The stories, strategies, and systems you will read about were developed in an inclusive kindergarten classroom at a dual language school in Manhattan during the 2010-2011 school year. Although this year we implemented many new ideas, others we have experimented with and developed during other school years as well.
During the 2010-2011 school year, we had 24 children in our classroom. Six of our children had an IEP, five of them received special education services under the “speech and language impairment” category, and one under the “autism” category. Twelve of our children are considered ELLs according to their performance in the LAB-R and took the NYSESLAT in May. Most of our children are second and third-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic and others are Puerto Rican, Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Haitian.
Who is “WE”?
Even though only one of us is writing this inquiry, we are a co-teaching team and everything you will read about we developed together. We are special education bilingual teachers Margaret Blachly and Andrea Fonseca. We have both been teaching for about 10 years each, and we have co-taught kindergarten together during three different school years. We strongly believe in the importance of social-emotional development in the early childhood classroom and throughout children’s educational lives. In our classroom, we want to make sure ALL children feel safe and welcomed. In order to support all our children’s social and emotional development, we have established whole class systems and routines. Every year a few children need modifications and individual supports and we do our best to provide that too.
At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, our school asked us to decide which one of us would attend a series of staff development meetings that were scheduled once a month at Teachers College. We both wanted to attend but there was only room for one participant from our school, so we decided together that Andrea should come (we almost tossed a coin).
On the second meeting of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports inquiry team, the facilitators gave us all Lost at School, a book that Andrea started reading the previous school year while trying to figure out how to support a very “challenging” boy in a first-grade classroom. While loving the book, Andrea wanted to talk about it in order to truly start to apply its ideas in the classroom. Andrea continued attending the monthly sessions, sharing the learning with Margaret, and she tried new ideas in the classroom. Later, TCICP asked the teachers that were attending the inquiry teams if we were interested in documenting the work we had been doing in our classrooms for a website.
All children are different. Each child has different strengths, different interests, and different weaknesses. Teachers know that each year they will have children that will need different types of help and supports to succeed in literacy and math. As teachers, we differentiate for our children in all academic areas.
We know they will not learn the same way, so we use different strategies to make sure they all learn the important skills and content in each academic area. Children are also different socially and emotionally. Some children have developed social-emotional competence once they come into kindergarten. But some have yet to develop certain social-emotional skills. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has defined social-emotional skills as the “ability to calm one-self when angry, initiate friendships, resolve conflicts respectfully, make ethical and safe choices and contribute constructively to the community.” Usually, these children (often boys) are our “difficult” children. Children who just have trouble adapting to our classroom, following the rules, becoming part of the classroom community.
Our “difficult” children need differentiation, too. They need us to help them develop the skills they have not completely developed yet. For them, the general supports that we have for all children to be happy and engaged in our classrooms (activities and strategies for community building, developing classroom rules together, etc.) will not be enough.
Can you think of a “difficult” child in your classroom now?
Your student will probably need very specific supports designed just for them. However, I want to share about the accommodations and supports we created in our inclusive dual-language kindergarten classroom for two boys who needed something different. One of these boys had an IEP, the other boy did not. (Does it matter who did and who didn’t have an IEP? We did not think so.) The names used here are pseudonyms.
Fair Isn’t Always Equal
Just as we group children for guided reading according to their reading levels, and we would not give a child that is reading, for example, “C” books independently a “J” book to read on his or her own, we cannot ask children that are not ready to simply follow our rules. It IS FAIR for some children to have accommodations that others do not. And the other children DO understand. In our classroom, from the very beginning of the year, we talk with our children about how they are all different and need different things to be happy, play, work and learn in our classroom. Children (even 4 and 5-year-old children) understand that “fair isn’t always equal”. Our children understand from very early in the school year that their teachers work hard on making sure everyone gets what he or she needs to be a part of our classroom community. They also begin understanding that they can help their friends, too. Even children that have trouble calming themselves down can support a friend in distress in the most caring and patient way.
How We Included Kev in Our Classroom
Who was Kev when he came to our classroom?
When Kev came into our inclusive kindergarten classroom, he was 4 (he is one of those “December birthdays,” children that are actually almost a year younger than some of their classmates). He had been in “Daycare” the previous school year, where he seemed to have mostly watched TV according to his accounts. The first days of school Kev would constantly say “I don’t belong in Kindergarten, I belong in Daycare.” He was adorable, sweet, and smiled a lot. It was obvious he wanted us and his peers to like him. He had a lot of energy, continuously moving and jumping around. He seemed not to be interested in any group conversation or whole group lessons. He also got very angry very quickly, acted impulsively, and was sometimes aggressive towards the other children and the teachers. He got into conflicts with other children very easily and continuously accused them and yelled: “You are not my friend!”
