Teaching to the Brain

We’ve all heard of teaching to the test, and we all know that this strategy has no long-term success for children’s learning. Instead, I suggest “teaching to the brain”….using what we know about how the brain develops to influence what we do in our classrooms. During the first five years of life, the brain develops at a rapid speed. Although the brain can be trained to memorize pieces of information, true learning and understanding comes from experiences that are tailored to the way the brain develops during these important years. So how can you apply what we know about the developing brain in connection to plan appropriate environments and experiences for young children that maximize the foundation for later learning? Here are 9 Brain-Based teaching strategies.

  1. Build Healthy Relationships
    Healthy development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life, both within and outside the family. Children who have positive relationships with their teachers are more excited about learning, more positive about coming to school, more self-confident, and achieve more in the classroom.
  2. Promote Communication
    Just as children want to connect with us, they want to communicate with us. There’s a very predictable pattern to language development, and it happens pretty quickly. Have extended discourse with children, go beyond the here and now in your conversations, and use sophisticated vocabulary.
  3. Encourage Curiosity and Creativity
    Exploratory behavior and creativity is a talent that is highly prized in the working world. That’s because good ideas make money. Children are naturally inquisitive. They are naturally curious and creative. Unfortunately, they learn from school that teachers value right answers more than provocative questions, so they learn to stop asking questions. Use open ended materials, ask thought-provoking questions, allow for trial and error and problem solving, and allow a lot of time for exploration.
  4. Value Play
    Play is the highest form of research (Albert Einstein). Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions. Play is important. Play is how we learn.
  5. Improve Executive Function Skills
    Executive functions lay the groundwork for school success. Executive functions are a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Children who are behind their peers in these skills show more aggression, have difficulty getting along with others, are disruptive in class, and are slower to master academic skills in school.
  6. Plan for Physical Activity
    Voluntary gross motor activities, such as games, running, dance, and other active movements wire the brain to make more efficient connections. This supports later academic learning. We should be encouraging more, not less, physical activity in our classrooms.
  7. Develop and Teach Emotional Intelligence
    Human beings have an incredible ability to display many emotions, but only six of them are built in at birth. Unless children are taught these emotional states early (ages 0-3), when they enter school, they’ll be emotionally narrow. Teach children to recognize their own emotions, those of others, and how to manage their own emotional states.
  8. Practice Stress-Relief
    Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students. Recent studies suggest 30-50% of all students felt moderately or greatly stressed every day. For those from poverty, the numbers can be higher. Teach children better coping skills, offer them predictability, social support, and control over some of their choices.
  9. View Differences as the Norm
    Don’t expect children to be ready to learn the same thing at the same time. This contradicts research that says all children have different rates of brain maturation. Celebrate the unique differences, abilities, talents, and interests that children bring to your classroom.

Does much of this sound like good DAP (developmentally appropriate practice)? Yes! That’s because developmentally appropriate practice is based on what we know about the developing brain and the developing child. What are ways that you put these strategies into practice in your environment?

Using Worksheets in Preschool is Problematic

Using worksheets in preschool classrooms is problematic. I was teaching a class recently, and I noticed a common theme. As much as teachers have heard that using worksheets in preschool is not appropriate, they seem to have a hard time letting go of them. Some teachers believe that worksheets have value to children. Others think they aren’t teaching if they aren’t using worksheets. These ideas could not be further from the truth.

You never want to get on a plane where the pilot learned to fly from worksheets.

Todd Whitaker

So what’s wrong with using worksheets in preschool?

Worksheets reduce children’s beliefs in themselves.

  • Worksheets often have a “right” answer. Unfortunately, this also means they have a wrong answer. The wrong answer doesn’t help children learn. They now know what is wrong, but they may not understand why it is wrong. Or they may not know what the correct answer is. They have no way of using trial and error to find the correct answer. Children who see a lot of wrong answers may feel defeated in their ability. They may not see value in taking risks for fear of being wrong.
  • Worksheets have a single, correct way to be used. Because of this, children aren’t using higher-order thinking skills. Concrete materials, on the other hand, support higher-order thinking. As a result, children can use trial and error to discover new solutions.
  • Young children are concrete learners, which means they need tangible objects to learn a new concept. Worksheets are abstract. Young children’s brains are not able to create understanding from worksheets. Because of this, worksheets are not developmentally appropriate in preschool.
  • Since worksheets can’t teach children at such a young age, that means the only thing they can do is present, or test, a concept that children already know. And if children already know it, then why are we wasting our time on it?

Worksheets discourage socialization and creativity among children.

