An Intentionally Created Community In Early Childhood Education
Freud and others have focused on the early experiences of children ages I-5 as the influential foundation of all later emotional development.Children come to kindergarten having the advantages or disadvantages of these early life experiences. In general, if these early experiences were positive the child has an emotional and educational foundation for future success and the confidence and sense of security that comes from supportive and loving parents. If on the other hand if these early experiences were negative the child may have emotional problems and or a belief that they are incapable of educational success. Issues that are sometimes observable in poor reading skills and sometimes in problems with impulse control. In addition to these early experiences children may be burdened by the effects of abuse, lack of parental support, a physical disability, autism, ADHD, obesity or the numerous side effects that accompany poverty. What ever the reasons, a growing body of research indicates that many children start school not ready to learn not because they do not know their letters or numbers but because they lack the ability to regulate their social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors. This research shows that self-regulation, often called executive function, has a stronger association with academic achievement than IQ or entry-level reading or math skills. And todays children, come to school with lower levels of self-regulation and early childhood teachers report that they are ill equipped to deal with these problems.
Even though the problems encountered in early childhood education seem daunting there is hope. In a study by the Azim Foundation elementary schools are successful if the principal is committed and the teachers and parents are actively involved. Counterintuitively, the study goes on to say that the backgrounds of the teachers does not matter nor does the infrastructure of the school or the economic background of the parents. It therefore seems that involving parents and teachers is key to the educational success of students. A case in point is the practice of Looping which occurs when a teacher moves with his or her students to the next grade level rather than sending them to another teacher at the end of the school year. Looping has many researched advantages, it promotes stronger bonds between parents and teachers, teachers and students, and students and students, it provides greater support for children who need stabilizing influences in their lives, it gives teachers the opportunity to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of their students which then allows for increased opportunities for teachers to tailor curriculum to individual needs, it helps students build self confidence and reduces the student anxiety that comes to some facing each new year. Looping was initially advocated by early 20th-century Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner and since has been used successfully for years in Europe. Despite the successful experiences of European school systems, looping is still uncommon enough in the United States to be considered innovative.
In reading the results of the Azim study and the research on Looping and becoming aware of the range of problems that children bring to early education that require resolution, I began to imagine an elementary school program that would actively involve teachers and parents and be an exciting alternative model that committed principals and teachers would enthusiastically support and be a part of. The guiding programmatic concept in my thinking was the creation of an intentional community, a learning community, within which all of its members would be needed to accomplish its goals. The community would be made up of the teachers, the students and the parents and would be supported by the principal and the other school specialists, such as the assistant principals the school psychologist and the school nurse. Given the already existent practice of Looping the idea seemed obvious, the thirty to thirty five students starting in kindergarten would with their parents or adult representative, a teacher and teachers assistant, stay together, as members of this created community for the next three years, through grade two. They would be a community, whose goal would be the successful educational preparation of thirty to thirty five students. Educational preparation being defined as the mastery of the age appropriate didactic material with an increase in self efficacy that would accompany the mastery and the emotional stability, self confidence and self regulation that grows as a result of a community that offers emotional support and assistance in the resolution of all manner of life problems. Children with psychological or physical disabilities and or emotionally charged negative life issues or situations would not be sent to any special education program, the education of the child along with their negative life circumstance would proceed within the created community framework although specialists and or consultants could be used if the community so decided. This policy of inclusion, would avoid the problems inherent in segregated special education while offering students the opportunity to model success. The work of the community would be to find ways to solve and assist in expediting solutions to the problems that could interfere with student learning and also to assist the teachers in the creation and delivery of programs and projects that would facilitate student learning. These projects could for example involve the utilization of the program called “tools of the mind,” a program to increase self regulation, as well as the more common projects such as trips to community venues or the utilization of the workplace settings of the adult community members.
Having a voice in the decisions of such a diverse community would offer the membership, an extraordinary opportunity to learn, be relevant, and feel empowered.
So far I have used the term “or adult representatives” when listing parents as being part of the created community in so doing I recognize that each child member of the community needs a supportive and involved adult who cares about their future and who is willing and able to actively participate in the created community. This adult or these adults would in all likelihood be the parent or parents of the child but could if the circumstances warranted be a grandparent, other relative or a big brother or sister who is acceptant of the responsibility. Parents especially in low income areas have little time especially when asked to participate in activities that they feel lack immediate relevance to their lives or the lives of their children. It is my contention that when a parent is needed as a member of a supportive community the relevance of their participation to themselves and to their children will very quickly become apparent.
A key element of this school paradigm is that each member of the community must be willing to assist other community members by participating in discussions that create solutions to problems that might be hindering student learning and by providing when appropriate concrete assistance in the implementation of those solutions. It is in this process that each member, yes the children also, are needed by the community to meet its goals. The need people have to be needed exists for people in all age categories. It is an inborn need observable in all people regardless of age. Everybody has a need to be needed, to feel relevant and necessary in the world. The energy attached to this need to be needed like the energy attached to other basic human needs can be expressed through positive action or when blocked, by age or some other prejudice can be repressed with negative consequences. By relating to their need to be needed, community members will make this created learning community alternative, a success. A success because it will increase motivation and feelings of personal acceptance. A success because it will facilitate relationships, confer dignity, self respect and control any arbitrary behavior coming from teachers and the feelings of helplessness that can emerge from parents and students.
The need the community has for the assistance of these very young students in helping teachers and other students, focuses the community on their core strengths, strengths that need to be emphasized and utilized. In so doing the strengths of each student can be strengthened a strengthening which in turn can weaken any weaknesses they may have. An important treatment concept for us all. Even though they are young their desire to help, is well developed. This helping behavior occurs early in life, across cultures, is not enhanced by rewards and can be observed in infant chimpanzees. For these reasons, researchers like Warneken & Tomasello conclude that helping is a natural inclination and is important to a child’s development. Having the chance to help others will teach students about their responsibility as members of a community and will create a sense of pride and self respect which will be reinforced in the regularly occurring community meetings. Furthermore, the students are learning in what Lev Vygotsky called activity settings,” contexts in which collaborative interaction and assisted performance occurs”. These cooperative groups according to Vygotsky are places in which cognitive learning and remediation are best accomplished and in which motivation and other affective factors are positively impacted. Although Tools of the Mind is a curriculum based on the teachings of Vygotsky to help young students improve self regulation, its the setting according to Vygotsky in which this training occurs not the curriculum per say that makes the difference. A created learning community where the membership is given responsibility and treated as though they will fulfill those responsibilities, a learning community that offers people choice, support and a sense of belonging and relevance, is the “activity setting” that Vygotsky is talking about.
In conclusion, a final aspect of the learning community is the opportunity offered participants to model the behavior of others. Through side by side activities and participation in the caring, pragmatic and inclusive community meetings, members have many opportunities to witness and model the behaviors, efforts and success of others. When these behaviors are aggressively noted, praised and emphasized by teachers, a profound and influential learning opportunity is created.