The Art of Noticing

She was standing by the slide. She put one foot on the rim of the slide and then the other, taking care to balance so that she wouldn’t fall. Then she looked at me.

“I see you balancing,” I said.

She hopped down onto the slide, and then put her feet up on the next rim. And then looked at me again.

“I saw you hop down. And I see you balancing again,” I said.

She hopped down onto the second slide, and then put her feet on the final ledge. After a second of balancing, she jumped down onto the ground and then looked at me.

“I saw you jump down,” I said. “That was a big jump.”

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She ran around the slide and climbed up on the rim again. She kept looking at me when she repeated an action and I kept telling her what I saw. At one point a boy tried to join in her game. “Let’s do this!” he said. “No,” she said. “I’m hopscotching.” I took note of her verbiage and used it the next time she looked at me. “That was a big hopscotch!”I said when she jumped down.

There was an amazing thing happening as I continued telling the girl what I saw her doing. She smiled and she seemed to become more confident in her actions. She also became more careful in her actions, as she discovered that the boots that she was wearing were slippery against the surface of the slide. Each time she slipped I noted that action as well, highlighting in my own way her need to be careful. I kept noting and acknowledging her actions for about ten minutes, until she became tired of the game.

Later in the day I noticed her acting more open towards me. She has always acted shy around me, and sometimes has actively ignored me in favor of other teachers in the room. It has been hard to develop a relationship with her because she has been so cautious towards me that it almost comes across as hostility. But after I actively noticed what she was doing and acknowledged her actions for an extended period of time, the cautiousness seemed to start to melt away. She started talking to me more, and when she looked at me a light danced in her eyes that I hadn’t seen when she looked at me before.

Sometimes all it takes to develop a relationship is to notice what the other person is doing and acknowledge it. It is almost like a support that the other person can use to grow and expand. And it lets them know that you see them. Sometimes that is all that children need – to know that you see them.

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Reconnecting With Yourself

Teachers have a knack for putting the needs of others before their own. Children cry out for attention, and very young children have constant needs for teachers to meet. Teachers must also meet the needs of the program that they work for. Demands on teachers are constant, and it is all too easy for teachers to focus on the needs of the others around them to the detriment of themselves.

I struggle every day with keeping a feeling of authenticity in my classroom. Being an authentic teacher can mean many different things to different teachers, but to me being authentic means teaching from the heart, from the wellspring of passion that lives inside you and comes out in the classroom. Teachers do what they do because they are passionate about teaching, but a lot of teachers have lost touch with the passion that they had when they first started teaching. Meeting the demands of everyone around them at the expense of their own needs can quickly push teaches towards burnout. Some teachers find themselves stuck in a rut when it comes to their teaching, preventing the same information year after year until the material feels old and uninspired. Some teachers just feel so drained from the energy that it takes to meet the demands of others that they have nothing left to create new and inspiring material for the class. These feelings directly affect the relationships with the children that they teach.

Are your classroom relationships run down because of a general lack of magic and fire throughout the day? How do you get that fire back and re-ignite the passion and joy that you have for teaching?

The key is to take a step back and reconnect with yourself and with the passion that had you excited to teach . You have to reconnect with the passionate, purposeful teacher that you were and rediscover the reasons why you wanted to teach in the first place. Take a moment and write down any thoughts that you have about the reasons why you started teaching.

Now that you have reconnected with that part of yourself that wanted to be a teacher, it is time to reconnect with that part of yourself that truly loves to teach. You need to define what makes teaching meaningful to you and what part of teaching you enjoy the most. Write down your thoughts and really connect with that part of yourself that is passionate about teaching.

Next you need to think back and remember some of the activities and projects that really got you excited. Some projects that excite you may even be those that you have seen but feel like you can’t accomplish. What kind of projects get you excited? Be specific, and use lots of descriptive words to define the projects.

Finally, think back to the days when you couldn’t wait to get out if the bed and teach. What was it that had you so excited and eager to be in the classroom back in those days?

