Is your classroom an academically safe learning environment? Do our kids ever feel embarrassed or hesitant over asking questions, or because they’re struggling with a task, or because other children are ‘better’ than they are?
This episode focuses on what we can do to help our kids feel as confident and safe as possible.
This episode is based on Jennifer Gonzalez’s podcast episode called ‘Is Your Classroom Academically Safe? Jennifer runs the hugely successful Cult of Pedagogy podcast which I highly recommend to all educators. Many of her episodes focus on older kids, but there are always principles we can translate into early childhood. I really enjoyed her discussion on academic safety and decided I’d love to take her points and come at them from an early childhood perspective. Don’t worry – I did ask first!
Thank you, Jennifer, for giving me permission to add an early childhood twist to your discussion on academic safety for kids!
An academically safe environment?
- Is your classroom an academically safe learning environment?
- Do our kids feel confident with our academic expectations and with our homework expectations?
- Are we double- and triple-checking our kids’ understanding through questions, through pair and group work, through demonstration and so forth?
- Are our kids happy to ask questions?
- Are we brave enough to survey our kids and parents to see whether we’re missing something in our own classroom
- Are we willing to find out that perhaps not all our kids feel as academically safe as we want them to be?
1. Do our academic expectations instill confidence in kids?
Do they feel academically pressured or overwhelmed?
It’s all very well for a document (or a parent) to say that by the time a child is 6 they need to have mastered x, y and z skills and have knowledge of certain topics. But what happens when we apply too much pressure on a young child with a skill they’re just not ready to learn?
Do they feel academically safe in this situation? Or will they start to feel insecure, unsure of themselves? Will they ask questions to keep trying to improve? Or will they start to shut down and lose courage? Conversely will they act out behaviourally as a way of avoiding even attempting the work, or pretending that they don’t care about any of it?
Stress impedes learning
When it comes to learning, we need to take the long view approach. We might be able to get Johnny to perform addition to 20 by insisting that he does it day after day, but if that leads to a type of math-phobia or math-resistance then it’s not worth it, because it’s difficult to do well in a subject we actively dislike over the long term.
There’s loads of research showing that for kids to learn effectively, to retain what they’ve learned and to be able to spit it out at a later date, or use those skills later, it’s much, much better if they’re happy during the learning process. Stress, anxiety and fear of learning practically guarantees that a child’s brain will set up a brick wall that impedes that knowledge from taking seed.
We must advocate for our kids
As teachers, one of our most important roles is that of advocate. If the official outcomes are not feasible for a child, we need to do our utmost not to allow that pressure to transmit to the child.
I’m not saying it’s easy – I know there’s tremendous pressure on teachers in some areas, unfortunately even more so for those teaching in low income areas where children are considered more at risk.
This is a Washington Post article written by an early childhood expert talking about this issue – it’s quite heartbreaking, but we must always do our best by our kids to help them feel academically safe inside our classroom.
2. Do our homework expectations instill confidence in kids?
Do we send work home for young children? Some of you will say, ‘no, never.’ But plenty of teachers will say they do… depending on their kids’ ages and the expectations laid out by whatever curriculum they’re following.
I think all of us encourage parents to read to their children each day if possible and to engage in activities like counting cars as they pass or pointing to everything green they can see. These are reasonable, fun learning experiences for kids that don’t put too much stress onto families.
Why are we sending homework?
But what about more formal academic homework? If we’re sending worksheets home for example are we asking ourselves the following questions for each child?
- Why am I sending it home?
- What benefit will it have?
- Could it have a negative effect?
- Can the child complete it independently?
- If not, will someone in the house have the time to assist?
- Will that person know how to help the child? Or are we just assuming they’ll know what to do?
- Have we given clear instructions?
- Is the homework compulsory? Or is it OK for it to come back to school with a note such as ‘sorry, we didn’t get a chance to complete this!’
Are there escape clauses to deal with homework stress?
Do we have a clear homework policy that has been communicated to both parents and kids? Do we regularly comment on those policies throughout the year as a reminder to both parents and kids?
