By: Katie Russell
This past year I have had the honor and the privilege of completing my infant/toddler field experience and preschool practicum. These experiences were diverse and included a university-affiliated early childhood center, religious early childhood setting, and a rural Head Start. Although some of these experiences were not what I was expecting, I learned a lot about caring for and teaching young children.
Toddler Classroom Lessons
The most valuable lessons I learned from my first experience working with children under the age of two were how to communicate respectfully with young children and how to discipline young children. I learned to always communicate with children about what was happening to them. This means that I would never move a child (push in their chair or pick up) or do something to them (such as change their diaper) without letting them know what was happening. This may seem rather obvious to people who are familiar with RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers), but it was new to me and is new to many parents of young children! Warning children verbally prevented negative reactions to daily routines and allowed children to hear language in context. Lisa Murphy has this short video explaining the concept:
Discipline in this setting was different from what I had been exposed to as a child. Discipline was used to help children make better choices, rather than to punish or shame them. Discipline was always verbal and at the child’s level. Oftentimes it was framed in terms of safety. Toddlers would often climb on furniture not meant for climbing, so they would be told, “Put your feet on the floor. Standing on the table is not safe. If you want to climb, go to the loft.” If the child would not respond to the statement, the teacher would assist them in making a better choice. The teacher would say, “Looks like you need to climb right now. Let me help you find the loft” and she would guide the child over to the loft. This was an extremely effective method because it helped children learn how to express all of their desires (climbing, hitting, biting, etc.) in healthy and safe ways in the classroom.
The teachers in this room also rarely used the words “no” or “stop.” They would only use these words when the toddlers were in physical danger. When a toddler would bite or hit their friend (which is very developmentally appropriate for this age group!), the teacher would say, “Stop [name]. Biting hurts. If you need to bite, here is a teether” and the child would be separated from their friend. They always gave alternatives to behaviors (if you want to throw, here is a ball; if you want to push, push the wall; etc.) to help children express their needs. Reserving these words for dangerous situations also gave them the power these words deserved. They were not wasted with phrases such as, “No standing on the tables.”
Observing these methods from my co-teachers and practicing them myself over this past year have helped me become a better communicator. If you are interested in learning more about these methods, I have found Janet Lansbury’s blog to be extremely helpful in applying these concepts with the older children I work with.
Preschool Setting Lessons (Serving Children Ages 3-5)
This was the most difficult setting I have been in thus far. Children were treated poorly and I questioned if I was in any way prepared to meet the needs of children in a center where teachers were not expected to be loving and respectful. Every single day I watched these adults berate children as young as three for offenses such as painting with their fingers, rather than a paintbrush. Negative remarks about a child would be made in front of the other children in the class (Ex. “[Name] is not a nice girl and doesn’t like to play with other people”). The children in this room rarely had new toys or invitations to engage with in the classroom, which caused boredom and conflict. This conflict would be dealt with by the teachers by yelling, “Knock it off” while sitting at a table on the other side of the room. When children were upset or crying, they were met with apathy and told to quit crying because they were physically “fine.” This setting taught me how not to treat and teach preschool-aged children. I witnessed the dangers of a scripted curriculum, worksheets, rote learning, disrespectful remarks, and yelling in an early childhood classroom. Although this was terrible to witness, I was able to reflect on the experience, which helped me strengthen my teaching philosophy and beliefs.
Preschool Setting Lessons (Serving Ages 4-5)
My co-teachers in this setting helped me learn the importance of conflict management and community building in the preschool classroom. This setting utilized Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline system for addressing conflict. When an incident would occur, a teacher would approach and remark, “Something happened.” The children would explain. If the incident resulted in one child being hurt or an item being taken from one child, this child would be approached first. The teacher would ask, “Do you like it?” The teacher would then coach the child by saying, “Go tell [name], “I don’t like it when you [Ex. push me].”” This child would be supported in making this assertion. The aggressor was approached second. The teacher said why the child responded that way, states what is unacceptable, states the reason why, and explores alternatives [Ex. “You wanted that toy, so you grabbed it. You may not take from others. Taking your friend’s toy hurts. When you want a toy, you may ask, “Can I use that?””]. This was a great method to use because most of the children in my classroom were able to work out conflicts on their own because they had been practicing this method since they began school.
Children were continuously encouraged to express their feelings. If a child was feeling frustrated, the teacher would reflect the feelings of the child. For example, a teacher would say, “You are feeling very upset because it is time to go inside.” This would not always comfort the child, but it does help the children learn to recognize and label their feelings. If the child was expressing frustration physically, the teacher would ensure that the victim was okay and then address the aggressor. The classroom also has a designated Star place, which is a place where children can choose to calm themselves and reflect on their feelings. This is a place where only one child can be at a time and gives children a quiet moment. This system allowed the children to develop emotional regulation skills that will aid them throughout their lifetime.
I also learned the importance of community and community building in the classroom. Each day children were greeted and recognized as they walked through the door. Other children were encouraged to greet their friends as they entered the classroom. During free play children were encouraged to interact with one another. Teachers would check in on the children by sitting at the invitations with them and asking them about their explorations. During snack each day, the teachers would point out which children, and sometimes teachers, were missing. Every child would hold up the number of fingers of who was missing and sing the “We Wish You Well” song [(To the tune of The Farmer in the Dell) We wish you well/We wish you well/All through the day today/We wish you well]. At the end of the song, the children would kiss each one of their fingers and blow the kisses to the missing people. When children celebrated their birthdays, another teacher in the setting would bring her autoharp to sing a birthday song and a song of the child’s choice. All the children in this classroom felt a deep sense of connection to the community they had forged together.
These experiences truly inspired my interest in learning more about the social/emotional development of young children and what the adults in their lives can do to promote healthy social/emotional development. Below are some resources I have found helpful in furthering my knowledge about this developmental domain and communication between adults and children.
The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn
- Denton (2013)
The Power of Guidance: Teaching Social-Emotional Skills in Early Childhood Classrooms
- Gartrell (2004)
“Don’t Get So Upset!”: Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings by Understanding Your Own
- Jacobson (2008)
Katie is a senior studying Early Childhood Education at Indiana University. She is currently preparing for her student teaching experience at a boarding school in the Navajo Nation. She aspires to teach in a child-centered, play-based early childhood center serving low-income children and their families.