As a former teacher and as a parent of young children, I envy teachers this time of year. Back-to-school was always my favorite time to teach because, like every teacher, I was being given the gift of getting to know a new batch of young people. When I was teaching, I always set the same goal for myself during this exciting, yet hectic, back-to-school time: to know each child in my classroom well enough within the first month to answer the question, “How is this child special?”
Perhaps my commitment to this goal, year after year, had its roots in my own home. In addition to their four-year age gap, my children’s personalities are wildly different. My daughter is very social, independent, and eager to embrace new experiences. At drop-off time on the first day, she will walk confidently into her classroom, find her cubby, put her things away, and then lead me out to the playground where the rest of the class will be playing before the start of the day. She will run up to the first teacher she sees and say hello. She will hug a few classmates and, with barely a wave goodbye to me, she will disappear onto the climbing structure, calling out to a friend to join her. Perfectly relaxed and joyful.
My son will approach the start of the new school year cautiously, as he does with most new experiences. We’ve spent the last several days talking about the first day—what the routine will be and what he should expect. As that first day approaches, those conversations will intensify. We have talked in detail about what he will eat, what he will wear, what time he has to leave to walk to school. We will look at every school supply in his backpack (twice) and he will recite his new teacher’s name and classroom number several times while he eats his breakfast that morning. As his sister expresses utter excitement about school, he will quietly say, “I’m more nervous than excited.” I can imagine how much care he will take finding the classroom, the right hook for his backpack, and the desk his teacher has assigned to him. Nervously and with caution.
Every child entering the classroom at the beginning of the year is unique. They have a personality, family background, and life experiences that are uniquely theirs. But to flourish, every child needs to feel accepted and appreciated. A teacher’s influence extends well beyond the walls of the classroom and continues long after a child moves on to upper grades. The quality of children’s relationships with their teachers is an important predictor of children’s future relationships and academic success.
Learning about each child’s unique qualities—what they know and can do; what their likes and dislikes are; whether they approach new experiences with caution or whether they jump right in—can help every teacher to build strong relationships with each child. This understanding enables a teacher to appreciate and respect each child, and it helps the child to build trust in their teacher. Since we all know that trusting relationships in the classroom are the foundation for all teaching and learning, we must intentionally focus on getting to know children well, and the best way to build this knowledge is through observation.
Observation is the most powerful way to learn about each child. Teachers can develop questions to guide their observations during the first week or two, and then observe children in a variety of settings over the course of the first few weeks. Here are some examples:
With infants, toddlers and twos:
- How do they behave during hellos and goodbyes with family members?
- What are their biological rhythms like? When do they get tired, hungry, and go to the bathroom/need a diaper change?
- How do they behave in small groups of children? Do they observe or interact? Do they cry, look attentive, or smile?
- Are there situations that seem to overwhelm or upset them (i.e., lunch being delivered to the classroom, the opening and closing of doors, group singing)?
- Do they have an object or activity that is particularly soothing? What is it, and how do they show they are calm?
- How do they interact with their families during hellos and goodbyes?
- Are they eager for group time? Do they race to the circle time rug, or do they wait and see where others sit before finding a spot?
- How do they participate in classroom discussions? Do they need support to listen while others talk? Do they need the teacher’s help to contribute their ideas?
- What are their conversations with peers and adults like at mealtime?
- Where do they play, and who do they engage with during choice time?
With elementary age children:
- How do they demonstrate their understanding of classroom routines and rituals? How quickly do they adjust to the rhythm of the classroom?
- Are they quick to raise their hand to answer a question?
- Do they speak clearly and audibly when talking in front of the group, or do they use a quiet voice?
- Who do they sit with at lunch and/or play with on the playground? Do they gravitate to a large group, one or two children, or do they play/sit alone?
- Do they seem comfortable talking to adults, or are they cautious or fearful?
Answering questions like these can help every teacher to quickly discover and appreciate something special about each child in their room. I hope my daughter’s teacher appreciates her outgoing nature as a gift to the classroom community. And I hope my son’s teacher appreciates his careful approach to life and its contribution to his schoolwork. A great start to the school year is within reach if teachers begin with the same goal I always did—discovering, for each student, the answer to a powerful question: “How is this child special?”