Teacher Stories

Hello, friends! I’ve been away while, but I wanted to pop in and let you all know about a new project I’ve been working on. It’s a podcast where teachers tell stories about their teaching, and I think it’s pretty great. The second episode will be up this weekend, and I hope you take a listen. It’s called “Telling Tales Out of School.” You can find it with a search in the iTunes store, or go to teacherstories.org.



Taking a break…

Hello, dear friends.

The time has come to acknowledge the truth. At the moment, I’m too busy to keep up with this blog. With teaching and assistant directing and preschool and teaching college and trying to have a personal life too… well, I just don’t have the wherewithal to have a regular schedule here at the moment.

So I’m going to take a hiatus this semester. Hopefully come January things will calm down, and I can get back to writing here. If you want to automatically receive an email when I do post, click the “Follow” button in the right-hand column on this page.

I’ll leave you, for the moment, with something that I think is pretty cool. My first print publication is about to come out! The next issue of Teaching Young Children Magazine will feature an article by no other than myself, called “The ‘Make a Plan’ Plan.” It’s about an approach to discipline I’ve used in my teaching, where the teacher and the child essentially write a contract together about how they’re going to solve a problem, and thus end up collaborating on, rather than fighting about, a child’s behavior. I’m proud of both the writing and the ideas in here. And because I think you readers are pretty special, you can read an advance copy before it hits the newsstands.

Thanks, readers, for you attention and support and appreciation. I’ll be back soon.

Suggested Reading for 9/6/13

The classroom is almost prepared, we’ve almost got our plans for documentation, we’ve fully planned our first week of curriculum… All we need now is the kids! Next week I plan to start a “Notes from the Floor” feature on the blog. For now, just a few items you should read.

suggestedreadingEspecially this really, really good one from Teacher Tom, about teaching children to question authority by (in part) saying silly things. And then another post with excellent examples. I tell you, the man’s a genius. On my good days, my classroom is like his.

An anecdote, from NAEYC’s blog for families, about how the start of the school year is a learning time for children and teachers alike.

And a neato little art activity, and new way to use a light table, from Teach Preschool.

Have a good weekend!

Suggested Reading for 8/31/13

suggestedreadingA really marvelous post by Laura Markham on dealing with intra-sibling aggression. But you should read it even if that’s not a challenge you’re having in your house, because it’s really about effective, compassionate discipline, and listening to children, and communicating, and conflict resolution, and an approach that’s positive and powerful for every situation involved in caring for children. Seriously, read this one.

And THANK YOU Amanda Morgan for writing this post about science in preschool. I have plans to write something similar, but I’m not sorry you got there first. Science curriculum for young children is, to my mind, the most fundamentally and tragically misunderstood content area. I look at 90% of so-called science activities in preschools and think to myself, “That’s not science!”

For those starting a year of preschool, here’s a nice little piece about “What Should a 4 Year Old Know?” from A Magical Childhood. It’s good stuff for those thinking about what a preschool should be doing, and what parents should be doing. (And don’t worry: if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably doing all this already 🙂

For those who wonder what the heck a “Reggio school” is, here’s a quick and easy guide to the main points of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, from An Everday Story.

A provokative little comparison between Magda Gerber and the “Happiest Baby on the Block” Harvey Karp, and their approaches to infants. I think these short clips make Karp come off a little worse than he deserves: his technique is effective in changing babies’ behavior, and that’s important to many many families. However, I think the comparison really makes Gerber’s respect-based approach look philosophically right… [edited 9/1]

Have a great weekend!

The Knock-Down Mat

activities“This is the knock-down mat!” I cry. “Come over here if you want to get knocked down!”

You wouldn’t believe how many kids come running.

This is a good one for the gross-motor rough-housing category. You get the gist already, but I’ll elaborate.

A large-ish gymnastics mat is best, but in a pinch you can use a rug or a blanket, if there’s not concrete or anything underneath. You want it to be plenty big; there are a lot of mats these days that are 4’x6′, and that’s really only big enough for two kids at a time, unless they’re very small or you’re very good at this game.

You sit on the mat, and if a kid comes on the mat, you knock them down. It’s important that kids have an easy, clear exit strategy. If they don’t want to get knocked down, they just get off the mat. Some kids like to stand right at the edge and watch; that’s great! The activity is a learning experience about risk and boundaries; here they get to experience what’s safe and what’s not safe, in a way that the “not safe” option is still actually safe. So make sure the on-off rule is clear to the kids, and don’t break or even bend it.

