What do Letters Mean to Infants and Toddlers?

adult-and-toddler-with-bookWhat do letters mean to infants and toddlers? When is an appropriate time to begin learning what letters are and how to write them? Are there things that children need to understand and know first? Language and literacy are important for school readiness and success. It is equally important to approach language and literacy holistically. It is not enough to teach children their ABCs and how to write them. Here are a few developmentally appropriate ways to support language and literacy learning with infants and toddlers.

Read books and sing songs throughout the day.
Set up a library and baskets of books throughout the classroom for spontaneity. Children like to read the same books over and over. They like to carry them around and enjoy the opportunity to sit in an adult’s lap to read. Hearing and listening to stories helps children to label pictures, answer questions such as, “What’s that?” and can help children learn about feelings and emotions. Choosing books carefully and with individual children in mind can help children make connections to things that they have experienced and relate to in real life.

Invest time in learning new fingerplays and songs. Be silly and have fun making up your own songs. Singing to children to help them through transitions can be more successful than trying to get children to stand in a line and “catch a bubble.” Reading and singing with children sets the stage for helping them learn that language and the written word has a function. This can also be done through environmental print.

Talk with children!
It is important that teachers do more than talk at children and give them directions on what to do or where to go. Speak to children like you would to your peers. There is no need to ”oversimplify your language or use baby talk.” (Greenman, Stonehouse & Schweikert, Primtimes) Commentate what you see children doing such as, “You rolled the red car across the floor.” Explain to children what you are doing. “I am going to pick you up and put you on the changing table.” Be sure to use descriptive words.Have a conversation! Cooing babies, babbling toddlers and curious preschoolers all have something to say and enjoy the back and forth interaction that conversations provide. Playing games like peek-a-boo with young children is a great way to begin practicing conversations.

Create a print rich environment.
Children are concrete thinkers and often need pictures to go with labels to support the idea that letters create words and words stand for people, places and/or things. Using pictures is a great place to start. For any age group, providing pictures of children’s families and adding print to the pictures by making posters or books is a great way for children to see their name and those they care about in print. Adding a picture with a label of the child’s name to their cubby is a great way to help children begin to recognize their name. Shelves can be labeled with words and pictures as well. Other types of environmental print can include using documentation panels that use pictures of children at work and adding short descriptions to the panel to use as conversation starters or by adding grocery ads to a grocery store themed dramatic play area.

Have opportunities to write available.
Once a child has the ability to hold a writing utensil (and it doesn’t have to be using a pincer grip) they should be given the opportunity to scribble. Again there are many ways to offer children this other than just crayons and paper. One example can be magnetic writing boards or dry erase boards and markers. Offering play dough to squeeze can help children build their fine motor skills for future writing. By the time children are in preschool, a writing center can be available for children to utilize along with putting pencils and paper in various areas of the room to make things such as make road signs in the block area or record findings children make while out on the playground.

These are just several ways that language and literacy can be supported from the beginning of a child’s time in an early care and education program.

Helping Children Cope With Death

grievingChildren experience big emotions. When they’re happy, they’re ecstatic! When they’re mad, they’re FURIOUS. And when they’re sad, they’re absolutely sorrowful. When children experience life changing events, such as the death of a loved one, these emotions often get all jumbled up in their little bodies, and can be very overwhelming. It is our job, as the adults who care for them, to help guide children through the process of grieving in a healthy way— a way that will allow them to process their emotions and move on.

A few months ago, my father passed away. My children’s grandfather—the silly, loving, larger-than-life man they had come to know and love—was there one day, and tragically gone the next. This event shook our family to its core. All of us were dealing with so many emotions that often changed from one moment to the next. How was I, in the midst of my immense grief, going to help my children cope with this loss?