In the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) inquiry team I started attending in October, I was asked to think about a child in my classroom that would likely need some support to improve his/her behavior. I immediately thought about Kev and how much he was struggling. They asked me to observe him using FBA (Functional Behavior Assessment) formats. These formats helped me and my co-teacher begin to understand what Kev was communicating with his behavior. For the PBIS spotlight, we also began reading Lost at School by Ross Greene and thinking about children through the author’s main premise, “kids do well if they can” (as opposed to the most common idea that: “children do well if they want to”): In Greene’s words, this “philosophy carries the assumption that if a kid could do well he would do well. Doing well is always preferable to not doing well, but only if a kid has the skills to do well in the first place. If a kid isn’t doing well, he must be lacking the skills.” Greene provides an assessment of lagging skills and suggests using it as a tool to figure out which skills the child is lacking. Understanding why a child is having difficulties is the first step to begin the process of helping him or her.
Here is the list of lagging skills we checked off for Kev:
- Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mindset or task to another
- Difficulty persisting on challenging or tedious tasks
- Difficulty maintaining focus
- Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of actions (impulsive)
- Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem
- Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration so as to think rationally
- Difficulty seeing the “grays”/concrete, literal, black and white thinking
- Inflexible, inaccurate interpretations/cognitive distortions or biases (e.g. “Everyone’s out to get me”, “Nobody likes me”, “You always blame me”, “It’s not fair”, “I’m stupid”)
- Difficulty seeking attention in appropriate ways
Kev also had strengths:
- He was smart and had a natural curiosity about the world around him
- He appreciated beauty and noticed beautiful things
- He was able to communicate feelings and thinking in words
- His communication skills were strong both receptively and expressively
- He was “ready” academically according to the school’s expectations in kindergarten and did well on math and literacy baselines
Based on our observations of Kev, the checklist of lagging skills, understanding his strengths, the trusting relationship we were building with him, strategies I was learning about in the PBIS inquiry team, and our experience working with “difficult” children in other years, we developed a plan to support Kev in our classroom.
Kev’s Individual Supports
One of the first things we decided to do was to ask Kev’s family to bring him directly to our classroom in the morning instead of to the cafeteria like all of the other children. We had noticed through the FBA’s (Functional Behavioral Assessment) and other informal observations that Kev was having many problems with his friends during breakfast in the cafeteria. Many days he was coming into the classroom already angry, upset, and yelling about how someone had not been friendly to him. We decided that while we needed to work on helping Kev be with friends and negotiate with them without getting upset, in the meantime, it would be better for him, for us, and for our other 23 children, if he came into the classroom, settled in without the social pressures, and started the day calmly. So everyday Kev would come into the room about 15-20 minutes before the rest of the class. During this time, we usually found a hands-on activity for Kev to work on and we also talked with him through what was going to happen during the day using his Personal Schedule. When some of the hands-on activities got Kev excited and active instead of calming him down, we began an informal chart in which we wrote about the activities that were good choices for him in the morning, and which were not going to help him calm down and get ready for the day.
Some of the activities that helped Kev calm down in the morning were: using scissors, paper and masking tape to make collages, sewing, using geoboards with rubber bands, and writing. Dice games and using the balance with different materials made him excited.
Kev’s Personal Schedule
Initially, we gave Kev a personal schedule similar to others we have used in the past. We have called them “behavior charts,” but we just refer to them as “your chart” when we talk with children about them. The chart showed each activity we were doing during the day and, initially, we gave Kev star stickers if he participated in the activity safely and following our classroom rules. We determined with him how many stars he thought he could have before rest time in order to get a “prize.” The prize consisted of playing with a special toy or game during rest time. Kev chose his prize as well. We also gave Kev a second prize for the end of the day and determined with him how many star stickers he needed to get in the afternoon activities in order to get that second prize. Kev’s chart went home with him. We had previously explained to his family why we wanted to use the chart, how it was used, and why we thought it would help Kev.
Kev’s chart evolved as the year progressed. Very soon after we started using the “behavior chart” we realized it was too much to ask from Kev to be with the whole group for all activities. He was just not ready to sit with the rest of his classmates and participate in all activities all day. The idea that it was okay for a child not to be part of an activity and to work on an alternative activity or just “take a break” from the group was beginning to make sense to us. Considering Kev’s social and emotional development and his lagging skills, we decided to include in the chart options for Kev to choose whether he would be with the whole group, the small group, or at his table during certain activities.
Behavior Charts that have a “prize” attached to them are not necessarily pure PBIS. However, as the year progressed the prize became less and less important until it was eliminated completely, and Kev no longer got stars to count. The chart became truly a Personal Schedule, that helped Kev know what was happening during the day. Going over his chart at the beginning of the day was a routine Kev truly counted on. Knowing what was happening throughout the day and what was expected of him during each activity helped Kev deal with each transition. By the end of the school year, Kev was not choosing to be at his table at all; in fact, he was participating in most activities most of the time.
Kev’s Gum Plan
When Kev participated in whole group lessons, it was very hard for him to keep his hands to himself. He was fascinated with his classmates’ and teachers’ hair and would touch everyone’s hair constantly. We tried different fidget toys with Kev, but we noticed he tended to play with them too much and they ended up chewed up or in the air. We noticed he would constantly pick up small pieces of paper from the carpet and begin chewing them too. We decided to offer Kev the option of chewing gum when he participated in whole group lessons. Chewing gum seemed to give him the sensory input he needed in order to focus and attend. It also motivated him to participate in whole group lessons. When the gum was “not working,” that is, when Kev was chatting with friends, putting his feet on someone’s back, touching someone else’s hair without permission, or talking loudly and in general “disrupting” the lesson, and would not stop the behaviors with several visual and/or verbal reminders, we would ask Kev to leave the carpet, spit the gum in the garbage can, and go to his table to take a break.