Okay, so knocking them down. You probably don’t want to just give them a shove, because then you can’t control their fall, and often they’ll take a few steps backwards when shoved, and then they’ll fall off the mat and it’s no longer safe. I have a couple knock-down methods I use, depending on the size of the child and how rough they like their play. For all of these, I’m pretty much on my knees, to match the kids’ height. The roughest method is to put one forearm behind their knees and push their chest, so they fall on their butt right where they’re standing. Only do that one with kids who you’re sure can fall without hurting themselves. A more controlled way is to push their chest with one hand, but your other hand is on their back, so you can lightly hold them as they fall. Alternately, “push” them with both hands at the sides of their ribcage, but hold on as you push, so you can slow their fall. The gentlest way, for kids who want to play but don’t want to get rough, is to sweep one arm behind their knees and the other arm behind their shoulders, lifting their feet off the ground—you end up holding them for a moment almost like you’re rocking a baby. This one’s good, because you can make a big motion (fun drama!) but deposit them gently on the ground (feelings of safety!).

So how do you do this with a group of kids? It’s awesome when you’ve got about four kids at a time, and they keep getting up while the others are falling, so you’re just knocking down one after the other, and everyone’s laughing and in the rhythm. If anyone starts getting too wild, though—rolling around, or trying to knock down me or other kids—you’ve got to slow things down. Some kids need to be told, “That’s not safe; I’m the only one knocking people down.” But most respond naturally if you just lower your voice and knock kids down more slowly. If it starts getting too crowded you can impose a limit to the number of kids at a time, but that’s tough, and in my experience usually unnecessary. I find that most kids want to get knocked down just a few times, and then move on to other things. If you take care of those kids first, then you can focus on the die-hards for longer, and you’ll have more space to do it.

Of course, always make sure you let kids know when the end is coming. “Last knock-down for everyone, and then I’m going to be done.”

Most common injuries in this game are two kids bonking heads, which is preventable by the adult watching to make sure there’s a fall-zone before knocking someone down, and leg getting bent funny when falling, which is preventable by the adult paying attention to legs when you’re knocking someone down. When someone gets hurt, of course stop to comfort them. But usually after a momentary pause I ask, “Do you want to stop, or keep playing,” and usually they say, “Keep playing!”

Suggested Reading for 8/24/13

Right! So, starting work really cuts into my blogging time. Who knew?

But seriously, this was my first few days at Children’s Community School, and I’m super pumped. Kids don’t start for another two weeks, so we’re planning and discussing and learning, and it’s great. My colleagues are kind and thoughtful and experienced and dedicated, and I can’t wait to spend the year working with them. In all likelihood I’ll have a recurring “dispatches from preschool” feature on this blog soon, where I discuss what we’re up to. But we’ll see.

Anyway, I hope to keep up 2 blog posts a week. Can he do it? Stay tuned!

suggestedreadingIn the mean time, while I didn’t have much time for reading this week, here’s a few things I think are worth your while.

First off this hilarious, awesome idea. I’ve never really liked those magnets that come in most preschools these days, with big plastic handles. But this is a genius use for them. Faces! Pipecleaner hair! Hilarious.

Next, from the always-intriguing Brainpickings, some thoughts on how children perceive and understand metaphors. Not especially practical, but will make you go, “Hmmm!”

A great story from Picklebums on building children’s self-help skills by simply being patient and not stepping in to help. If this sounds like you, you’re doing it right.

From Teacher Tom, some thoughts on the transition from play-based preschool to more traditionally structured elementary school. Reason for hope.

Have a great weekend!

Tips for Starting Preschool

foodforthoughtIt’s that time of year: school is starting. And for a certain group of apprehensive families, school is starting for the first time ever. The first transition to preschool is a fraught, scary, weird transition, and though it’ll all be okay in the end, you want to negotiate the process with as little pain as possible—for your child AND for you.

Making the transition easier on your child

By far the best thing you can do for your child is to have clear, consistent routines for drop-off and pick-up. Try to establish a drop-off ritual: for instance, walk around the room together saying hi to people, read one book together, give a hug, and then goodbye. If you say you’re going to leave after one book, you must leave after one book. Your child is scared about this transition already, he will be way more scared if he thinks he can’t trust what you say. If you say, “It’s time to go,” and then you stay ten more minutes, does that mean you might be lying when you say, “I’ll come back for you after lunch”? I know, if your child is crying it’s very hard to leave, but if you said you were going to, you have to—that’s how you build trust, and predictability, and stability.

