Encouraging Students’ Natural Tendencies

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I once taught a mixed-age kindergarten class that had both four- and five-year-olds. Each year my four-year-olds became the older fives, and we welcomed a new group of four year olds. One day early in the school year, four-year-old Mason was watching five-year-old Brandon count the 100 chart with a small pointer. Mason looked longingly at Brandon and then looked at me as I walked over.

“Hi, Mason. What’s up?”

“I want to count the 100 chart like Brandon does.” “You do?”

“Yeah. He does it every day. He’s so good at it! I want to do it like he does.” “What if you asked him if he could show you?”

“I can do that?”

“Absolutely! And I think Brandon would be happy to show you.”

Brandon, of course, was only too happy to show Mason how to count the 100 chart, and they counted together each day during our math workshop for more than a week.

This taught me two things:

  1. Children can be so empowered by each other. If one student sees that another student can achieve something, it makes it feel much more attainable.
  2. There is a great deal of opportunity for social and emotional growth and practice through the academic work we do with children every day.

Children learn that it’s okay to practice skills they need and that their classmates and teacher will help them.

Children are born scientists. They like to try something, watch what happens, and then try it again, or adjust their action accordingly and try a different approach. Because children are naturally curious, they appreciate learning that allows them autonomy. They also welcome learning that allows them to build on their interests and go past what they already know.

For example, kindergartners will take things at face value. They are literal and will not read between the lines. With this in mind, a warm, direct approach is often the best way to support our youngest students.

First graders are all about representation. They need to see, talk about, and create. First graders learn best when given the opportunity to represent learning through making, drawing, or writing to incorporate it into their working knowledge.

Second graders often feel a sense of competence because they have been “doing school” for a while. But they also may have some natural anxiety about getting things right and consolidating some of the learning of the past years. They appreciate the ability to reflect with each other—they can think back about what was difficult to learn in the past and offer ideas about how to respond to them.

As teachers of young students, how do we both encourage these natural tendencies and help incorporate other important skills into their learning?

Modeling Skills Needed for Success

One effective strategy when teaching children skills and routines needed to be successful with their work is Interactive Modeling. This strategy provides children with a clear message of what is expected and also gives them the chance to practice the behavior and receive immediate feedback (Wilson, 2016).

Interactive Modeling can be used for both academic skills (such as counting) and social and emotional skills (such as asking a partner for help). When we take the time to build modeling into our lessons, children understand that school is a place that helps teach them what they need to be successful—they aren’t required to guess what is expected of them. Children learn that it’s okay to practice skills they need and that their classmates and teacher will help them. Children also learn that it is okay not to know something right away and that there will be time to practice their skills so they can improve them.

Here are some skills to consider modeling with K–2 students:

  • Taking turns
  • Getting materials
  • Encouraging each other
  • Disagreeing respectfully
  • Asking questions to learn more
  • Working through something when it is difficult


Children have active imaginations. Taking time to harness their imagination is another way to set children up for success. For example, once in a while consider using a short, 30 to 60 second guided visualization with your students to help get them in the mindset for the work ahead:

First graders, we are about to start our math work today. Close your eyes and picture yourself getting your materials: What is your body doing? How does your face look? Now you’re walking to your math space and sitting down with your partner. How will you figure out who goes first? Think of the question you ask. … Now imagine you want to celebrate finishing the game. What will you say to your partner? How will the two of you celebrate your work?

By taking the time to help children set themselves up for these little challenges, the more successful they can be with their work.

Here are some situations to consider for visualization:

  • Getting materials
  • Smiling at a partner
  • Deciding where to work
  • Putting materials away
  • Celebrating work well done
  • Working through something hard
  • Encouraging someone who is having a hard time

Telling and Sharing Stories

Whenever I think about starting a new unit of study, or introducing a new idea or concept to my students, I look for a children’s book about that idea or make up a story to share. Not only are books and storytelling a magical way of getting everyone together, they also provide the class with a shared story to start from. From these stories, our class will find inspiration, will build upon ideas, and will add our own ideas and twists to it.

