When Lots Of Kids In A Small Space Make For Success …

When I started teaching, I rarely read about education, unless I was doing so as part of a course or for some school professional development. In the past few years, that’s changed, and I’ve found myself interested in finding out more. I always add some educational reads to my holiday reading lists, I read blog posts and articles every day, and I try to partake in conversations online about educational topics and issues. I’m even one of those teachers that enjoys reading curriculum documents — including the front matter — and I tend to memorize what I read, so I also think about and reflect on these documents a lot. The more that I read though, the more that I see situations from various perspectives, and then what doesn’t make sense in one way begins to make a lot more sense in another.

My teaching partner, Paula, and I experienced one of these strange situations this past week. While we made some very deliberate choices about our classroom environment back in September, the kids have helped us change the environment since then. Their needs and interests dictated these changes, and often they helped co-create this space with us. The room looks similar to how it did before, and yet, a bit different. 

There is one space that continues to surprise us: the block area. Most of what you read about the successful organization of a block space is contrary to what we’ve done. Due to recently adding some painting into our dramatic play area, we moved the green table into the block area for a different building surface. While there’s value to having a table in a block area, our block space is already quite small. This table makes it even smaller, and way more confined. We have quite a few different block and construction items in this space, and while we’ve tried to move some to another area (for example, the creation of a different domino space), children are not drawn to these items elsewhere. They want them here. 

A contained space with so many people building together should be loud. It should be chaotic. Most educators — me included — would probably question the sanity of this decision. And yet, it works! Not only does it work, but it actually seems to be an area that many children go to self-regulate. What?! Again, it’s questionable how anyone could be so productive in such a confined area, and also, see it as a calming space. This past week, Paula and I spent a lot of time discussing why this might be true.

We’ve tried a block area with more space, but it’s always loud, busy, and often, dysregulating. While the research might question our decision to have so much happening in such a small area, it’s hard to argue with our observations. The photographs in the post above do not even do the area justice. At one point, there was another child weaving in and out of the block building, and even with the action at the table, the creations in the shelves, and the structure on the floor, this space was like a breath of fresh air. 

We’re wondering if some of what we know about Self-Reg might support our observations. Many children seem to search out small, covered areas. It’s why they like sitting under a table, working in a tent, or even learning in a shelf. 

We’re wondering if all of the people in this block space almost act like a human cover for the area. Does the closeness help create a feeling of calm? While research on classroom set-up may be contrary to the success of this space, we wonder if research on Self-Reg might support it. It’s hard to know for sure, but there’s so much value in having these conversations to try to make sense of our observations, for when we do, we can also plan with these theories in mind. When has research been contrary to your observations, and how do you then make sense of what you’re seeing? Why might this process be beneficial? And then again, different kids with different needs might make the success of this current block area much less successful. I wonder if this then speaks to just how personal Self-Reg can be.


What If We Reframed “Disturbing The Learning Of Others?”

At the beginning of August, I listened to the VoicEd Radio Program where Heather Swail and Paul McGuire were chatting with Doug Peterson and Stephen Hurley about various posts from Ontario Edubloggers. They discussed one of my blog posts at the time. At around the 17 minute and 53 second mark, Paul made a comment that really got me thinking: “A child does not have the right to disturb the learning of others.” I was going to blog a response at the time, but I chose to wait. After various experiences in this first month of school, Paul’s comment and my thinking at the time (and now) inspired a post. 

I understand what Paul’s saying, and I would be lying if I said that I haven’t uttered these words — or similar ones — to administrators in the past. Even with my growing understanding of Self-Reg, I’ve reached different points of frustration. I’ve wondered if it really is possible to do it all. What impact are the behaviours of some children having on the entire classroom environment? Is this affecting my own mental health and well-being? What about the mental health and well-being of kids? But then, in the past couple of years, my thinking has started to change.

I’ve started to wonder, what message are we communicating (even unintentionally) to students, to parents, to administrators, and to colleagues, when we talk about “disturbing the learning of others?” To me, this statement implies that the behaviour is intentional. What if it’s not? I’m not going to pretend that it’s not still challenging when we’re dealing with these behaviours: from hitting and grabbing to throwing and screaming. I’ve dealt with my fair share of these problems over the years, and it’s hard. For kids. For educators. For parents. And for administrators. But at the beginning of last year, I started to think about just how much we can learn from THAT child, and how at times, all kids can be THAT kid

In the past couple of years, my teaching partner, Paula, and I have done a lot of thinking about THAT child. I think that this thinking has also changed our responses. 

  • We ask each other Stuart Shanker‘s questions of, “Why this child? Why now?,” more often, and we look at how to reduce the stressors that might be causing the behaviour. 
  • We try to model calm responses in our actions and in our toneThis isn’t always easy, and we’re not always perfect, but we try. 
  • We elicit the help of students if possible. Kids connect with kids on a different level, and children respond to their peers differently. When students are also involved in this problem solving, they often learn about the benefits of empathy, and see how much they can do to support each other. 

