Category Archives: Food for Thought

Tips for Starting Preschool

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

Making the transition easier on your child

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

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

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

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

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

Making the transition easier for you

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Routines

foodforthoughtI’m back in Philadelphia, from our month-long cross-country trip, and it’s great to be home. You may have noticed that my blog-posting got pretty erratic (read: seldom) while I was on the road. Which is no surprise, right? A lot of things got a little disorganized and behind while we were gone—I’m behind on emails on blog-reading; there’s a stack of bills that need paying; there are projects that badly need attention. I can’t blame it on being away from home: those are all things that I do from my computer, which I had on the road. It’s just that my routine was up-ended, and even though there was technically TIME to do all that stuff it just didn’t happen. (This is coming around to early-childhood relevance, I promise.)

It’s not just logistical stuff that got out of whack, either. My sleep schedule feels weird, I’m hungry at strange times, I feel a little out of it. Definitely not back in the swing of things yet. Even my dog notices the difference. In some ways it’s convenient—he’s not waking us up at 6:45 demanding breakfast, because he doesn’t know when the heck 6:45 is—but he’s obviously a less happy dog at the moment. The disrupted routine is hard to work with, and we all feel at loose ends until things get back to normal.

The problem with not having a routine is that you don’t know what to expect. Okay, yes, maybe your big grown-up brain can say, “Okay, what with the time-zone change and being on the road, dinner’s going to be almost two hours late today.” But your body will still get hungry like normal, and that’ll make you feel crappy. Or your body WON’T feel hungry when it IS time to eat, and that makes you feel weird too. And you’re tired at the wrong times, and awake at the wrong times, and maybe at different wrong times from anyone else you’re traveling with, so you’re out of sync with each other. And your body being out of whack makes your emotions and your thoughts feel weird too—you feel touchy, or grouchy, or tired, or stressed, or out-of-it, or just plain weird.

There are a few people whose brains and bodies don’t need routines; and as adults most of us can cope with small changes in routine without too much trouble. But most of us need a semblance of regularity, of fulfilled expectations, to function comfortably in an ongoing way.

And young children ALL need it.

The world is an incredibly confusing place for young children. Why is it okay to jump on the trampoline but not on the bed? Why does dad make me eat all my broccoli but not mom? Why does food go in my mouth and not in my nose? Why does grandma like to tickle me but doesn’t like it when I tickle her? There are a million things in the world that just make no sense at all to young children, but their job is to try to figure out how to behave in the world, and so they have to try to make sense of it all.

In trying to make sense of it all, anything that is predictable is incredibly rewarding. It feels good to have your expectations fulfilled; it feels comforting. For infants, the routine of, “I feel hungry; I cry; someone puts a bottle in my mouth” becomes an expectation, and every time the system works the way it’s supposed to, they feel a little surge of understanding and comfort. For toddlers, the routine of, “We finish dinner, I take a bath, we read a story, I go to sleep” is a very comforting, reinforcing routine. Even if they don’t want to go to bed, knowing that it WILL be time to go to bed is a comforting thing to know. (Indeed, if they find out they can change the routine simply by putting up a fuss, they get very unnerved—the routine’s not dependable after all!)

As children get older, they can deal with more complicated routines: “Every day after breakfast we go to preschool, except on Saturdays and Sundays when we stay home, and at school every day is the same except Tuesdays when we have music time before lunch and Thursdays when we go on field trips except when we don’t.” Most children begin to tolerate bigger and bigger deviations from routine without much stress (though all children have a different tolerance for that). But still, having an idea about what’s going to happen, and then that thing actually happening in real life? That gives children a sense of control and comfort and pleasure and calm. That’s why you’ll see children play the same game over and over again, getting equal pleasure every time the little song plays at the end. That’s why your child might find a particular behavior that drives you crazy—every time you eventually explode, there’s that pleasant thought: “Yup! The world still works the same way!”

All of this is to say: young children need routines. They need to learn, through repeated experience, that life works in a certain way, and that they know what that way is. When kids don’t get routines in their lives, they feel stressed and anxious, and their behavior reflects those negative feelings. Many, many challenging behaviors in children can be usefully understood as an expression of anxiety over not knowing what to expect, and can be addressed by imposing a clearer routine or set of expectations. (Other challenging behaviors, of course, are the result of knowing exactly what to expect but not liking it one little bit. That’s another blog post.)

The good news is that kids’ brains are natural pattern-finding machines, and they’ll figure out routines you didn’t even know you had. “Dad likes to watch the news at 6 and he gets mad if I interrupt him then.” “Friday nights everyone’s tired so we get pizza for dinner.” “Every time I hug my sister, my parents get happy.” Stuff like that.

The other good news is that kids are flexible. Running late on bedtime one night? No big deal. Taking a weekend trip to grandma’s? Don’t sweat it. Changing to a new school with slightly different hours? It’ll work out. Remember: kids are going to be fine.

But you can help the young children in your life feel calm, confident, and comfortable by helping to build recognizable routines for them. Help their lives be predictable, and everyone will feel much better.

