Next week, the teachers and I will head to Atlanta to participate in the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children “the largest gathering of thought leaders, classroom teachers and faculty, administrators, researchers, and other critically important practitioners and contributors in early childhood education”. The staff and I are looking forward to the opportunity to be with our colleagues from all over the world who are equally invested in supporting young children and their families during the critical early years.
There are multiple benefits for us to look forward to and I am anxious to see what trends are emerging in our field. For each of us, it is an opportunity to expand our knowledge base. Within our own little group, we range from a few years of experience to decades and we all will find sessions that support us in our work with your children.
A highlight for me is being with the “rock stars” of our field. Learning from the experts always inspires me to do more and better when I return from a professional development experience. I tend to choose sessions based on the presenter over the topic. It is inspiring to hear from folks who have not only been in the field for a long time, but are continuing their research and giving their time to those of us who are in the classroom. One session I am looking forward to is, “Creating children who can think: Bridging research and practice”.
The very best take-away is usually those ideas we can use immediately. Teachers always come back inspired to improve their classroom environments, to add a new lesson plan to their curriculum, to try a new approach with a child, and just generally are re-energized by the experience. Emily and I are also planning on attending a session on preparing for our accreditation renewal. That process begins next year!
As a staff, we will attend together, “Watch out for “play impostors”! How to effectively scaffold make-believe play and playful learning using theories of Lev Vygotsky and Daniel Elkonin”. It’s always important for us to attend some sessions together to build upon our shared knowledge.
Thanks to all of our families who will miss being at school for the days we are away and for continuing the financial commitment to our staff that provides these very high quality professional development experiences. I promise we will find time for a little fun and bonding as well!
Young children have always played at being powerful and loved to rough house, and play catch and chase games. This week, I’ve been seeing “pillow fights” in one nursery class, children “being” clawing tigers in another, and watched JK delight in playing “Wolf oh, Wolf” (a chasing game where a teacher is a wolf and the children are dinner. What is the draw? Why is it part and parcel of early development? In my experience, it is a combination of the psychological need to experience power when young children are in fact so vulnerable and have so little control coupled with a need to try out and explore the possibilities and limitations of their bodies. This play is also competitive in nature, with clearly defined winners and losers.
In author’s Bronson and Merryman’s book Top Dog they focus is on the different reactions that children have to being placed in competitive situations. One chapter highlighted the importance of children engaging in rough and tumble play with parents. The assertion is that “within the context of an emotional bond these displays of aggression . . . destabilize children, pushing them and expanding their comfort zone. . . . this emotional groundwork helps children be brave in unfamiliar situations, stand up for themselves, and learn to take risks.”
Frances Carlson explores these ideas in her recent work, “Big Body Play: Why Boisterous, Vigorous, and Very Physical Play Is Essential to Children's Development and Learning.” Carlson’s definition: “Big body play is the very physical, vigorous, boisterous, and sometimes bone-jarring play style many children love and crave. Big body play is when a child throws herself onto a sofa; when children wrestle; when friends jump off climbing equipment; when friends chase each other as they laugh, or race to a finish line.” Her conclusion for why it is important to children’s growth and development adds to the work cited in Top Dog. “Why is big body play important for children? Big body play supports children’s physical development but it also supports the development of children’s social awareness, emotional thinking, and language skills. Research shows that big body and power play comes naturally to children. Children all over the world play this way, and that is why it's so important that adults, both teachers and family members, understand and support it.”
At school, we support this need for these kinds of play with time and equipment outdoors (free play at the climbing park, chasing games at the fountain park) as well as in the classroom (the “cloud”, the climber, the rope ladder, freedom to act out their dramatizations with big and powerful movements). At home, parents can support this play as well. From Carlson: “Supervise play closely. If your child needs help telling a playmate to stop or to do something in a different way, you’ll be there to help. Talk with your child and set some ground rules for big body play. Big body play looks like fighting, but it isn’t fighting, is rowdy, physical, and usually loud; it rarely turns into real fighting; is a vital component of children’s growth and development. The quickest way to distinguish big body play from real fighting is by looking at the expressions on children’s faces. Their big smiles let us know the play is okay.”
