*As featured in a past edition of one of our magazines*
The Whats & Whens of Teaching Responsibility
Tommy is such a sweet little boy. He's really lovable. But he just can't seem to get his act together. He loses things. He can't find his supplies. And assignments are the worst! He asks a million questions, has a hard time getting started, and often doesn't get the assignments done. Plus, he distracts the other children.
A student like Tommy needs to become more responsible. Children who are responsible follow rules, use good judgment, and show respect and courtesy for others and their property. They're able to do these things through a slow, steady process of increased expectations and mastery. In regard to responsibility, here's what's going on developmentally with your students.
What the kids can do:
- Children at this age are becoming aware of a world beyond their families. Up to this point, they've been able to depend on their parents to tell them what to do. Now they're eager to test their own ability to get along.
- They can maintain their own belongings.
- They can complete simple tasks independently.
- They are introduced to the influence of other children.
- They see the need for rules of order, not only in the classroom but also on the playground.
- They measure their own competence by how they perform in comparison to their classmates.
- They begin to understand how other children feel and to anticipate the results of their own actions. Because of this, they also begin to feel a sense of right and wrong in regard to their actions.
- They can talk about problems and solutions instead of expressing anger physically.
- Children at this age can also keep track of more complicated tasks over time.
- They follow the values they've learned at home, for the most part. However, these children are starting to feel uncomfortable about being different from their peers. They sometimes make choices that are popular with their peers, even if the decisions are not responsible ones.
- They are able to make the connection between their behavior and its impact on others.
What you can do:
Have reasonable expectations.
For younger students. Young children are eager to be "like the big kids." Although they're excited about this, they're often also frightened because they don't know what to do. They look to you to provide clear, concise, and specific descriptions of what you expect.
With that in mind, develop simple routines that increase in complexity throughout the year. Post rules and schedules with simple pictures to serve as helpful reminders. And compliment students when they act responsibly: "Tommy, you remembered to hang up your coat. Great!"
For older students. Each grade presents children with the same challenge: "Can I do what my teacher expects?" Added to the wish for your approval will be the increasing desire for their classmates' approval. Like younger students, older ones also benefit from routines, clear guidelines, and compliments for their responsible behavior.
Routinely set goals.
Work with students of all ages to develop goals for behavior and achievement; children are more interested and cooperative when they help make decisions. Use contracts to formalize the goals and charts to measure progress. Use these same strategies when you're working with an individual child like Tommy.
Don't be the problem solver.
Provide a developmentally appropriate format for problem solving. Encourage students to use this format regularly, and model it yourself.
For younger students. Try the following problem-solving strategy:
- What is my problem?
- How can I solve it?
- Am I using the best plan?
- How did it work?
For older students. Try the following problem-solving strategy:
- Identify the problem.
- Brainstorm solutions.
- Consider outcomes of solutions.
- Decide on a plan.
- Evaluate the plan.
For students of all ages, a basic step in solving a problem is discovering what the choices are. You can help your students master that by routinely offering acceptable alternatives, which allows children to learn to evaluate possible courses of action and encourages them to cooperate.
For younger students. These children might choose a free-time activity, select a reward for a completed task, or decide which center to investigate first.
For older students. Older children enjoy making choices such as which novel to read or what topic to explore on the Internet.
Let students experience consequences.
All children need to learn that the choices they make have consequences. This provides them the most powerful feedback about their judgment. Failure to begin an assignment on time might mean that it needs to be completed during free time. Disrupting the class might lead to removal from the group. Of course, you should never let a child make a decision that could cause an injury.
Ask for help.
Some children take longer than others to develop responsible behavior. Regardless of the grade you teach, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this child's development slower than that of my other students?
- Are my expectations too high?
- Is the child expected to act responsibly at home? Are his or her parents ready to accept that the child doesn't need as much of their help?
- Have any crises occurred in the child's life that might explain a regression in skills?
Talk with the student's parents. Get an objective opinion from a colleague. Call on your school counselor, social worker, or psychologist. Remember that the important thing is to get a child like Tommy ready for next year—and for the rest of his life.