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In other news: I’m glad to be back, and hope to be back on the blog-horse—though I’m buying a house moving and starting a new job, all in the next month, so we’ll see what happens. But I’m looking for more questions to answer in my “Ask a Preschooler Teacher” series. I have a couple questions in the pipeline, but I’d love to have some more to chew on. If you have something you’d like me to discuss, please let me know!

Superhero Play

foodforthoughtTwo weeks ago there was a minor local blow-up in Philadelphia about a preschool that decided to ban superhero play. There’s an article about it in a Philly independent newspaper, with links to a reddit about it and stuff. And there’s a flyer (below) that was apparently sent home to families.

I’m not interested in criticizing this particular school’s approach to the issue—though I do disagree with it. Every classroom I’ve worked in has dealt with this parts of this issue in one way or another every year, and frankly the “right” solution isn’t always the same for every group of children and families. I don’t know the context at the school, and I won’t presume to claim I know what policy choice they should be making.

That said, I think it’s good to talk about the issues that come up when rough “superhero” play becomes a pattern with a group of children.

First, and most obviously, is physical injury. When kids play rough, they’re likely to get hurt, and superhero play often gets rough. And yes, it is our job to protect children. That said, there’s a lot of learning that comes from injury. If we insulate children from the possibility of injury in the short- and medium-term, they’ll be less able to protect themselves from injury in the long term, having been deprived of the opportunity to learn from comparatively small mistakes. When you jump off the climber and hit your head, it hurts—but it also teaches you that you are not invincible, and that your actions have consequences, and that being careful is important. Those are important life lessons. The incomparable Teacher Tom calls scrapes and cuts “bloody owies,” and tells his children, “If you have no bloody owies, then you are being too careful. If you have three or more bloody owies then you’re not being careful enough. The right number of bloody owies is one or two. That means you’re not being too careful or too careless.” It sounds a little flip, but he makes a good case for that guideline.

Risking your own physical safety is different from risking someone else’s safety, of course. You can’t hurt other people. That’s not negotiable. But again, our primary goal shouldn’t be to prevent children from ever injuring each other; our primary goal should be to teacher children to choose to keep each other safe. That’s the long-term life goal, and it starts in preschool. Children learn to make good choices by practicing making choices, and sometimes getting them right, and sometimes getting them wrong. If we disallow rough play, we deprive children of the opportunity to choose to keep others safe—and that’s an important choice to get to make.

A more subtle, and I think more important, issue is that of imagination. The flyer brings up the point of children imitating things they’ve seen in various media. This is a phenomenon I’ve seen a lot at preschool: kids playing out scripts from Star Wars, or Cars, or the Disney Princesses. Actually, that last one’s not even a script, because I’ve never met a preschooler yet who can articulate what a princess is, or what she says, or what she does—they just know they want to BE one. But really, that’s not that different from acting out a fight between Luke and Darth Vader. (Oh, I wish that’s what they were acting out; usually it’s Darth Sidious and General Grievous and Qui Gon Jinn and all the other fake crappy Star Wars non-characters… okay, end of nerd-rant.) They often don’t have much to say about WHY these characters are fighting, or why they’re fighting the WAY they’re fighting. They just know there’s a right way to do it.

Which is kind of the opposite of play. Yes, yes, there’s a crucial place for imitation and role-playing in socio-dramatic play, but this isn’t quite that. When children are pretending to be mommy or fire-fighter, they’re remixing things they’ve seen and things they know into new contexts, and using their own participation to build new understanding of roles people take in the world. Even when they take on characters from books they’ve read—say, Ladybug Girl or Max—they’re taking tidbits from books and combining the words and still images with actions they’ve filled in with their own minds, motivations of their own understanding. That’s not what I see when I see kids acting out movies. To me, that always looks much more rigid, much more an excuse to act in a way that they’ve seen demonstrated as “cool” (another concept no young child has ever been able to explain to me, but all of them want to be it). That said, I think banning that kind of play is trying to solve the problem from the wrong end, like fixing a leak in your ceiling by putting duct tape over it—it’s gonna come out somewhere else. Of COURSE children are going to reenact what they see in the media—the trick is to regulate what media they see.

There’s another issue, too, which some people bring up in the reddit thread, which is the issue of the social constructs that come up through this kind of play. Good and evil are things that are very much on the minds of young children. So are power and weakness; helping and harming; bravery and fear. Every child spends much of their lives grappling with these (and other similar) issues, and figuring out what they mean and where they themselves fit in. Superheros, obviously, fit smack dab in the middle of these issues, so they naturally attract children’s interest. If you don’t want kids playing superheros, you can’t just cut it off. You have to give them something else that scratches the same intellectual/emotional/developmental itch. Give them other games to play about helping and harming. Give them stories to read about power and weakness. Open a dialogue about good and bad. They’re going to investigate those issues with or without your help—choose “with.”

Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff in this superhero play stuff. And while yes, it can be scary and/or discouraging for adults to witness, simply cutting it off doesn’t make all the issues involved go away. They’re important, complicated issues.

The Jarrod Green Maxim of Child Development

foodforthoughtOver the years, I’ve worked with any number of families who are worried about their children’s development. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing for families to feel from time to time: children do worrisome things from time to time. I have a principle that helps me keep things in perspective, and while it’s not especially useful to bring up right when a family is worried, I thought it’d be good to put it out there in the world.