The morning of my dad’s passing, my husband and I sat down with my children to talk to them. I gathered my son under one arm, and my daughter under the other, and I began to speak. “I need to talk to you. You know that grandpa was in the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well. The doctors and nurses tried their very best to make him better, but they weren’t able to fix what wasn’t working right in his body. Grandpa died this morning. Grandma and I were with him, and he was surrounded by our love when he died.” At this moment, both of my children began sobbing into my shoulders. I hugged them tighter, began to cry myself, and went on, “Please know that he loved you very, very much. And be certain that he knew how much you loved him. It’s ok to be sad, or mad, or however else you feel. It’s ok to cry.” And that’s just what we did.

Each of us dealt with our grief differently. My 4-year-old daughter talked about grandpa a lot, and even asked questions like, “So, we’re not going to see grandpa anymore, right? Like Stella?” (Stella was our cat who had died the previous year.) She drew lots of pictures— pictures of grandpa wearing his signature plaid shirts, pictures she wanted to give to grandpa, “if he was still alive.” My 9-year-old son was more private in his sadness. From time to time, a few tears would slip out when something reminded him of grandpa. Then, one day, I was outside cleaning out my dad’s truck. Inside, I found a photograph my dad had been carrying around of my son, taken while sitting on my dad’s lap. My son came up behind me and asked what I was doing. I showed him the picture and asked him if he wanted it. He shook his head yes, sat down on the concrete, and began to weep. I sat down with him, as did his sister. We all put our arms around each other, hugged, and cried, for a long time, right there in the driveway.

Grieving is a process for children, just as it is for adults. When children experience the death of a loved one, or even a pet, there are some things you can do to help them:

  • Use simple, clear words that leave no room for misinterpretation. Avoid using euphemisms like “gone to sleep” or “went away” that could lead to scary or misleading thoughts.
  • Let children talk or ask questions. Really listen to what they say without judgment, and try to answer their questions honestly, using terms they’ll understand.
  • Allow children to cry. Telling a child “You’re okay, you’re okay,” only negates their feelings and pushes them back down inside. They’re NOT okay, and they won’t be okay until they’re able to let those feelings out.
  • Cry with them. It’s normal and healthy to express sadness through tears, and modeling that yourself can be beneficial for both of you.
  • Help children remember. Talking about their loved one, telling stories about them, drawing pictures of them, and recalling fond memories they shared together are all things that will help a child get to the final stage of grief—acceptance.

Remember, grief has no timeline. Whatever period of time it takes a child to process the death of a loved one is the time that’s right for them. As early childhood professionals, our role is simply to be there to support them, to listen, to provide stability, and most of all, to care.

The Dreaded Parent-Teacher Conference

trey-drinking-the-water

As the parent of a “spirited” child, I myself get anxious about parent-teacher conferences!

Preparing for any parent-teacher conference takes time, but more time may be needed for more challenging children. These more “challenging children” are typically the ones we wish were absent on those mornings we forget our coffee, but at the same time they’re our favorites! Teachers often refer to these children as “spirited.” Which doesn’t mean they are bad children by any means; it just means they challenge us as teachers—which in return makes us better teachers. My son was and still is referred to as “spirited.” (He is pictured above, drinking the sensory activity water.)

No matter how nervous we may be prior to a conference, the parents of “spirited” children are just as anxious. Don’t forget these are the parents who are probably growing accustom to only hearing the negative or challenging aspects about their child. They consistently feel as if they need to defend their children because all they hear is the bad, and they know there is good inside there too! Keep in mind every parent loves to hear positive and funny stories about their children; that’s a great place to start the conversation.

Here are some key steps to a successful parent-teacher conference:

