Every year, my fourth-grade students started “noticing” each other, sometimes with an inappropriate amount of attention. Why in fourth grade? Well, most of us don't remember that far back, but that's when bodies might start the hormone-driven transition from child to adult. To be clear, when I say hormones, I'm talking about hormones of puberty.
Hormones not only drive physical changes but also cause feelings which are new to children. Students at this age have not yet had enough life experience to understand how their new feelings fit into the big picture, including their behavior at school.
It can be difficult to balance teacher vs. parent responsibilities in this area, which is why some teachers don't step up to the task of interacting on this topic. But if a teacher expects to maintain a learning-focused classroom community with appropriate and supportive relationships between all students, then she needs to take a role in this important developmental stage.
Any hint of relationships, or of attention that makes another child feel uncomfortable, will throw a wrench into your learning community that will cause it to crash to a halt. But we aren’t going to let that happen.
The changing nature of attention
I say it many times on this website: Children are just small adults. Adults like attention so it's no surprise that children like similar attention from others.
What changes around the age of ten is that the perception of the attention takes on a different meaning than before. There is, in a child's mind, a new, undefinable feeling – a feeling that there may be something more to the attention than just a simple compliment or a friendly pat on the back.
Intent can change, too: What used to be teasing for the sake of teasing becomes teasing with an attention-seeking motive. And teasing is a perfect example of kids dealing with change in the only way they know how: By using approaches that have worked in the past but are ill-suited to the new reality.
This entire situation is compounded by the fact that children develop at different rates (sometimes dramatically different) so the intent of attention can be misinterpreted, and the response to that attention misinterpreted as well.
Signs of change
Let's discuss some of the outward changes that start to become evident in children at this age.
Changes in girls
Around fourth grade is the time when little girls start to become little women. Makeup starts to make an appearance, often starting with lip gloss. “Older sister influence” has a lot to do with how early these activities start, but so does “teacher influence.” My students saw me applying lip gloss all day long (I hate dry lips!) so emulation of my habits was to be expected.
In my classroom, I didn't mind a few tubes of lip gloss in desks – unless they were applying it all the time and it became a distraction. At that point, the lip gloss was put in lockers outside the classroom.
Press-on nails from the dollar store also make intermittent appearances. I'll address clothing separately, below.
Changes in boys
Some may dispute this and there are always individual exceptions, but girls tend to mature faster than boys. So, with girls, I usually saw an intentional change in their personal routines and activities as they worked to become different people.
With many boys, though, despite their best intentions to grow into men, the results were often awkward with a bit of a lack of refinement.
Boys may make statements with the wording or designs on their shirts and hats. Older sibling influence affects boys, too, and you may see styles that are in fashion in high school if they have an older brother at home.
The changes I mention above don't manifest out of thin air and they aren't only driven by older sibling influence. These kids are online a good portion of their free time, often with limited parental restrictions.
YouTube videos, gaming, graphic comics, search results…the list goes on, but you can imagine what all but the most-sheltered children are seeing. Much of what is portrayed in their online content are gender roles, and many of those representations are stereotypical, sexualized, and dramatized.
We can't change the “role models” that students follow online. But teachers can ensure that the role models they see at school (you, primarily) are offering a positive counterpoint to the virtual viewpoint.
And, most importantly, we can ensure that our classrooms remain refuges from the negative influences and adult subject matter they find elsewhere.
That's mainly what this article is about – providing methods that will help you:
- Maintain good classroom management
- Enable a positive, supportive school community
- Keep the focus on learning
Believe me, kids love to live inside this bubble at school.
Let's get to it. But first, we need to clarify the roles of parents vs. teachers.
Teacher roles, parent roles
I've heard it often when I discuss this topic:
“You are crossing a line and acting like a parent! This is a topic that should not even be whispered about by a teacher. You must leave this entirely to Mom or Dad.”
