PEORIA — Whether she’s talking to them or about them, Anna Brown almost always refers to the children as “friends.”
It’s never “All right, class” or “OK, students.” It’s “All right, friends” or “OK, friends,” or “My friends are usually down for their naps about 1 p.m.”
Recently, Brown noticed the preschool students in her class at Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center pay attention to her words.
On this particular day, they wanted Brown to tell cafeteria workers how much they like the breadsticks. They didn’t say, ‘tell the lunch lady.’ Instead, she recalls, “One of them asked, ‘Will you tell your friend?’ … And it dawned on me, they’re extending the language to other people, someone they haven’t met.”
“Friend” is an action verb in Brown’s voice. She doesn’t expect everybody in the class to become friends, but the word describes how she treats the 3- to 5-year-olds and how she wants them to treat each other.
“It’s a sign of respect,” she says. “We’re part of the same team, we’re part of a community.”
Brown’s classroom, G-1, is a haven for pre-school activity and a building block for healthy relationships.
The morning free period is a transition time before the formal day begins. They put coats away, wash their hands, eat breakfast, find something to do. Though Quinton isn’t in the class, he always stops by to give his older brother, Kwan, a hug and to get a hug from Brown and the teacher’s aide, Crystal Glasper.
Brown’s friends move easily from paint and easel to iPad, computer mouse or big-screen computer games. In between, there are blocks, a sandbox, the science station, writing center and reading space.
Who plays what or with whom is fluid from day to day, moment to moment. But they’re almost always interacting. Charlize may help a classmate adjust paper on the easel before she begins her own painting. No matter where Isaac lands, he makes robots. Others may join him or work next to him at a table drawing or on the floor among the blocks, but it’s going to be robots.
There’s a play kitchen in one corner, where they act out the roles of family living. On one day, Kaedyn was the mother, Antonio was the father and Kylee was the sister who wanted to stay up and cook rather than go to bed.
Lately, a butterfly — the earlier-than-expected result of a summer class project involving a caterpillar — has captured everyone’s attention. And the loft above the science station, Brown says, came about because she wanted students to have a cozy area when they needed privacy.
Glasper, the teacher’s aide, says the loft came about because 4-year-olds leave Brown’s classroom knowing how to use real clamps and real drills.
Brown sees her mini-woodshop as another aspect of working with her friends. “Working in that area seems to ground my friends who have short attention spans,” she says, noting that the children who helped build the loft are now in fifth grade.
She also gives students the tools to use when relationships break down.
When she overheard Abdul in a dispute with a girl about a toy, she didn’t intervene. She told the two, simply, “to sit down and work it out.”
It’s a tactic she has taught students to use. One states the problem, then asks if the other has heard them. They go back and forth until they reach a mutual agreement. “They’ve gotten pretty good at working it out,” Brown says.
But when she has to correct a child’s behavior, she makes sure the rest of the class understands the issue is between her and that child. “I don’t want them to label anyone,” she explains, “I want them to hold on to the sense that that child is part of a community.”
Through photograph and anecdote, Brown is constantly watching for examples of each child’s cognitive and physical development. The examples — such as reading, math, fine motor, and problem-solving skills — go into the portfolio assessments that serve essentially as early childhood report cards or standardized tests.
The assessments also require her to watch for the emergence of friendship-making skills. Do they play alone or with others? Are they able to enter a play group and contribute to it?
The steps for joining other children at play are the same steps for making friends, Brown says.
The seeds of building relationships are embedded in Brown’s teaching style, skills developed over 35 years in early childhood education, the early training for Valeska Hinton teachers and memories of her own childhood. Watching children’s actual relationships bring her the most joy.
“They are the magic,” she says. “What makes our room special is what they do with each other and how they support each other.”
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.