Everyone’s favorite five-letter word: R-U-L-E-S

There was an online article that caught my eye the other day. It was about a school in New Zealand who had abandoned their playground rules as part of a study. What they found was that the children bullied less, got hurt less and were able to concentrate in the classroom more. I was astounded, as I think was the expected reaction for the article.

In some ways, this flies in the face of conventional behavior management strategies. When a program comes to me wanting to know how to handle behavior in their classroom, my first questions are about the guidelines they have in place: are the guidelines posted, or are the children supposed to “know” what they are; how many are there; how are they phrased—is it “no running” or “walking feet”; were the children involved in creating them and are the guidelines referenced when inappropriate behavior takes place? All of these go into making sure the children are aware of the expectations that you have for the classroom.

Can you spot the guidelines in this photo? What similar methods do you use in your classroom?

Can you spot the guidelines in this photo? What similar methods do you use in your classroom?

But, typically my next questions are around what is taking place before, during and after the behavior issues. A lot of times it can be narrowed down to ineffective transitions—when the children have to wait for a long time, such as during the group’s restroom break, or when activities end without notice. I suggest providing things for the children to do during those long waiting periods, like I Spy, Simon Says or fingerplays, and letting them know beforehand when activities will end. In the words of the principal of the New Zealand school, “In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged.” That is what their recess without rules is providing: the opportunity for the children to be busy, motivated and engaged.

In those ways, I can’t say I’m terribly shocked. They are meeting the children’s need for unstructured play. The children get the privilege (and unfortunately it does seem like a privilege anymore rather than a guarantee) to use their imagination. The children are able to problem-solve independently using their critical-thinking and decision-making skills. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s working.

I’m still torn, though. I have trouble making the leap to fully unstructured play, to no guidelines whatsoever. I would hesitate to implement something like this if I had my own program. I think back to when I worked in a park’s day camp and I had to explain to the children why I told them not to climb trees during a thunderstorm. It didn’t bother me that they were climbing trees during nice weather (which is one of the things the children at the New Zealand school are now able to do), so where do we draw the line? At what point does “unstructured” become truly unsafe? I don’t know the answer. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Are the kids in your care ready for kindergarten?

As of April 1, 2014, my children had 43 days left of this school year. And my Sam who is wrapping up his junior year has 218 school days left to complete high school. I’m not completely sure where the time has gone. It seems as if just yesterday I was putting him on the bus to the first day of kindergarten and next September I will watch him drive away to the first day of his senior year. College seems so overwhelming. If memory serves, kindergarten seemed overwhelming too.

Help the children in your care prepare for kindergarten!

The funny thing is, some of the things that I remember helping Sam think about as we were gearing up for the first day of kindergarten seem to be the same things we are thinking forward to with college.

Everywhere I turn I see ads for kindergarten registration for next school year. As classroom teachers I think it’s important for us to remember that not all families have a comfort level with what getting their child ready for school means. As professionals in the field, we can support our families by sharing some of what we know.

  1. Inform: As you hear your families talk about kindergarten registration, and even if you don’t, share information about events that are happening within the community.
  2. Encourage:  Tell families how important visiting their child’s potential school can be. Help them think through questions they may ask and some of the differences that they may see.
  3. Investigate: Ask families where they plan to send their child to kindergarten. Talk about kindergarten in your classroom to help children feel excited about the changes that are coming.
  4. Connect: Sometimes it helps to have a partner along the way. If families are open to sharing information with one another, introduce them to each other so that they can bounce ideas off of one another about things related to kindergarten.
  5. Be positive: Transitions, especially big ones, for both adults and children can feel scary. Help both families and children see the fun possibilities that lie ahead.
  6. Communicate: Talk with other professionals about the skills necessary to help children be and feel successful as they move from preschool to kindergarten. Share those skills with families so they can reinforce them at home.

As I look at the next 251 school days until my Sam transitions to college, I know I have a lot of work ahead of me. It’s really not much different than the work of families preparing children for kindergarten. I need to make sure that Sam and I have the necessary information to choose a good college, just like parents need to choose a good kindergarten. I need to connect with other families who have children at the colleges he is interested in so we can get the scoop on deadlines and fun activities, just like parents who are getting ready to send their children to kindergarten. And most importantly, I need to connect with Sam and his teachers so that I can learn about anything extra I can do at home to support him as he transitions from high school to college.

