Finding Teachable Moments and Lessons Inside and Outside the Classroom

Elementary school classrooms are filled with all kinds of complex personalities and activities. There are meddling tricksters and sensitive wallflowers, fights over toys and struggles with testing. How do teachers balance the good and bad to create a classroom community that’s respectful, eager and responsive in all the right ways?

The answer may lie in how educators turn turmoil into harmony.

“Non-academic teaching opportunities in the classroom are so important, especially at the elementary school level, because you’re teaching life and social skills,” says Kathryn Starke, an elementary literacy specialist for Chesterfield County Public Schools outside Richmond, VA. At an early age, children learn the traits that shape their adulthood, such as conflict resolution, sharing and peer relationships, she says.

Reward Good Behavior

“A teachable strategy is to catch children doing the right thing and reward that with public praise,” says Rachel Rudman, a pediatric occupational therapist in Lawrence, NY. “The teacher can praise them for sharing and give them an extra minute to play.”

This models good behavior in a way that makes everyone feel good about the situation. Other ideas are selecting students of the week or giving children entries to a larger prize — something as simple as choosing a lesson — for their random good deeds and positive actions.

Teachers Set the Tone

But identifying teachable moments is even more important when failures or bad behaviors rear their disruptive heads. “Fostering a classroom milieu that offers opportunities to problem solve, in addition to punishment, can help children choose more appropriate behaviors to correct the inappropriate ones,” says child psychologist Joel Dillon of Orenstein Solutions in Cary, NC.

When things go wrong, such as a tussle over a basketball at recess, don’t concentrate on the negative. Honing in on a child’s bad behavior can be embarrassing and detrimental for all. Of course you want to correct bad behavior, but take constructive rather than punitive action whenever possible. “The teacher’s reaction sets the tone for the classroom,” Starke says. “If a teacher immediately reprimands during one of these potential teaching moments, then the class has learned that creating a ‘teaching moment’ is going to result in a negative experience.”

Start by setting realistic expectations and understanding students’ strengths and weaknesses. For instance, if children are having difficulty sharing, divide students into play groups and set a timer for when they should switch activities, allowing the class to practice the skill of sharing.

Learning Opportunities in Lieu of Punishment

It’s important to give children the opportunity to stop and rectify situations, a skill that comes in handy as they get older.

“Having a child stay in for recess all week is not a teachable moment,” says Tammi Van Hollander, a play therapist from Ardmore, PA, specializing in preschool and elementary students. “It’s a moment where the child feels badly about himself and is not given the tools to change his behavior.”

Van Hollander suggests getting creative, like giving the child a pretend remote control and having him pause, rewind or stop the situation. The child can talk through the bad situation with the teacher and find a better way to handle it. It requires some originality, but results in a lesson shaped by positive action instead of negative reaction.

But let’s face it. Sometimes it’s really hard to take a chaotic disruption and turn it into a successful learning process, but a little work now results in a bigger payoff in the long run.

“Teachers need to encourage their students that mistakes are one of the best ways to learn,” adds Van Hollander. “Mistakes can also turn into wonderful moments of creativity and life lessons.”

Claire Parker has a solid understanding of education from more than a decade of covering the beat for award-winning national and local publications. She is also a venerable profile writer interviewing subjects from emerging artists to notable professors. She lives in Wilmington, NC, and relishes Southern gardens, outdoor parties and anything to do with saltwater and sand. Find her on Google+.

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