  • They don’t allow children to work together or collaborate on a project. At an age where social skills are critical and still forming, the activities in our classrooms should promote collaboration, not discourage it.
  • Worksheets in preschool do not allow for creativity, divergent thinking, or the opportunity to display learning differently. Children need opportunities to engage in STEM, the arts, motor activities, and more along with their peers.

Worksheets do not take into account preschoolers’ brain development.

  • They are task-oriented activities rather than learning activities. For example, when completing a worksheet, the goal becomes to finish the worksheet instead of understanding the specific concepts. Preschool should be about the process, not the product!
  • Most often, all of the children in the class are working on the same worksheet. However, having all children do the same thing simultaneously goes against common logic. We know that not all children will be at the same level of development.
  • Overly academic approaches may offer short-term success, such as children being able to recite alphabet letters or rote count, but this comes at a cost. For example, children from overly academic preschools schools may not have engaged in the types of higher-order thinking that create authentic learning. As a result, they don’t have a firm foundation for later success. They also have less time for social skills development and often show higher test anxiety levels than their peers from play-based schools.

Worksheets in preschool take away from meaningful learning opportunities.

  • Worksheets waste valuable time and focus on teaching only rote skills (Volante, 2004).
  • Teachers who use worksheets in preschool to portray a concept can achieve more meaningful learning through a hands-on, meaningful approach. 

“If they can do the worksheet, they don’t need it. If they can’t, it won’t help them.”

Marilyn Adams

Letting go of worksheets in preschool creates more time in your classroom to allow children to explore their interests in a meaningful way. And when you allow children to make choices, they become more motivated. Motivate children, and you cause a release of dopamine in the brain. Unlike other neurotransmitters, dopamine is spritzed on the brain. As a result, it reaches more extensive areas. Motivate children, and you increase learning.

There are numerous ways to engage children in meaningful literacy, math, and science concepts without using worksheets. What are your favorite play-based activities?

Need more ideas on what to do instead of worksheets? Check out our great literacy courses!

Creating Your Literacy Curriculum – 3 hours

Learn how to create a great literacy curriculum for your classroom!

Moving Beyond Letter of the Week – 3 hours

Learn how to teach letters and sounds through a holistic approach.

Creating Neural Pathways for Literacy – 2.5 hours

Learn how to activate the letter-box region. You will leave with ideas for activities that create neural pathways for literacy.

Number Sense Activities: Math Made Fun

Math, especially number sense, is one of my favorite areas to plan for in the preschool classroom. Sometimes teachers focus so much on the counting sequence that they forget about the other number sense activities.

What is Number Sense?

Number sense for preschoolers is a group of related math abilities that are key predictors of children’s math achievement. In essence, they are the skills that children need in order to work with numbers in a variety of ways. These skills include the ability to:

  • Understand quantities, such as knowing how many are in a given group of objects.
  • Compare amounts of items using terms such as more, less, equal, larger, and smaller.
  • Recognize the relationships between individual items and groups of things. (i.e., when the child says “3,” it means all items, not just that individual item that was named “3”).
  • Understand the symbols that we use to represent quantities. (i.e., numerals).
  • Order a group of objects. (i.e., 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or largest to smallest).
  • Add and subtract with concrete objects. (i.e., having a group of three bears, adding one to it, and understanding that you now have four bears).
  • Problem-solve. (i.e., how many paintbrushes are needed for the children at an activity).

Number Sense Activities

As you can see…these skills beyond being able to recite the counting sequence! So, what are some specific activities that you can implement in your classroom to promote these skills?

Frogs on Lily Pads Promote 1:1 Correspondence

Lily Pad Sensory Table Activity

In this sensory table activity, children have 12 coasters and 12 frogs. As they practice putting one frog on each “lily pad,” they are practicing the skill of 1:1 correspondence.

Make Numerals Easier to Learn


Numerals are such an abstract concept for young children. While they may recognize the numeral and name it, they also need to know how many it represents. Unfortunately, many activities that work with numerals offer no support for helping children understand this association. I like to add “quantity dots” to my numerals as children begin to match up the numeral to a quantity. The dots allow children to check their work to ensure that they are choosing the correct numeral.

Frog and Pond Activity Builds Number Sense by Connecting Numerals with Quantities

Turtles in the Pond

In this fun activity, children match the number of shapes on the turtles back to the numerals on the pond. The turtles have a clothespin on the back so that the child can clip it on the correct pond. The dots on the numerals help children know if they are choosing the correct numeral.

Sink the Boat Sensory Activity Builds Number Sense Through Comparison of Quantities

Sink the Boat

This sensory table activity includes a variety of marbles and boats. Children attempt to predict how many marbles it will take to “sink the boat.” (Not intended for children under age 3).