I understand parents' concerns, but I still advocate for teachers to engage as I outline in this article. After all, in many states, teachers present lessons on human growth and development. It doesn't make sense to shy away from helping students place that information in context by guiding students through day-to-day social interactions.
Besides, even if you don't remember how things were in 4th grade, consider this: These kids are just two or three years from middle school. I know you remember the inappropriate comments and behaviors of middle school!
Teachers are the experts on how children interact at school, and preparation for higher grades and life outside of school is what our instruction is all about – for both academics and interpersonal relationships in structured settings. We have a definite role to play and don't let anyone convince you otherwise.
So, let's clarify:
Parent and guardian roles in making sense of developing hormones
As I discuss elsewhere, parents and guardians are the cornerstones of child development in all scenarios. They impart the values of the family to their children, including values having to do with relationships. (Teachers enable this by keeping them informed – see below.)
When it comes to relationships, parents and guardians are responsible for the intimate details. Details include questions kids have about their feelings for others and their confusion over interactions that don’t go as they may expect. Parents and guardians help them make sense of all those crazy new urges and provide guidelines for kids to make their best decisions as they grow up.
Teacher roles in making sense of developing hormones
As opposed to the details handled by parents, teachers are responsible for big-picture things when it comes to relationships at school: How to be a positive member of a community; how to respect others with different beliefs and ideas; how to make sense of group dynamics.
So, for example, if a girl pesters a boy relentlessly over a period of time during small-group activities to get his attention:
- A teacher's job is to redirect and, as needed, explain how this is keeping the boy from learning and model polite words the girl can use if she needs to engage in a respectful way about the lesson. And, if necessary, to alter who is a member of the group to help both kids focus on learning.
- A parent's or guardian's job (once informed by the teacher) could be to talk to the girl about why she's pursuing this boy and how this potential relationship makes her feel and how it might make the object of her attention feel.
Parents can't do their jobs if they don't know what's going on. You want parents to be partners to support positive classroom behavior. There are no secrets kept from parents or guardians about what happens at school.
Yes, of course, there are scenarios where a child may not get much parental interaction at home; families under stress are a reality. But if there is any adult in a child's life, then teachers must assume that mom or dad or grandma or aunt wants to fulfill that role to the best of their ability. Go out of your way to provide them with the information they need to understand the context of what is occurring at school.
boys and girls children
Rule number one when talking to your students: Do not make gender assumptions. Let me say that again with more emphasis:
Do not make gender assumptions!
It is very tempting to cast children in gendered roles that correspond to popular culture or historical assumptions. Am I not being clear enough? OK, I'll be more specific: It is very tempting to assume that girls may desire attention or attempt to attract attention and that boys have less-than-innocent intent.
When a teacher does this, she's reinforcing stereotypes, plain and simple. Classroom behavior management that is based on stereotypes inevitably uses a broad-brush approach. You know from reading my other articles that I advocate individualized, student-centered methods in all my teaching practices. That's as important in this area as it is in teaching math or science.
So: Drop the stereotypes and consider each child as a singular, distinct individual…an individual who is at their own, unique stage of emotional and physical development.
Setting and reminding of expectations
One of my classroom mantras is, “We will work with anyone.” My kids repeat that out loud and they get used to being paired with different partners every few days. Here's a related saying they hear from me a lot:
School is for learning and friends are a side benefit.
Do you see the significance of those phrases? I don't just say things like, “Stop pestering each other!” Instead, this baseline expectation that they will work with anyone sets the stage for me to say:
“You are keeping yourself and others from learning. How can you make learning your number one job at school?”
When you take this approach, you don't need to cross any lines into parental territory by saying things like, “You're not old enough,” or, “That's not how young girls/boys should act toward each other.”
From a teacher's perspective, the reason a student needs to stop certain behavior – hormonally driven or not – is because it's keeping others from learning. Simple and easy to implement…if you've set the proper expectations up front.
Appropriate and inappropriate clothing choices
Kids take shortcuts to get what they want. If they desire attention, their brains will often draw a straight line from their desire to getting it in the simplest way possible. Clothing that is revealing, challenges school rules, or otherwise distracting is a sure way to get noticed as soon as they walk in the door, so it's often their go-to strategy.
