Feeling welcome, hanging up coats, and more. In this episode, Andy, Emily and Adam are joined again by special guest, Fiona Smith - a Product Manager from Maths — No Problem! How do we ensure kids get the best start possible? Just how valuable are early years observations? Plus, Andy reflects on the profound experience of being in a new environment as a kid.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello. I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast. Welcome to the School of School podcast.
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Welcome back to another episode. We're joined... Well, it's Adam speaking, but I'm joined by Emily and Andy. But also, I've got a special guest, Fiona. Fiona Smith. Now I work with Fiona, as do Andy and Emily, but best that you introduce yourself, Fiona.
Thanks, Adam. Yes. So I am a product manager, so I work with Emily most closely, and I've got lots of experience in education publishing and also assessment and various other things too. So I am very pleased to be here.
And we love having you here, Fiona. It's got to be said.
No, no, no. It's important you feel welcome. What I was hoping we could talk about today is, everyone's got an attitude towards school, right? So you can ask the question anywhere. What do you think of school? And I think there's very few people that would just say, "Oh, I don't really have an opinion on it. I'm not really that bothered." And what I was wondering is, I think attitudes towards school can be formed pretty young. I was just thinking, what's important? How can we ensure that the attitudes towards school are good? How can we make sure? Are there any pitfalls or there any things particularly that we need to be mindful of perhaps? And particularly for those wee wee kids where they're coming into, especially a class like Reception, very young, four years old, what about them? How can we make sure these precious wee kids can come in and want to come back tomorrow?
Yeah. And some of them who might not have a great home life as well, right? So how does school become a positive influence on that? The first two things, the first responsibility of anyone who's taking a child into their care... And we're talking about young kids. We're not talking about obviously university students, right? The first thing is that they need to make sure that those kids are coming into a safe environment and that they feel welcome there. And I think if you can do that, you're kind of halfway through the battle. And I think we forget how important those two things are. Because sometimes kids don't feel safe at school and sometimes they don't feel welcome at school. And if that's the case, then you're not going to win. It's really, really difficult to win when you... So that's probably the first thing. Safe and welcome is going to mean that something different for almost every child. That's got to be the starting point. You all look stunned.
How do you deal with that? No, but that's a really big statement, right? So, there'll be people that might be listening to this and thinking, "Yeah, okay. Of course, it's got to be safe and it's got to be welcoming." And so I guess what I want to unpack with that is, what is it... I know what you mean because of course we want our children to feel that way. What sorts of things do we need to be mindful of though, I guess, as to ensure that that happens? Because I think it seems easy, but maybe there's children out there that don't want to come back to school the following day and maybe they don't feel as safe and as welcome. I don't know. What sort of basic things? And this might just be really simple, but what sorts of things are we talking about? Because I think it is important and I think that it's not as easy. I don't know. We take it for granted, I think.
I think even with a really positive attitude towards school, I suppose there could be that real fear of it being this huge transition in life. I mean, these little children and they're processing so much, and every day brings so many new things. Is there that fear of moving into this completely new environment and meeting all these new people and that being quite scary? I mean, especially if they maybe don't have brothers and sisters. I mean, I'm coming from this as this... I guess I recognise this as a very positive perspective of how a child might view school even in a negative way. But there's so much change in these children's lives. And then is there pressure? I don't know. Could that be part of it?
I think that whole thing of environment and space, Fiona, is so important. I love the way that so many schools are doing really interesting things now with the space as for kids coming into school, so having that area that they can go to that's quiet. There are kids that sometimes need some space to be on their own and they can find the large room quite huge, and they need different zones in different spaces to relax in. So one thing is spaces to draw spaces, spaces to read, areas that they can go to relax. I think that's super important.
The other thing is, I think that sense of being welcome happens over time. It can feel like it's just about day one and it isn't about day one for all the reasons that you've all said. It takes a while to settle into routine, to settle into... Do you know what one of my favourite things that I've seen in class is? And actually one of my boys' teachers did it. Was for the kids, when they're coming in, is to actually have pictures of what they're going to do through the day so that... They might not be able to read yet, they haven't yet got a sense of routine, but they can visualise that the pictures along the wall to tell them where they are in their day, that they've been dropped off. And one of the ones that kids... I don't know, Adam, if you remember this, is going where the toilet is. You won't believe it. For some kids that's massive.
