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!

Screen Time Replacing Playtime?

screentime-classroomWith the colder temperatures looming still over our area, we are spending less time outside playing and more time inside trying to find ways to have fun. I have seen parents (and some teachers) put smartphones and tablets out as an alternative to playing games and bundling up for some outdoor fun. I know that life is busy and parents have limited free time, but are large amounts of time spent on devices really good for the kids in our program?

Here are some numbers from a parent survey sent out by Common Sense Media:

  • 98 percent of homes with children now have a mobile device such as a tablet or smartphone
  • 42 percent of young children now have their very own tablet device — up from 7 percent four years ago and less than 1 percent in 2011.
  • Nearly half, 49 percent, of children 8 or under “often or sometimes” use screens in the hour before bedtime, which experts say is bad for sleep habits.
  • 42 percent of parents say the TV is on “always” or “most of the time” in their home, whether anyone is watching or not. Research has shown this so-called “background TV” reduces parent-child interaction, which in turn can hurt language development.

With all of the exposure to technology, I noticed the above statistics when I was in my program.  Children learn best through play with objects and hands-on activities. Exposure to new things makes learning more fun and causes cognitive development, language skills to blossom, and social-emotional development to occur! Interactions mean so much more with people! We can use this knowledge to change the way we use technology in our programs and at home.

Schofield Clark at the University of Denver who has done studies on media and the effects of disadvantaged youth suggests, “making interactions intentional and meaningful by the way you can spend the time: showing a kid how to use a laptop, how to do Internet research, picking out highly rated educational apps or steering a child toward programs with positive messages.” Set aside a block of time each day to make sure that a child gets interactions with adults and peers.  Check out a great blog post from 4C Quality Programs Specialist Jenn Malicoat for more ideas to do inside!

Make the moments count. Spend more time interacting with one another playing with and using materials to enrich and nurture learning, as it is better for everyone in the long run.

A Crucial Conversation

conversation

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” – Henry Ford

Kenny was a quiet, happy two-and-a-half-year-old-boy who loved music, and liked to spend most of his time playing on the floor. He could often be found driving cars on the carpet, or lying on a pillow, gazing up at his classmates’ creations that hung from the ceiling. His classmates would play near him throughout the day, and would occasionally try to include him in their play, but Kenny never met their gaze and would always keep to himself.

As months passed, and Kenny celebrated his third birthday with no change in his demeanor, my co-teachers and I began to have conversations about his social/emotional development. We weren’t doctors and were in no way qualified to make a diagnosis, but according to our knowledge of child development, Kenny was exhibiting behaviors that led us to believe he may have been experiencing some developmental delays.

We came to the conclusion that we should have a discussion with his parents about what we were observing in the classroom. Parent/teacher conferences were coming up in a few weeks, but we didn’t want to wait that long. Besides, we knew the conversation we were going to have would be a sensitive one, and we wanted to take the time necessary to adequately address everyone’s questions (instead of the 20 minutes we were alotted at a typical conference).

I called Kenny’s mom at naptime and scheduled a meeting with her for the next day. It was her suggestion that we meet so soon. I could hear the anxiety in her voice over the phone.

Prior to our meeting, my co-teachers and I pulled out Kenny’s portfolio and reviewed all of the observations we had been making on him over the course of the year. We were nervous about how to have this conversation with Kenny’s mom, so we practiced what we wanted to say. In all honesty, as young teachers in the first few years of our careers, we were all secretly hoping that the anecdotal notes, photos and work samples we had collected would lead Kenny’s mom down a path of realization on her own, without us having to find the right words.

The next day, when Kenny’s mom arrived in the classroom, she was on the verge of tears. It was obvious to all of us that she was dreading this meeting. My two co-teachers, Kenny’s mom, and I sat down to talk in a private room. We began by talking about the things Kenny loved to do at school, how much he loved listening to us sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” We talked about all the pieces of documentation we had collected as Kenny’s mom sat and quietly listened.

“What does all this mean? What are you trying to tell me?” she hesitantly asked, as we came to the last item in Kenny’s portfolio. “Well,” I said, “the social skills a three-year-old usually displays are listed here” (at which point I showed her our school’s child assessment tool). Before I had the chance to even finish my thought, Kenny’s mom blurted out “And Kenny isn’t doing those things, is he?!” Her face turned beet red and she began to cry.

We tried to comfort her as best we could, and then we all took a little break – a few minutes to process what was going on. When we sat back down, Kenny’s mom was silent. “Okay,” I said, “now that we’ve laid all of this out on the table, would you like to talk about what we can do to support Kenny?” The look on her face told me that this was not what she was expecting me to say. “You mean he can still stay in his classroom?” she asked in surprise. “Yes, he can,” I replied. “Now let’s talk about how to help Kenny get what he needs.” Together, Kenny’s mom, my co-teachers and I came up with the first step of our plan – for Kenny’s mom to take Kenny, and the information we had discussed, to the pediatrician.

We all wanted Kenny to be successful in our classroom, and for the remainder of his time in our care, we worked together to do just that. Kenny’s mom kept us apprised of what was happening with him outside of the classroom, and brought us information from the medical professionals she was in contact with. We kept her informed of how things were progressing for Kenny at school. At the end of the school year, she gave my co-teachers and I each a warm hug – “Thank you for helping me help my son,” she said.

Beat the Winter Wiggles!

winter-play

Colder weather can sometimes limit the amount of time children spend outside playing, but it is important to continue to make time for physical activity! Children need opportunities to release energy throughout the day and your indoor classroom can still be the perfect place for this to happen. Here are some ways to keep your children moving inside when it’s too cold to head outside:

Dance—An easy favorite for any age! Put on some tunes and let the children show off their moves! Some different variations of the activity can mix things up. Freeze Dance (children dance while the music plays and then freeze when the music stops) and songs with motions (Tooty Ta by Dr. Jean, Shake Your Sillies Out by the Wiggles, the Hokey Pokey to name a few) are quick, easy, and so much fun!

Activity Dice—Using any small square boxes, create two activity dice by adding some paper to the outside. Have the children come up with six ways to move around (jump, skip, frog hop, jumping jacks, stomp, crawl etc.) and write these on one box. On the second box, write the numbers 1-6. Children can take turns rolling the two dice to see how many times they have to perform an activity (3 jumping jacks, or 6 stomps)!

Act out stories—Let the children become the story by acting out their favorite books! Practice positional words by going on an adventurous bear hunt (“We’re Going On a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen). Grab a large white sheet and watch your students turn into forest animals looking for warmth in a giant mitten while you read aloud “The Mitten” by Jan Brett. A great way to work on reading comprehension while having a blast!

Obstacle Course—Use items in your classroom to create a safe and active obstacle course. Whether students are crawling under tables, balancing on a beam of masking tape on the floor, or tossing beanbags through a hula hoop, they are using many different muscles throughout the course.

Balloon ball—Blow up a single balloon and have the children work together to see how long they can keep the balloon from falling and hitting the floor! If team work is tough for your age group, give each student their own balloon for the same activity.

Scavenger hunt—Give clues for children to find specific objects around the classroom. For a simpler version, give everyone a color or shape and have children find items throughout the room that fit the category.

Follow the Leader—Quack like a duck, put your hands on top of your head, or spin around three times, the choice is yours! Lead your students through a series of actions to keep them moving. Let your students take turns leading their classmates and see what they come up with!

Pretend sports—Who needs actual sports equipment when we have our imagination? Pretend to dribble a ball down the court for the winning shot or throw a baseball for a friend to catch. We can still work on the moves even without the materials!