Conversations With Children

conversations-with-childrenWhen I was working in my center, by the time I got home I was absolutely done talking—at least for a little while. My husband never understood why until one day I explained to him I have conversations all day long. Engaging in conversations with the children was my favorite thing about teaching.  It was tiring some days, but I loved it. To listen to their stories, hopes, concerns, and jokes filled my bucket each day. Conversation is not just talking, but also it is about listening. Extending learning happens by having intentional conversation as well as daily verb exchanges. Children may have limited access with adults engaging in intentional conversations. As early childhood educators, we have the perfect opportunity to engage.

Intentional conversation is key. Positive relationships are created through intentional conversations. These relationships stimulate the building of vocabulary, help with interpersonal skills, help with social-emotional skills because their feelings are validated by your listening and responses, and build the foundation of their perception towards learning (check out my previous blog, Cling to the Positive).

I found a great resource with tips to help create a language-rich environment from UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute’s Blog, More than Baby Talk.

Below is their list of 10 ways to help create the environment to spark those crucial conversations that develop into lifetime learning for the children in your program.

  1. Get Chatty: Engage in meaningful conversations with children. “Hello, Charlie! How was your ride to school today?”
  2. Be a Commentator: Give descriptions of objects, activities or events. “I see that you are using the orange marker to color your picture today.”
  3. Mix It Up: Use different types of words and grammar. “Alice was aggravated that she couldn’t find the white rabbit”
  4. Label It: Provide children with the names of objects or actions. You can label shelves, coat hooks, cubbies, etc.
  5. Tune In: Engage in activities or objects that interest children.
  6. Read Interactively: Use books to engage children’s participation.
  7. Read It Again: Read books multiple times. This creates opportunities for sequencing/ problem-solving.
  8. Props: Introduce objects that spark conversations.
  9. Make Music: Engage in musical activities. Make your own instruments!
  10. Sign It: Use gestures or simple signs with words.

Bringing more of these new (or not so new) crucial conversation activities into the classroom and making it fun can give you more insight about what the children in your program need! Let the conversations start and have your listening ears (and listening heart) on!

Battling Burnout

 

Woman with three child. African American woman with three child prepare for Easter.

“Pursue confidently your dreams of being a teacher. Teach every day as you once imagined you would. Don’t let today’s obstacles keep you from yesterday’s dreams.” – Robert John Meehan

 

Anyone that has worked for any length of time in an early childhood classroom has had “one of those days.” You know the one—the one where your lesson plan flopped, the one where it rained all day and everyone was stuck inside, the one where a disgruntled parent expressed his/her disdain about something that happened in your classroom, the one where simply everything seemed to go wrong! At the end of a day like that, it’s easy to feel discouraged, to feel like you don’t want to come back and try again tomorrow.

You are not alone. All teachers have felt like this at one time or another. Let me say that again—ALL TEACHERS have felt like this at one time or another. The question is, how do you reflect on “one of those days” and find it within yourself to come back and try again, and again, and again?

  • Each day, have a Plan A, Plan B…and sometimes Plan Z! Take the time to set up your environment, consider your children’s needs, and plan activities that are interesting, enriching and hands-on. Make sure that you have a backup plan in mind (and oftentimes, more than just one) should your first set of ideas fall flat. If it rains, can you do your gross motor activity inside? If the children aren’t interested in reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, would they maybe like to read The Very Quiet Cricket instead?
  • Reflect on the day: At the end of the day, take a few minutes to think about what happened in your classroom today. What did you like about your day? What are some things you’d like to change? If you had the chance to do those things over again, how might you have done them differently?
  • Let it out: Sometimes all the reflection in the world can’t solve a problem that has factors you simply can’t control. Sometimes you just need to let your feelings out – keep a journal, find a trusted friend who you can vent to (but remember to maintain confidentiality), or scream into a pillow!
  • Practice self-care: When you’re not at school, do you like to exercise, watch movies, spend time with friends and family, or have some other hobby that brings you happiness and peace? As natural caretakers of others, educators often have difficulty making time for themselves. For your own mental, physical and emotional health, DO IT. You’ll be a better teacher, and a better person, for it.
  • Know when to go: There comes a time in the career of some educators when they realize they just know they need to leave the classroom and move on to something else. Maybe they want to pursue another aspect of the early childhood field—administration, advocacy, consulting, or working with adult learners. Maybe they want to move on to another field entirely. Whichever is the case, if you choose to leave, leave on a high note. Continue to give it your all until you find another position—allow the children and families you worked with to always remember you fondly.

