Everyone knows that small children are like puppies. They are full of energy and curiosity, and constantly demand your attention. And (most of the time), they are adorable.
But if you don’t teach them manners and discipline, they can, on occasions, be a tiny bit exasperating.
When it comes to educating them – the children, not the puppies – there is a serious point to be made. They need to be helped to moderate their exuberance in the classroom. And by learning beneficial behaviour patterns, children will find it easier to learn and to adapt to the school environment. It’s a matter of using their natural energy and curiosity to good effect.
And, also like puppies, when one child learns useful behaviour patterns, others will follow.
I was struck by the similarities when I happened to see a programme about "dog whisperer" Cesar Millan, world-renowned for his amazing ability to charm unruly and insecure dogs. Within a few minutes of meeting him, dogs become calmer and more responsive.
How does he do it? His method is to focus clearly on expectations and to react immediately to any unwanted behaviour. But his reaction to the dogs is based on body language and maintaining a calm presence – even when chaos reigns around him.
'Teachers are pack leaders'
I admit to becoming addicted to watching this handsome Mexican-American taming the most desperate of cases and uncovering the loving and endearing animal beneath the loud or aggressive outward behaviour, and I couldn’t help but make the connection between dog-whispering and children.
Seeing a type of equivalence between children and puppies is unavoidable. They both gambol, they are inquisitive, and they need and deserve secure and safe environments in which to thrive.
Watching Cesar Millan reminds you that the pack leader is all-important. Teachers should remember that the non-verbal component of communication is made up of body language (thought to be around 55 per cent) and tone of voice (38 percent). Pack leaders – aka teachers – do not shout. Pack leaders do not offend. Pack leaders expect certain behaviours, and they receive them. And pack-leaders look after their pack.
"No eye contact, no touch, no talk" is Cesar’s mantra when greeting dogs, until they have calmed down and are ready to be addressed. When my class runs in at the start of the day, I state quietly (and "own" what I feel) that I will talk to them when they are ready. I then look away. It works like magic. Children understand, they become calm, and then move on to their next task.
For example, one day a week my class go to swimming class immediately after arrival at school. Understandably, they’re excited and lots of them want my attention immediately. I quietly say that I’ll talk to them when they’re ready. Calmness is restored and the class gets ready to leave for the pool.
Teachers know to ignore the bad and praise the good whenever possible. By focusing on the behaviours we want, we avoid inadvertently feeding anxiety or unwanted behaviours. Notice the good behaviour in one child, and you immediately see it mirrored in others around them.
Like Cesar Millan’s puppies, children work better in a secure and solid environment with boundaries. This is not an environment of criticism and unattainable goals but one that enables them to flourish in their surroundings. They feel safe to work, learn and explore their thinking because they have a strong, reliable pack leader they can fully trust. Teachers should be that safe pack leader that enables the whole pack to flourish and be heard.
For me, Cesar Millan’s work provides a useful metaphor for teaching small children. And a challenge like that is always useful.
Helen Collins is a Year 3 teacher at Burgess Hill Girls Junior School, West Sussex.