Here's how I think about attention-getting clothing choices: Inappropriate clothing isn't a distraction to others just because it causes them to notice. It's inappropriate primarily because it's outside the context of the purpose of school, which is academics.
In our culture, people associate certain ways of dressing with distinct activities:
- Sporting clothes (tight, short, super-baggy, etc.) are for sporting events
- Strapless dresses and tuxedos are for formal occasions
- Clothing that leaves a lot of skin showing is for swimming pools and beaches
On the playing field or court, no one thinks twice about seeing people in performance-oriented clothing. Ball gowns look like they belong at balls. At the swimming pool, it would look weird if kids were jumping in fully clothed. But when you see an outfit that could almost be a swimming suit in a school setting, it stands out.
And clothing that stands out in this way is a distraction from learning.
If you consider clothing in this context, then you can refer to the school dress code and help students understand the impact they might be having on the learning community. This is much better than shaming or reinforcing a stereotype. (I'm very much anti-shaming!)
Your school may have procedures in place regarding what to do about inappropriate clothing so kids meet the dress code without needing to go home to change. Some schools, for example, keep baggy sweatshirts from the lost and found on hand to provide a cover-up. Learn what your school's procedure is and follow it.
And be sure to let Mom or Dad know about any discussion you’ve had so they can be a partner in keeping the focus on learning.
As with any classroom disruption issue, there will come a time when you must talk to a student one-on-one about their behavior. Romantic relationship discussions aren't any different than discussions about talking in class or cutting in line. You remind the child about:
- Overall classroom expectations
- Your specific expectations for the current activity, and
- Their role in upholding a community and being a learner
One-on-one talks are also great opportunities to build students' esteem in ways that will positively impact all areas of their lives. For example:
- If a boy or a girl is feeling the sting of rejection due to someone else's comments about their appearance, it's your opportunity to remind them that you see the amazing person they are deep inside because of their ability to be a great friend to everyone in the classroom or their ability to focus on learning.
- If a student has trouble displaying appropriate attention to another student, it's your opportunity to point out that Kamille, Juan, or Sammy would much rather talk about their obsession with dogs than be endlessly complimented on their clothing choices.
- If two students have formed a relationship that is excluding others (the dreaded 4th-grade “dating” scenario), that's your opportunity to point out how much their other friends miss playing soccer with them at recess and that “We will work with anyone” means not working with only one other person.
Provide the understanding-but-firm guidance that kids expect from good teachers. You run your classroom, you set the rules and expectations, and your words aren't just suggestions. Don' hesitate to get your parental team members to reinforce your message if things don't improve.
I cover this in other pages, but I'll remind you here: The way you compliment children affects the way they act in your classroom.
If you focus on appearance, clothing, or other external factors, your kids will build their concept of value around those topics and act accordingly.
If you focus on academic effort and achievements, your kids will emulate you in their interactions with others and build their school-values system around those topics…and, again, act accordingly.
This is the way to greet a student in the morning:
“Donna, you really rocked this math homework! I'm going to show the class how you solved the second problem.”
Not like this:
“Donna, what a cute outfit! I love your hair bows!”
(For the record, I do notice when kids have put special effort into their appearance. But I always compliment the choices they made, not the way they look.)
Smart teachers use every tool in the toolbox!
By the way, it is critical that your students feel that you are a trusted adult with whom they can share such things as “She asked me to be her boyfriend” or “He keeps taking my pencils and only gives them back if I go ask him.” Be that trusted adult and encourage them to share anything that makes them uncomfortable.
Case study: Inappropriate amorous attention
I've always mistrusted teacher advice that doesn't consider the most-extreme circumstances that you may face in a classroom – those times when all the expectation setting and reminding in the world doesn't have an impact on a particular child. That's why I've written articles about extreme behavior case studies and outright defiance.