Math Manipulatives Promote Counting, 1:1 Correspondence, and Creating Equal Sets

Ice Cream Math Manipulative

In this math manipulative, children roll the die and take the corresponding number of ice cream sundaes to put on their tray. The gameplay continues until both children have filled their trays. Sometimes, children continue rolling the die to remove the ice cream cones from their trays and return them to the basket.

Teddy Bear Math Manipulative

In this game, children choose a card with dots from the deck and then take the appropriate number of bears to match the card. They can even put the bears right on top of the dots if they are still in the beginning stages of quantification.

Path Games Build Number Sense Through Counting, Comparison, and Creating Equal Sets

Short Path Game

In this short path game, children roll the die and move their game piece to the town. Since this game is designed for younger children, we’ve given each child his own game board to eliminate confusion and conflict.

Long Path Game

This long path game gives them a longer path and a shared board for children who are ready for a little more. In addition, the “bonus spaces” throughout the game allow children to customize the rules of the game.

5 & 10 Frames Are Great for Older Preschoolers

I also love these activities on using 10 frames and 5 frames from Pre-kpages.com:  https://www.pre-kpages.com/developing-number-sense-in-preschool/.

Interested in Learning More? We have several classes to help you!

Count Me In: Encouraging Number Sense in Preschool – 1 hour

Adding math activities to your classroom in fun and inviting ways can be a challenge. This course will cover the mathematical area of number sense and offer many activities that encourage number sense for preschool children. Filled with pictures of materials and descriptions of the activities, you’ll walk away with great ideas on how to create materials in your classroom on a budget. As a bonus, you’ll have access to a few downloadable games that you can print out for use in your classroom.

Creating Your Preschool Math Curriculum – 3 hours

Math is something that children do naturally. However, it can be a struggle to know what types of activities to provide for children to prepare them for Kindergarten. This workshop will give you a background in the kinds of math experiences preschoolers should access in an early care program. This introductory level workshop will cover the big ideas of mathematics, including number sense, algebra, geometry, measurement, and data analysis.

Math & Science for Infants and Toddlers – 2.5 hours

Infants and toddlers naturally engage in both math and science activities. Our job, as their caregivers, is to enhance the environment so that opportunities for math and science play abound! While we can plan for these activities, much of math and science for this age group revolves around our communication with children, so we’ll spend some time exploring this concept and activities. We’ll begin by looking at some foundations for cognitive development and math/science.

Types of Challenging Behavior

There are so many types of challenging behaviors. We always talk about how important it is to build relationships with children, but let’s be real. Some children are just really hard to build relationships with. 

My Story

When I first went back to school to get my early childhood degree, one of my professors went around the room and asked why we went into this field. Of course, most of the answers sounded something like, “I love children!” She proceeded to tell us that we better have another reason for going into this field because that one wasn’t good enough. We all looked at her like she had three heads! She proceeded to tell us that, of course, we should like children. But that alone will not sustain us through the challenging moments of being an early childhood teacher. She continued to say that one day we would find a child that we didn’t like, and then what? I thought that was just cruel. After all, they’re just small children. What could they possibly do that would make me not like them?

A Few Years Later

A few years later, I was teaching first grade. I found the kid I didn’t like. It pains me to say it, but I didn’t fancy her. Her behaviors were challenging, but that wasn’t why I didn’t have a soft spot for her. I could never quite put my finger on it. Perhaps our energies were conflicting, but I just didn’t like her. She, however, loved me. Which probably made my dislike of her even more potent. It was a challenging year. I tried to make sure that I was building a solid relationship with her despite my personal preferences. I tried my best to learn to like her. It didn’t work always work, but over the year, we did find some common ground. I can honestly say that she thrived in my classroom.

It Takes More than Liking Children to be a Good Teacher

No matter how much you may love children, the same thing will happen to you at some point. You’ll find the child that challenges every cell in your body. You’ll find the child that makes it hard to build those positive relationships. Your challenge, then, is to push forward and continue to find a way to make a connection. Because it’s only through a connection that learning occurs and behaviors change.

Types of Challenging Behaviors

Challenging Behavior can appear in many different ways. It is also highly subjective…what one caregiver considers challenging; another may not. The important thing to remember with any challenging behavior is that the child is trying to send you a message in the only way that he/she feels capable of at the time. When you can look for the message, it becomes easier to respond appropriately. In addition, responding properly can help you build healthy and positive relationships with the child. Stanley Greenspan talks about five specific types of challenging children.

Types of Challenging Behavior: The Highly Sensitive Child

Highly sensitive children tend to react more strongly to events than you might anticipate. Their world perceptions can be much more intense than the average child, and any type of change can be overwhelming to this child. They may be cautious, fearful, shy, worry a lot, or be anxious. As they grow, this may lead to moodiness, irritability, or depression. You might notice that highly sensitive children react more sensitively to touch, loud noises, bright lights, or change. They may also get easily overwhelmed by their own emotions.

