Author Archives: Merideth Burton

About Merideth Burton

I am a professional development specialist at 4C for Children in the Southwest Ohio region. I often draw on my prior experiences as a classroom teacher, and as an administrator of a highly rated program, in my work with early childhood educators. My primary role is to support them in the development of using best practices in their programs, as well as through their Step Up To Quality journey. In my personal life, my husband and I are parents to 5 fantastic kids in our blended family. We enjoy going to concerts, or laughing together at a stand-up comedy show, but what we love the most is spending time outdoors together as a family, exploring nature, and playing, any chance we get.

Grow the Good in You

professional-development

“The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.” – Robert John Meehan

Have you ever felt unmotivated? Have you ever been stuck in a rut in your classroom? Have you ever felt like you’re doing the same old things with the same old materials in the same old ways, day after day after day? I promise you, you’re not alone—all educators, if they are being entirely truthful, at one time or another have felt this way.  The question is, how do you shake it off…how do you get your teaching groove back? One of the best ways to do this is to attend an early childhood professional development conference!

Here are just some of the ways teaching professionals can benefit from an event such as this:

  • Connect with other early childhood educators. Being around people who do what you do everyday creates a deep sense of belonging and camaraderie. Having conversations about topics that are of mutual interest to you and other conference attendees, helps you establish new professional relationships, and sometimes even friendships.
  • Learn new strategies, ideas, methods, concepts, etc. This is a chance to pick each other’s brains! Learn from those around you who’ve “been there, done that,” and share what you know so that others can benefit from your knowledge and experience, as well.
  • Reinforce the fact that early childhood professionals are, in fact, professional. As in any other field of work, continuing education is necessary to stay current and knowledgeable about best practices. Participating in quality professional development on an ongoing basis cements your place as a true early childhood professional.
  • Earn professional development credit. If you play your cards right, you can often find early childhood conference offerings that will help you earn professional development credit/hours needed for things like renewing a CDA credential, or participating in a statewide quality rating and improvement system like Ohio’s Step Up To Quality or Kentucky’s ALL STARS.
  • Take a well deserved break from the daily grind. Remember that rut I mentioned earlier? Sometimes just getting out of the classroom for a day or two lets you shake off those cobwebs and come back feeling refreshed and renewed.
  • Gather new resources—and free stuff! Exhibitors usually attend these events who are more than happy to talk with you about the services they offer, and many times you’ll be lucky enough to score information packets and/or free samples to take home with you.

If you choose to attend one of these events, remember to make the most of your experience. Your time out of the classroom can often be limited, be mindful of not squandering your opportunity. Show up for registration and workshops on time—get a good seat! Come prepared to listen, learn and share. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there…nothing ventured, nothing gained! Bring a pen and a notepad to jot down any ideas that strike you. If you have business cards you can hand out, bring those to give to new folks you might meet.

Have you ever been inspired? Have you ever been introduced to a new concept, or idea, or way of doing something, that lights a fire in you? Have you ever attended a professional development workshop that makes you so excited about the subject matter that you want to run back to your program and try what you’ve learned RIGHT THIS MINUTE?! If you choose an early childhood conference that’s right for you, you’ll see just how great it feels to grow the good in you!

Moving On

tough-transition

“A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark.” —Chinese Proverb

In a little less than two weeks, my son will enter fifth grade, and my daughter will enter kindergarten. My son, who just recently turned 10, has gone to the same early childhood program since he was 6-weeks-old. This is the same program my daughter currently attends, and she’s been there since her first few months of life, as well. Both of my children have been there full time since infancy. When he began first grade, my son continued to attend this program for before- and after-care during the school year, and then summer camp when school was out every year since.

A couple of weeks ago, we dropped the bomb on him that this would be his last summer there— his time there was coming to an end because he was simply too old to attend anymore. Next summer it would be time to move on to somewhere that was more age-appropriate for him.

