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Empowering our Students

Think for a moment of the feeling you get when someone much taller than you looms above as they talk down to you. Or how much you surely enjoy it when someone looks over your shoulder and gives judgement to what you’re doing. Does it feel good to be corrected when you misspeak? And don’t you just love it when people come up behind you unexpectedly and tousle your hair or tickle you?

Luckily, you probably don’t have to experience these things too much anymore. But most kids endure these moments every day. It just comes with the fact of being a small human. After spending the majority of my days over the last ten years with people under the age of five, I have really come to appreciate how different the world treats a person when they are small. It must be strange to live in a land made for adults when you’re not yet full-size – your legs dangle from chairs, you need a stool or a boost to reach the bathroom sink, and you can’t understand most signs you see because everything is communicated in letters instead of pictures.

When kids are struggling with that painful moment of goodbye at drop-off time, I sometimes try to appeal to this element of their lives. I remind them that their mom or dad is going to work, which, (have you ever been there?, I ask,) is probably not a super fun place for kids to hang out. I whisper dramatically to the child, “What would you do there if you were with them all day!?” Then I tell them that they are lucky enough that their parents let them stay at this AWESOME school instead, and this is a place MADE for kids! I gesture for them to look around the classroom and notice that everything is kid-sized and that all the toys and materials that they can see are there for them to use, not to mention there are a bunch of other kids to play with! It usually doesn’t take too long for them to turn that frown upside down and choose to go have some fun instead of pining by the door.

This moment is empowering because it gives the child the choice to be happy to be there. Some might choose to play to the short attention span of a young child and simply try to distract them from their sorrow. Instead, this conversation honors the painful separation that the child is feeling, but also provides an opportunity to see the good and choose gratitude.

In what other ways can we give the power back to the children when they are in our care? So often in their daily experience, kids rarely get to have any power in their interactions with other people and things. More often, they are talked down to by the grocery store clerk who just doesn’t realize how much they know, or scolded by a parent who mistakes their lack of social awareness for misbehavior. In my daily conversations with kids, I try my hardest to give them the focused attention you would bestow upon your dearest friend. It’s hard when there are so many students with so many needs, but I still give all the eye contact and benefit of the doubt that I can, nodding along in belief even when the story gets a bit outlandish. When another excited young learner approaches me with their own agenda, I take their hand and quickly remind them, “I’m listening to someone else right now. As soon as they’re finished, I’ll be able to listen to your words. Hold my hand while you wait so we won’t forget.”

The relationship that results from these kinds of interactions with young children is incredibly powerful. When they know that they will be respected, heard, treated with dignity, and given the power to make their own decisions (within clear boundaries), they can truly be free to let their ideas and questions come to surface without fear of reprimand or belittlement. Most kids don’t want to be treated like they are “just so cute” when they say interesting things – they want to express their knowledge or find out more about how the world works by seeing what kind of response they will get. They may not be able to engage in a complete conversation about it, but they still deserve to be treated like they have something worthwhile to contribute.

There is a trick I learned years ago that still amazes me in its efficacy, even after using it hundreds of times. If you’ve worked with kids for even a short time, you know already how much it helps to take a knee and get down to their level when you’re talking to them. To take it to the next level, try getting lower still so that you have to look up at them as you communicate. This is an especially powerful technique for kids with social-emotional struggles, particularly those who easily become unregulated in their behavior. It might mean you have to get all the way down on your stomach to look up at them if they are in a full tantrum, but in doing so you will likely eliminate the power struggle that is getting in the way of solving the true problem.

In most classrooms at meeting time, you will see the students seated in a circle on the floor and the teacher slightly elevated above them (perhaps seated on a cushion or chair). However, in my class lately, it has just kind of organically occurred that the kids all started bringing chairs to meeting, while I sit on the floor. I find these meetings to be very focused with lots of engaged and attentive kids, so I have yet to argue with this new arrangement. I know that part of the reason is having a chair gives them a more tangible boundary of their own space which is much less distracting then sharing space on the rug, but I’m curious if having altered the power dynamic also influences the peaceful nature of these group gatherings.

Try it, and let me know how it works in your classroom! Hopefully you’ve heard this great advice before: “A teacher should be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” Providing assistance as people construct their own knowledge is a far more meaningful way to educate than filling heads with facts that someone else finds important. Keep this in mind as you find new ways to tune into the unique and amazing people that your students are. Most likely you will find, as I have, that the more you follow their lead, the more exciting and authentic the learning becomes.

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