There’s more than one way to address a behavior

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It turns out preschool boys are full of energy and can team up together to create an environment that feels chaotic and out of control. One preschool program that I often visit has entered a challenging phase, where the boys seemingly run the room. It also seems like the child care providers in the room hardly have time to engage with all of the children meaningfully because they are constantly “putting out fires.”

What makes this situation difficult is that it’s not only one or two children who need some very intentional proactive strategies to feel successful, it’s like seven. What I have observed is, these particular children, who happen to be boys, like to impress each other. It’s almost like they feel peer pressure to act a certain way. It’s become a pattern that some children will run around the playground when it’s time to line up to go inside. Every day some children do this. They run around the playground and taunt the child care providers, saying things like “You can’t catch me!” At first the providers tried a trusted strategy—get to children before it was time to line up, to hold their hand. In some situations, this works for those children who are “runners” because they do not want to have to hold the teacher’s hand, so this method takes one or two times to be effective. However, in this particular situation, that strategy didn’t work. The biggest reason is there are more children that habitually run than there are providers’ hands to hold.

What we know about children this age is that they have become increasingly more aware of and connected to other children. Other children become much more important than they were in earlier years. Most preschool children have friends and value being a friend. Fortunately, this program has access to an early childhood professional that has a strong knowledge base on the social and emotional needs and development of young children. After observing the behaviors and interactions of the children all day, he had a great insight that made perfect sense. Instead of talking to the children about their own good or bad choices (which I have used as an effective strategy in similar situations), talk to the children about what good friends would do. Whether the behavior was running around the playground when it was time to line up or hitting another child, most children of preschool age (and in particular the boys I’ve been referring to) know what kind of behavior is right and what kind of behavior is wrong. Good friends help their friends do what is right. Children at this stage are still learning what it means to be a friend. If asked, these particular children would likely say that the other boys are their friends. They would also say they want to be a good friend. So, encouraging them to help their friends do what is right might be effective. While they are focusing on supporting their friend, they are also doing what is right themselves.

In any situation where children are “misbehaving,” it’s important to be flexible. Just because one strategy to address a behavior worked with a different child (or group of children), doesn’t mean it will work every time. Sometimes you need to be open to trying a different strategy!

Don’t be sorry, be a problem solver!

Does forcing children to say they're sorry teach them what being sorry means?

Does telling children to say they’re sorry teach them what being sorry means?

Sorry is just a word. I feel that people use this word way too often—so much that it has lost meaning. People use it as a quick fix, “I said I’m sorry…” Are they really sorry? Do they even know what sorry means? The word sorry is defined as feeling sorrow or regret, but too often people repeat that same action or behavior. It becomes a “sorry cycle.” I feel that if someone was truly feeling sorrow or regret, the behavior would stop—ending the cycle. There is a tendency to slap on the “sorry band aid” instead of learning from one’s behavior or actions. Sorry is just a word; it doesn’t fix anything.

Think about this word through the eyes of the child. Do you think young children know what it means to be sorry? Do they understand regret and sorrow? Jean Piaget’s theories of development indicate young children are egocentric. Once children begin the third stage of cognitive development, concrete operational, they begin to use more logical thinking and eliminate egocentricism. Egocentrism is the inability to differentiate between self and others. More specifically, it is the inability to understand or assume any perspective other than their own. For example, a child who takes the block from her peer is so focused on her own needs and desires; she may not even be aware or concerned with the needs of her peers. The child has no regard for her peer because of her own focus. Children during this stage of development are still processing and identifying their emotions/feelings; they cannot fully comprehend the emotions of their peers or the idea of empathy. As educators, we understand that children are egocentric and these skills are emerging, so why are we forcing children to say, “I’m sorry”?

