Photo credit: Brooke Cagle

But What If No One Listens to Me?!

Addressing Fears of Shifting to a Child-Centered Approach

OK, so, you threw out the clip chart; vowed to not use “stop, look, and listen”; and stuck the stickers in the art center and the treasure chest in the dress up area. Good for you! But then, you look around your room and it feels like chaos. There are a few things that will help you.

Set Clear Expectations with Your Children

Don’t assume every child knows how a school community works. Spend time in collaborative conversations to talk about how the kiddos want the classroom to run. Establish a few bottom lines to be guides in how the community will act.

  • Gather your class together. Set the tone for these conversations by having your class sit in a circle at a time of day (morning meeting, just after read aloud) when students are fresh and ready to collaborate.
  • Reflect on a positive experience. Hold the conversations after a harmonious whole-class activity such as choice time or a game of tag. Ask, “What went well?” “Why did it go well?”
  • Use positive language. “Don’t hit” is not as useful an expectation as “Use a safe body with friends and with materials.”
  • Circle back to the expectations often. Return to these conversations and your class expectations often, revising and adding to them as you need to. Use the phrase People of the world as a litmus test.

Then Act Out, Role-Play, and Further Define Those Expectations

Everyone can set intentions; think about how many times you have claimed you are going to get in shape, eat more kale, file your papers on the day you use them — meeting expectations is the hard part. Think of your expectations as habits you want children to build, and that will take time. How do you build a habit? Intentional and sustained practice until it becomes an action without conscious thought. Defining terms like a safe and unsafe body, listening, or respect, then practicing those things, is no different than how we teach anything else. This is the step we most often miss when teaching social skills.

Make A Plan (Not a Punishment) When Expectations Are Not Met

To build a habit, you need to build a neural pathway. Sometimes you need to deconstruct an old neural pathway (I am angry so I hit) before building the new one. Punishment doesn’t really play a role in that cycle. Our friend and colleague, Shanna Schwartz, from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project said to us, “If a child is having the same issue again and again, we have to consider if we have made a plan with the child to do something different.” Just punishing doesn’t set up for an alternate behavior.

“Kids need to be able to develop trusting relationships with adults. . . . power-based interactions between teachers and kids (such as punishment) fundamentally disrupt that trust and any sort of caring alliance. The tougher the kid, the more critical it is to establish that alliance — and thus, paradoxically, the more important it is not to punish when the kid does something wrong” (Meier 2013).

At the End of the Day

Part of our job is to be calm, happy people. That seems like such a simple thing, but when a community is having a hard time coming together, it is easy to slip into behaviors that run counter to how we would want our community to run. A classroom run on fear or shame does not teach how to live boldly and kindly in the world. Expect a little chaos; expect kids will be silly and noisy and some will hit and some will interrupt. Be thankful when no one bites, and when they do, know that you can help them learn better ways to communicate. Community building, like all teaching, is slow and steady, but so is the act of growing into a compassionate and critical thinker. Management will get you compliance, but it won’t get you community. You need to teach social skills for that.

In Kids First from Day One, Christine Hertz and Kristi Mraz go into further detail on how to achieve the classroom of your dreams and what to do about the bumps along the way. Explore more by downloading a sample chapter, available at

Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz

Christine Hertz is coauthor of the Heinemann titles ​Kids First from Day One and the bestselling A Mindset for Learning. She finds great joy and challenge in helping all children grow as independent and engaged students. She is passionate about keeping play and creativity at the center of children’s lives and curiosity and wonder at the heart of learning. Christine has taught in a wide variety of classrooms from preschool to fourth grade and as an adjunct instructor of education courses. She currently teaches in Worcester, Vermont. You can follow her on Twitter @christine_hertz or visit her web site at

Kristine Mraz is also coauthor — With Christine Hertz — of Kids First from Day One ​and the bestselling A Mindset for Learning. Kristi has also coauthored — with Alison Porceli and Cheryl Tyler — Purposeful Play, the book that helps you make play a powerful part of your teaching, and with Marjorie Martinelli she wrote Smarter Charts and Smarter Charts for Math, Science, and Social Studies.

Kristi teaches Kindergarten in the New York City Public schools. In addition to writing and teaching, she consults in schools across the country and as far away as Taiwan. On the off chance she has free time, you’ll find Kristi reading on a couch in Brooklyn with her dog, her husband, and baby Harry. You can follow all of her adventures on twitter @MrazKristine or on her blog