Strategies for the Highly Sensitive Child:

  • Prepare children for upcoming changes as far in advance as possible and limit the number of changes and transitions.
  • Use picture schedules or visual schedules so the child can anticipate what will be coming up in his/her day.
  • Provide gentle but firm limits.
  • Tune in to the child’s sensory system. Remember, he cannot control how his body is processing sensory information! For example, if you notice the child reacting to bright lights, try dimming the lights in the classroom. If the child holds his hands over his ears at group time, give him a pair of headphones to wear.
  • Help the child label and talk about his feelings. Validate what the child is feeling and show empathy towards him. Watch this video to learn more about using empathy for challenging behaviors.

Types of Challenging Behavior: The Self-Absorbed Child

The self-absorbed child is caught up in her own world. She tends to be quiet, quickly tired, shows little enthusiasm. You may find this child to be more passive and not as responsive as other children. Caregivers may need to show more spirit and effort to engage the child.

Strategies for the Self-Absorbed Child

  • Be sensitive to the child’s natural energy level, and do not expect the child to enjoy the same activities that others may enjoy.
  • Provide a quiet space where this child can get away from everyone for some alone time.
  • Children in this category can have vivid imaginations. Provide them with an outlet for imaginary play such as puppets or dramatic play areas and props.
  • Resist insisting that the child spend time with or be friends with the other children in the classroom. Instead, respect the child’s speed and preferences when establishing relationships or spending time with others.

Types of Challenging Behavior: The Defiant Child

We all probably have experience with the defiant child….the stubborn child, always trying to control, engaging in constant power struggles with those in charge. Rebellious children can swing from being avoidant and passively defiant to being angry and argumentative.

Strategies for the Defiant Child:

  • Don’t take it personally. As hard as it is, try to avoid getting angry and administering punitive punishments, making the situation escalate.
  • Avoid power struggles. The key to avoiding power struggles contains five elements:
    • Say what you mean.
      Avoid saying things to the child that you don’t mean just because you are upset. Choose your words wisely.
    • Mean what you say.
      Make sure that you are only saying things that you plan to enforce. For example, telling a child that Santa Claus won’t come if they continue misbehaving isn’t typically something you mean. Be cautious when establishing limits and consequences.
    • Know what you can’t control.
      As much as we’d like to think we can control everything, we can’t. We can’t control children’s eating, sleeping, and toileting, for instance. We can’t control it IF a child picks up a toy. So think carefully about whether you have control over what you want the child to do or if you wish you had control!
    • Know what you can control.
      Think creatively about what you can control. For example, you may not be able to control whether the child picks up the toys, but you can control what choices are available to the child UNTIL those toys are picked up.
    • Follow through.
      Make sure that you follow through on what you say you are going to do. Doing what you say builds trust with the child. State your limit and the consequence one time, and then follow through on the consequence you established.

Types of Challenging Behavior: The Inattentive Child

This child is highly distractible. He tends to be restless, fidgety, always on the go, and may quickly shift his attention from one activity to the next. Caregivers may find the child rarely finishes an activity that he started.

Strategies for the Inattentive Child:

  • Be sure that your space is not overwhelming with distractions. Avoid covering every wall with something decorative. Avoid hanging things from the ceiling as this can be a distraction as well. Choose carefully when putting things on the wall to avoid “visual clutter”.
  • Provide the child with fidget toys during activities to help keep the child’s attention.
  • Allow for lots of movement and breaks. Avoid asking the child to sit for long periods of time, and offer lots of opportunities for active play.

Types of Challenging Behavior: The Active Aggressive Child

The active, aggressive child tends to be more impulsive than most and may react physically to situations without even thinking. She may hit, punch, or kick to express her anger. As a result, she becomes frustrated more easily than most children and has difficulty controlling her impulses. You may also notice that she has less sensitivity to touch, pain, or sound.

Strategies for the Active Aggressive Child:

  • Be as warm and nurturing as possible. It’s sometimes hard to show this type of care with these children, but the less warmth and nurturing an aggressive child gets, the more her aggressive behaviors increase.
  • Provide firm structure and limits for the child. Establish boundaries and consequences, and be sure to follow through.
  • Help the child to express her feelings in appropriate ways. For example, you may allow the child to push against a wall, squeeze a stress ball, or twist a towel when angry. However, avoid letting the child hit anything, even a punching bag or bean bag chair. Since the child has a hard time controlling impulses, she might not differentiate in the moment between what is ok to hit and what is not.
  • Don’t give in to angry outbursts. If the child gets her way through this behavior, you have just reinforced that it works.


