Changing School Relationships

A 4s parent approached me one December, worried that her child was not feeling connected at school.  I thought about the child—playing out complex stories with groups of children, saving a seat for a friend at lunch, knowing who was there each day and who was absent—and asked the parent to tell me more.  “He doesn’t talk about the teachers at all.  He doesn’t even remember your names. Last year, he ran to hug his teachers as soon as he got to school and came home every day talking about his small group teacher.”  As we talked, we realized that her child was very connected at school—to his peers—whereas he’d been very connected to the teachers last year.

While every individual and every circumstance is different, the changing importance of various school relationships can come as a surprise to parents as their child matures and gains school experience.  This isn’t something we plan for or try to create, but a pattern we’ve noticed.

The 2s class, for many parents, is the first time they’ve entrusted their child to anyone outside of their family, the first time their child has been alone with a group of children their own age.  At this stage, the most important school relationship—the one that’s a bit different at this age than later on—is the one between the parent and the teacher.  Through talking with the teachers, watching and listening to how the teachers interact with their child and the other children, and seeing that all of the children are loved, respected, and cared for, parents develop a level of trust in the teachers.  At the same time, teachers gain valuable information and insight into the child from their parents.  Teachers help parents and children negotiate the other developmental advancements that happen at this age:  separation, budding independence, toileting, self-help skills, awareness of self and others.  When parents trust the teachers and know that their child’s needs will be met, children are in turn more ready to trust that teachers will take care of them until their parents comes back.  In this way, the teacher-child relationship is also strengthened.

That teacher-child relationship often becomes even closer during the 3s class.  Many children look for a particular teacher when they enter the room, talk about the teachers at home, or look for a certain teacher when they need help.  My own child worked for months to say the “L” sound in “Lisa”—his small group teacher in the 3s—because she was so important to him.  By this point, parents are sometimes ready to trust the teachers after just a few interactions, though sometimes it takes longer especially if this is their child’s first school experience.  Children notice each other and sometimes play near or with each other, but these interactions are often based on similar interests—we’re playing together because we both want the trains, not necessarily because we want to be friends.  What’s important to many children at this point is knowing that the teachers notice them, like them, and will help them.

Then comes the 4s when, for many children—especially later in the year—teachers become irrelevant.  It’s all about peer relationships.  Kids who went home telling their parents every detail of what Molly or Gudrun said in the 3s, now might not be sure of their teachers’ names.  Some children wait for their friend to arrive before they’re ready to play.  Children develop methods to entice other children into their play—offering a prized prop or role to their friend.  They learn that sometimes they have to adapt their own ideas to incorporate the ideas of a friend if they want that friend to play.  The challenges of friendship also come up with 4s and 5s:  teasing, exclusionary play, jockeying for power within a group, negotiating how to have more than one friend.   They may call us all “teacher” for months (or all year!) but are often quick to learn the names of the children they play with regularly and ask for playdates outside of school.  Children and parents who are new to school in the 4s may need some time to develop trust, and some people just naturally take more time to feel comfortable.  But eventually, and with support as needed, children’s drive to be social gives them the incentive to take the leap and make a connection.

Of course, everyone—parent, child, teacher—has their own style and their own level of comfort with different types of relationships.  Some people need to establish trust each year with each new set of teachers, or may take a little longer to build friendships with peers.  And of course all relationships are important.  But knowing the general patterns ahead of time might help you understand your own experiences as your child moves through SYC.

…Susan Roscigno, SYC Co-Director