I was visiting a student the other day on her final practicum in an early childhood centre. The practicum focus was on social competence; what is it; and how does our teaching practice support children in developing their social competence. My role as visiting lecturer was to observe the student’s interactions with children and give feedback on her practice in relation to social competence.

This particular student was at ease with the children, and had obviously begun to form effective reciprocal relationships with the children who surrounded her during an art activity. The student had organised a printing session for me to observe and as art is a favourite for me, I was eager to see what would unfold in terms of social competence and her teaching practice.

The activity involved sponges and three colours, and the children had ready access to paper in front of them for printing. I noticed several children ignore the sponges and opt to use their fingers, seeming to take delight in the process of smearing the page with their hands. The activity continued for some time with different children coming and going, some modelling the actions of the others, choosing to use their fingers instead of the sponges, completing their picture and leaving. I was intrigued by how the children had taken charge of the direction of the activity and began wondering how an educator could fulfil the role of “teacher” without destroying the children’s explorative efforts.

I began thinking about children-centred practise and what really happens as we attempt to respond to the child’s interests. The focus of this session was on social competence: At a simplistic level, the children were sharing paint and taking turns with the sponges, but at a deeper level, I was interested in the social interaction between the student and the children with regard to their accomplishments.

The student acknowledged their efforts as the children came up to her with their finished work and she directed them to put their pictures on the drying rack. Her responses were appropriate: “Yes I like your picture.” “Well done, and I like the colours you have used.”

However, I contemplated what effect turning the conversation around would have on the children. What if the student asked the children what they thought of their own work? How might social competence be enhanced through this sort of interaction and how would it impact other children seeing a child celebrate their pleasure in their own work?

During the triadic with the student, I raised these same questions, as I asked her about the potential for developing and extending this learning experience and what she could do differently next time. We discussed ideas such as having a direct teaching session with the sponges, once the children have had the chance to explore the paint. After all there is an important place for structured teaching of skills; sometimes it comes after an initial “free play” session. We also talked about child-initiated conversation and how to encourage the child to comment on their own picture, rather than always seeking teacher approval. I challenged the student to consider another question: Do we take time to foster joint appreciation for individual achievement? Through joint appreciation, children have the opportunity to see that it is OK to be pleased with something they have achieved, and for others to share in this success. Surely it is social competence that enables us to empathise and share rewarding moments with others.

We talk of a child-centred curriculum, where children direct their own learning experiences and educators are guided in their planning by what children are interested in, yet do we really let this idea of “child-centred learning” flow through to our conversations with our children? Child-initiated conversation is not about a token gesture toward the child; it must be genuine and stem from a sincere attempt to enable the child to confidently start a conversation. If we expect and desire children to become socially competent, they need to be able to initiate conversation, not only respond when spoken to. By providing opportunities and the time for children to make a statement about their own art work, maybe they will begin to see themselves as sources of their own approval and be able to express their opinions about their own achievements.

Some suggestions for fostering child-initiated conversation about their own art work:

  • Ask the child what they think about their artwork before they ask you.

  • Comment on how exciting it is to see the child happy about their work.

  • Comment on how exciting it is to hear the child talk about their art work.

  • Encourage the child to pick something about their picture that they really love.

  • Give children the opportunity and time to celebrate their art work with others.

  • Hold a mini exhibition of art work – model giving feedback on specific elements in the pictures – use of colour, brush strokes, patterns etc, and ask the children what they like about the pictures/artwork.

There is no doubt that the role of an educator aiming to enhance and support social competence is demanding. Knowing when to intervene and direct some structured learning experience and when to back off and let the child explore their own ideas all involves a clever interplay of sensitivity and awareness of individual needs. With regard to developing conversation, it may even mean keeping quiet. I would challenge any teacher to count the opportunities they give their students to say how they feel about a finished piece of art work, and how often do you, as the teacher, say - well if you’re pleased with it – that’s great!

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