Creating a Classroom Where Democracy Thrives

Creating a Classroom Where Democracy Thrives

Imagine a classroom where children are actively and creatively engaged. At the art table, children share materials, dipping paintbrushes into the communal glue pots. A huge edifice, almost four feet long and three feet high and built out of blocks, is evidence of an ongoing group build. Children share materials and ideas. When conflicts arise, the children have the tools to settle them on their own, before they escalate. This is their community and they take ownership of it – their home when they are not at home. The children respect the class rules because they made them.  This may sound like a dream, but it is truly what a democratic classroom looks like.

Democracy is, at its core, a sharing of responsibility and power. It is a concept that is beyond understanding for young children, but they are able to engage in processes that lead to it. In the early childhood classroom, young children are still figuring out how to use appropriate behavior to get what they want. Civility is a learned behavior that children will develop if given appropriate modeling and opportunities for practice in non-threatening ways.

For the teacher, this approach takes a great deal of time, thought and intentional practice. It may initially feel like more work. The teacher’s values should guide the process of exploration that will constantly evolve. Teachers must let go of control to an extent and trust that eventually children will learn the process and will create their own realities. This is not to say that the democratic classroom is a free for all. Every aspect should be thought through with great intentionality while remaining intentionally open and rife with opportunities for the children to give input and be part of decision making.

Strategies for teaching civility and developing a democratic classroom:

  • Set up a cooperative environment that encourages sharing. For example, use bench seats instead of individual chairs or easels that multiple children can use at the same time.
  • Create class agreements at the beginning of the year. These agreements or “rules” are of what the children want to see, hear and be treated in their home away from home. Post a large piece of butcher paper on the wall and when issues come up, children may decide that they need a new agreement. The class agreements should be a living document that can be amended at any time and that can be referred to in moments of conflict. Eventually the children will internalize and take ownership of these agreements and remind one another of them.
  • Class meetings are a democratic way to make all kinds of decisions. Include children in planning within limits. For example, when planning to ask out a story you might ask more narrowly rather than broadly – if the children want to act out the Three Little Pigs you might solicit their input on what they will need by asking open-ended questions such as “how can we do this?” or “How will we make Tom look like the Big Bad Wolf?”
  • Use persona dolls and puppets to discuss with the class how to get what you want without hurting others or hurting their feelings. The doll or puppet can bring problems to the class for discussion.
  • Use the word ‘problem’ positively and view it as an opportunity. When something goes awry, hold an impromptu and immediate group discussion.
  • Create cooperative opportunities in the classroom such as a community art table or long-term construction projects that all may participate in.

In peaceful and democratic classrooms, children are busy. They are creatively engaged in work that is meaningful to them and are developing skills that will help them to resolve conflicts and get their needs and desires met without hurting others. The results are children who are sharing ideas and materials, want to be involved and include everyone.

~Lola Cornish, Center for Social Change Committee