Category Archives: Ask a Preschool Teacher

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!


Moving House

askateacherHow do you prepare your child for moving? We are moving to Chicago September 1, and I am just wondering what to anticipate when we actually leave/once we arrive, not the least of which is how to explain my own feelings about moving, which are mixed… I kind of dread him asking to see someone or go somewhere we have left behind and breaking down in tears… —Pegeen

I’m about to move house myself, so questions of how to make that transition easily are on my mind.

When moving with a young child, your big goal is to help them to be calm about the transition. You want to help them to know what’s coming before it happens, and help them understand what’s happened afterwards, in a way that includes as little stress as possible. Of course, any of us who have ever moved know that, no matter what, it’s a stressful time for everyone. So part of what you can do is to try to have reasonable expectations for your child’s behaviors and emotions. Think about how your child has responded to stressful times in the past, and be prepared for those behaviors to come up again. Just as importantly, think about general stress-reduction strategies for your child (and yourself!)—physical activity (sports, walking, rough-housing), sensory activity (sand and water play, cooking, rough-housing), and one-on-one relationship activities (playing together, reading together, rough-housing). In preparing for a move you have less time for these activities, certainly, but these kinds of stress-reducers are the most important at times like this. Try to squeeze in some every day—a little bit can help a lot.

In terms of what your child will understand about the move, both before and after, a lot depends on your child’s age and development. The appropriate time to discuss it will also vary. No matter the age, you want to be honest and clear.

For a two-year-old, you probably don’t want to discuss it more than a week or two in advance. Calendar time is confusing at that age. You also want to keep the information very simple. “In a week, we will all go together to live in a new house.” If your child asks questions, try not to answer more than is asked. For instance, they might say, “When can we go back to our old house?” and it’s tempting to launch into a whole discussion; but the child is more likely to just need a simple reminder, “We’re not going back. We live here now.”

For a four-year-old, you can probably start discussing it a few weeks in advance. At this age, most children will be able to understand the idea of a move in the abstract, but they may surprise you with questions you thought were clear: “Why are you putting our stuff in a box?” Children at this age are likely to have large, mixed emotions about a transition that they may not understand, so it helps to bring feelings into the conversation: “In a few weeks we are all going together to live in a new house. This will be a big change, in ways that are exciting, but also a little scary.”

For a six-year-old, you can probably bring the child into the conversation as soon as you know some information for sure. I wouldn’t bring up anything if a move is still a maybe, or if you don’t know where you’re moving—too many questions with “I don’t know” as the answer. You still want to keep information pretty straightforward, but by this age most children are able to think about hypotheticals and abstract ideas a little more. “How do you think you’ll feel when we live in a new place?” “What do you want to do to make sure you remember your friends here?”

At all ages, a message that can really help make things clear is that Some things will be different, and some things will be the same. You will have a different bed room, but you will have all the same toys and furniture in your room. We will have a different kitchen, but we will all still eat dinner together every night. There will be different parks in our neighborhood, but we will still go to the park to play together. And so on. Notice the emphasis, in all the “the sames,” is on the relationships. The fact that your family will be the same, you will do the same things together—that’s a very comforting idea for young children. (And for the rest of us too, right?)

For all children, a transition can feel like being out of control. You can help give them a comforting sense of control by giving them responsibility for parts of the move. Let them choose the color of their new room. Ask them to help plan the going-away party. Have them help shove pillows in a box, and choose which stuffed animals will go in a box and which will come on the airplane with you. You know your child, so offer choices you think will engage his interest. But the more he can participate with you, the more ownership he’ll feel in the process.

As you mention, you may have mixed emotions about the move yourself—and I guarantee your child does too. It’s really great to be able to talk about those emotions with your child—ideally, before they even come up. In the very first conversation you have about the move, you might say something like, “A move is a big deal, and a lot of times people have mixed-up feelings about it. You might feel sad and happy—even at the same time. I’m feeling nervous but also excited right now.” It’s tempting to “up sell” the move—”In the new house, we’ll have a SWIMMING POOL! Won’t that be AMAZING?!”—but that strategy is likely to backfire on a child who’s not feeling enthusiastic. It’s important, when negative emotions come up, not to try to ignore them or replace them—those strategies almost always fail. Instead, talk about the emotion. “You’re feeling worried about the move? I feel that way sometimes too. What parts are worrying you? … When you’re feeling worried about things, what do you like to do?” It can feel sometimes like if you open up to those negative emotions, your child will just feel that way forever. But in my experience, the opposite is almost always true. When the emotion is fully heard and understood and validated, then the child can move on to other things.

Finally, you ask, after the move, what might happen if your child asks about, say, visiting someone you’ve left behind. Just like the negative emotions, it often works well to support and validate the child’s wish, even if you can’t fulfill it. “I want to go visit my best friend,” he might say, and you might respond: “Oh, wouldn’t that be great? I wish we could go see him too. What would you do with him today if you could? … I remember a time you went over to his house and played the best game…” Perhaps at the end you might suggest writing a letter to him—but perhaps not. Sometimes just those pleasant thoughts and memories are what your child was actually talking about.

