As a preschool teacher, I often have to help children who are missing mom or dad or other parental figure. It’s a bittersweet situation because it is healthy for kids to miss a loved one. After all, they love them and want to be with them.
When a child is sad, there are many ways a teacher can handle the situation. But any method that helps the child grow and learn how to appropriately manage emotions has a few things in common.
First, a teacher can acknowledge the emotion without judgment. “You’re sad.” If you know, acknowledge the reason for being sad. “You miss your mom.” You can always do these two things while leaving room for being wrong. “You look sad.” “Are you missing your mom?” This way the child can correct you if you are incorrect.
After a teacher acknowledges the emotion, the provider needs to be there for the child. Sometimes that means sitting with the child while they work through the emotion. Sometimes it means reassuring them. “Mom will be back after snack time.” “I bet mom misses you, too.” Sometimes it means offering to do what mom would do. “Does your mom like to read to you? Maybe I could read to you.” Sometimes it means giving them some power or control over the situation. “Would you like to draw a picture for her, or write her a letter.” Sometimes a child will ask to be left alone, and a teacher must respect the child’s wishes, but they can still let the child know they are there for them. “OK. If you need me, I’ll be reading a book with some other kids.”
When a child misses a loved one, it is a learning opportunity, and responsive care is the same whether a child is learning how to express and manage emotions or learning how to write words. You are there for the child, you support their efforts, you reassure them when they are frustrated, and you help them reach a place they didn’t know they could.
One of the best activities for literacy in an early childhood program turns out to be one of the best for building community, social skills and learning about nutrition. Of course, I am talking about meal times. There is a lot of attention paid to “family dinner” and its importance for healthy well-adjusted youth (and families). The same could be said about meal times in childcare centers and other programs. Meal times are a time for informal conversation. In a classroom, a child has experience addressing a group formally during group times. A child gets experiences speaking one on one with a teacher or a friend. Most preschoolers will get experience speaking informally in a small group during play. Meal times allow children to learn how to listen to and enter into conversation informally when there may be more than one conversation going on at once. On top of that, the conversational skills will vary from child to child so there can be quite a bit of non-verbal negotiation.
Some young children will need help entering a conversation. Some children will want absolute quiet before they will talk. They usually try to achieve this by yelling loudly, “I’m trying to say something.” I have yet to see this strategy work. Of course, the child who waits patiently for it to be quiet also has a hard time joining the conversation.
As a teacher, it can be difficult to help children without taking over the conversation myself. I try to think of the direct instruction given to children as a Tweet, no more than 140 characters. I will say something like, “Say her name and then say what you wanted to tell her.” I’ll let the child try that before giving more direction. If that attempt failed, I might say, “Say her name loud enough so she turns toward you. Don’t worry about her being totally quiet. Just start telling her.”
My favorite thing is sitting and listening to the three or four conversations going on at meal time. As children get more comfortable e=with it, they enter one conversation and then another. Each year, the class has certain jokes and “games” we play. This year, someone always asks to play the “pretend food game.” The game starts with me saying, “We left some toys on the table. I know it looks like food, but don’t eat it.” Then they come up with ideas for what their food could be. Someone holds up a spoonful of yogurt and says it’s glue. “No, don’t eat glue. Oh no!”
Meal time conversations can also be about home life. Someone might make up a story. It can go a million different ways. The important thing is that we are all experiencing it together, creating our own classroom culture. Meal times seldom come up when talking about curriculum, but I think they say a lot about the teachers’ philosophy of education.
I’ve been thinking about many of the effective teaching methods I have used and they all have one thing in common. The activities themselves would look completely different with any other teacher leading the activity.
Last week I was doing “Big Paper” with my class. Big Paper is a simple enough activity. You get a big sheet of paper and let children write (or draw). Anyone working with young children knows that this simple activity becomes quite complex. Children talk to each other, copy each other, take on each others stories or imagery, etc.
The teacher’s job is to have conversations with the children about what they are drawing or writing. The teacher can ask questions, but it’s important to ask real questions. Too often teachers ask questions when they know the answer. We wouldn’t ask a grown up, “What color did you use?” We might ask “Why did you use blue?” In other words the teacher does what s/he always does, s/he shows interest and curiosity in the children.
There are plenty of literacy activities and curricula to be purchased, but they are only as effective as the teacher using them. If something says it is “teacher proof” it is probably worthless. Learning is a social interaction and it requires real relationships.