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.

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.

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

early-childhood-advocate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Lonely At the Top: Making the Move from Teacher to Program Administrator

administrator

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” – John C. Maxwell

You’re sitting at your desk on a Friday afternoon. A group of women passes by in the hallway— women you’re friendly with, women you joke around with, women who confide in you. You hear them talking about plans for meeting up for dinner tonight. “Dinner?” you think, questioningly. “I didn’t know they were meeting for dinner. Why didn’t they invite me?” And then you remember— “Oh yeah, I’m the director now. I’m The Boss.

Many of us who hold positions of leadership in early childhood dug our way through the trenches to get there. We may have started out as floaters, or assistant teachers, worked our way to becoming leads, and then made the leap to administration. Often, these steps may happen within the same program, putting us in the position of leading those who were our peers just a moment ago.

It is human nature to want to feel accepted. Especially by those who we work closely with, respect and admire. When you become a classroom teacher in an early childhood setting, the nature of your position and the environment in which you work can often lead teachers to become fast friends. When there is more than one teacher working in the same classroom, this bond can be especially deep. As the only two adults in the room, you support each other. You listen to each other vent. Together, you make your classroom run like a well-oiled machine—her strengths make up for your weaknesses, and vice versa.

Then, suddenly, with your promotion to administrator, this changes. You’re working in “the office” now. You have a whole new set of responsibilities, a completely new role…and all of your staff is watching to see if you’re going to sink or swim. This can be a lonely, isolating experience for many of us.

What do we do? How do we transition into our new role successfully, while supporting, and maintaining relationships with, the teachers in our program? Here are some tips for making the move from classroom to office as painless as possible:

  • Be proud of your new role, but not boastful. You made it to the top – yay, yippee, good for you! But don’t forget that everyone else is still doing the same job they did yesterday.
  • Expect social roles to change. Expect it. No really, EXPECT IT. You are now the superior, responsible for evaluating, hiring and firing the very same people whom you had coffee with last week.
  • Seek out others who are in a situation similar to yours. If you’re lucky enough to have other administrators at your program or organization, get to know them. If you’re the only one in charge, Look for professional development offerings geared toward administrators (Check out 4C’s opportunities in Southwest Ohio, the Miami Valley, and Kentucky) to help you be successful in your new role. It helps to meet others you can talk to who have walked a mile in your shoes or are experiencing the same things.
  • Observe other early childhood leaders—take note of their various leadership styles. Visit other quality early childhood programs in your area and observe a day in the life of the administrator. This serves two purposes—it gives you a glimpse into what your new position may consist of from day to day, and it allows you to learn about leading and motivating staff in a positive way.
  • Get input from your staff when possible. When people feel like they matter in an organization—like their voice, their opinion, is important and valued – they are much more likely to be a “team player” and make positive contributions to their work environment.

When you enter into a leadership role, remember that day in and day out, you will be setting the example your staff will follow. People will look to you for guidance, even when you may not be quite sure which way to steer them. It is up to you to lead your program with confidence, positivity and a genuine passion for providing all children the quality early childhood experiences they deserve.