I’m thinking not so much about whatever rules we or the school might have regarding homework, but also the escape clauses. For example, what about these ideas?
- If your child is overly tired or having a difficult afternoon do not insist they complete their homework, just write a note the following morning to let me know.
- If a single math activity takes longer than 5-10 minutes and your child is showing signs of stress please leave the activity and let me know.
- If your child isn’t interested in looking at the book we sent home, feel free to engage them in another.
- If your child really enjoys, or doesn’t enjoy, a particular type of homework activity, let me know.
- If your child finds it tiring to write letters or words and it’s taking a long time to complete their work, just ask them to do a few minutes of the activity and then put it away and give them some play dough to have fun with.
Flexibility is important for families
It’s important to let parents (and children) know that they won’t be in trouble if they don’t complete every piece of work sent home. If we are sending homework, there needs to be some flexibility because not only do children have strengths and weaknesses academically, there are also emotional issues, busy days and family stresses that can support or impede the completion of homework.
Think about possible consequences
As a parent, I sometimes felt like school was forcing me into the role of taskmaster to my own children instead of just being able to be the supportive mum. Over time I became quite resentful over it when I realized that there was more stress and anger in the house over homework than over any other single thing.
For one of my children, who we later realized struggled with ADD, this did start in kindergarten with Mad Minute math. While every other child was receiving little gifts for being able to complete their math quickly day after day, my child simply couldn’t do it and she was teased by her classmates for the rest of her elementary education. Did she ever feel positively towards math? Of course not.
And the sad thing is, there was no need to subject her to this kind of humiliation because she could actually calculate, but just not at the speed expected by her teacher. And if she couldn’t calculate, making it a race was hardly an appropriate way to make it happen.
This is an example of a teacher who is well-intentioned – she was aiming for math fluency – but who didn’t consider the short and long-term consequences for a child who simply could not master that task in the way she required it, at that age. My child did not feel academically safe.
3. Let’s build in more checks for understanding
In early childhood, our kids have very different abilities when it comes to communicating what they know and what they feel. Some will be able to articulate their understanding quite easily, but others will not. Even besides issues of non-English speakers or children with disabilities, there are issues of personality and confidence as well as cultural hesitations or even bullying that may impact a child’s wish to speak.
A) To build understanding we can ask questions instead of asking FOR questions.
Imagine our kids have been gathered around an experiment timing how long it takes for different objects to sink. We’re hoping they’ll then be able to do the experiment themselves. Sometimes we’ll say, ‘do you all understand?’ ‘Are there any questions?’ and not receive any replies.
Jennifer points out that this is one of the least effective ways to find out what students understand. Sometimes the kids don’t even realise they don’t understand, sometimes they’re too embarrassed to admit to it, and other times they didn’t hear a word of your demonstration because they were busy fantasizing about recess.
So asking questions yourself can be a good strategy. ‘Evan, how many sinking objects are you going to collect and try and sink for your experiment?’ ‘Priya, where will you go to get a stopwatch?’ ‘Jaana, what are you going to write on your recording sheet before you start?’ This helps bring attention back to the activity, provides a quick review, and helps children identify where they’re a bit confused.
B) To build understanding we can have students explain things to each other.
It’s common practice in early childhood to ask children to turn and discuss something they’ve just learned with someone next to them. Or to work together to complete tasks. This can be a positive experience that helps kids clarify their thinking and increases the social component in their learning. Sometimes we have to be careful who we pair together, but generally it’s good practice.
Other benefits of working in pairs or small groups are that it helps the kids build relationships (as long as they’re not embarrassed), gives quieter or shyer children the opportunity to speak, and helps regain their concentration if it’s started to wander during the whole class chat. Children really do have short attention spans so think – pair – share as we like to call it helps develop more than one positive outcome.
C) To build understanding we can do the first few steps together.
This is essential in early childhood and I’m fairly sure this is universally understood within our industry. But what I would say is that some of our kids need more clarification than others.
For example, we often use learning stations where we’ll set up a specific activity and the children will rotate from one activity to another. Children become familiar with them because we introduce the stations methodically over time so we’re confident they know how it works.
