I’ve seen the rapid growth of early childhood education in my professional life, both in my previous career as an educator in New York City for 33 years, and now as a senior trainer with
Ramapo for Children, a nonprofit organization that that provides adults with effective tools and strategies to promote positive behavior in children. But what seems to be missing is allowing teachers to focus on the whole child. It is a persistent problem that educators are not equipped with the training they need when it comes to children’s behavioral issues and classroom management. This lack of training can lead to burnout and result in exclusionary discipline practices like suspension and expulsion, even for students as young as 4. In the 1980s, New York state brought its experimental pre-K program into my district in New York City and due to my experience and training in early childhood education, I was asked to teach at the district’s first pre-K site. Instead of adhering to a rigorous set of standards that solely looked at skills like reading and writing, we had more freedom to emphasize social-emotional development. Each year we conducted a “child study,” which focused on children who did not particularly stand out to teachers. The study included a social interview and evaluation, which asked children who their favorite classroom playmates were and what their interests were in and out of school, and drawing assignments. We used the results from these child studies to guide our instruction. These efforts were more natural and effective ways of understanding children’s behaviors as they gave us opportunities to look at our students beyond their academic skills. The pre-K program continued to evolve, and once it became more widely recognized, a stricter, more technical skills-based curriculum was put into place, which left little time for the social-emotional development that allowed my colleagues and me to really know a child. Without a good understanding of our students—what motivated them, how they perceived things, what they responded positively or negatively to—how could we really understand the ways in which to teach them effectively?
Understanding and Meeting Student Needs
Since I’ve started a new chapter in my career as a trainer of educators in pre-K classrooms, I’ve seen how current pressures affect young children and their families. I’ve also seen even the most passionate and dedicated teachers struggle to understand how to work with children who have varying degrees of needs and abilities. Today when I walk into a pre-K site and discuss methods for managing difficult behavior, I see teachers’ eyes light up. The training and coaching I provide is based on Ramapo for Children’s specific approach, which demonstrates how to view difficult behavior through the lenses of unmet needs or lagging skills. These needs include lack of engagement and attention or a feeling of loneliness. Examples of lagging skills are difficulty calming down or trouble with verbal expression. By understanding behavior within these frameworks, teachers can use specific and practical strategies to meet students’ needs and teach skills by role modeling; adapting to individual needs; building relationships; creating clear expectations, structures and routines; and responding to challenges. Creating positive and inclusive learning environments for young children is not without its challenges, but when we bring adequate training into early education classrooms and place importance on social-emotional development, we can help set the tone for a brighter future.