As early childhood educators, I hope you’ll take time to share with your families and children the things they can do at home to prepare themselves and their children for what’s next. So twelve years later as they start the preparation for college, they can remember the work you did with them to prepare for kindergarten and not feel so overwhelmed.

What happens when you invest time in a child?

I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. I played school with my brother and sister on a regular basis in the basement of our home on weekends and just recently was reminded of our childhood teaching antics when my mother found an old incident report book we had kept with our hilarious “discipline actions”, many that required my naughty brother to be sent to the principal’s office.

Invest time in a child and it will pay off!

Before long, what started with old, yellowed library books, leftover notebooks with a few sheets of lined paper and broken pencils for play became a reality and I became a teacher in a preschool. From the get go, I was of course motivated to teach them core concepts but worked towards a greater purpose, motivated by the familiar quote by Forest Witcraft: “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child”. The truth of the matter is this:  I played school as a child, desired to teach as a young adult and am, in part, who I am today, because I was important in the life of a teacher.

When I was in Kindergarten, I was a broken little girl. My father, who would pass away that summer from ALS, was very ill and while my mother was doing her best to take care of all of us, I felt like my whole world was falling apart. I was that child that teachers dread. I remember kicking and screaming at drop off time, standing by the door with my arms crossed and balling by the window, afraid to let my mother out of my sight. There were days I refused to take my coat off. I didn’t want to play on the playground. I just wanted to go home. I was also tired. I didn’t sleep well and had bad dreams on a regular basis.

One day, my mother had called and was going to be late picking me up from school due to a situation that had come up with my dad at home. Upon hearing the news that I was going to have to stay late, I can still remember the sheer terror that gripped me inside. The pounding of my heart in my chest was deafening, almost more than I could bear. But what happened next had a lasting effect that I’ll never forget. My teacher looked at me with warm eyes, smiled a genuine smile, and let me color at her desk. I had never felt safer at school and from that moment forward, I flourished.

As I reflect back on that crucial moment almost thirty years later, it occurs to me that my teacher probably had tons of things on her mind and countless tasks still left to complete before she left for the day. I can now understand the complexity of being an adult and an educator and am aware now that she probably had lesson plans to do, art to clean up and dinner to prepare once she got home. She could have easily given me toys to play with on the carpet alone or ushered me off to the school office to wait but instead she invested her space, herself and her time in me.

I have never had the opportunity to thank her personally or share with her the power of her influence in my life and as educators you too may never hear those success stories, but you have the opportunity to create them every day. So I encourage you, the next time that child in your care is throwing a terrible tantrum or is filled with rage from fear, to seize the opportunity to understand and invest in them and remember the lifelong impact your work in their life can make, even by the simplest act of making time and room for them to color at your desk.


Sometimes peer pressure isn’t all bad

Imagine if you could remove all threat of peer pressure from the life of a child. Teaching would be a lot easier. Parenting would be a lot easier. Or would it? In fact, without peer pressure your job might become surprisingly harder.

There can be a positive outcome to peer pressure!

Picture the scene at your early childhood center: A group of preschoolers have invented a game. They have become pretend fire fighters. They leap from the climber and race towards the slide. Caught up in the action, all five of them zip down the slide –even the child who ordinarily won’t go near one on family outings at the park or a typical day on the playground. He’s astonished to discover that slides are actually fun after all.

Or picture this sandbox confrontation: “If you run your truck into my tower one more time, I won’t invite you to my birthday party.” Never mind that the party isn’t for another ten months, wielding threats about birthday parties is the ultimate in preschool peer pressure. The perpetrator, truck in hand, considers the threat and makes a wide detour around the tower and, just to be safe, around a half-constructed ice cream store as well. Lesson learned.

At times peer pressure can coincide neatly with exactly what parents are working on at home. For example, healthy peer pressure can encourage a child to develop new interests, a hope of many teachers and parents alike. The young truck driver in the sand box decides to try building towers instead of following his current interest in knocking them down. The child who was fearful of slides finds himself enjoying a fast ride on one. In much the same way, a toddler in diapers steps right up to the toilet to be like his potty-trained friends and a child who prefers wrestling to reading, heads toward the book corner because that’s where the other kids are.