All week long, I watched what our kids — these young learners — did to support their peers.

Then yesterday, as children were coming in and joining our meeting time on the carpet, one child let out a scream. Another child accidentally touched him, and he was upset. Without prompting, one of our SK children that was sitting up front, turned to him, offered his hand, and said, “Why don’t you come up and sit next to me? That will make you feel better.” And with that, my heart melts. 

  • When we model not to be scared, kids aren’t scared.
  • When we show that the tears, the screams, and the hitting are unintentional and caused by stress, and that we can support a different response, kids do the same.

They see behaviour differently, just as we do. And in many of my experiences, with this additional child support, we also see a reduction in a lot of behaviours. I know that there are exceptions to every rule, and for some kids, maybe a different environment or additional support is necessary. But sometimes I wonder if our actions, our tone, our own fears, and our concerns about everyone else, inadvertently increases behaviour, even as we try to decrease it.  

This past week, I’ve watched what kids learn as they support peers that are struggling. This may not be academic learning, but it’s incredibly valuable learning! I think about one of our parents, who, when she drops off her child each morning, reminds her to “be kind.” This is her goal for the day, and what a wonderful goal it is. And every day, she goes out of her way to do exactly that. If, as a school system, we support children in developing kindness, empathy, and love, I think that then we’ve done a pretty marvellous job. Imagine how we could then change trajectories for kids. How do you support your children in doing just that? As a new week begins, we have another perfect opportunity to make a difference. Let’s also be there to show our children that they can do the same!


Learning From #daveBstrong

While I teach for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, through social media I follow educators from many other Boards, both inside and outside of Canada. I probably communicate the most with people from the Peel Board. It’s for this reason that a few months ago, I started to notice many of the Peel people who I follow using the #daveBstrong hashtag. 

I was intrigued. I happen to follow Dave Badovinac on Twitter, but was unaware of his health problems until I started reading the tweets. It was earlier this month that I shared this tweet.

Now, I wish that I could share with you a great end to this story. This morning though, I woke up to find an Instagram post by Dave’s sister, Laura. Dave passed away yesterday.

This story hit me hard … maybe even more so, for a year ago yesterday, I unexpectedly lost my dad. After reading Laura’s post, I took to Twitter, and was blown away by the stories of love from previous students, colleagues, and friends. Here are just a few.

If you ever question just how big a difference an educator can make, read these tweets. Dave, I didn’t know you, but today, I am heading to school thinking, how can I care a little more, smile a little more, support a little more, and do a little more? May we all learn a little something from Dave. Kids deserve it!




Is it really that gross? Or is it something else?

I was out recently with a fellow educator who teaches at a different school. She mentioned that she has a child in her junior class that bites her nails. “Just think about the germs,” she said. “Last year’s teacher tried to get her to stop, but she still does it. I need to get her to stop.” This really got me thinking, for you see, I could relate to this child.

For years, I bit my nails, right until I was an adult. I still do at times, but I’m more aware that I’m doing it, so I can also talk myself into stopping. I have another habit though, and it’s a hard one for me to stop. I tend to suck on things. I always wear a necklace around my neck, which used to belong to my grandmother. It’s important to me, and I never leave the house without it. Unfortunately, the chain is just the perfect size to fit inside my mouth, and if I start to feel stressed or anxious, I always put it in there. I have the same bad habit with my school identification badge. I wear the lanyard around my neck, and at times, I find myself sucking on it too.

Apparently, I’m not the only one that notices that I do this. Last week, I was outside one morning, and there was a lot of activity happening in our outdoor classroom space. I found the area much louder than usual. A little more frenzied. As I stood there contemplating how I might be able to resettle the space, a Kindergarten child from another class came up to me. He said, “You’re sucking on your necklace, Miss Dunsiger. You do that a lot!” He was right! I told him this, and said, “I tend to do this when I’m feeling stressed.” He replied, “You must be stressed then.” Maybe I was. I took a few minutes to breathe, and about five minutes after that, our class headed to the forest. The quiet and the space out in the forest, helped me a lot, and I quickly noticed that I was no longer sucking on my necklace. 

It looks like the forest is magical — and calming — for many of us!

