There’s a lot we can do to make sure our kids are ready when they first go to school, but are we preparing them in all the ways they need?
This is the question I asked myself a couple of months ago when I sent my son to school for the first time.
I enrolled him in a great little community school down the street from us. I wasn’t sure what it would be like for him. Aside from the academics, would he be prepared? How would he be treated? How would he treat others? What kind of classmate will he be?
Even though I’ve tried my hardest to teach him to be kind and compassionate, I really didn’t know if it would transfer over to school.
I worried about new behaviors he’d see, possibly feeling left out, and the million other things mothers worry about when sending their little ones out the door for the first time. Working at his school already, I knew he’d have classmates who are facing the heartache of being homeless or highly mobile, whose families have been torn apart from immigration disputes and others who have traveled the world over to finally get to a safe place. War and poverty have set foot in many of their young lives already and many of their backgrounds would be different than my son’s. Some of his classmates would be looking to school to provide stability that their lives otherwise lack. How will my son be towards them?
And what if the negative effects that these hardships have on the lives of his sweet little classmates would unintentionally ripple into my son’s life in a not-so-good way? Or what if he’s not kind to everyone? I know how important it is for all these kids to experience kindness.
For all kids.
I was tempted to send him somewhere else. Somewhere where it might be easier to be…you know…nice.
I’m ashamed to even write those words.
In the end, I settled on keeping him at the little school down the street. Rather than seeing school as a place to protect my son from those rippling affects (which I realized are found at every school, everywhere, for different reasons), I decided I’d rather equip my son to be a caring classmate to everyone. There’s no way he’ll ever understand the depth of some of their hardships, he doesn’t need to at such a young age, but I do believe I can help him to be caring towards this tight-knit group of kids that he’ll spend each day with for the next nine months.
I want my son to learn to interact positively with all his classmates. Sending him to a suburban or private school wouldn’t change the fact that compassion is greatly needed in any classroom he’ll end up in. There are a million reasons that classmates struggle and heaven knows there will be days when my son will need compassion extended to him.
We all need compassion and school is the place our kids need to practice it. And parents and teachers need to support this.
Merriam-Webster defines compassion as sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it. So how does this makes sense for our young, elementary aged kids? I believe it’s the ability for our children to see all their classmates as good kids – sometimes having hard days, sometimes having good days, but always working together, supporting each other and celebrating everyone’s successes.
Basically, it’s kindness. It’s caring. It’s empathy. It’s looking out for each other. Giving each other a chance to succeed and to be part of the group no matter what kind of day they are having.
So, as parents, what can we do to prepare our kids to be compassionate, kind and caring classmates that take into consideration the feelings of others? The following list comes from being a parent and a teacher. It’s what I try to do with my son, and what I look for parents to do at home to support my students. It’s a small list, one worth growing, but it’s a start. And it’s a list I’d love for you to add to.
1. Ask your child the right questions at the end of the school day. Take the “How was your day?” question a step further and ask your child some questions that get them thinking about the their classmates’ feelings.
“Did anything happen at school today to make any of your classmates happy?”
“Did anything happen to make any of your classmates sad? Mad?”
“Did anyone need some cheering up today?”
“Did anyone help you with anything today?”
2. Don’t force your child to be friends with everyone. But do teach them to be kind to classmates. My son gets nervous around aggressive personalities. He has a classmate that he has chosen not to be friends with for this reason, but I do want him to learn how to be kind to him and even play with him when he is making good choices. Demanding that he be friends with everyone will not address the real issue. While my son should be able to choose his friends, he cannot choose his classmates.
3. Avoid using the terms “good kids” and “bad kids.” Instead, focus on the child’s behavior. Talk about choices as being good or bad. Helping your child see classmates as inherently good will help them be more open to these kids when they are making good choices. Again, they don’t need to be friends with them, but they should be aware that even the kid they consider naughty really does want to do well. We don’t want to label kids as bullies or naughty, especially at such a young age when kids are developing a deeper understanding of their character.
4. Encourage your child to be open to those he may not normally be open to. Demonstration of tolerance, compassion and respect for others starts at home, so make sure your child sees this in your life. It’s never too late to start, even if you just start by chatting with someone in the grocery store line or plan a playdate with someone new. Most teachers will encourage this in their class, but sharing this value at home will reinforce what your child is practicing at school.
5. Respond to your child’s desires to help others. In our family this means I sometimes need to drive home, let my son grab money from his piggy bank, then go around the block again to the man standing on the corner with a sign just so he can give the man his nickel when I’d otherwise have driven by. Whoever said compassion is convenient? I believe our little ones are compassionate by nature, so we can’t allow our grown up agendas to hinder them from practicing this.
6. Know your child’s school. Many schools have created a culture of compassion and equity. Parents have the right to know what the school is doing to promote positive school wide culture and your input is welcomed. I strongly believe the more we believe all kids are good, the more they realize it themselves- but this takes intention to implement and schools need to support this.
7. Make laughing at others an absolute no-no. A simple laugh, whether intentional or not, can break another student down when it wasn’t invited. I think it’s sometimes in our nature to laugh at inappropriate times (I totally get this), but this is a good one to nip in the bud before sending your little one off to school. As a teacher I can always tell when parents have helped their child navigate the difference between laughing at and laughing with someone.
8. Make sure your child knows who to go to for help. Encourage your child to talk to their teacher if they are struggling with a classmate. The days of being in trouble for tattling are over. We want our kids to feel comfortable talking to someone about any difficult encounters they have so there can be an open dialogue and resolution. We don’t want our kids ignoring or excusing bad behaviors, we want them to know we are here to help them respond in a healthy way, often times through adult or peer mediation. At this age our kids are depending on us to help them navigate their relationships, so make sure they know who they can go to at school.
9. Demonstrate compassion in your own life. This goes without saying. You are the most important example that your child has. The way you talk about others, treat others and interact with people will undoubtedly shape the way your child treats others. You are your child’s first teacher. They say that children will treat the world the way they’ve been treated, which is why I make sure I extend compassion and kindness to my son first of all.
While this isn’t a formula for creating the perfect classmate, I do think that the more intentional we are in supporting our kids in this the more it carries over into the classroom. Even if it doesn’t seem like they are listening to you at home, it does make a difference at school.
The other night at dinner I asked my son how a student in his class did that day, knowing that my son typically didn’t like to play with this boy.
I expected him to tell me the he was not doing a good job, but instead his eyes lit up.
Mommy, he had a good day!
His voice carried a tone of shock. Maybe even confusion.
Then, with his little knees bobbing back and forth, he started to stand in his chair, threw his hands up and exclaimed louder than before…
Mommy, he did so good today! It was, like, the best day he’s ever had!
And get this, I later found out they even played together that day.
Was my four year old actually excited for his classmate? The one he never wanted to be friends with because the boy was always causing trouble? He celebrated this boy’s success because he knew how hard it had been for him to get there.
I’m pretty sure that’s what compassion looks like when you’re four. What do you think?