Ah, the three-year-old. I often say, whoever said the two’s were terrible hadn’t yet spent time with a three year old. As I collaborate with teachers as they prepare for their spring parent teacher conferences, I’ve been hearing about how they are anticipating conversations with parents about challenges at home. They told me how parents are reporting how different the demands of their child had become, and how, in some cases, they didn’t know if they were doing the right or the wrong things at home!
What’s going on cognitively and emotionally with children at this age often leads to limit testing, “talking back”, regressive behaviors, and downright maddening temper tantrums. All of these behaviors are examples of children who are trying the best they can to gain some control of their world.
Being 3 means you have made some major developmental achievements. Gains in verbal language skills, the ability to make simple cause and effect relationships, the development of self-care (like toileting) and self-help skills (independent eating, dressing, simple chores) all combine to enable a three-year-old to feel mastery over his/her world. We keep telling them they are a “big boy/girl” and they have accumulated enough experiences to believe us!
However, at the same time, they still have little actual control of their world. We tell them when and what to eat, when to go to sleep, what to wear, who to play with, where to go, etc. In protest of all this management they try and gain some control of their experiences with negative behaviors.
Now they’ve got you! These power struggles are telling us they need ways to exert some control over their world. Small changes in your interactions with your child can lead to big outcomes. Think of choices you can give them where you are fine with either outcome that they choose. If the struggle is constantly over brushing their teeth, buy another tooth brush and say, “We are brushing our teeth now. Will you use the red or the green brush?” Let children choose between two outfits, sandwiches at lunch, etc. Always be okay with either answer. Repeated experiences of having choices throughout the day will add up for the child and lead to easier compliance in other issues where there is not a choice to be had.
In addition, three-year-olds have a complete inability to plan for the future or anticipate consequences. This is based on their lack of experiences, their inability to accurately match their emotional and physical reactions to their feelings, or to name them. If we realize that children experience all of the powerfulness of the full range of emotions that adults do, without the cognitive development, experiences, and memories that we have as adults, it can be easier for us to understand their struggles, and maybe even deal with them in a calmer way.
I hope your parent teacher conferences give you some insight into what is happening for your child at school and some advice for easier times at home. In the meantime, please know I am here to serve as a resource to parents and am happy to talk with you any time about your child at school and at home.
I hope everyone enjoyed their Spring Break. Although it shouldn’t be, I always find it surprising to return to school and discover the short time that is left in the school year – eight weeks until Summer Break! It is the appropriate time to reflect on the growth and development of the children over the course of the school year and to celebrate their achievements – otherwise known as Spring Conferences. Of course, it is also time to receive support from the staff as your child continues along their developmental path. Each unique stage of early childhood brings its own challenges to children and their parents alike.
Teachers spend lots of time preparing for their conferences with parents: reviewing their notes, work samples and assessments, as they create your narrative report. They are invested in painting a picture of where your child is developmentally. They consider your child’s overall cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development, as well as the goals that were jointly set at the Fall Conference. They look forward to the conference as an opportunity for parents and teachers to share important knowledge about the child.
I encourage you to prepare for your child’s conference as well, in order to get the most out of the experience. Getting into the following habits will also serve you well when you move onto your child’s next school and conference appointment times are limited.
First, think back on the goals that you set with the teacher at the beginning of the year. Do you feel your child has made progress? Do you feel the assessments that teachers use capture your child’s development? Do you have questions about those assessments? If you feel your child has met their goals, think about what you think the next-step goal is, and be prepared to ask the teacher about it.
If you have other specific questions, and you are not sure they will be covered in the conference, email your teacher ahead of time, and give her a “heads-up” on the topic you are wondering about. This will give her an opportunity to focus her observation of your child ahead of your conference. Don’t be afraid to bring a list of your questions with you and prioritize them so you can be sure your most important concerns are addressed first. The teacher may have questions for you as well, and will be especially interested if there is anything that is happening at home that could affect the child’s behavior at school.
At LPCNS, we are lucky that our cooperative model creates an atmosphere of partnership between teachers and parents. Your conference is an opportunity to build on that relationship as teachers and parents work together to support the individual development of each child. I hope you enjoy your Spring Conference!
