Category Archives: Early Childhood

Conversations With Children

conversations-with-childrenWhen I was working in my center, by the time I got home I was absolutely done talking—at least for a little while. My husband never understood why until one day I explained to him I have conversations all day long. Engaging in conversations with the children was my favorite thing about teaching.  It was tiring some days, but I loved it. To listen to their stories, hopes, concerns, and jokes filled my bucket each day. Conversation is not just talking, but also it is about listening. Extending learning happens by having intentional conversation as well as daily verb exchanges. Children may have limited access with adults engaging in intentional conversations. As early childhood educators, we have the perfect opportunity to engage.

Intentional conversation is key. Positive relationships are created through intentional conversations. These relationships stimulate the building of vocabulary, help with interpersonal skills, help with social-emotional skills because their feelings are validated by your listening and responses, and build the foundation of their perception towards learning (check out my previous blog, Cling to the Positive).

I found a great resource with tips to help create a language-rich environment from UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute’s Blog, More than Baby Talk.

Below is their list of 10 ways to help create the environment to spark those crucial conversations that develop into lifetime learning for the children in your program.

  1. Get Chatty: Engage in meaningful conversations with children. “Hello, Charlie! How was your ride to school today?”
  2. Be a Commentator: Give descriptions of objects, activities or events. “I see that you are using the orange marker to color your picture today.”
  3. Mix It Up: Use different types of words and grammar. “Alice was aggravated that she couldn’t find the white rabbit”
  4. Label It: Provide children with the names of objects or actions. You can label shelves, coat hooks, cubbies, etc.
  5. Tune In: Engage in activities or objects that interest children.
  6. Read Interactively: Use books to engage children’s participation.
  7. Read It Again: Read books multiple times. This creates opportunities for sequencing/ problem-solving.
  8. Props: Introduce objects that spark conversations.
  9. Make Music: Engage in musical activities. Make your own instruments!
  10. Sign It: Use gestures or simple signs with words.

Bringing more of these new (or not so new) crucial conversation activities into the classroom and making it fun can give you more insight about what the children in your program need! Let the conversations start and have your listening ears (and listening heart) on!

Battling Burnout

 

Woman with three child. African American woman with three child prepare for Easter.

“Pursue confidently your dreams of being a teacher. Teach every day as you once imagined you would. Don’t let today’s obstacles keep you from yesterday’s dreams.” – Robert John Meehan

 

Anyone that has worked for any length of time in an early childhood classroom has had “one of those days.” You know the one—the one where your lesson plan flopped, the one where it rained all day and everyone was stuck inside, the one where a disgruntled parent expressed his/her disdain about something that happened in your classroom, the one where simply everything seemed to go wrong! At the end of a day like that, it’s easy to feel discouraged, to feel like you don’t want to come back and try again tomorrow.

You are not alone. All teachers have felt like this at one time or another. Let me say that again—ALL TEACHERS have felt like this at one time or another. The question is, how do you reflect on “one of those days” and find it within yourself to come back and try again, and again, and again?

  • Each day, have a Plan A, Plan B…and sometimes Plan Z! Take the time to set up your environment, consider your children’s needs, and plan activities that are interesting, enriching and hands-on. Make sure that you have a backup plan in mind (and oftentimes, more than just one) should your first set of ideas fall flat. If it rains, can you do your gross motor activity inside? If the children aren’t interested in reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, would they maybe like to read The Very Quiet Cricket instead?
  • Reflect on the day: At the end of the day, take a few minutes to think about what happened in your classroom today. What did you like about your day? What are some things you’d like to change? If you had the chance to do those things over again, how might you have done them differently?
  • Let it out: Sometimes all the reflection in the world can’t solve a problem that has factors you simply can’t control. Sometimes you just need to let your feelings out – keep a journal, find a trusted friend who you can vent to (but remember to maintain confidentiality), or scream into a pillow!
  • Practice self-care: When you’re not at school, do you like to exercise, watch movies, spend time with friends and family, or have some other hobby that brings you happiness and peace? As natural caretakers of others, educators often have difficulty making time for themselves. For your own mental, physical and emotional health, DO IT. You’ll be a better teacher, and a better person, for it.
  • Know when to go: There comes a time in the career of some educators when they realize they just know they need to leave the classroom and move on to something else. Maybe they want to pursue another aspect of the early childhood field—administration, advocacy, consulting, or working with adult learners. Maybe they want to move on to another field entirely. Whichever is the case, if you choose to leave, leave on a high note. Continue to give it your all until you find another position—allow the children and families you worked with to always remember you fondly.

Battling burnout is an all too common occurrence for those of us who work with young children. Every day we pour from our own pitchers in the hopes of filling many smaller ones. The key to hanging in there for the long haul is to recognize, appreciate and love just how those little pitchers eventually fill us right back up.

Spring Is Here…and So Are Outdoor Allergies!

children-outsideWe love going outdoors and spending quality time getting to know the world outside our indoor classroom space. However, this time of year brings some sniffles when all of the new things are in bloom. As adults, we suffer from allergies and know the pain behind our eyes, runny nose, and the irritation it brings. It is pretty bad. Just take a moment to imagine how a small child feels who is exposed to something out there that doesn’t agree with their bodies…just as terrible!

According to HealthLine.com, “An estimated 50 million Americans have allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These allergies usually show up in infancy or childhood. Allergies can get in the way of a child’s ability to sleep well, play, and function in school.”

The reactions we see are just our body’s defense to fight off what is irritating your immune system. We need to be very aware this time of year how our classroom of children is feeling and look for the signs that something may be “different” for them when they play outside.