However, some children can still struggle with this. Perhaps it looks like they’re learning at a station because they’re copying what other children are doing but they’re not really working independently and learning for themselves.
Kids can learn some things from copying, but our aim is to encourage independent, confident learners so we need to keep an eye out for kids that might be going through the motions but are not truly understanding. They may need a little more direct instruction.
D) To build understanding we can have students score a sample completed task.
This is not something I’ve done in my classroom. Sure, I’ve had kids evaluate their projects once finished, and I’ve shown samples of how something might need to look beforehand. We’ve talked about criteria. But I’ve never made a work sample and actually asked kids to discuss what kind of grade they might give it. But I think it would be an interesting exercise.
For example, what if I draw a picture, write a sentence underneath and then ask the class to evaluate it.
They might say the following positives: the colours are nice, the picture is easy to see, there’s a period at the end of the sentence and a capital at the beginning.
They might see the following as drawbacks: the sentence doesn’t talk about the picture, the writing looks like one big word because there are no spaces, the dots on the j’s shouldn’t be shaped like hearts.
Then we need to ask the question – are some positives more important, and are some negatives more of a problem? For eg, does it really matter if I dot my j’s with a heart? Can the sentence still be read? Does the reader know what I mean?
But if I forget my spaces, is that a bigger problem? Maybe it’s really hard to read now?
4. Are kids confidently asking questions in our classroom?
Jennifer talks about the importance of teaching older kids not only how to reflect on their own learning but also how to ask questions effectively and respectfully.
Make asking questions a focus
One way of encouraging the practice of asking questions is to pair children together to think up one question and then go through those questions together as a group to help them understand that: a) if one person has a question, someone else probably wants to know the same thing, b) there’s no such thing as a silly question (actually early childhood is full of silly questions about seemingly irrelevant and random subjects, but you know what I mean), c) we need to respect other people’s questions, and d) asking questions, and being inquisitive, is essential if we want to be excellent learners.
Watch our own body language
It’s important in our classrooms that we encourage questions and try to avoid rolling our eyes, sighing, ignoring questions and we must especially not show anger, frustration or impatience. In early childhood, it can be a challenge keeping conversations on track, but I must admit those unexpected pivots from kids can brighten our day, too!
Speak with kids privately
Another thing we can do to ensure our kids know we value their questions is to speak with them privately. If they’re not comfortable asking publicly it’s good for them to know that we’re going to make a regular effort to chat with them individually. We need to do this anyway, to build our relationship with each child.
The last suggestion for keeping an eye on academic safety in our classrooms is to:
5. Survey your kids and parents
This can be confronting if we’re not used to it, but it’s hugely important as teachers that we do our best not to be defensive and to be genuinely open to feedback, even if it’s sometimes painful.
Chat informally with our kids
One of the best ways to do this is to simply chat about it with our kids on a regular basis. Build trust by talking about what happens in the classroom and whether there are some activities or expectations that are a bit challenging.
Read relevant picture books, or discuss imaginary scenarios where a child, for example, might be struggling with reading ‘cat’ and ‘mat.’ What should she do? Should she be worried? What emotions might she be feeling? How can she get help? Does it matter if some other children find it easy? How could the teacher help her? What should she say to her teacher? Should she talk to her mum about it?
Apologise if a weak spot is found
Having open discussions about learning and emotions can help children articulate what they’re feeling and also help a teacher express her own point of view.
It can be very powerful for a teacher to say something like, ‘I didn’t realise that asking you to write those new words every Friday made you worry all week. I’m sorry. Let’s work on a solution together.’
Survey parents formally or informally
Secondly, we can survey parents. We can either chat with them informally or send home a well-designed survey to ask them to talk with their child about academic safety and then let us know how their child is feeling.
- does their child feel they can ask questions safely in class?
- Are their questions taken seriously by the teacher and other students?
- Are they OK with the academic expectations or do they feel like they’re struggling in some areas?
- Do they get enough time to complete their work or do they feel like they’re being pressured to speed up?
- Are the other kids supportive of them academically?