During my years teaching the mixed-age kindergarten, our teaching team determined a few skills we wanted to highlight for our students in science: observing, recording what you see, and sharing what you learned. To help introduce these skills, I once wrote a short book called Mely Becomes a Scientist. I drew Mely performing one of those skills on each page and showed her talking with her family about them. I laminated the pages and bound them with book rings, and then I read it to my students. It was a very simple book, with only a sentence or two on a page, but it proved to be exactly what the students needed and provided a framework for our class. We talked about how Mely observed and drew something in the book and compared it to how we were observing and drawing things of our own.

Just as we can use visuals in our classroom such as number charts, shape posters, and learning cycle examples to support children’s academic learning, we can use visuals to support and scaffold the teaching of social and emotional skills.

These shared stories can also inform the social and emotional skills we practice: Are the characters in the book working through a challenge? Are they communicating their ideas to others? Are they caring for materials in a safe way? Are they working collaboratively with others?

These shared stories also allow easy connections for our students: “Who can remind us what Mely did when she got to something hard? How might someone in our class use that when we’re doing our science work today?” From a book’s character, we can use stories from our own class to guide our learning: “Remember how Olana shared how she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and said, ‘try again’ when she got stuck? Keep that in your pocket for your work today, and at the end of math workshop, we’ll talk about other strategies we use when things feel tricky.”

Use Visuals to Support and Scaffold

Just as we can use visuals in our classroom such as number charts, shape posters, and learning cycle examples to support children’s academic learning, we can use visuals to support and scaffold the teaching of social and emotional skills. For example, here are some anchor charts you could make:

  • Steps for playing a partner game
  • Strategies to use when you feel frustrated
  • Words that encourage others
  • How to go about solving a problem with a partner


Incorporating reflection throughout the day will help children build the capacity for self- evaluation, which then can lead to conversations about how reflection informs our next choices. For example, if a child recognizes that they didn’t get as much work done because they were sitting next to their best friend, they can consider that reflection the next time they choose where to sit when working.

Reflection is the last step in the natural learning cycle of plan, work, reflect. See pages 33–35 for more on the natural learning cycle and sample lessons that utilize this cycle.

Encouraging reflection allows children the chance to evaluate how their learning and work went and then make informed decisions for next time. Reflection also is not limited to academic conversations. Just as we deliberately weave social and emotional skills into our content areas, we can guide children to evaluate how well they used some of their social and emotional skills to help them during their work.

Here are some sample reflections to consider:

  • How did you and your partner help each other today during math lessons?
  • What is something your partner did that helped you learn?
  • What is something you learned from your partner?
  • What is something you can do even better tomorrow during math lessons?
  • What was something that challenged you today? How did you persevere?
  • Did your choice help you get smarter today? Why or why not?
  • Did you do your best work today? Why or why not?

SEL Skills to Focus On

Within the lens of K–2 students, other important skills to consider include encouraging others, persevering through a challenge independently, reflecting honestly on your work, working independently, noticing others and how they are feeling, and caring for materials before, during, and after work periods.

The five social-emotional competencies children need to be successful in and out of school are cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (Center for Responsive Schools, n.d.). In addition, Costa and Kallick’s (2008) habits of mind can serve as a jumping-off point for some of your modeling and discussion to support your students’ academic and social-emotional skills.

Remember, too, that you are the expert on the children in your class. Your own observation of students will guide you to the skills they need to practice. Taking the time to notice what is going well and what still needs work will provide you with plenty of ideas.

As for Mason? By the end of kindergarten, he was showing other students how to count the 100 chart.


Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (Eds.) (2008). Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. ASCD.

Center for Responsive Schools. (n.d.). A+SEL competencies. https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/about/about-sel/

Wilson, M. B. (2016). Interactive Modeling: A powerful technique for teaching children. Center for Responsive Schools.

Kirsten Lee Howard was born and raised in New England and currently teaches preschool at Annandale Cooperative Preschool in Annandale, Virginia. She has taught special education, kindergarten, and first grade during her twenty years of teaching, and is a certified Responsive Classroom teacher and trainer. Kirsten is the author of the kindergarten section of Empowering Educators: A Comprehensive Guide to Teach- ing Grades K, 1, 2.