How to keep staff motivated

I recently facilitated a workshop on how to keep early childhood education program staff motivated and inspired. We are experiencing some beautiful weather and that alone is enough to increase one’s apathy not to mention all the other factors that can contribute to a lack of motivation. I once was a director of a child care program where we could literally hear the roller coasters at a nearby amusement park. It’s super hard to retain the motivation of the seasonal support staff when they can hear their friends screaming in joy down the street.

How can you meet the needs of your staff and keep them motivated?

How can you meet the needs of your staff and keep them motivated?

We had some really solid discussions during the workshop that we framed using an article I found called 8 Deadly Ways to Kill Employee Motivation that can absolutely show up in a child care program if we let them. We talked about 7 of the 8 motivation killers. Hopefully some of these can help you figure out how to keep your staff motivated:

  1. Toxic People. We have all worked with them; the negative Nellie’s. The ones who find something negative to say about any and all things. They find faults in the lesson plan you are super excited about and are never on board with changes. And being excited about aiming for the next star in the quality rating system? Forget about it. Surround yourself with positive people. And if someone is that unhappy in a program, maybe it’s time for them to move on.
  2. No Professional Development. Since this is a state regulation, it may seem like a moot point, but it’s not. At 4C for Children, we hear time and time again that folks come to a workshop because they need the hours and their year is almost up or they don’t even know what the topic is because an administrator signed them up. Motivation will increase when training is meaningful. Encourage staff to give input on their own professional development based on their individual needs and interests. Search through the 4C online workshop calendar together, and call us any time for help with developing a plan.
  3. Lack of Vision. All programs should have a vision. It’s a plan for why we do what we do. Why does this business (for-profit or not-for-profit) open its doors everyday and where is it going? Once the vision is clearly communicated, it should be displayed everywhere (i.e. interview, orientation, reviews, newsletters, etc.); it gives focus to the work.
  4. Wasted Time. In our discussion during the training, what rang loudest and clear, are staff meetings. Staff meetings are necessary. It’s important to get everyone together and on the same page, but it’s also important that staff feel like their time is valued. Some tips we came up with are to allow staff to add to agenda items, have a set meeting time and place so staff can plan accordingly, and add food and fun. Ask a different room to “host” each meeting and what they do with it is up to them. Add team building activities. Sure, you may have some who think those activities are a waste of time (see point number 1) but most will appreciate the bonding, which inevitably will lead to motivation in the day-to-day.
  5. Inadequate Communication. There is no such thing as over-communication. Remember, whether you are in a classroom or running a program, people receive messages differently. If you have something important to say, say it a hundred times in a hundred ways (email, newsletter, posted near clock-in area, in-person, etc.).
  6. Vertical Management. Everyone wants to have a say. No one likes to just be told what to do all the time. Find ways to empower your staff to help make decisions and feel safe offering up ideas. And if you aren’t an administrator, let your voice be heard. Share ideas in an appropriate way and if you aren’t being valued, start looking for a new place to work.
  7. Lack of appreciation. This is the single, easiest way to keep staff motivated. SAY THANK YOU. Let folks know you appreciation them and what they do. Just saying it goes a long way but there also affordable, endless possibilities to show it. You can find lots of ideas on Pinterest for fun, affordable ways to show you are grateful for the work of your staff.

Meeting an infant’s needs in a child care setting

During a coaching visit, I overheard an adult say as she picked up an infant, “I suppose you need to be spoiled today.” The caregiver had already fed and diapered the infant and every time she tried to put him down he would begin to fuss. What was he trying to tell her? He wanted to be held. Wanting to be held is highly associated with spoiling a baby, but this not the case. Being held is an important tool to help support and meet the needs of babies.

How does a child care provider learn how to mee the needs of an infant in their care?

How does a child care provider learn how to meet the needs of an infant in their care?

Love, attention, and interaction from parents and caregivers helps an infant develop a sense of self. When an infant is born, parents become attune with their baby and form an attachment. They develop a sense of what different cries mean and what their baby is trying to communicate. When a baby enters a group care setting, it is then up to the caregiver to learn what they can about the baby so they can in turn meet those needs. For example, this might include figuring out that a certain cry means he wants to be held.

