Thinking Outside the Circle


Now that I am making a living observing and advising other teachers, I am struck by how different a preschool classroom looks when you see it from the outside. I could (maybe will) write several essays about how hard it is to assess your own performance when you have your head down trying to keep it all together, and how much teachers need sympathetic observers giving them both feedback and a reality check.

Lately I’ve been watching and thinking about group times. Music and movement, community meeting, previewing an art project, planning for the transition to lunch – it’s striking how many reasons we come up with to ask children to sit still and listen to us, or at least stay in one place and follow directions. To a person, every teacher I watched felt embarrassed at best or horrified at worst that I witnessed what transpired. Virtually all of them felt like the whole thing fell apart, the children misbehaved and they themselves resorted to their most reactive and negative teaching strategies.

First, let me assure you all – it wasn’t that bad! Here’s what I saw versus what the teachers noted. While the teachers leading the group saw misbehavior, I was struck by how many children could attend for very long periods of time with mostly verbally communicated concepts to organize them. This is sort of obvious once you step back. The teacher who tries to maintain order is inclined to notice disruptions. The (majority of) children who are on board can be invisible. And where the teachers felt they lacked a plan or effective teaching strategies, I saw multiple indicators of good teaching: enthusiasm; materials at the ready; acknowledging and integrating children’s input; using visual supports, movement and multiple learning modes.

But I also noticed that almost every group time I watched went on for a very long time. And, as time went on, certain key individuals ran afoul of the teacher. The last third of many of these sessions became somewhat devoted to the teacher’s attempts to manage the behavior of one or two children. I also noticed that, while teachers used many materials and modes of teaching, there was a lot of talking. The base proposition was for the children to sit and listen while the teacher talked.

With that in mind, here are three tips for group time that occurred to me during my observations:

Keep it short. We tend to try and do as much as children can handle during group times. This often comes from our regard for student’s initiative: we want to sing every song that every child requests, spin every comment into a discussion, allow every object from home to be shared. But we also do it for our own reasons: we have a lot of important material to cover, and we view group times as a chance for children to learn to regulate. (This ironically tends to grow in inverse proportion to children’s success. As children get testier, we go toe to toe with them to make them sit and listen even longer. How many times I walked away from a challenging group time muttering, “good luck in kindergarten, guys,” under my breath).

But group time is not about how much children can accommodate. It’s about how much they need. There’s nothing wrong with very short group times, especially for the very young. It can help to think of group times as an evolving, cumulative process: shorter group times at the start of a school year, longer group times by the end – or on a larger scale, very short group times for toddlers, longer meetings for kindergartners.

Limiting the scope of what you try to cover in a group time is more than sound behavior management – it is also a positive model of executive functioning. Executive functions are the frontal lobe-driven capacities for organizing, managing and balancing tasks. If your group times model piling on tasks in a shifting and formless pattern, that’s the kind of thinking and organizing you are promoting. An orderly, discrete agenda – and especially an organized plan for expanding the agenda over time – models orderly development of executive functions and thinking.

Expect, plan for, notice and respond to positive engagement. In general, I noticed that girls (tend to) sit and attend and participate while boys (tend to) get restless and tune out. Teachers tended to focus on (mainly girls’) active engagement at first, but on (often boys’) disruptive distraction at length. So, as far as avoiding negative outcomes goes, you do not want group times to be a vehicle for boys buying out of the educational experience and distancing themselves from the process of thinking and discussing.

But more than that, you want to provide a vehicle – and a clear plan – for how children can be successful. And you want to plan to allow for different kinds of learners and different kinds of learning – visual, movement, imaginary, musical and so on. Not only should your group time involve lots of modalities, but your group time plan should as well – you should present it as a written schedule, a song, a set of physical actions, and so forth. And rather than looking out for and reacting to unruly behavior, make it a programmed part of group time to look for and acknowledge positive participation. This is especially effective at the transition to group time.

These first two points come together here:

Make group time about group time. We know from decades of child development research that children learn by constructing cognitive models of things, ideas and, ultimately, sequences and networks of operations. And the gold standard of learning today, such as found in The Project Approach, emphasizes that the ultimate aim of learning is the development of learning habits, not a brain full of facts and skills.

But even though we often do group times largely because we think children need to learn how to do group time, we tend to use group times to try and teach content, not models of group learning. From a behavioral point of view, we expect children to come to circle, sit boy/girl/boy/girl, listen attentively and follow directions just because we tell them to. None of this quite adds up.

Children need to learn to regulate in order to participate in group activities. They need to control their urge to move; to speak; to engage their neighbors; to laugh; to lie down and even to do something else somewhere else in the room. And group time can be a great way to learn both regulation and its connection to thinking and learning, but only if those are the subjects of group time. Three keys to helping group time act as an effective lesson on group time: 1. Use repetitive teaching and systems to help children understand, practice, and participate in the routines, structures and expectations of group time.

2. Model the behavior and regulation you expect (translation: yelling “SHHHHHHHH!!!!” will not quiet children down in the long run). 3. Mobilize children’s incentive by planning around their interests and giving them meaningful roles and jobs.

Ultimately, you want children to participate and behave at group time because they have a stake in what’s going on, not because they want an ice cream party at the end of the year. This goes all the way back to John Dewey, but Ansel Adams put it best: “Education with out either meaning or excitement is impossible.”

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