20 secrets of kindergarten teachers

Nobody knows this age group better than kindergarten teachers. We spoke to the country’s best to find out the most effective tactics and strategies they use to manage kids' behaviour.

Photo: Erik Putz, illustration: Jamie Piper

How come they listen to you and not me?
That’s a question kindergarten teachers get from exasperated parents all the time.

The truth is, when it comes to managing behaviour, teachers have some pretty big advantages over moms and dads: years of education and experience; the power of peer pressure (which explains why your kid refuses to put away his Lego at home but stands obediently in line with his classmates at school); and the fact that your kid’s teacher simply isn’t you, so he’s way less inclined to push the boundaries and buttons that come with familiarity.

Still, that doesn’t mean many kindergarten teachers’ strategies won’t work at home. We picked the brains of some of the most outstanding teachers across Canada to uncover their secrets and learn how parents can apply them. Some may take a little work upfront, but trust us when we say the payoff is worth it.

Photo: Erik Putz

Photo: Erik Putz, illustration: Jamie Piper

Parent challenge #1: My kid thinks he’s the boss and doesn’t take me seriously.

Teacher tactic: Establish authority early
It’s tempting to want to be buddies with your babies. But what’s most important at this age, says Candace Sprague, a primary teacher at Dr. John C. Wickwire Academy in Liverpool, NS, is that they understand who their leader is.

Great kindergarten teachers earn the respect of their students by setting the tone early and consistently. For Sprague, that means speaking firmly and clearly, and using strong body language to communicate confidence. “I’m not harsh, but I do speak with an assertive voice,” she says. She also clearly communicates boundaries, expectations and consequences from the get-go. “Be assertive,” she says. “You are the one guiding their lives. They’re looking to you for structure.”

Teacher tactic: Get on their level
Sharon Nielson, a kindergarten teacher at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Sylvan Lake, Alta., conducts all one-on-one conversations with her students at their eye level. “I’ve wrecked my knees, but it’s where you gain children’s respect,” she says. “If that means getting lower chairs, you get lower chairs.”

Photo: Erik Putz

Photo: Erik Putz, illustration: Jamie Piper

Parent challenge #2: My kid won’t take responsibility (or lies!) when he messes up.

Teacher tactic: Tell your kids about your mistakes
When Nielson was a kid, she got caught stealing from a store. It’s a story she shares with her students year after year. In fact, in more than two decades of teaching, she says being relatable has been one of her best tricks of the trade. “They cannot hear enough about when an adult they like does something wrong,” she says. “And they love being the ones to teach me why it was wrong.” Sharing your childhood wrongdoings with your kids (within reason) shows that everyone makes mistakes. They won’t think less of you, but they may share more about themselves, all while learning valuable lessons from your mistakes.   

Photo: Erik Putz

Photo: Erik Putz, illustration: Jamie Piper

Parent challenge #3: My kid throws a fit when she doesn’t get her way, and conflicts never end on a good note.

Teacher tactic: Don’t force a “sorry”
It might be tempting to insist your kid says “I’m sorry” when he snatches his older brother’s prized Pokémon card or trips over the baby after you’ve asked him not to run in the house, but Jillian Toombs, a Toronto kindergarten teacher at Morse Street Junior Public School, says that’s a mistake. “When you make kids apologize, they’re not getting the lesson behind it,” she says.

In her classroom, students go to a “talk it out” table, where they’re encouraged to get to the root of the problem on their own. With little supervision from her, they take turns airing their grievances and then work together to find a solution. Often, Toombs says, it will end in a much more authentic apology that comes from the kid and not from your request. It’s also a strategy that can be easily applied at home, say, at the kitchen table. Maybe your little guy was promised a turn with the card, but his older brother changed his mind, or perhaps he was trying to get your attention and felt ignored, hence the running.

Teacher tactic: Breathe first 
When a kid is having a tantrum, self-awareness is tough. Before kids can manage conflict, says Sprague, they have to manage their bodies. She accomplishes this with a trick called the Turtle: Her students imagine tucking their heads into a shell, then they take deep breaths while “inside” to calm down and get more comfortable in their bodies. “Our main goal is to get them to stop and take a breath before reacting,” Sprague says. Another great self-regulation technique? Have your kid imagine she is breathing in flowers and then blowing out a candle.

Teacher tactic: Define THEIR emotions
A portion of Katherine McKeown’s classroom’s back wall is covered in feelings—literally. Along with her students, the Toronto kindergarten teacher at William Burgess Elementary School has created a virtual cornucopia of colour-coded “treasure words” that extend far beyond “happy,” “sad” and “mad” to terms like “furious,” “discouraged” and even “wilted.” During a conflict, McKeown has her kids point to the word they are feeling. The children also study one another’s faces and point to the word they think the other party is feeling (some teachers use mirrors so students can recognize their own feelings in their appearances). “We’re learning the skill of mindfully observing someone’s countenance,” says McKeown. Once the feeling is determined, the kids work together on a solution to get back to “happy” (or another synonym).