As parents who have chosen a play-based nursery school, I can assume that you already value the role that play, and time to play, impacts development across all of the domains – cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. Play is powerful. Play helps to build relationships, strengthens emotional signaling (the ability to discern the emotion of another by observation of their non-verbal cues), supports motor planning and sequencing, supports social problem solving, encourages ideation and creativity, and gives an avenue for emotional reflection. That all sounds important, right? Just as important is the context in which play happens. Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little writes, “When you look at how kids learn, they learn when something is meaningful to them, when they have a chance to learn through relationships – and that of course happens through play.”
I can also assume that time to play with your own child(ren) can be hard to come by, given all of the roles you take on as a parent. The physical caregiving, the ways that you communicate and model your family values, the thinking about and preparing you do for their education, all need your time and attention. Throw on top of that work in and out of the home, self-care, and being an available partner to your spouse/co-parent and time gets harder and harder to come by.
In addition to finding the time to play together, parents can find it tricky to know how to play with their children. Some parents, either by temperament or based on their own experiences as a child, are comfortable in dramatic pretend play scenarios, building elaborate block towers, and spending lots of time playing in the sand at the beach. Many parents feel more comfortable playing games with rules, facilitating art projects, and involving children in household chores, like cooking. Other parents enjoy spending time with their children reading books or participating in regular family time – like dinners together – and find playing with toys and games not as enjoyable. How do you like to play and interact with your child?
It can be helpful for parents to focus on the purpose of play, and one framework that defines the purpose of play is called Floortime. The first stage of that framework is “shared attention”. Shared attention promotes a way to play that supports a child’s regulation, which requires following the child’s lead and paying attention to their cues. What are cues? The verbal and non-verbal ways that children tell us that they are engaged in the play. For example, playing peek-a-boo with an infant, using affect, rhythm and anticipation to connect, is an example of shared attention. This shared attention leads to two-way interactions. Two way interactions, both with and without words, are the foundation of play, both between parent and child and between children as well.
When children have lots of experience in play of two-way interactions, they can practice social problem solving in play. It is important for children to practice problem solving in play with parents, caregivers and teachers before we expect them to be able to do so with each other. When problems come up in play, we want kids to solve them. They could be physical problems, such as how to access the blocks on the shelf when other kids have built block structures in front of the shelf or how to access the middle bar on the climber. They could be social or emotional problems, such as how to keep a pretend play scenario moving forward when different players have different ideas.
When problems occur, adults should wait, watch, and wonder aloud with the child. Adults can keep the child focused on the problem with affect and emotion. It can be so easy for adults to solve problems for children – to hand over the blocks that they can’t reach, to offer a solution for marrying the ideas in pretend play. However, it is essential that we don’t and that we do give children the opportunity to try out their own solutions and practice failing and trying again.
After social problem solving comes ideation which includes representational play with toys and symbolic play with emotional ideas. In pretend play, we want to support all emotions and themes and not restrict kids to only “nice” ideas and themes. Play is how children try to figure out the world.
Lastly, we come to emotional thinking, where a child is building bridges between ideas. It is in this stage where children can contemplate and answer the “w” questions – why, what, and when. But, you can’t get here without first spending time in shared attention, two-way interaction, social problem solving, and ideation. When you play with your child with a purpose you can feel confident you are supporting your child’s development.
It’s officially Spring - although it doesn’t quite feel like it yet. Parents and teachers alike are anticipating when we no longer have to keep track of hats and mittens and the time spent outside playing can be even longer. At staff meetings, we are planning for forcing seeds and planting the raised beds in the outdoor classroom. And of course, Spring Break is happily anticipated. It is also the time of year when we notice the actual physical growth of the children. We see that their faces don’t look the same as the one in their photos near their coat hook, that they are taller, stronger and faster than they were just a few months ago. It is also a time of regression and growth, a time that naturally leads to more power struggles, heightened emotions, and sometimes head-shaking confusion about the behavior of young children!
