You are in a room full of five-year-olds (no this is not a nightmare, it’s my life). Many of them are engaged in an activity or sitting and listening to you read or generally being good little kids. Suddenly a loud noise gets your attention and you look up and, oh no, it’s that same kid again, grabbing a pencil out of someone’s hand and throwing it another kid who gets up and slugs the thrower and the friend of the kid who got hit jumps up and runs across the room and pushes the thrower and the friends of the thrower fall out of their chairs so they can get to the other kids and start hitting and…once again, welcome to life in kindergarten.
Here’s my definition of average kindergartners: emotional, self-centered and very short human beings anxious to please the adults they crave love and attention from while trying to figure out what the heck is going on. For the most part, they are schizophrenic (not in the medical sense) as they swing from sweet and cooperative to a crying mass of quivering inconsolable jelly and back with no obvious explanation. Hmmm, sounds like me going through menopause. All they really want is reassurance that you will keep them safe as they stretch and grow and change and experiment and discover. After all, you are the big one in the room, designed to hold at bay all the monsters hiding in the closet and hold their hands when they need it or give them a solid shove into the next phase when you think they can take it (and hand out tissues and hugs when you’re wrong).
But there really is no such thing as an average kindergartner and it is really an academic exercise to even describe this mythical child. After all, the definition of average is to take the extremes, add them together, divide by the number of extremes and voilá, that’s your average. And while kids at the extreme end of nuts as described above do exist, I firmly believe there is no such thing as a bad five-year-old. If they act like whirling dervishes it is because they have not yet learned about balance, about socially acceptable behavior, about consequences and rewards for choices. That may be the most important part of my job as a teacher of newbies to the public school system. And before I continue on this topic, to all of the first grade teachers and above: you are welcome. By the time they get to you, I have taken some pretty raw material and helped shape it into a student. Each year, the group dynamics are so different, and each year the shift happens at different times; but each year it does happen. It’s magical too. One day I am ready to cry (again) because a bunch of tiny people are beating the stuffing out of this old lady’s nerves and then suddenly BAM the kid you thought would never come around clings to your leg at dismissal whining that he is not ready to go home and wants to do more learning. Oh happy day and victory dance!
But what I really want to write about and share today is a phenomena that goes on in any large group of children when there is only one adult to guide them- the old adage that says the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In the classroom, that means that the loud, noisy, obnoxious, rude, out-of-control children hear their names called constantly through the day, get most of the teacher’s time and attention, and wind up taking up a lot of energy from the adult that is supposed to help all of the children in the room. As much as we fight it, we teachers are human and it is really a struggle to give more attention to the well-behaved kids who are following the teacher’s directions, who are getting along and being kind and sharing, who are showing a growing understanding of balance, socially acceptable behavior and rewards and consequences for choices. Before you judge us (or at least me), spend a week in a classroom by yourself and then let me know how that goes…the truth is the “good” kids do not get told enough how good they are, no matter how I try.
When we are lined up in the hallway walking to the gym, the majority of the class is silent, in their line spots and walking perfectly. At the back of the line, three kids are ripping projects off of the wall and wrestling with each other and running into the open doors of classrooms to yell hi to their siblings. I say, “I love the way everyone at the front of the line is being respectful of the other learners in the building.” But as I say it, I am glaring at the misbehaving kids and calling their names. So who really gets my attention?? What I have learned to do and strive to do is look each of those “good” kids in the eye and say, “Johnny, you are doing such a good job walking silently down the hall, thank you. So are you, Sarah, Jazmin, Rhia, Marcos, etc. It is so great that you care about the other kids and teachers enough to let them learn and teach.” What that does is reward the well-behaved children with eye-contact and a compliment; at the same time those who are going wild usually fall in line so I can praise them too. This reminds me how important my words and body language are; those banshees who are acting out are highly aware of me while they are doing it. When it doesn’t work to get me to look at them and call out their names, they do what does work. If that sounds easy-peasy, again try it before you judge me.
I have four students who are on “behavior charts.” What this means is that I am trying desperately to get them to buy into following school rules to make our classroom run more smoothly so I can actually teach and set up the environment to foster learning. I choose one specific, measurable and observable rule and write it on a piece of paper: “Says kind words to others” or “Follows the teacher’s directions.” Every hour, I write a smiley or sad face on the paper and have a quick chat with the child. At the end of the day the paper goes home to the parents, who hopefully reward or punish accordingly. I honestly had no thought as to how this appeared to the other children until one day when one of them told me he wanted a behavior chart too. I paused and shoved back the words on my tongue (this is for the kids who still don’t know how to behave well like you do) and went ahead and gave him one. He, of course, received all smiley faces that day and I got pretty nervous that now I would be hearing requests from the other kids and would have to spend all day making smiley faces. Thank goodness that did not happen, and I called his mother that evening to tell her that he was not really on a “behavior modification” program and we had a good laugh together.
As I said before, each year is very different, and this year is really different. It may or may not have much to do with the fact that I have twelve boys and six girls in my class (I am lucky to have only 18 students as compared to other kindergarten teachers who deal with thirty), and that the energy level in my room could light a small city. But I find this year to be the second most challenging class in my thirty-one years in the classroom. That is saying a lot. So I needed to come up with a way to reward those little ones, who in spite of their amazing ability to behave in the midst of the daily maelstrom, were getting overlooked often. I made a certificate called, “A Job Well Done.” And on it I wrote an original, heartfelt poem:
Sometimes I forget to say
You do a good job every day!
I spend a lot of time in school,
Reminding kids to follow rules.
You always know just what to do,
And I am very proud of you!
I put each child’s photograph in the middle of a blue ribbon, and printed up the certificates. I was actually pleasantly surprised that I had to print up eight- I had thought it would only be two or three. I called each child over during center time and showed each one the certificate, read it to her or him and had a little chat. I wound up getting a bit choked up as I did this- the smile on each face was ear-to-ear, and there was more than one jumping up and down with excitement and happiness: I can’t wait to show my mom and dad! It also surprised me that the kids who led me to this fairly desperate point did not understand why they were not receiving one- how could they be so clueless at this point in the year?? And I thought I understood kids, jeez.
All in all, I am having a great school year. Even the most draining kids are really adorable and they really do want to please, and I just have to find the key to helping them develop into the professional students they will need to be in order to thrive for at least the next ten years in school. It’s just part of the fun and games in kindergarten.