Many teachers and parents hope that their children will somehow learn to “fit in” in the larger world.  The child who was warned not to ram his truck into another child’s sand tower learned a valuable lesson in fitting in. He found out there are certain behaviors other children won’t put up with. And that kind of peer pressure sends a stronger message than all the adult admonitions in the world.

What if all these new interests and feelings of fitting in also involve some less desirable behaviors? What if the new tower builder learns to throw sand? The child on the slide finds out about pushing? The toddler discovers the delights of flushing socks down the toilet? Such things happen, of course. Fortunately, over the years your child’s desire to be like you will turn out to be the stronger force. Episodes of peer pressure are temporary, while your love and concern as a teacher or parent are ongoing.

No one can eliminate peer pressure from a child’s life, though perhaps one would want to.  Certainly it will make you uneasy at times and will call for your intervention at others.  If you find yourself worrying about peer pressure, remind yourself of its advantages:  It can expand a child’s interests, help him or her learn to fit in, and even support early attempts at independence.

Why does a child react negatively to change?

When I am talking to adults about children and their experiences, I typically try to think of ideas on how to connect the “adult life” to the child. I want adults to think of their own experiences and feelings and realize that children go through the same process.

Sometimes children react negatively to the slightest change in the classroom. What's a teacher to do?

For example, I recently finished 6 weeks of radiation therapy. Every Monday I would have to see the doctor after my treatment. There is a group of nurses that work in the department, so I could have 1 of 3 people take care of me. The first time I went Amy, the nurse, took my vitals, walked me to the exam room, and prepped me for the doctor. After that visit, I was always a little aggravated if Amy wasn’t the one going to take care of me. Even though we had only met once, she was “my person”. She was the one who started off my relationship with the doctor. She set the tone for the whole appointment. If I didn’t get to see her, the visit wasn’t as comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, the other nurses were completely competent. They were nice and friendly. They just weren’t Amy.

As I thought about that it really hit me that as an adult, I had a choice. I could choose my attitude during my visits. I could choose to be happy about the care I was receiving. I always received quality care, regardless of the nurse. Or, I could choose to be mad that Amy wasn’t available for me.

Compare this to a young child. Can a young child choose to make the best out of any situation? My belief is no, they can’t. Young children are still learning how to self-regulate. Think about the young child who has a primary caregiver. Every day this caregiver is with the child–feeding, diapering/toileting, talking. Then one day the caregiver isn’t there. What is done to help this child adjust? Is the absence of the caregiver explained to the child? Is the child prepped for the caregiver’s absence? What do the adults do to respect the relationship between the child and the caregiver?

Can some young children self-regulate? Of course, some children have a temperament that is easy going and they just go with the flow. Other children, however, have a harder time regulating their emotions, regardless of their age. I believe as adults, we should prepare children for changes and transitions regardless of temperament and age. When the school-age teacher is leaving for the day and another teacher is coming in, the children should be informed of that change. When the toddler teacher is going on lunch break, the children should be told the teacher is leaving and if the teacher will be back. This is just respectful. The children rely on the adult for security. That security means that the children can interact and learn throughout the day. Without security, learning won’t happen.



“I always feel like somebody’s watching me”

When I was a little girl my sister and I used to play “school.”  Being the little sister I always played the role of “student.” I was never allowed to be the “teacher.”  It was fun playing with my sister and learning from her. I idolized my sister and wanted to be exactly like her. She was my role model. Eventually, my sister became tired of this game and I was finally allowed to be the “teacher.” Each afternoon I planned my lessons and then taught my dolls and teddy bears about the alphabet, reading, and counting. It was then I decided to become a teacher when I grew up so I could help real children learn to read and count.

Make sure children model YOUR best behavior.

I fulfilled that dream and began my career in a classroom filled with eager three- and four-year-olds. I was quite naive when I began my career and I must admit I made many mistakes. But as I gained experience I became more confident in my abilities. I learned the importance of scanning my classroom to get a sense of the activities occurring around me. I learned to tune into certain conversations between children to watch intently to gather knowledge on the students’ abilities. I soon discovered that watching and listening would also teach me about myself and my teaching style. I learned I had become a role model for not only my students but also their parents.