  • Interact with the children in your care. This should occur constantly throughout the year, everyday—not just before conferences. If you’re not interacting with the child chances are you have very little information on that child. As you interact with children, engaging them in play and conversation, you’re able to discover their skills, abilities, and developmental levels. You also establish what their interests are which you can use to entice them to learn or enhance skills.
  • Determine goals based on those everyday interactions. Where does this child need support? I found sometimes starting with a few goals is more productive than having goal overload. It’s easier to focus and plan for between one and three at a time. Plus this focus and planning will increase the child’s chances for success surrounding that goal. More goals can always be added later when the child is ready. Allowing the parents the option to add a goal is a great way to create a teaching team between school and home.
  • Create an action plan of how you’re going to support that child with each goal. This is the step a lot of teachers skip. Children don’t magically develop the skills needed to reach our goals, they get there through play, repetition, and our intentional planning. Document and explain to parents what YOU are going to do to help support their child using concrete examples. For instance, if Johnny’s goal is to recognize his name in print, but avoids the writing center like the plague, how can you use Johnny’s interests and favorite areas to intentionally plan for letter recognition through play? What kinds of playful interactions can families do at home to reinforce concepts and skills? I’ve found that suggesting “activities” to parents adds pressure and more often than not, there’s no follow through. However, everyday, intentional interactions are much easier steps for parents because there is no prep time or materials to gather. It can simply happen in the car or during dinner. Communicating your action plan takes some of the anxiety off parent’s shoulders and gives them ideas of how to make learning fun. Plus, it puts them more at ease during the meeting knowing you already have a plan to help their child. Again this helps create the teaching team between school and home.
  • Put it all in writing. Prior to the meeting, document your talking points, goals and action plan examples to ensure you’re not forgetting anything. It’s not only professional, but when parents see that you’re plan is documented, they know you’re going to follow through.

Most importantly please remember, regardless of what our biases and opinions are telling us, ALL parents want their children to be successful. Some parents just show it in a different way than others. And some parents just don’t know or realize what they can do to help their children be more successful. That’s where you as the early childhood educator come in!

Quiet Space, Happy Place

quiet-space

This sample quiet space has some great ideas for elements to include: comfy pillows, books, and calming lighting!

Full days at preschool can be long and tiring for children, just as days can feel long for caregivers. Provide the opportunity for children to have somewhere to go and calm down, take a break and relax by creating a “Quiet Space” in your classroom. Make it a space where a child feels safe, by creating rules to ensure the comfort of the space. Explain to the children that there are times when we are too upset to think or make good choices, so spending time alone can help them feel better.  Teach children to respect the area and use it one at a time, and for peaceful activity.  Make the area comfortable through the use of soft items such as pillows, bean bag chairs, and stuffed toys. Young children like enclosed spaces. To make it even more private, play huts and tents that still allow visible access to the teachers can be used. To optimize relaxation in the area, teach children breathing techniques and ways to identify emotions and calm their bodies.

When introducing this area to your students, make sure they know this space is not a “time-out,” but a place to go if they feel different emotions or become overwhelmed.  Creating a “homey“  environment in this area can put children at ease. Including small photo albums such as family pictures of the students is a great way to allow children to feel connected to their parents while they are missing them.

We as adults need to “get away” sometimes and leave the chaos behind. Children are no different, and if they feel that there is no place to go to get a break from the crowd, they will begin to feel frustrated just as we would. If a student needs to be supported while trying to calm down, make it a point to sit with them and help them identify their feelings and give them the attention they need. Taking care of a child’s social emotional health is so critical for their overall well being.

The ultimate hope is that as children become successful in using a quiet space, they will be able to find a quiet place within themselves and manage their feelings without needing the physical space. Teaching children how to have control over their emotions and self soothe will not only help them in preschool, but throughout their lives. Parents can use these relaxation techniques at home, as well as identify a space for quiet time. Teachers and parents can work together to support children when it comes to dealing with difficult emotions. For more information on breathing techniques and ideas for your quiet space, go to https://consciousdiscipline.com/.

Cozy spaces bring happy faces!

Science in ECE: It’s Not All Cocoons and Butterflies

science

Recently I had the opportunity to observe a teacher during outside time. This teacher was actively engaged with the children as she supervised her class. She took the time to stop and interact with them, constantly asking open-ended questions. As she walked around the playground she made comments to a small group of children using funnels and buckets in the sand box. At her next stop she helped children collect rocks and then sort them. She helped as children gathered and tossed leaves up in the air to watch them swirl around in the wind. The children giggled as she joined them in their shadow dancing/jumping game.

