Advice for working with children?
March 20, 2018 3:43 PM   Subscribe

I will soon be working in elementary schools. I have very little experience with children in this age range. Please advise?

I'm going to be substituting - mostly as an educational assistant, sometimes in special ed classrooms, and as a "noon assistant" (I think we called this a playground monitor when I was in school).

Got any advice? tips? things to keep in mind? recommended reading?

Also seeking: Some articles/essays I can read to help calibrate my expectations for these roles, since I haven't seen them in more than a decade, or from this end of things (or at all, in the case of special ed assistant).
posted by sibilatorix to Work & Money (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I will honestly tell you that I learned two things about this from elementary school teachers who moved on to the office world. The prior third grade teacher said that it was the last year where the kids were still respectful and sweet; after that the peer pressure went off the charts and it was like roving gangs.
The prior second grade teacher always said she learned to wear clothing that was easy to toss in the washing machine because even seven year olds are not quite entirely proficient in preventing the escape of body fluids from either end, and it happened almost daily, usually without warning. And if one goes, all go. They were totally serious.

Hopefully the other suggestions will offer more constructive tips on proactive educational approaches, but I thought this might be useful knowledge. Good luck!
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:06 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh my goodness I have so much to say about this topic. (Child mental health therapist for 8.5 years, I see kids ages 2-10.) I'm going to try not to go bananas. If you have more specific questions and want to memail me for my email I'm happy to talk more!

Overall things I'd keep in mind:

- Often adults have unrealistic expectations of where a child's development "should" be at different ages, but are expecting things of children that kids just aren't able to do developmentally. I hugely recommend reading over some information about child development, and familiarize yourself especially with things about social-emotional development and self-regulation skills. Adults often think that children should be further along when really whatever the kid is doing is totally age-appropriate.

A really good book on child development is The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland - it's written for parents but so good that my grad professor used it as the text for child development. I also love T. Berry Brazelton's Touchpoints series about development.

- Children are PEOPLE - if they're doing something wrong or inappropriate, it could be for literally hundreds of reasons rather than "just because they can" or "defiance" or "trying to be naughty." Please, please remember that many of the children that you're going to end up being in a position of power over have experienced one or more ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the impact of experiencing trauma often globally affects a child and their ability to regulate themselves. I have a lot of teachers, school counselors, etc, who still don't realize that the child they're so irritated with is having a really tough time because they're trying to process and integrate trauma along with all of the other tasks of childhood.

Please consider reading up on trauma-informed responses to children - something like 40% of any given classroom has experienced more than one adverse childhood experience.

I'd also really recommend having a passing knowledge of the states of the nervous system and how being in fight-flight or a collapse state impacts our presentation and behavior.

Some specific resouces I've given to folks who work at schools:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network Facts for Educators

Trauma Toolkit for Educators

Dan Siegel explaining the Hand Model of the brain and how it works

Trauma Informed Support for Children - "What Do I Do?"

Schools that Separate the Child from the Trauma

How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classroom (Good tips for staff)

Ages & Stages (fact sheets on child development)
posted by fairlynearlyready at 4:16 PM on March 20, 2018 [37 favorites]

I am an instructional aide at a K-5!! One of the first bits of advice I would give you is to not be surprised at the way kids move in classrooms anymore.

A lot of them have flexible seating; a lot have IEPs that allow movement and alternative seating (balls, saucer chairs, etc.,) Most of them do NOT have desks in perfect, parallel rows all facing the same direction anymore. There is simply more movement around the room than when you were last in an elementary school. I found it really hard to figure out where the line between "I need to step in and help correct this" and "this is how this classroom runs" at first.

You will learn quickly which children are difficult (for whatever reason. Sometimes kids have disorders; sometimes they're just jerks.) Keep an eye on them on the playground, learn what works to redirect them (do they not want to clip down? do they not want to stand on line? do they not want their teacher to find out?) but also try to head them off at the pass. Chat with them; walk with them, subtly guide them toward the swings instead of the kickball game.

Even the kids who drive you crazy, or the kids you personally dislike, deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity. And I've found that greeting them in the halls, with their names, asking how they are, asking about the things that interest them, makes it easier work with them in other situations. They may be difficult children, but first and foremost, they are children.

Conversely, be careful not to let the kids you like get away with murder. It's easy to spoil the kids you like because, well, you like them. But they need structure and consistency, too! This is especially important when you're working with kids who have IEPs or 504s-- their accommodations already look different and to some kids, they look like privileges. It's important that everyone understand that IEP and 504 supports are accommodations, not privileges!

