Motivation: Where Does It Come From?

sharingAt the beginning of my early care and education career, I figured out that children like to be praised. Whenever I wanted children to follow along or cooperate, I would praise them. After prompting children to clean up, I would purposefully and somewhat loudly say things like, “I like the way Sarah is cleaning up.” I noticed that a majority of the children, beginning around 24-30 months of age would do what Sarah was doing because they wanted the same recognition.  This made the day much easier, which in this field can make life easier.

There is nothing wrong with easy, right? What if I said in this instance it could be?

The tactic that I had been using was a form of praise and some would say manipulation. The reason the children were cooperating was because they were getting positive feedback from me and they knew that they were making me happy. Although the children were cooperating and “doing the right thing,” they were learning to do the right thing because it made me happy. I wasn’t teaching them that when we are finished with something we clean it up. I failed to guide them in learning what the expectations were about cleaning up. The children were exhibiting extrinsic motivation, which is when there is an external reward at stake, such as a sticker for good behavior or a positive compliment from a teacher.  Praise, like what I was using, tends to motivate children extrinsically. They may want to do something to win or to be the best at something. This can create anxiety in children because they may feel that they are not living up to the expectations of their teacher which in turn can affect their self-esteem and confidence.

Over time I learned how to use encouragement rather than praise to support children’s intrinsic motivation, which stems from interest and enjoyment. When it was time to clean up, I would make sure that children knew the time was approaching so that they would be mentally prepared for an upcoming transition. I would then sing a clean up song that would prompt the children to start cleaning up. I would model cleaning up and as I saw children beginning to do the same say things like, “Thank you, Sarah. You heard the clean up song and know that it is time to clean up” or “D.J., thank you for your hard work. It is very helpful when everybody cleans up.” I was intentional about making sure what I said was said only to the child it was intended for. I also tried to make cleaning up into a game to make it more enjoyable. I would prompt children to find toys on the floor by singing, “Who can find the blue block on the floor, on the floor? Who can find the blue block on the floor? Put it away, don’t delay. Who can find the blue block on the floor?”

All in all, I found that children began to learn about cleaning up at their own pace and/or developmental level.  Children were just as motivated to clean up for the sake of cleaning up or because they knew that something new was coming next. They learned how to work as team and no one was ever singled out if they didn’t participate. There was a sense of community and everyone felt that they were an important part of that community.

How to Make the Most of Meal Time


For parents and teachers, meal time is not always the most enjoyable time of the day. Whether it be a child not wanting to eat what you serve, not wanting to leave an activity to come to the table, or just not knowing what to cook, meal time can be seen as a stressful time. I have seen some incredible early childhood programs use meal time not only to provide healthy, balanced meals, but also to provide an opportunity for supporting social skills and self help skills. I have seen an increase in “Family Style Dining” in many of the programs I have worked with.

Family style dining provides opportunities for children to practice patience, turn taking, and using manners. The children are able to pass the bowls of food and serve themselves. What better way to use those fine motor skills than by trying to balance the proper amount of spaghetti on your spoon and carefully moving it to your plate. Using utensils is a great way to work on those pre-writing skills through the use of those small muscles in the hand. The children are learning to be autonomous and independent. Allowing children to serve themselves may be messy at first, but it is worth it when the children become more coordinated and feel the sense of pride that comes with being trusted with these tasks. Family style dining allows for great conversation between the child and caregiver, and any chance to engage verbally with the children is fabulous.

Many programs are also looking into healthier meal planning, and I have seen children really learning to love healthy foods. This can also be a great parent engagement piece, educating families on health and nutrition. It is becoming rare to hear of families eating together at the table, and as child care providers we can lead by example and show the benefits of taking the time to enjoy meals together as a family. There are wonderful programs for parents and teachers,  such as My Plate, USDA Team Nutrition, and Let’s Move! Child Care. You can also download the free Family Style Dining Guide to get started on building healthy habits around eating in your program today. Bon Appetit!

It’s Lonely At the Top: Making the Move from Teacher to Program Administrator


“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” – John C. Maxwell

You’re sitting at your desk on a Friday afternoon. A group of women passes by in the hallway— women you’re friendly with, women you joke around with, women who confide in you. You hear them talking about plans for meeting up for dinner tonight. “Dinner?” you think, questioningly. “I didn’t know they were meeting for dinner. Why didn’t they invite me?” And then you remember— “Oh yeah, I’m the director now. I’m The Boss.