As I debriefed with the teacher after the observation, one of the areas in which she requested support was science. I asked about past activities. Which activities she felt went well, which activities didn’t go well and why. With excitement in her tone, she dove right into telling me about her butterfly project last spring and how the children loved observing the daily progress of the transformation to the release of them on the playground. Then she discussed a volcano explosion demonstration that flopped. I believe reflection is an important part of the planning/teaching process in ECE (and even life in general). Understanding which element was successful or unsuccessful, why it went wrong, or how it could have been done differently is a great strategy for an educator to continuously grow in this field. After reflecting for a few moments, she said the volcano flopped because the children weren’t interested in it. As we began to problem-solve WHY the children weren’t as interested in the volcano as they were in the butterflies, she stated, “Because it’s not a real life experience for them. It’s not something they see in their everyday world.” I immediately thought, BINGO! If it’s not meaningful to children, they’re not going to be engaged. One of my favorite things in ECE is adapting and even disguising learning concepts through topics of interest for children and of course play interactions.

As I read her my notes from the playground observation, she realized science was everywhere! Through her engagement and open-ended questions she was already fostering those early science skills. As we continued to reflect on that morning, she was able to make connection between those activities and the Early Learning and Development Standards (ELDS). Here’s what we discovered:

Cognition and General Knowledge: Sub-domain: Science

  • Exploring sand using funnels and buckets= ELDS strand: Science inquiry and application. Topic: Cause and effect
  • Collecting and sorting rocks = ELDS strand: Science inquiry and application. Topic: Inquiry
  • Investigating leaves being tossed in the air= ELDS strand: Earth and space science. Topic: Explorations of the natural world
  • Jumping shadows= ELDS strand: Physical science. Topic: Explorations of energy

Science in early childhood education is fostering a world FULL of wonder. While creating this world of wonder, your classroom doesn’t have to look like a science fair. So when you’re planning for your children, reflect on what is happening around them. What do you see them interested in and what are they asking questions about? What are they experiencing in their everyday world and how can you expand on it?

Gone With the Worksheet

meaningful-play

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” – Aristotle

Worksheets… I will admit— I used them. I used them for one school year. With every letter of the week I presented to my class, I had a ditto to go with it. Trace the Aa’s. Write the Aa’s. Color the apple red. And don’t forget to write your name on the top.

During my first seven years as a preschool teacher, I didn’t use worksheets at all. I relied on what I had learned during my education and experience about engaging children in hands-on experiences to teach. And it was working.

During my eighth year in the classroom, I accepted a position in a new center, in a pre-k classroom. One day, early on in the school year, my director pulled me into her office and said,  “Merideth, a parent complained to me that her child isn’t bringing home worksheets, and she’s worried he isn’t learning anything. What exactly are you doing in your room?”

“Wow,” I thought. “Teaching, I’m TEACHING! And my kids are LEARNING! I know it—I see it!” But at that moment, what I actually said was a jumble of words about all of the exciting things we were working on in my room in the hopes that I would say something that would allow me to keep my job. My director responded by reminding me that as a teacher in a pre-k classroom I had a responsibility to prepare the kids in my class for kindergarten, and that meant, yes, you guessed it, using worksheets.

So, the next time I sat down to write my lesson plans, begrudgingly, I included worksheets. Trace the Aa’s. Write the Aa’s. Color the apple red. It seemed to fly in the face of everything I had come to know about educating young children up until that point, but that’s what my director wanted, and that’s what the parents in my classroom obviously wanted (or so I thought), so that’s what I did. For the rest of that school year, I continued to use a mixture of seated time doing worksheets and engaging, real world experiences in my classroom.

Worksheet time was like pulling teeth. Trying to get wiggly, energetic, curious little 4- and 5-year-old bodies to sit at a table and complete their “work” was next to impossible without some sort of extrinsic motivation… “If you finish your worksheets, I’ll get the out the slime we made yesterday. AND we can put the DINOSAURS in it!”

