Connecting With Families
Because young children identify so strongly with their families, if you make family members feel welcome, you're making their children feel welcome. Let's take a look at some ways you can strengthen lines of communication between home and school.
- Make a brief home visit to each child who will be entering your class. Get to know the families, traditions, and backgrounds of the children in your program.
- Invite parents and children to visit the classroom. Some schools invite parents and children to visit and play with small groups of other parents and children, gradually expanding to include everyone together.
- Once school begins, welcome each parent individually. Communicate with every parent on a regular basis and let him know that you think of him as a valuable resource.
- Ask parents to share their skills. Some parents may worry that they have nothing important to share with children. You can remind them that most children are interested in the everyday things that have to do with their important adults. A mom who works in a print shop or a dad who drives a bus could share information and materials from their work that will fascinate children.
- Invite family members to share stories about their childhoods. Ask parents to come in for a short, cozy time to tell stories about their history or describe the home they lived in, how they got to school, what they played after school, and what they thought they'd like to do when they grew up. Don't forget to include elder siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents too!
- Encourage parents to contribute to the classroom environment. Hold a work day for parents to help with painting or refurbishing the dramatic-play area or building a new climbing structure. Solicit ideas from your group of parents.
- Keep in mind that some parents may not feel comfortable working with groups. If this is the case, ask those parents to help develop a class newsletter or to prepare materials at home. You may also invite them to come and read books with one or two children at a time.
Becoming a Classroom Community
To develop a classroom community in which children show concern for each other, you'll want to take the time needed, every day, to deal with the details of teaching cooperation and helpfulness. Here are some ways you can do that:
- Encourage children to comfort others who are hurt or upset. Every week during group time, elicit ideas as to how a child can help someone who's sad. ("I gave Annie Rose my snuggle bear to hold.î "I could give Garth my snack because he wants his mom to come back.)
- Support children when you see them do a kind thing for someone else and invite them to tell the group what they did and why. Then ask the recipient of the kind act to tell how it made her feel when her friend helped her. ("It made me feel good because he gave me an elephant bandage.")
- Invite the more outgoing children to escort other children when going to the bathroom, lunchroom, and playground. ("Harry, it would be good if you could take care of Sammy today when we go to the school library.")
- Help timid children build enough courage to escort others too.
- Encourage children to talk to each other, not only to you, during group time. Too often, children raise their hands and answer the teacher. That's OK sometimes, but creating a sharing, caring community of children includes helping them learn how to listen and talk with each other: ("Thomas, that's a very interesting idea! Sasha, what do you think about Thomas's idea? Can you talk to Thomas about that?")
Comfort All Around the Room
Particularly during the early months of school, you'll want to create a classroom climate that offers children support, comfort, and reassurance. Children new to the school can be overwhelmed by too many choices and an overabundance of materials. Children returning need to see familiar objects as well as new and interesting materials. Here are some suggestions for making your learning centers welcoming and comforting.
Supply items that children see in their own homes, such as familiar kitchen utensils and child-safe tools, as well as dolls with blankets, plastic tubs, facecloths, cotton balls, and sponges for bathing them. Items such as cash registers, briefcases, and lab coats can represent the work of children's family members. Also try to include items that reflect the cultural backgrounds of children. Colorful, labeled storage bins where dramatic-play items can be stored create a sense of order and help children know where items belong.
Be sure to have comfy floor pillows, a child-size rocking chair, or a small couch where children can enjoy their favorite books. Include children's favorite books on your bookshelves, along with titles that represent children's cultural backgrounds and families. Keep a classroom photo album that contains photos of each child in the group as well as pictures of children's families. Store tapes of children's family members reading stories, or books on tape that reflect the needs and interests of the children in your group, in colorful bins on a low, easily accessible table or rack in this area.
At the beginning of the year, provide a few colors of paint for work at the easel, gradually adding colors as the year progresses. If possible, provide hooks with children's names above them for hanging smocks. Include soothing, tension-releasing materials such as pliable clay and squishy sponges (which can be used for painting). Display children's artwork on walls in this area. Save one wall where children can post pictures from magazines that they find appealing, artwork created by their own family members, or posters from home they might want to share with the group.
Be sure the shelves for storing blocks are clearly labeled so that children feel comfortable returning them to their proper places. Provide space in the area so that children have the option of leaving their block structures up for a time or they may want to continue working on them for several days or save them to show family members. Offer small wooden traffic and safety signs children can use in the area to create a sense of order in the block communities and traffic patterns they create. Ask parents to bring in photos of their homes and keep them in the area. Children may want to re-create their homes with blocks and describe them to their friends.
