Staff Workshop Teacher Handout: Building Classroom Community - The Early Childhood Teacher's Role
- Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K, 1–2
The process of helping a classroom of individual children (many new to each other at the start of a program) develop into a community of children who regard each other with growing respect, interest, and trust depends on the teacher or leader. When the goal is a classroom in which children come to know and care about each other and develop mutual regard and concern, the teacher purposefully leads children over time from the world of me to the world of us.
The creation of classroom community begins with a sound and sturdy foundation, which I call teacher guidance and leadership.
Teacher Guidance and Leadership
Strong democratic leadership is suffused with respect for the lives and history of the people it represents and for the abilities and needs of all involved. It is the leader who spells out goals, affirms values, maintains safety and comfort. The leader encourages, clarifies, and points the way-always communicating respect for the work done and the people doing it.
Early childhood teachers who are effective leaders do all of these things. And day by day they guide and teach young children to become caring, responsible members of the classroom community.
Knowledge of Curriculum and Practice
The task of providing developmentally appropriate education for preschool children is complex and challenging. Drawing on what we understand about children's development, upon which curriculum is partly based, we know that a class will include children at various developmental levels. The teacher's task is to value each child where they are, observe closely, and try to respond to each child's personality, cultural heritage, and unique needs and capabilities-while at the same time attending to and engaging the whole class.
A goal should be to look at the ways children's dayto-day experiences influence not only their individual progress and well-being but also their perception of themselves as members of the class. As individual children see themselves mirrored in their teachers' eyes as worthy of serious interest, attention, and approval, they come to feel good and worthy about themselves. As time goes on and individual needs are met with warmth and respect, children appear able to move out, toward each other, feeling safe, liking the feeling of belonging together, and liking to play together.
Far from forcing friendliness and superficial niceties, a good teacher tries for subtle, respectful ways to build mutual regard and camaraderie among young children. She gradually leads the children day by day into a widening perception of their classmates, not only by her skillful responses to individuals but also by her attempts throughout the curriculum to foster children's interrelatedness. Here are some examples:
Teacher on the playground: "Mike, you fell off the climber pretty hard just now! Come sit on the log with me. Are you OK?" To children coming to look: "Yes, Mike had a fall. Remember when Seiko fell down last week playing with the big ball? It happens. Tony, can you bring the tissue box over? We'll stay here, Mike, until we're sure you feel better."
Teacher at circle: "Let's take a few minutes to talk together about the problem at naptime yesterday. Some of you were sleepy, and some of you wanted to get up and play. Right? I want us all to figure out how to solve this problem. You're good at helping each other. What can we all do so naptime works better this afternoon?"
When a child tells you at snack time that she likes the graham crackers, you draw the others into a spontaneous talkfest: "Keisha says she likes these crackers. Jess, how about you? And Terry? No? How about Von?" On around the table. You respond to each answer; the children look from one to the other, following your lead. They become aware of one another. Each person and each response, so important to you, becomes important to each and every one.
One hears a lot of lip service paid to the concept of respect. Many teachers and parents talk about the necessity for children to show them respect, and they are quite serious about it. However, attitudes and expressions of respect start with grownups and then trickle down.
Children learn from what adults say and from how they say it. Teachers have enormous influence on children's behavior by speaking directly and honestly to them, modeling with words and manner how people deal with each other with respect, just as they would like to be dealt with. Children should feel good about being in the classroom. They should feel cared for and respected. Feeling that way helps them to behave with care and respect.
Many activities take place in groups--eating snack, playing musical or table games, joining in discussions at circle time, and of course engaging in dramatic play, building with blocks, or making a mural.
Teachers know that children don't automatically develop social skills and that they need ongoing guidance from adults. Effective teachers look for "teachable moments" to foster children's sense of each other, and group activities provide such moments. Here are some to try:
- Name games are a must in creating community. Sing names one at a time or cluster three or four names together-young children can't wait too long to hear their own names. Everyone is included.
- Gardening can be an indoor project using small cups, soil, seeds, and water. But with a small plot in the yard or even a couple of window boxes or large pots, it becomes a shared group activity. Children enjoy the planning and the doing. A wonderful result-preparing small gifts of zinnias for family and neighbors. Having planned and worked together, children love to share the bounty with others.
- Cooking is best when each child has plenty of turns to work and plenty of time for chatting, measuring, mixing, tasting, and fun. Best of all are the sharing of food and the appreciation of everyone's handiwork and teamwork.
Such are the beginnings of the classroom blossoming into a community. The seeds of caring and responsibility are being sown.
Helpful Hints for Group Activities
- Divide groups into smaller clusters, so that turns are plentiful for all children.
- Use circle or meeting times to discuss current group activities, and allow time to talk about children's questions and disagreements, and problem-solve.
- Send notes home to families, describing what you're doing in class, whether it be gardening, learning songs from other countries, or baking a delicious bread.
- Acknowledge children's accomplishments. Express to the children your pride and pleasure in how well they listen to and talk with each other, at how they learn to solve problems and work together.
Teachers have enormous influence on children's behavior by speaking honestly to them, modeling how people deal with each other with respect.