More and more educators are recognizing the importance of emotional and social development and its everlasting benefits on children. Often I work with teachers to help them strategize ways to increase children’s self esteem and self control. We discuss problem-solving strategies, appropriately expressing emotions, and encouraging children to begin to recognize the emotions of their peers. Instead of forcing children to say “Sorry,” let’s help them to become problem solvers and to learn from mistakes. Would it be more beneficial to encourage a child to focus on what he can do next time, what he can do to help fix the problem, or what he could do to help his peer feel better? Instead of just telling children to say they’re sorry, ask these questions:

  • Can these issues be solved through actions from the child? For example, should the child help rebuild a peer’s block structure?
  • Does the child need adult/peer modeling?
  • Should we ask the child’s peers what solutions they think would help?
  • Do we need to provide the words to help the children begin the problem-solving process?

In early childhood education, we are helping children build skills and construct a strong foundation that will last a lifetime. Instead of creating more people who are sorry, let’s create children who are problem solvers. Sorry is just a word.

Assuming children are friends does not teach them social skills.

Assuming children are friends doesn't teach them social skillsMany times I hear adults who work with children referring to a group of peers as friends. For example when two children start fighting over a toy, I often hear, “Be nice to your friend,” or “Your friend wants a turn.” What is a friend? Who in your life do you truly consider your friends? What signs do children give us that convey to us that they are friends? It is not enough nor appropriate to assume that all children are automatically friends—instead we should focus on how to help children learn what it means to be kind and respectful to others. Children also need our support to learn about empathy, how to express themselves through words, as well as learning about how to problem solve with one another. Here are some ways to support children’s social development:

Model using your own behavior. Children learn by imitating those around them. When they see others treated with kindness and respect, it teaches them what is socially acceptable. This also includes being transparent to children. It is okay to express your feelings aloud to children along with owning up to your mistakes. This can teach children that feelings and mistakes are natural and normal to experience.

Make it clear that everyone is entitled to their feelings. Labeling and validating emotions helps young children not only learn about what they are feeling but also that it is okay to feel them. When children understand that it is safe to feel their emotions they can learn to self-regulate and work to understand why they may be feeling a certain way. This is when they can move past problems and work with their peers to solve problems; not to mention make friends.

Refrain from fixing conflicts. Telling children how to solve a conflict—whether it is through forced sharing, time limits for turn taking and taking away the object or toy that is the source of the conflict—hinders children from learning how to problem-solve on their own. This can be a challenge because conflict can be uncomfortable for many people. It takes trust and patience to help children learn these skills.

Facilitate conversation. Sometimes starting a conversation with, “What is the problem here?” or “How can you work this out?” is enough to get to the root of the problem. Adults can help facilitate conversations so that children can learn to identify what the issue is and then figure out steps to a resolution. Remain neutral, stay calm and do not take sides. Repeat what you hear children saying or see them doing through their actions. Ask, “What should we do about this?” You will be surprised what children can come up with on their own.

“Intentionality” has become a buzz word in the world of early care and education for good reason. We should not only be aware of what activities are being planned and why but we should also be intentional about the words we use when speaking to children. Being intentional supports social development and a lifetime of skills that will help children initiate play, resolve conflicts and make friends.



How to embrace teachable moments

teachablemomentOne of my favorite things to observe is when a child care provider takes an opportunity to make a meaningful learning experience out of something unexpected. I was in a program recently and was pleased to observe this a couple of times.

One child was very interested in looking for rocks on the playground. I observed this child get a bucket from a nearby shelf when lining up to go outside. He put pebbles and rocks in the bucket as he went around on a hunt during nearly the entire outside playtime (other children also helped fill his bucket) and then, when playtime was over, he placed the bucket, filled with rocks, back on the shelf in the classroom. At some point during the work time, when the children chose their activity, a provider approached the child. She asked about the rocks he had collected. She began telling him about rocks—that there are different kinds and so on. I later asked the provider about the bucket (purely out of my own curiosity) and found out the child takes the bucket home every day, adds the rocks to his collection at home and brings it back empty the next day.