Hopefully the answers that you have given to these questions have built up a spark, a reconnecting with that passion to teach that is inside you. In later posts we are going to build on this spark and use it to build a foundation for passionate, authentic teaching. Whenever I begin to feel burnt out or stressed about my teaching, I always return to this exercise because it is truly inspiring to reconnect with that passionate part of myself and remember what it is about teaching that I am so passionate about.

One Word About Change

In my last post I discussed the Hierarchy of Change and how teachers can use it to see what elements of the classroom they can change. The Hierarchy of Change looks like this:

Hierarchy of Change with Header

Items that are most important for teachers to change are toward the top, and items that are least important are at the bottom. As you can see, the student is listed at the very bottom of the square. This is because not only are they the least important for teachers to change, but it is very hard for anyone to change a human being. As a matter of fact, any time that you try to change anyone, you are essentially applying force to them and exerting your own power over them. This is not the type of situation we want in a classroom, which is why students are listed at the bottom of the square.

I am a firm believer that people can change, and that goes for students as well. However, teachers can’t force or make a student change. Change usually begins when we change or clarify our own perception of a situation. In the example where you spent so much time cooking a special meal only to get angry at your significant other in the end, taking a few moments to find out what was going on with your significant other would have taken away the desire to think any trigger thoughts. You wouldn’t have gotten angry, and you actually would have strengthened your relationship with your significant other through communication rather than tearing it apart through anger. And communicating about their own stress would have changed the demeanor of your significant other, as well. Empathy and communication are powerful relationship tools, and we will be discussing these tools a lot more through future posts.

Forming Relationships With Children

In my last two posts (here and here) I have been contemplating forming relationships with children and why it is important. Today I want to talk about how to form those relationships with children.

It all started when I went crazy with planning activities for children on the night after my first day at my new job. I felt crazy doing it, and when I talked to the director about my wild night of planning, she told me that I need to slow down and concentrate on forming relationships with the children. As I began to reflect on why relationships are important, I realized that relationships are formed through doing things with others.

Think about it. When we want to begin a new relationship with someone, we begin doing things with them. We try eating out together to discover what we have in common when it comes to our tastes for food. We do other activities together to discover what we have in common as far as our interests go. And we talk to each other. A lot.

As I was thinking about the processes that we go through to begin new relationships, I realized that I wasn’t too far off the mark. Sure, I didn’t know  what the children are interested in, but I was creating a foundation for finding out. I was making a plan for activities that we could do together to find out more about each other. I didn’t put any of the plan in motion, but I have had several opportunities to find out what some of the children like, and have been able to base the beginning of a relationship on that. For example, gardening is a big part of the school community where I work now, and I have found out which children are interested in gardening and which aren’t. I have even done some gardening with some of them. I have dug up grub worms with some of the children, and we learned more about the life cycle of a Japanese beetle through this activity. Some of the children are wildly interested in airplanes, so we have done a couple of small activities having to do with airplanes. The lead teacher has given me the go-ahead to try to plan a transportation project for the beginning of the year. I have found that a few of the boys are passionate about superheroes, and have already seen some of the negative effects of that passion.

The children and I have even worked on communication. I have talked to the children a lot about their interests, their families, and school life. But we have all practiced communication that helps to heal broken relationships and repair damage done by our actions. These are important lessons that all children should learn, because the skills needed to communicate through relationship issues is a life skill that all people need. Letting people know when what they are doing hurts in some way, and being able to empathize, apologize, and make the situation better is important to every relationship that we have in our life. As teachers, it is important that we are not only teaching these skills to children, but using them ourselves throughout the day as we interact with them. Through these interactions trust is built and relationships grow. Children come to see teachers as not just a disciplinarian or someone who is there to teach them things, but as someone they can talk to and share ideas with, who will take their ideas seriously and help them grow those ideas into something meaningful and fun.

That is what the teacher-student relationship is all about.

The Key to Relationships

In my last post I discussed how important it is to form relationships with children when involved in caring for them. It is highly important. It is so important that I spent the better part of this past week reflecting on why it is important and how teachers go about forming relationships with students.

