Can I Help You? Supporting Equity, Learning, and Development by Allowing Children to Help Out
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While NAEYC editorial style is to use Latino/a, we have chosen to use Latine throughout this article. Latine is a term created by LGBTQIA+ Spanish speakers that uses the letter e to illustrate gender inclusivity within existing Spanish pronunciation.
Mary, a first grader in a classroom serving Latine children from immigrant families, is filling out the dates on a blank monthly calendar. As she works, she calls out, “How do you write a 21?” Peter, another child at her table, points to the class calendar on the wall and says, “It’s over there.” Knowing that they have the time and freedom to leave their desks without permission, the two walk to the front of the class. Peter points to each day on the calendar and counts aloud from 1 to 21. Mary returns to her table and finishes filling in the dates, looking up to reference the wall calendar from her seat.
Developmental research focused on the early years shows that young children tend to be eager and happy to help with everyday activities in their surroundings (Liszkowski, Carpenter, & Tomasello 2008; Warneken 2013; Köster et al. 2016; Coppens & Rogoff 2022). Helping out allows them to contribute to their communities and advance their learning and development through participation in everyday tasks.
Yet while this inclination may reflect a developmental commonality, educators struggle with limited time as a result of extensive curriculum, standards, and assessment requirements. Making space for children to learn and develop through helping out in the classroom can feel like it will cause the whole class to fall behind in the busy daily schedule. In addition, academic skills in literacy and math may be prioritized above the social, emotional, and cognitive skills related to helping, which include noticing needs, taking initiative, and developing oral language. This is particularly true in learning programs that serve children of color, children of immigrants, and children from economically disadvantaged settings, where classrooms are often restricted in terms of time, teacher-directed curriculum, and rules that require permission for children to talk or get out of their seats (Fuller 2007; Crosnoe 2020; Milner IV 2020). Indeed, researchers have documented differences in how children’s desires to help out are fostered or restricted depending on their cultural and schooling contexts (Alcalá et al. 2014).
As former bilingual early childhood educators and current early childhood education teacher educators and researchers, we (the authors) have taught and collected data in dozens of classrooms serving Latine children from immigrant families. Our experience and the wider literature show that Latine immigrant communities often value and depend on children’s abilities to help out and contribute to their families and households (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti 2005; Coppens et al. 2016). However, schools that serve these communities rarely foster this value (Matusov, Bell, & Rogoff 2002). In this article, we discuss how early childhood educators can create classroom communities that allow children to help out, then show what this looks like in action. We end with suggestions for ways pre-K and primary-grade educators can encourage helping out in their own settings.
Helping Out as a Part of Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy
Culturally sustaining pedagogy fosters and sustains children’s linguistic and cultural capabilities—not as deficits but as part of schooling for positive social transformation. Paris and Alim (2017) explain that this pedagogy exists “wherever education sustains the lifeways of communities who have been and continue to be damaged and erased through schooling” (1). When children have the opportunity to take initiative and help out in classrooms and other learning settings, they are often reflecting a cultural value held by and passed on from their community (see “Learning by Observing and Pitching In” below). Teachers who foster these cultural practices are inherently engaging in culturally sustaining pedagogy.
Learning by Observing and Pitching In
The Learning by Observing and Pitching In (LOPI) theoretical framework connects learning and development to children’s access to community participation and contribution. This framework emerged from research conducted by Barbara Rogoff and colleagues with Mayan communities in Southern Mexico and Guatemala as well as Mexican heritage children in the United States. LOPI addresses how young learners are motivated by an eagerness to contribute and belong to their community. Paying wide, keen attention and helping out are means for learning and primary ways that children establish this belonging (Correa-Chávez, Roberts, & Pérez 2011; Rogoff 2014). The work of these scholars has mostly taken place in home and family contexts, and we have found the framework valuable in guiding our understanding of the ways young Latine children from immigrant families learn, develop, and help out in their early childhood classrooms as well.
When children initiate helping classmates or contributing to class routines, they learn and develop valuable skills.
Young children help out when they are part of communities that value and welcome their participation (Rogoff 2003). This requires adults to recognize children’s strengths and potential as well as trust their knowledge, experience, and abilities to contribute—key components of developmentally appropriate practice and its emphasis on agency and equity (NAEYC 2020). Recognizing the importance of supporting children’s abilities to help out, many early childhood educators establish teacher-directed systems and routines to facilitate it. These include assigning class jobs (line leader, pencil sharpener, door holder, and snack helper) or designating buddies that children can turn to for help before asking their teacher. However, these structured, teacher-facilitated approaches are limited in the ways they help children learn and develop.
To demonstrate and expand their capabilities, children need less structured, culturally sustaining opportunities to enact their agency and help out on their own (Adair 2014; Colegrove & Adair 2014). Research shows that when children initiate helping classmates or contributing to class routines, they learn and develop valuable skills (see “Benefits of Helping Out” below).
