It is hard to believe that only two weeks remain in our school year. Teachers will begin countdowns with the children, marking calendars or using other props as appropriate to the program. Children will share their summer plans with each other and teachers – camps, vacations, times spent at lake houses or with extended family members. Parents may feel pressured to fill the days with lots of activities – both for their children and themselves. However, I would gently suggest that there are whole days that are unscheduled for your child. Days where there are no plans and nowhere to go. Days for children to be bored.
Boredom is an intentional gift that we can give to children. It can be difficult to allow children to be bored given all of the ways that we can keep them busy – activities, classes, media, play dates – and young children enjoy all of these experiences. Children also, at first, protest the feeling of boredom and often come to parents and caregivers to “solve” it for them. I encourage you to resist the urge to say, “Why don’t you . . .?” Doing so lessens the opportunity for children to solve the problem for themselves. Feel free to acknowledge the feeling and commiserate with them. “Yes, I hear that you don’t know what to do. Must be a strange feeling to have. But, we don’t have anything planned. I’m sure you will figure out what to do.”
What do children gain from the chance to be bored? First, a chance to build autonomy. By trusting children to come up with their own plan, we empower them to take charge of their own experiences and emotional well-being. This does indeed mean that parents and caregivers need to back off and trust that the choices that kids are making are appropriate. It also means providing environments that support open ended play. Environments like play spaces with open-ended art materials, blocks, props that support dramatic play, books, and play dough and opportunities to play in outdoor spaces that encourage children to collect rocks and seeds, watch the clouds roll by, and look for bugs.
The second benefit that children gain from opportunities to feel bored is a chance to discover what is interesting to them, what excites their curiosities, and what challenges they are ready to undertake. If every activity is chosen for them, how will they discover what truly excites their mind? I’m reminded of a former student who learned to love to cook and how that passion came from making up recipes in the play “kitchen” at school, at home, and in the park.
An additional benefit from boredom is the chance to practice self-motivation. When faced with the feeling of boredom and a parent not solving the problem, children have a choice to make. They can simply sit and wait (and maybe whine). They may do this for awhile when faced with boredom the first few times. But, after a bit, they will notice what there is around them to explore, to play, to ponder about. They will take the next step to begin to make their own plan and discover that they can accomplish the task of solving boredom on their own and will be motivated to self-start sooner in the future.
It is such a pleasure to observe a young child totally engrossed in their own world, creating their own joy and exploring their own ideas. An additional benefit is that after a period of play after boredom is a calm, regulated child who after a period of self-reflection, may just want to share what they have learned about themselves with you.
With just a few more weeks of the school year remaining, I find myself lingering longer at the arrival door, staring out the window of my office as the kids play t-ball in the fountain park or blow bubbles or ride trikes. Trips into the classroom to deliver a message extend into sitting down to join snack or to play in the sand table. Yes, I am anticipating the end of the school year and all of its activities, but mostly I am marveling at your children and the amazing growths they have made these past nine months and all that has led to them. Including, just how confusing and sometimes annoying that path to growth can be.
One of the most interesting and frustrating aspects of early childhood development is just how complicated it is. Young children do not develop evenly across all of their developmental domains – social, emotional, physical, and cognitive. Instead, growths come in spurts and are often accompanied with delays or regression. This is why we may observe a child who suddenly has an increased capacity in their communication skills (using new vocab and concepts), begin to trip and fall on an otherwise mastered piece of gross motor equipment or use those new capacities to be argumentative. As adults, we can become frustrated as emotional needs for stability, extra affection and time from parents coincide with new gains in self help skills. Why are young children’s behaviors so paradoxical?
Early childhood educators refer to this pattern of growth and regression as periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium. Although all growth and development follows this path, the path itself is unique to each individual child. This is why in your child’s class, you can observe a wide range of skills and abilities across domains within a like-age group.
Periods of equilibrium are characterized by calm behavior when children are practicing skills that they already have some mastery over. Children seen to be confident within themselves and family life is much easier. Sounds great, right? However, this means that children have reached a plateau in their development and they can’t stay in this stage forever.
