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Hands-On Nurturing

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On National Public Radio this morning, I heard the director of a preschool being interviewed about his facility's new "no touch'' policy for staff members. As I listened, I found myself becoming more and more incensed with this hands-off approach to the business of caring for children. Our paranoia over child abuse has reached a critical level when we remove completely the responsible use of touch and human contact to help nurture children. This misguided response to a real threat--and other reactionary responses to pressures to eliminate risk in the child-care profession--should be heard as a call to battle. If not, we are unlikely to be able to meet the developmental and emotional needs of our students.

As the principal of a "huggy and happy'' K-4 school, I believe it is our duty as educators to provide a warm and caring environment that teaches students to perceive the world as a positive place. It is also our responsibility to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate caring behavior toward one another. It is never too early to foster such behavior, and at my school we work hard to provide a variety of service experiences that will do so. The focus on service opportunities has been on older students in recent years, and there has been very little written about how to involve younger children and give them activities that encourage responsible and caring behavior.

One avenue widely used by our teachers is simple enough: classroom chores assigned to classroom helpers. There are a large number of routine classroom activities that can be divided up to allow every student the opportunity to be an active participant in the classroom. Age-old favorites such as erasing the blackboards and straightening the desks have given generation after generation of students the chance to contribute. Others that educators might think about include being line leaders, cafeteria helpers, and classroom peer tutors. The sense of accomplishment and self-worth that students get from such activities is not easily measured but is one that establishes a climate at school in which students feel they are valued and needed.

At my school, we also have ongoing service projects in which older students are paired with younger ones for the purpose of assisting the smaller pupils. Each year, several of our 4th grades adopt a kindergarten class to work with throughout the year on special projects. This year, as part of a general school goal to improve writing skills, our 4th graders have been working with the kindergartners to dictate and write stories, create and act in plays, and perform other writing and language-arts activities. We also have a continuing "reverse main-streaming'' project that allows a group of between 15 and 20 4th grade students to have daily responsibilities working with students in our autistic class.

The helpers meet the autistic children at the bus in the morning, assisting with early-morning activities, physical-education classes, and other select activities. The results of this program have been especially rewarding--for both groups of students. As principal, I hear the anecdotes: One autistic child gets a birthday-party invitation. Students who have a history of being tough and aggressive show responsible, nurturing behavior for the first time. The autistic students' motivation to perform grows.

Even the youngest students should be included in these schoolwide opportunities for service. They need to learn to help others and to feel they are contributing members of the community. At my school, many activities support this notion that each child has a shared investment in the school. Classes have been recycling aluminum cans for the past five years, for example, using the proceeds to construct a life-science courtyard and to feed the animal inhabitants. We have earned over $3,000, but, more importantly, we have communicated to our students the need to care for the environment and help husband resources.

School-beautification activities have given us the chance to further our students' sense of pride in the school. When we built a pond in the courtyard, students helped dig the dirt and move rocks and other materials. Now, as we care for the animals and the plants, students share in the responsibility for planting, weeding, and feeding. An after-school Nature Rangers program, with 3rd- and 4th-grade students, has been created to build on the skills and values our work on the school courtyard and the environment has engendered.

Our student council is also active in projects giving young students leadership opportunities and additional ways to learn caring behavior. The council has been an integral part of our efforts to develop school pride and a sense of partnership, with students taking an active role in the care and beautification of the school. We have also had a two-year relationship with a local nursing home. In addition to visiting with the residents, students have performed in a play and other musical performances, planted trees, and written letters back and forth with their elderly friends. Valuable intergenerational learning is occurring through the relationships that have formed. And while it is obviously beneficial to the residents of the home, it has also heightened our students' sensitivity to the needs of older people and given them a greater understanding of aging.

Schools that care make an effort to involve the entire community in the affairs of the school. We feel our volunteer program is one of the real strengths of the school, with well over 30,000 hours of volunteer support in the past five years. Parent volunteers are part of all our activities and are valued partners in the education of our students. In addition to the direct benefits volunteers bring to students and school, they also communicate a vital message that furthers our goals of developing students who care. Their active presence in the school signifies the community's commitment to education and serves as an excellent example for children of the importance of caring about others.

This sense of giving of oneself can also be demonstrated by staff members. Ours is a school where children are welcomed and embraced by a staff that will go the extra mile to meet individual needs. Teachers have voluntarily begun a number of after-school projects and activities to give special assistance and additional learning time.

The proof that such efforts make a difference can be seen in many small vignettes illustrating that the lesson of caring and concern has been absorbed. It may be the simple act of 4th graders jumping up to help a kindergartner who has spilled his lunch tray. Or it may be an entire class's decision to donate a cash award to aid people in Somalia, rather than use it for a classroom party. We have seen many manifestations of what a consistent and positive attempt to build a climate of caring can achieve.

The NO TOUCH mentality is sterile, suspicious, and fosters frigid relationships. We prefer a caring, creative, and cooperative response to the complexities of raising and educating the whole child. Mutual respect, hugs, and positive relationships will lead us to a better tomorrow.

Robert M. Lewis is the principal of Butner Elementary School in Fort Bragg, N.C.

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