Challenging Behaviors can be frustrated for even the most experienced teacher. However, when you can examine the behavior closely and determine the type of challenging behavior, you will choose strategies that more closely target the child’s needs. I’ll leave you with this final quote by Ben Stein. “Relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, and all achievement in real life grow.”

Want to Learn More About Challenging Behaviors?

The Psychology Behind Behaviors is a must-have class for all teachers and parents of young children. This unique workshop blends the worlds of psychology and early childhood to help you understand why children (and adults) behave the way they do. We’ll take a deep dive into classroom behavior and look at how the brain develops and influences behavior and typical reasons why children misbehave. Teachers will walk away with a better understanding of why the children are doing what they are doing as well as insights into their own reactions. We’ll discuss concrete strategies for helping children through challenging behaviors so that teachers feel equipped to handle the children in their classrooms. Geared towards anyone who works with children of any age.

Building Positive Relationships

Building positive relationships is an essential component of an early childhood classroom. One of my favorite quotes is by Jack Shonkoff, editor of the book Neurons to Neighborhoods, in which he says, “Without relationships, there is no development.” In other words, if children do not develop positive relationships with the significant people in their lives, they fail to thrive. If you think back on your own experiences, I imagine that the times when you learned the most were when you felt connected to the teacher.

I love inspirational videos. And when I think about everyone that I’ve heard talk about building positive relationships with children, I think about Rita Pierson. She’s as real as they come when she describes teaching children. But the thing I love best about this video is her perspective on seeing the positive.

I get so inspired listening to her, and I start thinking about all the ways I can be more like her! As you think about your classroom and the children in it, there is always an opportunity to build stronger, more positive relationships. Below are some tips to help you.

Tips for Building Positive Relationships

Be Nice

This one should go without saying. However, when I walk into many schools, I see teachers that seem irritated by the children. As a result, I think about the experiences that many children have when they arrive at school. Another one of my favorite videos is this short video from Atlanta Speech School called Every Opportunity. We can influence how children perceive their environment, themselves, and us.

Personalize Your Greeting

  • Greet each child warmly using his/her name. Consider using a greeter apron. A greeter apron has different symbols representing different types of greetings, such as a heart for a hug, a hand for shaking hands, a happy face for a smile, or a #5 for a high five. Children can choose how they want the teacher or classmates to greet them in the morning, including not having a greeting at all. Learn more about personalizing your social interactions to build positive relationships in my blog post “Respecting Children’s Social Preferences.”

Respect Children’s Culture

  • Every child comes from a family with a specific culture. Take time to learn about each family, their traditions, and their preferences. Learn which holidays they celebrate and which they don’t. Find out the names they use to refer to other family members.
  • Learn how to pronounce (and spell) each child’s name correctly, even if you have to ask multiple times. No one feels special when his/her name is constantly mispronounced or misspelled.
  • Learn essential words in a child’s native language that help you communicate effectively. Encourage the family to speak the native language at home with the child. You can learn more about best practices in my One Classroom, Many Languages: Strategies for Dual Language Learners” course.

Build Positive Relationships with Unstructured Play

  • Allow for unstructured playtime each day. Let children be the leaders when playing instead of making all of the decisions for them. This shows children that you value their thoughts, desires, and feelings. It also lets the children have some control of their day. Let’s face it; no one wants to be told what to do all the time. Allowing children to have some control will also enable them to see you as a positive person in their life.

Real Conversations with Children Build Positive Relationships

  • Have casual conversations with children during free play time instead of constantly “testing” them or doing “teacher talk.” Sometimes we ask so many questions that children don’t think we are interested in what they are doing. Instead, spend time on the floor or at the table interacting with children individually or in small groups. Let them lead the conversation.
  • Talk to children about their interests. Strive to learn what they did over the weekend, who they saw, what they liked most, etc. Studies show that toddlers’ language outcomes increase when we talk about subjects that they are interested in.

Consistency Builds Positive Relationships

  • Be consistent and mean what you say. In other words, you have to think carefully about what you say to children before you say it. It’s not mean to follow through on your word. Instead, it helps children to feel safe. When you set a limit with a consequence and then provide multiple chances, it can confuse children with what the boundary is.
  • Build relationships with children who have challenging behaviors. The more positive your relationship is, the more likely you will see compliance.

Respect Children’s Feelings & Privacy

  • Respect children’s feelings. It’s ok for children to be angry, sad, or frustrated. Teach children that feelings are ok, and show them appropriate ways to express their feelings. When your child becomes a teenager, you’ll want them to share their emotions. Teach them now.
  • Speak privately to children when an issue arises in the classroom. This means that you aren’t calling a child’s name out across the room every time they do something wrong. And you aren’t marking their behavior on a chart that the whole class can see. Make sure that they don’t feel humiliated in front of others.