Include paper of all shapes and sizes; writing tools including crayons and thick pencils; stickers, envelopes, homemade blank books, and postcards. Encourage children to write notes to friends and family members as a way of communicating their worries or concerns or simply to communicate an "I care for you" message. Children can dictate stories to you as a way to grapple with their fantasies, fears, and frustrations.
In addition to the materials in these areas, have a water/sand table on hand if possible. Sifting sand through fingers and pouring and dripping water are soothing, satisfying experiences for young children. The sand/water table also works well as a "get to know youî area at the beginning of the year. The table is so appealing, children will gather 'round, work side by side, and enjoy one another as well as the materials.
Children's cubbies are special places where personal belongings can be stored, treasures can be displayed, and solace can be found. Try these ideas to make cubbies a source of comfort and support for children.
- Encourage children to bring a family picture to school and display it in a place of honor in their cubbies.
- Invite children to decorate shoeboxes that will serve as treasure boxes for items they might gather on a class walk, find on a field trip, or bring from home. Children can keep their treasure box on top of or inside their cubbies. A glance or two at "special treasures" often serves as a quick source of comfort and pleasure.
- If your school allows, children can help you to line their cubbies with contact paper in soft pastel colors or patterns of their choice. If this is not possible, you might try lining cubbies with children's drawings and paintings.
- Keep a stack of notecards on hand so that you can create soothing messages to children who may be having a difficult day. You might attach stickers to the cards, write simple messages that you can share at the end of the day, or draw a happy, smiling face with the child's name at the top of the card and your own at the bottom. Place the notes in children's cubbies, inviting them to "check their cubbiesî when some relief is needed.
- Make cubby-size pillows as a class project. Store the pillows in children's cubbies so that they can be snuggled with when needed.
- Allow children to store their favorite blanket or movie from home in their cubby. Just seeing their special object and knowing that it is available for them at the end of the day is comforting and reassuring.
Nurturing While Learning
Whether young or old, an important feature of a comfortable experience is that it appeals to our interests, temperament, ability level (the level of knowledge and skill we bring to it), state of mind, and feelings of competence. Here are some ways you can heighten the comfort level of children's learning experiences.
- Meet Individual Interests. There is unlimited educational value in each of the familiar preschool and kindergarten activities we introduce, including the development of science, math, and motor skills, opportunities for creative expression, and the building of early literacy skills.
- In addition to these activities that are generally interesting to, and educational for, children of this age, opportunities arise every day where teachers can build a child's individual interest into the curriculum. Perhaps the greatest value of all of these activities is that young children love them, and thus, by association, learn to love school.
Tune Into Temperament
Some children are shy, quiet and easily overwhelmed. Sensitive teachers try to provide these children with:
Support in coping with large-group activities that might include sitting on a teacher's lap for story time or holding someone's hand for a hike down the school hall.
- Opportunities to work with a friend or small group, especially with a child likely to accept the uneasy child or with another child who finds it uncomfortable to cope with crowds.
- Acceptable ways of retreating (such as trotting off with a volunteer to set the tables for snack time) before it all becomes too much. Also consider the needs of the very physical child who may not have the capacity to sit as long, or focus as long, on activities as others in the group. It's important to help them find acceptable ways to move.
Match Levels of Ability
Children and adults alike feel comfortable doing things that aren't too boring and aren't too frustratingly difficult. For many young children, simply sitting still for long periods of time or trying to maneuver a pencil for more than a few words is too frustratingly difficult. The wide range of age, intelligence, experience, need for physical activity, and (English) language proficiency found in any classroom makes it clear that for best results, learning activities that can be done at various levels of difficulty should be available daily. In addition, since learning builds, the level of difficulty of every activity should increase as the year progresses.
Sense States of Mind
Aren't there times when you feel restless and ready for something physically active, and other times when you need soothing music or at least something that offers passive relaxation? We can understand children more readily if we simply think about how we sometimes feel, or how we would feel in a situation similar to the situation a child is in. It seems that we have the most trouble understanding very active children. We worry about losing control. Instead of trying, usually in vain, to ground these children, teachers can try to build viable, active, move-around learning experiences into the schedule for those who need them to feel comfortable in the classroom.
Children want to be independent, responsible, and respected for their capabilities. When learning activities are appropriate for the ages and interests of the children, most children are drawn to them. Their comfort level is high. Children know they will be able to succeed and enjoy. On the other hand, when the work children are expected to do is dull and meaningless to them, or over their heads, they dread it.
All five of these considerations: interests, temperament, ability levels, state of mind, and feelings of competence are excellent reasons for scheduling large blocks of free-choice time into early childhood programs every day.
