Being a teacher is truly one of the most essential roles in a child’s development. As they move from childhood to adulthood, a series of significant and necessary changes must happen for them to become healthy, functioning adults. Our job is to be a link in the chain towards this development of higher level thinking and functioning. Parents, siblings, family members, community members, and other caring adults have a role to play in this chain but teachers must recognize their role and act on it.
The human brain is a pretty amazing thing. As we develop and learn, the brain changes, grows, and alters with us. I love to tell my students about “growing synapses”. First, because it makes me sound really smart, but more importantly it encourages them to understand the growth mindset causes ACTUAL GROWTH. In the human brain, small neural pathways form as we learn new things. These pathways carry the electrical impulses throughout the brain that give the world around us meaning. When we learn something new, new synapses are formed connecting new information to existing in our brains. This is why if you learn a new word, suddenly you see it everywhere. The word was always all around you – but you literally had no pathway for the word to connect to meaning. Once you learn it, “POP”, a synapse is born causing a link between new information and what you already knew. Try it…the word canoodling is a verb that means hugging and kissing with someone. Bet you see the word canoodling now in lots of places! 🙂
So, how can you be a link in the chain of development for a child? Here are some important things to keep in mind as you work towards this:
- Recognize the importance of words – A pivotal study was done that examined the number of words between poverty, middle class, and upper middle class homes spoken to children by the age of 5. The gap between children living in poverty and upper middle class homes was nearly 30 million words. This article links this study to the growth mindset. It is a must read! https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/03/the-32-million-word-gap/36856/ In your classroom, value words. Read to them all the time, talk to them all the time, expose them to words all the time! Make the development of language essential in your classroom. Here is Authentic Teaching’s vocabulary contract on Teachers Pay Teachers which supports the use of vocabulary in context. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Vocabulary-Contract-4956632
- Don’t let fluency stop you from developing thinking skills – Fluency in reading and writing is an essential step in developing the foundation skills kids need. However, we must explicitly teach our kids to develop their thinking WHILE teaching fluency.
- I love guided reading groups for this purpose. Guided reading allows students to talk about their thinking in a safe place where there are no right or wrong answers. Check out Authentic Teaching TPT for details. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Small-Group-Novel-Study-Guided-Reading-4836948
- I also find ways around the fluency by using read aloud for non-assessment activities allowing students to access text and demonstrate their THINKING without fluency in the way. Readworks, Storyworks, ActivelyLearn, RAZ kids, and Newsela all have read aloud features to support students.
- Voice typing which is free on most platforms allows students to demonstrate their written thinking skills without their writing fluency stopping them.
- I sometimes have really low and reluctant writers record themselves in a video of their story (Flipgrid is an amazing tool to support this) to get their ideas out. Then, we work to move the story from the video to the page by listening, pausing, and writing each sentence.
3. Explicitly teach higher level thinking – Inferencing and Drawing Conclusion reading skills are the most challenging and essential skills in developing great readers. However, we rarely teach these skills explicitly. Both need to be taught the way we teach a math skill like adding fractions with uncommon denominators – in steps that build on each other. However, we rarely teach the steps to students. Check out these resources on Authentic Teaching TPT on both skills broken down: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Drawing-Conclusions-Flow-chart-4956576 https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Introduction-to-Inferencing-4956564
4. Be aware of the impact of childhood trauma on learning – Brain development is altered by adverse childhood experiences (ACE). It literally CHANGES a child’s brain. Our students that have experienced this childhood trauma learn differently, need different supports, and literally REQUIRE US TO PROVIDE SAFETY, STABILITY, AND FOSTER RESILIENCE. This is an incredibly challenging prospect, but can literally save a child’s life. I was absolutely floored by this article and corresponding study from the CDC/Kaiser Permanente. I encourage you to carefully read this article and study to impact your students who experience trauma. It happens in all socioeconomic groups, in all commmunities, and we must be aware of its devastating impacts on brain development. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean
5. Develop the social skills and behaviors required for their age – Understanding social cues and having the skills to navigate appropriately in the age group they are in is ESSENTIAL for a child. As a teacher, we must create a classroom that has high expectations of behavior in all areas: academic behaviors, emotional behaviors, social behaviors, and personal behaviors. Some students require explicit instruction on these skills to help them develop the self control to demonstrate these behaviors. If we do not teach the appropriate skills and behaviors to our children, we stop them from being able to function in the world. Stop and consider what the student who demonstrates the most appropriate age level behaviors in your classroom does in all areas. Now, start intentionally teaching ALL students in your class how to achieve these behaviors. Just like our academic instruction, we have to differentiate for some students and find alternate ways to help them on this growth.
Being a link in a chain of development is a daunting task. As a teacher, we can often lose sight of the pivotal role we have in our student’s lives. A friend of mine worked for years in high poverty schools. Each year at the end of the year, he would write a letter to each student in his class telling them what he hoped for them, admired in them, and what he celebrated in their growth during the year. He would frame these and give them to his students. Over the years, many students have found him on social media and shared the letters that they kept. They thanked him for being an essential link in the chain of their lives, helping them build resilience to overcome adversity, and for linking the broken parts of their lives with his teaching. We can all strive towards this kind of impact in a child’s life….THAT IS THE REASON WE SHOULD TEACH! Be a link in a chain for every child in your class…somebody’s development depends on it!