Favor Human Interactions Over Screen-Time

  • Limit TV and Other “Screen Time.” Electronic devices take time away from connecting with human beings. Instead, use the time children are with you to make live connections. So much research has confirmed that this live connection is vital for brain development.

Play Games

  • Play games in which children learn how to take turns. First, playing games provide time for you and the child to spend engaged in a fun activity. As a result, you are on track to build positive relationships. Secondly, game-playing prepares them for conversational turn-taking, which is an essential component in peer relationships.

Think About Your Tone and Position

  • Get on the child’s level when talking to him/her. You are more likely to get the child’s attention, and the child will be more receptive to what you are saying. Likewise, make sure you are using a pleasant and calm voice. Respect is a two-way street, and we are role-modeling how to speak to others.

Limit the Use of Praise in Favor of Specific Feedback

  • Researchers agree that praise is not always a good thing. Rather than saying, “good job,” acknowledge children’s accomplishments and efforts by using specific feedback about their actions. You can say, “I can see how much effort you put into your block building. You’ve been working on it all morning. Tell me all about it.”

Promote Positive Social Interactions to Build Relationships

  • Give children time to develop relationships with other children in the classroom. They need opportunities to practice the skills they are learning from you!
  • Provide children with opportunities to practice specific skills such as how to get someone’s attention, how to solve friendship squabbles, and how to take turns. You can do this through role-playing or social stories.

Always Start Fresh

  • End each day with a warm goodbye, and start each day fresh with no leftover emotions from the previous day’s events.

When you implement these strategies, you are bound to have positive relationships with all of the children in your classroom. What other ways do you build relationships with children?

Respecting Children’s Social Preferences

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we may or may not respect children’s social preferences. So often, we forget that children are human too. In other words, they have bad days, grumpy moods, and sometimes don’t want to be social.

Yesterday was one of those days where I did not feel like being social. I was feeling a little stressed, and while I wasn’t in a bad mood or anything, I didn’t want to socialize. Being unsocial didn’t seem to sit well with some of the people I interact with daily because they were expecting the typical energetic and social me. And when they didn’t get that, I was bombarded with questions about what was wrong. As a result, I wanted to interact even less.

Nothing was wrong. I wasn’t in a bad mood, and no one did anything. In my eyes, none of my relationships had changed in any way, nor had my feelings about those relationships. I just wanted to be in my own space and head for a while. And most importantly, I didn’t want to feel like there was something wrong with me for feeling that way. I just wanted my preferences and feelings to be respected and honored.

Thinking About Children’s Preferences

After feeling this way, I wondered how my day yesterday relates to how we treat children. For instance, How often do we greet children at the door of our classrooms expecting the typical, cheery response and then start over-analyzing when we don’t get it? Do we become irritated when someone doesn’t want to participate at group time or answer a question we’ve asked? Or maybe we hover with questions about what is wrong when a child plays solemnly by himself rather than with other children? Have you ever questioned yourself about whether you honor and respect children’s feelings and preferences from the moment they enter your classroom?

What are some ways that we, as teachers, can make it easier for children to show us how they would like to be treated that day? How can we allow them the flexibility to change their mind at any time without judgment or question? It’s an interesting question and one that we can answer in many ways.

How to Respect Children’s Social Preferences Upon Entering the Classroom

One of my favorite ideas that I heard at a conference once (perhaps from Conscious Discipline?) was to have a greeting apron or a greeting board. You can have various options on this apron or board that children can choose for their morning greeting. For example, each option would have a picture next to it, such as a picture of two bears hugging to indicate that the child wants a bear hug, a picture of two people giving a high five to show a high five greeting. The number of options is unlimited!

  • Bear hug
  • High five
  • Wiggly handshake
  • Smile
  • Wink
  • Wave
  • Thumbs Up
  • Fist Bump
  • Bow to each other
  • Clapping
  • Sogi – This is a Polynesian greeting in which you press your nose against the other person’s nose and inhale deeply at the same time
  • Sing a song
  • Use sign language
  • Blow a kiss
  • Just say hello

Continuing to Respect Children’s Social Preferences

After we welcome children in the classroom, how can we continue to respect their individuality? For example, I’m thinking about my behavior in a workshop and how sometimes I want to participate, but I want to listen other times. Could we give children cards at group time to sit in front of them in which they get to make that same choice? What are other times during the day when we can respect their preferences? What do you do in your classroom? I’d love to hear from you! Check out more ideas for Building Positive Relationships with children in my blog post.

To Learn More About Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Development, Check out our Course!

