By: Mrs. Sarah Chuzhin
As early childhood educators, we find ourselves faced with multiple challenges in the classroom. Our students have intense and raw emotions, enthusiasm, curiosity, frustration, and even anger. These strong emotions dictate the ebb and flow of each child’s day. An educator’s dream is to provide each child with a well-balanced, warm, inviting, and calm classroom environment, where the children can experience those emotions, work through them and advance their ability to learn and grow. Many times, however, we find ourselves struggling to create this equilibrium.
I strongly believe that developing positive and open communication with each child is the first step to creating a wholesome classroom. As a parent and an educator, I have discovered a very simple 3 step solution to improve positive communication and engagement between children and adults. By improving your communication with young children, you are ensuring a warm, consistent, open, and understanding atmosphere that promotes the optimal learning environment. Most of the examples given below are from early childhood classrooms, but their principles can be applied throughout.
1) Let’s start with RESPECT. Human beings like to feel respected- whether regarding personal space, respect for one’s emotions, or other needs. Children are no different, and it is important to respect each child’s needs and thoughts.
In school, children are bursting with curiosity regarding their surroundings. Respecting a child’s curiosity will help the adult/teacher understand the child’s motives behind their actions, for example gravitating to a particular center or activity during circle time (or during other times that are out of sync with the class schedule). Alternatively, a child who has thrown a toy at another child may have a real motivation for doing so, such as hurt feelings or pent-up frustration that they do not yet have the words to express, and it is the educator’s responsibility to understand the child’s reasoning and then facilitate the situation and provide a better solution to the child’s struggle. Furthermore, understanding the child’s thought process and emotional progression can help a teacher feel more calm, in knowing the background of the situation at hand, and help the teacher respond in a calm and consistent tone.
Reciprocally, a child can learn how to respect their friends, adults, materials and the environment around them. Examples for both sides of this equation include:
a) When a child voices a thought that is not related to the discussion at hand, a helpful response would be “Thank you for sharing that with me,” as opposed to, “Ok, but that’s not what we are talking about.” Additionally, if a child refuses to join an activity, it’s important to respect the child’s feelings and ask the child “Why?” Consider that maybe the child is feeling scared, has sensory integration challenges or maybe the child needed help, and was too shy to ask.
b) Body language and expressive communication: Point out each child’s facial expression when problem-solving social situations. You can say “Look at so-and-so’s face. Is he/she happy or sad? Why are they happy or sad? What can you do to help them feel better?” This reminds children to gauge their friend’s feelings and respect each other’s needs.
2) The next step involves a bit more planning on the educator’s part, and that is providing children with the opportunity to discover and explore open-ended activities and materials in the classroom. It has been proven time and again that children learn best when given the opportunity to come to a conclusion on their own, using materials (that need to be well planned and available) for exploration and discovery. It is important to incorporate the child’s senses into each activity (whether through touch, smell, taste, or gross motor activity). When a child is given the opportunity to explore in a way that speaks to them most, they will feel confident, connected and empowered in a very positive way.
During these activities, the teacher can ask the children open-ended questions such as, “Can you tell me about your playdoh? It looks very interesting!” instead of asking “Did you make a tower?” If an educator limits a child’s creativity, they are also limiting the child’s ability to communicate their thoughts and experiences as well as their conclusions. When considering the implementation of open-ended learning, the teacher must be very prepared and plan the materials carefully. Anticipating each child’s needs, the teacher can choose various materials, having each child’s specific preferences in mind. For example, when setting up a sensory activity with a specific goal in mind, it is important to take into consideration that some children will avoid the sensory aspect of the activity. The teacher must then choose additional non-sensory elements to be added to the activity in order for each child to have an interest in this activity. The teacher’s role would then be to guide the student using open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are used to encourage children to explore new things and come to their own conclusions about their discoveries. Some examples of open-ended questions are:
“Can you tell me how you did that?”
“What would happen if…?”
“What did you notice about…?”
“How can we do that differently?”
“What else would you like to add?”
In this way, we are RESPECTing and acknowledging children’s creativity and thought processes, so that they are more engaged in the learning experience that we have set up for them.
3) Lastly, I would like to touch upon POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT. Children are more than willing to follow instructions when being addressed positively. When a child exhibits negative behaviors, it’s important for the teacher to assess why. How is the child feeling? And what can I do? This brings us back once again to the idea of respecting each child’s needs.
Some examples include: If one child is grabbing a toy from another child, the teacher can address the situation by saying “It looks like you really want a turn with that toy (respecting the child’s feelings and understanding their motivation). Let’s try again and ask “When can I have a turn?” or “Can I use this now?” or “Can I play with you and we will share?””
This can be said instead of “Don’t grab.” Negative instruction does not address why the child is doing what they’re doing, or how he/ she can do it differently. This will always end with a negative outcome. To prevent this, using positive instructions consistently will result in positive outcomes. Giving the children possible solutions really helps the child learn to problem solve independently, and in a positive way.
In conclusion, when children feel respected, they are able to communicate and self-regulate more efficiently, knowing that their classroom environment is consistent, predictable, and safe. They will also more readily participate in the learning, and do so on their own level so that the learning is authentic and not too difficult to relate to, or right past their interests. In a positive, nurturing environment based upon these three principles, I have seen many children Baruch Hashem blossom and grow.
Mrs. Sarah Chuzhin is a beloved early childhood educator, and founder and director of Creative Corner Playgroup in Crown Heights. She is available to be booked for early childhood workshops through [email protected].