I view teaching as teamwork—as a collaborative process between the children in my class and myself. As a team, one of the first things we do at the start of each school year is set “shared agreements,” which is a kid-friendly way of setting classroom rules and limits.
Our class understandings are our foundation for success. It sets a tone for the kind of environment in which we want to learn and grow. Examples of these understandings are “walking feet,” “keep your hands to yourself,” and “use kind words.” These are not imposed rules that I create; the class and I create these understandings together, which is an important part of the process. The children feel a great sense of ownership and refer to them when they are not followed. I respect this process because it gives children a voice for the kind of space that they want to have. It also gives them an understanding of what is okay and what isn’t okay. I have seen this process done in many classrooms; however, it can be done at home as well. It would give families an opportunity to decide together the understandings of their home, and to strengthen the link between home and school.
Limits (or “Rules”)
Brainstorm agreements together and make them positive. Instead of “no kicking,” you could write “safe feet.”
Post the agreements where everyone can see them. Write them big so they are easy for young children to access. Add a picture next to each agreement. This will help young children remember what they are. For example, if one of your agreements is “have fun,” then you could take a picture of your child doing something fun.
Lastly, follow through. If an agreement is not kept, then talk about it.
Just because we set these understandings does not mean the children will always follow them. Children test boundaries. This is natural and should be expected. This is the work of growing up. Children test boundaries so they can feel safe. They want to know how far they can push adults so that they will gain a better understanding of them. By testing boundaries children are asking themselves, “Do you see me? What will you do?” In the classroom, when children test boundaries I can refer to the understandings as well.
As adults, knowing what the boundaries are is just as important. Often when children struggle it is because we adults are not clear, even with ourselves, about what is and is not okay.
Laughter is so important when it comes to building relationships with children. Helping children find the joy in life is essential work. Young children are not always able to move on from incidents with ease. Sometimes they hold on to things that eat away at them and demand their attention. I have had six-year-old children start a brand-new school year with anger, remembering things that happened with children the previous school year.
Young children sometimes believe others are out to get them. If a child pushes them by accident, sometimes they believe it was deliberate. They then bring this preconceived idea when trying to solve a conflict. They have a hard time seeing the world from another person’s point of view. They believe that their idea is the right idea.
I have found laughter to be an excellent tool to help children let go. It distracts them, calms their bodies, and raises their spirits. If I use laughter with a child who is upset, when it is time to solve a conflict, they are more willing and able to accept the words of another child or adult. For example, if a child is upset, I might say, “Do I have any buggies in my nose?” They give me the strangest looks, and then we laugh together at that idea.
Laughter also helps children understand that we all make mistakes and that we do not have to take everything seriously. Sometimes when children have a hard time with conflict, it is because they are disappointed in themselves. If they are able to laugh at themselves, they can relax enough to be able to learn from the event.
Love is forgiveness. Love is the nourishment that allows us to forgive. Love is important because we all make mistakes. We all have moments in which we wish we had done things differently. Children need to know they are loved. This may sound obvious, but I have worked with many children who are not sure they are loved. Love comes in many forms—in words, but also in actions. When we teach children to be accountable for their actions and how to take care of one another when they have not done the right thing, we teach empathy and understanding. Knowing that they are loved and they will be forgiven, in my experience, does not lead to children taking advantage of one another, but rather builds a connection to one another that leads to growth, empathy, and understanding.
Kathy Clunis D'Andrea teaches four, five, and six year-olds at the Mission Hill School and is an adjunct professor at The University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a change leader for Ashoka's Start Empathy initiative and on the steering committee for TRUCE. When not in the classroom or schoolyard, Kathy is a passionate world traveler and has worked with children in the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and Europe.