding them, and seeing them learn and blossom! That is MOST children.
Every child is a unique individual who comes to school with their own personality and strengths, distinct family unit, and about 5 years of experiences that have impacted his/her relationships with other children and adults. Some have lots of ‘school smarts’ and seem to easily understand the idea of sitting at circle time, waiting for their turn, not shouting out their ideas, following rules and expectations, and keeping their hands (and feet — and teeth) to themselves. Others are new to the whole school game – some sit quietly – some follow along, others are tearful and scared, (loudly or quietly!) And then there are those children that we sometimes say should count for 5 (or 10) because they march to the beat of their own drum!!
It would be so much easier if we could just concentrate on the children that are ready to learn, the ones who are eager and cooperative and have supportive parents. The ones who are not disruptive, or destructive, angry or belligerent, aggressive or passively recalcitrant. We feel so successful when we look at most of our class – they are learning and growing, excited and loving school! If only we didn’t have to find a way to survive the year with those little bunnies that bring us so many challenges — but we do!
The term “No child left behind” has so many negative connotations, and has brought about some ridiculous, inappropriate changes – but there is truth behind that statement. As a teacher it is our responsibility to do our very best for every single child that walks through our door. I wish there was a magic solution – a technique that they just forgot to include in your undergrad training, a secret that no one has shared with you yet. But there are no easy answers. There is nothing that will work every day with every child. But the one thing I can say, at the end of my career looking back – it is also those challenging children who bring the greatest sense of satisfaction when you do feel that you have made a difference.
I jokingly referred to those difficult little ones as “an opportunity to help me become a better teacher.” There were many times that I dissolved into tears feeling like nothing I did made any difference; and nothing I tried was working for a certain child. But then I sat down and thought of one more thing to try – we don’t have the choice of giving up!
I don’t have the answer – I don’t have a solution – but I do have some ideas of things you might want to try. I really love the philosophy and many ideas of the program – Conscious Discipline. I would really recommend ordering the book from Dr. Becky Bailey, or taking a class if you can (www.consciousdiscipline.com). Along with this program, I have learned from trial and error, fabulous mentors, and some exceedingly challenging children.
THINGS I HAVE LEARNED
1. The only person you can control is yourself. You really can’t MAKE anyone do anything. You can only set up an environment that will help children WANT to do something.
2. It does not make sense to make children FEEL bad to encourage them to BE good. When a child feels badly about himself or his behavior he is unlikely to change, more often he will get angry. It can be hard to turn off that scolding voice, or disapproving look – but they really are not effective ways to encourage positive behavior.
3. The most effective way to encourage children to be cooperative is to form a cohesive classroom community – a school family. People are more likely to be cooperative if they feel cared for, and if they care about the other person.
There are so many great ways to build this type of community – check out drjean.org, as well as Conscious Discipline if you are looking for ideas. Here are a few things that I did in my classroom:
Research shows that the easiest way to build connections between people are eye contact and touch. Think about politicians who shake your hand, often holding onto your arm with the other hand – and look into your eyes – they heard about the research! I set the tone for this by greeting each child every morning, and also by including songs and games that require the children to look at each other and use gentle touches.
Give each child a meaningful job that makes them feel important in the classroom. I had a job chart with as many jobs as children – it takes some work to think of that many jobs the children will consider meaningful – I doubled up and had 2 messengers, 2 children reading the question of the day, etc. When a child is counted on to perform a job he feels like he is an important part of the school family.
We followed routines and rituals that bound us together – songs to begin and end the day; special handshakes and hugs, celebrations, there are so many! I plan to write a post about routines and rituals, you probably have a lot you already use.
Set a tone of caring and respect for everyone. We discussed and modeled everything. Role playing is a great way to give the children the words and actions they might need to work out problems.
3. Notice the child. Look for positive things you can comment on, but instead of saying “I like the way you are sitting” say “I notice you are keeping your hands in your lap.” This takes the emphasis off your approval and focuses the child on exactly what he or she was doing well. Even if you can’t find positive behavior to notice – comment on their clothing or hairstyle or new coat. Just being noticed helps a child feel cared about.
4. For me – rewards were never a long term solution. Instead of rewarding children for good behavior or mastering a task – I loved having celebrations! The main difference between the two is that when you offer a reward you are bartering for the child to do what you want, in exchange for some kind of positive reinforcement. A celebration is a recognition of great things you notice about your class – or a specific student. When a class is working toward a reward it is not uncommon for one child to misbehave and keep the whole class from getting the reward. That gives them a feeling of power!
5. I had limited rules – Be Safe, Be Kind, Be Helpful. I posted this Conscious Discipline quote on my classroom wall – “My job is to keep this classroom safe, so children can learn. Your job is to help keep it that way.” Rules make sense to children when they understand that you are trying to keep them safe. Hearing this is also comforting to some children who are insecure or scared to be away from home. Of course it is vitally important to keep all the children safe. If you have a child who is a danger to the other children your first priority is to protect them, you might need to move a child away from others if he or she is trying to hit, bite, throw things, etc. But when you move them they need to hear that you are doing it because you need to keep all of the children safe – I always told the child “I would not let anyone hurt you, and I can’t let you hurt anyone else.”
