Nourish them and watch them grow.
Relationships... our pillars, our shadows and our being. Every part of a child's life is built on and around their relationships. Their growth, their self-worth, how they function within society is almost wholly influenced by the quality of their relationships, especially during the infant years. It's no wonder that across research, one constant is the importance of the relationship between children and their teachers. The importance of ‘quality’ relationships for teaching and learning as well as the development of their social and emotional wellbeing. These relationships are central to high-quality teaching in the primary years which, in turn, is crucial to any child’s success. If you can build a secure relationship with a child they are far more likely to demonstrate good peer interaction during play and learning (NCCA 2016).
I sat down to write about classroom management but I found I couldn’t discuss management strategies without first acknowledging the important of our relationship with the children in our care. Because the two are intricately link, and you cannot have one without the other. You see, you can have the most wonderful star charts and incentives to behave well but if you don’t have the foundations of a good relationship with the children in your care, your classroom management strategies won’t last longer than the tack on their sticker. If you want the children to respond well to whatever strategies you decide to put in place, you should focus first on putting the time into creating a strong bond.
It is all about trust and respect. Modelling it, teaching it, giving it, receiving it, long gone is the stern teacher who barks out orders. Respect does not flow in one direction, and no one is ever too young to be on the receiving end. People know that we lead by example and in this case it couldn’t be more true. How you treat the children, how you listen, how you speak to them, how your body language talks to them, even your facial expressions will strongly impact on how the child’s perceives themselves and their worth in your eyes. So, get down on your knees (I don’t own a pair jeans that hasn’t the knee wore away!), make eye contact and keep it even if you need to remind the child to look at you, so many infants find this particularly difficult. Stop and listen to what they have to say, engage them in a one-one interaction. Let the children know you care about them and their needs and if that means reassuring them with physical contact like a pat, a hug or sitting on your lap, obviously use your common sense, but don't be afraid to do it!
I do believe that most teachers do strive to be kind, compassionate and patient but I also understand that we are all human and we have our own life stresses to cope with. All too often we allow the stresses of our own life or the demands placed on us by a heavy curriculum affect our composure in the classroom. But we are entitled to a have bad day, a bad week, or sometimes it can be a bad year. We all go through our personal battles like the next person and we can only try not to allow it to trickle into our school life. But that’s not always possible and I’m sure I not alone when I find myself checking myself, and noting that I raised my voice too much or pointed the finger too hard. So we take note, remind yourself to take an extra breath next time and move on. We are doing our best after all. Start each day with a warm welcoming hello to each child and finish your days with a good bye and a high five. Whatever issues were raised that day, have been dealt with and put behind us. Never let a child go home with the weight of a bad day on their shoulders. Trust me, even the lightest of feathers can weight heavy on little shoulders.
What children really need is to be fully aware of their boundaries and this is a natural starting point as we get to know the children and start building that bond. They need time to become familiar with classroom boundaries, perhaps a little exploring to the left and the right of them too. But if you set them in place, make sure they’re clear, concise with a good dose of consistency and they will soon become the routine. But don’t expect them to get it the first time, nor the second and probably not the 10th. But if you are consistent they will get there in their own time.
We must remember that every relationship with each child in our class will be unique simply because every child is different, with a different set of needs. No one rule fits all. In the infant years, each moment you spend with a child is opportunity to build an understanding of that child’s needs. Some children need to be active, some vocal, some need quiet, some like to touch… all have unique needs for you to meet. Perhaps, that means having a little extra tolerance for the child who shouts out the answers every time. Or giving one child an extra reminder of “making good choices” when they are rough with a toy.
The way you speak to children is so important, so choose your words wisely. Because whatever way you paint a picture of their behavior, is often how you paint a picture of them. If you paint that enough times they will start to believe, it is who they are. So make sure it is kind words you choose. Make sure that no matter how difficult they find it to sit still or do good listening that in the end of the day, they know that they will learn to do it in time. Something that we can give them. They should know that it is only in this moment that they made a wrong choice but that next time they will do better. Teaching the children to believe that they are capable and able is far more productive to their development than focusing on their bad choices.
If you can build a strong relationship of trust and respect with the most challenging child, the simple knowledge that it is their bad choice that has disappointed you, should be enough for them to acknowledge their bad behavior and try harder next time. Because we want them to care about how their actions impact on the people around them. You will meet children that will push you to your limits, and they are the ones that need you most. It is our duty to build these children up, regardless of the behaviour!
Little Jimmy arrived in my Junior Infants class with the most horrific report of tempers and tantrums, emotional and social difficulties from his playschool, the phycologist and anyone else who knew of him and had an opinion of him. I could tell by his parent’s reaction the first time I ask could I have a word with them, the they we bracing themselves for more bad reports. So I knew before I had even meet him that if I couldn’t help this child he would most likely spend the rest of his primary school life being know as the 'bold boy' and not much like by his teachers or peers. So I found myself in a unique position to influence how this child was going to be perceived for the rest of his education. I knew that no matter what, I was going to bring the best out in this child. I was going to teach him what he needed to know to be compatible with our expectations, be they right or wrong.
And surprisingly, the biggest influence on this child’s behavior was a simple, kind gesture. The previous evening as I walked across the beach, my thought drifted to Jimmy. I pick up a shell, then another and and just like that, an idea came to mind. The next day, I called him up for a quiet chat, I told him that when I was walking on the beach I was thinking of him, and I tough of how I wanted him to do well in school and how I knew he was going to to be able to make good choices, and for every good choice he made he could pick a shell from my special collection and keep them in his very own box to be brought home, they were his little family of shells to keep safe. And so began the start of a good relationship between the two of us. With plenty of affection, smiles, hugs and high fives (because that’s what he needed) little Jimmy began to improve. At first I found, that in order for our relationship to be consistent, it needed to involve lots of extra individual interactions throughout each day to meet his needs. During circle time, he always took the seat beside me, the other children seemed to be aware that he needed this support and they didn’t complain, because kids get it more than we do sometimes, ironically they tend to be more tolerant and accepting of eachother's needs than the grown-ups. Often gentle reassurance came in the form of a little pat on the hand or suttle wink coupled with a soft smile.
And from then on, even though it was a long journey with many bumps in the road, whatever classroom strategies that I implemented, little Jimmy would try his best because we had a relationship build on trust and mutual respect and simply seeing my disappointment and the feeling of disappointment in himself when he made a bad choice was enough to make him think twice about doing better next time! Today, Jimmy loves school, enjoys learning and has build some really strong relationships with his peers. But nothing felt as rewarding to everyone involved then to give his parents the wonderful news that he was doing really great in school.
P.s. This post was a very personal one for me. It is marked deeply by my own experience of primary school. Another story that maybe one day I will find the words to share. But for now, share the message with whoever will listen. Keep this post save on your bookmarks and return to it every now and then when a relationship with a child becomes a little stale, that happens to the best of us. Before we even realise it the frustration leads to you being short, less tolerant and snappy at a difficult child. Sometimes, we just need a reminder of what is so special about our job.
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