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.

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.

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!

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!