- Describe elements necessary to establish and maintain a sense of community in the school-age learning environment.
- Identify methods a school-age staff member can use to encourage kindness, safety and security within the learning environment.
Think about the types of communities you belong to. Your family, group of friends, colleagues and neighbors all represent different communities that you are part of. In each of these communities, you demonstrate respect for others, acceptance of others’ differences and have a feeling of pride, accomplishment or competency. Often, you need to work together with a member of one of these groups to accomplish a goal or solve a problem. Many times, being a part of a group helps you to feel confident in yourself and establish a healthy sense of self-esteem. For children, the school-age program will represent a community of peers. As a school-age staff member, you will be responsible for creating a sense of community in the school-age learning 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:
Structure and safety
Boundaries and expectations
Caring Relationships in the Learning Environment
A learning environment that has a strong sense of community is one where children feel safe, have positive relationships, and are free to explore and learn. However, creating a sense of community is not something you can achieve overnight. Children will need to trust you, other staff members and their peers to truly feel as if they belong. Because of this, everything that you do and say while in the learning environment matters. Children are watching the way you interact with other children and adults. They are watching your body language and listening to your tone of voice. 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 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 in the expectations, such as “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.
- Showcase the performance of children. Show children that you are proud of their accomplishments by displaying their work, 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 the safety and structure of a learning community 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 do this by establishing a daily routine and publishing it so children know the expectations and what is coming next. When surprises 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 Safety 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 there needs to be expectations in place 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 attached to this course for additional information and resources.
- Institute an ongoing program that motivates children to be kind to another. Many schools and education centers have programs that encourage children to be kind to others every single day. 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.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Children and youth who bully others, or are victims of bullying, are at risk for other problems, which may impact them in adulthood. 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, and 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 things. This can include name-calling, taunting, threats to cause harm, and inappropriate sexual comments.
- Social or Relational: hurting someone’s relationships or reputation. This can include spreading rumors about someone, embarrassing them, and leaving someone out on purpose.
- Physical: hurting a person’s body or a person’s belongings. This can include taking or breaking someone’s things, hitting, spitting, or pushing.
- Cyber: bullying that takes place using electronic technology. This could include rumors posted on social networking sites, fake personal profiles, embarrassing pictures or videos, or mean text messages or emails.
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
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 behavior expectations in a way that children and their families can understand.
- Staff members and children work together to develop expectations that make sense to all.
- Staff members set realistic limits appropriate to the developmental level of children in the program.
- All children are expected to follow the same set of expectations.
- Appropriate limits are set to keep children free from harm and 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 won’t 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 will 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. Download, print and complete the Observe: The Environment activity and share your work with your trainer, coach, or supervisor.
How do you establish and maintain a safe, caring community in your school-age program? Download and print the Maintaining Community activity. Read the scenarios and brainstorm ideas about promoting community. Share your work with your trainer, coach, or supervisor.
Blum, R. (2007). Best practices: building blocks for enhancing school environment. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
McCloud, C. (2006). Have you filled a bucket today: A guide to daily happiness for kids. Ferne Press.
Council on Accreditation Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs. Retrieved from https://coanet.org/standards/standards-for-child-and-youth-development-programs/
Jarolimek, J. (2001). Teaching and Learning in the Elementary School, 7th ed. Merrill Prentice Hall.