The Happy Child
“Childhood, whose very happiness is love”
Do you know what a happy child is? To me, a happy child was me. I grew up in a loving family. I was the third of four children and I remember always being fed and having someone to play with, and parents to tuck me in with a kiss and a nighttime prayer. My school years were happy too. I was blessed with good teachers who loved their jobs and enjoyed dealing with children every day. When I became an adult and realized my love for working with children, I knew part of that lure was due to the happiness I experienced as a child and my desire to help all children have that kind of happiness growing up. It is a big dream, I know. There are so many children who don't come from loving homes. Who don't have someone to tuck them in and kiss them goodnight, but in my heart I knew that if I made school a happy place for them, then a little part of my dream would become a reality. If one child came out okay. One, who maybe others thought wouldn't make it in the world, then in a small way, I made a difference. That's the amazing thing about being a teacher, you are in the position to make a difference in someone's life and you will.
As a teacher, I do all I can to help my students feel happy and secure. Over the years, I have observed when students feel happy and safe, a magical thing called learning just happens. It is impossible to stop it!
So how do teachers help their students feel happy and safe? There are many ways. Today I’ll write about the happiness part and a follow-up blog called The Safe Child will deal with students’ security at school. Below, I have listed just a few ways to help students feel happy during their school day but I know there are other ways. Your ways. Let’s start a conversation about the different strategies we use so our list of ideas can grow and we can learn from each other. Here are a few things I do:
1) Celebrate their uniqueness: Every student is like a precious stone. Some will shine from the outside, but others may need to be polished or maybe their sparkles are hidden in the center. Your job throughout the year is to unveil those beautiful stones and help them shine as brightly as possible. Each day you teach, look for opportunities to polish the stones. If you notice Sarah is good with numbers, tell her. If Johnny has a special way of using colour in art, say so. Be present, watching and learning with them. Children may need to hear they are good, they are loved, and they are special several times before they start believing it themselves. Hopefully not, but sometimes you may be the only person to tell them this. The first month of school is about getting to know your students and having your students get to know you. I personally use art, tag games, bingo, stories, and free play time, as ways to connect with my students. I tend toward these activities so the kids have fun (and I do too!). During this time, I find the students are relaxed and their personalities come out. It's a time when I can sometimes spot strengths and establish a connection with my students. Children are very intuitive. They know when someone likes them. When you accept a child for who they are, with their challenges as well as their strengths, a trust and bond is created. That bond is what makes the elementary years so special for both the teacher and students. So celebrate your students' uniqueness then watch in delight as your classroom shines from those precious stones!
2) Make learning fun: Every year my goal is to help each student fall in love with school. I want them to love walking through the door each day with the promise of fun new things to learn. I tend to have more games and toys in my classroom than the average teacher. I believe play is a child's work, even big kids. When they have the time and space to play, their brains can develop properly. I often think back to something one of my rowing trainers from my University days would say, “a day of rest, is a day of training.” Just like the body, the mind needs a break from the reading, writing, and mathematics. When my students are playing with the games and toys in my classroom, I know they are still training.
Making the curriculum fun will look different to each individual teacher. For me, fun means games. Some concepts or subject areas are more conducive to games than others. Sometimes after teaching a concept, I'll pull out or create a game so students can practice the skills within a fun context. I feel like I am tricking them into learning their skills and knowledge because the students are having so much fun playing the games, they forget they are actually learning something in the process. I love hearing from the parents of my students who report, their children find school fun and not too difficult. That's good, I say to myself. The trick is working! These students are falling in love with school!
I don't only do fun and games all year long. September is littered with games, mixed in with some easy review, and of course, the beginning of the year assessments and the building of routines. September is all about hooking my students into loving school. Once they buy into me and my classroom routine then when I introduce more difficult concepts or work, they are keen to work with me on it and seem to put their best efforts forward.
Making your classroom a fun place to be is done in your own unique way, so don't think that games are the only answer. Maybe fun for you is playing sports outside with your class or doing art or pulling out your guitar and singing with your students. Children are so adaptable to 'fun'. Whatever fun you bring, they will follow your lead. So I encourage you to be yourself, and have fun with your class. You will love the month of September and so will your students!