Check in with teachers when/if they ask you to work with a student one on one. You don't want to confuse them by showing them a different process than the one they're learning. For example, mathematics language has changed considerably in the last twenty years. We don't borrow or carry anymore; we regroup. We use strategies (different ways to get the same answer). We write number sentences (equations). We tap up (physical tapping to count up by intervals; ie, learning multiplication tables.) There are so. many. number lines. Social Studies has changed in its presentation in a lot of ways; Language Arts is mostly the same, but they use many more rubrics than they used to.

On the playground... well, it's just like a prison yard. If there is a sudden gathering in one place, go check it out. Likewise for a sudden explosion of noise. Groups and yelling are almost always *something* going on.

Help people take turns; do this for all kids. The 5th graders who need vestibular stimulation and need time on the swings don't also need to be singled out. Everybody swings for 6 minutes, and then we move on.

If kids are squabbling about the rules of a game, unless it's actively harmful (no girls allowed, for example,) stay out of it. You're not there to be a referee or a judge. You're there to keep them safe.

Also, don't argue with them about the facts of an event. Try to be direct and specific. If you say "no tackling," they'll argue they weren't tackling, they just grabbed their arm and then they all fell. So instead, go with "Touch only, on the arm or shoulder. Otherwise, keep your body to yourself."

Do not be surprised if you get bitten, punched or spat on by students. But also don't be surprised if kids you can't even remember interacting with wave at you or give you hugs. Make sure you know the rules for escalation, and make sure you use them appropriately. (Stand on a line, clip up, sit in the hallway, visit the dean, etc..) You have to be confident in your authority or they will eat you to death.

I hope this helped, at all. Good luck and try to have fun!
posted by headspace at 4:16 PM on March 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

Oh!! And two tips I got from vets when I came to the school:

1) Don't wear anything around your neck that could be used to choke you or pull you (and avoid dangling earrings, as well.)

2) If a kid has gotten wound up and beyond the point of reason about something, or if you just need to derail them from a particular line of thinking, tell them, "I had Chinese food for dinner last night." I have no idea why this works, but 9 times out of 10, the kid will either ask you about the food you had, or start telling you about their favorite Chinese food.
posted by headspace at 4:22 PM on March 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

Child development and theory are good to know (of course!) but honestly what I've always found to be the most helpful is watching the veterans work with the kids. You can learn a lot from seasoned professionals, and there's a lot of stuff that happens in the moment that you just can't get out of a book. Do you know parents with similar-aged children? Talk to them. Visit if you can, and just see how their day goes. Obviously school is different, but it helps to see those dynamics unfold without the pressure of being "on the job."

Do you have an opportunity to observe at the school before you start? I'd do that first, so you can get a lay of the land before you officially start.

They'll test you. Be prepared for that. Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. You sound like a nice person... be prepared for some kids to try to exploit that to get their way. That's just what kids do when they test you. Don't let the cuteness fool you - some kids are way more sophisticated than you think when it comes to social stuff. I say this from experience - it was really hard for me to hold some of them accountable, but it's really important to set boundaries. I noticed that they respected the men much more than me - and I had to adjust accordingly and set boundaries to show I wasn't a pushover.
posted by onecircleaday at 4:29 PM on March 20, 2018

Kids dont have long attention spans with respect to stuff they are not interested in. Don't be surprised if you have to give the same instruction over and over.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:12 PM on March 20, 2018

Try to establish positive relationships with the classroom teachers whose rooms you are working in or students you are working with. Introduce yourself, demonstrate curiosity and commitment, give them an opportunity to see that you're a bright, motivated, thoughtful, competent person who has an inquiring mind. Ask clarifying questions if you're not 100% sure how to do something or what the teacher's expectations are, and be proactive but don't offer unwanted advice. Observe the style, the strategies and verbiage around the strategies, and the behavior system/cues that the classroom teachers use, and incorporate that into your interactions with the students.

I don't know if your goal is to eventually have a full-time, permanent assistant job, but teachers notice the heck out of assistants or subs who demonstrate the behavior listed above, and will be very appreciative and vocal about singing your praises to administration if you want to go down that road.

If you encounter behavioral issues at recess, lunch or any time not in the classroom, try to deal with it then and there. Assistants who let behavior problems slide or who hand them off to the classroom teacher to deal with after the fact are not looked upon kindly. Find out if the school has an official behavior system or progression of consequences, and a reporting system for bullying or other particular incidents.

Find out if you're allowed to give out small tokens of positive reinforcement like the occasional sticker or piece of fruit (if food is allowed at your school - check the allergy policy first!). You'd be surprised at how far a compliment based on a positive behavior that you observed followed by a little sticker or a clementine will go. Also, do your best to be firm but maintain a low-key, positive affect with the students. Gently poking fun at them can be a lot more effective than raising your voice, and you definitely don't want to ever yell at students.