I worked with a family some years ago who moved, and after discussing a bunch of these ideas, the mother decided to make a book about the move for her daughter. She took photos of their family and the new and old houses, and pasted them onto paper which she stapled into a book. “This is Susie,” the book said. “This is Susie’s family. This is Susie’s family’s house. But soon they are going to move to a new house.” The book described how they’d put their stuff in boxes, and movers would take it to the new house, and so on. It also talked about how some things would be different in the new house, but a lot of things would be the same. It ended by saying, “No matter what, our home will be where our family is, and that will never change.” (Honestly, I’m tearing up right now remembering it.) They read the book every day, both before and after the move, and it helped their daughter understand the move a little better, and feel more of a sense of continuity throughout. It worked like a charm

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Have you ever moved with a young child? Let us know what helped in the comments!

Choosing the Right Preschool

askateacherHow do we choose the right preschool? —anon.

That’s a hard question. Part of the reason it’s hard is that it’s actually three questions rolled into one: What makes a preschool good? How can we tell if a preschool is good? and What preschool will be the right fit for our family? Let’s talk about each of those separately.

What makes a preschool good? That’s actually an easy one: relationships. Specifically, teacher-child relationships. Strong, caring, dependable, affectionate teacher-child relationships have a lot of effects that you want on your child—they promote self-regulation and emotional control; they make children better at exploring, asking questions, and learning; they make supervision more effective; and they make you feel better about leaving your child there every day. And those relationships depend on a lot of things that you also care about—good observation skills; responsiveness; reasonable teacher-child ratios; and positive emotional climate. A school that dependably builds strong teacher-child relationships will have great outcomes for children even if they’re using out-of-date curriculum in under-funded classrooms; the best curriculum in the world in a state-of-the-art classroom environment is almost worthless without good teacher-child relationships.

How can we tell if a preschool is good? This one’s a lot harder—how can you tell if the children and the teachers have strong relationships? If at all possible, you want to find an opportunity to go sit in the classroom yourself (without your child) and simply watch what goes on. Do the children seem to trust and like the teacher? Does the teacher respond to the children with warmth and attention? Is there a sense of community in the classroom? If you can’t observe the teacher in action (many wonderful schools have policies against prospective parent observations, simply because of the number of people who would want to observe), you have to be a bit of a detective. Talk to families who attend the school, and ask about the teachers’ relationships with the child. Ask the director what the school does to promote relationships. Read the school’s website and promotional materials and see if they emphasize relationships. Read online reviews of the school, and see what people say about teacher-child interactions. Many schools emphasize math, literacy, and other early academic skills—but if they don’t also demonstrate their commitment to your child’s social and emotional development, you should probably look elsewhere.

What preschool will be the right fit for our family? This one’s hard too, because it’s entirely individual. There are the practical concerns—does the tuition fit in your budget? are they open when you need them to be? are they close enough to your home? But equally important is the question of values. What qualities do want to instill in your child? Creativity? Responsibility? Community-mindedness? Respect? Inquisitiveness? Different schools will place different emphasis on these. What qualities do you value in caregiving? Warmth? Leadership? Rigorous learning? Different teachers will embody these differently. Try to find a school where their values seem close to yours.

Ultimately, all of these questions come down in large part to gut feeling. A school is “right” if you see the teachers and children together and you think, “Yes, I want that for my child. I can see my family here.” Just because a school is “good” doesn’t mean it’s right for you—it’s only right if it feels right to leave your child there every day. And you’re the only one who can decide that.

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Need help figuring out which school is for you? I’ve helped many families work through that decision—contact me!

Kindergarten Readiness

askateacherWhat does “kindergarten readiness” mean? It seems that every program we apply to puts a big curricular emphasis on this. —Christine

Secretly? That’s a really complicated question. It should have a straightforward answer, but it doesn’t. It’s a term that gets used by preschools a lot, I think in part because everyone automatically agrees with it. “Of course I want my child to be ready for kindergarten! In fact, now that you mention it, I don’t trust any preschool that’s not getting my child ready for kindergarten!” It’s a bit like calling your education policy “No Child Left Behind”—who could disagree with something called that? Are you saying you want some children left behind? You monster!

So I think a lot of schools use the phrases “kindergarten readiness” or “school readiness” because it sounds good and important—but they’re terms that are rarely explicitly defined. What do they mean? Well, Head Start says that school readiness means “children possessing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for success in school and later learning in life” (2012). That sounds pretty reasonable, right? The only question is, what “skills, knowledge, and attitudes” are we talking about?

The problem comes when people assume the important skills and knowledge are all academic—reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, you know. Certainly those are skills and knowledge you’ll need to acquire over the course of elementary school, and in our standardized-test-focused, get-ahead-oriented culture, it’s easy to think that the earlier young children start learning to read and write and recite the quadratic formula, the more ahead they’ll be, and the more ahead they are, the more successful they’ll be. The logic sounds okay, but the problem is it’s not really true.

For one thing, education isn’t a race. Children aren’t going to finish sooner, and if they did that wouldn’t necessarily mean finishing better, or more ready for life outside school. Second, kids’ brains aren’t ready to learn that stuff whenever we want them to. The fine motor skills to hold a pencil; the ability to visually distinguish letters; the abstract thinking required to subtract… those things take practice, yes, but they also just take time. No matter how hard you push your 4-year-old, they’re not going to learn algebra—their brain just isn’t wired for it yet.

Yes, if you work hard, you can get them to perform the behaviors you want. You can get a 4-year-old to memorize the alphabet backwards or recite the Gettysburg Address or perform single-digit subtraction. But you’ve got to ask yourself: at what cost? What will it take to get the child to do those things? Will the child come out of that process excited to learn, excited to go to school?