Early in the school year, we assigned Kev space where he could sit and relax when he was upset or could not participate in the activities with the whole group. This was one of our working tables during table work, but it was usually empty and available for him when most children were sitting at the carpet for a group lesson and during most transitions. By the table, we had a small box for Kev, in which we had some materials he enjoyed using like plasticine, small paper, and crayons. Near the table, we also had a basket with bears, and many times Kev chose to just sit in this space hugging a big stuffed bear that he called “Big Bear.”
Kev was already choosing whether he would stay at his table for certain activities and when he did he was usually asked to do work related to what the rest of the children were doing. For instance, if he decided not to participate in a morning meeting, he was asked to work on a personalized morning message chart.
Kev did not love completing this chart or working on his own and so he began choosing to come to the morning meetings and to the whole group or small group lessons more often.
Even though Kev was participating in the life of the classroom more and more, he still had a lot of trouble with self-control and self-regulation. It was still hard for him to stay with the group or with a small group for the whole lesson, and he would also get upset at other times of the day and clearly needed time to himself. We then developed a “break chart” and placed it by Kev’s table. In this chart, Kev could think and decide why he needed a break (was he angry? was he sad? maybe he was confused or did not understand something?) and what activity he could do to take the break.
Kev’s Levels of Anger Chart
The different supports we developed for Kev were working. Even though it was a slow process and some days were still very challenging, Kev was successfully included in our classroom. He was learning and working and playing and making friends. However, as he interacted with other children more. As he was involved in doing more and more work, he was also having mayor anger tantrums. The tantrums did not happen daily, but they were very difficult to handle and left Kev and us exhausted. At one of the PBIS spotlight sessions I attended, I spoke about Kev’s tantrums and got some ideas and support from the facilitators, I developed a chart in which Kev could decide how angry he was feeling, using his own language, and also present the choices he had when he was feeling that way. In the classroom, I worked with Kev on drawing pictures for his chart. He was very interested in helping me figure out how his face looked when he was “upset,” “angry,” “so so so angry,” or “going to explode.” Kev would dramatize the faces as I was drawing, and he told me to color his face red for the drawing of “going to explode!”
We started using the chart and it was very helpful to remind Kev about what he could do when he was angry, instead of hurting others or himself. The language went like this: “Kev, I see that you are angry and it is okay, but you cannot (kick, scream…) when you are angry. Look at your chart, that is what you can do…”
Kev and the Bears
Every child in our classroom had their own teddy bear. However, before each child got their own bear, Kev had shown interest in the few teddy bears we had for everyone to share. He particularly liked one bear, the biggest one. He started calling this bear “Big Bear” and requesting to sit with the bear for some meetings. We would give permission to Kev to have Big Bear on his lap. However, if Kev started swinging Big Bear or playing with it instead of engaging in the activity, we would remind Big Bear of proper behavior. Rather than telling Kev directly to stop playing with the bear, we would use a calm but stern voice directed towards the bear: “Big Bear, you are here to help Kev listen. If you cannot help Kev listen you will have to go sit in your basket.” Kev usually smiled and “helped” Big Bear fix himself and start listening. Trying out this playful and “pretend” way of addressing Kev’s behavior was very positive and it worked beautifully many times. When Kev got his own bear, he kept using both Big Bear and his bear to soothe himself when he was upset, angry, or just too excited.
Kev’s Small Group Goodbye Meeting
The transition from the last cleanup of the day to the goodbye meeting was too difficult for Kev. During the goodbye meeting, Kev was way too tired and/or overexcited to participate productively. After trying to help him participate by sitting Kev in our lap, having him sit with Big Bear or his own bear, giving him gum and other strategies, we decided the demands on him that late in the day were just too high. Thus we started a small group goodbye meeting for Kev and a few other children that had trouble focusing and sitting for the end of the day meeting.
In our job chart, we also included a job called “small group goodbye meeting,” so one other friend would always come to this small group goodbye meeting. The small group goodbye meeting was held outside the classroom in our half-moon-shaped guided reading table. The children would draw on a journal a part of the day they wanted to remember. With Kev, in particular, we used this time to go over his personal schedule and reflect on his day. Initially, we counted how many stars he had in total and wrote the number. If there had been a time of the day that had been particularly difficult, we talked about why it had been difficult and how he could have handled the situation in a better way. If Kev won his prize for the end of the day, this was the time in which he would get his prize. For example, if Kev had decided his prize would be to play with small blocks, he would then play with the blocks for a few minutes during the goodbye meeting and share his prize with the friends at the meeting. However, Kev moved away from this extrinsic reward and, in the last few months of school, he did not get a prize. During these months, at the end of the day, we started working with Kev on talking, drawing and writing about a part of his day that was good and a part of his day that was hard. This was a reflective practice that Margaret had created and previously used with other children. This gave Kev time to think about what he was doing and the strategies he was using when he was having a good time, and how he was learning to handle the “difficult” moments.