Why Relationships Are Important

Do you remember any of the teachers that you had when you were young? I only remember a handful of my own vividly. I remember my sixth grade teacher because she used to sing “Que Sera Sera” to me (my name is Sarah). I loved it when she did that. It was one of the techniques that she used to build a relationship with me. She also made learning interesting and fun, taking us outdoors for classes and making learning more hands-on than a lot of the other teachers I had did. In fact, I remember my fifth grade teacher for the same reasons – he made our learning very hands on, and I remember a lot of the experiences that I had in that class. But the relationships that we built made me feel safe with these teachers. I felt like I was in a secure place where I was valued.

Have you ever felt like you weren’t valued? Have you felt like that in a place that you spent the majority of your day? That feeling has the power to physically and emotionally drain people. It causes them to lose the enthusiasm for learning and work and to spend all day looking at the clock, waiting to go home. I read an article just last night that said that if a person has a friend at their place of work they feel more satisfied and happy in their work environment. Most children that attend childcare centers are there as long as, if not longer, than their parents are at work. This makes it a full-time job for children. In order to ensure that they will be happy and satisfied with their experiences in childcare, it is important for them to feel like they have a friend or a secure connection with someone.

That is where teachers come in.

A lot of children do have friends in the early childhood setting, but they are still learning how to get along with children and how to communicate with them. These friendships can be rocky and change from minute to minute, depending on the situations that the children find themselves in. Children need a connection that is more stable, one that they can rely on to be constant through the ups and downs of their days in childcare. When we form relationships with children we provide them this constant connection, even as we are guiding behavior and teaching social skills. The connections that we build with children give them a reason to want to come back to school day after day, and when children want to come back to school it decreases the daily stress of drop-off for both the child and the parent. That is a win for everyone.

In my next post I will talk about how teachers go about forming relationships with students.

Broken Relationships

Usually when I post about relationships on this blog, I post about building positive relationships. Today, however, I experienced broken relationships in my classroom, which is why I have felt prompted to write about them.

Child: “I don’t like you, Ms. Sarah. I don’t like your kids, either. I’m going away and I am not coming back.”

These are the words that I heard today when I was out on the playground. Now, the child had taken another child’s shoe and wasn’t giving it back to them, even as the shoe-less child was screaming “GIVE ME BACK MY SHOE!” I told her to give the shoe back to the other child. After she did, those were the words that she said to me.

It had already been a long day before this happened, and for some reason I was extremely tired. I knew this, so I was fighting to breathe and keep my calm through all of the emotional turmoil that seemed to be going on around me today. After all, if the teacher can’t respond to turmoil calmly and consistently, there really can’t be a feeling of safety in the classroom. I had been trying so hard to figure out just why I was so tired and why I felt like I needed to breathe just to get through every moment. I knew I hadn’t slept well the night before, but I didn’t think it would cause the kind of day I had been having.

But I should know better. One of the things that I teach during my workshops is that:

In order to be an authentic teacher, you must take care of yourself first.

Being authentic can mean many different things to many different people, but in order for anyone to be authentic – to be truly them, they have to take care of themselves first. I know that when I sleep at night, I have to have the room cold. If the room is not cold, I will wake up and I will not be able to go back to sleep. I know that I have to have eight hours of sleep a night, or I will have no patience and I will feel bad. And yet I did not check to make sure that my room would be cold. And I didn’t get eight hours of sleep. I didn’t take care of myself first. Because of that, I had a really rough day in which I was tired and low on patience in a room full of three-year-olds.

Teachers are so busy taking care of everyone else: the children in the classroom, families (if they have them), parents, lesson plans, ideas for the classroom, etc., etc. But it is important for us to remember that, in order for us to be able to take care of everyone else, we have to take care of ourselves first. Even those of us in professional development need to remember that.