Benefits of Helping Out
When children are allowed to enact their agency to help out, they also learn to
- solve problems and engage in critical thinking
- share expertise
- teach and demonstrate processes
- negotiate, advocate, and give support
- show care
- take initiative
- observe, persevere, and facilitate interactions
- practice oral language
- ask for help
- notice needs and protect peers
- collaboratively strategize
- express cultural values
Source: Adair & Colegrove 2021
Lessons from Our Research with Latine Children
In our research, we use ethnographic observation and focus group interview methods to understand and learn from the everyday schooling experiences of young Latine emergent bilingual children from preschool to third grade. Over the years, we have spent time in a handful of classrooms that offer an alternative to the typical restrictive schooling experience for these children. In these classrooms, teachers design environments that honor children’s agency, interests, and cultural assets. The educators leading these spaces welcome and encourage children to influence and make decisions in their learning, and they trust children to be contributing community members. This connects to the cultural value of confianza—or generosity, intimacy, and reciprocity—as well as to a personal commitment to others (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti 2005; Vélez-Ibáñez 2010). Both children and families relish these opportunities, as seen in “What Children and Families Say About Helping Out” below.
Creating Classrooms that Encourage Helping Out
The early grades are an ideal time to establish communities that foster helping out because young children have not yet internalized many of the traditional norms of schooling that prevent this (the requirement to ask permission before talking or interacting with a peer). Furthermore, young children come into the early grades with the desire and capabilities necessary to meaningfully contribute. As keen observers, many children know how to set out mats for rest time or clean up after snack time. Others know how to tie shoes, build tall towers, and write the number 21, and they are eager to help their peers do these things too. To foster and promote the helping out skills that children already possess, early childhood educators must trust and believe in children’s abilities and refrain from putting up barriers that shut down helping out.
Based on our research, establishing a community that values helping out does not require direct instruction or modeling, explicit permission for children to help, or even positive reinforcement. These types of approaches center teachers’ knowledge and approval instead of the knowledge and capabilities that children already have. From the first day of school, one of the most powerful actions a teacher can take is to give children space to engage with one another, closely observe their interactions, and pause before intervening (unless immediate intervention is required for safety). When teachers feel the urge to jump in to help or facilitate, they can instead step back, count to 10, and see what children do.
We have found that when teachers allow children time, freedom of movement, and opportunities to enact agency in their learning environments (Adair & Colegrove 2021), children help out in a range of ways that fall into two categories: child-initiated helping out and helping out within classroom routines and learning experiences.
Child-Initiated Helping Out
This occurs when children observe their environment and notice an opportunity to help a peer or assist in the learning space. Sometimes the moments they notice involve a verbal cue, such as “I can’t get this lid off,” but many times, children are reading and responding to body language and other nonverbal cues.
Three- and 4-year-old Latine children in a bilingual pre-K classroom are finishing up center time when Ms. Lopez turns on the clean-up song. Javiera comes over to the art table to clean up the scissors. Antonio is looking at his glue-covered paper. He puts his hands on his head and says, “Ah!”
Javiera notices Antonio’s distress. While the rest of the class and Ms. Lopez clean up and make their way to the carpet, Javiera calmly helps Antonio stick extra pieces of paper onto the wet glue. Ms. Lopez glances over a few times and notes that the children are finishing their artwork, but she says nothing. Javiera and Antonio are in no rush to join the class on the carpet. When the glue is covered, Antonio inspects the pair’s work then takes it and his other artwork to his locker outside the classroom. Then, he and Javiera seamlessly join the lesson now in progress on the carpet.
In allowing children to enact their agency, Ms. Lopez showed that she considered them capable, responsible, and trustworthy. She understood that helping out is a cultural value children embrace at home and enact in the classroom, making it a mechanism for culturally sustaining teaching and learning.
From the beginning of the school year, Ms. Lopez showed children that she welcomed helping out by not shutting down or getting in the way of their efforts. She did not model, instruct, or even explicitly encourage helping. Yet the children in her class knew they were allowed time to finish their activities and projects, even after transitions. They knew they had freedom to move around the classroom and contribute wherever they saw a need. This allowed Javiera to notice Antonio’s distress and help him finish his artwork without either child feeling a need to “stay on task.”
In addition to relationship- and community-building, Javiera’s actions advanced both children’s learning and development: Javiera practiced and demonstrated her ability to notice a classmate who needed help, assess how she could support him, then nonverbally guide him through the steps necessary to solve his problem. Antonio appropriately expressed frustration, had it noticed and responded to, and followed the guidance of a more skilled peer to solve a problem. These capabilities span social, emotional, and cognitive domains.