Teacher tactic: Eliminate tattling
They say having one child makes you a parent, while two makes you a referee. If you’re in the latter group, you’re familiar with the ins and outs of tattling. When a kid comes to Toombs with a problem, she’ll ask, “Are you telling me because somebody needs help? Or are you telling me because you want to get them in trouble?” Toombs says this type of questioning can help your kid learn that not everything needs to be brought to your attention. If nobody is being harassed or at risk of physical danger, Toombs puts the onus on her students to solve the problem. If it’s simply a matter of one kid bugging another, she says, then they have the power to ask the other kid to stop. Sometimes, for them, just knowing that is half the battle.

Teacher tactic: Create a cozy corner
Many kids appreciate a safe place where they can go to manage their emotions, says Johanne Hamel,  a pre-kindergarten teacher at École Trilingue Vision in Victoriaville, Que. Her kids head to the classroom’s cozy corner “to resolve conflicts with one another and with themselves,” she says. Create a spot using a tent, a nook or an unused area. Fill it with a rug, pillows, books and some stress-management tools, like a CD player with soothing music, a rainstick or a stress ball. Then explain to your kids what this place is for (peace, not punishment) and illustrate times they might use it, such as when they’re feeling upset or tired.

Teacher tactic: Don’t drag out the discipline
After one of Laura Ireland’s students methodically broke every crayon in a brand new package and then approached her sheepishly with a confession and an apology, she made the conscious choice not to tell his parents. “At this age, discipline needs to be on the spot and quick,” says the kindergarten teacher at Parkview School in Edmonton. “It’s a reminder about the rules, then maybe they miss out on a couple minutes of an activity and then you move on. I don’t think two hours later kids need to be reminded of the thing they did.” When you wait too long to act or you drag out punishment with a “wait until I tell your mother” approach, Ireland says, you risk losing the connection between the act itself and the lesson.

Photo: Erik Putz

Photo: Erik Putz, illustration: Jamie Piper

Parent challenge #4: My kid tunes me out and doesn’t follow directions.

Teacher tactic: Give fair warning
Imagine you’re deeply engrossed in your favourite show only to be interrupted by your partner who demands you turn it off and immediately go to bed. You’d find that kind of behaviour pretty jarring and disrespectful, right? The same goes for kids, who, especially around this age, may feel particularly anxious or out of control when it comes to transitions.

Offering warnings when an activity is about to change is what works for Toombs. She suggests first communicating when the end of an activity will occur and then using a visual reminder, such as an hourglass timer. This way, kids can clearly see how much time is left for an activity and the end doesn’t come as a surprise.

Bettina Tioseco, principal and kindergarten teacher at Westside Montessori School in Vancouver, believes in modelling a sense of calm around transitions. “If you’re frazzled, transition times become something kids get stressed about,” she says.

Teacher tactic: Be predictable
Kids love knowing what’s coming next, says Lindsay Stuart, a kindergarten teacher at Henry Braun Elementary School in Regina.

Most kindergarten teachers use a visual calendar or schedule as an outline for their day. “One of the first things my kids do when they come in the room is look at it,” says Stuart. When they know what’s happening in their day, she says, they’re more apt to co-operate when asked to stop what they’re doing and move on to the next thing.

It’s impractical for most parents to have a calendar that lays out every single daily activity, but you could try using one to highlight the general structure of the day or help develop routines around tricky transitions, like getting out the door in the morning and getting ready for bed.

Teacher tactic: Get their attention before giving instructions
Whenever she needs her kids’ full attention, Hamel pulls out her rainstick. When she turns it, the near-immediate silence that follows—with the exception of the stick’s own soothing sound—is deafening. “At the beginning of the year, I explain that when I turn the rainstick I want them to lower their voices so I can talk to them,” she says. “They love the noise, so they stop everything and listen to it.”

McKeown uses a mix of whispering, echo songs (where kids repeat after her) and a hand-held xylophone. “They’re conditioned to leave what they’re doing the minute they hear it and go to the carpet,” she says. “I call them Pavlov’s kids.”

Teacher tactic: Keep directions simple
The most efficient way to give directions kids might actually follow is to keep them short and sweet, says Amie Caverhill, a kindergarten teacher at Nashwaaksis Memorial in Fredericton. She swears by a “first, then” strategy (“first hang up your jacket, then bring your lunch bag to the counter”). Once it’s clear they can manage two instructions, feel free to add one more to the sequence. Having them repeat the “first, then” back to you also helps.