Our Relationship with Kev
All the different strategies and supports that we implemented to help Kev have a successful year in our classroom were possible because we built a trusting relationship with Kev. We believe not even the most creative and well-planned supports can work if there is not a good relationship between the student and the teacher as a base. When Kev came into our classroom early in the morning before all his friends, we greeted him with smiles and hugs. We made sure he felt welcomed in our class every day. We needed to talk seriously with Kev at some times during the day, we did set limits and used stern voices, and at times we did lose our patience with him. However, we always made sure to also tell him all the good things we knew about him. We made sure he heard very specific and positive comments about his efforts, his work, his behavior, his personality, and his interests. We loved Kev and we made sure he felt loved.
Even with all these systems in place, there were still hard moments and hard days. Kev never became a “perfect” student, even though he did have some near-perfect days. However, without all these supports his kindergarten year, his first experience in school could have been a disaster: a series of trips to the principal’s office, perhaps suspensions.
We believe that working on creating a caring and safe classroom community is essential in preventing behavior problems. When children feel loved and safe in an environment, they can give their best and thrive academically.
We want to share some of the practices we have used to support children’s social and emotional development in our classroom. We have used these practices successfully in kindergarten and first grade and we believe they are applicable to other grades and older children with a few modifications. These practices are not implemented in isolation from our academic curriculum; on the contrary, they are integrated into the rest of the curriculum. In our classroom we teach children to read and write in two languages, we are involved in mathematics problem solving every day, and we engage in rich science and social studies investigations and projects.
Children (and adults) work better in the classroom if they know what to expect. Having a very clear daily schedule displayed is essential for all children, but especially for those who have a lot of energy, are anxious or very active. It is easier to sit for a quiet activity when you know a game will come next. It is easier to continue to be attentive even though you are feeling a little hungry if you know snack or lunch are coming up soon.
In our classroom, we sing the schedule with the children every day as part of our morning meeting routines. In fact, singing the schedule is the first thing we do after we greet everyone by name. As we sing each activity on the schedule, a child who has that job on that particular day points to the words. Reviewing the schedule becomes a shared reading/singing activity.
As the day progresses, we look back at the schedule. We make it clear to the children when each activity is over (i.e. “Writing workshop is finished”) and we ask our “schedule reader” of the day: “What comes next?”
Our children rely on the schedule and any unexpected change that we need to make, we make explicitly in front of the children. Our class schedule is also the model for individual schedules we have provided to support individual children.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
Do you have a schedule in your classroom? Where could you display it? If you are a middle school or high school teacher: Can you think of providing students with a schedule or agenda for your period?
Early in the school year, after we have established our classroom rules, we begin a conversation about the jobs we need in our classroom. Like with the rules, we send homework for them to talk with their families about the jobs they do at home. Later in the classroom, we share the completed homework and we ask them about the jobs they have helped within the classroom. Since the beginning of the year, we have asked the children to do different jobs for us (i.e. turn the light on/off, read the schedule, give the morning news for the morning message, read the morning message, etc.) but at some point, we lose track of who has done which job and it begins to be apparent to the children that there needs to be a system to assign jobs.
We begin a list on a big chart paper of all the jobs they think are needed in the classroom. We use the list of their ideas (and our ideas) to come up with as many jobs as there are children and we make our job chart. In kindergarten, we make the drawings for each job. In first grade, I have asked the children to make the drawings themselves. Once the job chart is ready we show it to the children and we explain how each day they will have a different job and that “everyone will get a turn to do all the jobs.”
During the first few weeks that the job chart is up and running, we read it with the children daily to make sure everyone knows what their job is. Later there is no need to review the chart, as most children look at it as they come in the room and they know what their job is for the day (and many times they also know what their job will be the next day!). Many times if we forget calling a child to do their job, they remind us.
Jobs become a very important part of our classroom life. Children love doing their job! It gives them a sense of their ability to do things and to be responsible. They also begin feeling that they are contributing to the classroom community, which also builds up their self-esteem.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
Can you assign jobs to your students? How can you rotate responsibilities?
Morning meeting (called “circle time” in other classrooms) is how we begin our day. We all sit on the carpet and we sing “hello,” mentioning everyone’s name. We believe it is very important for children to hear their name early in the day: that is how they know they are “seen,” that they are present, and they matter to us and to each other. After we sing hello, we read and sing our schedule, we read the morning message, and we go over other routines such as reviewing the calendar and the attendance. Each routine has its rationale and many support children’s literacy and math skills. We know in many classrooms morning meetings are getting way too long. We are in the process of evaluating our morning meeting in order to make it shorter and more meaningful for the children. We also know that many children do not have a morning meeting at all; it is seen as a “waste of time” (that is, children should be spending that time “working”). However, the essential message here is that in order to build a caring classroom community the day (or period) needs to begin with a time to get together and greet each other.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
Can you think of a way to greet your students or a game in which they all get to greet each other? If you work with older children, they may be excited to compose a morning chant or cheer to start the day or the period.