The Jarrod Green Maxim of Child Development is: Most children, in most circumstances, will be mostly fine.

Okay, perhaps it’s not a revelation, but let me talk a little more.

“Most children.” There are some kids who have serious stuff going on—mental or emotional or developmental disabilities—that are going to make life hard. And there are some kids who, by a quirk of temperament, are going to be especially sensitive to something in their environment that wouldn’t affect another child. But the vast majority of kids are going to turn out okay. A lot of children with disabilities or sensitivities are going to be okay too.

“In most circumstances.” There are some life events that are going to really negatively affect almost any child—mostly ones that qualify as short- or long-term trauma. But short of those, children are by nature resilient, and by and large come out okay even when bad stuff happens. And children who experience trauma are resilient too, and a lot of them are going to be okay too.

“Mostly fine.” Everyone’s got issues. But most people still have jobs, and friends, and relationships, and are reasonably well-adjusted members of society, who can communicate okay with other people and get their own needs met most of the time without hurting anyone else very much. That’s just how people tend to work. Most people you know are mostly fine, and chances are any children you know are going to grow up to be mostly fine too.

I’m not just talking about kids with challenges, either. Some kids have absolutely nothing “wrong” with them, and grow up  ideal circumstances. And you know what? They’re not going to have perfect lives. But most of them will be mostly fine.

Most children, in most circumstances, will be mostly fine.

That doesn’t mean that we should stop being concerned for children. We should watch out for children who have innate challenges, and give them extra support. We should watch out for children going through difficult circumstances, and give them extra support. We should observe and assess and support every child, and work hard for the best possible outcome for each one. Always.

At the same time, it’s important to keep the big picture in perspective. He’s having a hard time reading and writing? Okay, good to know; there are some strategies for that, and it’ll get probably get better, and if it doesn’t get better we have other steps we can take, but if it still doesn’t get better? He’s still going to be okay. She’s having trouble regulating her emotions? Yes, that’s important, and we’ll work on it, and she’ll make progress there, but even if it remains a challenge for her whole life? She’s still going to be okay.

Parents and families and teachers and doctors and specialists and social workers and everyone are all going to do everything they can for every child. But while all that’s going on, remember: most children, in most circumstances, are going to be mostly fine.

Letting Kids Pick the Punishments

foodforthoughtA few weeks ago, the New York Times staged a little debate on the subject of letting children choose their own punishments (and rewards) as a method of discipline. Two folks who write about child-rearing bandied the issue about—Bruce Feiler, who came to the practice reluctantly in his own house but has seen huge benefits, argues for it; KJ Dell’Antonia, who hasn’t tried it, argues against it. It’s an interesting conversation, whichever side of the disagreement you think you land on—you take a minute to go read it before you read this rest of this.

Okay, you’re back. So, the two sides of the argument they present go like this. Feiler says it turns out that letting children make choices in their rewards and punishments, in his experience, produces better behavior from the children than standard models of rewards and punishments do. Dell’Antonia argues that, even if that’s true (a point she doesn’t really dispute), it’s important to her to be the boss of her kids, and she think opening everything to a discussion undermines her authority. It’s kind of a false dichotomy, actually. Feiler’s approach works for his goal: to improve children’s behavior, but it doesn’t work for Dell’Antonia’s goal, which is to be the boss.

That’s where the thing breaks down for me: I don’t understand Dell’Antonia’s values. Why does she care so much about being in charge? If you can get your children to do the behaviors you want (behaviors that may include completing chores, getting along with siblings, communicating respectfully, or any old thing), why would you care about looking like the authority figure? In fact, it doesn’t even actually undermine your authority—a good leader must lead via the consent of the governed (Immanuel Kant, here we come!), and anyone who’s tried to forge a consensus about anything knows that it’s not just about giving in, it’s about listening and problem-solving and communicating as a part of your leadership approach. But I digress…

Really, my problem with this debate is not just about the mis-matched goals the debaters have: my problem is with the frame of the question itself. The assumption is that bad behaviors must be punished and good ones must be rewarded, so the debate is about how the punishments and rewards should be determined. But I would argue (hold on, I HAVE argued) that punishment and rewards aren’t the most effective way to get where you’re going. Punishment only works to change behavior as long as the punisher is around to do the punishing. But your goal is to get your children to behavior well ALL THE TIME, not just when you’re watching.

And what Feiler is describing in his house isn’t actually about punishments at all. Sure, punishments are a part of the conversation, but look at his example of addressing the “overreacting” behavior: the punishment hardly ever gets used! His children have come up with a system by which they regulate themselves, changing their own behaviors without the need for actually enforcing punishments. You could say that the children are changing their behavior because of the FEAR of the strict punishment they themselves have chosen, but I think that’s a mis-reading of the situation. First, the punishment isn’t actually very serious (push-ups?!). Second, what stops the overreacting behavior in its tracks isn’t coming up against the 5-minute time limit; it’s having the behavior pointed out. That’s all. Essentially, when the older sister says, “Overreacting!”, she’s really saying, “Hey, remember how we talked about this behavior, and you agreed it was a problem? Well, knock it off.” It’s the conversation that does the disciplining, not the punishment.