From under the brim of his baseball cap, I could see tears welling up in his big, blue eyes. “But, mom, I’ve GROWN UP there! I LOVE that place! I don’t want to leave.” I understood him completely. To be honest, I didn’t want him to go, either. The people that work at that program literally helped my husband and I raise our children— they were our village. He was safe there, he was loved.

Many of you reading this have children in your programs that are going through similar transitions this time of year. Whether you’re saying goodbye to your school-agers, sending your preschoolers off to kindergarten, or transitioning your infants up to the toddler room, there are many things that you, as an early childhood educator, can do to help ease the uncertainty of this process.

  • Develop a transition plan. The first thing to keep in mind, when helping a child transition to a new classroom or setting, is that this will be a transition for not just the child, but for their family, as well. Meeting with family members to develop a transition plan before the actual transition takes place is a helpful tool to get everyone on the same page about how and when everything will occur. Get input about what the child might need to make the transition a successful one, and find out what questions or concerns the family may have about the process. . If possible, have both the child’s “current ” and “new” teachers be part of developing this plan. The “current ” teacher often has knowledge of how the child functions in a school setting that would be helpful for the “new” teacher to know.
  • Provide age-appropriate activities in the classroom in preparation for the transition. When children are preparing to move to a new classroom or educational setting, classroom teachers can provide a multitude of activities to help ready children for their move. Keep in mind what skills or knowledge would be helpful for the child to have in their new setting, and start working on those things while they’re still in your room. For example, a toddler who’s moving to a preschool room might benefit from working on self-help skills such as throwing their own items away after lunch or snack, or pulling their own pants up and down when beginning to use the potty. A school-age teacher might role play with his/her class how to shake hands, look someone in the eye, and introduce themselves.
  • Involve the children in conversations regarding their upcoming move. Having positive conversations with the children in your care about their new classroom or school can also be helpful. Use their new teacher’s name (if you know it), show them photos of their new environment, or even take a walk or a field trip there.

Ironically, as much as we care for the children in our programs, as early childhood educators it is ultimately our goal to help children reach a place where they no longer need us. Growing up and moving on are good things—they are natural parts of life that can be exciting and wonderful!

Marketing 101: An Introduction to Marketing Your Early Childhood Program

Group of Children Playing in a ClassroomEarly childhood professionals are often known for our big hearts and our wide range of knowledge of child development. Yet an undeniable fact about what we do is that we are providing a service to our children and families, in return for which, we receive payment. We are, by definition, a business. Administrators/owners of early childhood programs—you are tasked with making business-related decisions for your programs every day.

“Has tuition been billed for the week/month?” “Did we stay under budget for snacks?” “Has the wording on our sign out front brought in any new enrollments?” “Are our children and families (our customers) happy overall with the service we are providing to them?”

In order for a business to sustain itself for any length of time, it must be marketed in one fashion or another. How do you get the word out about just how wonderful your program is to your surrounding community? And, once you get families in the door, how do you keep them?

Listed below are some early childhood marketing strategies you may want to try in your program:

