Today’s post comes to us from good friend and colleague, Kristen Vincent. To learn more about Kristen and her work, check out her bio at the end of this post!
Many teachers and families are wrapping up the fall season of back-to-school nights, open house events, curriculum evenings, and parent-teacher conferences. As a parent of a fifth grader, I recently attended an open house night. I was struck by how many times I heard the words “… to prepare your students for sixth grade…” and “To get them ready for sixth grade…” On the sidelines and in the grocery store, I’ve also heard parents commenting on the start of the school year by saying things like, “I hope she’ll be ready for middle school,” and “I don’t know if he’s getting enough homework this year. How will he be prepared for next year?”
When educators have the mindset that their role is to prepare students for the following school year, they are inadvertently dismissing the importance of the significant teaching and learning that will take place during the current school year. Focusing attention on the grade ahead can lead teachers to see missing skills and wide gaps in knowledge in their students instead of seeing the small successes and accomplishments taking place right now. Teachers thinking about the next grade might also feel pressured to give students work that is too difficult, giving seventh grade work in sixth grade, for example.
When parents repeatedly look ahead to the next grade, it can create anxiety and fear because they see that their child is not ready. Of course they are not ready – they shouldn’t be! They are not going to be in that grade for an entire year. Students can be ready for the next grade by participating in the learning that is appropriate for their current grade level.
Both parents and teachers seem to be focusing their attention on looking ahead to the next grade. However, we can take small steps to change this mindset. Here are three strategies for teachers and parents to help keep the focus on the current school year and to stop looking ahead:
1. Clearly communicate a shift in mindset and expectations.
- Communicate to students and parents that you are going to teach what the students need to know for this current school year. Share grade-level expectations and curriculum content. When communicating with parents, try saying things such as, “This year, your children will learn….” Or “By the end of second grade, the expectations are….”
- At the start of the school year, focus on teaching your students the skills, routines and procedures that are needed for success during this school year. Taking time to model and practice social and emotional skills and academic routines at the start of the school year says that you do not expect your students to have mastered these yet.
- To help build this new mindset among colleagues, avoid placing pressure on the teachers in the grade below to have the students “ready” for your grade level the following year. Instead, communicate to the teachers who are sending you students that you expect them to have taught what is appropriate and expected for the grade level they teach. You can take it from there.
- Consider asking your children’s teachers things like, “What skills and knowledge can I expect my child to know by the end of the year?” or “What do you expect from your students this year?”
2. Get to know children developmentally.
Teachers and parents:
- Looking at the current developmental characteristics of your students can help you avoid looking ahead. Use resources such as Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14, by Chip Wood, to learn about child growth and development at each age.
- Here are some questions to consider: How old are the children in this current grade level right now? What are the developmental characteristics for this age that might have an impact on teaching and learning during the first half of the school year? As birthdays come and go during the school year, what might be changing developmentally? Answering these questions can help focus your attention on who these children are right now.
3. Celebrate the accomplishments that are happening now.
- Your students have grown so much since the start of the school year! They have already learned some new content and have increased their skill level in many areas. Celebrate these small successes!
- Set small goals with students and then celebrate when they are achieved. Look back at work from the beginning of the school year to compare with the growth that has already taken place.
- Share these small achievements with parents to communicate a focus on what’s happening now in the classroom.
- Ask your children what they are learning in school, and notice when they are able to do something that they couldn’t accomplish independently a few weeks or months ago.
- Consider saying things to your child such as, “Your writing is more descriptive than it was at the start of the school year.” Or “You couldn’t solve math problems like that in September!”
Children benefit when teachers and parents stop looking ahead and focus attention on the positive changes and incredible learning that’s taking place right now. When both home and school environments are focused on the current grade level curriculum and the developmentally appropriate social and emotional skills for that age range, an optimal learning environment can be fostered.