When kids are going through rapid periods of development, it is often uneven. We observe kids getting physically clumsy when they have an explosion of vocabulary or kids losing their ability to compromise with a friend when they are experiencing a leap in their cognitive growth. We observe noticeable regressions in their ability to regulate their emotions when they are asking for more independence; there is a tension within them. Am I a big kid? What are my responsibilities as a big kid? I want to be a big kid! No, I want you to take care of me!
At this point in the school year, kids feel confident in the routines of school and in their relationships with teachers and with each other. These are positive outcomes of repeated experiences at school with materials and activities (and each other) that are meeting kids at the “just right” developmental challenge; enough challenge to spur development, but not so much as to discourage effort. Teachers carefully plan and consider this “just right” challenge as they introduce new activities like playing across the street in the 2 day class, acting out a story in the 3 day class, sewing in the 4 day class, and less structured and defined dramatic play spaces in JK. They consider the supports kids require to rise to these new experiences and expect that there will be challenging behaviors and a need of a reminder of rules and expectations.
The same is true when parents introduce new expectations and experiences at home. It is natural that when parents observe new competencies in their child to expect more from them. For example, if your child shows the ability to sit and attend at group time at school or in dance class, you would like them to do so at the dinner table with grandparents. And sometimes, they will be able to do so. And sometimes they won’t. Maybe in the very same day! That is when parents can get frustrated and power struggles erupt. That doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate to encourage children to practice new skills, it just means that we need a plan when they aren’t able to reach that new expectation.
When those big and messy emotions do emerge, both teachers and parents would do well to remember the following four S’s (from Dealing with Challenging Early Childhood Behaviors: Know the Neuroscience by Peg Oliveira, PhD):
1. Soothe: Start by dealing with the emotion, not the behavior. Try a breathing exercise (for the child as well as for you!) to calm the reactive lower brain.
2. Seen: Honor that the emotion is real by acknowledging and empathizing. State the obvious like, “It looks like it makes you really mad to have to share that ball.”
3. Safe: Make physical space for the child to safely have the emotion and time for the emotion to be fully experienced. Remind the child that emotions are acceptable, though some behaviors may not be, and that we all have them. Explain how some challenging behaviors aren’t allowed because they make it unsafe for all children, and that you are there to keep them safe.
4. Secure: Be there during the challenging behavior and corresponding emotions; and after. Remind them it will all be ok. Do not punish with disconnection or ignoring practices that shame the child. Help develop an internalized sense of connection and well-being.
It also may be helpful to remember that new challenging behaviors are often tied to periods of growth and development, and that on the other side is a more competent and regulated child!
Parents and teachers motivate and encourage young children to engage in positive behaviors and activities that support their growth in many ways. Verbal praise is one of them and can take different forms. “Good job!” is one way adults might acknowledge a child. “Your outfit is so cute!” is another. I would encourage parents to think about the ways that you they? offer verbal feedback to their child (and other children) and strive to do so in a way that is supportive to their development. That is, to use those opportunities to notice the efforts of the child, to be specific in our observations and feedback, and to not tie the positive action of the child to the emotional reaction of the adult.
This is not a sentiment that is unique to the Co-op or our philosophy. In fact, much research has been done on the effect of praise on performance, both with adults and children. In their chapter, entitled, “The Inverse Power of Praise” Bronson and Merryman, the authors of Nurture Shock,point to a number of studies that indicate praise needs to be specific and sincere in order to raise performance. “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise. It has to be based on a real thing – some skill or talent they have. Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.”
When teachers praise children at school, we try to connect it to something we know about the child, and something we may know that the child values about herself. We also try to use the language of “I notice” instead of “I like”. Examples include:
“I saw how you saw Jane crying and you went and got her a tissue. I notice the way you show that you care about your friends.”
“Lucy, you are working hard on being a builder. You figured out how to make the block building sturdy.”
“Joseph, I notice that you were carefully adding the white paint to the blue to make the shade you were looking for and you didn’t give up until you achieved your idea.”
“I noticed the way you said there could be two dogs that live in this house so Amy could play the game too.”