  • Create appealing, professional marketing materials that are free of spelling and grammatical errors. You want to convey the idea that children will be getting a quality experience at your facility. One of the quickest ways to sabotage this is putting out sloppy marketing information (business cards, brochures, flyers, informational packets, etc.).
  • Answer the phone in a pleasant, professional, helpful manner. The person who answers your phone is the first point of contact a new family has with your program, and first impressions last. Encourage everyone who may answer your phone to use a standard, professional greeting. Make sure the public’s first encounter with your business is a positive one.
  • Post a sign in front of your business. Make sure the community knows you’re there. Include wording about program events, or open enrollment spots, if possible.
  • Maintain an online presence (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google search, etc.). Post and tweet to your heart’s content about what’s going on at your program. (Just be sure you have family consent before posting any photos or information about children.) In today’s society, this is often the first way the general public becomes acquainted with your program.
  • Ask local businesses to display your marketing materials. Go around to pediatrician offices, dance studios, sports facilities—places where families and children often go— and ask if they’ll let you leave a stack of business cards and/or brochures. You might even make a deal with them that you’ll display theirs in return.
  • Offer a discount on enrollment to new families, or a referral bonus to your current families. As we all know, money talks. Giving a family a break on their initial enrollment cost is often made up in the long run when they stay at your program for an extended period of time. Rewarding your current families for speaking of your program in a positive light is a win-win situation for both of you, as well!
  • Know your competitors—check out other programs in your area. Call around and compare tuition rates. Visit other programs and ask to tour their facility. Know what you’re up against.
  • Maintain the “curb appeal” of your facility. Keep up your property to the best of your ability. During my years as an administrator, I spoke with many families who shared with me that they pulled into the parking lot of a program they were interested in only to turn around and drive right back out because of the looks of the place.
  • Be conscious of “word of mouth.” People talk. They talk to each other at work, at children’s’ birthday parties and playdates, when you’re not around. You want to ensure that what they say is positive, so do your best to put the needs of your children and their families first, above all else, every single day.
  • Provide a quality program. Follow through on your promise to provide your customers with a quality early childhood experience. Maintain the standards of quality that you know are the hallmark of a great program. Additionally, if you are star-rated in Ohio’s Step Up To Quality or Kentucky All STARS, display your banner—share that information with pride!

Marketing your program, though it may not be your favorite part of the early childhood field, is necessary. Do it successfully, and you’ll be the most sought after game in town!

Educating Families About the Benefits of Play-Based Learning

In your classroom, you witness so much learning happening every day. You see children gaining the fine motor skill development they need to write when they squeeze and mold playdough, or cut with scissors. You see them starting to grasp mathematical concepts when they sort and classify blocks by size or color. You see them wrapping their little brains around literacy concepts the first time they’re able to find their own cubby by reading the label with their name printed on it.

Learning is all around your classroom—you know this because you plan intentionally for it. By choosing age-appropriate materials and furniture for your classroom environment, developing and implementing a lesson or activity plan, and engaging in meaningful interactions with children, you are working daily to provide a quality early childhood experience for every child that walks through your door.

Much of this, however, happens “behind the scenes.” The families you work with don’t often get to see the time, research and thought that go into your environmental or lesson planning processes, and they may only get to witness a small snippet of your interactions with their children each day at pickup or drop off.

Helping families understand what children learn that isn’t evident on a worksheet can feel like a challenge.

Below are some ways you can communicate the benefits of learning through play to families:

  • Display evidence throughout your program that shows children involved in the learning process. This could be in the form of pictures, samples of children’s work, or written descriptions of what’s happening in your classroom. For example, take pictures of the children working together to build a castle in the block area. Then post those pictures on the wall of your classroom with captions describing what was happening in the picture. In your description, talk about what skills the children were developing during this process. Use actual quotes from the children, if possible.
  • Post or hang signs in areas around your room that describe what children are learning as they play in those areas. “When I work in the sand table, I am learning concepts of size, shape and volume; how to use tools; how to solve problems; to observe changes (a science skill),” etc.
  • Parent/teacher conference time is a great opportunity to share this knowledge with families. It is one of the few opportunities you may have throughout the school year when each of you has the others’ undivided attention. Take advantage of this time to talk about the skill development their child is experiencing as they engage in favorite classroom activities – “Your son often chooses to play in our Dramatic Play area. One of his favorite things to do is write down his friends’ “food orders” using a piece of paper and a pencil. Here are some examples of what he’s written. If you look here where he wrote “apl” for the word “apple,” you can see he’s beginning to associate letters with their sounds, a pre-literacy skill.”
  • Distribute print materials to families educating them about learning through play. This may be in the form of information that discusses the specific curriculum your program has chosen to utilize, or even articles from reputable sources (like publications from NAEYC or the American Academy of Pediatrics) that pertain to play-based learning.
  • Invite families to participate in an open house / back to school / curriculum night, or a family discussion series that focuses on this topic. Families who attend can receive information from your program on learning through play, and they can have the opportunity to ask any questions they may have. Providing snacks and drinks, or even on-site child care, may help with attendance at events such as these!

