There are three rules in my classroom:
- We are Good
- We are Nice
- We Learn All We Can
However, I don’t mention the rules to my students during the first couple of days in the classroom. I don’t even tell them that there are rules. During the first days of school, I give my students time to comprehend why their parents are leaving them in a room with two strangers.
Crying. That is the sound of the first day of school. And it’s not all the same. There are the screamers who belt out blood-curdling yells through the cracks of the doors, believing the police will come and save them. There are the hyper-ventilators whose chests are going to explode after each gasp of air. Then you have the runners who, at the first opening of the door, will grab their backpack and stuffed animal and run terrified toward the exit.
On the first day, I don’t make a lot of eye contact. I barely talk. In fact, I prefer not to talk. The first day, I just stand there, like zookeepers presenting themselves into the orangutan exhibit. I’m serious. The rules are the same:
- Don’t make eye contact
- No sudden movements
- You must be allowed to approach
I can’t imagine what a child sees when they see a 250 pound man leaning down in front them saying “Welcome to your new classroom. It’s your first day of school ever!” I might as well be saying, “I’m a stranger. Now your parents are going to leave you with me for 8 hours!” They’re scared enough as it is. I don’t need to amp up the situation by trying to talk with them.
So, during the first few days, I play with the toys.
Ummmm, I thought you were the teacher
Yes, this is true. It should be “Teacher teaches” and “Small children play with toys” Well, while the new students are crying for their parents to comeback, no one is playing with the toys. Someone has too.
So, I sit there at the table and play with the play dough… and I show the kids why preschool is one of the most magical places to be.
One day, Mariposa, a new three-year old, is screaming her lungs out. She doesn’t want anyone near her: teacher or child. She has plastered herself against the classroom door, the last place where she saw her parents. 30 minutes pass and now Mariposa is exhausted. She loosens her grip on the door handle and allows herself to look around the room. “Where am I?” she must be thinking. “Fake plants, birch shelves and carpets…IKEA?” She continues scanning the room. Some of the other children have already come to terms with the situation and have decided to play on the computer, blocks, dramatic play area, or in the sand box.
Mariposa continues her scan and she catches me sitting at the table… with play dough… and I’m making something. I see out of the side of my eye that she’s watching. I don’t look up. I continue rolling the play dough on the table. Then, magically, my green blob of dough has turned into a long, wobbly noodle. I pick up one end and then quickly wrap it around my finger.
Mariposa has stopped crying, but she hasn’t moved. She stares at the creation that now adorns my finger. I look up. She turns away. “I’m not looking at you. I’m waiting for my parents and get me. I don’t care if you have something stuck to your hand.”
I look back down at continue my crafting. I grab a piece of pink play dough. I cut it in half… then in half… then in half again. Mariposa glances again. I gently, softly (dramatically) put a tiny pink sphere on top of the green noodle play dough wrapped around my finger.
I made a ring. Yeh. Grown man with a play dough diamond ring around his finger. Later, I sang Beyonce.
I’m staring at this play dough on my hand thinking, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” I look up… it worked. Mariposa is watching. She’s stopped crying. Not because she doesn’t have anymore tears left in the tank but because, for a moment, she’s not scared. Rather this: she’s more intrigued by the glorious ring I have around my finger than her feelings of fright.
I’m watching her reaction. “Wow….that is so cool” she must be thinking. Then “Wait a second!” Mariposa starts screaming again. “Ugh!” I’m thinking in my head. But! It’s a start. And after a couple of days, Mariposa is sitting at my table and I’m showing her how to make rings. She wants to be a princess.
Moral of the Story: Children must feel safe in the classroom.
Some kids walk into the classroom and their fine on the first day: but not all of them. And you can’t tell a child “You don’t have to cry. You’re safe in the classroom.” They have to feel safe.
Before the first day of class, I talked with Mariposa’s mom. She was concerned that Mariposa would have a major breakdown on the first day of class. I asked mom “What is Mariposa’s favorite things or interests” Mom shared that Mariposa loved watching movies with princesses: castles, tiaras, and the big dresses. I said “That’s great to know.” These are tools teacher’s can use to help children attempt to feel safe in the classroom; to help Mariposa feel safe in the classroom.
One of the best things you can do is to bring the child’s interest into the classroom. This helps them feel safe because, amongst all of the foreign, strange, scary things in the classroom, anything familiar will ignite the tiny embers of comfort and safety. There are also other things: a favorite toy, blanket, or jacket. One of the best items I have ever used is letting the child have a picture of their parents. They can clutch and hold onto for the entire day. Believe me! Family pictures have a high success rate.