It seems silly that the belief, children are capable is new to me this year. I’m sure I’ve always felt this way, but it became a true part of my philosophy when there was a shift from my role as the sole source of power, knowledge, learning in my classroom, to my role as a leader in a community of children who are powerful, knowledgeable, teachers.
I thank Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz for guiding me in a child centered mindset in A Mindset for Learning and Kids First from Day 1—get your hands on these if you haven’t yet!!! I also thank Renee Dinnerstein and Rick Ellis for introducing me to Reggio practices that are rooted in this belief.
First thing’s first.
For my children to be capable, I must really believe they are capable. Capable of being citizens in our community who have rights, voices, and ideas.
As the belief became a part of me, it changed the way I observed children, the way I responded to conflict, and the way I made decisions.
The result? Ownership, agency, and a strong community.
We can believe children are capable, but they need opportunities to be capable. So, I’ve outlined six beliefs and actions in our daily practice. Keep in mind, letting our children be capable sometimes means letting go of some of the control. Letting go of some control is not the same as letting go of structure. It may mean, however, restructuring the structure to be more child centered.
Belief 1: Children are capable of self regulating
- Unassigned rug spots, line-up spots, and independent work spots. Support students with finding (and independently moving when distracted) their just-right learning spots — up close, in the back, on a chair, in a wiggle seat, close to a friend, away from friends. Let this change! Some days, we may want to work near a window, whereas on others we want to lay in a cozy corner. Some days we may want to be by people, while on others we want privacy.
- Snacks and water. Imagine being told you can’t have a snack or drink at meetings or during your work day. Teach your children how to eat and drink without interrupting learning. We call it brain fuel. If they are off-task for a few moments, it’s better than being off-task for a whole period of being hungry.
Belief 2: Children are capable of making decisions
The more opportunities we give children to make choices, the more skilled they become at making appropriate decisions.
- Choice in partnerships. I’ve been watching this one closely this year. Engagement is higher when children form their own partnerships, and it provides children opportunities to be flexible and inclusive. Partnerships typically change each day, allowing children to be exposed to a variety of skills and scaffolds. Of course, there are times to make the instructional decision to assign partnerships and groups.
- Choice in genre. Teaching units of reading and writing in a responsive way typically allows us to shorten each unit by a week or two. This makes room for independent writing genre projects and for me to hone in on my instruction of the process of writing. Soft starts are another opportunity to let children practice reading or writing a genre of choice.
- Choice in tools. Children can pick or co-create charts they use in literacy, and tools and models for solving math and science challenges. Technology provides even more options.
Belief 3: Children are capable of resolving conflict
- Support independence. Co-create problem solving charts that encourage children to listen to each others’ feelings and needs (beyond “sorry”) in a cozy nook.
- Mistakes and problems lead to action and agreements, an opportunity for growth!! Have the community help solve the problem in a meeting. “What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” “This seems like something that no one likes. What can agreement can we make about it?” Bonus — persuasive interactive writing opportunity to make community signs and charts as reminders.
Belief 4: Children are capable of designing classroom spaces and curriculum
- Leave wall space and labels empty at beginning of the year. Involve children in anything you hang up (“Where might this tool be helpful?”) Allow children to add their own work and pictures to walls.
- Save room to grow – keep some empty shelves, cabinets, and lots of empty containers for children to add to throughout the year.
- Flexible layout. Something not working about the flow of your room? Talk to the community about it! Move it together!
- Give kids a say in content to study and and questions to investigate in unit studies. Small group inquiry/topic groups give room for even more choices. Know that there is not one route for getting to a destination – be responsive to interests and needs.
Belief 5: Children are capable of teaching others
- Student-led small groups. As we help our children become aware of what they are experts in, and what goals they have, clubs can form.
- When a child makes a discovery, or begins practicing a new skill, share that excitement by letting them teach others during independent work time, share, or in a mini lesson.
- As children come to you, seeking support with a problem, ask the community for a helper or expert in that topic.
Belief 6: Children are capable of changing
- Let go of labels. One reason I love kindergarten is children have yet to be defined in any academic or behavioral way by previous teachers. Know that each new environment can mean new behaviors and new growth. Be careful when listening to others’ experiences with your children.
- Use “yet” and avoid using “always” or “never” when describing a child to colleagues or families.
- Change the story. Your child may already have a story they identify with. When this does not serve their growth or healthy habits of mind, help them rewrite this story.
A Few Guiding Principles
- Not this, but that can help when needing to redirect/restructure a behavior. It honors the need and desire of the child, while preventing a “no.”
- Support self-regulation instead of taking choice away. Odds are, if you separate a child for talking to a neighbor, they will talk to the next person they sit next to. If you take something a child is playing with at the rug away, odds are they will find something else to play with. Think, Is there a tool that will help them stay engaged? What information is the off-task behavior giving me about the child and my teaching?
- Model the behavior you wish to see..in the way we listen to children, resolve conflict, get attention, gain respect.
- When considering adding any new structure or control, ask Will this change help my children grow or make it easier for me?
It can be a little nerve-wracking to let go of some of the predictable routines and controls. The risk is worth the reward. If my kindergarteners are capable of these things, it’s possible in any grade!