As early childhood educators, we are already well aware of the benefits of learning through play. Take the time to clue your families in to this same information in thoughtful, organized, professional ways that are sensitive to their needs. This not only demonstrates your expertise, and reinforces your role as an early childhood professional, it ensures the mission, vision and philosophy of your program is understood and shared by the families who choose to enroll.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

teachers-disagreeThink about your own personality style for a minute. Do you crave order and organization, or are you a creative, “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of person? Do you like to lead the way, or do you prefer to blend into the crowd? Do you have endless patience, or are you a “short fuse?” Maybe, depending on the setting, you could lean either way. Now, reflect on the personalities of those you work with. As you’re thinking, two main themes are probably presenting themselves—those you get along with, and those you don’t!

At times in early childhood programs, personality clashes may develop among the adults working within the same program. Take my first classroom teaching experience, for example. At 21-years-old, fresh out of college with my brand spanking new early childhood degree, I accepted the position of lead teacher in a 4-year-old classroom. My assistant teacher was a woman in her 50’s (let’s call her “Jane”), who had been at this program for a little more than a decade, and had been teaching young children for over 20 years. The only reason Jane wasn’t the lead teacher in this classroom was her lack of formal education.

As my first day of employment neared, I thought about all of the wonderful lesson planning ideas I couldn’t wait to implement, how I wanted to rearrange the centers in my new room, and how I was absolutely sure I would be the teacher these children had been missing all of their little lives. Then, my first day arrived… and reality hit me like a punch in the face. In all of my teachery daydreaming, I had forgotten to take into account that I would have an assistant teacher who might actually have her OWN thoughts, ideas, opinions and experiences to add to my “perfect classroom.”

At first, Jane and I were very closed off around each other, sizing each other up daily. She was much more dominant than I in the classroom, and I had a much more progressive teaching philosophy than she did. It became obvious very quickly that she was “old school” and I was “new school.” The children figured this out quickly, and in a very short span of time, they began to play us against one another. Neither Jane nor I seemed to be able to figure out how to find some common ground, and the children were taking advantage of our discord.

As time passed, Jane and I discovered that, outside of the classroom, we had a very similar sense of humor. At staff meetings or break times, we could eventually make each other laugh to the point of tears. Once we broke the ice between us with humor, slowly but surely we started to come together and make a better plan for how things should happen in our classroom. We began to see each other as a team, rather than adversaries. By each of us compromising a bit, we finally got on the same page and backed each other up in front of the children. The day I left our classroom almost two years later, Jane and I hugged and laughed and cried, and I still think of her fondly to this day, 18 years later.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some ways you can try to bridge the personality gap:

  • Keep what happens between the two of you just between the two of you. Running off at the mouth to other staff members about your frustrations with another teacher just breeds mistrust and resentment.
  • Try to find some common ground. Talk with each other—discover your likes and dislikes. Become human to each other. Who knows? Maybe your mutual love of The Very Hungry Caterpillar could be the spark that ignites a great teaching team!
  • Avoid confrontation when tensions are running high. Cool off, take some deep breaths and/or count to ten before you discuss something you disagree about, preferably out of the classroom.
  • Consider your own actions/reactions. Is your behavior contributing to the situation? Is there something you could be doing differently to change what’s happening?
  • Encourage your program’s administrator to have each staff member take a personality test like the DISC or Myers-Briggs. Discovering everyone’s strengths and preferences goes a long way in learning how to communicate effectively with each other.

Regardless of where you fall on the personality spectrum, in the workplace you rarely get to choose who works alongside you. Try to make the best of your situation and see someone for what makes them great instead of what makes them grate on your nerves!

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.

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.