As a preschool teacher who has used conversation-based discipline techniques to enormous success for years, I promise you, it really works. The conversation isn’t a lecture or a harangue or a guilt trip. It’s an honest communication, where you say, “Hey, this thing is a problem for me, and I think it’s a problem for you too. Let’s come up with a solution that works for both of us.” The “works for both of us” part is key—you’re not giving up your right to veto proposed solutions, you’re not letting the monkeys run the zoo. You’re sharing control with the other major stake-holder in the situation. And yes, there are times you put your foot down: “I see you are very angry, but I will not let you hurt your brother.” There are also times when you try out a solution the child proposes that you think is sure to fail. Often it fails, and you revisit the problem and try again, and that’s a learning experience for the child. Other times the solution works, and you’ve learned a little something yourself!

It’s not a cure-all, but the way children respond to this approach can be remarkable—they gain confidence and self-control, and really step up to the plate in terms of changing their behavior. When they see that they are respected, they work to be worthy of that respect. And that’s really what it comes down to: Dell’Antonia says she wants her children to be “just a little afraid” of her, as though that’s the key to getting the behaviors you want. But having your children respect you is a WAY better way to get things done.

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If you’re interested in trying this approach to discipline in your family, but don’t know where to start, I can help—I’ve coached many families to a more collaborative and successful approach to improving children’s behaviors. Check out my website for more information.

And if you’ve tried anything related to this approach in your home, I’d love to hear about it! Put your stories in the comments (link at the top of the blog post).

Why Mr. Rogers is a Genius

foodforthoughtI have some memories of watching Mr. Rogers when I was a kid, but they’re pretty vague. I remember the Land of Make-Believe, and I remember him putting on a sweater, and that’s about it. But the more I find out about Mr. Rogers as an adult and as an early childhood professional, the more I think he’s amazing.

Check out, for example, this collection of clips. Periodically Mr. Rogers had a “How It’s Made” segment, where he would show how something ordinary is made, visiting the factory and looking around and asking questions. (If you’ve got 8 minutes to spare right now, go watch the segment about graham crackers—it’s the best of the bunch.) Watching him tour these factories and things is a kind of meditative experience—if you’re stressed out, these are guaranteed to calm you down. But for kids, I think they’re actually something quite special.

For one thing, while Rogers’ dialogue might sound inane to adults, it’s an excellent reflection of what children might be thinking or noticing. When he says, “Boy, it sure is fun to watch the mixer going around,” he’s showing children that their ideas and feelings are reasonable and shared by others. When he says things like, “I wonder what happens to the dough next,” he’s showing children that their questions are reasonable. When he asks, “What’s that part there?” or “How does that work?” he’s giving children a model for how to notice things, and how to ask questions about their observations. With his quiet external monologue, he’s showing children how to have their own internal monologue—a crucial piece of cognitive development.

He’s also providing children a model for social development. The way he displays positive social interactions—saying please and thank you, smiling and shaking hands—make it very approachable for children. And you see the people around him respond in kind—Rogers brings out a friendliness and helpfulness in those around him, and it gives children a positive model of how people interact with each other. Even better, Rogers provides a splendid model of how conversations work (a model many adults could benefit from)—in the graham cracker segment, when walking between parts of the factory he asks his guide about her work and her childhood, and how she feels about working at the factory, showing how people can have productive conversations about ordinary things.

In a completely different realm, after the tragic shootings in Sandy Hook this fall, I came across this essay of Rogers’ on talking to children about tragic events in the news. (Note: As of this moment, the Rogers’ Institute Website seems to be having some trouble—hopefully they’ll fix the link soon.) Rogers’ advice to families and caregivers is compassionate and sane. He helps you focus on children’s perspective, and urges you to listen before responding, acknowledge emotions, provide comfort and safety, and meet fear with honesty and support. And of course there’s this classic quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers, so many caring people in this world.” What a wonderful response.

In general, the more I see and hear of Mr. Rogers, the more I admire the way he validates and respects children, and encourages others to do the same. What an important perspective he brings.

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Oh, and one more thing. While this is not particularly early-childhood-related, I have to share this video of Mr. Rogers accepting his lifetime achievement Emmy. You can skip to about 1:15 (you don’t need to hear Tim Robbins’ intro or stare at his silly turtleneck)—and then be prepared to spend two minutes getting misty and feeling good about yourself and the people who brought you up. Just saying.

Visiting Kindergarten

foodforthoughtYesterday I visited my friend Carrie’s classroom. Carrie co-teaches one of the kindergarten classes at a private school in center city. I was struck by some things I saw, and wanted to share them.

First off, the kids. They were so smart, and thoughtful, and engaged, and self-regulated! When I came into the classroom, they were all sitting around tables working on a writing/coloring project, sharing markers, laughing and chatting. No one was arguing or moping or getting up to do other things. They were all engaged and on-task, and totally relaxed and happy. Later, when it was free play time, I saw small groups of children moving around the room, cooperating impressively, listening to each other and solving problems, giving each other appropriate space. When the teachers rang the bell to announce clean-up time, they all stopped what they were doing to listen and then shifted tasks easily.

