Child-led is NOT the Same as Chaos

Child-led instruction and inclusion is something I am passionate about talking about as an early childhood professional. Mainly, I like to preach this preach because of my own veering of child-led practices throughout my career. As a kindergarten teacher, I had fallen into the trap of having expectations that took away from any form of voice or choice that my students could have. When I began teaching, I was much more apt to allow my children to wiggle on the carpet or share their own ideas without redirecting them back to my teacher-led practices. As my career continued, I often found myself reminding my students to “catch a bubble” or “give me 5” so we could get back on with the lesson.


When people hear the term child-led they often confuse that with chaos and “letting them do whatever they want.” Child-led is not chaos. Classroom expectations are the cornerstone of any aged classroom. Without expectations, children do not feel safe and quite frankly, neither does the educator. But we must first recognize that our expectations must match the needs and abilities of the children we are serving. So, having an expectation of crisscross applesauce, hands in your laps, bubble in your mouth for an extended period of time with four-year-olds is not an expectation that matches their needs. Young children learn by moving, manipulating, and engaging in lessons. The questions you want to continue to ask yourself are: “Is this expectation in place to keep us safe?” “Does it match my students’ abilities?”


When clear expectations are not in place, chaos ensues. This is the opposite of child-led practices. Child-led means honoring where the children are and supporting them on their journey with learning. Often, as educators we can lose sight of our why or focus. If you ask a group of teachers, why do you teach? What is your why? The resounding answer is always: “The kids! I am here to serve kids.” If our solid why collectively as educators is to serve the children in our care then our how needs to match that why. This is where child-led practices must come in. Child-led must be our how.


What is child-led? How do I implement child-led practices without having a chaotic classroom? Below are 5 strategies to help.


Relationships: Before you can even begin to think about supporting child-led practices you must first have solid relationships with the children in your care. Kids are so smart. They read you like a book. They know if you love them, and they know if you don’t. The relationships that you foster must be genuine and authentic. This seems like it should go without saying but I am going to say it: If you don’t like kids, please don’t work with them. Positive, supporting, and nurturing relationships honor where children are and see them as individuals with ideas while respecting their needs and abilities.


Expectations: As mentioned earlier, clear expectations are the cornerstone of making everyone feel safe in the classroom. Expectations should be consistently and clearly stated multiple times throughout the entirety of your day. Once relationships are rooted, your expectations are much more likely to be met by students of any age. The key is making sure you are being proactive, clear, and consistent. If you find yourself often repeating the same redirection, you may want to revisit the expectation. Is it appropriate? Is it clear? Are you being consistent and proactive?


Follow their lead: Again, this is not chaos. This does not mean we let children decide every aspect of the day. What this means is seeing children as autonomous in their learning. Give children authentic opportunities to choose throughout the day. This could include choosing how to play in the dramatic play center, what songs to sing during opening, or for older children, what topic they would like to choose for a project. When we follow children’s lead in learning we are teaching them that their ideas are important and learning is a journey, not a destination.


Build Community: Think of the classroom as a community. In a community, the learning does not belong to one person. The materials in the room are not only yours. Children should be able to see themselves as integral parts of the classroom community. When thinking about ways to build a classroom community you will want to ask yourself: “Do I see this room as ‘my classroom’ or ‘our classroom?’”


Let them talk: The majority of your day should not be spent hearing yourself talk. Yes, we want to foster language intentionally for our students but that includes allowing them ample and multiple opportunities throughout the day to USE language. When we foster a sense of classroom community, we want to allow children to share their ideas, views, and thoughts in an authentic and meaningful way.


Child-led practices support children with a sense of self. They help children feel that they matter. Respect, belonging, and autonomy of learning is what you can expect to gain by implementing child-led learning in the classroom. You have the responsibility of fostering a true sense of the love of learning for children. That is what teaching is all about. Serving, giving, and uplifting our most precious. Let’s build children up while enjoying what we do.


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