Inviting Interdependence in School Age Programs

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The new school year begins next week. Many children will once again be joining us afterschool. As another year begins we want to engage in practices that help foster the growth of our learning community.

Looking at independence and interdependence in school age programs there are some key practices that enhance the experience for children and educators and help foster a balance of independent action and interdependent thinking.

The first practice is to collaborate with children as they navigate making new social connections within the school age community. In a public school setting, school age educators work with large groups of children who possess a blend of dependent, independent, and interdependent skills. All children, at different times, need assistance with a variety of social situations as they traverse through their daily experiences. 

Children, who display more dependent tendencies, ask for more more assistance with most tasks from building a rocket to opening a carton of milk. More dependent children can be invited and encouraged to try and solve problems on their own. When invited to try new challenges, children with dependent tendencies sometimes interpret the invitation as meaning the educator is rejecting them and can also feel that the educator is intentionally being “mean.” 

As educators, we need to share with the children in our care that we are not saying no, or rejecting them, instead we are offering to share ideas on how to solve a problem and that we are available to lend support as the child navigates learning a new skill. With this support children with dependent tendencies can begin to acquire new skills, expand their choices, and gain confidence over the long run. 

Children who display more independent tendencies are practicing different skills than the dependent group, most often working on developing skills in making connections within the learning community. Strongly independent children often struggle with collaboration in a group setting, have a robust desire to always be the leader, and find communication with children and educators challenging. 

Strongly independent children are used to being in charge of all their choices, and become frustrated when another child or educator does not understand or acknowledge this tendency. These children often need our help to talk out problems with others, as they have a hard time understanding social situations that involve a group dynamic.

Our role as an educator is to offer children with more independent tendencies an opportunity to be in charge, but in a way that builds the entire learning community. Educators can encourage independent children to help others by assisting and guiding younger children as they find their way socially in the learning community.

The second practice is to make sure as educators that we are guiding children in skills that lead toward social emotional competency and nurture the growth of the learning community.

Four skills that are essential in creating a balanced learning community include self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and responsible decision-making.

Fostering community can be our greatest work that we do as educators in a school age program. Many parents will ask what type of work we engage in each day. My answer is always, play and practice social skills. 

Utilizing our time together to have fun, create, and practice social skills is beneficial for future happiness in life. As educators, we have multiple opportunities each day, as conflicts arise, to bring children together and scaffold how to solve a problem with another person. As we guide children how to enhance their skill in the four areas mentioned above this builds the learning community and motivates children away from being totally independent or dependent and invites them to notice the feelings, wants, and needs of others fostering interdependence.

The final practice relates to the invitations we present or activities we engage in with the children. The environment and the curriculum have a profound influence on how the children work in community. The environment influences social emotional connections. The Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia recognize “The Environment as the Third Teacher.”

The environment and the way it is presented can influence connection thru simple ways like the amount of space in a room, or in more complex ways like colors on walls, or the amount and type of materials offered. Does a messy environment influence social interactions differently than a thoughtful and beautiful one? Yes. In school age care, we often share our environment with the school and cannot control all of the factors where we practice, but we can control how the room is set up, how our work is presented, and how we respect the materials we use for our work. When children work in beautiful thoughtful spaces they value their interaction with the work as this translates into embracing beauty and thoughtfulness in other areas of their life. 

Invitations and activities need to be carefully designed, especially if educators are making choices for the children. Inviting children to choose their own work is a preferred practice. School age children often have defined interests and inviting them to choose what to explore creates a built in connection and thoughtfulness in their work.

Not all children are comfortable finding their own work. As educators if we become involved and offer invitations for the children I believe they need to be community building instead of competitive. Often in traditional school age care, games and activities that are popular do not build the community as they create an environment where there is a winner and a loser. As educators we need to be aware of what we offer children so they can be engaged, have fun, and become closer as a group. 

Finally, working in small groups is optimal for building community. Small group work for school age children fosters more interaction with their peers, creates opportunities to practice social skills, and generates space to make meaningful connections.

As the new school year begins I look forward to employing these practices as I continue to study and improve my practice. I hope to be a guiding light and partner with the children as they gain new skills and have a great time and a great day afterschool.