By Gillian Craig

06 November 2015 - 12:25

Early-years lessons should include sharing, helping friends, team work. (c) British Council
'Early-years lessons should include sharing, helping friends, team work.' ©

British Council

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.

Avoid grading

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. There will be a range of learning styles and intelligences in any class. 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.

Praise strengths, but also effort

Giving praise can be tricky. Both parents and teachers naturally want to encourage children and instil a positive sense of achievement, but this often takes the form of quite generic compliments, such as 'well done', or 'good work'. In a classroom, it also tends to be reserved for academic progress. While praise in itself is heartening, it can be much more effective when targeting specifics.

One way to do this is by commenting on the actual thing a child did well, such as sharing, following instructions, helping a friend, giving a correct answer, or singing well. This shows that a teacher or a parent appreciates that particular aspect, and in doing so reinforces it as desirable and provides an example to others.

Another aspect of praise, which is often overlooked, is effort. For young children, this is at least as important as the result. Praising the effort they have made shows that we support them through the full process, and notice their small triumphs. It’s important to note that adults don’t do things equally well either, but the effort is still appreciated.

Develop the parent-teacher relationship

There are many ways in which the parent-teacher relationship can be mutually beneficial. Parents and teachers can both share valuable insights into a child’s personality. Teachers can pass on information about how the child copes with a classroom environment, and additional strengths and skills which they have uncovered through various activities. Teachers can keep parents informed about the syllabus, including themes, which can be easy to reinforce at home. Parents can easily present the theme of helping friends, for example, by introducing a book, cartoon or song on the topic, role-playing with toys, or setting up a play date with another child.

It's most effective when teachers and parents speak to each other face-to-face, but occasionally emailing parents with brief feedback can help maintain the relationship, and encourage a more meaningful exchange of views. Keeping the lines of communication open for queries or information from parents helps make the relationship more equitable, so that the information isn't going one way, as often happens.

Finally, one of the most important ways to develop and maintain a good parent-teacher relationship is simply by showing appreciation for each other. If a child sees a parent and teacher thanking each other, the co-operative aspect is reinforced. It’s also valuable to have your child thank the teacher, and for a teacher to thank the children for coming.

You can register your two- to six-year-olds for English classes at our Learning Time with Shaun & Timmy teaching centres now.

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