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ESE504 : The Class : Elementary : Role


Role of the Child

Portrait of the Primary Student

by J'Anne Ellsworth

The child's sense of right and wrong develops slowly. Even when a child has matured intellectually to the point of telling right from wrong to our satisfaction , it does not suggest that the child is emotionally ready to do right and avoid wrong. -Ilg and Ames

A developmental perspective is powerful, but it does not always fir with a teacher's personality. A significant number of teachers in the primary grades have a developmental background and see youth from those experiences.

Developmental Perspective Child as little adult (often misbehaving)
* Teacher believes in children * Teacher has a punitive approach
* Teacher is willing to work hard * Teacher seems to feel burned out and jaded
* Teacher can allow students to share in the educational responsibilities * Teacher tries to hold the power and control
* Children are instructed with kindness and are helped to build on personal desire for rigor and mastery, with acceptance of limitations * Teacher "rules" the classroom
* A Developmental Model is used to view dysfunction and remove blocks - this view occurs across all dimensions of the child, not just the cognitive area * Teacher views subject matter as primary and the students as secondary

*Children are seen as growing and deserving of the time, space and assistance to grow.

* Teachers are not concerned with individual student potential, strengths, or weakness
* Children who are not functioning well are seen as resources for information about what will help and often given support and safety to move forward * Children don't learn because of externals and others(home, inner-city) can be blamed for failure to learn
* Children are seen as individuals who will need to be taught in ways that match skills and strengths * Children should just listen & think to learn


Role of the child

The Primary school child is correctly busy at the business of sorting out ways to meet personal needs. The child is complex and like a precious jewel, intricately faceted. To see the child only as a learner or student is similar to looking at one facet of a jewel and missing the interplay of light and color. The child certainly does not approach school or day care in that manner. The wealth of the child and the surrounding world, fact and fantasy, comes in the door with the learner. To work effectively we will accept the holistic nature of the child.

The child is also in the midst of determining who should be in control. Hourly, there are issues raised about who is in charge, how time and energy will be spent an who must be served.

The child's body is often the determining factor in what the child will do and how she/he can perform. Gaining control of self is difficult work.

Most children at this point are working to establish self control and will continue to work at self discipline for many years to come. Helping the child to feel capable of self discipline and choice slows down the number of tantrums and power struggles. The child is basically autonomous and we beckon the child to taste of the pleasures which come from awareness of others and making concessions which take others into account.

A tool for this is the PEPSI model. This is a mnemonic device for recalling the basic developmental areas of the child.

P physical development including health, small and large muscle control, intactness of the five sense and wealth of information the child's physical status provides
E emotional development including Erikson's descriptions of stages and interaction with self-esteem issues
P philosophical and moral reasoning development Still premoral and behaving to stay out of trouble rather than able to see and understand the needs and views of others
S social development interactions of environment and the child including family system, source of powerful messages and quality of interaction with others
I intellectual and cognitive development Generally involved in concrete stage; self talk is important and students may talk constantly - feeling like they are not thinking when not conversing.


There are many tasks and development skills which are the province of the young child. The human being first develops gross motor skills and control the body. It is later that refinement occurs and the child seeks to become adept at small motor skills. Typically the young child uses the body in broad strokes. It is unusual for the child to have an awareness that skills are developing. Instead, there is an intensity and drive to live fully in the body and to push the limits of physical ability at every turn. It is a simple matter to see the developmental stages in the physical domain if the child is healthy and normal. The healthy child takes on each stage of development with grand intensity and shows pride with every stride. The child who is ready to learn to hop or skip or swing works diligently. Bumps, bruises, missed cues, blisters, all are worthy of a momentary sniffle, but cannot daunt the child's headlong rush to achieve, to learn, to experience, to create.

The same is true of body control. Although the interior warring about who is in charge and who is the boss sometimes spills over into the domain of toileting or clothing choices, most of the focus for the child comes in mounting increased self control and needing ever lessening guidance and assists from others. Children typically like to be in control of themselves. An early and often overused phrase is "Me do it!" There are many artificial demands which school settings may require of children. Many children talk nonstop and expect everyone to listen. It is a difficult transition to come to school and find that others do not listen and further, do not wish to have the child talk. Some children literally feel that their brains are not working if they are not talking, and some children truly learn best by verbalizing their thought processes. We now have methods for teaching teachers to listen to the self talk of children, and programs for teaching children to monitor self talk.

Children are full of energy. It is difficult for them to sit still and there is little about their development which directs stillness. Physical awareness of being the boss of their hands, not touching, not hitting, not pushing, not wiggling must be brought to the child's attention if important in a setting. Because children are self aware rather than keyed into the feelings of others, it is difficult for them to think about sharing or waiting or not calling names. (These skills can be taught, of course, and it is important for children to learn to be socially adept.) Those who have siblings have already learned many of these things.

The first days of schooling for most children are physically challenging because there are so many new physical limits which are impinging. The child can learn to work within the physical limitations if they are reasonable and the child is given cues, helpful assists and the expectations for self discipline are built up over time and patiently practiced.


The child of two and three needs to attach to a "parenting figure" and to continue to work through issues of being able to trust situations, finding ways to be safe, and having a sense of control over the environment. The child of four and five expands to include additional adults in a parenting or nurturing role and continues to develop a sense of trust in adults and mirrors that sense of trust in the ability to express the self and share self with others.

