Teachers tend to assume, wrongly, that five-year-olds attending schools in low-income urban neighbourhoods cannot be focused on their learning. It is thought that these kids concentrate instead on things like the latest cartoons and do not have the self-awareness to engage in their own academic progress. But my disadvantaged kindergarten pupils have a passion for self-improvement.
This is because our classroom climate is focused on setting and achieving goals together. We began to do this in 2011 when I was among the first group of teachers to link up with Classroom Champions, a non-profit educational organisation that works internationally, including the US, Canada and Costa Rica, that connects current competing Olympians and Paralympians with students in low-income schools.
Over the course of a year, the athletes use video chats, blogs and monthly video messages to mentor pupils aged 5-8, introducing them to concepts such as goal-setting, perseverance, taking care of yourself, building friendships, fair play and celebrating success.
Teachers make these topics part of daily life in the classroom, creating lessons around them and sharing students' finished work with the athletes and each other.
My pupils have benefited enormously from the relationships they have formed with their athlete-mentors, but much of the power of goal-setting comes from what happens every day in class. Here is what I have learned about increasing even the youngest students' investment in their learning.
Set personal goals
I start each school year by showing my students pictures of what to expect in kindergarten, before helping each one individually to set simple personal goals. I encourage the children to try something new, setting targets such as "I will learn new songs" or "I will create amazing art". I have frequent conversations with pupils about their goals and I take photographs as they work towards them.
Set a shared goal
I ask the entire class to commit to the shared class goal: "I will learn to read." I spend the first few weeks talking with them about the steps they will need to take to achieve this, such as mastering the sounds of the alphabet. I also discuss the good habits that contribute to success in life - for example, getting enough sleep.
Explore aspects of success
As Classroom Champions, each month students address a topic that relates to working towards their goals, such as perseverance. Conversations on that topic include how to welcome a new challenge, how to know when something is worth the struggle and how to fail but keep trying anyway. These sorts of intentional conversations are key to supporting student success.
Build a support team
A shared goal builds strong relationships among classmates. When a new pupil joined us halfway through the year, the students explained the class goal to him and organised themselves to take turns listening to him practise letter sounds, in case he hadn't learned them at his previous school. Two years later, those students are still his closest friends.
I also announce the class goals during faculty meetings. As a result, a variety of staff from kitchen workers to PE teachers take the time to ask my students how things are going and offer encouragement.
Build home support
Pupils' families are often astounded that such young learners can be so invested, especially if the parents have limited experience of setting their own goals. They look forward to the newsletters introducing the topic of the month, and some continue to practise goal-setting as their children move on up in the school.
Provide role models
I supplement the monthly athlete video lessons with a wide array of picture-book biographies written for children. The best stories for this purpose detail a dream realised through hard work, or a problem that a person had to overcome on the path to accomplishment.
At year's end, I assemble the photographs I have taken into simple albums and present them to each student as a record of his or her growth. These become treasured artefacts, and former students report that they have used the albums to remind themselves that they are capable of making and executing a plan to triumph over challenges.
Heatherle Chambers is a public kindergarten teacher in Portland, Oregon, US. To find out more about Classroom Champions, visit classroomchampions.org