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!