Coming most recently from a classroom of 2’s and 3’s, this pretty much knocked me over. But of course, it wasn’t just the difference in age that made the difference in behavior—it came from the teachers. I saw throughout the morning how the teachers continually offered the children respect, listening to them when they had something to say, helping them when they asked for help, giving them space when they needed it, politely asking for attention when it was important, speaking to them like real people. Which allowed the children, of course, to treat each other that way. Sometimes culture is bottom-up, and sometimes it’s top-down. These teachers used their position of authority to set such a great tone and set of expectations, that the children’s behavior was raised to a level they wouldn’t (necessarily) have accomplished on their own.

I was also impressed with the important role of play in their classroom. It wasn’t just that they planned activities that were playful (though they did do that)—it was that there was significant time for free play in their day. Some children worked together to build impressive block structures; some children made art together; a lot of the children banded together in a huge restaurant-themed dramatic play scenario. The class is embarking on a long-term project about restaurants (chosen by the children) in which they are not only learning how to cook and share food, but to write menus and calculate change, and to think about the roles people take on in a restaurant. I mentioned to Carrie that when I visited the “restaurant” three different waiters tried to take my order, and things got confused. “Oh,” she said, “that’s because we just started talking yesterday about how different people have to do different jobs to make everything work. Yesterday no one wanted to be the customer so things fell apart, but now we’re figuring out how all the jobs have to happen for the restaurant to work.” In the coming weeks they’ll take field trips to restaurants to see how things work there, and bring those insights back to the classroom. What a great way to approach social studies (as well as math and literacy and science) through play.

I was blown away by the complexity of the play going on. Kids spontaneously split up into various roles without needing to negotiate. I saw waiters moving between tables, passing orders to the chefs who would prepare appropriate food. “Would you like to see the dessert menu?” “Can I have the check please?” “Can I get you something to drink?” And the creative thinking! I was trying to throw them curve balls by asking about specials, spilling my soup, disputing my bill, but those kids parried my every thrust. They were really expert players, cooperating and listening and adjusting and paying attention. I won’t go into all the reasons that this kind of play is great for cognitive and socio-emotional development, but the list is LONG.

I was also impressed with the way the children threw themselves into learning. They were excited to read, to write, to do math… When the teacher asked for volunteers to read things at circle time, every hand shot up. I noticed children using math spontaneously in their play (“I’ve only used [pauses to count] 7 colors in my drawing, so I have [pausing to think] 5 more to go”). During a writing activity, I saw a child get up from her seat and walk to another child’s cubby so she could look at his name to spell it correctly; another child wanted to write “I like books,” and remembered that “like” was one of the words in the question-of-the-day at circle time earlier and went to look at how it was spelled, all without prompting. Again, in comparison to 2 year olds, this stuff was astounding—but is no less special for happening with kindergarteners.

Finally, a thing that impressed me was the children’s ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives. Specifically, the teachers told the children that one child would not be coming back to their class for the rest of the year. When they asked the children to think about how that child might feel if they ran into him at the park, they gave surprisingly understanding answers (“Sad, because he’ll know he doesn’t get to come to school with us anymore”; “Confused, because he might forget for a minute that he’s not in our class now”; “Happy, because he’ll see his friends again”; “Worried, because he might not know if we’re still friends with him”). When the teachers asked the children to brainstorm things they could put in a goodbye book for the child, they went far beyond nice things to say, or things that they would want to hear themselves—they thought specifically about their memories of the child, and talked about his interests and likes, and memories they had of doing fun things with him that he might want to remember. Again, I’m sure this ability is partly a function of being older than the children I’m used to, but it also is evidence of a school and classroom culture that values empathy and perspective-taking.

Overall, I had a blast in their classroom. But the thought that struck me afterwards was that this is what it looks like if you take the curriculum I’m used to in preschool and you keep doing it for three more years. It was the same kind of emergent, project-based, play-centered curriculum, with the same kind of focus on social and emotional skills. And what do kindergarteners working in this kind of program look like? Exactly like the kind of kids I want 6 year olds to be. That felt pretty good to see.

Repeated Behaviors

foodforthoughtI’ve been working with parents lately who are dealing with negative behaviors in their children. Some children refuse to sit quietly at the dinner table. Some children start tantrums at bedtime. Some children mount a Gandhi-esque campaign of passive resistance when it’s time to leave the house the morning. I’m sure you can think of your own examples. But there’s a thought I’ve been having that’s been a useful frame for me and some of the families I’ve been working with, and I thought I’d talk about it here. And it’s this:

Any repeated behavior is either involuntary or is getting reinforced.

Involuntary behaviors are things the child has no control over—at least, not at his current developmental level. Crying when startled, for instance—the child can’t help it. Other behaviors might be in more of a gray area. Think about a child who gets so excited he starts jumping and shouting; or a child who gets so angry he yells and hits. At a certain stage of development, it’s reasonable to expect a child to control those behaviors; at an earlier stage that behavior is saying, “My feelings are so big, this is the only behavior I can manage!” Just because a behavior is involuntary doesn’t mean it’s okay. No matter how young you are, you many not hit someone else. But it’s not very compassionate—and not very effective—to punish a child for a behavior he can’t control.