But I think, Emily, this is the thing. Picking up on Andy's starting point of having safe, secure space. The skillset that's needed to accommodate that is massive. Particularly the early years practitioners, they have to be able to judge so many things. Because you've got to remember, and I think that this was a point that Andy made previously, is their world is quite small and now we're being propelled into this world that's totally different. We're not with mom and dad all the time. It is a totally different environment with different people and all of these things. So all of these things can have a significant impact on me because now I have to hang my own coat up. Right? I don't have someone hang my coat up anymore, and that could be terrifying. And I might not be able to verbalise that, and I might see plenty of people.
It's like if you've ever stood in a really busy tube station or a train station and everyone knows where they're going, and you're stood still in the middle thinking, "I haven't got a clue where to go and everyone in the entire world knows what to do and where they're going, and I don't. And it's terrifying. And I don't even know how to ask for help." And I think that's the reality. Even when children come into what is an incredibly supportive environment, I think there's that train station feel to it and the potential for that. And we have to pick up on non-verbal cues. We got to try to work out how on earth we manage that. And I think that's the thing. I think it's all of these sorts of things.
I think that the most difficult challenge, and this is true of anyone dealing with wee kids, and this is not to put children and animals in the same boat, but it's the same thing with pets is that you're trying to pick up on things that may not be verbalised. That's hard. That is really, really hard to pick up on that and also to have some sort of perspective as to what can really tilt the balance of the entire world for them. And there's a lot of things that can do that. I don't know if you guys have ever had experience of that and whether you're brave enough to share them about, "Yeah. I didn't know this at school and this terrified me." That's genuinely.
I'm just thinking about how the cat communicates sometimes, but you know what that cat wants. But I think that that non-verbal aspect is really important because as a child... And you don't know how to verbalise your emotions in this huge world that you're seeing and experiencing. How can you then convey the feelings that you might be having if they're things that you haven't experienced before, in a setting that you haven't experienced before as well?
So, I actually remember being in my first year of schooling, so kindergarten for me. I remember emotional memories of that time. And I remember sitting cross-legged, surrounded by other children, was facing the front, and feeling really, really empty and never having felt that way before. And I remember that because it stood out. So that's an interesting... The reason I'm bringing this up is because, as you guys were talking, I went down this path of trying to recall. It was a very anxious feeling. But do you know what I mean by an empty feeling? If you have something terrible happen, maybe you were robbed. I remember I was robbed once when I was travelling, had everything taken away. And I remember what that felt like because it was quite profound. It was the same feeling that I had when I was in that classroom. That's a profound feeling.
And I think that we kind of forget that, how profound that experience is for young children, or it can be. Maybe some kids deal with it better than others. For sure some kids deal with it better than others, or some kids are better at hiding it than others. I don't know which one it is. But I just remember feeling really, really kind of... It wasn't scared in the sense like you're frightened because there's a mean dog chasing you. It was more frightened like you don't know what's going to happen next. And it's sort of like how you described it, Adam. You're standing, you're the only person. You feel like you're the only person in the sea of organisation. You're the only person who's not in tune with what's going on.
I think that what you felt, Andy, I'd be amazed if that wasn't true for a lot of people. Because if you think that a lot of these children there's... And again, this might be unique to the UK system, but by and large, I think anywhere in the world, it's going to be similar that you can choose whether or not children go to a kindergarten or some sort of setting that we can say is a learning setting, perhaps, as opposed to home. But this is the first time for a lot of children where they're away from their mums and dads or the people that they live with all day. And a day's a long time. And a kid that's only been on the planet for four years.