6. When a child is misbehaving, try to figure out what the pay-off is. Are they looking for attention? Testing limits? Expressing anger? Find, devise, create ways to give that child what he or she is looking for in more appropriate ways. Sometimes children get so overwrought that they are out of control. Conscious Discipline recommends having a “safe place” in your room where children can go if they are having a melt down and need a place to settle down. This is not a time out place, you don’t send a child to the safe place – but you can offer it as a place to calm down.
7. I found that lots of behavior problems are because the child is looking for power. I think young children often feel like they don’t have any power – big people boss them around all day long. In my classroom, and with my grandson – I really emphasize the child’s ability to make choices. Offering two positive choices is one technique that often works when a child is resisting something you need him or her to do. If a child won’t clean up you could say “Would you like to put the blocks on the shelf or put the crayons in the tub?” Make sure that you only offer 2 things that you really are ok with. “Do you want to ________ before snack or after your snack?” Routinely offering choices throughout the day helps all children feel significant and powerful – they get to choose! If you always tell the children which center to go to, what project to do, where to sit, etc. some children are more likely to rebel.
8. Make absolutely sure that your expectations are clear and understood. I loved making books to help children who had difficulty sitting at circle time, or following routines, or following rules, etc. I would pick one specific thing to work on – I always modeled and role played all the classroom routines with the whole class at the beginning of the year. But if I had one child who was still unable or unwilling to follow a routine or rule I would take them aside while the other children were engaged in an activity. With just that one child I would have them go through the routine I wanted to reinforce – it might be sitting at circle time. I would take a photograph of that child doing exactly what I was hoping they would do every day – sitting criss cross, keeping his/her hands in their lap, raising their hand to share an answer, etc. Then I would type up a sentence to match the pictures and reinforce what they needed to do – Megan sits in her place at circle time. Megan keeps her hands to herself. Megan keeps her legs crossed and her feet never touch anyone else. Megan raises her hand when she has an important idea to share. I would make 2 copies of these made into books. I usually sent one book home after talking with the parents and asking them to read it with their child regularly. I kept the other copy at school – sometimes I would try to read it with that child right before circle time every day for awhile. Because the words and pictures matched, the child could usually read it independently too.
You can make this type of books for most behavior issues – a child who does not help clean up – a child who has trouble taking care of their own belongings, a child who pushes, hits, or hurts others… almost anything. It is a positive way of reminding the child what he or she needs to do. Whenever I did this the child loved feeling special and having all the photographs taken, and it often made a difference in behavior.
9. Look for ways to remind the child of what they need to do without always calling their name or telling them what they should do. There were times I made a square of masking tape to give a visual reminder to children about where they needed to sit, and their boundaries. Some people worry about the stigma of making that child look different – but it is so much more positive than constantly reminding them to stay in their place – and what if they don’t have a sense of personal space? Sometimes I could made an X out of masking tape and that was enough of a physical reminder. You can try giving children ‘fidgets’ – stretchy balls or manipulative toys to keep their hands occupied, or something to hold onto to remind them not to shout out their ideas. Sometimes this helps, sometimes it is too much of a distraction. You could try putting a photograph of the child acting appropriately in a place he/she will see it readily.
10. Sometimes it helps to give special responsibility to a child who is struggling with behavior problems. If a child does not walk well in line, going down the hall – keep them very near you – and give them a simple musical instrument to tap a beat for the whole class to walk to. (It isn’t important whether the other children actually march or keep time – the idea is to keep that child occupied!) Or you might send that child to the office with a note – just to give them a break if they have lots of trouble sitting. When I had challenging children I almost always kept them close to me during whole group, walking in the halls, etc.
Of course another important step is to communicate with the child’s parents. Every situation is so different, some parents might welcome your help and concern, others might be defensive or unwilling or unable to follow through. Sometimes a parent’s involvement can make a difference in school behavior. One caution is that there are parents who might actually physically punish their child for misbehavior in school, and you have to be sure you are not seriously endangering him or her when you report what is going on. The best situation is when you can partner with the parents and make a plan for what will happen at school, and how parents will follow up at home. Parents can offer good insight about triggers and what works at home. The bottom line is that the parents are not present in the classroom when the behavior occurs, you need to keep looking for ways to solve the problem, and it is your responsibility to keep them informed.
I found that my heart changed toward these children as the year went on. It can be very difficult to deal with these behaviors day after day, along with trying to teach the rest of the class. I sometimes felt resentful of the time they took away from the group. I tried to give you a few ideas here but really the most important thing is to keep things in perspective. I realized I had to control my own emotions and reactions, and remember how young the child really was. Some children come to school with a lot of extra baggage from sad stories in their own little lives, others might have physical or emotional conditions that affect their behavior, some show the affects of their family life – there are lots of reasons for the challenges you deal with – but you can’t change any of that. But you can create a safe, loving environment in your classroom that makes every child feel valued and cared for and important. It’s a great lesson for the other kids too!