Unless a child has unusual social difficulties, children feel very competent and comfortable when they play. Play is what healthy children do best (and an inability to play well is a sign that something is terribly wrong in a child's life).
These days, many early childhood professionals who know very well what's best for young children, are under pressure to teach academics at a level previously expected in first grade and beyond. Those of you who are caught in this bind may want to remind your colleagues that when children are emotionally stressed, far from comfortable in the classroom, much of teachers' instructional efforts are wasted. Young minds are preoccupied with achieving emotional and social security, and so become as porous as wicker baskets where lessons are concerned.
It's the quality of individualized contact and personal nurturing, the connection with families, and attention to providing comfort throughout the day, that makes the difference for a child between feeling anxious and unsure, and comforted and secure.
You Make the Difference
Though there are many small things we can do to make our classrooms feel comforting : such as playing soothing music, choosing pastel paints for the easel, and putting a rocking chair, carpet, and cushions in the book nook ó the teacher is the factor that most directly affects the comfort level of the classroom.
Ask yourself the following questions to help you assess your own comfort level and the comfort of other staff members, children, and families in your program:
- How comfortable do you feel in your classroom?
- Do your supervisors and colleagues respect you? How can you tell?
- Do you all get along? What examples can you think of?
- Have you and the parents established good vibes? What indications do you have of this?
- Are there signs of appreciation and rewards for good work? What have you done recently for other staff members? What have they done for you?
- Have you provided for your own creature comforts, such as keeping some comfy shoes at school for when you need a change or having a favorite snack stowed away somewhere? Is there a staff relaxation room?
- What could you and your teammates (including parents) do to increase your comfort level?
- Feeling good is contagious. Doing what it takes to make yourself feel comfortable, and considering it a goal to make each child and parent feel comfortable in the world of school, will make your little corner of the universe a happier place.
Special Comforts for Special Needs
- Helping children with special needs feel comfortable in the classroom takes a bit of extra effort. Here are some things you can build into your classroom environment to meet the needs of children with diverse abilities.
- Adapt game and work choices as necessary so that all children can be involved. If a child needs Braille labels on items, decorate them brightly so that all children will be interested in them. If a child needs a special tool, such as an extra-wide paintbrush or double-holed scissors, let all children try it.
- Use multi-sensory materials for activities. When teaching a song, for example, use facial expressions and gestures to help children with hearing loss learn the tune. Include fabrics of varying textures in dramatic play and fragrant and tactile ingredients in cooking and science projects.
- Encourage independence. It is tempting to baby children with challenges and do things for them. This does not show respect for the child as a capable person. Whenever possible, children should be encouraged and praised for doing things by themselves or with minimum assistance.
Comfort Throughout the Day
Here are some helpful tips for starting the year by making children comfortable each and every day, beginning with arrival time and ending with departure!
- Welcome each child and the person who brings him warmly and by name.
- Show the child the cubby labeled with his picture or symbol and name.
- Introduce family members to one another whenever possible.
- Ask yourself: Does each child look happy to be at school? If not, how can I help?
- Invite small groups of children to play in the various areas of your room.
- Help each child engage in play or in an activity. Remember that watching what's going on is an
activity, and many children need to do it for a while as part of settling in.
- Continue introducing children to the group to help them get to know one another.
- Ask yourself: What can I do for children who may seem sad or angry?
- Sing songs that use children's names, that spark happiness, and that use friendship as a theme.
- Read several stories about separations between child and parent and about starting school (see book box).
- Play a game in which partners are needed. Introduce partners and repeat with different partners for the next game.
- Ask yourself: Is anyone not participating? Can you cleverly involve him, if only by drawing him onto your lap?
- Gently but firmly explain your transition procedures.
- Assign each child a partner. Encourage conversation as partners clean up, line up, or go wherever the class is going.
- In a positive way, focus on the few who need you so that an ongoing problem doesn't develop.
- Ask yourself: Is anyone disruptive, falling apart in these unstructured moments, or in other ways letting you know that she needs extra help? Can you enlist another child's help in engaging the child who has difficulty with transitions?
Meal and Snack Times
- Develop a routine emphasizing the happy, sociable nature of sharing food together.
- Assign jobs pertaining to setting, serving, and clearing so that each child feels involved.
- Ask yourself: Which children haven't yet connected to anyone? Invest your energy in making them
feel comfortable in this group.
- Offer a warm good-bye to each child in the group, using children's names and identifying something positive each child did during the day.
- Give a quick preview of some interesting happenings that will occur during the week.
- Happily greet individuals who arrive to pick up children.
- Ask yourself: Did each child have a satisfying day at school? What can I do to make things better tomorrow?