Structure, structure, structure!
This point cannot be emphasized enough. Have a schedule and stick to it. There are so many unexpected moments and aspects to our day. Social interaction, emotions, and other moments cannot be planned or necessarily expected. To relieve some of these anxieties, it is so critical to provide an environment that is organized, predictable, and dependable. Seating arrangements (with visuals!), visual schedules, consistent routines that become ingrained for each child, and clear expectations help to provide this type of environment. Once these routines become completely innate for the group, you will have the space and time to push them even farther. It creates an opportunity to raise the bar and hold your group to these expectations, once you have built that structured foundation for them.
This ties in with the last point. It is critical to always follow through with anything you say whether it is a consequence or a promise. Building a trusting relationship with the children is one of the most important things a teacher can do. When a child sees you follow through, whether it is with a positive reinforcer or a less than desired consequence, that shows the child that you mean what you say and they can trust that. Establish this early and do your best to remember how important it is to give children many opportunities to trust in your words and actions. It also means that you have to carefully choose what you say and know that you will follow through with it.
Make a visual
Visuals can be so helpful for communicating expectations. There are many different kinds of visuals you can make.
Visual schedule – A visual schedule is grounding for children. Knowing the plan for the lesson or day can help lessen anxiety and increase awareness of his/her world.
Visual routine – This visual is important for complex tasks with multiple steps. For example, a morning routine may include unpacking multiple items, washing hands, and beginning morning work. Remembering the steps can sometimes be a challenge.
Visual routine with a storyline – Sometimes the visual routine isn’t enough. In this case, you can create a visual that follows a storyline.
Incentive visual – An incentive visual is similar to a star chart for reinforcing positive behavior. The difference is that the incentive chart is personalized with the child’s interest. There is no big prize at the end; children just want to know that you notice positive behaviors.
All visuals should be goal oriented and the goal needs to be as concrete as possible. Avoid vague goals like paying attention or doing your best. Define what that means and the child will be able to rise to the occasion. For example, instead of saying pay attention, you can write: X is working on having his/her eyes on the teacher and keeping his/her brain in the group (this is language from Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking Program).
Write it out
Spoken language is fleeting and often goes in one ear and out the other. If the child can decode, write or type what you’re trying to communicate. Reading the message will help regulate the child. It also makes the message more concrete. Even if the child cannot read, you can write it and speak it as you write it. Then, you can read it back to them.
Drawing a simple picture to convey a situation that just occurred can also be helpful in both regulating the child, as well as aiding the child’s understanding of that situation. Drawing the people involved in the situation and using thought bubbles, or speech bubbles, can help clarify the reasons why a person might have done or said something resulting in an undesired situation.
All feelings are important and valid– how they are expressed should be your teaching point. We all experience a range of emotions. As adults, most of us have learned socially acceptable ways of expressing those feelings. New teachers often react to the action rather than the emotion behind it. Start by validating the child’s feeling: I would feel mad if someone knocked down my building, too. Most of the time, the child will relax a little because he or she will feel understood. The next step is to talk about how it’s OK to feel the emotion, but there are options for how we can show the emotion. At this point, you can create a list of ways to choose from. Be sure to choose a variety of desired and undesired reactions, and ask the child what they think is the best way to express their emotions.
Settle arguments with new ways of expressing
As a teacher, you’re bound to have kids in your class who have different language rules at home. Create your own that will unite the group. This can happen with strategies for the calendar. For example, countdowns to important dates, some people count today and some people count the day of the event. In my class, we counted by how many more wake-ups there would be. The common, concrete language unified the group and made the strategy for counting number of days consistent.
Give sentence starters instead of only asking a question
Children are often trying to formulate their language. If you provide an open ended question, and you see the child is unsure how to formulate a response, you can give a lead in. “I am mad because…”
If something isn’t working, rethink it!
If there is repetition, something is not sticking with the child. Think of another way to help them concretize the support or message you’re delivering to them. A visual, validation, written language – whatever works best for the child. Not only will they be able to fully process the language, they will be able to accept and utilize the support you are offering.
Always have a reason for what you do and invite children to question the reasons. Be ready to explain why you’re giving them a specific direction, completing an activity, or doing a lesson with them. Never just respond, “Because!” If you don’t have a reason, ask yourself why you are doing it. The “why” questions help keep us on our toes and remember how important each lesson is; make it meaningful, deep, and and worth their time.
Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back from an emotionally charged situation, but teachers, it’s part of our job to remain calm in even the most tumultuous situations. There are times when I find myself on the verge of responding to a situation based on my emotions alone, and I need to remind myself to take a deep breath (or several!) before rationally reacting. It’s also important to model the types of strategies we use to calm ourselves down in a frustrating situation. In fact, sometimes I will explicitly tell my students, “That makes me feel frustrated, and when I’m frustrated I might say something I don’t mean. I’m going to take a few deep breaths to help me calm down.”