Photo: Erik Putz

Photo: Erik Putz, illustration: Jamie Piper

Parent challenge #5: My kid’s bathroom habits are gross

Teacher tactic: Sing about it
When you have to do the same thing over and over again, it stops being fun pretty fast. McKeown finds her way around mundane bathroom tasks by singing, and she’s even written some songs for the occasion. One example (sung to “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain”):

When you use the washroom, flush and wash your hands (repeat)

Take the tap and turn it on, pump the soap right in your palm.

Make it bubble, make it lather, count to 10.

Songs are a great way to help kids remember multiple steps, McKeown says. “The kids love this one so much, they remind each other to sing it.” 

secrets-of-kindergarten-teachers-6

Photo: Erik Putz, illustration: Jamie Piper

Parent challenge #6: My kid won’t do anything for himself.

Teacher tactic: Assign chores
Giving your kindergartner household chores can feel like more trouble than it’s worth. But Nielson says this is a mistake, as chores teach independence and important skills. “Be patient and keep your expectations high,” she says. “These kids can do so much.” Sprague suggests filling a list with age-appropriate tasks, such as drying dishes, feeding a pet or dusting, and then having your kid move a clothespin to indicate which chore he’ll do that day.

Teacher tactic: Don’t do what your kids can do themselves
Standing in your home’s entryway for 45 minutes while your kid gets dressed might sound like your own personal hell, but kindergarten teachers swear by the importance of this activity.

As the clock ticks down and you risk being late for wherever you’re going, you’ll be tempted to jump in and fix a stuck zipper or put boots on the right feet. Resist the urge, say both Toombs and McKeown. Doing things for your kids that they can do themselves teaches them not to try. In their classrooms, both teachers tell their students to “ask three before me,” meaning the kid should see if some friends can help before asking the teacher. You can adapt this strategy by directing your kids to try something three different ways before asking a parent for help. “This encourages them to tap into their problem-solving skills, and in so doing, they realize they have the capacity to be much more independent than they think they are,” says McKeown.

Teacher tactic: Let them make mistakes
Erin Pugh, a kindergarten teacher at David Cameron Elementary School in Victoria, BC, facilitates a bimonthly cooking class with her students. She lays out visual instructions, ingredients and tools on the table, she stands back, and the kids have at it. “In our last session, every kid managed to bake their own cornmeal muffin,” she says. “They weren’t all perfect, but nobody stepped in to say, ‘You’re doing it wrong.’” These accomplishments are key to building confidence and independence at this age. “They’re so capable if you give them that opportunity,” Pugh says. 

Teacher tactic: Let them find a solution
Pugh often sees parents running to the aid of their children at the playground and feels strongly that this just adds to their neediness. “Instead of teaching them their limits, we’re teaching them to be afraid,” she says. “It’s good for them to take chances and to fall and brush themselves off and try again,” she says. She recommends giving your kid the opportunity to think critically for himself by talking him through his challenges from a safe distance: “I saw you get up there. I believe you can get back down by yourself. What do you think you need to do?”

As a parent herself, Pugh admits this is hard to do. “Being a teacher is hard, but being a parent is harder,” she says. “You’re so emotionally invested, you’re exhausted, and there’s very little thanks involved. But it all pays off in the end.”

Photo: Erik Putz

Photo: Erik Putz, illustration: Jamie Piper

Parent challenge #7: My kid’s stuff is everywhere.

Teacher tactic: Label everything
In her classroom, Jillian Baldassarre, a kindergarten teacher with the Edmonton Catholic School District, uses pictures to label everything. When items have a dedicated, labelled place and that place is at their level, it’s more likely your kid will take responsibility and put things where they belong. “It’s a lot of front-load work,” Baldassarre says, “but at the end they’re cleaning up after themselves.”

Teacher tactic: They lose it, they find it
Snakes and Ladders is a classroom favourite, says Hamel, so when the die went missing, it was a calamity. But her strategy for keeping everything in its place is clear: They lose it, they find it. “I have other dice, which I could have swapped into the game,” she says. “But it’s their responsibility.” When they found it inside the play kitchen two weeks after it was lost, they took much better care of it. With this rule firmly in place, your kid’s stuff might still be all over the house, but it won’t be your job to hunt for it. Win!

A version of this article appeared in our September 2016 issue with the headline “Secrets of kindergarten teachers,” pp. 78-82.

Read more:
Teacher confessions: 5 things parents should never do
Kids’ behaviour: 10 things to forgive them for and why
7 things kindergarten teachers want you to know

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