From Chaos to Community

two preschool girlsIt’s that time of year again – the start of a new school year. For many young children, this may be the first time they’ve been in group care. In the life of a young child, that’s a BIG deal!

Remembering my years teaching preschool, those first few days were packed with feelings – scared, excited, lonely, delighted, confused, curious, tired, more excited…and that was just me! Seriously, it’s always a wild mess of highs and lows for children those first few days.

Although entering a new child care environment is a chaotic, challenging experience for all young children, for children of military families it may be just one of many unfamiliar situations. These children have often experienced a lot of changes, especially if the family has recently relocated. Imagine what it would be like to not only have a new child care setting, but also a new house, a new neighborhood, a new place of worship, a new park…and the list goes on. As a child’s new teacher or caregiver, you have a unique and critical role to play in helping him or her to begin to adjust to a new place with new people.

Create Predictability: One of the best ways you can help children adjust to their new “school” is to establish some order in the chaos – to begin some routines and regular practices that will soon become familiar to the children. Although it’s easy to think that variety will be more interesting to the children, the truth is that, at least at first, boring (i.e., predictable) is best. Children, from young babies to kindergartners, will feel much more relaxed when they know what to expect. And more relaxed, happy children will listen better, get along better, and learn better.

Create Community: But even more important to young children’s adjustment to school is to create an environment where they feel like they belong. Creating a place where new children feel safe (both physically and emotionally), cared for, listened to, valued and enjoyed is, in my opinion, the most important goal a teacher can strive for. Creating a strong sense of community in a program will take time but there are many things you can do to start off on the right path. Here are my “top four:”

Visually represent your classroom community.  In as many ways as you can think of, show children that each of them is part of the larger group. For example, post displays of the children’s names and/or photos all together under the name of the class/group at children’s eye level. Every way you can, give the children visual evidence that they belong.

Focus on names. For young children, names are a central aspect of their self-identify. It’s often the first word they learn to read and to write. Use that information to help each child feel valuable and unique AND to help them get to know one another by playing name games, writing their names down often, using name labels to identify places to sit or works of art, etc. And don’t forget to remind them of your own name often, especially during the first couple of days. You are the most important person in the classroom for them to build a connection with; that connection starts with knowing your name.

Help children connect. Give children lots of opportunities to connect one-on-one with each other. A whole group of new faces is overwhelming for any age of child (or adult, for that matter!). But one new face at a time is manageable for most. Subtly suggest playmates during free play time, especially for those who are a little slower to warm up. Pair children up throughout the day for short bits of time: walking to the playground, sitting together at snack, doing an art or building activity, or doing movement or music activities. Although in general it’s best to let children pick their own play partners, during this time when everyone’s a stranger, it can be helpful to give them opportunities to get to know each other one at a time.

Those are just a few of my suggestions for helping children quickly feel a part of a new group. But I’d also love to hear from you! What strategies do YOU use to develop a sense of belonging and community in your program? Please share your thoughts in a comment.

If you want more on this topic, here are some resources I suggest. Feel free to share others.

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Kathy Reschke

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