“One more time!” “I’m not wearing my coat!” “I don’t want to go.” “Another cookie.” And so on, and so on.
Preschoolers love to negotiate, especially with their parents. This behavior emerges as they struggle with the developmental paradox of wanting power and control, while not being able to emotionally and physically care for themselves. When young children have their own idea of how something should go, and it runs into conflict with the plan of the parent, they can either choose to go along, or protest and test the resolve of the parent. If they choose the later, often that is when the negotiating begins. Sometimes this is appropriate, and sometimes it is not.
There is value in their learning to and practicing how to negotiate. Children are practicing opening and closing circles of communication, as they assert their idea, listen to the limit or ask, and state their own modification or refusal. They are practicing reading and interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues. What does the tone of Mom’s voice mean? What does it mean when Dad’s face looks that way? How many more times can I refuse or bargain before their patience runs out?
There are ways to give children appropriate opportunities to practice these skills and to give them chances to feel powerful and to assert their own choices. But sometimes, it is inappropriate to negotiate with young children and those are the times that lead to emotional breakdowns, mixed messages, and negative outcomes. It can be tricky to determine both when it is and is not appropriate to negotiate, what to do instead, and what to do when negotiations break down.
Some things are non-negotiable. Safety rules are the first that come to mind. Bathing, brushing teeth, and bedtime are also included on that list. I would assert that going to school is also non-negotiable. Which pair of pajamas, whether to brush teeth before or after bath time, reading two or three stories before bedtime, having scrambled eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, are all choices that can be given to children that give them opportunities to have some power and control.
A parent or teacher can have in mind that something is non-negotiable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the child will go along with that idea. What then? First, set the situation up for success if you are anticipating a struggle. Give warnings: “In a short time, we will be leaving the park. Do you want to spend the rest of the time in the sandbox or go down the slide three times?” Tell kids what will happen next. “After we finish bath time, it is time to read books and go to bed. I wonder if you will choose two or three stories to read tonight?” If your child still negotiates, maybe by saying that they want to play some more before reading stories, you can set the limit in a loving way by acknowledging their emotion/desire. “You love to play together/with your toys/with your sister. It’s hard to stop and go to sleep.” Set the limit again. “But after bath time, we will read stories and it will be time to sleep. I will help you.” If your child tries again to negotiate, don’t engage again. You can make eye contact, nod, make a noncommittal sound, but don’t verbally engage again. Try and remain unemotional and keep moving forward with the plan.
Sometimes parents and kids end up in a situation where the negotiating begins even before the actual event. For example, a child saying the night before school that they don’t want to go. This is another opportunity to acknowledge the emotion, say that you (or the other parent/caregiver) will be there to help them. Don’t try and convince your child that they will change their mind, have a super fun time at school, or that they don’t really feel that way. Instead say, “I can tell you are thinking about this. I hear you. Parents and teachers will be there to help you. What else can we talk about?” If you child returns to the subject, don’t engage again. “We are all done talking about that. Let’s go build with blocks.” Then, start to do the thing you said you were going to do and don’t address it again.
Lastly, go for the hug. When children get stuck in the negotiating, and parents can get stuck too, what happens is the child starts to feel more and more separate from the parent. They seek to take control, while at that same time feeling scared as subconsciously they realize that they shouldn’t have it. Ceasing verbal communications and holding your child close will calm both their bodies and their emotions and help them be ready for the task at hand. Figuring all of this out is hard work for both the parent and the child. Keeping in mind that this behavior is developmentally appropriate, giving children appropriate times to have power and control, and setting children up for success can limit the struggles and help parents understand why they are happening.
Teachers at the Co-op prioritize both their student’s engagement in the classroom with the materials and the curriculum and their motivation to initiate and maintain relationships, to try new experiences, and persist through challenges. When observed, parents often define these behaviors as signs that their child is developing a love of learning and an idea of themselves as a successful student. And, they would be right.