We consider ourselves really lucky to be one of the few kindergarten classrooms that still have “family style” lunch. This means that our children eat lunch in the classroom. We serve the lunch ourselves and we seat with the children and have conversations with them as they eat. This time is really valuable for us, as we get to know our children much better. When children are having their lunch they talk about topics that they would not talk about with teachers at other times of the day. We get to learn more about their interests, their families, the television shows they watch, and the video games they play. We understand that having lunch in the classroom sounds just impossible (or undesirable) for many teachers. In other years in which I have not had this opportunity, I have assigned a day to eat lunch with groups of children in the classroom once a week. Children love to eat lunch with their teachers and it is a very natural time to build relationships.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
Can you visit your students in the cafeteria and have lunch with them once a week/month? Can you schedule a time for groups of students to have lunch with you in the classroom once a week/month?
If you are a high school or middle school teacher and have too many students, think about those students that you know the least or those that you just can’t seem to get along with. Why not have lunch with those students to begin building relationships?
Singing, Moving, and Playing Together
Singing in the classroom is a wonderful way to build community: when children sing songs together they begin to feel they are part of a group. We use short songs for many of our routines and transitions. We also sing fun children’s songs and songs related to the topics we are studying. Singing makes children feel good and there is always a feeling of peace and comfort when we sing together.
We also incorporate movement games into transitions. Children need to move much more than the traditional school schedule allows for. We try to make sure our children have time to move every day and the games we play together also teach them about how to work together. For example, when we go out to the playground we always begin with a group circle game, then we let all the children play freely. Standing together in a circle looking at each other’s faces and playing a game is a fun way to acknowledge that we are a community. We also think that when children are allowed to have fun together they are much more likely to be engaged when we ask them to do more serious work together.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
If you work with older children, would they be interested in composing a song or hymn for your class or your subject?
Can you think of an inspirational song that may bring your students together? Can you think of two or three and then have the students vote for their favorite?
How can you incorporate movement and games into your day or period?
Caring and trusting relationships are the building blocks of a caring classroom community. For us, creating close relationships with children begins with a sincere interest in getting to know each of our kids as people. We want to know and understand who each of our children is and what interests them. What do they like? What don’t they like? In the first week of school, we ask the people that know our children best: their parents. We interview each family, which gives us essential information to understand where our children come from.
Throughout the year we observe our children closely as they work and play in the classroom and we talk and listen to them. Our observations (which we try really hard to write down as short anecdotes) and our conversations with children help us get to know them.
We also incorporate activities into the curriculum in which we explore how we are alike and different. We interview each child in front of the class at the beginning of the year as part of our literacy curriculum. We study their names, introducing them to the letters and their sounds. The first book our children write for writing workshop is a label book called “All About Me.” The second book is a personal narrative that we call a “family story.” Through all these literacy and social studies activities, we continue to get to know our children and they continue to get to know each other as well. The teacher-student relationship is not the only one we work on, we also want our children to know and care about each other.
In first grade, I have started the year with a social studies unit focusing on friendship, in which we provide many opportunities for children to talk to each other and explore their similarities and differences. We read many books that tell friendship stories and we think about the characters and what makes them friends. We discuss and talk about what being a good friend means. As a culminating project, the children have made a “friendship quilt.”
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
Can you integrate activities to get to know your students into your regular curriculum? Can you think of interviewing your students or/and their families at the beginning of the year? Can your students interview each other?
How can you promote empathy and solidarity among your students?
A Note About Talking with Children
In order to have meaningful conversations with children, we have thought a lot about the language we use to talk with them. Many educators that have written about their experiences and their practice inspire us, such as Vivian Gussin Paley and Chip Wood. We want to become the kind of teacher that really listens to her/his children and that says the right thing to encourage them to keep talking and to be sincere. In the hectic life of the classroom, it is easy to fall into language that is not that proactive. At times, it seems easier to just give an order to a child than to try to engage him or her in cooperation. It also seems easier to ignore their little complaints than to accept them and acknowledge them because they are not that little to them. This year part of my work for the PBIS spotlight was to think about the language I use in my classroom and how to use my words to support children’s social-emotional development and solve problems with them. I found the book How to Talk so Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish extremely helpful in this search for the right emotionally responsive language. We tried their ideas in the classroom and we felt that most of the time this helped us to have kinder and more honest conversations with our children.
Developing our Classroom Rules
Children need to know what is expected of them. At the beginning of the school year, it is very important to establish with the children what is going to be considered acceptable and unacceptable behavior in their new classroom. In our classroom, we follow a similar process to establish the rules with our children as the one suggested in The First Six Weeks of School.
Initially, in order to be able to have conversations with children at the carpet, we establish “Meeting Rules.” We talk with the children about what they think needs to happen for all of us to have a conversation and listen to each other when we sit together. We talk about how important it is to listen while someone else is talking and we dramatize situations in which two people are talking at the same time. We talk about raising their hand when they want a turn to talk as a way to make sure only one person talks at a time. We talk about how our bodies need to be ready to listen too, so our hands need to be down and our feet on the floor. As we establish the appropriate behaviors, we show children simple visuals of each. We then use these visuals to give quiet reminders to children that are forgetting our meeting rules. For example, if a child talks out of turn, we point to the “raise your hand” picture card. This way we can help children remember the rules without interrupting what we or the children are saying.