When you survey kindergarten teachers, “the great majority [say] that the most important factor, for kindergarten readiness is for the child to be physically healthy, rested and well-nourished. A majority also believe that children should be able to communicate wants, needs, and thoughts verbally, and that enthusiasm and curiosity are more important for school readiness than knowledge of the alphabet or counting ability” (Heaviside et al, 1993). If children don’t know the alphabet, kindergarten teachers can TEACH them the alphabet. If children don’t know how to regulate their emotions and bodies, that’s going to be a much bigger problem.

To me? If a child learns nothing else in preschool, they should learn that “School is an awesome place where I do great work!” If they walk into the first day of kindergarten with that thought, I think half your battle’s won already. After that, I’d say ability to meet own physical and emotional needs is important; ability to follow directions and cooperate with other children close behind that. Curiosity and interest in learning? That’s up there too. Literacy and math are way down the list (though fortunately it’s usually convenient to teach some of those skills at the same time as the other stuff in preschool!).

I also always think of Belann Giaretto, director of Pacific Primary in San Francisco, almost shouting, “It’s not children’s job to be ready for school! It’s the schools’ job to be ready for the children!” Amen to that.

So, back to your original question: what the heck do preschools mean when they say their program promotes school readiness? You’ve got to ask them what they mean. And if their answer starts and ends with literacy and math, I’d take my business elsewhere. But that’s just me.

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Teacher Tom, as per usual, has some great thoughts on what kindergarten readiness looks like to him, that I wholeheartedly agree with. Amanda Moreno at the Huffington Post has some depressing thoughts about the differences between what kindergartens look like and what they should look like.

Also: do you need help choosing a preschool? I help families work through making that choice.

Rewards for Positive Behaviors?

askateacherOur daughter is 4 years old, and she’s been having some trouble with friendships lately. She’s very social and loves playing with her friends, but she gets jealous when her friends play with other people, and she gets very angry. We’d look at it as just a normal part of being 4, but lately she’s pushing or grabbing the other children. Sometimes she hurts innocent bystanders, instead of the child she’s mad at! We know punishment doesn’t work for stuff like this, so we were thinking of starting some kind of reward system. For instance, if she goes a whole week without hurting anyone, she gets a toy—maybe keeping track of the days with stickers. Do you think that would work? —anonymous

I applaud your desire to avoid punishment! You’re right, punishment would probably not be very effective at solving this problem, and would probably create some of its own problems along the way. But the opposite of punishment isn’t necessarily rewards. I’ll talk about some of the pitfalls of reward systems, and offer some alternatives.

Long-term rewards (and by “long-term” I mean rewards that happen more than 10 seconds after the behavior) work best to change behaviors that aren’t associated with strong emotions and that happen at times of leisure—say, remembering to brush your teeth, or taking out the trash. Behaviors, in other words, that you can apply conscious thought to in order to make a decision. Long-term rewards are much less likely to work on behaviors that are strongly emotional and immediate, like lashing out at a friend who’s hurt your feelings. In that moment of anger, children are operating in a nearly involuntary way—they’re not thinking about a reward, they’re thinking about how mad they are. Even if they do happen to remember the reward, a toy on Friday seems awfully far away when they’re mad RIGHT NOW.

What that means is that, even if the child is trying very hard, they’re likely to fail at making it through the whole week. Instead of simply failing to stop herself from getting angry, she’d also be failing to get a toy and failing to please her parents. That’s a lot of failure for one child to be feeling at one time, and could build up into a larger, overall sense of shame, incompetence, and negative self-image. That wouldn’t necessarily happen—she might indeed be successful—but it’s a big risk to take.

The other problem with a reward schedule is that of extrinsic motivation. A behavior is extrinsically motivated if you do the behavior in order to get something else. For instance, most of us go to work every day because we get paid for it; if they stopped paying us, we’d stop going. The opposite situation is intrinsic motivation, which is when you do something simply because you like doing it. For instance, you don’t have to pay your daughter to hug you when you pick her up at school—she does it because it feels good.

You want treating other children kindly to be intrinsically motivated, of course—for it to come as naturally as giving you a hug. But if you offer extrinsic rewards for intrinsically motivated behaviors, they become extrinsically motivated. For instance, let’s say you started giving your daughter a jellybean every time she hugged you. “Here,” you’d say, “this is for hugging me.” After a few weeks if you stopped giving jellybeans, she’d stop hugging you! Sad, but well-supported by research: perversely, extrinsic motivation removes intrinsic motivation. In your situation, you want your daughter to treat other children kindly—but if you start paying her for it, she’ll be less likely to do it on her own later.

Don’t despair, though: you’ve got something very powerful working in your favor. Treating other children kindly is ALREADY intrinsically motivated! It naturally feels good to get along with your friends. You can tell, because (I’m willing to bet) your daughter feels terrible when she hurts other people. It doesn’t feel good to lose control, to scare other people, to hurt them. (Older children who’ve developed a long-standing habit of hurting others can find ways to make themselves feel good about it, as a method of avoiding the feelings of shame I mentioned above—but that takes awhile.) Your daughter’s problem isn’t that she wants to hurt other children; it’s that she gets so upset, she doesn’t know what else to do.