I saw a great quote on Facebook yesterday about being authentic: “You actually have to practice being authentic, because the world puts so many layers of ‘should’ onto you.” I saw this quote on the page of Baptiste Yoga. I do yoga a lot. I used to do it in the classroom with my kids. I do it at home in order to make myself slow down and breathe and calm down. It is one of the ways that I take care of myself first. I find that if I do yoga and meditate, my patience level is much higher and I can slow down and think things through better before I simply react. Working with any age requires that you slow down and think about how you are going to respond to situations in the classroom. After all, these children are looking at everything we do. If we act emotional and out of control, so will the children. If we act calm and in control, the children will, too. It is important to be the calm that we want others to be. And it is important that we take care of ourselves first so that we can make that happen.

Tomorrow, I am hoping to repair the broken relationships that were caused by my lack of good, quality sleep. Three-year-olds are pretty resilient, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Plus, we are working on making a zoo and we are learning all kinds of cool stuff about animals. I’m sure we can come up with some absolutely amazing animal activities that will help repair the broken relationships of today.

But for now, I am going to bed – in my cold room.

Building Positive Relationships: How Observing Children Strengthens Relationships

My post yesterday about Six Uses for Observation really got me thinking about how I use observation in the classroom. Observation seriously is one of the foundations of my teaching practice. There are several reasons for this, most of which are outlined in yesterday’s post. But one of the most important reasons is that it can change the way you look at children. Sometimes it isn’t even the way you look at children in general. Sometimes it is the way you look at one specific child.

I recently wrote a post about how we as adults are slow to change our views about something. We think we know it all because we have been around a while and we take that knowledge for granted. We forget that sometimes it is important to slow down and try to see things from a different perspective. This is where observation comes in. If we just take a moment to slow down and observe a child in action, we may see something that is contrary to our previous view of the child. We may begin to attribute positive intent to the child’s actions rather than negative intent. If we open ourselves up to the possibility that there may be more going on with the child than we are presently aware of, we may find that to be the case. And if we find that to be the case, our view of that child can change dramatically.

I know a lot of teachers out there shake their heads and roll their eyes when I say that children don’t do things without a reason. But the reason why I say this frequently and with authority is that I have done enough observing of children to know it to be true. The only way that we will be able to know or try to understand the intent of a young child is to observe for ourselves. And even older children may not tell us their intent because they are more worried about getting in trouble because of their actions related to their intent. Observation has allowed me to truly be able to decipher the intent of children and come up with productive ways to deal with behavior in a non-punitive way.

Let’s put this in context: Let’s pretend that you decided to try a different format for circle time because you felt that it would hold the children’s interest better than your current format. Your administrator walks in and wonders what the heck is going on and tells you in no uncertain terms that she does not like the new format and she doesn’t want to see it again. And doesn’t listen to your explanation of why you did it. How would that make you feel? The administrator paid absolutely no attention to your intent, only to your actions. That is what we do with children when we do not try to figure out their intent.

I have had children display physical behavior simply because they want to play with other children but do not know how to approach them. I have had children hit or even bite others because they have issues with personal space. There are a myriad of reasons why children behave the way they do. And this isn’t just about children’s behavior related to other children. It can be related to the way children use materials, as well. I have had children drag chairs into the block area because they have built a television and want to “watch” it. I have had children bossing other children around, only to find out that one is pretending to be a baby and one is pretending to be a mommy, or – even more amusing – one is pretending to be a dog and the other is pretending to be the owner. I have had a house that the class built in the middle of the floor turn into a swimming pool in an instant, and everyone’s shoes and socks become strewn about in order to wade in the pool. I have had countless scenarios happen in the classroom, and the only way to sort it all out without hurting many feelings and tapping into my punitive side is to slow down and observe what is going on.

So how does this strengthen relationships? Well, as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, it changes the way you look at children. You begin to see what they are thinking about, what they are interested in, what they need to learn on an individual basis (as opposed to what the class is learning as dictated by the lesson plan), and you simply get to know the children in your class on a more personal level. If observation happens frequently enough, it helps to form a direction that the class can take in order to achieve the maximum amount of learning possible, because the ideas of the children are present – because you know what they are. In short, it helps you to get to know the children in your classroom better. And that helps you to deal with the children in your class positively, which strengthens and enhances your relationship with them, and their relationships with each other.

strengthen relationships

Building Positive Relationships: Allowing Children to Be Creative

Every Thursday we will have a post dedicated to fostering positive relationships between teachers and children. I hope that you enjoy this series.