Child care providers are part of the influences in an infants’ life. You are an important link in helping infants learn how to feel comfortable exploring their world. As you interact and form an attachment with an infant, they are learning! The give and take of coos, babbles, and the mimicking of facial expressions are early tools that teach infants about emotions such as happy, silly, and sad.

Consistency is the key when it comes to forming strong attachments and for infants to feel secure. There should be consistency in the way a child receives care, along with flexible daily schedules, primary caregiving, and appropriate expectations. They should be receiving the message that they are valuable and worthy of being in this world. As infants in your care grow into toddlers, their emotional development will be supported and they will learn to identify and express their feelings, develop self-awareness and self-regulation. They will be able to develop well socially as they learn about and relate to others around them. They will form empathy and learn how to solve conflicts and interact with peers and adults.

Infants are born ready to learn and become active explorers as they become mobile. In order for this to happen, they need to feel safe and secure in their environment. They also need for parents and caregivers to interact and engage with them. All of these things prime infants to learn about their spirit and help them to develop their sense of self as they grow. How can responding to the needs of an infant in this intentional way be spoiling a child?

Quality early care and education does not take a summer break

Summer is here! I’m sure most programs have several special events and activities planned during these summer months. As a classroom teacher, I remember incorporating some of my favorite activities and field trips during this time. I loved utilizing the outdoors as an extension of my classroom. Children learning through their experiences and building knowledge based on their interactions with nature brought me such joy as an educator. Plus, we were outdoors most of the time. We were enjoying the sunshine while learning new skills, interacting with each other, and building relationships! Summertime is a great opportunity to enhance children’s learning and development—which means high-quality care should not stop. In fact, summer activities provide many hands-on learning opportunities for early childhood programs.

There are lots of opportunities for learning through play outdoors in the summer!

There are lots of opportunities for learning through play outdoors in the summer!

In order to maintain high-quality care and education during the summer months, teachers must continue to focus on best practices. Lesson planning is a major component of best practice. The activities on your lesson plans should be fun and hands-on, but they should also be educational and based on the interests of the children. The activities should be planned according to the developmental levels of your children and challenge them to a higher level of thinking. These activities should promote problem-solving skills both socially and academically. They should help children build upon their previous experiences and comprehension while at the same time encouraging them to create new knowledge. These activities should be intentional.

As you continue to sustain high-quality care and education during the summer months, please remember how important engagement is with the children! The activities you are planning should be built around meaningful interactions with the children. Teachers should see themselves as a valuable teaching tool, not just as a lifeguard or police officer patrolling the playground. Educators should be present and engaging with children to scaffold their learning by making comments and asking open-ended questions. For example, let’s take a closer look at water play. As children engage with water play they are enhancing many cognitive skills involving math and science. When a teacher asks, “I wonder how many cups it will take to fill that bucket?” they are helping that child enhance counting skills and explore measurement.

High-quality care and education is very important for children—during all seasons! Educators should use the summer months to continue to facilitate and promote learning. Though it is tempting to relax and take a break in the nice weather, the quality of your program or quality of your teaching should not decrease because it’s summertime.

The importance of intentional teaching

I ran into my mentor teacher from my preschool practicum recently and it had me reflecting on what I learned from her about being intentional in my teaching.

Intentional Teaching

How do you make time to individually plan for each child in your care?

When I was smack dab in the middle of my practicum, I was a college student, just trying to get through it. I would have a good idea that I saw on the internet or remembered from somewhere and want to try it out. I would run the idea by my mentor teacher and she would ask me what felt like a hundred questions. Why did I want to do it? How was it relevant? How would I implement it? How did it align with the state standards? What questions would I ask? How would I introduce it? How would I wrap it up? At the time it really felt nit-picky and unnecessary.

