- Discuss elements necessary to establish and maintain a sense of community in the school-age learning environment.
- Describe methods a school-age staff member can use to encourage kindness, safety, and security within the learning environment.
- Identify ways to prevent bullying from occurring in the school-age classroom.
Your school-age program environment should be a nurturing and supportive space that encourages positive interactions between children. It should be safe, stimulating, and developmentally appropriate. School-age environments should make children feel welcome, validate their thoughts and feelings, and provide them with numerous opportunities to continue to develop their social skills. As you have learned, social-emotional skills are integral to children’s overall development and learning, and research highlights that the quality of an environment has a significant impact on a child’s future. This lesson will explore how school-age program environments can establish a sense of community for those in it.
Think about the types of communities to which you belong. Your family, group of friends, colleagues, and neighbors all represent different communities. Within each of these communities, you demonstrate respect for others and an acceptance of others’ differences. You might also have a feeling of pride, accomplishment, or competency in these communities. Many times, being a part of a group helps you feel confident in yourself and establish a healthy sense of self-esteem. As a school-age staff member, you will be responsible for creating a sense of community in the school-age learning environment.
We know that many factors influence child development. While some, such as genetics, are out of our control, environmental factors are very much within our control. Developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, studied the effects of the social environment on human development. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory explains how the environment you grow up in affects your thinking, emotions, and interests. His theory considers five interrelated systems and their impact on children. These systems include:
- Microsystem: The microsystem is made up of groups that have direct contact with the child including family and school.
- Mesosystem: The mesosystem is made up of the relationships between the groups from the first system. An example could be the parent-teacher relationship, and how it affects the child.
- Exosystem: The exosystem includes factors that affect the child’s life, but do not have direct connection with the child. An example of this could be their parent’s workplace.
- Macrosystem: The macrosystem contains cultural elements such as family values and religion.
- Chronosystem: The chronosystem refers to the stage of life that the person or child is in and how it affects various situations. This includes the changes in a person or environment over time.
While Brofenbrenner’s ecological systems theory does not account for biological factors, it does help us to think about the ways in which the environment and relationships impact school-agers' development and behavior. It encourages the caregiver to consider the whole child when planning the environment and space in which they will learn and grow. Consider the various elements of Bronfenbrenner’s theory as you continue to learn about your role in supporting the school-age program environment.
A Sense of Community: What Is It?
The emotional climate of a learning environment should be a core value of the school-age program. To create a sense of community in the learning environment, there must be caring relationships, structure and safety, and boundaries and expectations.
Caring Relationships in the Learning Environment
A learning environment with a strong sense of community is one where children feel safe, have positive relationships, and are free to learn and explore. However, creating a sense of community is not something you can achieve overnight. Children will need time to build trust with you, other staff members, and their peers in order to feel that they truly belong. Because of this, everything that you do and say while in the learning environment matters. Children watch the way you interact with other children and adults. They watch your body language and listen to your tone of voice. They observe how you respond to the needs of their peers. Therefore, the key to building a learning environment with a strong sense of community is in your words and actions. Some examples are:
- Always greet children by name as they enter your program. Be sure to make eye contact and smile at each child. When they leave the program, be sure to say goodbye and tell them to have a good day or night.
- Take pride in your appearance by always maintaining a professional and pleasant image. If you appear sloppy or rushed, it may look like you are not happy to be there.
- Post clearly defined guidelines for behavior expectations somewhere easily visible throughout the environment. Children need to know what is expected of them in terms of appropriate behavior. Use positive language that highlights what children should do, instead of what is not allowed. For example, “Respect yourself, others, and your environment at all times,” instead of “No hitting.”
- Allow time for the exchange of feelings. It is important for children to feel safe expressing their feelings, talking about what worries them, or sharing happy news. Create a time for this whenever possible by having group discussions or a space in the learning environment for sharing and listening.
- Show children that you are proud of their accomplishments by displaying their artwork, planning events to show off their talents, and informing families of their projects and hard work.
Safety and Structure in the Learning Environment
Children also need a learning community that is safe and structured so that they can take risks and continue to grow and develop. As a school-age staff member, you can ensure the environment is safe by following all safety procedures and guidelines. Establishing routines, patterns, and expected practices is also a way to help children feel safe in their environment. You can establish a daily routine and publish it, so children know the expectations and know what is coming next. When unexpected plans and transitions are limited, children will feel more comfortable in the environment. For more information on a safe learning environment, you can refer to the Safe Environments course.
Safety in the learning environment means more than just the physical space; it’s a place where children can grow emotionally as well. Children should feel safe enough to share their feelings or take risks, such as making a new friend or trying a new sport. For children to feel safe from emotional harm, it is important to maintain a kind and caring environment. For example:
- Create a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. Children must feel that they can be themselves without the fear of being bullied. If you see or hear bullying, it is important that you stop the situation as soon as possible and follow your program’s guidelines on bullying. More information on bullying is provided below. You can also refer to the Bullying Resource List in the Explore section of this lesson for additional information and resources.
