Kids Are Telling Us: ‘We Value Caring Teachers’
By Christine French Cully
Editor in Chief
Highlights for Children
According to the Highlights 2018 State of the Kid survey, the kids are alright. Mostly.
In a tumultuous year of more gun violence including the Parkland school shooting, teacher and student walk-outs, the revving up of the #metoo movement, protest marches across the country, and often stunning incivility in public and private discourse—we at Highlights wondered: What are kids thinking about in these times?
Who are kids watching? Who do they admire?
Are children and young adolescents living squarely in childhood with its age-appropriate joys and concerns, or are they picking up on the serious concerns of adults and worrying about problems beyond their control? Are messages about the importance of being kind and caring getting obscured by the message that it’s most important to be right?
This year’s annual State of the Kid survey, which polled kids ages 6-12 nationwide, explored all these topics. And our findings reveal some good news: Despite the ever-widening circle of influencers on young children, kids remain firmly anchored to their families. When kids have something important to say, 81 percent of them said they would tell their parents first. And 90 percent of surveyed kids said that they believe their parents care about what they have to say.
Also encouraging—kids’ appreciation for their teachers is growing. Twenty-five percent of kids named their teacher when asked who they admired and respected most, other than their parents (up from 17 percent in 2009). When we probed into their reasons for this answer, kids’ responses reflected the high value they place on kindness and caring.
Our study, fielded during the months when we saw the Parkland students rise up to advocate for safer schools and when many children of all ages marched with their families for various causes, also suggests that kids are finding their voice and aspire to use it for change.
When kids witness someone being mean, 93 percent of them said they want to speak out. Sixty percent said they would tell an adult. Almost a quarter of kids said they’d try to stop the injustice on their own.
But our results also shine a light on a few issues that are concerning. Almost one-third of surveyed kids told us that being a kid is “hard/not easy,” and 79 percent of them said they worry. Kids’ concern about school performance has fallen to 12 percent (from 23 percent in 2009) – while 16 percent of kids worry about their family, friends, and loved ones. Worry about violence and safety in the world was called out by 11 percent of respondents—with 35 percent of these kids specifically citing school-related gun violence.
Our research also suggests that children still hold some traditional, stereotypical thinking about gender roles. Asked what they liked most about themselves, girls were most likely to value their physical appearance, and boys were most likely to value their intelligence – a pattern that hasn’t changed since 2008 when we last asked this question.
So, what do we do this information?
Our recommendation is that we adults ask ourselves some important questions now.
- We know that feeling unconditionally loved and safe is essential to healthy child development. What can we do better to ensure that our kids who are worrying about the big stuff can feel heard? What tools can we give them to handle the fear?
- We know that the most effective teaching is modeling the caring behaviors we want our children to adopt. How are we talking about empathy to boys? Do boys see enough male role models who behave charitably?
- We know research shows that kids perform better in school if the parent-teacher relationship is strong. If teachers are so influential in our children’s lives, are parents supporting teachers well enough, as a nation and individually? How can parents and teachers become better partners?
- Kids want to be upstanders – to speak up when they see an injustice. They are finding their voice, and they want to use it for good. What opportunities can we provide so that they can experience, first hand, the satisfaction and the resulting confidence that comes from knowing that you’ve made the world a little better place by stepping up?
- And finally, what else can we learn from kids by leaning in and listening?
To actively listen to children is not just to hear children. It is to be fully in the moment, all eyes and ears, trying to find meaning in what kids are saying—or not saying. When kids realize we’re listening, they inevitably reveal more, deepening our understanding of them.
When we listen to kids, we are saying to them, “You are important. I care about what you have to say.” This practice helps our bond grow deeper and stronger – which, in turn, helps kids feel safe and secure and loved. It helps them grow in confidence and empowers them to step out and step up to make the world a better place.
And that is what kids say they aspire to do.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she leads the Highlights mission to elevate the voice of children. Cully contributes to the Highlights AHA blog and has written for HuffPost. She’s a trustee of the Highlights Foundation, Inc., a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to excellence in writing and art for children. She has more than 28 years of experience in educational publishing for children. (A version of this article first appeared in The Columbus Dispatch.)