After the children are familiar with the meeting rules, we send social studies homework for them to talk with their families about the rules they have at home:
When the children bring this homework back to school, we look at the homework together and talk about the rules they have at home. We ask why they think they need rules at home, and we talk about how we also need rules in our classroom. We say, “We want all of you to be able to learn, play and work in our classroom. And to learn, play, and work together everyone needs to feel safe.” We have a conversation about the things they like to do in our classroom, their favorite activities. We talk about how to do all those wonderful and fun things, we need to agree on some rules that we will all follow. Soon we begin brainstorming ideas for rules we need in our classroom and we write their ideas on chart paper (we write ALL ideas as the children had said them, and we write their name by their idea). Here is an example of the kind of ideas children give in this initial brainstorm:
- No hitting
- No hitting
- No pushing
- Be quiet
- No running
- Clean when it is time
- Share the materials
- Do not break the pencils
- Do not break the books
- Don’t draw on the tables
- Do not laugh if someone falls
When we have enough ideas on the chart (which may take more than one meeting depending on the children’s interest and energy), we tell the children that we have noticed that some of their ideas go together. We point out, for example, that many of their ideas have to do with being SAFE with their bodies. We say, “Let’s circle all the ideas that tell about being safe with our bodies with an orange marker,” as we read down the list, we ask the children to decide if each idea should be circled in orange or not. We continue with this process circling their ideas with four different colors that correspond with the four general rules that we have established beforehand.
Because we teach kindergarten, we have decided on the rules we want for the classroom, but we involve the children in the creation of the rules in this way. In other grades, teachers can let the children categorize the rules themselves, and the children can be the ones that decide the wording for each rule. In any case, it is better to have a small number of rules (3 to 5) that are all stated in positive terms (it is better to say what we want children to do than to say what we do not want them to do). When the process of categorizing is finished we have four rules.
After we establish the rules, we continue working with the children on understanding each rule. We study one rule at a time and we invite children to make pictures of themselves and their friends following that rule.
We also dramatize situations in which children have to think of choosing ways to follow one of the rules. One strategy for these dramatizations is to tell children a story in which children, in other kindergarten classrooms, did not follow the rules (i.e. someone pulled someone else’s hand going down the stairs and they both fell, or someone did not want to play with someone else at the playground). We give the characters names and we tell the stories using pictures. Then we ask for volunteers to dramatize the story. But just as we are getting to the part in which “someone” is going to break a rule, we STOP the action and ask the children to give ideas about what would be a “good choice.” How could we turn the story around and have this character follow the rule? If he/she was not being safe with his/her body, what could he/she have done to be safe? Children usually have really good ideas about how to “fix” these stories and they love the opportunity to act them out.
Besides directly teaching and working together on understanding the rules, we make sure we talk about the rules throughout the day, not only when children forget to follow them but especially when children do remember to follow the rules. For example, after a very good clean up, we will say: “Wow! You really remembered to follow the green rule today! Our classroom looks beautiful! All the pencils and crayons are in the right place!” Or if we noticed a child being very nice and friendly we will compliment him/her on following the yellow rule and we will specifically mention what he/she did that was nice and friendly (i.e. “You patted your friend’s back when he was crying,” “You shared the red crayon and took turns with”).
The rules are also displayed in our meeting area where children can see them every day. Part of our daily morning meeting routines is to sing our classroom rules. The first year we co-taught together we wanted to make sure all the children saw and said the rules every day. We decided that singing them was the best way to accomplish this goal since it would also be fun for the children. We also believe singing is a wonderful way to build a community in a classroom. Singing together brings children together in a very special way. Since that first year, we have been singing this song and we made up hand movements to go with it. Our children sang the song and made the movements daily. We believe this really helped them remember the rules throughout the day, and helped them think of themselves as a group of children that we’re safe with their bodies, good friends, and listened and took care of their classroom.
When I have looped with a kindergarten class to first grade I have continued to sing the song with the children. However, their initial brainstorming has prompted me to add an extra rule. One year the children decided on the rule: “Always keep trying” and voted for a color for the new rule: light blue won. Another year the new rule was: “We always do our best!” and black was the winning color. So, in the first grade, we sang: “We have five rules…”
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
Do you have a process to establish rules with your students? Even though you know what you want the rules to be, involving the student in the process of deciding the rules gives them ownership, which makes them more likely to respect the rules. Being involved in the process of establishing the rules, sends students a strong message: you trust them.
Can you think of a way to review your rules daily in a fun way? Older children may be excited to compose their own music for the rules or to invent a special clapping pattern to chant the rules together.
