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.

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.

Get Outside. Every. Single. Day.

play-outside

One of my very first memories as a child is walking to the corner store with my mom when I was probably around 3. This was something we did at least once a week to get odds and ends like milk or a loaf of bread. The store was literally two blocks from our house and would’ve taken us less than a minute to drive there, but we chose to walk.

On those walks, I made a game out of seeing how far I could kick a pebble down the street before it went off into the gutter. On those walks, I practiced my balance as I tiptoed along the low, stone wall that ran along the alley. On those walks, my mom and I would talk about the animals we saw in the small fish pond in Mrs. Marigi’s backyard as we passed by her fence. On those walks, time fell away and the world around me became my playground.

As a child, I recognized that being outside made me feel happy. Riding my bike as fast as I could in the summer sun, jumping in piles of freshly raked autumn leaves, sledding down the biggest hill in the neighborhood in winter, and practicing my best umbrella twirl as the spring rain fell are memories I cherish. Every season of the year holds beauty and joy to me because of the outdoor play-based experiences I had year round as a child.

Getting outside every day is critical for children. It enhances their physical, cognitive and social-emotional development all at once. It keeps them healthier by giving them regular doses of fresh air (which helps stave off respiratory illnesses) and sunshine (which gives children the Vitamin D necessary for building strong bones and teeth). Time spent outdoors also gives children necessary exposure to germs, which in turn boosts their immune systems.

So, as an early childhood professional, here are some ways you can facilitate daily outdoor play in your program:

  • Build outside time into your daily schedule. If you plan time for it, you’re more likely to follow through with it. Spend time outside each day, but pay attention to the weather, and use common sense when making decisions about going outside on any given day. If you typically have 30 minutes scheduled for outside time, but there’s a heat advisory, thunder and lightning, high winds, or extreme cold, you might want to rethink your outside plan that day.
  • Plan activities for outdoor time on your lesson/activity plan. Make outside time learning time. Take materials from the classroom outside (books, trucks, dolls, blocks, etc.) and see what happens. Move circle time outside under a tree. Have a snack on a picnic blanket.
  • Be aware that outside time doesn’t have to mean “playground” time. Many early childhood programs have the luxury of having a designated outdoor playspace, but some do not. Outdoor time comes in many forms – taking a walk, finding shapes in the clouds, catching snowflakes on your tongue… the possibilities are endless!
  • Keep individual children’s’ needs and comfort in mind, and act accordingly. Make considerations for children with plant or seasonal allergies. Ensure children are wearing sunscreen. Make sure all children have access to clean drinking water. As you venture outside, keep a close eye on each child’s physical appearance and take cues from them about when it’s time to go in. If you’ve got 30 minutes of outdoor time scheduled, but children appear flushed and are sweating excessively after only 5 minutes, it’s time to take them inside.
  • Communicate with families about the benefits of daily outdoor play, and dressing children appropriately for the weather each day. Remind them as the weather changes to adjust their children’s clothing accordingly. As someone once told me, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!”
  • Keep spare weather appropriate clothes on hand at school for children. This can be in the form of extra clothes a child keeps in his/her cubby, or even a stash of extra gloves, hats, mittens, jackets, etc. that the teacher keeps in the classroom. If everyone’s dressed comfortably, there’s NO EXCUSE not to go outside!

The Great Outdoors is a place where children learn skills and concepts that will last them the rest of their lives. It is a place of wonder, curiosity, critical thinking and problem-solving. Be the person who provides the setting for those things to happen. Get children outside. Every. Single. Day!

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!