Elementary age kids can be great fun. Just remember that they're just very small, very weird new humans.
posted by the thought-fox at 5:35 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Find out ahead of time what the rules /behavior guidelines are, as well as the consequences. You want to be consistent from the beginning, and you want to feel confident when you need to remind kids of guidelines and when you need to deliver consequences. You also want to avoid being played when kids try to tell you that you’re wrong!
Good luck and have fun!
posted by bookmammal at 5:42 PM on March 20, 2018

I've done exactly what you're describing--substitute educational assistant, often in sped classrooms--and wanted to add that you should be aware that different teachers will have wildly different expectations for you. I've had some long-term placements where teachers would solicit my thoughts on lesson plans and adaptations, etc, and I've had others where I did setup/cleanup/bathroom runs, and almost nothing else.

Find out ahead of time if you're expected to physically intervene, and under what circumstances--I've gotten in trouble both for assuming that I should, and assuming that I shouldn't. Different schools within the same district can have different policies about it.

Also, buy cheap, comfortable shoes, washable if possible. I wore closed-toe crocs every day and I don't regret it, because it meant that when my shoes got splashed with vomit or whatever, I could just hose them down.
posted by mishafletch at 9:19 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I teach 2nd grade and in the pas have taught 4th and 5th grade! All of the advice is pretty great so far, and I would also make sure to try to make personal connections with as many students as you can, especially if you see them over and over. Kids are people and people like it when they feel apart of a community.

It's also really important if you are working on the yard to try to keep an eye on as many students as possible (don't get pulled into chatting with other adults on the yard) and be as consistent with consequences as possible. At my current school the yard staff are well respected by the students because they follow through on consequences and get to know the kids individually. At my previous schools the yard staff was not respected by students because they did not try to get to know any kids and were not fair or consistent with consequences, so none of my students could trust the adults to help them solve problems.
posted by ruhroh at 9:54 PM on March 20, 2018

Teaching veteran here. Remember that kids want to do the right thing and they ALL want to be liked. A smile and a friendly manner cost nothing but can completely change the educational experience of a child. Let every child know that you appreciate them.

It's just as easy to create a culture of friendliness, positivity and inclusion with kids as it is to create a culture of fear and anger.

When working academically, praise the process, not the product. If a kid didn't finish their spelling, point out that they wrote 3 words and that's awesome. Teachers have a tendency to close the barn door on unfinished work and that really wears kids down. If there's a kid who rarely finishes work, cross out half and have them do that instead. In other words, be cognizant of abilities and modify for success.

Learn the power of the word "yet":

Kid: I can't do this math.
You: You don't know all the steps to solve this problem yet. Talk me through this! When people verbally discuss their process, you can see the lightbulbs go on--it's a magical moment.

One of the most important things you can do is to talk kids up to other staff members. You will be shocked at the ways some teachers and staffers discuss kids. Do not be one of those people. Try to only mention the good things and model positive talk. You will quickly discover the negative staff members; avoid them.

You may work with teachers whose styles rub you the wrong way and that can be tricky. Teachers generally do not get much feedback about their classroom management (or anything else), and while it can super tempting to step in and give your opinion, teachers are not likely to listen to you. So tread carefully and remember to be as positive as you can.

The most important thing is getting comfortable shoes, no joke.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:27 AM on March 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

I used to manage substitute teachers aids, lunch time helpers and teachers in a large primary school for some 8 years. Some of the subs only had previous experience in secondary schools.
The ones who were most successful were those who were flexible of mind, could adapt well to the very different teaching styles of each teacher and made themselves familiar with all the spoken and unspoken rules of the school.

I think the successful ones (those the teachers requested from me by name) just had a mindframe that let them accept what they found: detailed notes or no notes at all, messy class rooms, tidy organised class rooms, and met the various expectations with calm acceptance - some teachers viewed the aids as tea ladies (literally to brew tea for teacher...) and cleaners, cleaning up after the children, others entrusted them with more interesting tasks.

Nthing also the advice to be prepared for bodily fluids of all types. Waer washable clothes, and put your hair in such a way it cannot get sullied, and leave the jewellery at home. Consider where to leave your mobile phone during class time, where I worked it was an absolute no no to asnwer during class time, but no lockers were provided.
Be punctual, reliable and give feedback to the secretary who books you.
posted by 15L06 at 6:54 AM on March 21, 2018

« Older Beautiful cabin or cabin-motel outside of Bay Area   |   Rectangles just taste better Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.