Battling burnout is an all too common occurrence for those of us who work with young children. Every day we pour from our own pitchers in the hopes of filling many smaller ones. The key to hanging in there for the long haul is to recognize, appreciate and love just how those little pitchers eventually fill us right back up.

Spring Is Here…and So Are Outdoor Allergies!

children-outsideWe love going outdoors and spending quality time getting to know the world outside our indoor classroom space. However, this time of year brings some sniffles when all of the new things are in bloom. As adults, we suffer from allergies and know the pain behind our eyes, runny nose, and the irritation it brings. It is pretty bad. Just take a moment to imagine how a small child feels who is exposed to something out there that doesn’t agree with their bodies…just as terrible!

According to HealthLine.com, “An estimated 50 million Americans have allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These allergies usually show up in infancy or childhood. Allergies can get in the way of a child’s ability to sleep well, play, and function in school.”

The reactions we see are just our body’s defense to fight off what is irritating your immune system. We need to be very aware this time of year how our classroom of children is feeling and look for the signs that something may be “different” for them when they play outside.

Children may have allergies if they have runny, itchy, red, or swollen eyes that persist for more than a week or two. The same goes for a runny nose. Are the symptoms chronic? Does the child say that their mouth or throat itches or tingles? Do they scratch their ears? The American Academy of Pediatrics says “these may be allergy symptoms, possibly of hay fever or allergic rhinitis, the most common form of allergy among children.” Note whether the symptoms recur at the same time of year, each year.

A great tip before nature is fully in bloom is to talk to families about any signs/symptoms they have noticed or do know about when it comes to their child. Allergies can also affect the child’s behavior, producing unusually crabby or restless moods. Consider keeping a symptom log to share with families, noting the symptom and what happened right before its onset (e.g., exposure to a pet or eating a certain food). Other signs of allergies in children can include a headache or excessive fatigue. Keeping your own system log can be helpful when communicating with families about information needed when consulting their care physician.

Before heading outside for the day, you may want to have your aide or another staff member survey the play area. Look for anything new that may have been introduced to the space as well as insects or other animals that may have settled into the space. Also washing hands after touching questionable exposure items is a great way to prevent reactions.

This is a great time of year to refresh yourself how to use Epi-Pens, inhalers, etc. if your program permits. Ask your administrator if it is possible to get the health department to send pamphlets to hand out to families. 4C for Children offers great First Aid and CPR training which also can help demonstrate the skills you would need to help a child in a serious allergic reaction situation. This way, everyone is aware and can better handle outdoor experiences, including the teachers. Have a safe and happy Spring!

Can You Really “Teach” Preschool?

preschool-teachersMany years ago, my husband was having a conversation with a co-worker. They were getting to know each other, and were discussing each of their families’ dynamics. The topic of what their wives did for a living came up.

At the time, I was a lead teacher in a preschool classroom, and coincidentally, so was this co-worker’s wife, at another program. “My wife’s a preschool teacher,” my husband said. “She loves it, and she’s pretty good at it.” “Mine too,” the co-worker said. “But then again, can you really TEACH preschool?” He put air quotes around the word “teach,” and finished his statement off with a condescending smirk and a laugh.

Now, I was not witness to this actual conversation, only to the description of it my husband gave me later on. Considering my passion for quality early childhood education, it’s probably a very good thing (for my husband’s former co-worker, at least) that I wasn’t! But it got me thinking—just how is our profession viewed by the rest of the adult world?

I have always been proud of what I do for a living, knowing that working with children between the ages of birth and 5 years is some of the most important work there is. But as my career has progressed I have witnessed the reaction I get from others when they find out for the first time what I do for a living. Sometimes I get, “How do you do it?! I could NEVER be around little kids all day!” Other times it’s, “Oh, that sounds like so much fun! I wish I could color all day and get paid for it!” And then there are the times when I actually get the brush off. I have witnessed people’s facial expressions and body language change noticeably in ways that indicate they have very little, if any respect, for what an early childhood educator’s job entails. And therefore, for me.

