Managing Early Learning With Minimal Tears

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Pushing in line. Fighting over toys. Running for the playground—and falling. Distracted faces. Tears and frustration.

Many early-childhood teachers will witness such drama in the coming weeks—and may even share in the tears and frustration.

Not all children are ready to learn when they enter school. And sometimes we don't do enough to help them. It's not because we don't want to. Many novice teachers hope to create a child-centered, developmentally appropriate classroom for young students. However, new teachers sometimes lack the skills to manage children for learning. Even great child development theories—like those of Froebel, Montessori, or even Wiekart—won't help if teachers do not have effective management structures in place to help students succeed. I learned this through my own experiences as a pre-K teacher and understood it more deeply as I began to enter other teachers' learning studios as a Head Start child development specialist providing classroom support.

One key point that new teachers don't often learn from coursework or student teaching is that behind great open-ended learning, there is always a consistent structure. I compare this to the roles of the drum and bass in a jazz band. While Coltrane and Davis are trading licks, Red Garland is always there, setting the scene. This is how I have grown to think of the structure of a successful classroom.

Before students even arrive, new teachers should consider how to handle all the "in-between times" during the school day. For instance, how will your students get to lunch, retrieve their food, eat their food, discard their trash, and return to learning? Below are some tips to help early-childhood teachers effectively manage transitions—and ordinary classroom time:

Tip 1: Develop a very simple attention-getter. Perhaps you count to three, or say "eyes and ears," or "look and listen." If that's all you teach your students on the first day of school, consider that day a success. Their year will be better for it. Remember to use your attention-getter consistently for at least four weeks to facilitate learning and smooth transitions.

Tip 2: Model engagement through "split personality" demonstrations. Teach students what you want from them by showing them the appropriate behavior of both the teacher and the student. For example, when you are ready to teach students to get in line, explain the procedure, model what you will say and do as a teacher, then demonstrate the behavior you would like to see from the student. This process will minimize misinterpretation, even if students have differing levels of vocabulary and experience.

Tip 3: Establish a persona for important moments. Make sure that you know—and they know—that at certain key times of day, you are the star of the show. You are engaging and interesting. And because of this, you are able to help them move on to other times of day, when they can be the stars.

Tip 4: Refer to yourself in the third person when talking to students about procedures. When you say, "Ms. Bluebird would like you to clean up now," you are still saying, "I want you to clean up now." But the distance of "Ms. Bluebird" can help students differentiate between your two roles: classroom manager and engaged teacher. During parts of the day, you will need to be the task master, and at other times, you will need to connect with students and make sure they know that you care about their learning. The "third-person" approach helps with this, and it also can keep you from taking student disobedience or distraction personally. You'll be able to communicate your expectations to your students—without losing your faith in their willingness to learn.

Tip 5: Make every day the same … and yet not the same. Being predictable can help set students up for success. When you say, "eyes and ears," it means students should look and listen, not keep poking their buddy in the back. When there are routines for lining up for lunch, going outside, or starting the day, students begin to feel safe enough to experiment and leave their comfort zones. And that's what you want—that risk-taking, that boundary-crossing, that movement into more complex thinking and doing.

When teachers imagine the transitions that will happen during their day, plan for the unexpected, and provide predictable structure, young students are able to experience a high-quality early-childhood classroom. Child-centered learning is a powerful approach to teaching students at a variety of ages, but it is only effective when the teacher has done some of the "guesswork" ahead of time.

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