It's a huge amount of time. And especially with things like, "Oh, I need to wee. What do I do? I usually call out to mum. Mum's not here struth, what am I going to do now? Oh, I've just been told... I just helped myself to a carrot because mum says carrots are good and I can help myself to carrots whenever I want. Sweets, different story. Carrots though, fill your boots. And I'm being told, 'Nah, you wait till snack time for that one, mate'." All these things that I think are... And it is a massive challenge, I think, to appreciate that and to empathise fully with that, and to recognise it. Because I think that's another part is that maybe, Andy, when you were there, outwardly, maybe it was difficult to tell. Perhaps you were doing the things and picking up the blocks and doing the stuff that the other kids were doing because you're kind of going, "Well, if he's walking in this direction, I'll join him because I don't know what to do. But it looks like that's what you do." And so as a teacher, that might be a tricky one to pick. It's a tricky one to pick. And that's why I think it's so subtle at times. And yeah, it's a skill. It's a real skill.
I love observing. I'm the kind of person that can set at a table outside in a coffee shop all day long and just watch people. I love it. I just love watching, seeing what happens, and trying to predict what's going to happen next. And in my office, pre-COVID, just outside... So I'm on the third floor. Just outside is the outdoor play space. They're in the same building of a nursery. And there's all these wee little kids running around just outside and it's like a zoo. And I would just sit there sometimes for... I wonder what the rest of the people thought I was doing. I would just sit there, staring out the window, and watch them for really long periods of time sometimes.
Sometimes like 20 minutes at a time or whatever. It's fascinating. It's fascinating to watch how they interact with each other. And I don't know where I'm going with this, but I just... What was interesting to me is that, all these little kids, they all have very, very different personalities and they all respond to things in very different ways. It's really interesting. You almost need to have to do that if you're going to teach little kids. You need that observation time because when you're in the middle of it, trying to... That one's yanking that one and this one's stealing that toy and that one's crying in the corner or whatever, you're in the middle of it. You lose that view. Everyone should have that helicopter view of what goes on in those things because you learn a tremendous amount. I think one of the things that we need to do more is give teachers time to observe and not just do whatever it is that they do.
I think a lot of teachers, particularly in the early years, would like that. It's not that they don't do it, for it to be valued. I think it's really true. Role play and what goes on there and how kids choose roles and perhaps lead a group or assign themselves or others to certain tasks. And yeah, it's fascinating.
Emily, I think one thing off the back of that is, is this the importance of how it can have such a significant effect on other learning as well? There was someone doing some work in my house, a young dad and with a young daughter just starting Reception, and we were having a chat about... I was just interested to see how things were going. It was the beginning of the year. It's a big transition. Huge. And we were talking about stuff. Anyway, long story short. There were some things that maybe... I don't know, just observations that were made.
And I remember being in a school once and just before lunchtime, it used to be quite tricky with a certain child. And it was a tribute to all sorts of things. Like, "Oh no, don't take that, or don't take this, or whatever else." Anyway, just through observation, the anxiety started to ramp up. And what it was, it was colours of knives and forks that were being used. They used plastic knives and forks, and the child really liked these particularly coloured knives and forks and really wanted them. But why would you attribute someone taking a book off someone else to the colour of knives and forks, right? And the child wasn't going to verbalise it and say, "Listen, I did this. I've had time to reflect and I've been quite self-critical. And I decided that what I was going to do is, my anxiety, the way that that manifests in me, is I take the book off my mate next door when I know it's coming to lunchtime." It's just not going to happen.
But I think that through those observations and you... I think the other thing that's really important is putting a value on everything. That would be really easy to dismiss and just say, "Oh, at our school, we all just use different colour knives and forks. Kind of, if you like..." I don't think any practitioner would use these words, but, "Kind of get over it. You're all right. Doesn't matter. They all cut your food in the same way, and the forks work the same way, and the knives are cool. Don't worry about that. They're all good." But actually just a wee change like that, where you can just say, "Oh, do you know what? You got the purple ones today." "Oh, really?" "Yeah, yeah, yeah. True story, true story." "Oh, sweet. I'll sit down on the carpet. We're good. I'm happy. All is good."
And I think that comes back to the importance of observation, but what it also does is that if you rewind from that... And I learned this lesson off this magic man called Peter Sinclair, if you keep rewinding or you keep going back and you say, "Well, at the moment that child took the book, the learning stopped. It's disrupted two children's learning now. I also need to talk to them, which is going to take three minutes. That's three minutes that that child could have been looking at the book and learning." And if you start to add that up and you start to add up the time, the actual learning time, it's worth doing. And it's worth having that observation and it's worth having the conversation because the impact that it can have. But we've got to put the importance on stuff that, perhaps as adults, it's harder for us to empathise with the importance of some things that when you're four, they're pretty bloody important.
