In 3rd and 4th grade, I participated in an afterschool Kids Club organized by a neighborhood grandmother. I would walk to her house every Tuesday for homemade snacks and educational activities. Even though I thought some of the crafts were lame and I didn’t like the Hi-C orange drink she always served, I looked forward to every Club meeting. It was one place I really felt known and valued.
Educational researchers have long recognized that children learn best when they feel cared for by their teachers. Stanford Professor Emerita Nel Noddings also describes caring teacher-learner relationships as essential for nurturing morality and ethical responsibility in children. Such relationships model how people ought to treat one another and reinforce positive emotions associated with empathy and respect.
Noddings and others explain that one of a teacher’s primary roles is to create a culture of caring. While many elements can be part of such a culture, three are essential: listening carefully to children, helping them discover their voices, and encouraging them to share their own stories.
Listening to children with interest and respect communicates that you care who they are in particular. Give them your undivided attention for a moment when they first arrive or institute a regular group check-in time. These actions say that you recognize each child’s value and want to connect with them. They also serve as a check on implicit biases that might creep into your interactions. When you know more about children’s specific lives outside your program, you are less likely to make assumptions about their experiences based on race, ethnicity, gender, or class.
Providing a safe space for children to find their own voices promotes both self- and social care. However, this requires more than just giving kids time to talk. It includes stocking your classroom with books and images that reflect the diversity of learners, as well as modeling ways of talking that respectfully acknowledge differences as well as similarities. It can also mean using questions like Who else wants to share their thoughts? and Who has a different perspective to share? rather than moving conversations on after a single response. Keeping the floor open suggests that hearing from diverse voices leads to greater understanding for all.
Inviting children to share their stories creates opportunities for learning empathy and providing social support. Young children tend to assume that others think and feel as they do, and even older children (and adults) can be mistaken about others’ motives, feelings, and expectations. When we invite children to be the authors of their own lives, everyone in the group learns to ask about others’ stories rather than jump to conclusions. It’s also a chance for self-reflection as children consider how their personal experiences shape their social interactions. And as they become more aware of their own and others’ stories, they can appreciate and support diverse ways of responding to issues.