So you don’t need to offer payment for good behavior, because she already wants to get along with her friends. What she needs is help doing it. There are a bunch of things you can do to help. Offer empathy and understanding for her negative experiences (“Susie didn’t want to play with you? That must have been so frustrating! I bet you were feeling upset when that happened.”). Reinforce her positive self-identity (“I know how kind you usually are to your friends.”). Scaffold her through difficult moments (“You’re getting upset because Susie doesn’t want to play in the sand-box. Why don’t you try playing with her on the slide?”) or coach her with alternate behaviors (“Next time you feel that mad, try punching a pillow until you feel better.”). Finally, make sure you DO positively reinforce her successes, by offering your recognition and appreciation (“I saw you getting upset at Susie, but then you decided to play with Ava instead! I’m so proud of you for controlling your feelings!”).

If you’re really feeling good about your daughter’s suggestions, there’s no reason not to show her your appreciation with occasional unplanned celebrations. “Your teacher told me you played well with your friends all week! That makes me so happy to hear! How about we go get ice cream, to celebrate?” It’s not a payment for services rendered; it’s an expression of your love—which always helps.

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Having trouble motivating good behaviors and discouraging bad ones? I help families with this stuff all the time. Take a look at my services!

And if you’ve got a question to Ask a Preschool Teacher, send it in!

Should Daddy Bake with the Boys?

askateacherA relative of mine recently posted the following question on his facebook wall:

Yes or no: Daddy should bake chocolate chip cookies from scratch with his boys, even though he has never done it before?

I wrote him a few of the reasons that, in my opinion, he absolutely should go for it—but on reflection, I realized that I had an awful lot to say about such a simple question. I thought perhaps I’d answer at greater length on the blog.

First off, as I tell all the teachers I train, there’s very little you can do with young children that’s more beneficial than cooking projects. If you were to spend an entire day at preschool doing cooking projects, or an entire week, or month, or school year, I’d call it time well spent. Why? Because cooking encompasses absolutely everything you want young children to learn.

Let’s start with the content areas (also known as the “academic areas”).

Math? Obviously: lots of numbers and quantities and measuring; you naturally pick up ideas like “two quarter cups make a half cup” and “let’s double this recipe to make enough for everyone.” Math is a cinch when it becomes relevant to your real life, and nothing’s more relevant than tasty snacks.

Science is equally obvious. For young children, science is all about ideas of how things change—what happens when you mix these together? What happens when we put it in the oven? What happens if we accidentally put in twice as much baking powder? It’s all science.

Social studies is easy with cooking too. I know you’re probably thinking about introducing children to foods of different cultures, which, yes, that’s an awesome thing to do. But (as I’ve been telling my Curriculum students this week), young children are very concrete in their thinking. For them, social studies about people on the other side of the world doesn’t make a huge amount of sense—they need social studies about people they know in real life! “My family makes waffles every Saturday. Here’s how we make waffles.” That’s social studies a three-year-old can understand.

And literacy. Okay, you probably don’t want your ENTIRE literacy curriculum to be about cooking, but it’s not hard to make the connections. Following (and creating) recipes, reading cook books, writing down everyone’s thoughts on each thing you cook, cooking foods that are mentioned in the stories you read… It’s not hard to find ways to teach reading and writing that are connected to cooking.

But it’s not just the academics—it’s child development as a whole that benefits from cooking.

Physical development? Cooking is all about fine-motor control; and if you’re working with bread dough or mixing in big pots and bowls, it’s about gross-motor control too. It also offers a huge range of sensory experiences—taste, smell, touch, sight—that are a big contributor to physical development.

Cognitive development? There’s so much. Problem solving, understanding cause and effect, making a plan and following through, observing changes and patterns… All the big skills are in there.

Socio-emotional development? Cooking supports patience and requires attention. It gets you to work collaboratively with other people to accomplish joint goals, and to modulate your behavior in response to those around you. You share food with other people, which is one of the best ways to build relationships. It’s huge.

Add to this the fact that almost everyone enjoys eating, and almost all children enjoy cooking, and you’ve got what we in the business call intrinsic motivation. In other words, children participate in cooking projects simply because it’s fun. And intrinsically motivated activities are a gold mine for learning. If you want children to learn math by doing arithmetic worksheets, you’ve got to talk them into doing the worksheets. But if you set them loose on a cooking project, they’ll learn math whether you want them to or not, because there’s intrinsic motivation to getting it right.

Again, there’s not much you can do with kids that’s more educational and beneficial than cooking with them.

So, okay, cooking with kids is great. But this particular father gets even more bang for his buck when he makes cookies for the first time with his kids. He asks if he should take on this project, “even though he has never done it before?” He fears his inexperience will make the project go wrong, and that will be bad. But just the opposite is true.

You can teach a child something you already know, sure. We do that all the time. But what’s truly magical is when you and the child learn something new together. You’re on a journey of discovery, helping each other along the way, commiserating in failure and celebrating together in victory. When the adult doesn’t know how something is going to turn out, the child becomes so much more interested and motivated. The adult has an opportunity to genuinely use the child’s input, and the child has a chance to make real-life decisions and see if they work. “Neither one of us knows which is the teaspoon and which is the tablespoon. How will we choose? What will happen if we’re wrong? We’ll find out together!” That is learning that will stick, let me tell you.

And what if the project goes wrong? You use the wrong measuring spoon, and the cookies come out way too salty. (Tragedy!) In that case the child gets the tremendous benefit of seeing how the adults in his life deal with surprise and failure and disappointment—something they’re very much trying to figure out for themselves. Do you curse and sulk? Do you hide the cookies and go buy a milkshake? Or do you say, “Oh, man, I’m so disappointed! I was really looking forward to eating those cookies. What a drag! Let’s take a break, and then try it again. I bet we get it right next time.” That’s a model every child can use.