Although the child knows that the teacher is not the same as the parent, a rich and safe environment can often be distinguished by children who call the teacher "mama" or "daddy". Thus the role of the teacher for young children in care may be described as a nurturing parent figure. As the child develops self-reliance, self-control and a sense of safety the teacher's role becomes diversified. The child has a growing need to satisfy those in charge and thus gain approval for the "Doing" things.

If the child has been nurtured lovingly, the sense of well "being" is strong. The most important teaching role for such a child is to be firm, nurturing, provide a rich and consistent environment and assist the child in initial efforts to gain self control, to continue feeling the gratification of growing self control and avoid any use of positive measures. It is essential to value the child's right to make errors and to remember that the child is thinking about actions using pre-moral thinking.


The pre-moral stage is the first level of moral reasoning or philosophical development. The child knows that certain things are "wrong" because of what will happen, but there is no real understanding of the "wrongs" of the act. To understand the child it is important to know what is getting in the way of being able to understand right and wrong.

Guilt and shame are natural responses for most children when they believe that they have displeased others or know that they have gotten caught doing something which is forbidden. Although they are powerful behavior shapers, if overdone a sense of guilt or shame leaves a lasting scar and robs a child of rich potential and creativity. Modeling and teaching appropriate behavior with gentle coaching will work better than pointing out a child's errors and weaknesses.

Asking a child "why" is also ineffective. Since the child is philosophically unable to be introspective, that is, to think about thinking, it is more important to spend time reminding a child of the reasons a behavior is not acceptable. Further time can best be spent showing the child alternatives, or expanding ideas about other choices the next time a temptation arises. Many times a child forgets.

Sometimes children want to have their own way and cannot understand why their way is not just as valid as an adult wish or demand. At times children become tired and lose control over impulses, to see alternatives, to choose what will meet needs other then their own. Children who do wrong things at this age should be assisted and nurtured, given clear expectations and helped to make good choices.


Social messages have great meaning to all of us. At different stages, though, we may not listen to some of the messages with the same intensity that will come later. For the young child, messages from parents and from the teacher have the most meaning and impact. The adults who are closest to the child will have the most referent power. If a child believes that s/he is important and highly valued by adults, then the messages which are sent will have a great impact on the child. These early messages are deeply embedded and have a lot of power to shape the child.

A teacher who gives a child messages of high regard will be setting up the likelihood that the child will love school, look forward to learning and feel like the challenges of learning are exciting. The child who receives messages of low worthiness will be less likely to come to school, to feel motivated at challenging points in learning, unlikely to complete formal schooling.

Peers of the primary age child have less impact than significant adults. It is a powerful tool to be aware of the social referents of the child and to set a pattern of acceptance, warmth, and regard during each stage of development. Some youngsters are more social than others. Some do not possess the natural charm of attractiveness to peers that other same age children may have. In the primary years much of this can be addressed in plain terms. We assume that many social skills are innate, and perhaps they are. At the same time, we know that many of the skills, perhaps even some of the charming behaviors, can be taught and learned. Since children are less concerned with peer pressure at this stage of development it is an excellent time to help children learn to deal with peer pressure, work at being socially adept and model socially responsible behaviors.]

Whenever we bring up the idea of helping students to acquire good social skills we have comments asking which skills we will choose, whose social strata will be valued, what proper character education should include. We have those who worry that teaching social skills will detract from academic skills and rob the child of high test scores. As we look at the natural areas of growth in children this age, it becomes more and more clear that the finest provinces for attention to acquisition of new tasks comes in areas of physical development, emotional development and social development. Time spent on tasks acquisition in these areas will promote the best set of intrapersonal and relationship skills, meet the interests and natural abilities and give us the highest success rate with natural motivation.

Though the child is not ready to understand or practice democratic principles, this is an ideal time to develop a habit of teaching them to ask others about their wishes. It is entirely reasonable to explain how behavior has taken away another's choices. It is also an excellent point to begin explaining and showing them how their choices have limited their own freedoms and options.


In school settings we are often told that many of the children have little intensity about learning. When we see diminished interest in a child it is a clear signal that we are not involving the child in an appropriate set of tasks or that there have been enough failures that the child's natural strength and endurance have been damaged. Children have a tremendous ability to stay with tasks when they are satisfying a need and a drive. Task commitment is high for using the body in broad strokes and in ways which are appropriate to development.

Since most children of this age learn best by doing, it is important to have varied challenges, most of which are very didactic in nature. When children ask questions or seek to learn about things which are conceptual or theoretical, we certainly can assist them to make meaningful connections and to work within their areas of interest. The caution comes in working to involve an entire class of youngsters in materials which are not in concert with natural abilities or interests. Even then, a cursory perspective of numeration does no damage. It is in the pushing, testing, and demanding evidence of understanding beyond the intellectual skills which makes curriculum choice damaging.

Whenever the question of appropriate leaning material comes up, the story comes t mind of the kindergarten child who came home and asked his parents where he came from. The father cleared his throat, stammered around and went through a discussion of procreation. When the little boy seemed uninterested the father stopped, "Why did you want to know?" he asked his son. "Well," said the lad of five, "I just wondered, 'cause Charlie said he came from Chicago."

Are you interested in learning about child care? Here is an interesting link: Childminder

You should now:

Go on to The Role of the Child: Portrait of the Intermediate Child
Go back to Elementary

E-mail J'Anne Ellsworth at

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Course developed by J'Anne Ellsworth


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