So how do we define motivation, engagement and love of school in early childhood classrooms? When teachers take a comprehensive look at school readiness – one that is more interested in a set of aptitudes versus acquisition of specific academic skills – they include an assessment of a child’s approach to learning. Specifically, they are looking for: curiosity and initiative; does the child engage in or avoid new activities, persistence; does the child complete activities, attention; how long does a child work on a task with deliberation, self-regulation; does the child set goals, make plan or manage time on their own, and flexibility; when encountering a difficulty, can the child try multiple solutions, and/or change plans mid-course.
A child’s approach to learning is determined by many factors, not the least of which is individual characteristics such as temperament, learning style, and as some research shows, gender. Just as children are born with their own eye color, body type, and so on, they come into the world with distinctive behavioral styles – individual patterns of behavior that are probably genetically influenced and that tend to persist over time (Rothbard & Bates 2006). In addition to temperament, research also points to learning styles, defined as inborn preferences for processing information in either a visual, auditory or physical way (Rider,1997).
However, when looking at a child’s approach to learning, we cannot fully assume that a child’s individual characteristics have the only influence on their approach to learning, or that environment, teachers, family, culture, etc. does not also have a strong influence. In fact, we know they do.
It is in the combination of all of these factors, the child’s temperament, leaning styles and processing preferences, with their environment, family, and culture that help define the child’s approach to learning. Their approach to leaning is important to understand as a key part of their individual learning profile. How does this relate back to engagement and motivation?
What engages and motivates children is not a one-size-fits-all-approach. Look around at your child’s classroom and notice that even very young children have individual preferences about what materials and activities they choose and how they engage with them. Notice that teachers capitalize on their relationship with each child and their knowledge of their individual learning profile to enhance that engagement, to motivate a child to try something new or challenging, or to extend the interaction. We want to foster an approach to learning that is enthusiastic and demonstrates curiosity. When that is observed, we know that our students and motivated and engaged at school.
Parent-teacher conferences begin this week. We welcome this opportunity to continue to build our partnership with you as we look ahead to supporting the growth and development of your child, together. Conferences are meant to be a conversation; a sharing of observations and a pondering of questions that will lead to jointly setting goals for your child for the upcoming school year.
Ahead of your conference, I invite you to think about:
“How is school going for my child so far this year?” Depending on the program and your child, that answer may include thoughts about separation, what your child says about school at home, and how school adjustment may be affecting behavior at home.
Your goals for your child’s experience at school this year.
What may be important for teachers to know about what is going on for the child at home.
Teachers will share:
Their impressions on how your child is adjusting to school
Areas of the room and experiences your child is enjoying and/or finding challenging
The results of the Ages and Stages Questionnaire
Their ideas for appropriate goals for the school year
Parent-teacher conferences in the fall have a different feel and goal than of those in the spring. Fall conferences support our relationship and partnership with you through the sharing of initial observations and setting goals. Spring conferences are an opportunity to share all of the growth and gains in development that teachers have seen over the course of the year.
What might be some goals you have as a parent or will hear as a suggestion from your conferencing teacher? Goals related to:
Approaches to learning: How children become curious about learning new things and respond to learning situations. Curiosity about the world, initiative and problem solving, and focused attention and persistence are just a few approaches to learning teachers and families hope to foster.
Dramatic play: When children pretend to be someone else, such as a firefighter or doctor, and they make up scenes and dialogue. Dramatic play experiences help support the development of perspective taking, focus, and attention.
Exploratory play: When children discover how materials work. For example, when playing with water or sand, children explore how to fill and empty buckets.
Physical and motor development: How children use their bodies to make large movements with their legs and arms (gross motor) and small movements with their fingers and hands (fine motor).
Print awareness: When children understand how print works. For example, after listening to lots of stories, children notice that letters make words, words make a story, and reading goes from left to right in English.
