Having observed children in groups for many years, I am continually impressed by their individual differences. One of the results of placing children in group settings at younger and younger ages is a tendency to think of them as being in school. That mindset leads to expectations about behavior that may not be appropriate for very young children, which makes it even more important that we focus on children as individuals.
Children in groups usually means group activities, which calls attention to the question of how and when individual children participate in those activities. Often, teachers and parents see participation as meaning doing what everyone else is doing – or at least what the teacher expects everyone to be doing. But that implies that everyone is the same, and learns in the same way.
Observing children, I have found that there are watchers and do-ers. Some children learn by watching, some by doing. Those who watch may look as though they are not participating, but they are. They are learning by being attentive to everything that is going on and taking it all in. At the point at which they feel confident about having mastered the situation, they join in more actively, leading adults to conclude that they have just started to participate.
Do-ers on the other hand, throw themselves into an activity often without any idea of what is expected. They enjoy doing – no matter what it is that is going on. They are unperturbed if they are doing something differently than everyone else. At times, what they are doing seems interesting and other children may start to follow them. At other times, it may seem to be a distraction.
Unfortunately, value judgments are too often made in which the doing mode seems more desirable than watching. Doing is considered better than watching for some reason. Actually, they are both learning styles which may play out differently developmentally. In later learning the watchers may take longer to master something but are then consistent in that mastery. Doing, on the other hand, at times may reflect a certain impulsivity that in some situations can get in the way of learning.
In the same way, the reverse can also be true in that some things may be mastered more effectively by doing instead of watching. In any case, they are both styles of learning which usually reflect other aspects of a child’s personality. It is important to recognize that about your own child so that as a parent you can support the way your child learns without thinking of it as a liability.
In a discussion about this, several parents described their children as cautious in new situations, which makes it seem as though they are non-participants in the group activity. They find this frustrating because it seems like a lack of confidence and is so different from the way the children are at home. But to be cautious in new situations is certainly appropriate. Children often are adjusting to multiple settings in new environments, new adults, new children and different expectations from those at home.
At times the same kind of judgments are made about children’s social behavior in groups. Parents too often are concerned about children being “shy,” when they seem to join in more hesitantly than others. Some parents identify with this behavior and think of it as having been a liability in their own lives that they want to correct in their child. They forget that socializing with others also mean mastery of numerous steps in development, such as impulse control, sharing and frustration tolerance. Young children need time to feel secure about their mastery of these steps in new situations.
Knowing and respecting who children are, and how they learn as individuals, enables them to become successful learning in a group, which being in school requires.