Stepping Back, Stepping In: Ideas for Effective Helping

No matter how large their class is, or how many hours they have in a school day, most of the primary teachers I’ve met feel like they have too little time, too many kids, and/or too many different needs in their classroom. As a result, teachers can feel like they’re perpetually in motion, moving from one child to another, without any time to stop and think. We end up feeling exhausted and like there’s not enough time to help every child.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to step back and just watch my class, without diving in to help. By stopping, stepping back, and watching the room, we can stand in our own calm and mindful bubble. And from there we can:

  • observe our students,
  • choose the most effective and efficient helping strategies, and/or
  • allow kids to persevere without us.

Part 1: Observing

After I’ve introduced a lesson and kids are starting independent work, I try to always take a moment to stand aside and watch them go. It doesn’t have to be for a long time, maybe just for a minute or two. As I watch, I ask myself:

  • what’s the transition like?
  • who starts their work right away?
  • who understands the directions?
  • were my directions clear?

Sometimes I jot down a couple of notes about what I see, especially regarding work habits and behavior. Or, if my directions weren’t clear, I clarify them for the whole class. Then, I take another minute to walk around the room, observing, and noting:

  • who doesn’t know how to get started?
  • who’s confused or doesn’t understand the work?
  • who’s off-task?
  • who’s racing ahead?

I stop only to give a quick reminder, answer a quick question, or put an extra challenge on the board if I see kids who are ready for it.  Then, I move on to…

Part 2: Choosing How to Help

Once we’ve observed the room, our goal is to help the kids who need us the most so they can work independently. What we want to avoid is diving in and helping one student at the expense of everyone else. Why answer the same question or give the same support more than once? Why help just one student when three more could benefit from the same instruction?

We want the help we give to be effective and efficient. During my observation time, I’ve already noted who needs help. Quietly, one-by-one, I approach each of those students and ask them to join me with their work at an empty table or at the rug. Just in case I missed anyone, I say to the whole class: “I’m working with a small group. If you’d like help, come and join us.”

Once we’re all together, I give the amount of support the group needs. In math, that might mean doing the first problem all together and sharing our strategies. Or, I might reteach part of the mini-lesson if everyone in the group is confused. In writing, we might brainstorm ideas together, or talk about our projects and what we could do next. The key is, as each student feels confident and ready, I send them back to their seat to work independently. It’s the essence of a “gradual release of responsibility,” when we provide the right level of support so that kids can then take on challenges on their own.

In ten minutes, we can help one student, or we can help everyone who needs support in our room. If we work efficiently, we then have plenty of time to give an extension to high fliers or provide for other kinds of differentiation.

Part 3: Allowing Kids to Persevere

Sometimes, kids don’t need anything from us except space and time. Part of the art of teaching is knowing when to do nothing. For instance, I try not to immediately interpret staring into space as inattentiveness. Staring into space is also what thinking looks like, especially when a task is challenging. If I’m not sure what a student needs, I ask: “Do you want help or time?” And if the answer is time, I come back in 5 or 10 minutes to check in.

Standing quietly and observing our students doesn’t always come naturally. We want to help. But by taking the time to not teach, we can see from a new perspective that allows us to maximize every other teaching moment in the day.

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2 thoughts on “Stepping Back, Stepping In: Ideas for Effective Helping

    • Thanks, Becky! I think of you you and everyone at Lilja often. Christine was one of the inspirations for this blog post. I remember you and I talking one day about her calm, relaxed manner with kids. Such amazing skill!

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