- Do they like who they sit next to in class, or does that child distract, annoy or put them down?
- Does the teacher happily help when a child is struggling? Or are they made to feel uncomfortable?
- Do they feel like they’re being expected to learn something new when they don’t quite understand the lesson before it?
Make a habit of it and take a risk
There are many types of questions we can ask, but if we choose just 3 questions to ask each month, or each term, our parents will know that it’s important to us to know what their child is thinking and feeling, and that we’re open to genuine feedback.
Ask other staff to chat to our kids
Thirdly, we can ask other trusted staff to chat with our kids. When I was working as an early childhood music specialist I would talk to each class about their teacher towards the end of the year. The focus was to create a certificate for each teacher with comments from kids saying why they liked them. The kids loved this process, they always had plenty of great things to say and it was a lovely surprise for their teacher.
It would be easy to engage in this kind of conversation and also gently bring up issues of academic safety if the classroom teacher wanted to know whether her kids would speak differently about it to another trusted adult. You never know when a child will say something that can really help us reflect on our teaching practices.
Are our kids academically safe in other classrooms?
On this same issue, are you confident that your children are academically safe when they’re under the care of another teacher? Or are we assuming that all teachers have similar teaching philosophies to our own?
Would you sit a child on a tall filing cabinet?
I received an email from a parent one weekend when I was a Kinder classroom teacher. He had concerns about the foreign language teacher because his son told him she sat him on top of a filing cabinet (many times) and told him she wouldn’t let him down and his parents wouldn’t be able to come and get him. The story sounded so fantastical it was hard to imagine what the child could have meant. He was a sweet, shy boy who was just learning English so that made him vulnerable and made communication a challenge.
On the Monday morning we sat down for circle time and I started chatting with the kids about their foreign language class. And do you know what? All the kids corroborated that story. In fact, they went further and said that the teacher did it all the time. Not just with him but with lots of the students. The rest of them thought it was funny when she put them on top of the filing cabinet, but not that one child. He would cry and become upset. You can imagine how I felt – I hadn’t protected my student, I hadn’t even been aware there was a problem. I’d never seen any indication that he was reticent to go to that class.
I felt shocked and angry, but realized from the context that the other teacher, due to cultural and philosophical differences, did not understand the fear she was instilling in that child. Most of the children went along with the ‘joke’ and thought it was funny but it seems that even that 5-year-old’s tears didn’t make her realize it was not funny anymore.
We can’t assume other teachers’ methods are the same as ours
This is an extreme example of what can happen in a classroom but my point is that we can’t assume that just because our kids are safe and happy in our classroom, that they’re equally safe and happy in another.
I’m not saying this happens very often, and I’m not saying we need to look suspiciously at our colleagues in case they’re not treating our babies as we would. But I AM saying that we can’t immediately discount it.
We can’t dismiss a comment from a child that the bus monitor spoke harshly to them, or the lunch lady wouldn’t let them have a drink or the librarian went a bit crazy because little Sarah put teeth marks in the newest picture book. Mostly, these things are explainable, such as the drink wasn’t given because it actually belonged to another child. But sometimes, these little comments may be the tip of an iceberg that we do not want to dismiss.
We cannot afford to discount the whispers of our kids and parents
In the case of my foreign-language student, I was so, so glad his father wrote to me that day. It took some courage and a lot of time to write it in English but we were then able to deal with the situation quickly.
And as a side note, it helped us as staff realise just how cultural differences, even with humor, can occasionally lead to classroom practices that do not align and it’s OK that we should talk about those because we want consistency for our kids. We want them to feel equally safe and sure of what’s going to happen in each and every classroom.
- Is your classroom an academically safe learning environment?
- Do our academic and homework expectations make sense for all our kids?
- Do we have lots of different ways to check our kids understanding?
- Are all our kids confident with asking questions?
- And are we willing to ask our kids and parents how THEY feel about academic safety?
What one thing could you take from today’s discussion and implement in your classroom to either improve the situation, or to act as a security check for yourself – just in case!
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Thanks for joining me to learn more about early childhood research and I wish you happy teaching and learning.
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