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Every child in your class is unique. Each child grew up in a unique environment, which has moulded them, and has been teaching them how to live and relate to others since they were born. They may not have experienced any other environment until the day they start school.
So, going to school is a massive step for a young child. It may be the first time they leave their home to go to a place they don't know, to be cared for by people they don't know.
Despite this, some children love going to school and seem happy throughout the day as they play, explore and learn with you. They are the easy-going children who pay attention in class, are helpful, and engage in the activities you propose: these children have probably developed a secure attachment with the adults who take care of them at home.
Other children, however, cry or have tantrums when they arrive at school. It’s difficult to soothe them, they misbehave, they disobey the rules, they don't pay attention and they refuse to participate in class activities. It can be hard to teach children like this, and you may find yourself thinking, ‘What am I going to do with these children?’
The first thing we need to remember is that children we think are ‘unteachable’ are very likely to be experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. Children with insecure attachments may feel scared at school because they have grown up feeling the need to be on constant alert in order to survive. They have become accustomed to activating their flight or freeze response because their basic needs — nutrition, health care, sleep, and emotional safety — were met inconsistently or were not met at all. They may have grown up feeling failure and shame.
These children may have grown up feeling that they were not loved.
And so, while it might seem as if they are being willfully disobedient, and it might be tempting to conclude that they are ‘unteachable’, in fact their behaviour might be an important signal that they desperately need affection.
They need affection!
What can we do?
Pay attention to their needs and help them reduce their stress and anxiety, creating emotionally supportive learning experiences that can help them build their confidence in themselves, you, and the environment around them!
Notice the positive behaviors and praise them! Be the person they need! Children tell themselves stories that influence their self-concept every day — and these stories are shaped by the people around them, and their beliefs about those children.
Plan various activities in which all your student's needs are met. This will make everybody feel capable, and help to boost their confidence.
Remember, we plan for ALL because we teach them ALL!
Sit your students in small groups so you can monitor their learning process and help those who struggle, but also allow those who struggle to learn from others by copying what they do. This has a double benefit. Those who already understand the task can teach it to those who haven't. As they teach the others, they reaffirm what they have learned and will not forget the information because they have already made it theirs. And the ones that struggle will benefit because a peer will explain what to do, and they may feel more comfortable asking a peer for help than asking the teacher.
Then, when you give instructions for a task, ask all the children to do it. Model it, step by step, and have them do it to help reduce mistakes. If they make a mistake, help them find the error by themselves. Have them correct it and then praise them.
And if you need to correct a behavior, do it with love and keep calm! Remember, the children's nervous system interacts with the nervous system of the adult caring for them. So, if we are relaxed and know how to self-regulate, it will help the children to calm down.
What can we do?
First, give them the words they need to describe their feelings, which will help them the next time they feel that way.
"I see you are feeling angry.
Then, have them say, and point to, where in their body they feel that emotion:
"Where in your body do you feel angry?"
Next, offer some support to help them calm down, as you also model what you’re asking them to do:
"Put your hand on your heart. Can you feel how fast it's beating? Now let's breathe together in and out slowly. Can you feel your heart beating more slowly now?"
Finally, after they calm down, ask them to explain what happened and help them to find a solution.
Children must learn to relax their bodies first to calm their minds.
You could also read to them or have them read stories that model the behavior you expect from them. Children will learn by noticing how the characters solve problems in situations similar to those the children have at school or in their everyday lives.
If, after doing all of the above, there is a child who is still struggling to thrive at school and not making any progress, tell your coordinator, the principal, or the school counselor so that they can do what is needed to find the problem and get a solution to help the child. The sooner, the better!
By considering your students' needs, you're teaching your students with love. And when children feel loved and safe, they feel happy and motivated to learn. It doesn't matter what environment they come from. You can create a positive environment for them at school and change their lives!
Cozolino, L. J. (2013). The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and learning in the classroom. W.W. Norton & Company.
Ijzendoorn, M. H. V., Schuengel, C., & Bakermans–Kranenburg, M. J. (1999, June 1). Disorganized attachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, andsequelae: Development and psychopathology. Cambridge Core. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/development-and-psychopathology/article/abs/disorganized-attachment-in-early-childhood-metaanalysis-of-precursors-concomitants-and-sequelae/87A710EAEC0C4167E02811B62CB284CF
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing Mind. Bantam Books.
Spruit, A., Goos, L., Weenink, N., Rodenburg, R., Niemeyer, H., Stams, G. J., & Colonnesi, C. (2019, August 7). The relation between attachment and depression in children and adolescents: A multilevel meta-analysis - clinical child and Family Psychology Review. SpringerLink. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10567-019-00299-9#:~:text=In%20the%20general%20population%2C%2062,%2C%20and%20disorganized%20(15%25).