When helping out is child-initiated, children keenly observe what is happening around them. Their actions center on their peers or the community. For example, in pre-K classrooms we have observed, children notice when others struggle to zip a jacket, take the lid off a tub of playdough, open a carton of milk, tie a shoe, or peel a banana. In early elementary classrooms we have observed, children notice and help classmates with assignments, lend materials to those who need supplies, and get up from their seats to clean up spills. These interactions provide space for children to demonstrate, practice, and learn developmental capabilities such as motor skills, social consciousness, verbal and nonverbal communication, metacognition, and a range of academic skills. Additionally, they strengthen the classroom community by creating a sense of belonging and confianza.
Helping Out Within Classroom Routines
A second category of helping out involves everyday routines that children come to know and anticipate. In our observations, these contributions were unsolicited and unregulated but always welcomed by teachers. They were also child-initiated and distinct from teacher-directed experiences like assigning classroom jobs.
Three- and 4-year-old Latine children in a bilingual pre-K setting come back from outside play time and gather on the carpet for English as a Second Language time. Ms. Lopez plays the “Boom Chicka Boom” song for the children to sing and dance to before reading a book about sharks.
During the singing and dancing, lunch arrives on a cart. Ms. Ramirez, the assistant teacher, stands up and begins unpacking the cart. Alejandra walks to the sink to wash her hands, then begins taking the food that Ms. Ramirez has unpacked and setting it on the lunch tables. Guillermo and Ana follow shortly. Alejandra pulls the milk tray out of the lunch cart, but it is very heavy and begins to slip. Guillermo notices and helps her pull out the tray and set it on the counter. Guillermo and Ana pass out the milk, and Ms. Ramirez gives Alejandra a bag of butter and hot sauce to pass out.
Each day in this classroom, children observed one of their teachers getting up when the lunch cart arrived and setting out food and plates. Over time, some began spontaneously getting up from the daily song and read aloud to help. Ms. Ramirez never explicitly requested this help, and children never asked permission to participate. Typically, two to four children would help each day. The number of children was never regulated; rather, children seemed able to assess whether their help was necessary. All of this took place without either teacher explicitly modeling or even discussing the new routine that children established organically.
Helping out with routines most often benefits the entire classroom community. In pre-K classrooms we have observed, helping out in this manner included setting up meals, sweeping and wiping down tables after meals, putting rest mats in their designated places, watering classroom plants, and sometimes anticipating and providing materials the teacher might need (a marker or a certain book). In early elementary classrooms we have observed, children helped out by organizing lunches on a wagon so the class could leave for lunch on time or by bringing the teacher her iPad in anticipation of a daily math activity. Even though these opportunities for helping out were not explicitly designed by teachers, they allowed and welcomed the contributions. Over time, this support from children became a routine in itself.
The everyday, routine experiences of helping out allow children to exercise and practice a range of knowledge and skills. These include self-regulation, observation, collaborating and coordinating with peers and teachers, problem solving, communication, and advocacy. As children demonstrate and continue to practice these developmental skills, they also reinforce a sense of community and responsibility through their participation.
What Children and Families Say About Helping Out
In a study examining children’s ideas about learning with 30 Latine first graders in three classrooms (see McManus 2021), children talked about whether they were or were not allowed to help out in their classrooms and how they valued their abilities to help others. When we asked Catalina, a student in a bilingual classroom where children were given time and flexibility to collaborate and help one another, if she ever worked with her friends and helped them with learning she said, “Si, mucho, mucho. (Yes, a lot, a lot.)” She went on to say, “Les ayudo para que se hagan, para crecer, para que ellos sepan qué hacer en segundo grado. (I help them so they can do it, to grow, so that they know what to do in second grade).”
In another bilingual classroom that was much more restrictive and highly structured, children were not allowed to talk, get up, or help one another without teacher permission. Latine students in this class said they did not often work together or help their peers with learning because it was not allowed. However, these children unanimously agreed that peers were capable of helping each other with learning, and they gave examples of times when they covertly did this. Daniela explained that she only helped her friends when “the teacher is not paying attention” because if students did not ask permission, “you would get in trouble.” Regardless of the allowances or restrictions in their learning environments, children shared the desire to help out and support their classmates and the belief that they can learn with and from their peers.
This belief is mirrored by Latine immigrant families, who see helping out as an important mechanism of learning and development. Our broader research shows that these families value the knowledge that children can gain from one another as something they can use and share in the future. For example, as Carmen, a Mexican immigrant mother, watched a video of the calendar vignette, she explained, “Cuando tú no lo sabes [es], lo primero, que vas y cuentas. Ahí está. Y aprendió, la próxima vez ya cuando quiera saber el número 21 va a ir al cartelito. (When you don’t know something, go and count. There it is. She learned. The next time when she wants to know the number 21, she is going to go to the poster.)”
