George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

How Preschool Teachers Can Reclaim a Sense of Joy and Purpose

For preschool teachers having a tough time this year, focusing on small wins with students may help.

November 10, 2021
Teacher and student work together in pre-k class
FatCamera / iStock

Whether a student’s or a staff member’s, a birthday is serious business where I work. We have a colleague who creates handmade cards for us and makes sure that everyone in the building writes a quick note offering well wishes for the year to come. This year, I received a card with the message, “You are our sunshine.”

As the clinical social worker of a state-subsidized preschool, I work hard to bring sunshine to our students. My colleagues do as well, so I make it a point to remind them that they are sunshine for our students. Each of us contributes to creating a joyful and nurturing learning environment for our school community.

But working during this pandemic has left my colleagues not only exhausted but now asking, “Why do I stay?” As more teachers bring this question to me, I offer suggestions to help them reclaim purpose and joy in the work of educating our youngest learners again.

Reframe the Idea of What Learning Should Look Like

Reframing our ideas and expectations about what learning needs to look like in early childhood settings can help teachers feel better about what they accomplish with students. I asked my son’s pre-K teacher if I should be doing anything at home to support his learning. She said, “Preschool is about socialization. That can only happen here, at school.” If our teachers reframe the important work of preschool—playing, making friends, becoming more independent with self-care skills, developing the ability to problem-solve, learning how to self-regulate—they can replace the pressure to prepare children for kindergarten with a sense of purpose and joy.

I ask teachers to remember what young children need to grow into well-adjusted adults. Executive functioning and social and emotional skills, while different from reciting the alphabet or holding a pencil with a tripod grasp, are crucial skills that need to be taught. It is the intentional and planned work they do that gets their students to achieve those skills. 

Months ago, we enrolled a student who struggled with regulation in the classroom. Her teachers were frustrated by the student’s frequent screaming and tantrums. They were worried that her classmates might perceive her behavior as acceptable if they did not intervene. “She can’t be doing this here,” they told me. 

“That’s exactly what you’re telling her when you help her calm her body,” I told them. “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but when you sit with her in the quiet area and encourage her to use coping skills, you are teaching her to recognize when she needs to regulate and to problem-solve so she can successfully rejoin the group. You’re also teaching her about following classroom expectations, and you’re teaching the other children about this at the same time because they’re watching you while you teach her these skills.”

I went on to offer an encouraging, “Hang in there, you’re doing more than you realize,” before they left my office to return to their classroom.

Over time, my frustrated colleagues began to embrace the idea of reframing what learning looks like in their classroom. They added different fidgets, calm-down jars, and other soothing materials to their quiet area. They incorporated body-based coping skills, such as butterfly hugs or animal walks, into their daily circle and hung visuals around the room that provided different problem-solving strategies. They also posted a class pledge outlining expectations and had their students put their handprints on it as their signature.

I am rarely called to this classroom now because of this shift, and when I do hear a student struggling, my colleagues are quick to wave me away, telling me, “We’ve got this.”

Enjoy Small Successes

Recently, I worked with a student who was dysregulated and needed support regulating his emotions. Typically, he hit and kicked me when I intervened in his running down the hall. One day, he stopped in front of the closed gate that blocked off the stairs. It wasn’t until later in the day that I realized this was a small success for both of us. I stopped feeling like I wasn’t helping him because I saw that what I was doing with him was working. It didn’t matter that the work was slow going. What mattered was that it was working. Recognizing that was enough to spark in me both joy and a renewed sense of purpose in what I do.

Two of my colleagues were elated to share with me when their new student, who was anxious and withdrawn, finally made eye contact and smiled at them after weeks of their helping him feel comfortable in the classroom. Another colleague came running to my office during her break, happily telling me, “It worked!” after she used duct tape on her classroom floor to create a space for a student who frequently needed to move his body but often accidentally hit his classmates while getting his wiggles out. Once she explained to him where to go, he began using the space on his own. Celebrate small successes. 

If we don’t enjoy the small successes as students work toward proficiency, both students and teachers will be left feeling as though they haven’t accomplished anything. A student was able to use the potty for the first time? Yes! A child was able to utilize the quiet area and calm down? High five to them and you. Your group was able to transition from motor play to tabletop activities with only two prompts instead of three? Something’s working, and I bet it’s you.

There will always be days when teachers in early childhood settings ask themselves why they continue to do this work, so we must be intentional in finding purpose and joy in teaching young children. Honoring the work that happens in early childhood settings, by reframing the idea of what learning needs to look like and celebrating the small successes that happen every day, will help teachers connect to the joy and purpose of teaching again, remember their why, and bring back their sunshine.

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