I was visiting that same classroom another morning. The provider was sitting at a table with several gallon-sized Ziploc bags, filled with realistic-looking, miniature animals. She was pulling out several water animals and several animals that fly for a sorting activity she was planning to add to the work shelves. Three children came up to see what she was doing and naturally became very interested in looking through all the bags and playing with the animals. One child was hunting for and pulling out all the turtles. Another child had an alligator that was “eating” other animals and seemed quite content in his dramatic play. The third child was going between the other two children, offering up what he knew about the animals each one was working with, such as, “That’s not a buffalo, that’s a yak,” and “That’s a mommy turtle and those are her babies…they are the same kind of turtle.” The provider did a lot of watching and would ask questions from time to time. She asked about where the animals lived, which were similar, which were different, etc. She would add in some names such as “leatherback” and “Galapagos” when appropriate as well.

I’m such a planner. I know I sometimes get uncomfortable when something is happening that I hadn’t planned on; especially when I hadn’t thought of good questions to ask or vocabulary to provide. And there is a lot of planning that is involved in an early childhood classroom. However, there is something to be said for letting things just flow in the moments when the children are a captive audience (even one or a few) to facilitate a learning experience. The provider in this room really understands the importance of these teachable moments. Neither of the above experiences were planned, yet the teacher engaged with the children to create an experience that was meaningful and supported their development.

Slow down!

It's okay if your day doesn't stay exactly on-schedule!

More than ever I find that it is important to slow down not only in my personal life, but especially when working with young children. During my time in the classroom, I realized that the clock should have less bearing on the children’s day. This actually helped my day to go much smoother. I learned that consistency did not mean that things had to happen at the same time every day but that it was more about the order in which they occurred. Sometimes it was appropriate to skip typical events like a small group activity to allow freeplay to continue. It was okay if it took 15 minutes to get coats on to go outside if children wanted to do it on their own; even if it meant we would lose 15 minutes of our playground time. And it was okay if a diaper change had to wait two to three minutes because a child needed my help to calm down and feel better. Learning how to allow myself to let this happen naturally was difficult but I knew it was the right thing to do.

Lately, I have found myself giving teachers that I work with “permission” to adjust their plans for the day. Here are some opportunities that frequently pop up in early childhood classrooms that might allow some wiggle room to slow down:

  • Read a book for the second, third or fourth time if the children ask. This can be more beneficial than stopping in order to do music and movement just because it is 10:15 a.m.
  • Slow down to listen to what children have to say and have a conversation while they are building with blocks or playing in dramatic play. This is more precious than hurrying to clean up because it is time for lunch.
  • Allow children to choose a book or two for them to look at to help them ease into nap. Taking turns reading to children can also help with a smooth transition to nap. Refrain from the expectation of laying down right away.
  • When it is time to get ready for lunch, allow children to play up until it is time for them to wash their hands rather than having them stand in a line. Prepare the children for the transition by letting them know you are starting the process and again when it is time to clean up their work because they will be next to wash their hands.

The next time you go to get out the activity that you planned for Wednesday at 9:45 a.m., slow down, watch the children, tell them what your plans are and wait for a response. What do they tell you?

Be where the children are!

I was recently thinking about my time as an Early Childhood Education student. I chuckled remembering my practicum in an infant room. I thought I might share some reflections on these first experiences.

I had a lot of experience in a preschool room, but really, close to zero experience in an infant room. As a student teacher, I did not directly set up the materials in the room, but I did have a role in using the materials in the room to encourage and facilitate the infants in interactions and experiences that to support their emotional, social and motor development.

Children learn a lot through interacting with each other—and with caregivers!

Children learn a lot through interacting with each other—and with their teachers!

Some of the older infants liked to get on top of the mats and pretend they were on stage and clap their hands. I interacted with them when they were doing this by singing along and clapping my hands with them. One of the most popular materials in the room was a container that played music every time a ball was dropped down one of the holes. When the children were playing with this toy I would try to encourage development such as vocabulary by saying what I saw them doing. I remember really struggling to come up with questions or statements that would encourage a higher level of thought. That was a skill that definitely came easier with time and experience.

