3 to 4 Eager to Help by Susan A. Miller EdD 

Angie points to the fish symbol next to her name on the "helper chart." The 3-year-old's face glows as she says proudly to her teacher, "I feed the fish today! They look very hungry." As an afterthought, she tells Mrs. Montoya, "You watch." Angie enthusiastically counts three shakes of fish food into the tank. She then looks up at her teacher for affirmation and asks, "Three shakes. Right?" Unlike the toddler years when children go their own way without regard for what others think of their behavior, threes seem eager to please, so it is important to Angie that she feed the fish just the right amount.

Threes, like Angie, enjoy taking the initiative to perform simple classroom tasks. Exhibiting independence and showing their more fully developed physical, social, and language skills, threes are able to follow simple requests and handle basic responsibilities related to their own daily needs. They are also beginning to recognize the needs of others, which is an important step in demonstrating responsible behavior. And while excited about handling responsibilities, they still need reassurance from adults.

At this stage, children respond much more positively to options than to commands. For example, when enlisting a 3-year-old's help at cleanup time, it is much more effective to ask, "Would you rather put away the puppets or the dress-up hats?" and let the child choose the chore she prefers, rather than saying, "Please put away the dress-up hats."

Threes also like to understand the reason why something is asked of them. For example, when you follow a request to help during cleanup time with, "When everything's off the floor, we'll get out the giant parachute," children are more likely to cooperate because they know the space will be cleared for an activity that they are excited about participating in.

Preschoolers want to behave responsibly, but they sometimes find it difficult to follow through if directions are too long or unclear and they forget, or if they become distracted along the way. Rather than offering a sequence of instructions (Put away the puzzles, get your jackets from your cubbies, go to the door, and line up), offer threes and fours simple, easy-to-follow directions.

Older preschoolers are eager to demonstrate their ability to behave responsibly. Joel, a 4-year-old, yells out happily to his teacher, "Look how I'm doing this. I can carry four paint containers!" In a second, they slip out of his hands, and paint splatters everywhere. Overestimating his abilities-as boastful, self-confident fours sometimes do-Joel feels frustrated with the mess and stomps away angrily. Thrilled with the idea that he could perform a helpful task, Joel actively sought out his teacher's approval. Though things didn't turn out quite the way he expected them to, he tries again later in the day to be helpful. Thinking ahead, Joel tells his teacher, "I can bring in more water bottles from home to hold the paint."

Because fours enjoy cooperative play, it is fun for them to handle classroom responsibilities through small group efforts. A teacher might ask children to make a line, pass pails of water along to one another, and dump them in a tub. This enthusiastic group of problem solvers will quickly take care of the job by working together in an effective bucket brigade.

What you can do:

  • Share books about taking responsibility. Discuss ways that others help out in stories such as One Seal by John Stadler (Orchard Books, 1999; $16.99).
  • Help children anticipate their responsibilities. Create a class-helper chart and rotate children's names and tasks.
  • Highlight responsible behavior. Take photos of children helping others, tending to their own daily needs, or caring for the classroom. Showcase them on a special bulletin board or in booklets.
  • Use a positive approach to help children behave responsibly. It is more effective to remind children to "Walk" rather than telling them, "Don't run."
  • Encourage children to be problem solvers. Help them learn to take charge. Pose open-ended questions, such as, "What happens if ?" Have them examine, "Is this helping others?"
  • Compliment children. Use a "thumbs-up," or acknowledge responsible efforts with reinforcing messages such as, "Excellent job stacking the rest mats."

5 to 6 A Growing Awareness  by Ellen Booth Church

Renata has just started doing her favorite thing ... racing around the room! On her second dangerously close pass by the block corner, and before Ms. Perline can get to her, Renata has knocked down the intricate block tower Jesse and Shelley have been working on all morning. As her teacher watches with a knowing smile, Renata stops and walks back to say she is sorry and to help rebuild the tower It looks like all the time spent on talking about responsibility for our actions is finally working!

During the kindergarten years, children are becoming aware of how their actions affect themselves and others. "Every action has a reaction" becomes vividly real at this age. This concept of cause and effect is one of the key components that 5- and 6-year-olds are learning about behaving responsibly. At this stage of development, children begin to see beyond their personal boundaries, develop a broader view of life and of the world, and understand the effect their actions have on those around them. Take a moment to think about the process of being responsible. What does "being responsible" mean to you? For a 5- and 6-year-old, being responsible may mean:

  • taking care of himself and his things
  • being aware of the effect his actions have on others
  • demonstrating a progressive level of self-control
  • having an awareness of personal limitations and self reliance
  • being trusted to make certain decisions for himself and others, such as knowing how to share and care for classroom supplies
  • being truthful about his actions

For teachers, this can mean that you can trust that some children don't have to be watched over every second. You can safely send two children on an errand to the office or cafeteria. And you know that by trusting them with these small steps of increased responsibility, most children will rise to the occasion!

Kindergartners learn responsibility in stages. Like the concentric circles that spiral from a drop of water in a calm sea, 5- and 6-year-olds grow in ever-expanding circles of awareness, starting with themselves at the center and moving out toward the world at large. First, children develop a sense of responsibility for themselves and their property. This is the stage when they realize that it is important to remember where they put their backpack or a favorite book, and when they become aware that they should put the tops back on their markers and keep milk and juice cartons "closed" when they are being stored. Next, children begin to see how responsibility expands to their family, friends, and classroom. Saying "I'm sorry" for hurting someone or breaking something is one example of this stage of development.

As they expand their concept of responsibility, kindergarten-age children also develop an awareness of their responsibility as it applies to nature and the environment. This can be demonstrated by a desire to clean up the playground, to tend to an injured bird, or to refrain from killing insects.

Remember, the goal in teaching responsibility is not just for children to follow your directions or "do what they are told" but to help them develop self-control, awareness, and a sense of values that will enable them to make good choices throughout their lives.

What you can do:

  • Always model caring and responsible behavior.
  • Be clear about rules and expectations but allow children to le=rn from their mistakes.
  • Develop a classroom job chart that defines and illustrates children's responsibilities, not only for the classroom, but for each other, as well.
  • Recognize children for their good works: At the end of each day, discuss and then celebrate examples of children taking responsibility.
  • Use literature and stories that demonstrate responsibility, such as "The Three Little Pigs" or Norman Bridwell's Clifford books such as Clifford to the Rescue (Scholastic Inc., 2000; $3.25) are great places to start.