When children begin nursery school or any early group experience that entails separation from a parent or caregiver, the issue of separation itself often predominates for both parents and teachers. Inaccurate judgements are made at times of both children and parents on the basis of responses of each to this issue.
There is often too little awareness of the challenges confronting children in their first experiences of group participation and hopefully, learning in and from a group. We tend to think in terms of the positive aspects for children of group participation, primarily opportunities for socialization and play. But for a group to serve such a purpose, children first have to feel comfortable in such a setting.
What does that require? First it means forming a relationship with a new adult and learning that this person can be trusted to respond to their needs. Most children are cared for by a primary caregiver even if not a parent. Usually, the caregiver is someone they have known over time and even if caring for a number of children are able to respond on an individual basis to a given child. In a group, children may be required to wait longer for the attention they need or wish.
The waiting required for attention or for one’s turn, a measure of frustration tolerance, is a developmental step the achievement of which varies considerably from child to child. The same is true of impulse control, which means the ability to hold in check the behavior arising from feelings of frustration or impatience. Children’s reaction to separation from a caregiver is often a measure of how secure they feel about the ability to control negative behavior in the absence of a known adult.
Beyond the ability of individual children to master the behavior required for functioning in a group, other factors come into play in creating an environment in which children can enjoy learning. One of these factors is the interaction between children and whether such interaction serves or disrupts group functioning. In this regard, one can see the role of both individual children and teachers themselves.
Some children by nature seem to have leadership qualities and seem to draw the interest of other children. They have good ideas when participating in activities – often innovative in nature. When teachers use this to serve the purpose of the activity, the group is well served. On the other hand, if a teacher is too invested in her own agenda to incorporate a new idea, the result can often be disruptive.
At other times, individual children may engage in behavior that draws other children away from the group in a way that defeats a teacher’s plan. This can happen when the behavior of the individual child seems more interesting than that being offered by the teacher. Experienced teachers may see this as a need to move into a new activity for all. But this may also be an ongoing issue for a given child, requiring thought as to how best to understand and approach the behavior of that child.
At times, there are intangibles that come into play enabling some groups to function more successfully than others. One group observed many times, presented such a puzzle. Although led by an experienced teacher, an observer did not have a sense of group cohesion but rather a collection of individual children. While some of the children did present individual issues that were challenging, and for the most part children were all participating in activities, they did not seem connected to each other or to a group as a whole.
At a certain point, the assistant teacher left and was replaced by a different assistant. What followed was striking. Gradually, individual children drifted over to this teacher until there was a cluster of children around her, interacting with her and with each other in the activity. For the first time, it felt like a group. Obviously, there was something in this teacher’s manner that drew children to her, in the same way that individual children draw other children to them. She was filling some need for these children that was not being filled earlier.
Perhaps this is the undefinable something that creates the most talented and successful teachers, and speaks to the ongoing discussion in education as to whether it is an ability that can be taught.