Learning new skills and abilities occurs in periods of disequilibrium. These periods are characterized by unsettled and uneven behavior. Children appear anxious, they are stressed, and are more difficult to manage. Sound familiar? Maybe it is comforting to know that this time is one of quick growth and leads to new development.
Generally, these periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium occur every six months for children aged 18 months to 5 years old, with children entering equilibrium states around their birthdays and disequilibrium states around their half birthdays. (Again, this is a generalization and individual children will vary.) Periods of tantrums and regression will give way to ones of cooperation and calm behavior. Only to have the tantrums and regression return. Which for parents (and teachers) can sometimes seem baffling and also be maddening!
Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, you can make sense of the cyclical nature of your child’s behaviors. When possible, try not to introduce big transitions in periods of disequilibrium, like learning to use the potty. Understand that your child is not trying to be difficult or being willfully defiant, but instead their challenging behaviors are a normal part of the developmental process. And don’t forget to breathe; a period of equilibrium is just around the corner.
A focus of early childhood educators is supporting children in the development of their executive function skills, which includes the ability to pay attention, working memory, flexible thinking, and inhibitory skills or behavior regulation. Research has shown that the quality of a person’s executive functioning skill is a big determiner of academic success, second only to IQ. Why is this a focus during early childhood? For two reasons, one, because the brain is most likely to be shaped during periods of rapid transition, and early childhood is one of those periods. (The transition to adolescence is the other.) The second is because long-term studies of quality early childhood programs show that this is the area that we have the most critical impact. Children with effective and developed executive function skills learn more efficiently.
All tasks require planning and control, including the transition from free play time to clean-up time at school. Think about what is required of young children in this transition: they have to stop participating in a chosen, satisfying, and maybe challenging activity to attend to the signal of the teacher (the bell, a song), and then stop themselves from playing in order to complete a task few enjoy – cleaning up. If they are able to regulate their bodies enough to stop playing and participate, now we ask them to access their working memory. Where does the silly putty get put away? Where is the cover for the sand table? I put one thing away, do I need to do more? Here comes my classmate playing with a toy, can I stop myself from joining in? Wait, I always put away the blocks! Someone else put them away! Can I figure out something else to clean up? Young children are still developing their executive function skills – might explain why clean up time looks so messy!
So, how do we help them develop these necessary skills? By promoting their language skills, their pretend play skills and helping them build mindful awareness.
Language, specifically self-talk, is key to attending to a task. Young children often talk themselves through a novel or difficult task. Observe a child doing a puzzle. You might hear them say, “Not this space. Not this space!” As they try different solutions. Or, think about yourself when trying to put together a piece of furniture or learn a new bit of technology. Adults often regress to using self-talk, either in their mind or out loud.
Pretend play helps children both with working memory and thinking flexibly. They need to both keep in mind the rules of the pretend play situation (roles, rules, and responsibilities) and shift perspectives as their peers bring their own ideas to the play. What’s interesting is that this psychological distance often allows children to see their options for responding more efficiently. Consider this experiment – when a research asked children to unlock a clear box with a desired toy inside, and none of the keys actually worked, children who were pretending that they were a favorite superhero persisted twenty minutes longer that when they were just “being” themselves!
Mindful awareness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, and in the present moment. We build this skill in young children when we change rules to known games to increase complexity over time. For example, playing the “freeze dance” game with the rule that you dance when the music is off and freeze while it is on, or playing “red light, green light” with different colors, (yellow light, blue light).
As educators, it is our job to create environments and opportunities to do so for the children at the Co-op to develop and build their executive function skills and Imbedded into each of the different parts of our day are opportunities to do so!
I have been on the receiving end of a more than a few confused looks from parents as they drop their child off at school at the beginning of class. They don’t know what to make of the frantic, repeated good-byes, the lingering hugs, the return for just another kiss, or even, the full-blown tears. With just a few weeks of school to go, it feels somehow wrong that we are revisiting separation. After many months of successful and stress-free “good-byes”, it can be hard for parents to understand why their kids are needing extra emotional support right now.