3) Help them be successful: Each school year usually starts with some sort of review from the year before. I love this about the beginning of the year because it helps everyone get back into the swing of a new school year. It also helps you see which of your students may need extra help throughout the year. This review work should be 'easy' for most students. If it isn't, adapt it. At the beginning of any school year, you really need to help your students get used to a new classroom, a new teacher, a new grade. It can be rather daunting for some students. However, when they see the work isn't terribly hard (to begin with anyway) and they are having lots of fun (we've already established that in the first few days of school) then adapting to this new environment will be easier. They will see your classroom as a wonderful place to be and eagerly arrive each morning ready to learn and play.
I am reminded of Jay. Several years ago, he was in my class for grades three and four. When I met him at the beginning of grade three I could tell he had his own ideas about what he'd like to do in class and it wasn't always his work. He was inquisitive and later on in the year I found out he had a great aptitude for the Sciences. At the beginning of grade three, part of the 'easy' work we do is begin cursive writing. It is the perfect activity in September because it isn't hard, but it does require the students to concentrate for short periods of time (something I like to train my students to do early). Jay wasn't sure he was keen on cursive writing. When I meet reluctant students like Jay, I have learned they don’t always believe in their ability to complete the tasks they are given and will need extra support and encouragement. Luckily most of the class was buying into the newness of the activity and they were engaged in writing out their c's. I circulated around the classroom, putting hearts around my favourite c's and adding stickers to their pages. I could see Jay was struggling with his work. He was shuffling through his pencilbox, then sharpening a pencil over and over. As teachers, we recognize the signs...Students who avoid their work usually need some extra encouragement. For this reason, I passed by his desk a bit more often, hoping to refocus him. I glanced at his page and could see he had a few c's written down. “Wow, you’ve made a good effort with these Jay. Keep it up.” I drew a heart around one of his c's. I visited a few more students, then back to Jay. He was making some progress but he wasn't going to finish his assigned work by the recess bell and I knew it. It's five minutes until recess. I sit with Jay and whisper that he has to get the last few lines done before the bell or he'll have to stay in at recess. Now before we go any further, I must tell you I am not in support of taking students' recess but the students don't know that! I set a doable goal for them. Often I adapt their work to an amount I know they can handle. Then I sit with the student to help them achieve it. In Jay's case, the class assignment was doable. He was close enough, I could see he would complete the assignment with some focused effort. I dealt with a few other students' needs but was close by to Jay so I could encourage him. The bell rang and he was not quite done. “You’re so close to finishing,” I pointed out and then sat with him while he completed those last two lines. He only had to work one minute into his recess to complete his task. “Great job Jay!” I called to him as he ran out the door with a smile on his face. A victory for us both! This event early in the year helped Jay and I establish something important. Jay realized, he was capable of completing grade three work with success, even something he wasn’t entirely keen on. Hopefully it showed him too, I believed in his ability (even when he struggled) and I was on his side.
There is a cognitive theory which explains the important learning dynamics in a classroom. It’s Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory. This is a well-developed theory with many layers but there are some specific aspects I see playing out in Jay’s story. The basis of social cognitive theory is that learning is often a social construct. So humans not only learn from each other, but they need each other to learn. An important term used to explain this theory is self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a self-belief is our ability to accomplish a task or goal including the ability to overcome the obstacles that come our way. There are ways to develop self-efficacy. One way is by experiencing mastery, especially those mastery experiences which take perseverance and effort. Another way is through social modeling, so when Jay was exposed to other students who were successfully engaging in their task of writing, this may influence a belief in his ability to complete the same. Finally, social persuasion explains the special interaction between student and teacher. Social persuasion is when influential people in our lives like teachers or parents strengthen our belief that we can succeed. Mastery, social modeling, and social persuasion are all at work in a classroom and are assisting your students develop their self-efficacy.
One of your important jobs as a teacher, is helping students build their self-efficacy. You do this by word and action, so be aware of the words you say and what you do to help students see their own potential. That’s one more way you will help unveil those precious stones in your classroom!
What are the ways you help students experience happiness in your classroom? Please share in the comments below. I look forward to hearing your ideas!