Another favorite area of the room was for building perceptual skills. There was a shelf with colorful blocks on it, a mat and a mirror. The blocks were soft so they didn’t hurt if a child dropped one on them or hit another child with it. When an infant was in the area by the blocks, I loved to go over and try to model how to stack them. I set one on top of another and then would take it back off. I really enjoyed it when an infant tried to copy what I did.

I think one of the most important things I learned during my time in the infant room, was that no matter where the children were in the room, it was important to go there and be with them. I just got down on the floor and used every opportunity as a time for meaningful interactions. The text book I used during that student teaching experience was Infants, Toddlers, and Caregivers, by Janet Gonzalez-Mena and Dianne Widmeyer Eyer and it included a list of ten principals for care giving (Which can be applied in working with all age groups). They are:

  1. Involve infants and toddlers in things that interest them.
  2. Invest quality time.
  3. Learn each child’s unique ways of communicating and teach them yours.
  4. Invest time and energy to build a total person.
  5. Respect infants and toddlers as worthy people.
  6. Be honest about your feelings.
  7. Model the behavior you want to teach.
  8. Recognize problems as learning opportunities and let (infants and toddlers) try to solve their own.
  9. Build security by teaching trust.
  10. Be concerned with the quality of development in each stage.

Are hugs babying our preschool children?

Recently, I was observing in a preschool classroom when I was approached by a young child. This was a new program for me, it was my first classroom visit, and I had never met or formed relationships with any of these children before. Occasionally, on a first visit in a new classroom, children will approach me asking what my name is or if I’m a new teacher. Today was different. No one asked questions as I tried to blend into their environment undetected. All the children were engaged with activities. Then I was spotted by one child. This child just watched me for a few minutes, then stood up, and slowly walked towards me in silence. He didn’t smile or show any facial expression, he just walked. As the child approached me, I smiled. I wanted my smile to illustrate that I wasn’t someone to be alarmed by or fear. This classroom is his environment, his safe place, his territory. I’m just a visitor in his domain. Then it happened, he hugged me. As he hugged me, he squeezed tight and I could feel the tension in his body being released. No words were spoken. I let him hug me until he was finished. It was obvious he needed this emotional support. He slowly walked back to his activity and resumed his work, but occasionally would glance over in my direction and smile.

Immediately after this event, I began to wonder, should I have let him hug me? Was I being unprofessional? Is this hug “babying” him? Soon I began to realize I did the right thing for this child at that moment. He just needed a hug! Yes, you can still facilitate independence with children and be nurturing. Giving a child a hug does not mean you are babying them. I’m a firm believer in the power of touch, everybody needs a hug sometimes and this child was no different. Research proves the importance and everlasting benefits of building strong emotional development during the first five years of life. It begins during infancy; infants and children need to have their basic needs met which includes forming relationships with parents/caregivers. These relationships are necessary to a child’s emotional foundation. This foundation can influence them positively or negatively throughout their life. It has a huge impact on children’s future outcomes.

Sometimes a child just needs a hug—and that's okay!

Sometimes a child just needs a hug—and that’s okay!

As professionals in this field, we understand the importance and the impact of these first five years. As educators, we aspire to help them build that strong foundation. We want them to learn all their shapes, colors, letters, numbers, etc., before they leave our classroom—but what are we doing to enhance their emotional development? Are we building strong relationships with children? Do the children feel safe, secure and protected in our environment? What tools are we teaching or modeling for children to express their emotions appropriately, construct independence, and boost their self confidence? Can we foster independence and be nurturing at the same time?

Building meaningful relationships with children is the foundation piece needed to foster emotional growth in children. They need to feel safe, secure and protected in our presence and environment. As we truly listen and converse with children (not just talk at them) we are valuing them as people. It’s important that we help children acknowledge feelings and model empathy. We need to help children learn how to help themselves and others. Allowing children the opportunity to do things independently demonstrates we trust and respect them as individuals. Not only do we need to be physically present for children, we need to be emotionally available. We as educators need to embed ways to strengthen these skills throughout our curriculum and take advantage of these teachable moments. I encourage educators to put as much emphasis on helping children structure a strong emotional development as we do with all areas of development, and please do not be afraid to hug a child!