Social-Emotional Development: The Foundation for All Curriculum – 2.5 hours

Social-emotional development is the foundation for all curriculum, especially for infants and toddlers. Throughout this course, we’ll be talking about the various aspects of social and emotional development. While all areas of development are intertwined, it’s essential to realize that nothing happens in the brain that doesn’t first pass through the brain’s emotional center. Therefore having a secure understanding of social-emotional development is essential for providing quality environments for young children. This class is geared towards infant and toddler teachers.

Literacy Activities for Preschool

Creating literacy-rich environments is certainly a buzz phrase in preschool classrooms. It seems that everyone is always looking for new literacy activities to make their preschool classrooms literacy-rich. But, unfortunately, what appears to be missing from a lot of these conversations is meaning.

It’s not enough to just have a lot of print in your environment.

Research has shown us that just putting a lot of print in the environment doesn’t mean that children pay attention to it. They may even start to ignore it. Instead, current research suggests that we should make sure that we create print-rich environments that are meaningful. Gone are the days when we label everything in the classroom, such as the door, the chair, and the window. These labels have little to no meaning to children. Instead, we have to look at the children in our preschool classroom and determine what type of literacy activities would be meaningful. Some universal activities are meaningful to preschoolers, such as anything having to do with their name. However, what might be significant to one classroom might not be so meaningful to another school. (For more information about print awareness, visit Reading Rockets).

Are your preschool literacy activities meaningful to children?

I encourage you to question all of the literacy activities you put in your preschool environment to determine if it is meaningful to the children. For example, are the signs that label each area (Dramatic Play, Blocks, etc.) meaningful to children? Or are they just something that someone, somewhere along the way, told you that you had to have? (I’ve yet to see these signs as actually being required in any quality improvement program or accreditation standards even though many teachers insist that they are needed). Are the labels you have on your shelves helpful to the children? Or are they a nuisance? Is the alphabet poster something that children use, or does it add to the visual clutter of the room? The answers to all of these questions may be different for every classroom. My point is that you have to be the one to evaluate each literacy critically.

Sample Preschool Literacy Activities that are Meaningful

So, what are some examples of literacy activities that other preschool teachers have found meaningful? Let’s take a look. But even with these suggested activities, don’t forget to ask yourself if these will be meaningful for YOUR group of children!

Meaningful Labels in the Classroom

Meaningful Print Labels in the Art Area

Some labels are meaningful. These labels help children know where to put the art materials when returning them to the shelves.

Using Meaningful Print in the Science Center is a Great Literacy Activity for Preschoolers

Meaningful Literacy in the Preschool Science Area

This science center has an example of meaningful print. While the children cannot read this print yet in this preschool classroom, they will notice that the print has changed and will likely as the teacher what it says. As a result, this type of literacy activity is much more meaningful to preschoolers than a sign that says “Science Area.”

A Cozy Book Area

Cozy Book Area in Preschool Provides Meaningful Literacy

This cozy reading area is a big hit with children. It includes many cozy features, including pillows, rugs, and plants.

A Private Listening Center

Private Listening Center Offers Place to Listen to a Book

I made this listening center from PVC pipe and a cheap curtain. You can imagine how much children loved getting away to this area!

Add Books to Other Areas of the Room

Books in the Block Area are meaningful

Don’t forget to include books in other areas! But, of course, only add books that have significance to the learning center.

Activity: Children’s Names are Always Meaningful

Wooden Chips with Children's Names Provide Meaningful Literacy Experience when children sign-in each day

This is one of my favorite literacy activities for preschool classrooms! When children walk into this classroom, they locate their name on the woodchip and then place it into a basket. Teachers can then use the basket to talk about who is here (or not) at group time or other times during the day.

Meaningful Literacy Experiences in the Writing Center

Writing Center with Baby Theme is Meaningful to Preshoolers

This writing table is inviting to children. The table is set up for two children because writing during the preschool years tends to be a social experience. The table has blank paper, blank books, fill-in strips with the words to a popular song the children were singing, children’s name cards (and teachers), pencils, alphabet samples, and word cards to put in the fill-in strip blanks.

Job Charts

Job Chart in Preschool Classroom Provides Meaningful Literacy Activity

Job charts are another way to include meaningful print in your classroom! Choose jobs that are helpful to you and make an impact in the room. This will help build a sense of community.

Literacy Manipulative Activity for Preschool

Alphabet Blocks used with Name Cards are Meaningful to Preschoolers

These small alphabet blocks are fun to put on top of these laminated name cards. Note: The name cards had all capital letters because the alphabet blocks were not available with lower case letters, and this class was not yet able to match case on the letters. Typically, all name cards should use Sentence Case – with a capital first letter and lower case letters for the rest of the name.

Small-Group Literacy Activity for Preschool

Compound Word Activity Promotes Phonological Awareness in Preschool in a Meaningful Way

This compound word activity can be fun for older preschoolers. Children try to find the two words that make up the compound word.