When you’re leaving, do your best to put on a brave face. What will make the transition easiest for your child is for them to see that you have complete trust in the school. So even if you’re holding back tears yourself (see below), give a smile and a hug and say, “I’ll see you later!” and walk out the door. If you need to pull yourself together, that’s totally okay—just do it out of view of your child. Perhaps in the lobby, where there’ll be half a dozen other parents doing the same thing 😉

If your child is feeling sad or scared, don’t try to talk them out of their feelings: “Don’t be sad, sweetie! Look, Legos!” It just doesn’t work. He’s upset for legitimate reasons, that are worthy of your respect. Better to say, “I know you’re feeling bad about school right now. I hope you feel better soon. Right now it’s time for me to go.” Likewise, trying to distract your child—getting him involved in blocks and then sneaking away—buys you one clean getaway at the price of eroding your child’s trust in you. What he’ll learn is that he shouldn’t turn their back on you even for an instant, because you might disappear—and that’ll make the next goodbye even harder.

It can help for your child to have a tangible reminder of home and family to hang onto at school. A favorite blanky or stuffed animal is good, but equally helpful is a photograph of your family that he can carry around. In particularly hard seperations, it can help to leave a personal item of yours with your child—a bracelet you wear, perhaps, or a piece of your clothing. It reminds your child of you, and can oddly reassure him: it’s as if he’s thinking, “Well, she may not come back for me, but I know she’ll come back for her sweater!”

If it’s not seeming any easier for your child after four or five days, talk to your preschool teacher. Chances are your child cries for five minutes and then is ready to play—but you don’t get to see the good stuff, you just see the tears. (When it’s my classroom and I know the transition’s been tough, I often call a parent’s cell as soon as the child calms down, just to let them know things are okay.) Also, your teacher may be able to recommend some strategies that might help your child. But no matter what, remember: dealing with this is your teacher’s job. It’s not your responsibility to drop off a happy child every morning, and you shouldn’t feel bad about leaving them with a crying child. This is our job, and we’re good at it, and we’re prepared for it, and we’ve done it a thousand times. Don’t drop your child and sprint out the door, but don’t feel bad about going when it’s time to go.

Making the transition easier for you

It’s not uncommon for the start of preschool to be more upsetting for the parent than for the child. Your baby is leaving home—of course you’re upset!

If your child is playing happily at school and you’re the one who isn’t ready to leave, you can ask your teacher if it’s okay to stay and watch from the side for awhile. Alternately, ask if you can come early before pick up time, and either to join the class or just to watch from the window.

It can help both you and your child to spend some extra quality together during the first few weeks of school. Make special opportunities to bond and do fun things together; you’ll both feel good, and it will reinforce your relationship during this stressful time.

Make sure you get some support for yourself, if you’re feeling sad; there’s no reason to go through this normal stress alone. Talk to friends, other parents, relatives—they’ll help you feel better. If all else fails, after you drop your child off, walk straight from the classroom to the preschool director’s office; it’s part of her job to support parents too!

Overall, if you’re feeling upset about the transition, from your side or you child’s, don’t worry—it’s a normal feeling, and you’re not alone. Just remember, your child is taking his emotional cues from you, so do your best to put on a calm face in front of him. But take comfort in knowing that your teacher has been through this transition with literally hundreds of families, and yours is neither the hardest nor the easiest. Whatever you’re going through, it’s a normal part of starting school, and it’s going to be okay.

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Are you going through the transition to preschool? How’s it going? Or if you’ve gone through it in the past, what made it easier? Share your experiences in the comments section.

Suggested Reading for 8/16/13

suggestedreadingFrom a preschool in Maryland, a fabulous blog post about allowing children to take physical risks in their play. More specifically, allowing children the opportunity to assess risks for themselves. They’re doing it right.

For everyone planning to have a baby: here’s someone (in the Wall Street Journal) examining the published research on all the things pregnant women are told to do/not do: don’t drink coffee, don’t drink alcohol, make sure you gain the right ammount of weight, etc. The good news is, we can all probably calm way the heck down about most of these recommendations.