“Remember when you didn’t know how to zip up your coat? You kept practicing and now you can do it. I notice that you also help your classmates with their zippers.”
Bronson and Merryman also point out that “Excessive praise also distorts children’s motivation; they begin doing things merely to hear the praise, losing sight of intrinsic enjoyment. Scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”
In addition to the quality of our praise to task, I encourage us all to think about the praise we give to children around appearance. I recognize this as an area I need to remind myself about, because, well, they are just so darn cute! However, we all need to be reflective about the messages that we send. Is the same child always being praised in the coat room for her outfit? Or, instead do we say a sincere good morning and praise her on her attention to detail at the easel later? What messages do we send about what we value about children?
I know all of these things and everyday have to remind myself about how to make the verbal feedback I am offering to children meaningful and supportive. This is hard work as it is easy to fall back on the “good job”. But, it is work worth doing!
Most young children are naturally driven to engage in dramatic play. Dramatic play supports children’s development across all domains - cognitive, physical, emotional, and social. One way that teachers assess gains in social development in young children is to observe their dramatic play skills. Do they engages in role play with two or more kids? Can they only remain in play if only their own needs and ideas are always met? Are they able to negotiate with another child as to establishment of role (who is whom) or the action of play (what is happening)? Is the child able to direct the play and accept the direction of others? Do they follow the established roles and rules of dramatic play in order to keep the play going?
Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, writes, “Children everywhere are born with a strong drive to play with other children and such play is the means by which they acquire social skills and practice fairness and morality. Play, by definition, is voluntary, which means that players are always free to quit. If you can’t quit, it’s not play. All players know that, and so they know that to keep the game going, they must keep the other players happy. The power to quit is what makes play the most democratic of all activities. When players disagree about how to play, they must negotiate their differences and arrive at compromises. Each player must recognize the capacities and desires of the others, so as not to hurt or offend them in ways that will lead them to quit. Failure to do so would end the game and leave the offender alone, which is powerful punishment for not attending to the others’ wishes and needs. The most fundamental social skill is the ability to get into other people’s minds, to see the world from their point of view. Without that, you can’t have a happy marriage, or good friends, or co-operative work partners. Children practice that skill continuously in their social play.”
Practice is the key to helping children achieve the social goals of dramatic play. That is why teachers prioritize dramatic play spaces in the classroom. They follow the principles of emergent curriculum when choosing the themes of dramatic play (either through observation of children’s interests and/or voting as a group), and encourage dramatic play spilling over to other parts of the day: on the playground, in the outdoor classroom, even at snack time! Teachers actively engage in dramatic play. They take on roles, they model the give and take of the more sophisticated dramatic player, and sometimes model the resistance and confusion of the less sophisticated player as well. Moments like these, to practice the social skill “to see the world” from the point of view of others happen every day in the world of play at the Co-op.
Parents too can support the development of the social skills learned through dramatic play. If you aren’t already comfortable in engaging in this kind of play with your child, there are ways to help it become enjoyable for you. Start by watching how teachers engage on your assisting day and copy some of these techniques at home. Think about what interests you and your child share and what kind of engagement is already pleasurable. Do you both enjoy learning and talking about vehicles? Start engaging in dramatic play using toy trucks and trains, creating the world of the toys with your language and taking on the role of driver, repair person, etc. Is cooking together an activity you both enjoy? Enhance the experience by pretending to be the chef, the food critic, the grouchy customer. Your child will delight in your efforts and you will be supporting their development as a dramatic player and therefore their social skills. Good luck!
One of our goals is to create classroom communities that are built upon each child understanding that they are a valued member of their learning community and with that membership comes rights and responsibilities. We strive to impart and develop the ideals of respect for one another, for the classroom and its materials, and for the ideas and needs of peers.
Children learn to respect others when they themselves are respected as individuals with their own mindsets, desires, and needs. Teachers show this respect for their students by listening thoughtfully to their ideas, by engaging with them – side by side – as they construct new knowledge, and as they navigate and create relationships with each other. In addition, teachers model respectful relationships with their teaching partners and with the assisting parents in the classroom. Children begin to first show respect to the adults in the classroom – the teachers and parents – and then are able to start to show it to one another. This looks like children respecting the work of others (their block buildings and easel paintings), respecting the materials in the classroom because they belong to everyone, and thoughtfully listening to each other’s ideas at group time or “news” at snack.