Reinforced behaviors are a different beast. You can read what I’ve written about reinforcement here, but for the moment you can think of reinforced behavior as behavior that’s been trained, or learned. A child whines a little in the grocery store, so mom gives her a candy to calm her down; next time she whines a little more in the grocery store, until mom gives in and gives her a candy; soon she’s learned that if she just whines long enough, she’ll eventually get a candy. That’s a reinforced behavior—the child gets something good if they do the behavior enough. The child who shows off until he gets attention. The child who punches his sister until she leaves him alone. The child who yells until an adult comes to entertain them. All reinforced.

Mind you, reinforcement is a crucial tool for learning positive behaviors. Everyone smiles at you when you hug the baby, so you learn to give the baby lots of hugs. Your friend plays with you more when you share your toys, so you learn to share. You feel a sense of pride when you finish reading a book all by yourself, so you read more books. Those are all great examples of reinforcement.

But when it’s a negative behavior you’re talking about, reinforcement can be super tricky. As behaviorists have long known, the smallest, least-frequent reinforcements often create the strongest behaviors. With the child whining for candy in the grocery store, you refuse candy nine times in a row, but the tenth time you give in after twenty minutes and give her a Tic Tac? That is a behavior that will stick, my friend. Also, you may not realize what reinforcement your child is getting. “Why does he keeping doing that if it just makes me yell at him?” you cry. You don’t realize that (perhaps) your negative attention is more reinforcing than no attention at all.

I don’t mean to depress you, or make you think that you’re stuck with negative behaviors whether they’re involuntary or reinforced. Quite the contrary—this information will arm you in your quest to eliminate these behaviors.

The first step is to figure out the cause of the behavior. Is it involuntary or reinforced? I have the families I work with carefully observe their child’s behavior and look for patterns. If you notice a pattern in what happens leading up to the behavior, perhaps the behavior is an involuntary response to the environment. If you notice a pattern in the consequences of the behavior, perhaps the behavior is getting reinforced by that consequence. Looking for patterns is the way to figure out the cause.

If you determine that the behavior is involuntary, your goal is to help the child gain self-control, and gain access to more socially acceptable ways of responding to his situation. You might, for instance, catch the child’s hand before he hits his brother, and say, “Boy, you are so mad you need to punch something! Here, hit this pillow! Good! Now stomp your foot and say, ‘I’m mad!'” With practice, the behavior you’ve scaffolded for the child becomes his new natural behavior.

If the behavior is a reinforced one, you’ve got the somewhat more difficult task of un-training. But the approaches aren’t complicated. You might try to meet the child’s need before it arises, thereby eliminating the need for the behavior. You might try eliminating the reinforcement, and allowing the behavior to naturally extinguish when it stops working. You might try teaching the child a different behavior that will get his needs met in a more socially appropriate way. You might try giving the child MORE reinforcement when he DOESN’T do the behavior than when he does.

There are a lot of possible approaches, and an expert can help you choose an approach that is likely to work for your family. But understanding the root of the behavior is a crucial part of changing it.

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Are you encountering a challenging behavior that you can’t figure out? Got the behavior figured but still can’t work out how to change it? I work with families on precisely this stuff. And I give free initial consultations! Just FYI.

Influential Teachers

foodforthoughtA bit of a departure from my regular early-childhood-related fare today. I’ve been thinking lately about teachers I’ve had, and how they’ve influenced my teaching.

I’m not talking about teachers whose classes were a blast to be in—like Bernie Shellem’s  biology, or Jeff Sensebaugh’s physics, or John Walker’s English seminars (all at Oakland’s College Preparatory School), or Bill Heindel’s “cognitive neuropsychology” (at Brown University).

I’m not talking about the teachers who kicked my brain’s butt and made me think in new ways about stuff—like Diane Munro with calculus, or Janet Schwartz with Shakespeare (both at CPS), or Oskar Eustis with dramaturgy, or Spencer Golub with performance theory, or Mark Steinbach with music theory (all at Brown), or Barbara Henderson with absolutely everything early-childhood-related (at San Francisco State).

I’m talking about teachers who did something that affected the way that I now teach. I thought it’d be nice to mention what they did.

In the first few days of 6th grade, Pam Cooke (at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, CA) had us list for her the qualities of a good teacher. We brainstormed a bunch, and then she had us vote on which ones were most important to us. And then she promised to do her best to embody those qualities, and told us that if she wasn’t doing those things, we should remind her. (I’m sure she gave us some idea of what qualities a good student has, but I don’t recall that part.) I know we chose several qualities, but the only one that sticks with me now is that a teacher should be flexible. Not sure why we chose that, really, but throughout the year she would always say, “Hey guys, I’m flexible!” as she changed plans to suit our needs. We laughed at the time, but the idea that the students could and should have some say in what their teachers do, in how their learning proceeds? That was kind of revolutionary to me. And that idea of responsive teaching is something I try to emulate.

