As we wrap our heads around the continued stress, disruption and trauma of the pandemic on young children, the importance of centering child social-emotional well being in the pre-K classroom feels clearer than ever. Today, we shine a light on Friends School — ParentCorps’ social-emotional learning program for pre-K children — which supports children to learn how to communicate their thoughts and feelings, develop a positive sense of self (with a focus on racial and cultural identities and family pride), and build healthy relationships.
Of course, Friends School looked different this year. In response to the extraordinary challenge of the 2020-21 school year, ParentCorps Educators developed new sessions to help teachers meet the moment, from lessons on encouraging children to be “healthy heroes” and practice good hygiene, to fostering a sense of community with children even on computer screens, to scaffolding children’s understanding of death and loss.
We talked with two ParentCorps Educators, Kate Vani and Wendy Haber, about what they learned from coaching Friends School teachers this past school year.
How did you support educators to talk with kids about a particular topic?
Kate Vani: All the topics [of the sessions] led to the teachers bringing it back to their own lives and what they were going through and their views on certain things. The session on death and loss in particular, opened the conversation to what they were experiencing. Just kind of being a sounding board for what was happening at that point in time was a way that I extended support.
Wendy Haber: Particularly this year — different than other years where I’ve come in with more of an agenda of things I want to talk with teachers about — there was so much of just checking in with teachers. I felt like for those teachers just having that safe, nurturing, and predictable space, just that they knew that I was available.
What did you hear from educators about some of the topics that came up with their students this year due to the pandemic?
WH: The session about building community helped teachers engage students around building a community when students were both at home on screen and also in the classroom. They could use aspects of it as they were shifting when more kids were coming into school, kids were all back out of school — there was just this constant flux. I think there was terminology that the teachers appreciated and leaned on throughout the year.
Friends School includes different types of props for classroom use; every teacher gets a puppet that is like a child in the classroom, but one where the teacher gets to determine how that child behaves and what they say and it can be a great model for different types of conversations in the classroom... That really engages the kids, particularly virtually. A couple of teachers put masks on their puppet and really used the puppet to demonstrate what they do with their own bodies to be safe: distancing, mask-wearing, and not touching things.
We also developed a session talking with children about death and loss. Can you tell me what teachers’ reactions were to this session and how it landed in the classroom?
WH: A teacher was really excited to share that after the lesson, the kids went into the lunch room and they were asking the lunch aides, “So, do you know someone who died?” I don’t think the lunch aides were prepared to have these four-year-olds ask questions about death. But it sounded like it was a comfortable conversation and it ended up being talked about in the school.
Later, a first grade teacher had a child who had a loss, and knew about [the grief and loss session taught] in the pre-K classroom. They had the child come down and have a conversation with the pre-K teacher and with a couple of the students. And so that was a really nice outcome not only for that class, but for the school — [becoming] a place where people could talk about having experienced loss.
How were the educators feeling about talking with students about some of these difficult topics?
KV: There was a lot of worry or concern of how it would land with parents, knowing that these can be such polarizing topics. At the same time, I heard a lot of value for bringing those things up in the classroom.
WH: It really varied by classroom. Because of my own clinical background, I believe that it is important to talk with children even about things that might be touchy, might have different family views, but to help children understand that we can talk. There is value in making topics not taboo for discussion.
How did you see teachers shine amidst the stress of this past school year? Did your role change at all during that time?
KV: Teachers themselves are going through their own struggles, and then have to support children and families who are just trying to get their basic needs met. I think teachers normally wear a lot of hats, and this year, it looked like even more hats. I would try and take on the role of trying to fill their bucket a little bit and give them credit that they don’t always get.
I would try and take on the role of trying to fill their bucket a little bit and give [teachers] credit that they don’t always get.
WH: These teachers showed up in their classrooms. And day to day they didn’t know if the school was open or not open or what they were doing and what kind of tech requirements were loaded on them. I thought they were all exceptional for plowing forward and wanting to be there for their kids and their families.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cindy Gray is a ParentCorps Educator.