Children learn to take care of one another when they themselves know that their needs will be taken care of. Children in our classrooms learn this when they watch teachers care for their classmates and are cared for by teachers. When we see a child seek out a toy that they hear a child is looking for, when we watch them move over and make room for another person at the playdough table, and when we see them find a family photo for a classmate that is missing their parent, we know that they are learning to take care of one another.
We support children being their best selves in the classroom, which positively impacts their own development and the experience of their classmates. Teachers begin to know and understand each child as an individual, what their interests are, what they want to learn, what challenges that readiness to learn, and what supports it. As we learn that information, we can apply it in our interactions with each child to help them reach their fullest potential. We observe children doing this for each other, too. It can be as simple as bringing a friend a bumpy cushion to sit on at group time. Or, to the slightly harder challenge of a child comprising their idea to continue the play interaction. Or, to the truly empathetic response of understanding that an accommodation made for another child is not one that you need and accepting that fair is not always equal at school. Or in life.
Sharing, modeling, and supporting these values with our students is foundational to creating the kind of moral classrooms that we aspire to and that support the social and emotional development of all of the children.
What a week we have had - as a city and as a nation. First, we experienced the violent loss of our district commander, Paul Bauer, an excellent man who in the past few weeks had reached out to our school to offer his support and guidance. Then on Valentine’s Day, another horrific school shooting that shocked even its inevitability and made each of us who both send our children to, and work in, schools feel insecure, worried and sad. All of our instincts are to protect the children in our care from these and other difficult subjects. We often even want to protect them from their own negative emotions that are directly tied to their individual experiences, like the illness or death of a loved one or an upcoming school transition or move. Parents ask me and their teachers, how do we balance preserving our child’s innocence with helping develop their coping skills?
During those conversations my experience, overwhelmingly, is just how much parents wish to protect children from these stressful, sometimes overwhelming and sad experiences. The desire to protect and to preserve the innocence of childhood for as long as possible is an admirable one. We all know that life is littered with stressful and sometimes very heartbreaking experiences, hopefully balanced with uplifting and joyful ones as well. Our efforts to avoid the first to preserve the second for children often leads parents to question just how much a child should know or even, what situations can they avoid exposing their child to.
Sadness, fear, and stress are all emotions that young children already experience. They might not always have the capacity to differentiate between or name them, but we know they do. Early childhood educators have the goal of helping children learn how to acknowledge and name their own emotions and we work towards that goal with quality children’s literature, modeling, and the use of visual representations like feeling check-in charts.
Parents are the center of their child’s universe, which is apparent to me everyday at school, as I watch a child reach back for one last hug at drop-off, beam with delight when announcing to me that it is their assisting day to spend with you, or eagerly run into your waiting arms at dismissal. It is also that knowledge that leads me to the following advice.
Set the tone with careful and calm explanation. Children will often know, long before they are told, that something is stressing their parents. Often, just the acknowledgment of the difficulty to be faced is a relief to the child. When talking with young children keep in mind their limited experiences. They may have never experienced a move, understood that sometimes people or pets become ill and die, that their nanny might not be with them forever. Clear explanations in a way they can understand are key. Simple explanation and only answering a question asked provides understanding and comfort to the child.
Acknowledge real emotions. Sharing the information of the difficult task at hand can often lead to both parents and children becoming sad, distressed or mad. It is important to acknowledge those emotions for yourself and for them. “I am also sad about leaving our house. We’ve had so many great times here.” “I know how much you love Megan. It’s hard to say goodbye to someone we care about.” Well-meaning messages of “You’ll love the new house with your own room and a yard” or “You’ll make friends with the new nanny” are helpful only after the child knows that you accept and are not scared of their negative emotions. It helps them be okay with them as well.