Skipping ahead to high school (at CPS), I was taking a philosophy seminar senior year with Felicia Wong. A few weeks into the semester we had read, oh, Hume or somebody, and in class we all sat around busily poking holes in his philosophical approach. Ms. Wong sat and listened for awhile with a frown on her face. Finally she spoke up. “Okay, sure guys, you’re right. But it’s kind of boring. You guys are smart enough to find the flaws in ANYONE’S philosophy, so why bother? Let’s change it around, and start looking for what’s GOOD in each philosopher’s approach, what’s valuable and useful to us.” We all kind of sat there stunned for a moment. And then the discussion got better. The idea that we didn’t have to prove we were smart, that she simply assumed we were smart, was pretty powerful. The idea that we were, in fact, smarter than the material we were studying? That was amazing. It made us feel incredibly powerful, and elevated the level of work we were all doing. When I talk these days about a “strengths-based” approach to teaching? That’s what it looks like.

In college (Brown) I took a seminar in writing creative non-fiction with Catherine Imbriglio. I’ve never written or read more in my life. Each week we read a wildly different creative non-fiction book, and twice a week we brought in writing assignments of our based in some way on what we were reading, and each class we read everyone’s writing and revised our own writing and read some more. A lot of what we wrote was crap, and a lot of the ideas didn’t necessarily sit well for us. But we were reading and writing so much that everyone sooner or later found the thing that hit them just write, and everyone ended up writing some stuff that was truly amazing. I did some of the best writing of my life in that class. And I gained the idea that students don’t necessarily have to deeply understand and absorb every single aspect of every single idea—instead, if you just do enough different stuff, everyone will enter it a different way and find something that’s valuable to them personally.

My first early childhood education class was The History and Theories of Child Development with Cynthia Garcia-Coll. There were over a hundred people in the class, and it was maybe the best discussion class I’ve ever taken. She used a hundred different strategies to get us talking to each other. In “lecture” she would get one person to say their idea, and then another person to say their different idea, and then a third person to examine the differences. She had us breaking into pairs and small groups all the time, and seemed to be everywhere to offer a comment or ask an incisive question. The idea that we weren’t there to hear her say smart things, but instead to enter a dialogue together and build shared meaning around the class material? That’s how I try to teach college, and it’s how I try to teach young children.

On a whim, I took a class called Planetary Geology with Peter Schultz. His field of study was impacts and craters. We spent the semester looking at hi-res photos of the surface of Mars and figuring out what we could figure out about them. The diversity of the students in the class was amazing—there were senior geology majors and freshman physics majors and sophomore theater majors and everything in between. And what was amazing is that Dr. Schultz made everyone feel like a genius in the field. The senior geology major might raise her hand and say something like, “The highlights on the south rim of that crater look a little like the magnesium deposits around the edge of Crater Lake; has there been a spectral analysis of dirt samples looking for alkaline earth metals?” And Dr. Schultz would say, “That’s a terrific question, a really smart connection, and actually a related paper just came out last week that I happen to have in my brief case. Here, read this, and come back next week and tell us what you’ve learned.” And then the sophomore theater major would raise his hand and says something like, “Those wavy lines look kind of like a river. Was there ever, I don’t know, water or something there?” And Dr. Schultz would say, “That’s a terrific question, a really smart connection, and actually a related paper just came out last week that I happen to have in my brief case. Here, read this, and come back next week and tell us what you’ve learned.” Everyone in that class, no matter their background knowledge, had important insight to offer the group. That’s become the foundation of how I teach college students.

Finally, I took a kind of bizarre class called The Arts Literacy Project taught by Kurt Wootton and Eileen Landay and Nancy Hoffman. ArtsLit was a wider program that tried to help K-12 students improve their reading and writing skills by making theater (that’s a hideous oversimplification, but it’s in the ballpark). The program was part research, part teacher trainings, part curriculum in local schools, and part an idea-lab wrapped up in a course for undergraduates. The class wasn’t a straightforward approach to the material—rather, we kind of lived the material. We kind of became 8th graders. We slowly read Sophocles’ Antigone, and did creative writing projects about it, and did theater games and exercises, and eventually created a performed a play we had written based on Sophocles’ play. In a 3.5 hour class, I think we spent over 2 hours each week simply living the curriculum, and only 60 or 90 minutes debriefing and discussing and theorizing. But it was engaging and exciting and, most importantly, effective: at the end of the semester, we really GOT how this approach worked, because we had used it and lived it. This practice-based approach to learning has influenced both my work with children and adults, and even my private consulting with families—the question of “what works in real life?” trumps all the theory and argument you can do, and you only find out what works by doing it.

So, thanks all. You’ve made a huge difference.

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And I’m not even getting into preschool colleagues who’ve influenced me. Boy, that’d be a big one…

How about you? Who’s influenced the way you teach (or the way you parent)? Share your stories with us in the comments. (The “comments” button is at the top.)

Obama’s State of the Union

foodforthoughtLast night, President Obama give a nice little shout-out to early childhood education in his State of the Union Address. You can watch and read the whole address at, but here’s the part about preschool:

“… None of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs. And that has to start at the earliest possible age. Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

First of all: Bravo Mr. President, for talking about the importance of early childhood education in such a high-profile way. In general, I think your administration has done more for early childhood education than any since Johnson’s (which kicked off Head Start in 1965). I don’t love Arne Duncan (Secretary of Education) overall, but I think he’s done some good stuff to raise the profile of early childhood education. This address is more in the right direction.

