For years, I've worked at a preschool that was simply that, a preschool - a sweet campus full of two, three, four, and "just turned five" year old children.
This year, my preschool class of three year olds is embedded in an elementary school, a brand new school that has children through third grade (and in subsequent years, we will grow one older classroom a year until we are a campus of preschool through eighth grade).
I am really enjoying having older students in the same building.
I am noticing many very special relationships forming.
I am noticing that there are so many positives for both the younger and the older children.
And their teachers.
Each of the younger classes has been paired with an older class. My preschoolers are paired with Ms. Kopsidas' first grade class. Every Friday, we visit one another for 20-30 minutes (just long enough, from a 3 year old's perspective!)...we read books and do art projects together. We have even done some engineering together!
Visiting the first grade classroom is a highlight of the week.
I love how my students look up to the bigger kids. My threes look at these older students with pure admiration. (My most rambunctious children go positively quiet - in awe, perhaps?) Our time together is consistently sweet.
In addition to these planned, whole class get-togethers, we have nurtured relationships between individual elementary students and the preschoolers, as part of our school-wide discipline approach.
We teachers are committed to having a school environment that pays attention to the social-emotional needs of all our students.
Since this is our very first year - a brand new school - the older students (first, second, and third graders) have educational stories that we don't fully know - mysteries really, that we are trying to discern.
Some of these students - although no more than seven or eight years old - already have powerful internal voices that shout
"I'm not capable!! I can't!!"
Perhaps they feel unsuccessful at reading, or math, or making a friend.
Their teachers see the frustration and anger played out in all different ways, ranging from
shutting down, going quiet, and refusing to participate
flailing, yelling, and even hitting.
For these children, having little ones on campus is an extraordinary gift.
As a staff, we asked ourselves,
What do these challenging older students need?
We decided to do a pretty radical thing. We agreed to welcome older students as visitors to our younger classrooms...when a scene change is needed.
We welcome the older student to visit the younger classroom and start anew.
We don't chastise the visitor.
[You won't hear us speak sharply, "Sit over there and be quiet!".
Where did we get the idea that children won't do the right thing without consistent rebuke and recrimination?]
Instead, we invite them to join us in whatever we are doing.
I have had students arrive during our centers time and begin to play alongside. They have joined us at nap time and helped us pat the children on the back, to get them to sleep. Sometimes they come into the classroom and read books to my students.
Let me share an example:
Recently a third grader visited us during centers, a big scowl on her face. I knew something must have been going wrong in her homeroom, but I smiled at her and welcomed her to join us. I invited her to help the children at the clay table and she immediately put on a smock and rolled up her sleeves. She showed the children how to make a clay mold of their own hands. I was amused and delighted by her observation about the children, while using the clay – “They sure use a lot of materials!” [Yes, preschoolers do – and this is how our learning works best with this age group, a materials rich environment, open-ended, exploratory, allowing children to make decisions for themselves, to feel less threatened – to provide the sense that there are ample resources.] This young girl stayed with us only for about 15 minutes, during which time she witnessed a tantrum by one of my students and she helped to soothe the child. She returned to her classroom with her head held high.
Whenever my students are at the clay center, they still try to create a clay mold of their hands - just like they learned from their older friend that day.
Preschoolers are thrilled to have an older student visit. To have an older child walk into the room is to have a rock star stop by! The children gleefully call out his name and they race to his side.
I love how the older student swells with pride,
whatever was wrong is forgotten.
They are the cool person now.
Competent. Able. Needed. Important.
I believe this empowers these children, helps them feel needed, that they belong, that they have purpose.
I have no doubt that our school-wide approach to focus on the social-emotional first and foremost is pivotal to these elementary school students becoming great learners. Unless we help them in social-emotional terms, academic achievement is not in their grasp.
It is so very special to have older children in the same building!
I love this community of ours.
The most unlovable child is the most in need of love.