Many of us who hold positions of leadership in early childhood dug our way through the trenches to get there. We may have started out as floaters, or assistant teachers, worked our way to becoming leads, and then made the leap to administration. Often, these steps may happen within the same program, putting us in the position of leading those who were our peers just a moment ago.

It is human nature to want to feel accepted. Especially by those who we work closely with, respect and admire. When you become a classroom teacher in an early childhood setting, the nature of your position and the environment in which you work can often lead teachers to become fast friends. When there is more than one teacher working in the same classroom, this bond can be especially deep. As the only two adults in the room, you support each other. You listen to each other vent. Together, you make your classroom run like a well-oiled machine—her strengths make up for your weaknesses, and vice versa.

Then, suddenly, with your promotion to administrator, this changes. You’re working in “the office” now. You have a whole new set of responsibilities, a completely new role…and all of your staff is watching to see if you’re going to sink or swim. This can be a lonely, isolating experience for many of us.

What do we do? How do we transition into our new role successfully, while supporting, and maintaining relationships with, the teachers in our program? Here are some tips for making the move from classroom to office as painless as possible:

  • Be proud of your new role, but not boastful. You made it to the top – yay, yippee, good for you! But don’t forget that everyone else is still doing the same job they did yesterday.
  • Expect social roles to change. Expect it. No really, EXPECT IT. You are now the superior, responsible for evaluating, hiring and firing the very same people whom you had coffee with last week.
  • Seek out others who are in a situation similar to yours. If you’re lucky enough to have other administrators at your program or organization, get to know them. If you’re the only one in charge, Look for professional development offerings geared toward administrators (Check out 4C’s opportunities in Southwest Ohio, the Miami Valley, and Kentucky) to help you be successful in your new role. It helps to meet others you can talk to who have walked a mile in your shoes or are experiencing the same things.
  • Observe other early childhood leaders—take note of their various leadership styles. Visit other quality early childhood programs in your area and observe a day in the life of the administrator. This serves two purposes—it gives you a glimpse into what your new position may consist of from day to day, and it allows you to learn about leading and motivating staff in a positive way.
  • Get input from your staff when possible. When people feel like they matter in an organization—like their voice, their opinion, is important and valued – they are much more likely to be a “team player” and make positive contributions to their work environment.

When you enter into a leadership role, remember that day in and day out, you will be setting the example your staff will follow. People will look to you for guidance, even when you may not be quite sure which way to steer them. It is up to you to lead your program with confidence, positivity and a genuine passion for providing all children the quality early childhood experiences they deserve.

Social Emotional Teaching Strategies and the Role of the Caregiver

social-emotional-caregiver-roleThe school year has begun! As you prepare to teach your preschoolers this year, remember that your interactions and environment play an incredible role in children’s social- emotional well being. The social-emotional domain is foundational to all learning. Providing an experience for the children in which they feel safe and supported will give them the confidence they need to succeed. It is important to always be attentive to the child’s needs. Showing a child that you are there for them will build the trust that is needed for them to seek guidance. Keep in mind that each child will need unique interventions and support to help them develop their skills. Children flourish in environments that provide consistency. Focus on creating routines that involve meaningful activities, especially in times of transition. These can include things like games or songs to minimize problems when waiting in line. One of the most important goals as caregivers is to promote a love of learning to our children. If you follow a child’s lead, allow them to initiate activities, and remain flexible around their needs, you will create an environment in which they feel respected. This is key to motivating the desire to learn. Positive relationships with peers and adults—parents and teachers included—are critical to the development of social emotional skills in children.

Characteristics of adults who promote positive relationships.

  • Offer lessons that engages the children and relates to their lives and culture
  • Provide consistent guidance, clarity of rules
  • Model appropriate social skills
  • Provide a nurturing environment, acknowledge emotions, provide comfort and support
  • Demonstrate empathy through questions such as, “Why do you think she is upset?”
  • Promote children’s confidence by engaging them in problem solving
  • Model positive language
  • Engage with parents in a relationship to support children emotionally
  • Support autonomy and leadership, allow choice and follow children’s lead

As a teacher, you have the chance to play a vital role in the lives of preschoolers at such a critical period of social-emotional growth. Make sure you create a space where children feel valued, safe and cared about. Children’s emotional health is closely tied to the characteristics of the environment in which they are surrounded. As you plan, make sure to intentionally promote a positive place to learn. Children who develop positive relationships with their teachers or caregivers are more positive about learning, more confident and more successful in their learning environment. As you start your new school year, remember to lay the foundation children need to succeed! A smile, pat on the back and encouraging word may seem small, but will go a long way. As they say, people may not remember exactly what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Children are no exception.

