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In Kindergarten: How come they listen to you and not me?

That’s a question kindergarten teachers get from exasperated parents all the time.

The truth is, when it comes to managing behaviour, teachers have some pretty big advantages over moms and dads: years of education and experience; the power of peer pressure (which explains why your kid refuses to put away his Lego at home but stands obediently in line with his classmates at school); and the fact that your kid’s teacher simply isn’t you, so he’s way less inclined to push the boundaries and buttons that come with familiarity.

Still, that doesn’t mean many kindergarten teachers’ strategies won’t work at home. We picked the brains of some of the most outstanding teachers across Canada to uncover their secrets and learn how parents can apply them. Some may take a little work upfront, but trust us when we say the payoff is worth it.



Parent challenge #1: My kid thinks he’s the boss and doesn’t take me seriously.

Teacher tactic: Establish authority early
It’s tempting to want to be buddies with your babies. But what’s most important at this age, says Candace Sprague, a primary teacher at Dr. John C. Wickwire Academy in Liverpool, NS, is that they understand who their leader is.

Great kindergarten teachers earn the respect of their students by setting the tone early and consistently. For Sprague, that means speaking firmly and clearly, and using strong body language to communicate confidence. “I’m not harsh, but I do speak with an assertive voice,” she says. She also clearly communicates boundaries, expectations and consequences from the get-go. “Be assertive,” she says. “You are the one guiding their lives. They’re looking to you for structure.”

Teacher tactic: Get on their level
Sharon Nielson, a kindergarten teacher at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Sylvan Lake, Alta., conducts all one-on-one conversations with her students at their eye level. “I’ve wrecked my knees, but it’s where you gain children’s respect,” she says. “If that means getting lower chairs, you get lower chairs.”

Parent challenge #2: My kid won’t take responsibility (or lies!) when he messes up.

Teacher tactic: Tell your kids about your mistakes
When Nielson was a kid, she got caught stealing from a store. It’s a story she shares with her students year after year. In fact, in more than two decades of teaching, she says being relatable has been one of her best tricks of the trade. “They cannot hear enough about when an adult they like does something wrong,” she says. “And they love being the ones to teach me why it was wrong.” Sharing your childhood wrongdoings with your kids (within reason) shows that everyone makes mistakes. They won’t think less of you, but they may share more about themselves, all while learning valuable lessons from your mistakes.

Parent challenge #3: My kid throws a fit when she doesn’t get her way, and conflicts never end on a good note.

Teacher tactic: Don’t force a “sorry”
It might be tempting to insist your kid says “I’m sorry” when he snatches his older brother’s prized Pokémon card or trips over the baby after you’ve asked him not to run in the house, but Jillian Toombs, a Toronto kindergarten teacher at Morse Street Junior Public School, says that’s a mistake. “When you make kids apologize, they’re not getting the lesson behind it,” she says.

In her classroom, students go to a “talk it out” table, where they’re encouraged to get to the root of the problem on their own. With little supervision from her, they take turns airing their grievances and then work together to find a solution. Often, Toombs says, it will end in a much more authentic apology that comes from the kid and not from your request. It’s also a strategy that can be easily applied at home, say, at the kitchen table. Maybe your little guy was promised a turn with the card, but his older brother changed his mind, or perhaps he was trying to get your attention and felt ignored, hence the running.

Teacher tactic: Breathe first
When a kid is having a tantrum, self-awareness is tough. Before kids can manage conflict, says Sprague, they have to manage their bodies. She accomplishes this with a trick called the Turtle: Her students imagine tucking their heads into a shell, then they take deep breaths while “inside” to calm down and get more comfortable in their bodies. “Our main goal is to get them to stop and take a breath before reacting,” Sprague says. Another great self-regulation technique? Have your kid imagine she is breathing in flowers and then blowing out a candle.