What does it mean to allow children to be creative? My experience has led me to believe that it means allowing children to be themselves. Take, for example, a circle time activity. A group of three- or four-year-olds, rattling off answers to flashcards, but showing nothing more than their ability to give correct answers. Is that creative? Does doing it day in and day out promote creativity in children? Are there other ways to teach the same skills that allow the children the freedom to answer questions and apply knowledge in creative ways?

I once worked in a classroom of four-year-olds as an assistant teacher. Actually, I had just started the job and was a floater at the time, so technically I was intended to assist her. The lead teacher in the classroom was a huge fan of cookie-cutter crafts. You know the type that I am talking about: the teacher has pre-cut pieces of an object that the children then glued to paper. Except that the teacher dispensed the glue to one child at a time ad directed the children as to where the pieces needed to go. A flower craft took the class 45 minutes to complete, and the entire class was made to sit at the tables during that time. The class was bored. They were hitting, kicking, and messing with one another. The teacher had to constantly admonish the children. Punishments were doled out in the form of outside time taken away. Needless to say, there were no positive relationships being built. And no creativity was being expressed, with the children using items that the teacher cut out, with glue that the teacher gave out. The children definitely were not allowed to be themselves because any child is going to have an extremely hard time sitting still for 45 minutes.

Respecting where children are in their development is one of the keys to building positive relationships with them. Likewise, recognizing that they are capable individuals who can create on their own is key as well. Their creations may not look like a cookie-cutter craft, but when we get down to it we realize that the children’s involvement in the craft is certainly minimal at best. Chances are, the teacher had cut out all of the pieces, and the teacher was the one who was doing all of the gluing. While children of that age may not be able to cut out the shapes needed to make a cookie-cutter flower, what they can cut out is uniquely THEIRS. And if they are given open-ended materials with some tape, glue, an scissors, they may create a flower that surpasses anything a teacher could come up with. Or a robot, or whatever they want to create, because they are allowed to be themselves and be capable.

Imagine for a moment that your boss told you that you needed to make a lesson plan for your classroom, but then they did the lesson plan themselves, gathered the supplies you needed, and stood behind your shoulder and told you exactly how to implement the activities. Wouldn’t that be demoralizing? Why do we do that with children? Why do we tell them where to paint or how to build? Children need opportunities to do things for themselves and to prove to us and themselves how capable they actually are. If they do not get a chance to prove themselves or do things for themselves, they often develop the frame of mind that they can’t do it.

I’ve seen it a few times in my career, usually with children that are three or four years old. They seem to have an attitude of “I can’t” hanging around them, and it almost dictates how they will respond to any new experiences – by an initial attitude of “I can’t do it”. And once they hit the age of four or five, that attitude is very hard to break through. But children begin developing an attitude of independence and of a wanting to do things for themselves at the age of 2. While I have yet to apply this theory (and I do not intend to apply it myself for obvious reasons), it would seem that if the two year old does not have the opportunity to assert his independence and try to do things for himself, he will develop the “I can’t” attitude – because by the time he hits age three, he will really feel that he can’t. He won’t have had the opportunity to prove that he can. This can and will lead to a general lack of confidence when it comes to trying new things, or doing things for himself. And a lack of confidence affects relationships with others, because if he doesn’t have the confidence to do things for himself how will he have the confidence to embark in relationships with others?

I have heard over and over again in my career: “Set them up to succeed.” It took me a couple of years to realize what that meant. Setting children up to succeed means realizing their potential and their limitations, and setting up activities, experiences, and expectations accordingly. When this is done, children blossom and show us skill sets and intents that we would have never known they had otherwise. They become more engaged with us and with others, because they have the confidence in themselves and their surroundings that allows them to be more open and involved in learning new skills and participating in new experiences. We see the joy of discovery and the concentration on a new task in their faces, and each of those sights is something to behold in a child.