Families in our research also explained that helping out is a community member’s responsibility. Ernesto, a Mexican immigrant father, discussed the responsibility Peter showed in the video: “Pos eso mismo, ser responsables ellos, a hacer lo que ellos creen que está bien, como leer y escribir. No, o sea, como les da la oportunidad de que ellos mismos hagan lo que creen que está bien para ellos. (That’s it, for them to be responsible, to do what they believe is right, like to read and write. No, I mean, that the teacher gives the children themselves the opportunity to do what they think is right for themselves.)”
Many families see helping out as an important life skill that is a necessary part of belonging to and supporting a community. They see that it supports different aspects of learning and development, including metacognition, taking initiative, building a sense of belonging, communal socialization, establishing trust with peers and adults, and advocating for self and others (Colegrove 2019). Like Ernesto, families also recognize that teachers play an important role in allowing these interactions to take place.
Regardless of the allowances or restrictions in their learning environments, children share the desire to help out and support their classmates and believe that they can learn with and from their peers.
How Can Teachers Promote Helping Out in Their Classrooms?
Early childhood educators face systemic and administrative challenges to creating classroom environments that foster children’s abilities to help out. In our study, these included balancing the pressures around extensive curricula, standardized assessments, limited time, and developing children’s English language proficiency.
However, if teachers embrace the idea that most young children want to help out and that many already have the foundational skills to do so, they can make small shifts that are culturally sustaining and advance children’s learning and development. These include
- allowing children to talk, move, and take initiative. One reason we do not see more helping out in early childhood classrooms is that children’s voices and movements are often restricted or over-regulated. In order to begin creating an environment where children can help out, teachers need to ensure that there are significant times during the day when children can move around the classroom and talk freely to peers. It is through these unstructured opportunities to interact that children can demonstrate their abilities to observe their surroundings and initiate help. Removing the requirement that children ask permission to move, talk, or initiate help ensures that these interactions are child-initiated and child-centered.
- noticing and encouraging children’s efforts. The teacher’s role when children are moving, talking, and initiating help is to listen, observe, and document. This is an opportunity for teachers to learn about children’s interests and to notice their capabilities. Within these interactions, teachers center children’s knowledge and capabilities and will likely begin to see examples of children helping out. Some of these instances might be obvious, like when a child helps a classmate clean up. Others—such as anticipating that a classmate might need a paper towel and getting it for them without being asked—will be subtle and will require close observation on the part of the teacher.
- expecting variation in children’s abilities and desires to help out. As teachers listen to and observe children, they will see wide variation in who, when, and how children help out. Some will help out eagerly, often, and in a variety of ways. Others will help out in the same way over and over. Still others will help out less or not at all. Children have different strengths and starting points and will learn through experience and practice. It is important for teachers to trust that, as a community, children will observe, interact, and learn from one another how to help out.
Ultimately, encouraging children to help out in their classrooms requires teachers to give up some control when it comes to noise, movement, and children’s interactions, and that can feel uncomfortable. But through helping out, children share the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of their peers and the everyday running of the class. They also engage in interactions that allow them to practice and expand their social, emotional, linguistic, physical, and cognitive competencies (NAEYC 2020).
Decades of research in non-Western communities show that young children across cultures are eager to help out with everyday activities (Whiting & Whiting 1975; Rogoff 2003; Lancy 2014). Privileging children’s abilities to help out in their early childhood classrooms is not only a culturally sustaining practice, it is also a matter of racial equity and social justice. Fostering helping out supports children in developing the foundational skills eventually needed to support and advocate for their communities in the face of broader systemic issues of immigration, racism, and discrimination (Payne, Falkner, & Adair 2020; Colegrove et al. 2021). Adopting a pedagogy that centers children’s innate desires and abilities to help out requires a paradigm shift that acknowledges children as full human beings who already possess empathy, reason, care, knowledge, oral language, and a wide range of sophisticated interpersonal capabilities. Early childhood educators are in a unique position to foster helping out both as a path to support learning and development and as a form of culturally sustaining, anti-racist practice.
Photographs: pp. 6, 9 courtesy of the authors; pp. 7, 11 Getty Images
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Molly E. McManus, PhD, is an assistant professor of child and adolescent development at San Francisco State University. Molly was a bilingual elementary school teacher in Oakland, California. Her scholarship centers the perspectives of young children of color and focuses on the cultural nature of learning and development. [email protected]
Kiyomi Sánchez-Suzuki Colegrove earned her PhD in early childhood education from the University of Texas-Austin. She uses video-cued ethnography to understand the relationship between Latine immigrant parents and schools and to privilege their voices. Kiyomi is currently an associate professor at Texas State University. [email protected]