On top of that, the child gets to see that the adults he cares about value trying new things, taking risks, having little adventures, learning new things. When a caregiver shows with his actions that those things are important, they’ll become part of child’s approach to the world. I don’t know about you, but those are the qualities I sure want in a child.

So there you go. Take a risk on a new cooking project with a child. It’s all up-side.

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Later facebook photos showed beautiful cookies. Good job, dad.

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This post dedicated to Lisa Hanauer, a former co-teacher and mentor who cooks with children more than any other teacher I know, and turns three-year-olds into generous, thoughtful, adventurous eaters.

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Do you ever cook with young children? Share stories, tips, and tricks in the comments! (Button at the top of the post.)

Mixed-Age Preschools?

askateacherCould you discuss the pros and cons of mixed-aged preschools vs. schools that separate the kids by year? The benefits and detriments of having 2-year-olds in the same environment as 5-year-olds, the challenges and the opportunities that this presents to both the child and the teachers… —Jedd

While a lot of daycare centers go with the all-the-kids-in-one-big-group model, there aren’t many preschools that really embrace the mixed-age approach (Montessori schools are often notable exceptions). I’ve never taught in a school that didn’t have classrooms separated by age (though, see below). It’s a shame more schools don’t go that route, because putting different-aged kids in the same classroom is a GREAT idea.

Lev Vygotsky’s theory of Social Constructivism is one of the foundations of how we approach children’s learning these days. The approach looks at all learning as happening in the context of social interactions. Learning is most effective (so the theory goes) when you’re trying to accomplish something and someone who knows more than you is there giving you little hints and encouragements (known as “scaffolding”)—allowing you to succeed, through your own efforts, at something that’s hard for you, and thereby raising your own performance level. Social constructivism is a great framework for teachers to think about how they’re guiding kids’ learning. But usually there’s only one or two teachers and a whole roomful of kids—the teacher can’t scaffold everyone simultaneously.

And that’s where mixed-age (or mixed-ability) groupings come to the rescue. Older children scaffold younger ones. Younger children look to older ones as models. A smart teacher knows how to set up relationships amongst the kids so that they’re ALL teaching and ALL learning from each other all the time. And it’s not just the younger ones who benefit from the older; older children learn by being models for the younger ones. It’s win-win.

It’s also a useful model when we start thinking about inclusion of children with disabilities. “Children who have difficulty relating to same-age peers are often better able to achieve and sustain satisfying contact with a younger or older child” (Katz & McClellan, 1997). “Difficulty relating” could be because of a disability, or could just be because a child is shy—it doesn’t matter. Having a room full of kids at different ages means no one has to feel judged for “not measuring up”—they can all find people they relate to in different ways.

Research on outcomes for children in mixed-age groupings is extremely positive, particularly in terms of socio-emotional development. And research on what skills young children need to succeed in elementary school (and beyond) put socio-emotional skills right at the top of the list. Communication, self-regulation, attention, relationships… That’s what kids need to be learning in preschool, and it’s what mixed-age classrooms are best at teaching.

In terms of challenges for children and teachers? Yeah, it’s a bit more of a challenge. Think of siblings of different ages. There are all sorts of conflicts because of the differences in their needs, and it makes things tricky for the kids and for their families. But that doesn’t mean that over the long haul it’s not worth it. On the contrary, The skills you learn dealing with people who aren’t exactly like you are the skills you need to go out and, you know, exist in the world.

To approach it from another angle, let’s remember that, historically speaking, the way we divide kids up by age these days is WEIRD. Through most of time, and in much of the world today, kids are taught in mixed age groups up to (and, in some cases, through) high school. Splitting up kids by age came around with the industrial revolution, when we were excited to systematize everything. And when you think about it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We KNOW that kids develop at different speeds from each other, and at different speeds in various areas of learning, and that those differences aren’t indicative of intelligence or anything else.

A way that I like to think about it is that ALL classrooms are mixed age classrooms—especially in preschool, where the difference between 3-years-1-month and 3-years-11-months is enormous. But even if you had a room of children all born the same week, there’d still be huge variations in development and ability. One of the arguments against mixed-age classrooms is that it’d be too hard for the teacher to make adaptations for each child’s ability-level. But I argue that ALL teachers (especially early childhood teachers) should always be doing that anyway. “Single-age” classrooms make it easy to pretend you don’t have to adapt curriculum; mixed-age classrooms force teachers to confront a curriculum issue that should be confronted anyway.

When I taught at Pacific Primary in San Francisco, the classrooms were all divided by age, but there was a lot of mixing of groups—children visited other classrooms frequently; ages played together outdoors; at the beginning and end of the day classes consolidated; kids of all ages would hang out together in the “sun room.” And in my personal experience, the benefits of those mixed-age contacts FAR outweighed the challenges. It wasn’t even close. Putting kids with groups of different ages was effective and fun and interesting and stimulating. It was part of the school culture, and when I started working at another school, it felt weird that we weren’t mixing the ages from time to time.

So, yeah. Mixed-age is not without its challenges, but I strongly support schools finding ways to make it work.

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Do you have any experiences with mixed-age preschools? Tell us in the comments!

And if you’ve got a question to ask a preschool teacher, submit it here!

