Warmth and understanding make us feel cooperative. For a caring climate of personal interaction to blossom, the day must be planned and paced so that there are many opportunities for person-- to-person encounters, for listening, and for conversing. We also need to allow many opportunities throughout the day when children can move freely about the room, make choices, and connect with others. Too much emphasis on "time on task" precludes these opportunities, which significantly contribute to a classroom that feels comfortable to children.
Connect 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. Here are 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. During the first few months of school, 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 (in person, if possible, or by telephone).
- Ask parents to share their skills. Some parents may worry that they have nothing important to share with children. 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-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 mend clothes at home for dramatic play. You may also invite them to come and read books with one or two children at a time.
Build 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:
- Support children when you see them do a kind thing for someone and invite them to tell the group what they did and why. 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.")
- 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." "I could give Garth my snack because he wants his mom to come back.")
- 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 includes helping children 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?")
Tune Into Each Child
Whether one is young or old, an important feature of a comfortable experience is that it appeals to our interests, temperament, ability level, 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, problem solving with others, 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.
Be Sensitive to Temperament. Some children are shy, quiet, and easily overwhelmed. Sensitive teachers try to provide these children with:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 very physical children 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 rather than anything requiring initiative and get up and go? In so many ways, 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.
Cultivate Competence. 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 are excellent reasons for scheduling large blocks of free-choice time into early childhood programs every day. And unless a child has unusual social difficulties, children feel very competent and comfortable when they play. Play is what healthy children do best.
Today, 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, instructional efforts are often wasted. Young minds are preoccupied with achieving emotional and social security and so become as porous as wicker baskets where lessons are concerned. The quality of individualized contact and personal nurturing, the connection with families, and attention to providing comfort throughout the day makes the difference for a child between feeling anxious and unsure and comforted and secure.
SPECIAL COMFORTS FOR SPECIAL NEEDS
Helping children with special needs feel comfortable in the classroom takes a bit of creativity. Here are some things you children with special needs feel comfortable in the classroom classroom environment of creativity. 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.