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Never Turn Your Back!
By Eleanor Reynolds

When I first began working with the problem-solving philosophy, my director advised me to "never turn your back on a child." My first reaction was that maybe the child would attack me from behind, but I soon leaned that she was teaching me my first lesson in supervision. When we give freedom and responsibility to kids, we, as teachers, must always be vigilant and ready to respond to any situation.

The foundation for a problem-solving program is effective supervision. Although the goal of such a program is to teach children the skills they need for independence, freedom of expression, and acceptance of responsibility, one issue must take precedence over all others. That issue is safety. Of course, children can be kept safe, but the challenge is to keep them safe and free at the same time.

Children can’t develop normally in a totally risk-free environment. They must exercise their curiosity, experience their senses, test their bodies, and approach their world in countless ways. For this, they need an enriched environment filled with possibilities for experimenting and learning. In this environment there is also need for an adult who is alert, caring, and committed to helping children stay safe. This atmosphere of freedom and safety can only be accomplished through effective supervision.

Along with individuals who supervise effectively, a program needs a structure that enables effective supervision. When one teacher is alone in a room with young children, especially toddlers, she cannot safely watch all children at all times. Every time she changes a diaper, prepares a bottle, or facilitates a conflict, she takes her attention from the group. This leads to more biting, fighting, and general chaos.

I urge every program to reorganize so that there can be one person, a coordinator, in each area whose job is to change diapers, arrange rooms for meals and naps, and generally direct the flow of traffic. This frees teachers to directly supervise the kids. This job can rotate or alternate so that no one has to perform these duties every day. With the same number of staff, you can provide a safer environment.

Position, Circulate, Affirm

Pretend you are giving a party. As host, how do you make your guests feel welcome and make your party a success? Even more than the food and music, the most important ingredient in your party is you. You will position yourself so that you can see everyone in the room and be ready to help any guest who is in need. You will circulate around the room to make contact with all your guests, so each is special and you’re glad they came. If there is a problem, you will deal with it warmly and respectfully. This is how we treat guests. These same guidelines apply to supervising children.

Positioning: Your position as you watch children is extremely important. Depending on the shape of the room, the number of children, and whether you are the only teacher, stand, kneel, or squat where you can see everyone at the same time. Be aware of which areas are trouble spots. For instance, you may want to stay close to the easel when it’s in use, or near the puzzle area where there are lots of pieces, or close to an indoor climber. If a particular child is a biter you will want to stay near that child. Avoid turning your back to anyone; a conflict between children can occur at any time without warning.

Circulating: If there is more than one teacher with a group, it may be tempting for teachers to huddle together and socialize. This happens frequently on playgrounds, where safety may be the greatest issue. Teachers should always be alert and concentrate on the kids. You can accomplish this by moving among the kids, still positioning yourself to see very child. It’s almost like a dance, where every step counts. In time, circulating becomes second nature and you won’t even have to think about it.

Affirming: As you circulate, it is natural to make contact with every child. This is when you can say a word, smile, or gently touch the children in your care. Give them positive messages, reinforce the kind of behavior you appreciate, notice the child who is playing alone, give recognition to each, and narrate what you see them doing. Affirmations are an important part of supervision because children behave more appropriately when they feel important.

If there is a problem, such as a child forgetting to put away toys or a conflict between kids, treat children as you would your guests, with warmth and respect. Set limits firmly to teach responsibility, but always remember that our role is to teach children the skills they need to get their needs met appropriately. This is the essence of effective supervision.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at problem@blarg.com.