Self-regulation: How children learn to control their feelings and their bodies. For example, if a child wants to play with a toy her friend is using, she asks for a turn rather than grabbing it.
Social and emotional development: How children learn about feelings, build a strong sense of self, and understand the feelings of other people.
Building Autonomy: How children become able to act and think for themselves and become more independent by internalizing routines, using expressive language in the classroom, and communicate their needs to others (teachers and peers).
This list is by no means exhaustive or meant to limit the input of parents. We welcome your ideas and thoughts on other meaningful goals for your child at school. We look forward to the opportunity to have these conversations with you. And, if you haven’t yet signed up, please call the office to arrange your time! 312-944-5469
A parent is a child’s first teachers in all ways, including sharing and modeling a moral code for them to follow. Luckily, for human kind, children come into the world primed for this learning. Karen Wynn, a director of the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University studies the origins of human morality and makes the case that we are born with an innate moral sense. In the words of Dr. Wynn, “Study after study after study, the results are always (showing) consistently babies feeling positively towards helpful individuals in the world. And disapproving, disliking, maybe condemning individuals who are antisocial towards others.” The studies make the case that bias is also inborn. From Dr. Bloom, a psychologist involved in the project, “I think to some extent, a bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people who have the same taste as me, is a very strong human bias. It's what one would expect from a creature like us who evolved from natural selection, but it has terrible consequences. It makes sense that evolution would predispose us to be wary of "the other" for survival, so we need society and parental nurturing to intervene.”
It is my belief that schools function as part of the “society” that intervenes in supporting children’s moral development. However, the individual approach of particular schools and teachers is varied. Many schools and teachers value obedience for the sake of obedience: learning to respect your elders without benefit of being respected yourself, doing what you are told without the benefit of explanation, dictating every detail of a child’s behavior, and insisting that there is only one correct answer to any given problem – theirs. Some schools deliver the above principles with harshness and in a culture of blame and shame, while others sugar coat the messaging with politeness, coercion and rewards. The result is the same: some children behaving to the set standard (and others not), because they have heteronomous morality, a morality of obedience.
At the Co-op, we have a different goal, that of autonomous morality. Autonomous morality, as defined in the book, Moral Classrooms, Moral Children, is the individual following the moral rules of the self. “Such rules are self- constructed, self-regulating principles. The rules have a feeling of personal necessity for the individual. The individual . . . follows internal convictions about the necessity of respect for persons in relationship with others.” The development of autonomous morality is a process that takes much more effort on the part of the child, and the teachers and parents who make this their goal. It requires giving children the freedom to make mistakes and to understand that that freedom means that children will experience the mistakes of their peers. It requires parents and adults to value failure as much as success. It requires patience, perseverance and empathy. It requires of the family and of the school the same characteristics we hope to build in the child.
The building of autonomous morality may not have been one of your reasons to enroll your child at Lincoln Park Co-op. I hope, however, that you can agree that it is a worthwhile goal.
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.
In my remarks at the Fall General Meeting, I listed some of the lead up skills necessary for young children to be both meaningfully engaged at school and eventually in making friendships. There lead up skills included, but are not limited to, regulating their own body, controlling their impulses, and delaying their gratification. These skills are also referred to as “self control” and often included in lists related to building executive function as well. While we understand that these skills are learned, it can be confusing to understand how exactly there are taught. In the classrooms at the Co-op, teachers use specific strategies to teach these skills. Parents can also adopt these techniques to use at home.
The first strategy relates to language that we use with young children and how we communicate expectations. Simple and direct language can also be kind and respectful to young children. In fact, by using simple and direct language with children we are honoring their developmental needs by understanding that doing so helps their brains process language. At school, you may hear teachers say, “Put down the book and join us at the rug.” Notice that the statement focuses on the behaviors that teachers are requesting and is clear in expectation. As adults, we may “miss” the please and thank you. For young children, the niceties of language may interfere with their understanding and acting on the request. “A short time left to play” and “two more times to slide down the slide and then it is time to leave the park” gives children opportunity to understand the upcoming transitions and expectations. “Linda is so excited that you chose to play with her at the sand!” helps children recognize the impact of their actions and notice the emotions of others. Notice that that statement does not insert the opinion of adult. “It’s so nice of you . . . good boy . . . I like that” all make the action less about the kind choice of the child and more about the adult being pleased.