Teddy Bears as an Emotional Support in the Classroom
Reading Bears Bears Everywhere! Supporting Children’s Emotional Health in the Classroom by Lesley Koplow inspired us to give each of our 24 children a teddy bear this year. In her words: “…including [Teddy Bears] in the classroom process can give children a voice for fears, worries, and conflicts that sometimes underlie inattentive and disruptive behavior in the classroom. Bears in the room can help the teacher create a “‘holding environment,’ a place where children feel ‘held,’ even when they are struggling. This technique can help [them] build a foundation for a pro-social peer community within the classroom environment, setting the stage for more positive peer interactions and an emotionally safe environment at school.” This was certainly true for us and our children this school year. The bears were important for all our children to feel safer and happier in our classroom and were especially helpful for a few children that had a really hard time fitting in.
Bringing bears into the classroom gives students that have unsolved attachment issues the opportunity to have a “transitional object” or comfort object. When we think about “transitional objects,” we go back to the image of a toddler holding a little blanket or a stuffed animal. In fact, children that have created transitional objects in toddlerhood have accomplished a very important milestone in their emotional and social development.
Toddlers invent “transitional objects” when they start spending less and less time with their primary caregivers, and there is a conflict between their desire to explore the world on their own and the need to have their parents close to feel safe and secure. The “transitional object” is then a symbol for the comfort and safety they feel when they are close to the primary caregiver. Holding the transitional object allows them to be apart from their parents and still feel safe. Later when children can hold the image of their parents in their minds, the need for the transitional object fades.
Many children come into our classrooms without having accomplished important emotional and social developmental tasks. Even those that come to us with stable attachment histories may have trouble adapting to the new setting and the new adults they will have to rely on for 7 hours a day. Teddy bears become a metaphor for the safety of the teacher-child relationship. For instance, in our classroom, the teddy bears really helped when one us had to be absent, as just holding them seemed to bring the children the comfort they needed to have a nice day in school without one of us there. In other school years, the absence of one of us was a lot more disruptive and usually meant a very hectic day for all.
We got the bears in October and introduced them to the children slowly. First, we placed all the bears on a high shelf and just let the children see them. We talked about the bears and how each would have one but, first, we needed to talk about how we would make sure our bears were safe with us in the classroom. We had several conversations that brought us back to our classroom rules and the importance of following them. We talked about how the bears would be their special friends. We then let each child choose a bear (all the bears looked the same) and just hold it. After a few days in which the children brought their bears to the read-aloud time and played with them during “Worktime Choices,” we asked them to name their bears.
Some children gave their bears names they liked, and it was hard for us to figure out their reasoning. Other children gave their bears names that showed us how powerful and healing bringing bears to the classroom could really be. One of our boys had just arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic a few days before he joined our classroom. So, he named his bear “Nathanael,” the name of the best friend he had left in his country. In a similar way a boy that had started kindergarten in Florida and came to our class in November, gave the bear the name of his best friend in Florida. A boy in our classroom who lived only with his mother and whose dad lives in Mexico named his bear “Papá.” When all the bears had a name, the children chose a tag for us to write their bear’s name and their name, which we laminated and then tied to each bear with a ribbon each child had chosen too. The bears looked a little different now and the children began to get really attached to them.
Because the bears were part of our classroom life every day, we needed to find them a space to live. We got little baskets for each bear and many children sewed cushions for their bears. Some children also made bracelets and necklaces for their bears with pipe cleaners and beads. A few brought sweaters and jackets for their bears from home. On our schedule, we added a little picture of a bear at the times in which they could have their bears with them. Usually, they could have their bears for reading aloud (which made our read aloud very peaceful and wonderful!), rest, and “Worktime Choices.” Sometimes we asked them to bring their bears for other activities as well. For example, for journal writing, we would ask them to bring their bears and tell them about what they wanted to write about. After a week of vacation, we would ask the children to bring their bears for a morning meeting to help them with the transition back to school.
The bears also became “self objects” or representations of the children themselves and their emerging identities. Providing a “pretend” way for children to express what they were “really” feeling. We had several conversations in which instead of asking the children: “How are you feeling about…?”, we would ask, or “How does your bear feel about…?” It seems that this allowed even the most reluctant of children to reveal how he or she was feeling, with much more ease than if he/she had been asked the question directly. Every school year in June, we have asked the children what they are going to miss about our classroom. Some children have been successful in answering the question and others have not been able to think of something or have felt shy about saying it. This year, when the children learned they would take the bears home when kindergarten ended, we asked them to think about what their bears would miss about our classroom. Their answers were so sincere and came to them so quickly! “My bear will miss the teachers,” “My bear will miss playing with (friends name),” or “My bear will miss playing with the trains.” Then we asked them to tell their bears about the things they could look forward to doing at their homes. These helped them remember all the things they like to do with their families and their summer plans. It was truly a very successful meeting, and one of the ways in which the children said goodbye to our classroom and a year of learning and growing together. We were happy to have the bears’ help!
This year the bears became part of our classroom life in a very natural way. However, we wish we had done even more with them. We did get to see their wonderful potential to support children’s emotional well being and we will continue to use bears in the classroom hopefully in even deeper ways.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
You do not need to be a kindergarten teacher to bring bears to your classroom. In her book, Bears Bears Everywhere! Lesley Koplow writes about how teachers in PreK to fifth grade have used bears. (If you are thinking about bringing bears into your classroom, we highly recommend reading the book. It is beautifully written and very inspiring!)