Lead by example. First, show your children that negative emotions as a response to real life stressors are an acceptable and reasonable response. Then, show them that they do not have to be overwhelming. Demonstrating coping skills and modeling how you help yourself feel better, is a great way to start. Also, it can be helpful to point out when you are doing a not-so-great job of it. “I’m sorry I got so mad when you wouldn’t clean up your toys. It’s important to me that we work together to keep the playroom clean. But, I also think I got too mad because I was worrying about Granny. Maybe we could have extra cuddle time tonight before bed.”
I hope this bit of advice can be helpful to you, either now or in the future. If there are specific scenarios you’d like to talk about, my door is always open.
In the introduction to her book, Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know About Emotional Expression and Bonding, Rebecca Thompson writes: “It is about remembering that our children’s need for connection is a primary factor in most of their behavior. It is about recognizing that, in every parenting situation, we have choices about how we respond to our children and their behaviors. It is about seeing every parenting situation as an opportunity to create connection or disconnection. It is about looking at our everyday parenting situations and beginning to see how we can choose connection.” I was thinking of these words the other day as I was dismissing children at the end of the day.
It’s that time of year when parents are feeling connected to one another and look forward to the opportunities to chat with each other before and after school. This wonderful by-product of the way our school fosters community is a desired one. One of the things I truly enjoy about my job is the opportunity to see new friendships among families begin and deepen over time. Often, I am observing those conversations and connections at the dismissal door. But, it also means that sometimes the opportunity for a healthy reunion between the child and the parent is being missed.
Choosing connection, as Thompson calls it, means being mindful of taking those opportunities to truly be present during transition times. By doing so, it can ease the transition and support positive behaviors as the day moves forward. Being apart from parents and caregivers, away from home and in group settings requires a lot from children. At school, we are asking them to share teacher attention, take turns with materials, follow our schedule, and participate in activities that they may not be interested in. They are navigating the space, their relationships with one another, and being asked to contribute to the care of their classroom. All of these “asks” are happening at the same time they are without their most beloved people - their parents.
Often, the transition out of school reminds children how much they have missed you and how ready they are to see you again. Here lies the opportunity to choose and create connection. When you hear me say your child’s name I encourage you to pause the conversation, put your phone in your pocket, and be ready to greet your child. They are ready to greet you! Choose this opportunity for a face to face greeting, a hug, a smile, to say, “I’m happy to see you!”. Because, they are so happy to see you.
Thank you to everyone who made the auction event such a wonderful success! Beyond meeting our financial goals, is the community-building that happens between families and families and staff. The positive energy in the room was palpable. In addition to all who spent so many hours on the auction, many families are engaged right now in producing the yearbook, hosting school tours, preparing for the lottery and supporting our open house event. At the last board meeting, each member was engaged, offering ideas and support to one another. Believe or not, participating in the school in these ways have researched based positive impacts on students, families, schools and communities.
Long time educational researcher Joyce Epstein created a conceptual framework for defining family involvement in schools. Her framework assumes that the foundation for student achievement includes children who have parents to provide housing, health, nutrition, safety at the very least and also have parenting skills in parent-child interactions. Included in the basics of the framework are “home conditions to support study” and parents providing information to help schools know their child. Additionally, it has been found that ongoing communication between school-home and home-school, volunteering in the classrooms and for school events, and the school offering support with educational choices all has additional positive impacts. The highest level of parent involvement in schools is a model that leaves decision making to the membership through a board, PTA, etc. Sound familiar?
As I was reviewing this research, I was pleased to find that our school embodies all of the parts of Epstein’s framework for best practices of parent involvement in schools. There are many ways that I see the benefits for individual children, their families, and of course our overall school community. I observe children who are known, treasured, challenged, and engaged at school. I observe teachers who are supported to continually to grow in their profession and supported by parents and the school to do their very best teaching. I observe parents who grow in their understanding of themselves, their child, and what they want out of an educational community.
I have the pleasure of helping to run a school that thrives on the support of its parent community and I have each of you to thank for all you do that supports the mission of our school – to provide the very best early childhood educational experience for children, parents and teachers.
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