Making slime, however, attracted every child in my class like moths to a flame. Measuring out the ingredients, talking about the texture, observing the chemical reaction that occurred when we mixed everything together was something that every single child in my class COULDN’T WAIT to do. And then adding dinosaurs to the mix?! Forget about it!

In that one activity, my class was learning math and science concepts, working on fine motor skill development and having a great time doing it all.

When they sat down to do a worksheet, not so much.

So, as early childhood educators, we know that real-world, hands-on, interactive experiences based on familiar topics are how young children learn best. How do we ensure this is how the children in our programs are being taught?

  • Provide learning experiences that children get excited about, and want to participate in.
  • Base your lesson planning around topics that interest them or questions they ask, and include opportunities for them to BE ACTIVE!
  • Get excited! Use an animated tone of voice and interesting facial expressions. Children’s level of interest in a particular activity is often directly related to the affect you take on when presenting it.
  • Toot your own horn! Document what goes on in your classroom by taking, and posting, photos of children engaged in the learning process. Include direct quotes from the children, if possible.
  • Communicate with families about the learning that’s happening every day in your classroom. Write a daily note, a newsletter and/or have a face-to-face conversation about all of the great things you’re doing with your class.
  • Educate families about how young children learn and develop through play. For example, explain that before they can write their name, children need to do things like mold with playdough and build with Legos to develop the muscles they need to write.

If you’re using worksheets in your classroom right now, I encourage you to take the leap, try another way. I promise you, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what happens when worksheets go by the wayside.

Striking While the Iron’s Hot: Becoming an Advocate for Early Childhood Education

early-childhood-advocate

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Election Day is just around the corner. One of the most crucial topics being brought to the forefront of voters’ minds this election year is that of investing in quality educational experiences for young children. Those of us in the field of early childhood have long been aware of the importance of this topic, but we are finally starting to hear the leaders (and potential leaders) of our communities, and of this nation, give it some credence.

Investing money in young children has been proven, time and again, to yield numerous benefits down the road for the individual child, his/her family, and society as a whole. A report entitled “The Economics of Early Childhood Investments” published  in December 2014 cited reductions in crime, as well as lower expenditures on health care and remedial education down the road as just a few of the societal benefits to investing in early childhood. Families who have dependable, high-quality child care options are able to remain productive members of the workforce. Children who experience quality early care and education experiences, by and large, are more likely to grow up to become contributing members of society, themselves.

At this point in our nation’s history, we, as early childhood educators, have a unique opportunity. We can use our first hand experiences working with young children, our depth of knowledge about child development, and our collective voice as early childhood professionals to spread the message to our leaders that young children, and those of us who educate and care for them, deserve the resources necessary to create high quality early learning environments and experiences.

By working together, each one of us has the power to influence the direction early care and education is preparing to take in our country. In addition to the important work we do with young children and their families each day, becoming an early childhood advocate is another way we can contribute, on a much larger scale, to the advancement of the education of young children in our community, as well as our country. You can begin your journey as an early childhood advocate by taking any (or all!) of the following action steps:

  • Visit websites like 4cforchildren.org. www.usa.childcareaware.org, or www.naeyc.org on a regular basis to stay educated about current topics, research and best practices in early childhood.
  • Join, and become active in, early childhood professional organizations like NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children), NAFCC (the National Association for Family Child Care), or CEC (the Council for Exceptional Children), to name a few.
  • Contact your state representative and/or the White House to express your thoughts, feelings, opinions and concerns regarding quality early childhood in your area. You can find contact info for state reps here. You can contact the White House here.
  • Read about the current child care proposals that are being offered by our presidential candidates.
  • Register to vote prior to Election Day
  • VOTE on Election Day (Tuesday, November 8)!

Remember to spread the word, every chance you get, to your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and community leaders about the importance of investing in early childhood education. There is strength in numbers. By uniting and taking action, we can improve the state of early childhood education in our communities, and our nation, for the benefit of the children in our care, and for generations of children yet to come.