Creating a Culture of Support

“I’m not a very good drawer,” I always tell my class before I begin to draw something for them.  “But I’m going to do my best and I think you’ll be able to tell what it is.”  (I use drawing often for visual emphasis when I am explaining a new concept. And while I’m a terrible drawer, I actually really enjoy it!)

At the beginning of the year, the children always look at me with wide eyes when I say this. They aren’t accustomed to adults admitting a weakness. Nor are they accustomed to an adult giving herself the space and flexibility to keep going with some degree of comfort in whatever activity it may be.  This becomes a theme in my classroom.  It’s okay to be imperfect at something and still keep going with it.

As this year progressed, the kids began defending me against myself.  It was so interesting. I don’t remember when it began, but some child replied forcefully to me as I began my shtick.

“You are NOT a bad drawer, Kate. You are a great drawer. Just do your best. It is okay!”  Were they quoting me back to myself?!

I had a surprising reaction to this. It felt good to have someone (albeit a 4 year old) say that to me! I smiled. “Thank you!”

The rest of the class chimed in with their words of encouragement to me. And guess what? This sense of support began to slowly take hold across the classroom amongst the all children and in a variety of contexts. The kids experienced what it was like to stand up and take control of a situation where someone was being put down – in this case, me putting myself down. I became their model.

It’s important to remember: 4 and 5 year old children are inherently self-centered. At this age, it is developmentally appropriate for them to be so. And yet, this is also the crucial age when empathy begins to develop, plus an awareness of “others” having different opinions, strengths and weaknesses.

As a result, it can be a time when deep competition develops among peers (also very normal behavior). But when children can feel good about supporting others and give up a little of their own praise to make room for someone else in the limelight — or, even better, if they can recognize a moment when the opportunity presents itself to pick someone up who is feeling less than perfect — this is when the magic can happen in the classroom community.

Here’s a case in point. A little boy who struggles with his own self worth and many fears – which incidentally manifests itself  in a “tough guy” exterior – was asked recently by a little girl who had just made an intricate block structure: “Hey, do you like this?” He turned half-heartedly toward her and said: “No.”

She had worked very hard on her structure was understandably upset by his reaction.  I asked him how that must have made her feel when she was so clearly enthusiastic about sharing with him. He didn’t respond. “Maybe next time you could say something a little friendlier,” I said.  He considered this.

The following day, the same girl asked him the same thing about the same project (we girls are always looking for the challenging guy’s approval!). He looked at me, I looked back at him with a look that said: “Remember what I said yesterday!”  He paused, then said: “Yeah, I like it.”  And he looked genuinely pleased with himself for giving some positive reinforcement to this girl.  Then she looked back at me and said: “He did a better job today.”

There is, of course, a danger in children giving platitudes for the sake of a ‘kumbaya’ culture. That’s not what I advocate for. I actually think even 4 year olds can sniff out that kind of insincerity and ingenuousness. Instead, I am looking to build generosity in my students and an age-appropriate selflessness that encourages them to give someone else a boost out of basic respect for them and their efforts.     

I was out on the playground this spring and my class was out there with another, older classroom. A boy from the other class came over to the swing set and commented that a little girl she wasn’t swinging very high. Three of my girls – all relatively soft spoken, reserved children – began protesting without hesitation. “Yes, she is!” one of them shouted at this larger boy. “She is doing great!” another one said.

I was taken aback at their confidence and conviction. The boy looked surprised. He mumbled something about her not going that high, but the girls then told him that he was making her feel bad and he should stop. He did. And I felt enormous pride. This is one of those ‘teacher moments’ wherein it all feels very worthwhile and, dare I say, even formative.

Maybe we are making good little citizens of the world.

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