A review in the Atlantic of, basically, every animated children’s movie in the last decade, blasting most of them for their relentless and unrealistic messages of self-esteem. I think a lot of the analysis is spot-on—though I think there’s a middle ground that’s possibly the best answer…

A nifty little art project idea I can’t believe I’ve never seen before: making your own water colors out of flowers. Great for summer garden fun. You could do this activity outside, too…

Teacher Tom writes about the benefits of playing board games in preschool. I personally recommed “The Snail’s Pace Race” as the best starter board game, for 3-4 year olds: it’s straightforward, but the right amount of complex to keep someone who’s never played board games interested, and practice turn-taking and other rules.

Janet Lansbury once again writes a piece that cuts right to the heart of raising children. The section on trust is particularly incisive.

Have a great weekend!

Is It Okay to Start Daycare?

askateacherAfter failing to set up a nanny share I’m about to send my 6 month-old to daycare. She seems like a pretty cheerful / social person but I am still worried that she’s too young to go from near-100% of an adult’s attention to sharing 2 adults between 8 infants. Is there any research that can comfort me? Or cause me to redouble my efforts at finding a nanny or nanny share (and help legitimate the additional expense thereof)? —Anna

Anna, you’re not alone in worrying about the transition to school for the first time. In fact, at most ages the transition can be harder on parents than on children. (Just wait til you’re sending her off to college!) But you’re also far from alone in considering out-of-home care for your infant. More and more families have only one parent, or two parents who both work, and don’t have extended family nearby who can take care of children. And since the US has one of the worst paid family leave policies in the world, more and more children are going into preschool and daycare at younger and younger ages.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When I consult with families about finding the right school or daycare, I always make it a question of fit—what’s the best fit for the whole family? Part of that has to do with the care the child receives, of course: Are the caregivers warm and attentive? Is the environment safe and appropriate? But that’s only part of the picture. For a school to be a good fit, it has to meet all of the family’s needs. Does it fit into your budget? Do the hours jive with your schedule? Is it in a convenient location? Do they have the right amount of flexilibity for you?

Those questions are, in most cases, just as important as the quality-of-care questions. Not that you should sacrifice, say, a safe environment because it’s convenient to your commute. But rather that, no matter how good the caregivers are, your child’s quality of life will suffer if the school doesn’t fit well into the family’s life. Of course, you’ll never find the “perfect” fit—it doesn’t exist. But there’s nothing wrong with putting practical life concerns into your decision about care for your child, because your practical life is PART of your child’s life.

But I still haven’t really answered your question about will your baby be okay with two strange teachers and seven strange kids. And while I don’t have research to point you to, I can assure you from personal experience that the answer is yes. First, just from a mechanics point of view, two qualified teachers can absolutely care for eight infants. NAEYC, the group that sets the standards for quality early childhood education, recommends a ratio of one adult to three or four infants (though disallows group sizes of more than 8 infants). And in terms of the attention and stimulation a child receives, it’s true that a teacher may be caring for four children while a parent or nanny may only be caring for one or two—but a parent or nanny is often trying to get other things done (cooking, shopping, cleaning, working), while a teacher’s full attention is focused on the children.

Moreover, don’t forget the many benefits of group care for child development. At a daycare or preschool, children are socialized around a variety of people, presented with a variety of sensory inputs and environments, led through a variety of activities—all of which help children develop, think, and self-regulate. A parent or nanny can provide a child with all those things, of course, but they have to go out of their way to do it; at a preschool, they’re all built right into the environment. Furthermore, at quality institutions the caregivers are well trained and educated, and bring a wealth of resources to bear on your child’s learning and development.

Preschools have their drawbacks too, of course—they costs a lot of money, the other kids are full of germs, you don’t get to spend all day with your baby any more. But when you add the developmental and practical benefits up, most families find daycare or preschool to be the right choice sooner or later—and frequently these days it’s sooner.

As I mentioned, the transition to school is often harder on the parent than on the child. Ask any preschool teacher who cries most on the first day, and they’ll tell you it’s about 50/50. I’ll write a column in the next week or two about easing that transition. But you can rest a little easier knowing that, no matter what choice you end up making your child is going to be okay.

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For more thoughts on choosing the right preschool, read what I wrote back in May.

And if you’d like to ask a question, get in touch!