Those of you who have been doing this for any length of time know just what I’m talking about. In fact, recently I came across a video of an interview with a fellow preschool teacher who put it this way… “When I’m in a room and I’m asked what I do, I just say ‘teacher.’ Because if I say ‘preschool teacher,’ then all of a sudden I’m less intelligent because, clearly, I’m just a babysitter. And they have no clue how important my job is.”

Even though the concept of early childhood education has been around since the early 1800’s, and numerous child development theorists such as Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Maria Montessori, just to name a few, have developed well-respected, foundational ideas about the science of how young children learn, the reality is that the job of educating and caring for young children is often still viewed in a somewhat simplistic light. Even the terms people frequently use to refer to this field are often thrown around without a second thought to the negative connotation they may present. This article from the Huffington Post is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Whatever your role is in the field of early childhood, you matter. The children you work with everyday need you. They look forward to seeing your face smiling back at them, to hearing a word of encouragement or support coming from your lips, to feeling the touch of your hand on their back when they’re struggling with accomplishing a task. Keep showing up. Keep doing what you do. Keep loving it. The adults may not always get it… but the children always will.

Cling to the Positive

positive-behavior

With all the rain, cloudy weather, and horrible news reports on TV I know I have been feeling a little negative and down lately. It is a very rare thing for me because I have always been a “glass is half full” kind of person. The children in our programs feel this too. They might exhibit their sentiments by lethargy, defiant behavior, or just lack of interest. Some also might be vocal about it! We set the tone for our children. We model the behaviors and actions that are appropriate and bring success for the child’s development. Even though we aren’t seeing rainbows and sunshine, we still need to be a role model for our children each day to persevere and keep going!

I was reading an article titled, “Helping Young Children Succeed: Strategies to Promote Social and Emotional Development,” from zerotothree.org that talked about the effects of social and emotional development. “Children who are emotionally healthy have a significantly greater chance of achieving success in school compared with those who have emotional difficulties. High-quality programs, which offer children emotional nurturance and positive early learning experiences, enhance development and prepare children for school.”

The interactions between a caregiver and a child are those small moments that make or break attitudes toward learning. It may be hard to change a child’s attitude because of early stressors and traumatic events that have previously occurred. Here are some helpful tips based on an article about Growth Mindset by Jessica Stillman that can give you the words to say in the moments of frustration. “Rather than saying ‘Not everybody is good at solving puzzles. Just do your best,’ a teacher or parent should say ‘When you learn how the small piece goes together with this bigger piece, it grows your brain.’ Or instead of saying ‘Maybe solving puzzles is not one of your strengths,’ a better approach is adding ‘yet’ to the end of the sentence: ‘Maybe solving puzzles is not one of your strengths yet,'” she explains. “The bottom line is that you shouldn’t just praise effort; you should praise effort because it leads somewhere, stressing that simply trying isn’t the point.” Your kids should try hard because putting in that effort will make them smarter and better at whatever they put their minds to.

If we change our attitudes and the words we use to model behaviors and concepts to children, their negative attitudes (and school readiness skills) will eventually change for the positive too.

