By Kelsie Castro
“Knowing others is intelligence. Knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” – Lao Tzu
Each year, especially as our children grow, we grapple with how to support the developing dynamics of different friend groups. With each new class of students we see new relationships develop, different levels of friendship emerge and the paring of different individuals that will ultimately shape our classroom culture.
Because these groups and pairs are inevitable, a huge part of our curriculum usually involves some level of community building. As these relationships develop we want children to explore and reflect on the things they are doing to connect with the people around them and what that means not only for their friend group, but for the classroom as a whole.
This year that conversation was opened up in response to some of the dynamics we had already observed between friends groups who had been together for the past two-three years now. Within that time we had seen deep connections come to life but we had also seen some children start to close off from other people around them. Focusing so intently on their “best” (meaning most established) friends we realized that these children, and others as well, had not had a chance to see some of the new connections they might have missed.
As usual we decided that we needed to do something about this and began to approach this broad idea of “community” in our morning meeting. As a co-worker of mine (Rebecca) posed different questions to our group about what they thought community was and what it meant to them, everyone started to share their ideas…
From these initial ideas I could already start to see different threads emerging, my mind imagining all the possibilities of how we could further connect to this idea of “community” with the children. It was Rebecca’s final question however that really caught my attention. She asked all of us, what do you bring to our community?
As I pondered this question a little more I felt my mind shift to a conversation I had with a parent just days before about individual “powers”. I started to think about what we discussed about strengths and how each of the children, and I think each of us, has strengths that we can contribute to the larger group. In that moment, I realized this question Rebecca had shared moved past just what community was and into the idea of what our place, children and teachers, is as individuals within the community.
Within our classroom the different languages like drawing, clay, paint, wire, wood, etc. tend to be the places from which we draw our individual power. They are the means that we use for self-expression and self-actualization. Through these languages we are able to open ourselves up to others and by doing that, to the strength and power living inside of us that is not easily seen.
For teachers, seeing the “powers” we bring to the classroom has come easy this year as each of us has been drawn to the different mediums. We’ve shared these strengths with the children and they have begun to know these things as the gifts that each of us as individual bring; often showing us by sharing our excitement and passion for those languages. But what about the children?
As I thought more about how evident our strengths were to the children, I wondered why I hadn’t been able to really see all the individual powers that live inside of them yet. The answer to that I quickly realized is because many of these children have yet to see that in themselves.
With the group dynamics that have developed within our classroom and how quickly these children have connected with their groups of friends, many children have missed important opportunities to connect with the first ripple of their community…themselves.
This is something I think that we began to see early on in the year as different groups of children started to follow the lead of the most assertive group member, or when different pairs of friends would seem to favor the interests of only one person. And while that ebb and flow of power and the sharing of ideas is normal in all developing relationships, this time it felt different.
Because we (including children) see ourselves reflected in the relationships we have with those around us, moments where our ideas are not heard or where our strengths are not fully appreciated can easily become something that shapes our sense of self. What I realized as I reflected on this in the context of our classroom was that this is exactly what many of our children were experiencing, which also meant that many of them were not feeling empowered enough to advocate for their own needs, ideas, and passions within their groups. Instead of looking within themselves they were looking instead to the person whose voice was most often heard, losing sight of their own power along the way.
So how can we as a community better support children in discovering this aspect of themselves? What can we do to ensure that their environment and the relationships they have within it empower them to see what can they bring to our community?
If children are going to be able to find their place within a community and to recognize what they bring, they first need to be able to recognize their power. They need the time and space to look deeply into their own minds. They need to see their ideas and believe in what they think or feel, so that they are empowered to share it. They need to feel the passion that fuels their power and to realize that it is something special, something deep within them that drives it. They need to know that they are in control of their own minds and that what they think, feel, believe and do is a choice they are making for themselves.
But in order for children to achieve all these things, what we must realize first is that they will need support. They will need support in realizing that it is okay to listen to their heart instead of the voices around them. Support in understanding that it’s okay to take time away from a group of people to reconnect with who you are outside of it. Support in knowing that it’s okay to to feel lonely, uncertain, or even scared sometimes.
As adults in their lives we have to be willing to sometimes make tough choices for and with them to put them in a place where they can be reflective and connect with that internal voice. We must encourage them to step back from what is comfortable, to take risks physically and emotionally, and to make their own choices regardless of what their friends may think.
But above all else we must approach with support, love, and understanding as they navigate these big moments of self-discovery. It’s through that support from us and other members of their community, that children will be empowered to appreciate and share the power they have within themselves.