What principles can both teachers and parents bring to the education of very young children? Gillian Craig, who was part of the Learning Time with Shaun and Timmy writing team, explains.
As teachers and parents, we follow certain principles in our roles. Often though, these principles overlap and all we need to do is recognise and reinforce these areas.
Ask (the right) questions
When my daughter came out of her class one day shortly after her course started, I asked her, 'What did you do in class today?'. She replied, 'I sneezed'. I realised that if I were to get any useful information about what she had done in class, I was going to have to change my line of questioning.
Although my daughter is only two years old, (and more experienced parents than me would not have asked such a broad question to start with), questioning our children at any age about what they have done in class is a natural thing to do. We want to know that they are happy and settled, and that they are learning. Doing this immediately after class is a good strategy, when things are still fresh and you are still in the school environment.
Similarly, a child’s artwork can provide a prompt for asking questions: 'What (or who) is it?'; 'What colours did you use?'; 'Can you show me how you did it?'; 'Did you like making it?'; 'What other things did you like today?'; 'Who did you play with?'; and so on.
Teachers also want their students to reflect on their lessons, but with young children especially, this is a learned skill. Setting aside a few minutes at the end of a lesson to ask children what they liked best, or what helped them, is always a good idea. It is most beneficial when followed up with 'Why?'. For very young children, providing them with pictorial prompts that illustrate feelings – fun, exciting, interesting, easy, hard and boring, etc. – can often help elicit responses. Using crafts or activity books to prompt reactions is also useful. Reflection will later build into self-reflection if the habit is re-enforced, enabling children to recognise the value in the activities we set them.
Reinforce desirable behaviour
Early-years lessons should contain themes and values that are broadly desirable as opposed to culturally specific. They should include sharing, helping friends, saying sorry and forgiving each other, making amends, accepting each other, team work, taking turns and being polite.
In the classroom, activities can easily be developed to include turn-taking and sharing, and encourage polite and co-operative behaviour, but the teacher needs to provide support and encouragement. For parents, letting children talk politely with shop assistants and people in lifts and restaurants is a positive way to keep the context real for them. Also, encouraging positive behaviour when playing with friends or asking for something supports the process enormously.
Children don’t learn these behaviours automatically, yet they are an essential part of being a well-rounded adult. Starting early and reinforcing this behaviour in and out of the classroom will yield positive benefits in the future.
This is an aspect of early-years education, which can be difficult for parents from a variety of educational contexts to come to terms with. In many countries, children are graded and measured against their peers just to get into a kindergarten. Yet we would never dream of grading our children at home.
Every child has a range of strengths, but these will not be apparent all at once. The absence of grading means that children can develop their skills and try new ones in a relaxed and natural environment. It also means that teachers can spend more quality time helping children develop those skills without feeling pressure to assign a grade to them.
When planning lessons, we need to take all our learners and their varied needs into account. Children will find that movement, reading, writing, visual, and audio input all help them learn. Children use a combination of these, and the way they use them is not set in stone. As children acquire new skills, they develop new ways of solving problems and getting the most out of activities. Similarly, at home, providing a range of materials and toys for children lets them experiment with different ways of learning.
Of paramount importance is the issue of confidence. If young children can use English in a fun, creative and inclusive way, the hope is that this will support happy, secure learners who, in future, won’t see English as a hurdle to overcome, or just another school subject they have to study.