In this post I’d like us to take a moment to think about this idea of “belonging” and what that means in early childhood and also why it is so relevant to the context of language teaching in pre-primary contexts. Having established this, I’d like us to set some new objectives for the start of the school year that go beyond what we are presented with in most language curriculums. Finally, I have some ideas that you can use to help children and their caregivers feel valued, respected and welcome in the English classroom.
Before we begin, here’s a quick disclaimer. This is a reflection of my personal approach to teaching foreign language to children. Although the end goal is to have my learners speaking English, it’s certainly not my only goal. I’d like to think I teach the whole child and speaking in a foreign language is just one of the outcomes. There seems to be an increasing number of teachers making this transition, so it’s quite possible that you can relate to what I’m saying. If so, I hope you enjoy what I have to share here. If not, maybe it will be food for thought!
BELONGING in the early years
“People feel they belong when they feel others are genuinely interested in them and open to sharing information with them. ‘In early childhood, and throughout life, relationships are crucial to a sense of belonging” (Early Years Learning Framework Australia, 2009).
It is integral to our existence to feel a sense of belonging: in our family (whoever that includes for you), the cultural group you identify with, and your wider community. These relationships are what define us and therefore, and especially in early childhood, they are central to forming our identity – who we are, and who we can become. This can and must happen in our school communities, too.
If you work with learners in the early years, you play an important role in helping them develop their identities and sense of belonging within the classroom and beyond. Yes, we are also language teachers but if you think all this isn’t relevant for you, I invite you to think again!
BELONGING in the language classroom
For many children, particularly those learning a foreign language for the first time, the English language classroom can be an unfamiliar place that may cause fear or anxiety. This may have negative repercussions on a student’s willingness and ability to engage in what you are trying to teach them.
David Vale talks about this and his article on group formation had a profound impact on my teaching. David quotes Krashen when he refers to the lowering of affective barriers that can impede our ability to learn and he points out the importance of learners feeling comfortable enough with each other to take risks with the language without fear of ridicule or being over corrected. His emphasis on the importance of building positive relationships between the learners is closely connected to this idea of “belonging”.
Children tend to thrive in classrooms where they feel valued and respected as individuals as well as a sense of belonging within the group. This leads to more co-operative work and a supportive environment where new language can be processed within the group itself… greatly facilitating the work of the teacher. Let me repeat that last bit again.. greatly facilitating the work of the teacher!
This was enough to make me rethink a lot of things. I began to reevaluate what my priorities should be at the start of the school year and set new objectives that focused first and foremost on building healthy relationships, not only between the teacher and the students, but also between the students themselves.
Now, I’d like to share some of the ways I put this idea into practice in my pre-primary classroom.
Walls Talk. If you are familiar with Montossori, Reggio Emilia or Steiner, you will know about the importance these early childhood philosophies place on planned learning environments. The physical space is said to directly affect the learning that takes place. In my opinion, the walls are frequently either overlooked or decorated for aesthetic purposes. I believe that we can use the classroom as a way of making children feel connected to their group and their English classes. Having a special place in the classroom or school to display student work is a great way to encourage them to take pride in what they produce. It also creates a talking point for parents and caregivers who are interested in what their students are doing in class. Most importantly, when students see their work on the walls, it creates a sense of belonging and ownership of that space. So before the school year even begins, I think carefully about the way I can make the physical space feel more familiar and inviting.
Home-School Connection. Having families involved as active members of the school community and supporters of the English program has contributed enormously to the success of the language programs I have run. Here is an example of how you can bridge that gap between your classroom and the home – without mentioning the word “homework”.
Our Class Mascot: Choose a stuffed toy or puppet to be the class mascot. Send home a picture to the parents of their child with the class Teddy Bear. Let the parents know the key concepts for this project and ask them if their child has a toy that has special sentimental value. Request that they discuss this with their child and take a photo of it to send in. Display these on the classroom wall. Photos and objects from home are a great way to make the classroom feel like a familiar and welcome place.
ALSO: Request that parents send in a different toy to be used the following week and left in the classroom for the duration of this project (not one of sentimental value!).
Group Formation Games. As discussed above, building healthy relationships is an essential part of helping students feel like they belong. I would encourage teachers to being integrating activities into their lessons which have the aim of ‘forming the group’ and creating a sense of community between the learners. Here is one such activity that you can use at the start of the school year.
Walk Don’t Touch: Demonstrate this game by walking around the space without touching anyone or anything. Chant as you walk “Walk, don’t touch, walk, don’t touch. Walk, don’t touch and….STOP!”. Stop facing a child and greet them with a handshake, high-five or hug, depending on what is culturally and socially acceptable in your context. Repeat this with a few different children before getting them all to stand up and play the game together. Remind them about looking in each other’s eyes, smiling and using each other’s name when they greet.
Building Rapport. The educator-child relationship can impact both how a child feels and develops in your classroom.
“Research has shown that … babies’ first attachments within their families and within other trusting relationships provide them with a secure base for exploration and learning. Through a widening network of secure relationships, children develop confidence and feel respected and valued.” (Early Years Learning Framework Australia, 2009)
So how can we make sure we making these positive connections with each child in our group? Particularly when it is common to have over 20 children in a group and only an hour lesson, twice a week. Here is one suggestion of how I make this happen in my classes.
Starting The Class: Start the class outside the door to your classroom. Greet all your students with a smile and allow time for them to share any news they might have with you. They will be anxious to show you their new shoes or haircut. They will do this in L1 and that is absolutely fine. This is a moment when you can make personal connections with the children, showing them you are interested and care about each of them as individuals.
These were just a few ways to create a learning environment where children feel they belong and are free to be who they are. These have become priorities for me as an educator and I hope this post has given you some food for thought and ideas for your own pre-primary teaching practice.
Here are links to resources and references from this post.
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