As our world grows more complex, the responsibility of offering children tools for working together with compassion becomes an essential focus. Lately, I’ve noticed more evidence of compassionate mentoring: children volunteering to help each other with great kindness. Our noticing and verbalizing aloud their acts of kindness can be as important for maintaining our own hope as it is for reinforcing the children’s positive behavior.
When a 5-year-old brought her hand-sewn bag from a classroom project to the expressive arts room, she caught the eye of a 4-year-old in the intentionally mixed class.
The project was a quantum leap from our previous simple sewing with plastic needles. Their teacher taught them to carefully use grown-up needles, progressing from the blunt to very sharp points. I was delighted to raise my own expectations of what was possible regarding sewing and young children.
After staring at the beautiful bag for many minutes, the younger girl announced that she wanted to sew. "I want to sew a dress," she said aloud. Immediately, the older girl offered, "I can help you."
She returned to her classroom and with the permission of her teacher brought back the necessary tool: sharp needles. I hovered behind them observing how she’d safely proceed to mentor a very independent 4-year-old.
They began with the younger girl choosing her fabric. "We’ll need holes, for my arms," she directed the older girl. Together they worked to place the holes in the correct place. After cutting them out, the older girl gently helped the younger into the armholes and fitted the fabric around her. She frequently asked, "Is this what you want?" drawing the younger one further into the process.
The younger girl observed while her confident older friend measured and cut the thread.
She remained very attentive as the needle was threaded and the knot was tied.
While the older girl marked numerous little dots where the needle would enter the fabric, she thoughtfully suggested, "Why don’t you do something else while I do this part? I’ll let you know when I’m done."
The younger girl happily explored the available open-ended materials until it was time for the actual sewing.
As the safety inspector, I sat down next to them. The older girl poked the very sharp needle through the dots she’d drawn, stopping once the fabric was pierced. She then encouraged the younger one to pull the needle through the fabric. They worked carefully together, united as a competent team.
Observing the kindness, compassion and shared gentleness of their collaboration, I teared up. I’ve read that simply observing compassion can trigger oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Whether the cause was physiological, emotional or a combination, there was a palpable feeling of love and connectedness in the room.
Marveling at their partnership of relatedness and care, I was grateful for this glimpse into a future we envision for everyone.
While you will see evidence of children helping each other in your classroom, creating mixed-age groups further encourages mentor-ship. Your observations and facilitation will help create the desired results: compassionate mentoring.
- Intentionally mix a small group from your classroom with a group of a different age from another class. Exchanging the same number of children will keep the teacher-child ratio in balance. Do you want your children to be the mentors or mentees? Note: choosing an older or younger class does not guarantee which children will mentor or be mentored.
- Who: If there are specific social or other skills you wish to encourage, the two classroom teachers can brainstorm as to which children should participate based on their skill and social intelligence.
- What: Decide if you will be observing free play for social and emotional skills or a specific activity to build small motor or other skills.
- Prepare the space to accommodate your choice.
- Welcome the children. Let them know you’ve mixed the classes so that the older children can be helpers. Expand their choices by saying that no matter the age, we all can be kind friends and help each other. Younger children can also be kind helpers.
- Observation: Take a back seat to notice them at play or in a specific activity. Unless facilitation is needed, this becomes a good time for observing. In my November 11, 2013* blog post, I wrote about different lenses and tips for observing the children.
- When noticing acts of mentoring or kindness, say them aloud to the children. (e.g., "I noticed that Z offered to help A when she didn’t know how to sew." Sometimes I add a simple, "Thank you.")
- Completion: When the play is complete, gather the children in a circle. Ask them if they were helped, did they help anyone and how it felt to help and/or be helped. Drawing children’s attention to their good feelings is another way to reinforce, from the inside, kindness and compassion.
*For excellent descriptions of lenses of observation, I highly recommend: Reflecting Children’s Lives: A Handbook for Planning Your Child-Centered Curriculum by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter (Redleaf Press, 2011)