Well, I’ve closed the book and now it is time to take some of the things I learned from The Nurture Assumption and apply them to my classroom. And I should point out that I’ve also done a lot of related reading. There are lots of serious articles and statistics available on the social dynamics of the early childhood classroom. I suppose I have just been so concerned with academics and testing in the past five years that I have strayed a bit from considering my students’ social needs. And in my own defense, all of us in kindergarten have had the assurance that the pre-k department has been socializing and civilizing our students before we get them.
One of the things that occurs when a child goes to school for the first time is a “reality check” about the way the world works. If he has been raised in a fairly typical home his needs and many of his desires have been met promptly and adequately. He has learned certain rules and values from his parents. He is accustomed to the routines and rhythms of his daily life. If he has siblings he may even understand a little about power and control.
When he starts school the child finds himself in a completely different world, and he quickly encounters some conflicts between what he has learned at home and what works for him in the new environment. First of all there are other children- children with their own needs and desires. Functioning in a group requires learning to follow procedures and acquiring patience. Surviving in a group requires learning a great deal about other children. We’ll return to that in a moment.
The students I get each year are familiar with the routines of school. They are comfortable in our building and know where everything is located. They have met all of the teachers- from their own department all the way through first grade and special ed. They know the administrators, the secretary and the rest of the staff. So the transition to kindergarten is easier than it might be in another school where most of them are coming from off-campus schools. There is always one or perhaps two, who have never been to school or have transferred in, but most of the students know each other and as it often happens some best friends and some enemies end up in class together. Yes, pre-k children have already decided whether or not they like each other, and they can be quite out-spoken with their opinions!
So…with that background you know the students in my class already have a little bit of insight about each other. They’ve already had a few clashes of power with certain individuals. They may have even decided who the “good kids” and “bad kids” are, who gets the most attention from the teacher, who is the funniest, who cries too much, who draws pretty pictures, who runs the fastest. When they get to my class they must start all over again and reassess their situation. But it doesn’t take them long, and they form new alliances within a week or two.
It is fascinating to look back on last year’s class and think about how the class organized itself. First of all I only had three girls and eleven boys, so I naturally thought the girls would band together just for support. Not so. There were such major differences in their personalities and abilities that they kept apart from each other and chose to socialize with the boys. It only took about a week for the best and brightest to find each other and form the “smart” group. Two boys quickly realized they were in competition for “class clown” and vied for that title all year long. One boy longed to be the leader of the smart group and tried in vain to oust the favored one, but never succeeded. He later changed his allegiance and became the leader of my small group of trouble-makers. Two boys never fit into any of the groups, nor did they like each other. They remained aloof and alone through most of the year. I look back on the situation now and wish that I had intervened just a bit more. I wish I had made more of an effort to unite my class into one group, a united front, a team…if that is even possible.
Children are naturals at observing each other, discovering strengths and weaknesses, assessing cooperativeness, and assigning labels to their classmates. They are quick to pass judgment and decide who they want to play with, and they are not above using bribery to get a desired playmate to join them instead of someone else. They may not follow the rules, but they can sure tattle on someone else for each and every infraction! They can focus like a laser on something they want and refuse to abandon an idea if they think they will benefit from it. So it seems quite predictable that they would band together in groups for their mutual advantage. I’m sure they don’t follow that mental process, nor do I think they even realize they are forming a group. I imagine it’s more like “Joe is nice, he doesn’t hit or yell at anyone, and he helps me with my work and Mrs. M lets me sit by him. I think I’ll see if he wants to swing with me at recess.” By December there are eight boys playing almost exclusively with each other at recess, discussing their work in class, and sitting with each other at lunch.
As I re-examine my role as teacher I need to think about the formation of those groups and make sure they are as healthy as possible. I may be able to do a little manipulating and maneuvering through careful seating arrangements, more “team talk” (Let’s see if our class can learn more sight words this week than Mrs. S’s class!), and earlier identification of students with poor social skills. I will continue to read and analyze what, if anything, I can do. I have been given a tremendous responsibility, but also a rare opportunity to have a bit of influence over a whole group of children. Parents seldom get a chance to see how their children behave within their peer group. Now that I’ve read The Nurture Assumption I understand that their behavior within that group will soon become the role they identify with throughout the rest of their life.