So, let's go there: Amorous obsession verging on stalking. I'm sorry if you are shocked by my characterization, but I've seen it and handled it. Other teachers have, too. This was the scenario involving a boy who had difficulty appropriately expressing his fondness for a girl. (Yes, I've seen other scenarios as I mention above.)
One year, I had a young man who was prone to extremes in behavior. He could be extraordinarily kind-hearted on most occasions but could perseverate on topics for days in ways that made him seem to be a different child. It didn't help that he was emotionally fragile; things that other kids shrugged off could cause Kristopher to burst into tears and run from the classroom. He was one of my yearlong projects.
Sandy was a girl with a big heart who had shot up in height by fourth grade, developing well ahead of her peers. (I saw her recently when visiting a high school – she hadn't grown an inch since she was in my class!) Sandy had a profoundly disabled sister upon whom she had grown up doting. She had an intuitive sense of other kids' needs and went out of her way to be nice to everyone she came into contact with, showing genuine interest in what others had to say.
(I'm not using real names here, of course.)
Everyone liked Sandy, and Kristopher decided that he liked her a lot. What followed was this: Kris always arranging to sit by her, partner with her in activities, and generally be near her – if not right by her – anytime kids were out of their seats.
Sandy, in her big-hearted way, would pay attention to Kris, engage with him, and compliment him. It was the same behavior she exhibited to every other child in the class who approached her; Kris just approached her more so he got more attention. In Kris's mind, this was a clear signal that Sandy wanted to be his special friend and he redoubled his efforts.
Soon, Kris started becoming upset if Sandy paid attention to anyone else. He began acting as if she was his girlfriend and that he could control her actions and interactions.
This all developed very quickly. I saw what was beginning to happen but even before I could take him aside, Sandy let me know that she had been “asked out” by Kris and that she was extremely uncomfortable with his constant, unwelcome attention.
This was no time for half measures and indirect references to community and focusing on academics. This was an entirely unacceptable situation where a child was being made to feel unsafe in my classroom. That. Will. Not. Stand. Not on my watch.
But: Kris was a child, too. A child who was working through a lot of issues. So understanding was the key, combined with a very firm reminder about expectations and follow-through so Sandy could be her normal outgoing self in my classroom without inappropriate attention.
I took Kris aside to ensure he had privacy and could speak openly. I let him tell his side of the story (which didn't differ much from Sandy's) and shared what I had seen. I asked him how he thought this attention made Sandy feel.
There were tears and he became extremely upset…but that was how Kris handled nearly every area of tension in his life, so that did not dissuade me. I used my calm-but-serious teacher voice and let him know that the inappropriate attention stopped now. The consequence if it continued was him not being able to work in Sandy's group again.
I let him know that the counselor would help him sort it out at their regular session and that I'd let his mother know how she could help him focus on learning. (I had a great relationship with his mom.)
Then, as I do with any one-on-one behavior session with a student, I asked him to describe how he would handle different situations that we encountered daily in our classroom routine. Then I asked him if he wanted to share anything with me (he didn't) and I let him know that I valued him and our relationship and that if he needed to talk, I was always available for him.
Then I watched like a hawk. Kris and I had a couple more talks as new situations arose where he needed guidance, and I had to redirect and support him frequently. Over the course of a few weeks, the behavior faded. Sandy and Kris are still good friends to this day.
Teachers have a large role to play in the development of children's emotions and social interactions. By using classroom management approaches that don't reinforce gender stereotypes, by partnering with families, and by creating a learning-focused community, you'll make a significant contribution to children's positive development during difficult transitions.
Teaching, while filled with many moments of joy, is a very difficult job. I encourage you to never avoid the difficult moments because those are the times when the most learning can occur.
Keep the best interests of all children in mind, ensure your classroom is a special place filled with the wonder of learning, and – like me – you'll have teens and young adults coming up to you for years to thank you for the help you provided during some of the most trying times in their young lives.
Those are some of the most joyful moments any teacher can experience.