I share this story because my own experiences sucking things — including even chewing on the edges of my sleeves when I was a child — makes me remember that often this desire to chew is a lot more complex than we might think. For this child — or in my case, this adult — we may know that it’s not the best habit to have, but it’s also a sensory experience, which helps us self-regulate. I mentioned this to the teacher I was out with, and said, “Maybe you could substitute the finger nail biting for another more socially acceptable, oral sensory experience. What about sucking on a mint or chewing gum?” Her reply was, “Well I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be fair. Nobody else is allowed to eat candy or chew gum during class time at school.” My final question is one that I’m going to leave you with today: do they need to? Equity is not equality. I’m a firm believer in this. And I know that we speak about this a lot, but what does it actually mean in our classrooms and schools? For me, it’s about …

  • the child that needs a fidget toy when other children can sit on the carpet without one.
  • the child that sits on the sofa or lies on the small carpet instead of joining our group for meeting time.
  • the child that plays with plasticine, but still listens into the full class discussions, while others can do so without the plasticine.
  • the child that brings in a blanket, toy, or doll from home, even when we discourage home objects, for this is what helps calm the child. 
  • the child that always needs to be at the front of the line.
  • the child that has to write a note in red marker (or blue or green or orange, etc.), even if others are encouraged to use pencil. For this child, colour choice matters. 

This is not a comprehensive list, but just some of my examples from previous years. A teacher once asked, “But what about when all of the other children want to do this too or have these same accommodations?” I would usually answer this query with the same response that I pose to children, “Do you need this? We all get what we need to do our best.” Students are never too young to learn about equity, and maybe it’s this very learning, which will help reframe the thinking behind the finger nail biting and necklace chewing. I sure hope so!


How do we avoid comparisons?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about our classroom blog. We recently had our Meet the Teacher Night, and heard from many parents how much they appreciated having the daily updates on our blog. It’s through these updates that they learn even more about what their child is doing in the room, but also the learning that’s happening on a global scale in the classroom. They feel as though they have a window into our room, while also learning different ways that they can support their child at home. That said, there’s another side to this story.

Paula and I are very open in our posts. We share snippets of conversations, strengths and areas of growth that we notice, but also next steps. These reflections are not just about the children. We also reflect on our professional practices. More than five years ago, Royan Lee, a fellow Ontario educator and blogger, wrote a post on filming yourself teaching and deconstructing your instruction. When he published this post, I saw teaching as just the full group instruction that I delivered at the front of the classroom. Now my thinking around “instruction” has changed, and the majority of my lessons happen in small groups. The same is true for Paula. I’m less focused on recording full class lessons — although at times I do — but much of our day is spent on a video camera. Sometimes Paula captures my conversations. Sometimes I capture hers. Sometimes we capture each other at the same time, or we just capture ourselves with the children. But we are forever listening to ourselves on film, discussing our approaches with each other, and considering changes we can make. It’s common for me to make the kind of comment that I did in this Instagram post the other day. 

I share this because part of our thinking behind the blog is to help reframe perceptions of next steps. 

  • None of us are perfect.
  • We all have a “next best move.”
  • Sharing this thinking publicly helps remind us of our areas for growth.
  • It also makes us more human.

Our hope is that parents, educators, and administrators will look at these posts and celebrate with us the different successes, but also support us (and kids) in where we’re going next. Throughout the year, we look back at these posts, and we focus on growth. Where did students begin and where are they now? Also, where did we begin and how have we changed? Just like with our Kindergarten Program Document, our focus is on the individual. It’s about the personal learning stories and the personal growth. 

Over the years, I’ve learned many things from my parents. I have a gifted sister who’s 13 months younger than me, but skipped Grade 1, so we went through school together. As she was excelling, I was the struggling student with the learning disability. There were all kinds of opportunities for my parents to compare the two of us, but they never did. They recognized each of our strengths, and they realized that we would progress at our own rates. They also knew that with support, guidance, and targeted instruction, we would both achieve what we wanted to do. And that’s exactly what happened. As two educators, they were important parts of this instruction, but so were the incredible teachers that we had over the years. 

I share this story because when observations, conversations, and work products are shared publicly, it becomes really easy to wonder, is my child doing okay? Do I need to be doing more? At times Paula and I question, should we share this particular experience? Are parents going to be concerned that their child is not performing at this level, or that their child is not doing well enough? Our hope is no. We know that parents want to see their own children, but also see what’s happening in the classroom. Sometimes when they don’t see their child in a particular space, this becomes a discussion point around, “What did you do in this area, or what might you do here tomorrow?”

Even for us, at times it takes looking back, to realize just how far forward our students have come. Just look at these two posts from the end of last year. 

Individuals just watching last year’s blog posts might only have seen …

  • the child that could write,
  • the child that could read,
  • the child with incredible vocabulary,

but don’t forget that each of these children had a starting point. We all do! There are things that we would do over too … including my word choice over this second example of growth being “even more incredible.” It really is only in Kindergarten where even a week can make a massive difference for kids. The progress at this age is amazing, and we’re fortunate to get to witness and be a part of all of it. With our classroom blog, you can tooAs parents and as educators though, what helps you stay focused on the individuals? The school year is only beginning, and we are already learning a lot about our 29 wonderful learners … and maybe just as much about ourselves!