Second, I wanted to analyze and discuss some of the specific things the president said.

“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.” True! There’s prominent research has come from David Weikart, whose Perry Preschool Project in Michigan later became the HighScope curriculum, and economist James Heckman (more on him below), and others. Though “the better he or she does” is a somewhat misleading phrase. Children who go to preschool don’t necessarily outperform other children academically in a significant way—and a lot of people trying to evaluate, say, Head Start want to look for academic gains. The human benefits come in terms of quality of life—which Obama alludes to a little later.

“But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”
This is a fascinating statistic, and I wish I knew its source. According to a 2012 Department of Education study, 64% of four-year-olds receive professional child care; according to 2011 US Census data, 52% of three-and-four-year-olds are in school. What’s great is that Obama’s stat, whatever its origin, emphasizes HIGH-QUALITY care. There are many metrics of what makes a preschool high-quality; the good ones (like CLASS) find a way to evaluate the quality of teacher–child relationships and interactions (which research clearly links to quality of education) and determine the developmental appropriateness of the program and curriculum. (Aside: To my knowledge, no method of evaluating program quality even looks at how quickly children are learning material; unlike how we seem to be evaluating K-12 education.) If both Obama’s stat and the DOE stat are accurate, that means that half of preschools aren’t good enough. From my personal experience evaluating preschools for Contra Costa County, that’s not a crazy thing to think. What does it mean? Well, it means that if we’re going to expand access to high-quality preschool as the president suggests, it’s not a question of building more schools, it’s a question of making the schools we have better—through expanded teacher education and funding for program improvements. I really, really hope this goes somewhere.

“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool.” There’s a wide range of how much preschools cost, but “a few hundred bucks a week” is a decent ballpark figure for quality care. Let’s say that makes on the order of $1,000/month, or $12,000/year. In the US in 2012, poverty was defined as $23,050/year for a family of four—which would make quality child care cost 52% of your annual income. The definition of “middle-class” is a lot more contentious, but in 2012 the US Census reported that the median household income was $50,054—which would put the cost of quality child care at 24% of your annual income. Yup, most people can’t afford anything like that. Which is why so many preschools get away with being low-quality—there’s a huge market for cheaper child care, even if it’s not as good!

“And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.” That’s been well known, again, since Johnson oversaw the founding of Head Start in 1965. Poor kids walk into kindergarten over a year “behind”—and that gap only widens as they get older. Think about that phrase for a minute. How can you already be behind on the first day of kindergarten?! It’s cruel and wrong. The issue of “kindergarten readiness” is an important and complicate one, but I love the spin Belann Giaretto, director of the fabulous Pacific Primary preschool in San Francisco, put it once: “It’s not children’s job to be ready for school. It’s the school’s job to be ready for the children—whoever the children are when they walk in the door.” Amen to that.

“So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” That sounds awesome. I am nervous about how vague it is.

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” This one’s true, and I think it’s the best way to “sell” early childhood education to a skeptical public that doesn’t want to foot the bill. James Heckman, the economist I mentioned earlier, estimates that for ever dollar used to put “at-risk” kids in preschool, society saves between $30 and $300. That’s not a typo. We save money when less teens get pregnant. We save money when there are less crimes to solve and prosecute and punish. We make more money when more people grow up and have better jobs (or any jobs) and pay more taxes. The list goes on a for awhile. If you’re looking for a financial investment for a community to make, it’s hard to find a more profitable one than preschool. The only reason it’s hard to sell to the public is that you’ve got to wait 30 years for the investment to pay off, and even then you can’t measure it directly. But anyway, if you’re unconvinced, or want to know more about the profoundly important economic aspect to putting public funds into preschool, please, PLEASE spend 20 minutes listening to this piece on NPR’s Planet Money. They’ll sell you, in a very entertaining and listenable way.

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.” I don’t know what’s going on in Georgia. I know that Oklahoma, through a bizarre series of back-door programs, kind of accidentally instituted universal preschools, and the results have been great. Read about it in the New York Times. (I know I heard a great radio program about how Oklahoma’s law came about, but I can’t find it online. Anyone know?)

“So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
Well, on the one hand, that’s ridiculous. The sad fact is, children born into poor families DO start “the race of life” already behind, and it’s a question of catching back up before kindergarten. On the other hand, why does our society insist on this ridiculous “race” metaphor for education? We all want our kids to learn as fast as possible, so they’ll be “ahead,” and that makes no sense at all. Each child learns at his own pace and his own way, which has very little bearing on that child’s happiness or fulfillment in life, and research is very clear that education works best when it conforms to the different needs of each individual child. And yet we put them all on the same age-based schedule, and we want them to “get ahead”… sigh. It makes me crazy.

But on the other other hand: yes, I know exactly what the president means, and so do you. He means that our society is not meeting the needs of many of our society’s children, and it’s not fair. And that’s true. And by expanding access to quality early childhood education, we can make things a little better. So “let’s give our kids that chance.”

Good luck, Mr. President. We’re all behind you on this one. When there’s a program, we’ll all be calling our congressmen.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on public policy and early childhood education! Please comment below.