Although maybe not helpful in the moment, please let me reassure you how typical this behavior is for young children anticipating the end of the school year. For our youngest children, they haven’t had the multiple experiences of something that has become such a significant part of their lives coming to an end. For our junior kindergarteners, and other children transitioning schools, they are getting ready for the significant transition of leaving the comfort of preschool and being the “big kids”. Anticipating all of this change naturally leads to children looking for more love and support from parents, and that can look like a return to separation anxiety.
So, what can parents do to support their children in this time of transition? First, recognize that you may be having some feelings about it, too. The end of your eldest or only child’s first year of preschool is a milestone. You may have begun the year wondering how it would all go and been reassured and become comfortable in your new role as a “school parent”. However, it may be time to leave that teacher who helped make that possible behind, or you may be anticipating a change in schedule, or new expectations. For those of you leaving the Co-op, you may have your own good-byes to say and wonder what it will be like to join a new school community. Knowing how you feel about it will help you be mindful of how you are sharing those emotions with your children – both positive and negative. Remember they hear your words as well – as you talk with your friends, parents of other students, and your spouse. You might think they aren’t thinking about it and be surprised how much they know. Regulating your own emotions about the end of the school year is the first step to helping your children with their own.
When teachers begin to talk about the end of the school year (and the when varies on program, so ask them), it can be helpful to start a conversation and really listen to what your child has to say. They might have logistical questions about how they will spend their days this summer, what class or school they will attend next, and how many days there will be before school begins again. They may have questions that will make you feel tenderly towards them, like, will so-and-so still be my friend even though school is over, will my teacher miss me, will I ever go back to school again? I would encourage you to help them name their own emotions (excitement about the summer activities, worry about the new school, sadness about not seeing a friend or teacher regularly). Ask for their ideas if they are wondering about how to stay in touch with friends and advocate for them in sharing feelings with teachers. And, of course, recognize that the need for a longer good-bye, or even a return to tears, is just a sign that despite their growth, they still need you so much. A return to separation anxiety is temporary, but that need is not.
As we enter the last six weeks of school, the behaviors and abilities of the children across all of the programs (2 Day, Nursery and JK), shows us we are firmly in the middle of the final phase* of school. This phase is marked by the consolidation of the skills that children have learned this year (across all developmental domains) and their appropriate need to assert independence and initiative in the classroom. The children are eager and able to show off their new competencies. They choose to identify with their favored peers and the group more than the teacher.
Teachers now become focused on fostering children’s individual self awareness, on encouraging small and large group interactions, and facilitating group problem solving. I am sure that you have heard a teacher at the Co-op say to a child recently, “I don’t know. What do you think we should do?” or “Let’s talk about it at group time.”
Teachers also recognize that at this time as children are becoming more capable, it is acceptable to set appropriate higher expectations. This can sometimes lead to a return of some anxiety on the part of the children as they explore whether or not they are up for the new challenges. (Occasionally, this appears as renewed separation anxiety.) Teachers recognize that children need support in maintaining a balance between dependence and independence and help them increase frustration tolerance.
This help comes in two forms: adjusting the routines and the environment and in presentation of the curriculum. We practice flexibility by adjusting the routine, for example, the JK is exploring a new schedule and the 2 day Nursery is now leaving the school building and playing across the street. We also turn some of the curriculum over to the children, like the 4 day children creating their own group games and 3 Day Nursery engaging in home/school experiences (coming soon!). Smaller adjustments are made as well – free play time being shortened for a longer Table Time experience or to enjoy a nice day, time spent walking to a nearby playground, etc.
We honor the child’s need and desire to be together by including more group creative experiences, such as plays in the Nursery program, games that require working with a peer in JK, and group art projects in the Two Day.
We also recognize that the children need the experience and practice of following their own ideas and plans. This is a time when teachers will drop their own plans in order to follow the lead of the children. This also is apparent in the increased importance of the dramatic play set-ups, where children are in charge of the roles and the action happening (at the “vacation home”, the hair salon, the doctor’s office). All of this work of the final phase leads to the ability to say good-bye. However, we need some more time together before we cover that topic!
*Phase Model Theory is the work of the Virginia Frank Child Development Center.
