Expert Commentary: Counting on Kids

By: Judy Lyden

This week I've spoken to a lot of people who teach very young children a variety of things. I've talked to horseback riding trainers, swimming coaches, dancing teachers, craft instructors and the count goes on for a new piece I'm doing for Evansville Living Magazine.

I've watched my teachers at school do their jobs with particularly interest this week, and I wondered why it is that some adults can teach a child and some can't. Why is it that a simple lesson like counting just misses with one teacher and is successful with another?

None of the material is rocket science. Teaching a child to count is really coupled by the fact that counting does come naturally to nearly every child. The human condition wants to know and understand things, and a single item doesn't carry the interest or even look the same as five or twenty-five of the same items, and a child wants to know why.

Show a child rubber car eraser, and he is amused, show a child a box full of rubber car erasers and the child is delighted. It's a matter of numbers – numbers he can count. Teaching a child how to count, how to touch and say, how to do the first part of what we in the business call one to one correspondence is not always easy because children learn the stair numbers, one, two, three, four, five, and they want to repeat them over and over again lickety split simply because they can.

But counting has no meaning simply repeated, and just saying, one, two, three, four, five will shortly lose its glamour - unless it's applied. So with a small handful of tools, and a small mouthful of words, a careful teacher will sit with a child who either sits or stands – his comfort – not the adult's, and the teacher will carefully and slowly with an up beat voice and an eye that stays focused on what the child is doing, let the child touch the like objects and say his numbers one at a time as far as he can go as many times as he likes to do it.

What are the key words in the last mega sentence that will lead a child to learn and cause a teacher to teach? "His comfort not the adults" is the primary part of that sentence because learning for a child is new. A dogmatic "it's time to do this now" crushing approach on the part of an adult is like offering a stray cat food with a stick.

If a teacher sits down with a small box of plastic teddy bears and slowly begins to take them out of the box and line them up on a brightly colored table in the midst of ten little kids, all ten children will approach the table and want to do what the teacher is doing. You can count on that.

If a teacher says, "It's time for counting, put your toys away now and come to the table," fifty percent of the children will run the other way. What amuses and attracts a child is an adult who knows how to play and does it first, who seems interested.

Children are attracted by what they see in action. Does it matter that children sit or stand to do? Not really. Painting and gluing are always better projects when kids stand because they have more upper body control. Hand writing is better when they sit because the area of focus becomes smaller when they sit.

But the high energy child will never be comfortable sitting, and trying to make him sit is like climbing a brass wall – it isn't going to happen. Let him stand in the back or flit a little. It will make him comfortable and he will learn – probably faster than the others.

Up beat voice and an eye that doesn't stray from what the child is doing is the last part of the sentence that marks a teacher from a non-teacher. For a thinking adult, counting five to ten objects over and over is stultifying, but a teacher realizes that it's not boring to a child.

And that brings us to the essence of what makes a teacher a teacher and separates him or her from other adults. The answer is "child first." A teacher can't do that with a mind full of preconceived notions about order and picture perfect minimalism.

A teaching moment is always a surprise to a new teacher. To an experienced teacher, it comes as an accident when nobody is looking and the place is a mess. Being prepared for teachable moments means getting into a child's heart and staying there and that's only possible when you understand how children work and play.

In twenty years of teaching and employing teachers, I've come to realize that a successful teacher always thinks from a child's perspective. The first and primary word in discussing a child's progress is never the assignment or the desire of the teacher; it's the child's name.