Five Reasons Why Learning Through Play Works

water-play

  1. Children are naturals at play. Infants are born ready to learn. From the first moments of entering the world, they begin to figure out how to get their needs met, which is vital to survival. Through strong relationships and trustful bonds, children are then propelled into their new world and will reach, grasp, pull, mouth and skootch to things that they find interesting. Children are naturally curious and will play with EVERYTHING. It is important to set up the classroom environment in such a way that this curiosity can be supported.
  2. Play builds the brain. Play directly affects the brain. The part of the brain that allows humans to control emotions, make plans, fix problems, and find solutions takes over 20 years to develop. Research has shown that play and plenty of it is what allows the brain to develop to its full potential.
  3. Play improves social skills. Play allows children to practice prosocial skills. In group situations, other children are part of those surroundings. It is important that adult expectations match the children’s developmental level. Taking turns and sharing are long-term goals for children, yet adults should not expect children to share just because it is a social norm. It takes time and patience when supporting children’s ability to learn these skills. If and when conflicts arise, it is important to take the time to work with children to figure out the solutions to the problem. This can be done by saying something like, “It looks like you both want the truck. How are we going to fix this?” For mobile infants and young toddlers, who do not have enough language yet, it may be appropriate to offer them a toy that is similar or redirect them to another activity. For older toddlers and preschoolers, adults can encourage children to come up with ways to solve the problem.
  4. Play is the pathway to helping children learn academic skills. Kindergarten readiness has been at the forefront of early care and education for years. So much so that kindergarten classrooms resemble what first-grade classrooms used to look like, and preschool classrooms are being run more like kindergarten classrooms. This can also be seen in toddler classrooms, and sadly, infant settings. The truth of the matter is that learning language and literacy, math, science and social studies can be done during children’s play. It does not have to be done by making children sit for long periods of time at circle time or at a table doing worksheets. When adults sit with children, they can model, label, ask questions and respond to children’s play such as saying, “You put the blue block on the red block” or “You added another block. Let’s count them.”
  5. Adults are important to children’s play. Children don’t need help to learn how to play. They will work at play as they see fit. Play is a child’s job. The adult’s job is to figure out when to be part of that play. The biggest part of the adult’s job in play is to add language. Say out loud what you see a child doing. Add descriptive language when you are talking to children. Label items as well as asking open-ended questions.

 

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work I Go

off-to-workWorking in the same early childhood program where your own child is enrolled is quite the double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re right there in the same building as your little one. Over my 20 years in the early childhood field, I have listened to many parents lament over having to leave their child in someone else’s care, and how great it would be to be closer to them. The daily struggle that is being a working parent is made just a little more bearable when you can peek in and check on your pride and joy from time to time.

On the other hand, YOU’RE RIGHT THERE IN THE SAME BUILDING. You have to work to focus on your own classroom and not on what your child might be doing down the hall. Or, if your child is in the same room as you, you have to work to maintain your objectivity. The child/parent dynamic has to become student/teacher. This can be a challenge for you to uphold, and can often be confusing for young children.

I’ve seen educators handle this situation many different ways, and have experienced it firsthand with both of my youngest children. Here are some tips for how to get through this often sticky situation:

  • Set boundaries with your child’s teacher. Have a conversation with him/her about how you do (or don’t) wish to be involved in everyday classroom situations. If you’ve recently gone back to work after having a baby, you may want your child’s teacher to let you know when he/she is hungry so you can come in to breastfeed, pump, or give them a bottle of formula. As your child gets older, you may find it works better to have less contact with him/her at school. I always tried to let my children’s teachers know, if it wasn’t something they would call another child’s parents to come to school to handle, then don’t bring me into the classroom, either. I trusted their judgement, and it was often more difficult for my children to separate from me more than once during the day. This was so important to me that if I even had to walk past my son or daughter’s classroom I would crouch down and sneak below the classroom windows so they wouldn’t see me!
  • Have conversations with other program staff about your wishes. During my days as an administrator, other well-meaning staff would poke their heads in my office from time to time to let me know when my children were upset about something. Try to work on anything else when you get this message—just try! Your natural parental instinct to tend to the needs of your offspring overrides any work responsibilities you may have. In a work setting, however, you can’t let that happen. You have a job to perform, that you are being paid to do, and there are other program staff members who are responsible for caring your child. Trust that they can handle it.
  • If your child is old enough, talk with your child about school vs. home expectations. Include things like behavior expectations, how outwardly affectionate you’re both comfortable with being at school, and what you and your child will call each other (my husband, who works in my daughter’s afterschool classroom, has her call him “Mr. Fuz,” like the rest of the kids, at school, but “dad” anywhere else).
  • Set and maintain boundaries with your child. The line between school and home can easily be blurred when you’re in this situation. Even though you may have argued with your child about what shoe they could wear when getting ready for school that morning, try not to let that bleed over into classroom interactions. Your child deserves the same blank slate that every other child gets when they start their day with you. In the same vein, inappropriate behaviors at school should be left at school. Holding a grudge and enforcing a punishment on your child at home for an indiscretion earlier in the day at school isn’t fair to your child either.

For me, the pros of having my children in the same program as myself far outweighed the cons. I’ll be the first one to admit that at times, it wasn’t easy. But, now that my children are older, and I’ve left that program, I look back on those years with certainty that this was the best decision for my family. My children were lucky enough to have fantastic teachers during their earliest years—I wish the same for yours!