With the more temperate weather, the children are having more time to play outside and are being given the opportunity to explore different kinds of movement activities – biking, ball playing, and group games are a few examples. Watching their joyful movements and enviable energy is a reminder of just how much children need to move! Not just so they have can have calmer, more regulated bodies for classroom activities, but also because for young children, movement is essential for brain development. Outdoor play and opportunities for physical challenges inside the classroom promote problem solving, risk assessment, cooperative play and of course, promotes physical fitness.
Teachers think about the ways our variety of activities and materials can support children’s need and desire to move in order to promote their development.There are three essential components teachers think about, plan for and assess: promoting the actual physical components of the movement, and the environmental/structural and instructional components that accompany the plan for motor play.
In the physical components of movement realm, teachers plan for and promote physical fitness that supports development in other areas: muscle strength and endurance, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility. They consider posture, balance, and spatial orientation. We assess where children are in their development by looking at children’s non-loco motor patterns like bending, stretching and pulling, and their loco motor patterns like walking, running, jumping, and rolling. We assess the quality of their movements, the child’s use of space and of force. Teachers plan for and consider equipment, boundaries, the amount of time that the activity will continue, and group size. They consider whether or not activities should be teacher facilitated, structured or unstructured, what questions need to be answered before introducing the activity, and how much patience and persistence are required of the children.
So what does all this consideration and planning lead to? Teachers choosing to do freeze dancing when they are promoting and assessing reaction time. Teachers setting up obstacle courses with balance beams and climbing ladders when they are promoting and assessing balance, spatial orientation, and flexibility. Teachers carefully observing children on the climber to assess muscle strength. Teachers choosing tricycles and sleds to promote muscle endurance and to get a sense of children’s spatial orientation.
It sounds so serious, doesn’t it? What is so gratifying (for teachers, parents, and especially the children) is that this is all done in the context of play and fun! Children enjoy these experiences because they feel challenged, they are trying out and perfecting new physical abilities, and enjoying the camaraderie of group play and individual achievements. We enjoy their accomplishments as well!
Sometimes, after tuning into the news, listening to the radio, or checking out social media, the stories and images of violence, war, dissent and disagreement are overwhelming. As an adult, I have coping mechanisms and the cognitive abilities to make sense of these stories and images and how they do or don’t relate to my immediate safety and well-being. Unfortunately, young children don’t and as much as we try to shield them, they often do end up exposed to these stories and images through media, overhearing adult conversation, or interactions with other children. How can we support our children in understanding these stories and images and help them continue to feel safe?
Even without media exposure, themes of power and violence often show up in young children’s pretend play, artwork, story dictations, and conversations. Diane Levin, noted child development author, professor, and activist, offers this advice to parents: Start by finding out what children know. If a child comes to you to tell you that they have heard about or seen images from a news event that scares them, ask, “What have you heard about that?” and clarifying questions, what have you heard about a bomb or about people getting hurt with a gun at a school? (If you think others are likely to raise the issue in your young child’s environment or they may oversee a news story at the home of a relative or friend, you may want to provide your own context ahead of time.)
Answer questions and clear up conceptions that worry or confuse. You don’t need to provide the full story. Just tell children what they seem to want to know. Don’t worry about giving “right answers” or if children have ideas that don’t agree with yours. You can help children learn to distinguish real from pretend violence. You can calmly voice your feelings and concerns. Support children’s efforts to use play, art, and writing to work out an understanding of scary things they see and hear. It’s normal for children to do this in an ongoing way; it helps them work out ideas and feelings; it shows you what they know and worry about. Open-ended (versus highly-structured) play materials— blocks, vehicles, miniature people, a doctor’s kit, markers and paper— help children with this.
Be on the lookout for signs of stress. Changes in behavior such as increased aggression or withdrawal, difficulty separating or sleeping, or troubles with transition are all signs that additional supports are needed.
We can do all we can to protect children from unsettling media, but when we can’t it is the role of parents and teachers to help children make sense of it, to remind them that they are safe and that the adults in their lives are in charge of keeping them safe. Maintaining routines, providing reassurance & extra hugs can help children regain equilibrium. They can help us adults as well.
“I don’t like you.” “Go away!” “No boys allowed.” “You’re not our friend.” “I’m not inviting you to my birthday party.”