Middle and high schoolers may still need comfort objects, what could these objects be? Can your kids perhaps make friendship bracelets for each other? Can you use technology to help your older students invent symbols for caring relationships?
Our Classroom Space
We want our children to feel at home in the classroom. Although it is important for children to discriminate between home behavior and school behavior, their classroom should still be a warm and welcoming environment.
We like using cloth to cover our bulletin boards because it is warmer and softer than paper and gives the classroom a really nice feeling. We also have pretty lamps and plants and we try to bring fresh flowers often. A beautiful environment makes children and adults feel good and when we are feeling good we work and learn better.
We have a meeting area with a carpet and some benches and chairs where all the children can seat comfortably at the same time. We assign children spots on the carpet, benches, and small chairs, according to their strengths and needs, and we make changes when things are not working.
We make sure to have clearly defined areas in the rest of the room: art, blocks, dramatic play, reading, science, computer center, listening center, writing center. Our tables are organized so that children can seat in small or large groups according to how they work best. Thus, we have some tables that fit only two children, others three or four, and we have one that fits up to 12 children where we sometimes seat half of the group to have lessons in two groups. That is also the table that we use as the art center during “Worktime Choices” as most art activities require a large working area.
A very important space in our classroom is a quiet reading area in which we have a sofa and a small carpet. We use this area to read books with small groups of children or to have small group lessons, but this is also an area in which a child that is feeling upset or angry can go to be alone and calm down. Having private spaces for children to “cool down” is essential. It is a way to show that we accept all feelings in our classroom, even angry feelings, and we provide a space for those feelings to be contained, dealt with and talked about, in ways that won’t hurt anyone.
In our classroom, we also treat the lights as an element of the environment that helps us calm down or makes us more alert. We usually have the lights out when the children come into the classroom and we turn them on as we start morning meetings. We turn them off and only leave a lamp on during rest time, and we turn them on after rest when it is time to work again. Sometimes when an activity is feeling too noisy just turning the lights off helps change the mood.
We are no experts on classroom environments. Many times we feel annoyed with the number of materials we have. But we do think it is an element in which teachers need to put a lot of thought and care. We are constantly thinking of ways to make our classroom space more comfortable for the children, and more supportive of their learning.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
Can you add one element to your classroom to make it look more inviting? A poster, a curtain, a lamp, a plant or flowers?
Can you think of a way to make a private space for students that need some time apart from the group? Maybe with a cushion, or a folding screen, or a rocking chair and headphones?
“Worktime Choices” is our children’s very favorite part of the day. They just love it! Why? Because it is the time in which they are engaged in self-selected activities that are developmentally appropriate. It is our favorite part of the day too because we get to see the amazing learning that happens when children are playing and exploring with materials that they chose. Choice is powerful.
As adults, we know that we are much more productive and engaged when we have chosen the activity that we are doing than when we are just following instructions. In our society and our educational system, children seldom get to choose, but when we give them that opportunity wonderful things happen.
In our classroom, we have “Worktime Choices” (also called “choice time” or “center time”) every day. The children choose which area they want to work at from the options we set out that day; the areas we open each day vary a little. Since each area can only hold a few children at a time, we also set the number of children that can go to each area each day.
We place a small sign for each area and the number of children that can go there on a pocket chart and the children use clothespins with their names to show where they will go. Children take turns to choose following a list of their names in alphabetical order by their first name. But everyone has a turn to choose first.
Thus if Amelia chose first today, Bianca will choose first tomorrow and Carlos will choose first the day after and so on. At the beginning of the year, it is hard for children when the area they wanted to go to is full before they have a turn to choose; we have to deal with some tears and disappointment. However, most children adapt to this system quickly, as they understand that they will have a chance to choose the area they like another day and because they realize they can play and have fun in all areas.
Some of the areas we have in our classroom are: science, math, writing, reading with bears, art (we have different materials each week/month: collage, clay, painting, markers, construction with recyclable materials and masking tape, etc) bear/dollhouse, dramatic play, blocks, trains and tracks, listening center, computers, sensory table (with sand or water) and dramatic play. We also have a cooking project once a week during Worktime Choices.
Serious learning happens at this time of the day. Our children are fully engaged in literacy, math, science, and social studies activities. They are solving problems and using their creativity and imagination. They are highly motivated because they chose what they wanted to do. They are also sharing time and playing with their friends and learning to negotiate the use of materials, as well as their ideas about how to play.
We strongly believe that having Worktime Choices every day is one of the most important things we do to support our children’s social and emotional development and to prevent behavior difficulties. During Worktime Choices all our children experience success. They begin to trust their ability to have ideas and make them a reality. Their self-awareness and self-esteem grow. They get to know themselves and each other as they work and play together on their own terms. This confidence in themselves spills into all other classroom activities.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM
How can you include choice within your instructional curriculum? Can you set up a time once a day or a week in which your students can choose from a limited number of possible activities or materials?
Read “Choices for Children. Why and How to Let Students Decide” by Alfie Kohn. Share it with colleagues and with your administration to begin a conversation about the importance of choice.