The first year I taught kindergarten—my first year out of college—I had two classroom parents die. Another child would barricade himself in the bathroom and refuse to leave when his parents arrived. And I tried to restrain a five year old girl with a seated bear hug from behind only to have her drag me across the carpeted floor when she found out her father was being released from jail. I started questioning my career choice. Not because it was hard—it’s supposed to be hard. I knew the hours they spent at school were the one constant in their lives. But what about the 22 year old who was standing in front of them? Was I enough? Could I be enough?
While the child who lost his mother chanted my name calling me an asshole from the office, I knew I couldn’t give up. I didn’t have any answers. Heck, I didn’t even have a clue where to start. All I knew was this: these kids needed someone in their corner. They needed someone to show up day after day and love them no matter what.
My own childhood was challenging. Much like the kids I would teach years later, I was carrying secrets. Big, emotional secrets. Secrets and feelings that I couldn’t understand or share as an adult. How could I expect the children in front of me put words to what was happening in their lives.
I wish I could say I changed things that day. I wish I could say I made things better for the kids in my class. I know I tried. But I didn’t have the experience, the education, or the tools my first year. Not the second year or the third year either. Let’s be honest. It’s been 20 years and I’m still finding my way.
The educational powers that be have felt it necessary to push curriculum standards on our youngest learners. I have a notebook of standards my littles are expected to learn. None of them have to do with the social/emotional learning they need most.
If we are going to make school a safe place for our students, we have to start with making it a place where they and talk and explore freely. Children don’t come to school knowing how to do this. These skills have to be taught. These skills have to be modeled. Time has to be given to our students to practice these skills.
Social/emotional understanding and education has always been important to me, but it became the focus of my classroom two years ago. There has been a tremendous difference in my kids. Below are some of the changes I made in my classroom.
–Classroom Meetings Daily. Classroom meetings have been a part of our school-wide anti-bullying program for years. The requirement was once a week. My class has a meeting daily. It’s a chance for us to check in on the day. Was there something I missed? We also role play situations they may encounter, learning to put words with what we are feeling and what we can do to control feelings, yell and tell, putting a lid on feelings while we get help,–the list goes on and on.
–Worry Jar. I tell my kids it is my job to worry, their job to be kids. If they have a worry, let’s work it out together. I introduce the worry jar early. We each add our fingerprints to the jar as does the principal. The worry jar stays on the shelf with a stack of post-it notes. If a kiddo has a worry, they put their name in the jar and I meet with them privately. There are a lot of “my dog is home alone” kind of worries to test the jar, but I take them all seriously. The goal is for them to feel like someone is there to listen.
–Good Bye Morning Meeting/Calendar Time. I am not a morning person. It takes a lot for me to get to school and be ready. How can I expect all my little learners to be ready just because the schedule says they should be? The kids come in, put their things away, and go do their own thing for 15 minutes. Some chose to play with toys. Some color or look at a book. Some chat with a friend. And some sit by their cubbies trying to wake up. In that time, I get to greet them all individually, look in their eyes, and observe them for behavior that may be out of the ordinary for each individual child. It is also another opportunity for the kids to tell me all the things important to them.
–Cubby Décor. Most of my littles spend the majority of their waking hours at school. At back to school open house or the first day of school, I give my kids a picture frame. Their “homework” is to take it home and put a photo or a picture they draw in it. That is how we identify their cubby for the rest of the year. I get pictures of families, pets, favorite things, etc. They are also allowed to bring a small stuffed animal to keep at school. Having a little bit of home means a lot to the kids. It is also another tool I can use to monitor the kids’ emotions. If they are spending more time at their cubbies looking at their family photo or cuddling their stuffy, I know I need to check in with them.
–Open Door Time. We team teach kindergarten at my school. The two kindergarten classrooms have a connecting door. Each day for 15-20 minutes, we have open door time. The kids get to choose which room they want to be in and what activities they want to explore. So much of school is what we as teachers plan. Open door time is the kids’ time to explore, experiment, and let us know what their interests are.
–“I Love You and Think You Are Wonderful!” One day, completely out of the blue, I told my kids I had a very important announcement. They stopped what they were doing. The words “I love you and think you are wonderful!” came out of my mouth. From that day forward, I have made sure I have said it every day. It’s become my tagline. The kids act like they are embarrassed or annoyed. They tell me they already know that or that I say it every day. But every single face has a smile on it at that moment. I also say these words to them individuals when they need to hear it the most. After they have gotten in trouble, if they are having a rough day, or just missing mom.
–End of the Day Meeting. At the end of the day, we all come together as a kindergarten community. I check in with them about their days. This is another opportunity for the kids to tell me about concerns or problems I may have missed. We look for solutions as a group. Then we talk about the best parts of our day and write it on the calendar. Some days, this meeting goes quickly. Some days it takes time. Either way, the kids have come to depend on this part of the day.
–End of the Day Homework. It’s a very simple reminder to all of us (including me) that kindness matters. Their homework is to “Smile a lot. Laugh a lot. Give lots of hugs. And share your joy with the world.” While this simple phrase is one that I blurted out over five year ago when a little boy was begging me for homework, it is one that has stuck.
These ideas are nothing new. They are simple things teachers have been doing for years. But for me, putting them altogether has caused me to slow down and focus on the kids in front of me in ways I wasn’t before. Academics are still important. Standards are still being met. But now we are building a community in my classroom. One where everyone is accepted, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone gets to learn from those mistakes. Above everything else, it is a community where everyone is loved.