Kai-leé Berke, a lifelong early childhood educator, co-founder of Noni Educational Solutions—a company dedicated to supporting teachers across the country in providing trauma-informed, responsive care and education to young children, and the former CEO and current Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of Teaching Strategies, shared inspirational stories and lessons learned from her preschool classrooms at Learning Ally’s Spotlight on Early Literacy Conference. Here are some excerpts from her presentation.
Why are early childhood programs so important?
Children who are at risk and don't receive high-quality early childhood education are 25% more likely to drop out of school, 40% more likely to be a teen parent, 50% more likely to be placed in special education, 60% more likely to never attend college and 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime. The good news is that we know how to fix this. High-quality early childhood programs can make up the deficit and give all children a chance to succeed.
Relationships are the key to successful early childhood programs
The quality of the teacher-child relationship can support or limit a child's development in learning. Supportive high-quality relationships with teachers and caregivers can help children overcome the challenges associated with living in high-risk circumstances and in particular, help those children whose early relationships with family members may not have been positive ones.
The most important factor in high-quality early childhood programs is the strength of their relationships…the teacher-child relationships, relationships among the children, and the relationship with administrators and their families. All these relationships are what makes up the classroom community. And a classroom should be a community, right? It's a place where people feel safe. And when children feel secure and comfortable, they're free to do the work of learning.
How teachers can build trusting relationships with at-risk students
Let me tell you about Casey. I was teaching PreK on a Marine Corps Base and he was transferring from another school in the Department of Defense System so we were fortunate enough to get a file. According to his file, he was angry, aggressive, prone to tantrums, uncooperative, had poor peer relationships, was physically abusive to the staff and other children, and showed no signs of remorse or empathy.
Some of his more impressive behaviors his first week included throwing chairs, flipping the table and toys and games, scaling the fence twice and escaping from the playground. But there were also glimmers of another child that was deeply buried under all that hurt and anger. One was at the art table. I asked him to join me at the art table thinking he needed something to focus on. I moved a model of an airplane onto the table and asked him to focus on one part of it. We picked the landing gear and then we tried to draw it. He got into it, he stuck with it for like 20 minutes, which in 4-year-old time is really long. I learned something about Casey, what he was good at, what interests him.
On Sunday, I sat down with my observations and I started to assess everything I knew about Casey. I repeated it at the end of week two, learning more each time about what this boy was good at, what interested him. His gross motor skills were off the charts as demonstrated by his ability to scale that fence in 10 seconds. His ability to focus was really outstanding for his age. And he had this natural mind for mathematics, representational thinking. He could sort and classify and regroup objects, but concepts and behaviors too. My assessment was helping me get to know Casey. Getting to know him was the process of building a relationship with him and it was shifting my primary focus away from his behaviors that challenged me. The child guidance issues almost became secondary. But he started trusting me a bit more because he could see that shift.
Family partnerships are critical
As a new young teacher, families always made me a little nervous. But families have the best insight into the children we teach. They know them better than anyone else could, and they have goals for their children. Their goals for their children are equally if not more important than the goals we have for their children.
I had an amazing student named Zachary who had just turned four and he was already writing and reading. I was really excited and looking forward to a conference with his mom. I showed her work sample after work sample, gushing about his advanced reading and writing skills and I'd even tape-recorded him reading. When I finally took a breath and looked up at Zachary's mother, I realized she was frowning and she sighed, and she shook her head and said, "Yeah, I know he can write. But does he have a friend? Does he ever play with anybody? Does even talk to the other kids?"
I was floored. I hadn't thought about it before. Zachary played near other children, but not with them. He would share materials at the writing center if somebody asked him for something. Everybody was kind to him but his classmates never invited him into their play and he never asked to join. Here I was missing this critical piece of his development because I was so focused on his content learning, his literacy development.
So after that wake-up call. I started coaching Zachary in social situations, I helped facilitate conversations. I helped him learn to enter group play. And as all of you know, from working with children, when you support one area of development and learning other areas flourish as well. So not only was he more confident in social situations, his writing got more creative and expressive. His reading improved because he was being asked to read books to his new friends. His physical skills improved because he was included in group games on the playground that had him running, jumping, and climbing. Zachary is a perfect example to me of the critical importance of family partnership.
Don’t discount the importance of peer relationships
Children's ability to build positive relationships with peers affects their social competence, their school adjustment, their academic success, and even their overall mental health well into adulthood, all because of friendships they did or didn't have in their childhood.
And just like teacher-child relationships and family-teacher relationships, peer relationships require our intentional teaching. These skills don't come naturally to everyone. We know grownups who haven't mastered the skills of friendship, conflict resolution, making contact, maintaining positive relationships. These skills need to be explicitly taught. It isn't a classroom community until every child has a friend.
To learn more best practices for supporting struggling students, visit our blog.