The beginning of the year offers an opportunity to think about your routines and rituals and how they can support each child's emotional and social well-being.
What's your greeting routine? Shut your eyes and think a minute. When you go into a room for a meeting or walk into your child's classroom where everyone is busy and no one stops to greet you, how do you feel? Awkward? Like an outsider? Slightly resentful? Now try to remember a time when, as you entered a group situation, someone "official" smiled at you and greeted you personally. Didn't you have a warmer feeling? Didn't you feel counted and included and therefore more like reaching out and joining in?
One of the most important daily rituals in a classroom setting is greeting each child at the door with a welcoming, personalized hello:
"Hello, Juan, you're looking friendly today!"
"Hello, Karen, good to see you!"
"Hey, there, Thomas, all ready to play today?"
Morning separations go more smoothly if you greet parents as warmly as you greet children. If a child sees his mommy being ignored (which can happen at busy arrival times), he might feel that he is being coolly dismissed.
Through a simple morning ritual, you can communicate the following messages to families:
- We value and include all people.
- We consider it good manners to greet each person by name. Good manners help others feel comfortable.
After the first few weeks of this greeting ritual, many teachers begin to gently encourage children to make eye contact and say "Hi," or "Good morning, Ms. Parked" or even to shake hands. A group-time discussion about greeting rituals, including why we have them and how they make people feel, can help each child make this practice her own. What an advantage it is at home, at work, and out in the world to be a gracious person!
Most teachers begin the day by having children put their belongings in their personalized cabbies (and sometimes put their lunches in a designated place) and then encouraging them to get involved in a free-play activity or go to the book corner and share books with friends.
For many reasons of which early childhood teachers are well aware, both free-play opportunities and an abundance of casual literacy experiences are the core of good early childhood programs. In either case, this two-step routine-cubbies followed by play or books-contributes to children's sense of well-being and social development and keeps things tidy and relatively calm.
Being able to predict what's coming next makes a child feel competent, and feeling competent is an important part of emotional contentment. All of us feel good about our skills, knowledge, and ordinary "know-how," and, in turn, feel that we're floundering if we find ourselves in a situation where it's obvious that we don't have the competence that most others do.
Three-, 4-, and 5-year-olds need to feel competent in more and more areas as they mature through these years. Young children love to feel "big," which they generally measure by age, height, physical feats, and their ability to understand what's going on around them. They feel empowered when they know where all the toys and playthings are, the stories in favorite books, and the sequence of events in your classroom. Children are proud of their ability to manage themselves in familiar contexts.
Having all this planned-yet-"loose" morning routine can be great for children socially too. How relaxing to begin each day with informal friendship, sort of like cof fee and cookies or a potluck to kick off a parent meeting.
Benefits of Book Browsing
Sociable book browsing is a cozy routine that can be scheduled any time during the day. Children can share and chat about books with special friends or just sit companionably near peers. A routine like this has value for children regardless of what teachers are doing, but if teachers are skilled at fostering each child's emotional and social development, this time can be made even more valuable.
The teacher may, for instance, want to help Sara separate from her mother by introducing Sara to Samantha, a kind child who will gladly "read" to Sara. Or the teacher may want to help Sasha, a loner find a friend. Or she may want to ensure that Miquel makes it to the book area rather than veering off to the blocks where he spends all his time unless someone entices him into alternative activities.
You might use free-play time to prepare lessons and upcoming activities. But to maximize the emotional and social value of free-play time, you can also use this time to:
- Relate to individual children and parents.
- Promote relationships between children by observing and assisting as needed.
- Help small groups of children settle deeply and creatively into learning experiences.
Your first group meeting of the day is a good time for rituals that promote each child's selfesteem and feeling of belonging, such as:
- Hugging a circle neighbor hello
- Singing songs that include children's names
- Selecting a special classroom-helper job for each child
- Showing and discussing something a child has made
- Sharing award-winning storybooks featuring social/emotional themes
- Sharing news from home
- Learning finger plays, actions songs, and poems
- Discussing the day's activities
Here again, group-time rituals have their own merit, but teachers can increase their significance for the social/emotional development of some children. For example, in many groups there is a child who tends to be "invisible," neither liked nor disliked by classmates, and there's a child who's socially rejected-a child whom other children dislike, possibly because he displays bothersome or bullying behaviors. Sensitive teachers devote lots of time trying to include socially isolated or rejected children and extremely withdrawn children. Group-time routines provide a multitude of opportunities for inclusion.
Partners in Planning
Planning is a meaningful daily or weekly routine. As you make a web of activities in all learning areas, be sure to include children in discussions and planning; Children are motivated to work hard and learn more during your daily project time if they feel emotionally engaged.
Parties at regular intervals are always popular Make them educational. To the ritual of the party, add the ritual of children planning the party.
Children love little rituals such as taking turns sitting in the teacher's chair and "reading" a story to a few friends, or showing something that they've made to another class. Everybody learns in these situations.
Often, projects, parties, and literacy experiences come together in celebrations that include parents as well as children. Some teachers like to meet with the parents of the children in their class every month. After refreshments, various aspects of the curriculum are discussed, and parents participate in planning what children will experience. Special knowledge, talents, and resources that families possess can thus be woven into the curriculum. Parents can be encouraged to discuss their rituals and routines in the home. Teachers can describe the rituals and routines children have at school, and together new rituals can be devised.
Life with little children is easier when it's filled with simple routines, such as singing while waiting for lunch or transportation, or sitting together to enjoy juice and a snack. Including a variety of rituals and routines in your program helps to make children feel safe, secure, and ready to learn. Keep in mind, however that including daily rituals and routines shouldn't exclude opportunities for flexibility and the occasional surprise. If Monday is fruitand-crackers day and Wednesday is popcorn day, how about making Friday special with a lovely vase of fresh flowers on the table or a surprise snack-time visit from a favorite puppet character!
OUR THANKS TO THE STAFF AND CHILDREN AT THE MOUNT SINAI INNOVATIVE LEARNING CENTER IN NEW YORK CITY, FOR LETTING US SHOOT THE PHOTOS FOR THE COVER AND COVER STORY.