June 2018 Lower School Principal Column
Barbara Shea, Lower School Principal

It is no surprise that the end of the year is upon us; what is always surprising is that it seems to come so quickly! By the end of the year, our students are fully acclimated to the classroom routines, to the grade-level expectations, and to the pace of their work, and they are deeply entrenched in their studies. From March to May is when we see significant student growth. The units of study are engaging, and many aspects are open-ended, allowing students to demonstrate proficiency in their skills or their agency in the face of challenges.

Throughout the year, teachers are constantly observing each child's progress, and by May, there are many assessments that have taken place in reading, writing, and math. Our goals are twofold: to monitor the class in reaching grade-level benchmarks, and to examine the individual growth in each child's development. The end of the year is also time for closure; it is a time for reflection on the work that has been accomplished and a time for celebration for the successes students have achieved. For this reason, we do have a number of presentations, drama productions, and end-of-year activities. Pre-K students enhance their study of the pond at the Rye Nature Center, Kindergartners share their accomplishments within their Reader's Theatre production, the first graders incorporate their study of community into their plays, and second graders highlight the hurdles their "fictional" families faced in coming to America in their immigration play. Third graders recently held their colonial play, set in Jamestown, and fourth graders shed light on the inspirational figures they have studied in a unique presentation at the end of the month.

While there are many tools to measure academic progress, there is also a social/emotional growth that happens that I want to recognize. As I watch the various rehearsals, I see just how much each child has grown over the last nine months. But students have also grown in more subtle ways, ways that are more difficult to concretely measure yet are demonstrated by the ways they interact with one another, a process that evolves over time and sees many starts and slips in its progression.

Cognitive and the social/emotional development do not always develop at the same pace. The social/emotional growth varies from one child to another as children move from their "me centered focus" of the young child to an ability to take in another's perspective and develop empathy. As in everything else, the learning in this social realm takes energy, energy to read and interpret body language, as well as to decipher both the words and emotions and to articulate thoughts and emotions. Children are constantly learning from all that they see around them and experimenting with behaviors and phrases as they look for reactions from their peers and adults.

Teaching children to navigate friendships with kindness and caring is part of our holistic approach to learning. Teachers regularly guide conversations with children across the grade levels. While the class begins the year as a room full of individuals, by the end of the year, the students have "gelled" as a class with the help of group and class projects and discussions throughout the year. Every year, classes are reconfigured to bring a new group of students together and begin the process anew. The ability to develop friendships across the class and the grade is a skill to be cultivated.

Responsive Classroom's Morning Meetings, the friendship groups with Dr. Pager, the individual teacher conversations, the peace corner, the mindful moments, and the growth mindset approach to learning, are all tools that provide opportunities for the children to work on these skills...and slowly we see that the students begin to use the language that defines their growth. They use "I statements" to describe how they feel; they see the importance of motive and intention; they recognize there are more similarities among them than differences. Students see that an "open mind" allows them to listen to another person and truly hear what he or she is saying. They learn to respect one another's space and work. Even though the social/emotional development of each child takes time and constant guidance, the benefits are enormous. Students who have a broad range of friendships demonstrate self-esteem and confidence, and that spills over into the classroom. They can advocate for themselvesamong their peers and with adults; they recognize that their voices are valued.

Over the summer, that social growth continues as children spend more time interacting with friends and siblings at the beach, at camps, while traveling, or at home. Being able to engage in deep conversations with adults has a tremendous impact on a child's ability to listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. These are skills that must be taught, especially when the "art" of conversation can be so readily replaced with text.

I wish you and your families a wonderful summer filled with opportunities to enjoy your children as you read books, play board games, or immerse yourselves in creative play. These moments will help your child savor the joy of personal interactions, and they will reap tremendous rewards as they apply those skills to the relationships with their friends. When that happens, the doorway to academic learning becomes that much wider.