A Primer on Redirection

askateacherI’ve heard a lot of people say that when your child is doing something wrong, you should just say “no,” you should use redirection. But when I try to get my child to do something else, it doesn’t work! Why does everyone tell me “redirection” is better? Is there something I’m missing? —L.

You’re not alone in your bafflement. “Redirection” is a term that a lot of people are confused about—even people who think they know what it means! When used properly, redirection can be a remarkably effective way to change a child’s behavior—but it’s not a trick or an easy fix. It’s a way of thinking about and meeting your child’s needs.

Assume for the moment that a child’s behavior, including misbehavior, is always an expression of a need. For infants this is literally true—when a baby cries, it’s not trying to manipulate you; it NEEDS to be fed, or changed, or comforted, or whatever. As babies become children the word “need” becomes a little vaguer, and the distinction between “need” and “want” becomes fuzzy. But “need” can be a useful frame for addressing misbehaviors. Why did she punch her brother? Because she NEEDS more space; or because she NEEDS your attention; or because she NEEDS him to stop taking her toys; or because she NEEDS to exercise her arms.

The reason it helps to use the word “need” is because it helps you think of the motivation behind the behavior as non-negotiable. If that’s what they NEED, there’s no point trying to talk them out of it—they need it! But the behavior itself is not the need. The behavior is the best way they can think of to meet that need. Redirection is a technique where you give the child a BETTER way to get their need met.

It looks the same as simply saying, “Here, do this instead,” but is more subtle than that. When she punches her brother, saying, “Come punch this punching bag” might be a very effective redirection, but it’s only effective if she’s punching her brother because she NEEDS to swing her arms. If she’s punching because she needs more space and you say, “Come punch this punching bag,” she’s likely to shout “No!”, feel misunderstood, and keep hitting. It’s not that redirection didn’t work in this case: it’s that the suggestion wasn’t actually redirection, because it didn’t address the child’s need.

For redirection to be an effective approach, you need to be an acute observer of children. You need to see through their behavior with x-ray eyes and perceive the need behind the behavior. You need a healthy dose of intuition and luck. It gets easier with practice.

Here are some examples of good attempts at redirection:

You see him drawing on the walls. You hazard a guess that he NEEDS to express himself artistically on a large canvass. “Here,” you say, “Come finger-paint on the walls of the shower.” When he’s done painting he can help you wash the walls, because walls are not for drawing.

You’re trying to cook dinner, but every two minutes she starts shouting in the living room. You think maybe she NEEDS some parental attention and interaction. “It seems like you want to spend time with me,” you say, “but I need to finish making dinner. If you want to hang out with me in the kitchen I can talk to you, and I’d love it if you could help me mix the salad.”

You catch him taking a swing at his sister during an argument. You can tell he NEEDS to express his anger and frustration—physically! “Boy!” you exclaim. “You’re really angry! You may not hit your sister, but I can see you really need to hit something hard! Hit this pillow twenty times! After that we’ll talk to your sister.”

Children have a lot of different needs at different times, and it can be hard to figure out what need is expressing itself at any given moment, especially when you’re feeling upset/confused/frustrated at your child! Fortunately (in some ways), your guesses get instant feedback! If you guess right, the behavior will change almost instantly. If you’re wrong, the behavior will resume right away.

It helps to avoid discipline—or at least postpone it—even if the misbehavior is something serious, like hitting. It’s very difficult for children to learn or even listen when they have unmet needs. Meet the need first, and deal with restitution afterwards. You’ll be surprised how much more compliant and understanding your child is when he sees that you understand his needs.

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Having trouble making redirection or other approaches to behavior guidance work? I provide coaching on just that!

Bad Words

askateacherHow do you phase out certain phrases that a child might have accidentally learned? My boy has picked up the phrase ‘damn it’ from listening to adults, and I’d like to phase it out of his vocabulary. My wife and I probably did the wrong thing by giggling when he used it because he was so cute.  Now we are more careful with our language, but he still blurts it out sometimes when he wants to get our attention. Any thoughts? —Jeff

Swearing—like any behavior that gets attention and really isn’t too bad—is a tricky behavior to get rid of. I’ll talk a little about what’s going on with “bad habits” in general, and then some strategies that might work for swearing in particular.

Any repeated behavior is repeated because it gets reinforced in some way. Sometimes the key to stopping an unwanted behavior in a child is to figure out: what’s the reinforcing result of the behavior? As you notice, swearing often gets reinforced early on by amusement (or, even stronger, stifled amusement) from parents. It’s tricky, though, because once a behavior gets set, it often only takes the tiniest, most occasional reinforcement to keep it going strong. You’ve stopped giggling when your son says “damn it,” but perhaps he can still see the corner of your mouth twitching, or perhaps every twentieth time he manages to put just enough pizazz into his delivery that he still cracks you up.

With some repeated behaviors, you can simply remove the reinforcement (once you know what it is) and the behavior will eventually extinguish (the behaviorist term for “go away by itself”). But you can’t change who you are or what you laugh at. So where does that leave you if you want him to stop swearing? For some possible approaches, I looked at Karen Pryor’s magnificent book, Don’t Shoot the Dog—the absolute best book (in my opinion) on using behaviorism in real life. If you want to influence the behavior of a creature in your life—your pet cat, your toddler, your boss—I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Pryor lists all the ways (all of them!) you could conceivably stop a behavior, and examines the pros and cons of each. I won’t go into the ones that aren’t likely to work in this situation*—let’s talk about the ones you should try.

