Off to a Great Start: Creating an Effective Classroom
- Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K
New adventures, special friendships, and exciting challenges are waiting for you and the children in your program this fall. As your new group of young learners walks into your room, what will they want and need? How will they feel?
Some children will be a bit fearful, others eager, and many somewhere in between. As you know, each child comes to you with his or her own set of previous experiences, level of skill development, and personal learning style. By observing their styles and considering their developmental needs, you can get off to a great start this year!
As early childhood professionals, we have always observed the needs of our new class and created a safe, inviting, and inspiring classroom. Teachers know the importance of creating a space that speaks to children and families through its appearance, organization, and values. We also know now, through recent brain research, that a warm and consistent, yet challenging classroom environment is essential to child development and cognitive growth. Studies show that it is the brain's ability to respond to a positive and stimulating environment that creates the synaptic connections that are the building blocks for learning.
What You Can Do:
Create a simple balance of the familiar and the new. Children will use the "landmarks" of familiar centers, toys, books, and personal photos to help them feel a sense of place, and at the same time will be drawn by their curiosity to the new centers and materials.
Start the year with familiar learning centers (dramatic play, blocks, sand, games, etc.), but also add one or two unusual centers to stimulate brain development. Consider creating a small place for "beauty" or "curiosity." In your "beauty center," you might put a beautiful (non-toxic) plant or bouquet, an unusual stone or rock, or a carefully arranged display of art. This can change daily... giving children the excitement of wondering what will be in the center the next day they come to school!
While you probably have materials that you put out every year at the beginning of the season, you might also want to consider some novel surprises. Brain studies show that elements of novelty and surprise in materials and activities are an important part of building young minds. In fact, it has been found that an element that does not fit an expected pattern engages and stimulates the brain -- creating new synaptic connections. By providing surprises, you are building brains!
What You Can Do:
Place materials in a center where they don't obviously fit. We work hard to create centers that "make sense," but it is fascinating to add something surprising and then watch to see what children do with it. For example, you might want to take the plastic fruits and vegetables from the dramatic play center into the math center or sandbox. Or try putting art materials in the block area. Watch the wheels turn in their brains as children figure out what to do with these familiar items in surprising places! Start small -- with a limited number of materials or surprises -- and rotate the materials often.
As teachers we know the importance of starting the year with the three "R's" -- "Routine, Ritual, and Rules." Predictable morning rituals give children a process to start the day. Easily knowable routines help children understand that this is their program. And clear rules help children feel the security of knowing what is expected of them. New brain studies have shown that we need to add "choice" to this list of important aspects to consider when providing activities. When you invite children to choose an activity -- and even the way to do it -- you build self-confidence and problem- solving skills.
What You Can Do:
At morning group time, tell children about all the different activities available for them in the various learning centers. Encourage them to choose which center and activity they would like to do first. Then provide many choices for how to actually DO the activity in the center! Remember, open-ended activities build synaptic connections and brain power!
Transitions can be the most challenging part of the new school year. Children may have short attention spans and become easily confused. Interestingly, brain research supports the use of transitions as a teaching tool. Studies have shown that the brain pays attention to (and remembers) the beginning and end of an activity much better than the "stuff" in the middle, making your short transition- time activities the perfect opportunity to support children's natural brain development.
What You Can Do:
There are several ways you can use transitions to create organization and support brain development:
- Be specific. Simple, short phrases that specifically tell children what you want them to do are much better than long, complicated, and detailed sentences. Emphasize the important word in the phrase that speaks to what you need them to do. (IN, OUT, DOWN, ETC.)
- Use gerunds. Short and sweet reminders of appropriate behavior are more effective than all the direction words in the world. Try using one gerund (a word that ends in "ing") as a quick reminder. If children were starting to run down the hall, for example, you would say, "WALKING."
- Sing children's names to praise their cooperation. Children always want to hear their name in a song. Just use their names in a simple tune reinforcing a positive behavior. For example, you can sing this phrase to the tune of the "Wheels on the Bus": "I like the way that (child's name) is listening. And I like the way that (child's name) is listening. I like the way that (child's name) is listening; now we're ready for story time."
Remember, at the beginning of the year, everything is new. As you start the year, remember that your role is to get to know the children, encourage them to get to know one another, and help everyone get to know your program and feel comfortable in it. A room can be beautifully arranged, with toys and activities, and organized, with clear routines and expectations, but it means very little without the heart and soul of a compassionate teacher. You create the environment. Your warmth and support make the crucial difference when it comes to the effectiveness of your days with children.