Ouch. Even writing those words makes me wince. Adult responses (parents and teachers) to children’s hurtful words are influenced by many factors – our own experiences with being excluded or excluding others through childhood, a desire to raise children who are kind and respectful of other’s feelings, a desire to protect children from the feeling of being left out or taunted, or worries about what it says about our parenting or teaching that children our engaging in the behavior. The natural tendency to protect and defend also comes into play, especially for parents when they see their child on the receiving end.
It’s important for adults to both manage their own (perfectly understandable) feelings about young children excluding each other from play and their use of hurtful words, as well as to try and understand why children engage in these practices. If we can do those two things, we can help children navigate their relationships more effectively and promote the pro-social behaviors we would rather see.
So, why do children exclude one another in play? I think the first idea to remember is that it is a natural part of their growth in their social relationships and developmentally appropriate. There are many reasons they exclude include self-protection, protection of their emerging friendships, protection of their ideas or already successful play experiences, and out of worry or fear about other kids that may seem “different” to them.
If children feel worried about including a child they don’t know (based on appearance or perception as the child being unpredictable or aggressive) they may exclude. If they are in the beginning stages of friendship with one other child, they may perceive adding a third to mix as a threat to that friendship. What if they like the other child more? Will I get left behind? If they are playing a theme that is their own idea, they might get worried that another child will change their idea. If everyone is playing an agreed upon idea, and the play is successful and satisfying, there may be worry that a new child might upset that balance. If a known child is at a different point in their development as a player and friend, they may be excluded for not being perceived as able to “keep up” with the others in their play and play themes.
Step one – understand and monitor our own adult responses to children’s exclusive behaviors, step two – understand where they may be coming from. Step three – what do teachers and parents do about it?
1. Get involved. It’s not enough to ignore and hope that children will work this out on their own. Ignoring may unwittingly come across as approval of this behavior and like most things, young children need guidance and support to develop new skills – like conflict resolution. Avoid assigning roles to the children involved – there are not mean kids or kids to feel sorry for, just kids who need some help playing successfully together.
2. Find out the reasons that the child or children are excluding. Ask questions (in a neutral tone) like, “What’s happening over here?” “Do you need help in figuring out how to play together?”
3. Address individual situations as needed. You may know that the reason one child is being excluded is because she gets aggressive sometimes, or doesn’t stay on the play theme, or will only play when it is his idea. A parent or teacher can help the excluder(s) by saying, “I know Johnny sometimes get mad when he doesn’t get to be in charge. How about I play with you all and Johnny to make sure everyone stays safe?
4. To support children when they are worried about an emerging friendship, adults can say that we understand the need to play one-on-one and suggest a play date or time to do that, but also help draw children’s attention to situations when that is not possible, like school, birthday parties, or the play ground.
5. In the cases of individual children needing extra support to develop the play skills needed to successfully play with their peers, teachers and other professionals can step in to do direct coaching.
Excluding others is a natural part of the development and social interactions of preschool aged children. However, with appropriate adult intervention, we can help children learn the skills they need to overcome these behaviors in the future.
I had a conversation with a girl in the Junior Kindergarten this week. She was telling me about goals that her parents had for her. She told me that she had already accomplished one of these goals and what the reward was when she did it. She also told me she would have a similar reward for this new goal. Earlier that same day, I had a conversation with a Mom about strategies she was using at home to gain compliance from her son. She was also connecting rewards (privileges and treats) to specific behaviors. He was beginning to lose interest in the rewards.
How do we help young children to set and reach goals for themselves that aren’t connected to stickers, gushing praise, and other treats? Is there any harm in that anyway? I’ve written previously in School News about Alfie Cohen and his theories about child development. He authored the excellent book, Punished by Rewards (1993). In this conversation with Ann Svensen, he outlines the problems with rewards and punishments.
Question: What's the trouble with rewards? Kohn: First let's define the term. A reward is not just something nice or desired, it's something nice or desired that is offered contingently when someone complies with our wishes or does something we like. If I give you a banana, that's not a reward. If I give you a banana for having helped me around the house, that's a reward. I have a serious objection to saying, "If you are good this week, I'll take you out for ice cream."