- Form an ongoing program that motivates children to be kind to another. An example of this is the Fill Your Bucket program, which invites children to express kindness and lead a happy life by filling their bucket with kind things that they do for others or themselves. Programs like these teach respect and positive self-esteem.
- Model respectful behaviors. Children will watch you and learn from your behaviors. It is important that you always behave the way you want the children to behave. Be mindful of your actions, reactions, and interactions with others. Always show respect to others and speak in a kind and positive manner.
Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. It is intentional, ongoing, and involves purposeful misuse of power in any relationship. Bullying is any verbal, physical, and/or social behavior that is intended to cause harm. While boys may bully others in more physical ways, girls often bully others using relational aggression or social exclusion. In addition, technology and social media have created a new platform for bullying to occur. Children who bully others, or are victims of bullying, are at risk for both immediate and long-term problems. For example, children who are bullied are more likely to experience depression or anxiety, health issues, and decreased academic engagement and achievement. Children who bully are more likely to vandalize property, get into fights, drop out of school, and abuse alcohol or drugs in adolescence or adulthood. Hence, the identification and prevention of bullying is important for children’s current and future wellbeing.
There are different types of bullying:
- Verbal: Saying or writing mean and hurtful things about a person. This can include name-calling, taunting, threats to cause harm, and using inappropriate sexual comments.
- Social or Relational: Impacting a person’s relationships or harming their reputation. This may include spreading rumors about someone, embarrassing them, or leaving someone out on purpose.
- Physical: Attacks that harm a person’s body or impact their personal items. This could include taking or breaking someone’s things, hitting, spitting, or pushing.
- Cyber: Bullying a person using electronic technology. This includes rumors posted on social networking sites, fake personal profiles, embarrassing pictures or videos, or mean text messages and emails.
School-age staff and program leaders need to be aware that bullying can occur inside and outside of the program and must be taken seriously. Consider the following actions to prevent and stop bullying:
- Emphasize to children and youth that telling is not tattling. If they see something they should say something.
- Involve students and parents in creating solutions
- Create an anti-bullying taskforce
- Help children engage in positive behaviors and teach them how to intervene when bullying occurs.
- Set positive expectations about behavior.
- Explicitly remind students that bullying is not tolerated and will have consequences.
- Facilitate friendships, especially for children that have a hard time finding friends
Visit stopbullying.gov to learn more about how to
- Prevent bullying: http://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/at-school/index.html
- Respond to bullying: http://www.stopbullying.gov/respond/index.html
- Teach children and youth ways they can respond to bullying, as victims or witnesses: http://www.stopbullying.gov/kids/what-you-can-do/index.html
Use the resources available in the Explore section of this lesson to learn more about bullying and resources to use within your school-age classroom.
Boundaries and Expectations
Children can thrive when they feel safe and confident in their environment. It is important to set clear boundaries and achievable expectations for school-age children. According to the Council on Accreditation’s After School and Youth Development Standards, methods to create boundaries for school-age programs include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Time is set aside to discuss behavioral expectations in a way that children and their families can understand.
- Staff members and children work together to develop expectations that are clear and appropriate to all.
- Staff members set realistic limits that are developmentally appropriate for children in the program.
- All children are expected to follow the same set of expectations.
- Clear boundaries are set to keep children free from harm and to prevent children from hurting each other verbally or physically.
Developing a sense of community in a school-age learning environment will take some time and does not happen without hard work. You will need to:
- Be consistent and fair when resolving conflicts and communicating behavior expectations.
- Develop positive relationships with all children.
- Adhere to a zero-tolerance policy on bullying.
- Reinforce positive behaviors and institute a program that encourages acts of kindness.
- Model appropriate behaviors and social skills.
- Be excited and interested in your work.
Remember that children are always watching and listening to what you are doing and saying. Be the best role model you can be. Stay positive and always be kind when interacting with others. If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to admit it. Children need to see how you react if things don’t go as planned. You set the tone for the environment—be sure it is a positive one.
Observing the school-age learning environment will allow you to assess the community aspect of your program. View and complete the Observe: The Environment activity below, then share your observations with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Additionally, use the Bullying Resource List to explore websites and print resources to use within your school-age classroom or to offer families that want more information on the topic of bullying.
How do you establish and maintain a safe, caring community in your school-age program? Review and complete the Maintaining Community activity. Read the scenarios and brainstorm ways to promote community in the school-age program. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed). Pearson.
Blum, R. (2007). Best practices: building blocks for enhancing school environment. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Council on Accreditation Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs. https://coanet.org/cyd-standards/
Bradshaw, C.P. & Waasdorp, T.E. (2020) Preventing bullying in schools: A social and emotional learning approach to prevention and early intervention. (1st ed). W.W. Norton & Company.
McCloud, C. (2006). Have You Filled a Bucket Today: A guide to daily happiness for kids. Ferne Press.
Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed). Pearson Education Inc.
Trevarthen, C., J. Delafield-Butt, & A. Dunlop. (2018). The child’s curriculum: Working with the natural values of young children. Oxford University Press.