School is about to start, and our house is abuzz with the frantic energy of trying to get ourselves organized. I used to be a teacher, and I still get those back-to-school jitters at the end of summer, while searching stores for supplies and taking the kids shopping for new outfits for the first day.
My older son is starting middle school, and as I prep for the transition, I’m thinking a lot about his elementary school experience and which teachers he had. His learning and emotional needs are unique, and we find he connects exceptionally well with some teachers and poorly with others. As a mom, I want his teachers to see and know him, and appreciate his strengths. I worry about him being viewed as a higher-needs kid in already crowded classrooms.
We got lucky in elementary school. The school principal liked our son and took our concerns about classroom placement seriously. She was empathetic and seemed to get the logic and emotion of our dilemma. We told her our goal was for our son to enjoy school and be in classes where he could learn and thrive. Watching his joy for learning dim with adults who can’t connect with him is painful.
The principal asked us to trust her with teacher placement. Five years later, I am so glad we did. From first through fifth grades my son had teachers I wish every kid could have. They brought that extra something — science meets magic — what I call the “alchemy” of working with kids.
My son blossomed under the care of his elementary school teachers, and I hope the same will be true in middle school. As a mom, and an educator and social worker I have watched these teacher-student interactions with curiosity and hope, asking myself how alchemy can happen with every teacher in every classroom.
Over time, I identified basic needs that make a classroom or teacher a good fit for my child. I use these as a checklist at the beginning of each school year to check in with my child and understand how things are going and what extra support he might need. One year, these needs were unmet. We worked hard to make things work with that teacher but eventually asked for a change. It was absolutely a hard decision, but the right one to advocate for.
Here are those eight basic needs to look for from your kid’s teacher this year:
- Essentials: Kids need teachers who recognize their basic bodily needs. Look for teachers who let your kid snack, use the bathroom or visit the nurse when needed, take a stretch or standing breaks, and even rest.
- Safety: Kids need to feel physically and psychologically safe. Look for teachers who care about classroom climate and culture. They should show genuine interest in and concern for your child and be quick to address safety concerns.
- Belonging: Kids need to feel welcome and known in class and at school. Look for teachers who invite kids to be themselves and celebrate them for who they are — quirks and all.
- Mattering: Kids need to know they matter, and that what they are doing matters too. Look for teachers who make kids feel valued and who make learning relevant.
- Play: Kids need time to be kids (even the older ones). Look for teachers who create fun experiences and provide time for unstructured play. Learning happens through play, so if your child talks about toys or games in the classroom, don’t worry. It can be a very good thing.
- Downtime: Kids need opportunities to downshift, process, and reflect. If they go full-speed all day, their brain can’t integrate new information into the right places. Look for teachers who incorporate quiet time into the school day. This might include time for independent reading, journaling, mindfulness practices, or studying.
- Exploration: Kids thrive with novelty and discovery. It’s one of the best parts of learning. Look for teachers who do student-driven projects as well as experiential and hands-on learning and provide solo and group activities.
- Community: Kids need each other. Healthy relationships and social connections are key ingredients for optimal learning and development. Look for teachers who build a positive community among students and families. This can be done through community-building activities, like morning meetings and advisories, classroom rituals and routines, and more informal everyday interactions.
Last night, we went to the middle school open house to find my son’s locker and drop off supplies. As we wandered this big new place, we heard an excited and recognizable voice. It was my son’s first-grade teacher (and mom to a fellow middle schooler). She stopped everything to check on my son, encourage him, and provide useful advice on tricky locker combination locks. Her smile, hug, and presence was all the reassurance he — we — needed for whatever comes next. Hopefully “next” includes teachers just like her.
Stephanie Malia Krauss is a mom, educator, and social worker. She is the founder of First Quarter Strategies and the author of Making It: What Today’s Kids Need for Tomorrow’s World. Her next book, Whole Child, Whole Life: 10 Ways to Help Kids Learn, Live, and Thrive will be released in 2023.