Teacher tactic: Define THEIR emotions
A portion of Katherine McKeown’s classroom’s back wall is covered in feelings—literally. Along with her students, the Toronto kindergarten teacher at William Burgess Elementary School has created a virtual cornucopia of colour-coded “treasure words” that extend far beyond “happy,” “sad” and “mad” to terms like “furious,” “discouraged” and even “wilted.” During a conflict, McKeown has her kids point to the word they are feeling. The children also study one another’s faces and point to the word they think the other party is feeling (some teachers use mirrors so students can recognize their own feelings in their appearances). “We’re learning the skill of mindfully observing someone’s countenance,” says McKeown. Once the feeling is determined, the kids work together on a solution to get back to “happy” (or another synonym).

Teacher tactic: Eliminate tattling
They say having one child makes you a parent, while two makes you a referee. If you’re in the latter group, you’re familiar with the ins and outs of tattling. When a kid comes to Toombs with a problem, she’ll ask, “Are you telling me because somebody needs help? Or are you telling me because you want to get them in trouble?” Toombs says this type of questioning can help your kid learn that not everything needs to be brought to your attention. If nobody is being harassed or at risk of physical danger, Toombs puts the onus on her students to solve the problem. If it’s simply a matter of one kid bugging another, she says, then they have the power to ask the other kid to stop. Sometimes, for them, just knowing that is half the battle.

Teacher tactic: Create a cozy corner
Many kids appreciate a safe place where they can go to manage their emotions, says Johanne Hamel, a pre-kindergarten teacher at École Trilingue Vision in Victoriaville, Que. Her kids head to the classroom’s cozy corner “to resolve conflicts with one another and with themselves,” she says. Create a spot using a tent, a nook or an unused area. Fill it with a rug, pillows, books and some stress-management tools, like a CD player with soothing music, a rainstick or a stress ball. Then explain to your kids what this place is for (peace, not punishment) and illustrate times they might use it, such as when they’re feeling upset or tired.

Parent challenge #4: My kid tunes me out and doesn’t follow directions.

Teacher tactic: Give fair warning
Imagine you’re deeply engrossed in your favourite show only to be interrupted by your partner who demands you turn it off and immediately go to bed. You’d find that kind of behaviour pretty jarring and disrespectful, right? The same goes for kids, who, especially around this age, may feel particularly anxious or out of control when it comes to transitions.

Offering warnings when an activity is about to change is what works for Toombs. She suggests first communicating when the end of an activity will occur and then using a visual reminder, such as an hourglass timer. This way, kids can clearly see how much time is left for an activity and the end doesn’t come as a surprise.

Bettina Tioseco, principal and kindergarten teacher at Westside Montessori School in Vancouver, believes in modelling a sense of calm around transitions. “If you’re frazzled, transition times become something kids get stressed about,” she says.

Teacher tactic: Be predictable
Kids love knowing what’s coming next, says Lindsay Stuart, a kindergarten teacher at Henry Braun Elementary School in Regina.

Most kindergarten teachers use a visual calendar or schedule as an outline for their day. “One of the first things my kids do when they come in the room is look at it,” says Stuart. When they know what’s happening in their day, she says, they’re more apt to co-operate when asked to stop what they’re doing and move on to the next thing.

It’s impractical for most parents to have a calendar that lays out every single daily activity, but you could try using one to highlight the general structure of the day or help develop routines around tricky transitions, like getting out the door in the morning and getting ready for bed.

Teacher tactic: Get their attention before giving instructions
Whenever she needs her kids’ full attention, Hamel pulls out her rainstick. When she turns it, the near-immediate silence that follows—with the exception of the stick’s own soothing sound—is deafening. “At the beginning of the year, I explain that when I turn the rainstick I want them to lower their voices so I can talk to them,” she says. “They love the noise, so they stop everything and listen to it.”

McKeown uses a mix of whispering, echo songs (where kids repeat after her) and a hand-held xylophone. “They’re conditioned to leave what they’re doing the minute they hear it and go to the carpet,” she says. “I call them Pavlov’s kids.”

Teacher tactic: Keep directions simple
The most efficient way to give directions kids might actually follow is to keep them short and sweet, says Amie Caverhill, a kindergarten teacher at Nashwaaksis Memorial in Fredericton. She swears by a “first, then” strategy (“first hang up your jacket, then bring your lunch bag to the counter”). Once it’s clear they can manage two instructions, feel free to add one more to the sequence. Having them repeat the “first, then” back to you also helps.

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