One day during free-choice time I had the pleasure of observing a young student of mine.  She sat in my chair and directed her students to sit crisscross applesauce. She chose a book and proceeded to read it. She smiled, encouraged her students to read along with the story and re-directed a child when he moved into another child’s space. As the “teacher” continued, I could hear my words coming from her mouth; I could see my facial expressions flying across her face. I saw myself reading the story aloud. I was stunned speechless. I never realized how intently the children watched me and picked up on my mannerisms and talked like me. It was both humbling and a bit scary. I began to fully understand and feel the responsibility of being a role model.

As the school year continued I was more aware of what I said, how I said it, and to whom I talked. I noticed my students and even their parents watching and listening as I redirected children toward appropriate activities, as I provided the language to help solve conflicts, as I praised positive behavior instead of correcting the negative. As a role model I was concerned with how each interaction would be interpreted. I wanted to be certain I always showed a balance of firmness with kindness, consistency with flexibility, and love for my job.

It is so easy to forget that even though we spend our days within a classroom in our own world that others really are watching. It is easy to forget that little eyes and ears are absorbing our every word and action. It’s easy to forget that parents look to us when handling difficult situations with children. As providers, we are role models and it is our responsibility to help children and other adults in becoming role models for generations to come. We have the power to influence our ever-changing world. Let’s use our power for the good of all.

Use your voice for children! I did.

This is a guest post from Paige Runion, Leadership Coach at 4C for Children.

I have often reflected that I am a product of 4C for Children, the regional child care resource and referral agency in our region. I’ve grown from my early years of doing the wrong things for the right reasons, learned to become a reflective early childhood professional and, now, am pursuing my passion for early care and education as an employee of 4C. It has been quite a journey. And what I love is this: All along, I have been learning.

My most recent lesson was in advocacy, through immersion. In the past, I have written a letter or two to express an opinion to a legislator. In 2006, I even sent an invitation to Steve Chabot to visit the Step Up To Quality star-rated child care center I administered (I was so surprised when he actually came.).

But my more recent lesson in advocacy was the “in over your head, too far to swim back to shore” kind. A team from 4C was headed to Columbus to talk to our state legislators about the importance of children having access to quality early learning experiences. As I answered the email and accepted the invitation to go, I immediately considered backing out. The very thought of it shoved me into my own un-comfort zone. Would I feel like an outsider, or what Sallie Westheimer called “newish”? I stick my toes in the water slowly, and this was deep water. It felt risky, but I love to learn.

I used my voice for children. You can too!

4C for Children staff who attended Advocacy Day 2014 in Columbus included (from left to right): Lorna, Sallie, Delorise, Paige, Shelley and Annetta. Here they are standing on a map of Ohio, covering all of the counties that 4C serves!

Having the opportunity to see and participate in Ohio’s legislative process was a new experience for me. Government was not in my top 10 interests in high school, but it came alive as I walked through the halls of Ohio’s Statehouse and the offices of the Ohio General Assembly representatives and senators. Having the support of colleagues made each of us more comfortable. We watched Sallie Westheimer, our CEO, smoothly model introductions and we listened carefully to how she phrased her opening descriptions of the legislation we were there to discuss–a new bill not yet introduced. Soon our own stories sprang out of our mouths, however. Our passion for children and their families outweighed any hesitancy. And there we were, all learning again.

We visited and spoke to aides in the offices of State Representatives Denise Driehaus, Timothy Derickson and Bill Coley as well as Senator Bill Seitz. We met with State Senator Eric Kearney. They learned of a bill coming to the floors of the House and Senate that will greatly help Ohio’s children who need it most. And we learned how to use the voice we have for children.

And Sallie? What did she learn? Well, Sallie learned something about each of us. I quietly marveled at how gracefully she shared her skills with us and the importance of what we were doing. I continue to think of ways to take this experience back to other administrators, and I am considering some strategies to support them in beginning to understand the power of their individual voices.

Will I return next year? Absolutely. And Sallie, I’ll not only go first, but you can give me a “newish” partner. I’m “oldish” now. And now I’m wondering what Capitol Hill looks like on the inside.


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