Yeah. And so here, Adam, I'm... So first off, anyone teaching in the early years, hats off to you. I think you're the most talented people in the world. I really do. I know I wouldn't be able to do it. So anyway, at some stage, you're going to run into a situation where the needs of the individual are in conflict with the needs of the group, or even the needs of the framework that you need to follow. I'm going to think of an example, probably a silly one here, but you've got a child who isn't capable of, let's say, sharing. So there's a certain amount of trauma in this child's life every day because they can't function at that level. So obviously when they go on their little tantrums because someone wants to share or they have to share, they're out of the picture now. They're not learning anymore because they're overwhelmed with emotion. That's the needs of that individual.
And then there's the needs of the rest of the group because that person can be disruptive to the group. What do you say to new teachers? What are you going to do? Because part of you wants to just nurture... Depending on your character, you might be like, "That kid needs to learn a lesson." Which is why I wouldn't make a good early years teacher. But that's one way to interpret the situation. But the other way is, of course, and probably more common, is you want to nurture that child. You want to make them feel safe. You want to make them feel like it's okay and it's all going to be fine. But then they aren't learning. What the hell do you say to these teachers?
Well, there are developmental stages in their learning. So actually, some early years teachers, which I love, often for the things that they know are favourites, they'll have two. So if there's a particular toy or doll or there's a certain thing, they will have two. And the other one is like, saying, "Well, I'm going to let, so-and-so have this one." and preparing the other child they you've got five minutes and then somebody else needs to have a turn.
Yeah. But aren't you just avoiding the issue there? Because I have to hit it-
You can't do that forever. And I think it's that thing of, like Adam was saying, observing and having a... But I do think you have to have a plan. You know those kids that are going to struggle to share. Then you have to talk to them and then you need to say how long... You might have to do things like how long have they got. I do love the sand timers in early years classroom. It's like when the sand runs out to kind of preparing. It's like the kids as well in the playground, after school has finished when they're in nursery, and the parents and the teachers are saying like, "You've got one more go on the slide and then when you're finished on the slide, you need to go home." It's the preparation. But you're right. That is part of the earliest preparation. It is. It's knowing which child is ready and can do that, and which ones need a little bit more encouragement in all the different areas.
We got to wrap this up. Any wise words from anybody?
I think I've said this before, but I'll say it again because it's worth saying again, I think. If you ask anyone who their favourite teacher was, I can almost guarantee you that same teacher... If you asked that person to describe what it was that made their favourite teacher, part of it would be, "They got me. They understood me and they cared about me, and they wanted me to do well." I think that that would be something that anyone would say about their favourite teacher. And I think that's what we must have aspire to do, is to get to know these children. And it sounds so ridiculous. It's bloody hard as well.
So we've got to be kind to ourselves and say, "It's really, really hard to do that with 30 children in their class." But, yeah. As I said, there's no surprise to me that the people who... I don't know. This is talking about behaviour management, just slightly different again. But the people whose classes you wanted your kids to be in, and you just wanted to spend time there because it was a lovely place to be, the common trait with all of them is they knew their children incredibly well. So I reckon that that's the key for me.
You got to go back to, I think, what I said at the beginning. They have to feel safe. They have to feel welcome. They have to feel like they belong. They have a right to be there and that they belong there, and we want them to be there. And that we care about them. And ultimately, it's that they feel loved, especially young children. And only then really can any profound learning happen. If you think back at that one teacher who was special, hopefully everyone's had at least one, it's exactly what you say, Adam. Those are the characteristics that you'll remember. "I belonged in that class. I felt like I connected. I was welcome there. I was accepted for who I am." And those are often the catalysts in your life where your life turns around, that now I found a path because something happened that was significant. And as teachers, you have that power. Geez. Who said teaching was easy? Holy smokes. Yeah. Well, there you have it guys. Thanks for joining.
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