Another strategy relates to routines. Young children cannot tell time, but they can certainly internalize routines. You may notice the picture schedules and teacher-made “A Day at School” books available in the classrooms. When children begin to know that snack always follow outdoor play, they are better able to focus their attention on the task at hand instead of being anxious about what comes next. All routines for young children should include respecting that their attention spans are lengthened when periodic opportunities for movement are included.
An additional way that educators encourage regulation are in their choice of games that they play with children at school. Simple games like, “Red Light, Green Light” and freeze dancing give children the opportunity to practice controlling their bodies. You may witness a teacher telling their group to “fall asleep” at a transition time to wash hands or go home. This asks children to control not only their bodies, but also their voices. Teachers ask children to pretend to sleep and wait until their name is called or a puppet “wakes them up”. Impulse control is tested as a peer next to you may be called, or it feels too long to wait. Another activity is a group time that includes simple musical instruments. Children are given rhythm sticks, bells, or clackers and asked to follow the lead of the teacher. Simple commands are given, loud or quiet, fast or slow, that engage both the body and the brain - processing the command and regulating the body are very challenging for young children.
All of these techniques help children build skills in critical areas related to regulation and attention. Teachers employ these (and many more) at school. If you have questions or your own ideas, please share them with me!
The 2017-2018 school year is off to a great start! It has been a pleasure to welcome children and families to school over the last two weeks. What a couple of weeks it has been at the Co-op! Teachers have been focused on facilitating successful separations, beginning with our home visits for children new to school. It was easy to see the impact of those visits, as children arrived for their first day and smiled easily at the teacher who had come and spent time with them in their home. Home visits and our orientation week set children up for a successful transfer of trust from home and family to school and teachers.
A foundational belief of cooperative nursery schools is that it is more appropriate to bring the family into the school as opposed to taking the child out of the family and into the school. Our Parent Tot program is a beginning step for many families, while others experience this with separation classes.
For most classes, this means that parents consciously make the commitment to be with their child at school in the beginning weeks of the school year. And a commitment it is! Days are spent both in the classroom, and in the meeting room at school, while children learn that school is a safe place with teachers who care about them and their ideas, needs, and wants. In the meantime, parents are getting to know staff and school as well – will the teachers notice my child? Like my child? What does it mean about me if I am the first to be dismissed during the separation process? Or the last? These questions are re-visited year to year as children transition between classrooms or meet a new teaching team. As a staff we know that this process can be just as hard for parents as for children.
Along with this transfer of trust, comes first experiences with learning a very important skill for young children; how to identity when you need help and how to get it from someone other than a family member or home caregiver. Out of school, children experience adults that are anticipating their needs, who are attuned to their schedules, who have familiarity with how tired, hungry, and frustrated are expressed. In school, teachers are just beginning to get to know their students, and need to facilitate the success of not just individuals, but the whole group. This naturally brings the opportunity and necessity for young children to begin to identify their own needs, name them and their associated emotions, and learn to ask for help. This process begins anew each school year, as growth from year to year brings new developmental tasks. Learning to ask for help is an important skill for life, and that learning begins in early childhood.
As we move into the final week of September, please know that your insights about your child’s experiences over the last couple of weeks are invaluable to teachers as they work together to form a strong partnership with you. That partnership that will support your child’s school experience this year. I would also love to hear from you! My door is always open to parents.
I look forward to seeing you all at the meeting on Wednesday, September 27th. For families that are new to school, or returning families who may have missed this meeting last year, please join us at 6:15 for New Family Orientation. The Fall General Meeting for our whole school community will begin at 7 pm.
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