Not only did she have me reflect on my activities, but she also taught me how important details of the implementation are. For example, when making a literacy interactive chart, the words needed to be two finger lengths apart. She taught me there are certain fonts that support children’s development more effectively than others. I learned how it’s as important to plan for transition time as it is to plan the activities and experiences around the classroom. For example, instead of ending circle time so all the children can line up to wait to wash hands, plan a song that sends some children to wash hands and some stay. I learned that even time outside and time in the muscle room need serious consideration about what materials to put out. The longer I spent in the classroom, the more I came to understand how important all those details are. We have to be very intentional about what we plan for children and it has to be based on the individual needs of the children, not just some cute idea I saw on the internet.

I have to admit, at first it felt very overwhelming. The prospect of being in a classroom someday, writing my own lesson plan for every day of every week of every year felt impossible. In a classroom full of children, how was I going to have time to plan experiences for individual children and think about all the questions I know my mentor teacher would ask? It was hard at first but gets smoother with practice. The best first step is to be aware of the things that need to be considered when planning for your classroom.

Are the activities you are “pinning” developmentally appropriate practice?

All early childhood educators strive to demonstrate what is considered developmentally appropriate practice every day in their programs. Step Up To Quality in Ohio and STARS for KIDS NOW in Kentucky rate our programs to ensure we are living and breathing what researcher’s have proven to be best practice. One of the hurdles programs may be facing is selecting and executing a curriculum that best suits their program and the children’s needs. As the curriculum is settling into place, educators plan activities based on the individual skill levels and the interests of the children. As we know, children develop different skills at different times. The range of development is very broad in the early childhood years. So how do we plan curriculum activities that meet all these different development levels?

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, basing your curriculum around open-ended activities is a great way to ensure every child can be successful yet challenged at the same time. Open-ended activities have intentional teaching strategies that serve a purpose and have goals. These types of activities provide children with more learning opportunities. They foster scientific inquiries, promote creativity, enhance social skills, build self confidence, and create a passion to learn.

This is an example of an open-ended activity. There is no end

This is an example of an open-ended activity. There is no end “product” in mind. Children are learning about mixing color, developing fine motor skills—and so much more!

When discussing curriculum planning and classroom activities out in the field of early childhood education, many teachers inform me they use Pinterest as a resource. Yes, Pinterest may have many “cute” ideas or art activities but they may not presented in an open-ended way. Unfortunately, some of these activities are surrounded by modeled art, which focuses on the end product of an art project, not the child’s ability to be creative, explore, and learn. Plus, let’s face it, my end product as an adult never looks as well as the end product on Pinterest! So why are we holding children to this Pinterest standard? What is the purpose? What are the goals? Many of these activities have no purpose or goals surrounding them, they’re just cute. Many of these activities are not truly based on the current interest of the children in your classroom, they’re just cute. Many of these activities are not cognitively inspired by the children in your classroom, they’re just cute. Many of these activities do not challenge children to a higher level thinking process; again, they’re just cute. I do understand there may be some activities on pinterest that are more open-ended than others. I encourage educators who may be using pinterest to seek out those activities that have a purpose and are focused on learning objectives and goals. Some activities can even be altered to be more open-ended, meeting the varying developmental skill levels of the children in your classroom.

When you are looking for new activity ideas for your classroom, consider the following:

  • Is there a purpose or a goal?
  • Is it something the children in your classroom would enjoy, based on your observations of their current interests?
  • Does it challenge the children to a higher level thinking process?
  • Does it meet the varying developmental skill levels of the children in your classroom?
  • If it is product art, could the activity be altered to be more open-ended?

Our goal in this field is to strive for what is considered developmentally appropriate practice, provide high-quality programs in early childhood education, and ignite a passion in children for becoming lifelong learners. Please carefully select activities with a purpose, learning objectives, and goals, not only because it is cute on Pinterest.

Are you communicating effectively?

I recently overheard an interaction between a child care provider and a preschooler that had me reflecting on the best ways to talk children so that it’s both respectful and effective. It was during pick-up time and the pair was in the gym. The provider was on one side, sitting down, picking up materials and the child was on the other side, playing, not wearing shoes. The provider said, “We wear shoes at school.” It wasn’t what she said, it’s how she said it; her voice was raised louder than was appropriate. She wasn’t yelling at the child and her tone wasn’t bad, it was just loud. But that’s all it was, loud. The provider didn’t leave her spot on the ground and the child still ran around the gym, laughing, not putting on her shoes.