FOUNDATIONS: Developmentally Appropriate Practice

foundationsI’m starting to gear up to teach my Early Childhood Curriculum course again this fall, and it’s gotten me thinking about Developmentally Appropriate Practice. It’s an idea that’s central to early childhood education, and it guides pretty much all parts of teaching practice. But I get the sense that it’s a term folks in the field don’t mention much around non-professionals, because it sounds a little stuffy and complicated, and that’s a shame because it’s a good and important concept. If I were shopping for a preschool, I’d be sure to ask the director, “How do you make sure all your classrooms are implementing developmentally appropriate practice?”

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is, basically, an answer to the question, “What’s the best way to educate young children? What’s the best way to support their learning and development?” DAP says, well, we ought to teach in a way that’s grounded in research about what children are like and what kinds of education work best. It sounds like a simple and obvious idea—but there are a lot of reasons that, in this field in particular, it’s important to articulate it. Early Childhood is a field that is rapidly professionalizing, but still has a lot of people working in it who got into it because they like little kids and thought it’d be easy, or who got into it 30 years ago and haven’t changed their practice since. DAP says, “No, just because you’ve been doing it a certain way for a few decades doesn’t mean it’s okay. As research changes, so must our practice.” It’s also important, in a field that struggles to be seen with respect in our culture, to point out that the state of the art is research-based and professional.

All that is a little beside the point when it comes to classroom practice, though. Let’s get back to the point of how to support children’s learning and development. A way I like to talk about it with my students it to say that DAP is really just a fancy way of saying “Meeting Children’s Needs.” There’s a lot you could say about what’s the best way to do that—indeed, the book on DAP is a 370-page behemoth—but it helps me to put it all in concrete, accessible terms. How do we meet children’s needs?

We tend to break down the idea of developmental appropriateness into three pieces. The first piece is age appropriateness. This is the part that most people understand most easily, and that is the most central part of our national dialogue on education. 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds and 8-year-olds are all different from each other; they shouldn’t be learning the same things, and we shouldn’t be teaching them the same ways (to an extent). Figuring out what’s appropriate for a certain age is partly a question of research (how does the brain develop?), partly a question of public policy (what do we as a community think this age group ought to know?), and partly a question of personal experience (after you’ve been in a preschool for a few years, you just KNOW the differences). Teaching in a way that’s appropriate to the age group is clearly important.

But it’s just as important to remember that not all 5-year-olds are the same as each other—to the contrary, no two of them are the same, in terms of how they learn best, what their needs are, what they already know. That’s obvious to anyone who has kids or works with them, but is surprisingly easy to forget when planning curriculum (or writing public policy). So the second part of DAP is individual appropriateness. Because research backs up the idea that that kids need individualized adaptations in their education—not just children with disabilities, but ALL of them. Within the broad strokes of age appropriateness, educators must be able to adjust their efforts to the unique needs of individual children. We do this by carefully observing each child; by building personal relationships with each child; by watching how they react to our teaching and adjusting accordingly. Without individual appropriateness, age appropriateness is ineffective and, frankly, a bit silly.

For awhile, those two pieces were basically the story. But recently there’s much more attention on what turns out to be just as important as the first two pieces: cultural appropriateness. Not all children grow up with the same values, expectations, practices, customs. Children exist within a context; their social relationships are a part of who they are. To effectively teach them, we need to understand the contexts they are a part of. And before you dismiss the idea as liberal touchy-feely falderal (and it does strike that chord, even with me), remember that the children who perform worst in school—rather, the children worst-served by our schools—are very often the children whose home culture is most different from the upper-middle-class-white-American culture that is basically the default in our education system. There are lots of reasons that poor, non-white, immigrant children have a hard time in school, but an important one is that the expectations are so different from what they’ve been taught. From personal experience, outcomes for children are improved dramatically when teachers and parents communicate clearly about their goals and values and practices, and have a window into each other’s worlds. If schools better understand “the whole child,” they do a much better job of meeting that child’s needs.

So that’s the gist. The way to meet children’s needs and educate them is to understand their age, culture, and individual needs, and then absorb all the research on those topics. Easy! Okay, not easy. But important, and approachable. If you don’t want to read the 370-page book (I don’t either), there are good (and less lengthy) resources at NAEYC. Or—and I really do encourage this—walk up to your preschool teacher and ask, “How do you do developmentally appropriate practice here?” It should be a good conversation.