Sorting Syllables Activity to Promote Phonological Awareness

Sorting by Syllables in Preschool Classroom provides meaningful phonological awareness activity

In this activity, children sort word cards by the number of syllables they hear.

This is just a sampling of activities to start your literacy program. What ideas do you have, and what makes them meaningful to children?

Want to learn more about meaningful literacy activities for your preschool classroom? We have several courses just for you!

Creating Your Literacy Curriculum – 3 hours

Learn how to create a great literacy curriculum for your classroom!

Moving Beyond Letter of the Week – 3 hours

Learn how to teach letters and sounds through a holistic approach.

Creating Neural Pathways for Literacy – 2.5 hours

Learn how to activate the letter-box region. You will leave with ideas for activities that create neural pathways for literacy.

Teaching Another Language

One of the questions I get asked a lot by teachers is whether they should be teaching a second language in their early childhood classroom or not. Unfortunately, there is so much pressure from parents and administrators that it becomes hard to know what to do.

There is no doubt. Children who learn a second language before puberty have an advantage. They learn the language as a native speaker and have increased cognitive abilities. Second language learning during early childhood boosts problem-solving skills, critical thinking, listening skills, memory, concentration, and overall academic achievement. With benefits like these, it may seem like a no-brainer…..why wouldn’t you introduce another language into your classroom? To answer this question, you need to answer a different question:

Are you a native or fluent speaker of the language?

If you answered yes, then you should include the language in your classroom. You can do this by reading books in the language, conducting circle time in the language, or just having conversations in the language. Of course, you can label objects in both languages during a conversation. Still, it should all be done with the give and take of conversation that happens naturally with human communication.

If you answered no, then the answer is simple. It would be best if you did not try to teach the language in your classroom. If you do, you will teach incorrect grammar, incorrect pronunciation and will be more likely to present isolated words without the meaning that generally surrounds those words. Remember…conversation is a give and take…not a quiz about specific words! When you learned your first language, you learned it through natural conversation…not from someone quizzing you about specific words. Research tells us that children learn best through the natural give and take of conversation.

Children learn language from human interaction. According to Patricia Kuhl, Not from videos or audiotapes that try to teach a language. Instead, engage children in conversation in the language(s) that you speak fluently. That’s what will help their language outcomes advance.

Frequently Asked Questions about Teaching Another Language in Your Classroom

Can I teach some sign language to children without being fluent?

  • Yes. Again, the key here is to incorporate it into your everyday speech. You might find it helpful to teach young children some basic signs to help communicate their needs, but you should teach the signs in the context of the conversation, not in an isolated situation. For example, when you ask the child if he wants more milk, you might sign the words for more and milk.

What about TV programs that teach a second language? Aren’t those good for children?

  • The research is clear. Children need human interaction to learn a language. While they may learn isolated words from a television program, they will not understand the language structure necessary for becoming fluent. It’s also important to limit the amount of screen time for children.

What if I have a child that speaks another language? What is appropriate then?

  • If the child speaks another language, it would be appropriate for you to learn some words in that child’s language in an attempt to communicate with the child. You might try to read a book to the child in his home language, or count in his home language. The difference here is that you aren’t trying to “teach” the home language…rather you are just trying to communicate with the child.

Should I have signs in my classroom in more than one language?

  • Only if you have children in your classroom that speak that language. There is no need to label everything in every language, but it is ok to label some things in the child’s home language. However, if no one in your class speaks Spanish, then there is no need for Spanish labels in your classroom.

Should I try to convince the child’s family to speak English at home rather than their home language?

  • No. Encourage the family to keep their home language intact. This facilitates communication between the child and the parents and keeps a cultural connection open. It also ensures that the child doesn’t surpass the parent’s communication skills in the only common language that they have together.

Obviously, whether to teach a second language or not is a complex decision with many considerations. It’s a hot topic, and there are bound to be strong opinions on each side of the decision. Therefore, it’s important to consider each classroom and each family individually to decide what is best for that situation rather than making across-the-board decisions. Only then can we be culturally considerate.

Want to learn more about dual language learners? We have a course just for you!

One Classroom, Many Languages: Strategies for Dual Language Learners

Nearly one in three US children live in a household where a language other than English is spoken. Dual language learners are a diverse group of children and include all children in a household where someone speaks a language other than English. Including dual language learners in your classroom can be challenging, particularly when you don’t speak the child’s home language. In this course, you’ll learn more about the universal nature of language development, how to support language learning for all children, and how to specifically support dual language learners in your classroom. If you are an infant, toddler, or preschool teacher, this class is for you. However, it does have a heavy emphasis on infant and toddler classrooms.