One way to stop a behavior is to train an incompatible behavior (Pryor’s Method #5). For instance, your dog can’t beg at the table if you’ve trained him to lay down in the corner while you’re eating. In the case of a child swearing, think of something to replace “damn it”—something better! The need to swear in certain situations is natural, for children as well as adults. But there are so many better choices than “damn it”—phrases that are more fun to say, and that get a good reaction out of those around you, and that don’t offend anyone. Fiddlesticks! Farfegnugen! Mother of fruit! (Notice how many good ones have the letter F in them…) Jeepers creepers! You might have the best luck if the replacement curse starts the same as the old one—something like “ding dong it” to replace “damn it.”

You may be able to get him to use these new-and-improved curses by using them yourself, with gusto. Throw them into conversation, and really mean them! Children are most likely to imitate a behavior that seems real or spontaneous. See if you can contrive to drop something on your foot and let loose with a “Blistering blue barnacles!” That’ll get his attention. If and when you hear your son use one of the new phrases, give it the reaction you used to give “damn it”—and all of a sudden, you’ve got a new habit.

If that’s not your style, try Method #6: Putting the behavior on cue. As Pryor says, “This one’s a dilly.” You want your dog to stop barking? Train it to bark on command—and then never give the command. In preschool this is sometimes known as the “Time and a Place” strategy. Kids spitting? Praise them for spitting in the bathroom sink or the toilet. Kids kicking? Give them soccer balls or cardboard boxes to kick.

Personally I’ve found this method especially effective for “potty talk.” Kids talk about poop and pee because it’s taboo, and because it gets a rise out of people. As soon as someone mentions poop, I hustle them straight to the bathroom, and then encourage them to let fly. I’ll often help out—”Poop poop poopy!” I had a group of 5’s some years ago who, after about two days of encouragement, began to promptly come up to me at 4:30 every day and say, “Jarrod, we want to go talk about poop.” “Cool!” I’d say. I’d let them in the bathroom, where they’d shout about poop for five minutes, without bothering anyone, while I’d clean the classroom. Then they’d tell me they were done, and we’d go back out to the playground.

What would this strategy look like for swearing? You could say that “damn it” is something you can only say in your bedroom, and encourage him to say it there to his heart’s content. Or you could make a “damn it box”—you can only say “damn it” with your head in the special box, which you decorate and make fun. The trick would be to not react to him saying “damn it,” other than to (non-judgmentally) say, “Oh, quick, get your box,” and then praise him for doing it in the right place.

Finally, if neither of those seems right to you, sometimes a simple, honest conversation can work wonders. I don’t know how old your son is, but many children can start having meaningful conversations as young as 2½ years old. You sit down together—at a time apart from any particular instance of the cursing—and say, “I want to talk with you about something that’s been bothering me. I notice that sometimes you say, ‘damn it,’ and that makes me uncomfortable. It’s not a word that children should say, and it’s not really a word that grown-ups should say. I’d like us to make a plan about how to stop saying it.” Children generally want to make the adults they care about feel good.

Real dialogue is tricky with kids—but actually no trickier than with adults. The “trick” is to be honest and to genuinely listen. Given that, children will often surprise you with their thoughtful attention and creative solutions.

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* Okay, I’ll say a brief word about punishment. Many caregivers have an instinct to use some kind of punishment as a response to bad words—time out, or spanking, or being sent from the table… Pryor points out that punishment can indeed be effective at stopping a behavior, “if the subject understands which action is being punished, if the motivation for doing the behavior is small, if the fear of future punishment is large, and finally, if the subject can control the behavior in the first place. [Also,] if the behavior is caught early, so that it has not become an established habit.” If all those criteria are met, punishment might get the result you want. But punishment is also very likely to teach things you don’t want along the way—things like evasion, and resentment, and that those in power can do whatever they want. Other methods of stopping a behavior are probably more effective, and less likely to come with negative consequences.

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If you want to read other blog posts I’ve written about changing children’s behaviors, try this one and this one. And here’s an article I wrote for parents about using observation techniques to understand your child’s behaviors.

If you’re having trouble with your child’s behavior, I can help!

And if you have a question to Ask a Preschool Teacher, send it to me.

Comparing Preschool Models

I’m back from holiday vacationing, and excited to get back to blogging. I think that I’ll be transitioning from 5 blog posts a week to 3: an Activity or Book Review on Mondays, an Ask a Preschool Teacher or Food for Thought column on Wednesdays, and Suggested Readings on Fridays (roughly speaking). I’m going to have a little less time on my hands this semester, what with teaching at two different colleges (remind me why I signed up for that?). But if you have thoughts about what you’d like me to spend my time on, blog-wise, please let me know. Now… on with the blog!

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askateacherWhat is the difference between a Montessori preschool and a Waldorf preschool? Both come highly recommended by parents in my community, but I’m not sure what may be best for my child? —Christine

Great question! These, along with Reggio Emilia, are the big “brand names” for preschool approaches in the United States, and the terms get bandied about quite a lot. But different schools often mean slightly different things, and we rarely take the time to really explain what we mean by the names to non-experts. Let me give you my take on what school espousing these philosophies might look like.