Is your communication style effective?

One strategy for effective communication is to get close to the child on her level and speak softly, being very clear with the child what the choices are. If this teacher would have gotten up, walked over to the child and got down on her level, it may have gone a lot differently. She could have still begun with, “We wear shoes at school,” but then continued with options, “Do you want to put on your shoes or do you want me to help you?” “When you/then” statements work well too, “When your shoes are on, then you can play because it’s much safer to play in the gym that way.” The provider could have also made it about the safety, “I’m worried you are going to get hurt and it’s my job to keep you safe, so I am going help you get your shoes on.”

After telling the child several times to put her shoes on across the gym, the child ran up to the provider to give her a hug. The child care provider said, loudly and sternly, “No, I don’t want to hug you right now because you are not listening. Go put on your shoes.” The teacher remained on the floor and the child ran around the gym. It was obvious this preschooler was playing games or testing limits, but the way the provider reacted made it seem like not getting a hug was a punishment for not listening, which is not okay. Again, rephrasing would have completely changed the dynamic. When the child came over for a hug, a more successful and respectful response could have sounded something like, “I’m happy to give you a hug, as soon as your shoes are on. Would you like to walk over to put them on together?” It’s critical that adults are thoughtful in how we talk to children. I’ve written a previous blog about strategies to make sure interactions are nurturing and positive to guide behavior.

I walked to a classroom for a few minutes and when I walked by the gym again, the child had crawled into a large shelf, still shoeless, and the provider was still sitting on the ground. The child was in control of the situation. The provider was cleaning up which I know needed to be done because it was the end of the day, but sometimes that part of work has to wait. Perhaps once the provider supported the child in getting her shoes on, she may have been able to get her to help clean up.

“I don’t care about the letter __. My name starts with T!”

Letter recognition is one of the many priorities we face in the early childhood classroom. As educators we want our children to be prepared when it’s time for them to say goodbye to their preschool years. Often I find teachers incorporate letter recognition by utilizing the “Letter of the Week” strategy. However, best practice in early childhood education informs us that we should plan based on the individual child and their interests. My question to educators: is there a more natural and meaningful way to introduce children to the letters of the alphabet?

If you observe closely you will find that incorporating the letter of the week strategy is not of interest to many children. From my experience, I often observe most children wriggling around, talking to friends, playing with “closed” materials, and generally disengaged as the letter of the week is introduced. Why are so many of these children disengaged? Could it be that they don’t care about this letter because it’s not meaningful to them? The letters that children are most focused on in this stage of development are the letters in their own name. The letters in their name and the letters in the names of their peers are very important to young children!

In this classroom, the teacher created a fun activity for children to match the blocks to the letters of their name and their peers names

In this classroom, the teacher created a fun activity for children to match wooden alphabet blocks to the letters on their name card and on the name cards of their peers

So how can we utilize this interest and expand it to meeting the goals of letter recognition? Is there a way to incorporate letter activities as children play? Below are some of the ways you could incorporate the use of children’s name cards for various purposes in the classroom. Children could:

  • Find and use their name card to save their work
  • Copy the letters from the name cards to create a waiting list or write a letter home
  • Hang their name up on an attendance or interactive chart
  • Hang the names of their peers up on an interactive chart
  • Find their names at the lunch table
  • Fill out a “lunch request” form asking to sit next to a peer at lunch time

As children utilize their name and the names of their peers, they are recognizing many letters of the alphabet in a natural, meaningful and fun way. Then as children are developmentally ready and interested to gain more letter experiences outside their own name and the names of their peers, conversations and activities about other letters will become more natural and meaningful.

If we force children to focus on something they are not interested in, it becomes work or a chore to them. It feels like a test and drill situation. As educators we understand that children learn best through hands on activities and through play. According to best practice we should be focusing on what the child is interested in and plan from there, even when it comes to letter recognition.

For more great ways to enhance children’s literacy development please look into the training: “Moving Beyond Letter of the Week.” This training and many others can be located on 4C for Children’s online professional development opportunities catalog:


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