When I learned I was moving from grade 7 to Full Day Kindergarten, one of the things I figured would be the most difficult was getting everyone ready to come inside and go outside. Then I learned that my classroom would not have a contained cubby area, instead my students would have to change in the hall and hang their things on hooks. I decided early on that this particular transition was going to be a priority. The strategy I decided to take (and fortunately my ECE felt the same way) was to help the students become as independent as possible as quickly as possible. With that in mind, I decided I wasn’t going to help them at all.
There were some caveats of course:
Caveat #1 – I actually did help them, in a way
From the very first day I made it very clear that I would help my students, but not do things for them. On one of the first cooler days a kid came to me while everyone was getting ready to go outside and just looked at me with the two sides of his zipper in his hands. I looked back at him for a moment until finally he said “My mom always does it for me”, to which I replied “I’m not your mom.” He looked like I just blew his mind, then eventually tried to do up the zipper himself. He couldn’t get it, so I showed him, but at least he tried. The next time he asked I made him try longer before I showed him again, and then next time even longer. It didn’t take very long until he was able to do it by himself, although it was still by no means easy for him. He knew that coming to me would mean just as much work for him, but without the same kind of intrinsic reward.
Caveat #2 – I celebrated every achievement like crazy
Any kind of independent accomplishment was grounds for a compliment. Put your shoes on? Great! The right feet? Amazing! Initially the compliments were much more celebratory. Everything was an amazing achievement that kids could be proud of. After awhile (when the same accomplishments started to become more common) the compliments would change from things like “That’s awesome!” to “Of course you did” or “I knew you could do that”. I found that students actually took more pride in the latter type of compliment, because it spoke more to who they were rather than a thing they’d done.
Caveat #3 – There are always exceptions
Expecting everyone to be able to achieve the same level of success, especially in a range of abilities as diverse as a kindergarten class is ridiculous. I have a few students who are too short to reach the boots they throw onto a shelf. Every time they can’t reach the boots I remind them not to throw them because this will happen, but of course I am going to get the boots down for them. Other kids have jackets with shoddy zippers that are difficult even for me. I’m not going to force those kids to struggle with a stuck zipper when I know they won’t be able to do it.
I have another student who just can’t handle all of the excitement that goes with getting ready to go outside. Everyone grabbing their things, and having to sort out his own things are just way too much for him to handle. While everyone else gets ready in the hallway, that student stays inside the classroom, and I throw one piece of outdoor clothing to him at a time.
Caveat #4 – All of this takes a long time
Knowing how much I was going to ask students to try everything, and how much longer it would take them to do things meant I had to dedicate a lot of time to these transitions. Expecting everyone to be done in a short time would not only be unrealistic, but would also add pressure and stress to the situation. On the few occasions where an assembly or other event meant that we had a much shorter time to get ready I didn’t make students persevere in the same way. They instances are seldom enough that I’m not worried about giving students an inconsistent message, and they also greatly change priorities. It is very important that a student practice independent skills, but more important that they don’t miss the bus.
Recently, due to a weather related day or extremely low attendance, my class was combined with another k class. When it came time for them to get ready to go home I was able to see the benefit of this strategy. My students were able to get themselves ready to go with almost no support from an adult, where the other class had several students lining up to get zippers zipped and scarves tied. Of course that class has a completely different set of circumstances, so I’m not trying to compare my strategy to that of their teacher, but overall the experience left me feeling very confident in my students’ independent ability moving forward.