Montessori is a kind of school modeled after those created by (unsurprisingly) Maria Montessori, one of the first female doctors in Italy in the late 19th century. She worked with children with special needs in a psych clinic, and noticed that in a “prepared environment,” children often teach themselves. She created the first “Casa dei Bambini” (House of Children—not to be confused with House of Waffles, a popular chain of diners) in Rome in 1907; the approach got hip in the United States in the 60s. There’s no overall licensing or accreditation for Montessori schools or teachers (though there are several smaller ones), and the name isn’t copyrighted, so anyone can call themselves a Montessori school. However, to my knowledge, most schools calling themselves Montessori hew to the program fairly closely.

Montessori schools view the child as having a natural desire to learn, to work, to play, and to help others. Their goals for children are qualities like creativity, self-regulation, and critical thinking, as well as becoming “fulfilled people” and contributing to society and the environment. They treat education of character with equal importance to academic instruction. Structurally, Montessori schools are likely to have children in mixed age groups participating in long periods of uninterrupted free play, learning via particular Montessori-specific toys and materials designed to teach lessons through exploration. (Their toys are, frankly, amazing—though very expensive.) The teacher in a Montessori school tailors interactions with children to their individual needs, carefully guiding a child in his explorations. They also place emphasis on “Practical Life” skills, like sweeping and sewing and pouring drinks at the table.

There are several common criticisms of the Montessori approach. They can have very high student-to-teacher ratios. They believe there is a right way to use materials, which can limit creativity, and they aren’t particularly interested in pretend play. Some people feel that the Montessori focus on uninterrupted solitary work can lead to social isolation—though looking at how kids turn out at the end of a Montessori school experience, there’s no particular reason for concern.

When Montessori schools are working right, kids emerge calm, thoughtful, well-regulated, and socially responsible.

Waldorf schools are pretty different from Montessori. They were started by Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner in 1919 at, of all places, the child care facility at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Waldorf schools can go from preschool up through (sometimes) high school, and they’re best known for being “artsy.”

Waldorf schools believe in self-governance, big time. Children in Waldorf schools tend to have tremendous freedom in their activities; schools are not centrally organized with each other; individual schools are run by groups and committees that include administrators, teachers, and family-members. They place heavy emphasis on social learning, valuing responsibility, compassion, tolerance, and respect—Waldorf schools have a history of being socially radical (for instance, they were the first racially integrated schools in South Africa, and operate schools in the middle east that serve both Palestinian and Israeli families). There is an influence of spiritualism in the Waldorf approach, though no ties to any particular religion. An individual teacher will often stay with a particular group of children over several years of schooling.

Waldorf schools believe that children learn through hands-on experimentation (constructivism), and that the best hands-on work is within the arts. Children at Waldorf schools are often prolific in their production of visual art, music, theater, and dance. To that end, artistic techniques are often directly taught. Additionally, Waldorf teachers encourage pretend play as an essential part of learning.

Common criticisms of Waldorf schools are that they are too wishy-washy and don’t teach children what they need to succeed in the “real world.” However, from everything I’ve heard and seen, children coming out of Waldorf schools tend to do extraordinarily well in traditional school environments. When Waldorf schools are working well, children emerge energetic, creative, curious, and community-minded.

You didn’t ask about Reggio Emilia schools, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Strictly speaking, there are no Reggio schools outside of Reggio Emilia, Italy; schools here may only be “Reggio-inspired” (but many, many schools in the US are Reggio-inspired). After World War II, folks in this region of Italy said, “How do we make sure this awfulness never happens again? By nurturing good children, that’s how!” They proceeded to put tremendous public resources into educating young children, and created a system that’s the envy of the western world. Thousands of American teachers travel to Italy every year just to sit in a corner of a Reggio classroom and watch.

The Reggio approach views children as active, powerful agents in their own education. Starting from toddler-hood, Reggio classrooms follow the children’s interests as the source of curriculum (“emergent curriculum”), building ambitious, long-term projects around those interests that push children’s natural inclinations for investigation and creativity to the next level (“the project approach”). A classic project, as described in the canonical book The Hundred Languages of Children, takes a group of children who are interested in dinosaurs, helps them learn more through various kinds of research, hones in on their particular interest of dinosaurs’ size, and through a series of progressing “challenges” allows the children to eventually create a life-sized drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex. Along the way the children learn about math and science and cooperation and patience and all sorts of other things.

Reggio schools also place tremendous emphasis on community—both within the school, building social skills and friendships, and outside the school, making sure the children feel connected with their local area, and vice versa. They strive to involve family-members as fully as possible. Reggio schools value “reflective practice” for teachers, and devote serious resources to professional development and program development.

Remember, schools in the US can only be “Reggio-inspired,” and a lot of schools say that they are, because there’s no one to stop them. One criticism of Reggio-inspired schools is that without extremely competent teachers it’s easy for “emergent curriculum” to become “kids do whatever they want,” and the line between education and chaos can be dangerously thin. Also, without the bone-deep educational culture developed over 70 years in Italy, it’s nearly impossible for a school to fully implement this model of schooling.

When Reggio-inspired schools are working well, children emerge confident, curious, self-directed, and creative.

Personally? In my classroom I get the most mileage out of the Reggio approach, and every time I go back to the Reggio materials I come away with a new strategy to deepen my practice. But I think all three a great models, and kids benefit from all of them. On the other hand, all of them can be poorly implemented, and there’s a big difference between the really good version and the mediocre version. To me, the particular model or curricular approach is a distant second to the importance of high-quality teacher-child interactions.

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Need help figuring out which preschool is right for your family? I can help!

And if you have a question for “Ask a Preschool Teacher,” please submit it!