Children may have allergies if they have runny, itchy, red, or swollen eyes that persist for more than a week or two. The same goes for a runny nose. Are the symptoms chronic? Does the child say that their mouth or throat itches or tingles? Do they scratch their ears? The American Academy of Pediatrics says “these may be allergy symptoms, possibly of hay fever or allergic rhinitis, the most common form of allergy among children.” Note whether the symptoms recur at the same time of year, each year.

A great tip before nature is fully in bloom is to talk to families about any signs/symptoms they have noticed or do know about when it comes to their child. Allergies can also affect the child’s behavior, producing unusually crabby or restless moods. Consider keeping a symptom log to share with families, noting the symptom and what happened right before its onset (e.g., exposure to a pet or eating a certain food). Other signs of allergies in children can include a headache or excessive fatigue. Keeping your own system log can be helpful when communicating with families about information needed when consulting their care physician.

Before heading outside for the day, you may want to have your aide or another staff member survey the play area. Look for anything new that may have been introduced to the space as well as insects or other animals that may have settled into the space. Also washing hands after touching questionable exposure items is a great way to prevent reactions.

This is a great time of year to refresh yourself how to use Epi-Pens, inhalers, etc. if your program permits. Ask your administrator if it is possible to get the health department to send pamphlets to hand out to families. 4C for Children offers great First Aid and CPR training which also can help demonstrate the skills you would need to help a child in a serious allergic reaction situation. This way, everyone is aware and can better handle outdoor experiences, including the teachers. Have a safe and happy Spring!

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.

No More Bullies in Your Child Care Program

no-bullying

From a very early age, I can remember the first time in school that someone picked on and excluded me because I was heavier than all the other kids.  It was the first time I realized I was somehow different from the other children and it hurt me a lot. This continued my whole academic career with instances that included profane name calling, public humiliation, and physical harm towards me.

The definition of bullying (from the website www.stopbullying.gov ) is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include an imbalance of power; kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others, and repetition; bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.”

It is our job as early educators to start talking early about kindness and respect to the children in our care. One way I encouraged this in my preschool class was by having a time set aside for us to talk about our feelings each day. We had a group-sharing time where I would pass around our pillow/bear and the child holding it got to tell how they felt (happy, sad, mad, scared, etc.) and why they felt that way.  Children weren’t required to share if they didn’t want to. I always gave them an opportunity after to pull me aside and tell me something privately if they preferred. We would talk about how to help our classmates celebrate a happy feeling, or help them feel better about a sad, mad, or scared feeling. It helped some of the children to talk about their emotions and work through feelings together, not by themselves, creating a community. Sometimes I included stories and finger-play songs to help teach.

If a group time setting isn’t something that will work with your program’s schedule, below are some tips from Stopbullying.gov (with some edits for younger children) to help encourage kindness and empathy in your program throughout your day:

Model positive ways for young children to make friends. For example, practice pleasant ways that children can ask to join others in play and take turns in games. We can coach older children in our program to help reinforce these behaviors as well. Encourage children for appropriate behavior. Help young children understand what behaviors are friendly.

Help young children learn the consequences of certain actions in terms they can understand. Encourage young children to tell an adult if they are treated in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, upset, unhappy, or if they witness other children being harmed. Teach them that it is okay to stand up for others in need if they feel safe to do so.

Set clear rules for behavior and monitor children’s interactions carefully.  Step in quickly to stop aggressive behavior or redirect it before it occurs.

Encourage age-appropriate empathy for aggressive behavior. Young children should be encouraged to apologize in their own way whenever they hurt a peer, even accidentally. Guiding questions from you may include “What can you do/say to help ____ feel better about what happened?” Some younger children are still learning what ‘apology’ and ‘sorry’ mean so be patient and respect their approach to it. Not all apologies and expressions of empathy are the same.

With patience, understanding and a positive approach, we can help children recognize that kindness and empathy can go a long way in the world today.

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!

Invitations to Learn

When children are comfortable and engaged in their environment, we find that productivity increases, challenging behavior decreases, and child-directed learning is plentiful! Using the physical classroom space effectively can be a teacher’s most useful tool.

One of my favorite tips to build excitement about learning opportunities in the classroom is to create invitations to learn that are ready and waiting when the children arrive. An invitation to learn involves arranging the space in a way that “invites” the children to come to a particular area to explore open-ended and meaningful materials.

A personal favorite from my time in the classroom involved setting up a table with a real pumpkin during the fall season. In addition to the pumpkin, I provided a variety of spoons and other tools, plastic trays, and also some paint with brushes. When the children entered the room, that morning they were excited by the new addition and intrigued about what activities were in store for the day.  My overall objective was working on motor skills by scooping out the insides with the tools and picking out the seeds, but the freedom to choose how they explored the pumpkin provided a multitude of other experiences. The children chose to sort and count the seeds, spread them on the plastic trays, pretending to bake and sell yummy treats to their friends. Some chose to paint and decorate the outside of the pumpkin, while others painted the seeds. They talked about the textures and shrieked when the gooey pumpkin guts grazed across their tiny fingers. By simply setting the stage with materials that were already in our space and adding something a little extra, an entirely new and engaging experience occurred!

While creating an invitation to learn doesn’t need to be time-consuming or expensive, it should be intentional. When planning, keep a broad goal of what you think might occur (like the strengthening motor skills in the pumpkin example above) while leaving room for their imaginations to run wild.

Some questions to keep in mind during preparation:

  • Will this activity capture the interest and curiosity of the child?
  • Are the activity and materials age-appropriate?
  • Are there enough materials for all children to participate?
  • Are the materials hands-on and open-ended?
  • Are there opportunities to be challenged and express creativity?

With a little planning and preparation, a teacher can use the classroom environment to spark engagement, inspiration and joy!