Math in the Early Years: Preschool

preschool-mathThere is a lot of pressure on young children these days to become expert mathematicians at an early age. Typically, I’ve found that when a child feels this pressure it creates stress. When a child feels stressed they shut down and disengage. If educators can intentionally incorporate math concepts through everyday activities, the stress on children is eliminated.

Math in early childhood education has many stages that come together to create its foundation. It’s a process for children. Once they develop one math concept, they are ready to build upon it or move along to the next level of this process. In my previous math blog we highlighted math concepts and everyday activities that were taking place in our infant and toddler classrooms. As we build upon that infant and toddler math foundation, let’s focus on the everyday activities that occur in preschool classrooms. Remember, when we think outside the math center box, we realize math concepts can be intertwined throughout every classroom area/activity, during daily routines, and even transitions. All it takes is a little intentional teaching and teacher-child engagement.

Let’s think about a few math staples that can be introduced and strengthened during this process of development. First, we need to recognize there is a difference between counting and quantifying. This is how I think of it: counting is verbalizing the number words, which is a big part of the process, but quantifying is the end product, when the child determines how many are actually in the set.

Rote counting—children verbally putting the number words in order (usually memorized, not necessarily quantifying objects).

  • Rote counting activities outside the math area are usually originated from the intentional teacher: “I wonder how long it takes us to walk down the hall. Help me count.” or “I wonder what’s the highest number you (we) can count to?”
  • Cooking activities or turn-taking structures. Allowing each child to stir during the cooking activity for 10 seconds.

One-to-one correspondence/principle—a child matches one object to each object in a set (i.e., ice cube tray and pom-pom activity) or the child matches one number word to one object (i.e., touching each dot on the die as they say the number word).

  • Everyday activities such as allowing children to help count chairs at the snack table, crackers as you pass them out, or heads as you transition outside will strengthen this skill.
  • When I was in the classroom, I always found that young children were more successful grasping one-to-one correspondence/principle when counting large objects or utilizing gross motor motions.

Cardinally—the stage when a child realizes the last number counted represents the total amount in the set.

  • Once you begin observing children quantifying, asking questions such as: “How many spaces are left?”, or “How many did you count?” will promote and support the cardinally stage.
  • Graphing activities are a great way to incorporate many mathematical milestones. While working with graphs children are quantifying and incorporating math vocabulary words such as “more,” “less,” and “least.”

Patterning— the ability to create or continue a repeated format or design.

  • A few everyday patterning activities would be clapping out patterns, building with Legos, and at times seating arrangements for lunch or group time (i.e., patterning children themselves by clothes or shoes).

Making math part of children’s everyday life is a great way to support their development. What other ways can you incorporate math concepts into your daily schedule?

Planning Individually


Often times when I talk about planning for children, eyes widen at the thought of planning for each child in the classroom. There are many benefits when every child is considered in what goes on an activity plan. Children’s needs are met and they receive the quality care and education that they deserve. Below are some questions and thoughts around why planning individually is necessary and important for all age groups.

Why is planning for individual children important?

Every child is unique. This uniqueness should not be forgotten about or suppressed because group care is a reality and necessity for families. Although it may feel overwhelming at first, it is doable to plan for individual children within a larger group. Children benefit from individual planning when all aspects of development are considered. When you value a child’s uniqueness and learn about their strengths, these strengths can be used as tools to support other areas of learning and development.

What is considered when planning for individual children?

First and foremost, you need to understand child development when considering how to plan for all children in your care. This will help you plan for appropriate expectations and guidance no matter what age group. Children develop and learn in a certain sequence and there is a set of milestones to help assess if children are on the right track. Each child develops at their own rate and providing an enriching and open-ended environment can help children to achieve those milestones. In order to truly grasp “Approaches Towards Learning,” caregivers and teachers need to understand that their own agenda may not be the most appropriate for children. To truly support children’s learning and understanding of their world is to offer choices and freedom to play at their own risk.