Question: What is your objection? Kohn: More than 70 studies have found that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. It's not just that rewards are ineffective over the long haul; it's that they are actively counterproductive.
Question: But I'm sure most parents would argue that rewards work. Kohn: They do work in the short term, but at a great cost. Rewards, like punishments, are useful for getting exactly one thing: temporary compliance. By bribing or threatening kids, you can get them to do what you want as long as the reward or the punishment keeps coming. You'll never get anything more substantial than that. Two recent studies have found that children whose parents reward or praise them frequently tend to be less generous and caring than their peers. That might strike some people as surprising, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The child who has been praised or rewarded for doing something nice has learned that the only reason to continue being nice is to get something for it. When there is no longer a goody to be gained, there is absolutely no reason for the child to continue helping. And indeed, less reason than if the child had been authentically supported in becoming a compassionate person from the beginning.
Question: What do you mean by "authentically supporting" kids? Kohn: In general, we can talk less and ask more. In the course of a day, we tell people things over and over instead of bringing them in and getting their perspective and solutions. For example, a child who comes up with her own remedy for getting out the door on time, every morning, is a child who has been helped to take charge of her own life. She's been encouraged to think about how to solve problems. The child has taken ownership of the solution, and that makes it more likely to succeed. Regardless of the specific result, the process itself is also terribly important. It creates a very different dynamic in a family that's based on respect, not on treating kids like pets.
Gender is often a big topic among children in early childhood classrooms. Especially when children reach the junior kindergarten year, they become more and more interested in defining who is a boy and who is a girl. Part of this developmental process is about children figuring out who they are in relationship to their family, their peers, and how they fit into the world. Most developmental screenings ask the question if the child knows if they are a boy or a girl. That knowledge is considered a marker of development. And once kids identify, or not, their gender, adults step in with their own messages.
So we have a shared understanding, consider the following definitions – each person has a biological sex, the chromosomes, organs and hormones that are female or male. Each person has a gender identity - how you think about yourself and a gender expression - how you demonstrate the beliefs. Eventually, most people have a sexual orientation – who you are attracted to in relation to how you define yourself. It’s important to keep in mind that sex, gender, and sexuality are separate, but related ideas.
So, what does this have to do with early childhood? I think we should consider the messages that adults – parents, teachers, coaches, family friends, relatives – send to very young children. As young children begin to think about gender, their own and others, they are programmed to categorize and heavily influenced by the messages that they hear and the media and environments that they are exposed to. At school, the staff and I are committed to creating an environment that values each child as an individual, no matter how they express that individuality. In the classroom, we choose and post images of people engaged in non-stereotypical activities, offer dress-up clothes that all children are invited to try, and share stories that focus on the person, not the gender.
Over the past two years, we’ve worked hard on eliminating language and practices that creates divisions. You may notice that we don’t say “boys and girls”, but children. We don’t ask kids to line-up in boy versus girl lines and our clean-up song has changed to “It’s time for all the children (not boys and girls) to clean up all the toys. When confronted with children saying pink is a girl color or only boys allowed, we remind children that all colors are for everyone and that school is a place where everyone can play. This doesn’t mean we want classrooms that are devoid of gender or if a child delights in their “girl-ness” or “boy-ness” that we dissuade them. Instead, we are interested in supporting each child knowing that their identity is their own and we won’t participate in practices that create division or impose arbitrary expectations.
In addition, we actively work to not interject or accept adults expecting that young children have a sexual identity. In the piece titled, “Stop Asking My Four-Year Old if He has a Girlfriend”, of her New York Times blog, Motherlode, Lynn Messina writes, “And yet every time this question is posed, I hear insidious rumblings. I hear heteronormative expectation: You’re a boy, so naturally, you’ll like girls. I hear the gender indoctrination: Girls aren’t like boys, so you should treat them differently. I hear the premature insertion of sexual politics: Girls aren’t your friends; they’re potential objects of desire.”Our children have a lifetime of discovering, forming, redefining, and exploring who they are. Let’s do our very best to create environments that allows them to do so and in the process allows us to see their best selves emerge.
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