How can you create a plan?

Routines and experiences can be individually planned for each child in your classroom and it doesn’t have to be as difficult as it may seem. Planning for routines means we consider how children may need support during events that happen consistently throughout each day, such as diapering/toileting, mealtimes, drop-off and pick-up.

Consider a newborn infant that is beginning group care at 6 weeks of age. They have already developed preferences. Their experiences and interactions with other people are their family. The family can give information about how much an infant is eating, how often, how they like to be held or not held. Gathering this information is all a part of planning for the individual child.

Experiences and activities can also be used to plan individually. A specific activity can be available to the whole group while intentionally giving a child that may need extra practice with a certain skill. Integrating learning concepts into a child’s favorite learning center, such as providing pretend cookies and a cookie sheet with a grid taped to it can be a way to introduce math concepts in the dramatic play area. Open-ended activities can offer many ways for children to use materials how they choose to and can offer insight on how to plan for each child

Although planning individually can seem daunting at first, there are several ways to simplify the process. Find time to observe children in the environment, watch and listen to what children have to say. Ask them what they want to learn about. Remember to consider every child in your care!

Respecting Family Culture Is Respecting the Child


Early childhood educators must balance the culture of each child’s family, the classroom, the program and even the curriculum!

The word culture can mean different things to different people depending on the circumstances of its context and even setting. So what exactly is culture? When I think about culture the word values immediately pops into my head. If you read the Merriam-Webster definition of culture, it’s a pretty complex subject. In the field of early childhood education, we have many cultures to uphold and honor intertwined in our classrooms. We not only balance the culture of the family, but that of the classroom, the program, community, and even the curriculum—that’s a lot to balance! So what happens when conflicts occur between the family culture and the culture of your classroom?

When conflicts occur between the cultures, emotions typically are running at high speed with all parties involved. Not only do families hold their cultural beliefs very close to their hearts, but the majority of professionals in this field do as well, which can make it difficult to negotiate and problem solve. I think it’s important for us as educators to remember that not everything in early childhood education is black and white; there is a lot of GRAY area, especially when it comes to balancing cultures.

I feel that best practice points to individualizing as we navigate through the gray area. Individualizing for children is a huge part of our job; it’s how we help children become successful in many areas, from reaching those developmental milestones to writing or recognizing their name in print. In order to honor an individual child’s family culture, we must first try to understand the importance of the cultural discrepancy. Greenman and Stonehouse, co-authors of Primetimes encourage:

“Caregivers always need to remember that often there is a cultural logic to parental beliefs and practices. This logic may be based on cultural practices perceived as just as right as our own closely held truths. Because this is so, we have a responsibility to listen and respect, to adapt practices when possible, and to articulate clearly the logic of programs practices when adaptation is impossible.”

One way educators can do this is by being reflective and asking themselves or even the families, “Why?” One way to achieve understanding and to maintain positive relationships with families is for educators to demonstrate the ability to host respectful conversations around the topic. Hosting these types of conversations with an open mind will allow educators to use the families as a resource and can even strengthen relationships as you bridge the gap between home and school. It may also help educators detect what the family’s true needs are. Understanding the “why” factor is an important piece for educators during the problem solving and individualizing process.

As educators begin identifying what is causing the conflict between cultures, they will also discover what barriers exist. Once you isolate what the need is, you can pinpoint where the conflict between cultures occurs; then you can begin to strategize possible solutions for adaptation and individualization. Try asking yourself, “Why not?” Does it go against program policy, is it a licensing violation, or does it create management issues? Next ask yourself, is there room for ANY adaptation? Am I being flexible, and I am I viewing this with an open mind?

Chances are the topic in question is already something that the child has been exposed to; it’s familiar to them. Best practice in ECE would encourage the implementation of scaffolding techniques and adaptations for the child and family when appropriate and possible. When brainstorming solutions with families, it’s important for educators to respectfully articulate the “why” factor on your end too. Ideally, this will help guide you through compromise, foster the relationship, and allow you to begin advocating for what is best practice in early childhood education, while at the same time trying to honor the family culture. After all, respecting the family culture is respecting the child.