Imaginations. We all have them. But I’m not talking about imaginations in the way you might be thinking. I’m talking about imaginations in terms of the stories we tell ourselves. Whenever something happens in our lives, we process that information based on our past experiences….trauma we never processed, bad experiences we’ve had, and even good experiences we’ve had. And then we begin creating stories in our brain around these experiences. Sometimes these stories are true, sometimes they are partially true, but many times the stories we have created have no truth at all. But they feel true because we created them, and then treated them as though the story was factual. It can feel so true that nothing anyone else says can change the story you created in your mind.

Let me give you a trivial example. Once, my friends and I were getting together for lunch. Two of us arrived at the same time, and while we waited for the third friend to arrive we decided to take a look at the stories we tell ourselves. We sat across from each other, and we both moved to the inside of the booth. We wanted to see where our friend decided to sit and why. When she arrived, she sat next to my friend. We then asked her why she chose that spot. She wanted to hear our stories first. Here’s how that went:

Friend 1: I think you sat next to me because we really connected with one another last time we were together.

Me: I think you sat there because you were running late and it was the seat closest to the door so you just slid into it.

Friend 2: Actually, I sat here because I’m left-handed and I didn’t want to bump elbows with anyone when I was eating.

While this was event was fun and very trivial, I share it to show how we make up imaginations about people and believe them even when they are not accurate. We do this type of thing all day and in every interaction we have if we are not aware. Unfortunately, these imaginations can be at the heart of some very heated discussions and arguments.

So how do we avoid this? There are a couple of ways. First, ask questions before making assumptions. You can say, “I’m curious about…..can you tell me more about what you were thinking?” Seek to understand the other person’s point of view and obtain more information before jumping to any assumptions. Second, explain your imagination. You might say, “This is the story I’m telling myself, and it might be completely untrue.” And then share your imagination in a non-judgmental way. Third, try to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. What might be causing them to jump to a conclusion? How can you have empathy in the moment and see why they might be jumping to the assumption that they are drawing? Last, take a look at your own history. What experiences have you had that might be causing you to jump to assumptions? Might there be another way to view the events?

When we all learn to seek to understand before reacting or seeking to be understood, we are then able to have healthy conversations with one another. What are the situations in your life where you are creating imaginations about events? Might there be another story? How can you show more empathy around the stories that others might be creating.

To learn more about empathy, take my course, “The Quest for Empathy.” You’ll learn more about what empathy is and how it differs from sympathy, as well as how you can be more empathic in this world we live in.

Classroom Practices During COVID-19

Note: This is an opinion piece only whose goal is to start a conversation. I am not a medical professional nor a COVID Researcher.

Recently I’ve been asked numerous questions about practices within ECE classrooms and the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions have included some of the following:

  • Should we let children play together or separate them?
  • Am I allowed to hug the children?
  • Should we sing at group time?
  • How should greetings be handled?

These are all great questions. I’m certainly not a medical professional or a researcher on COVID, but here is my personal take on questions such as this. I like to think about this with a three-step approach.

1. Adhere to your state guidelines and mandates and/or district or center guidelines/mandates.

Above all else, be sure that you are implementing and responding to all of the state-mandated guidelines. This should be the first step in deciding about any specific practice within the classroom. If there are no specific guidelines or mandates, then proceed to step two.

2. Evaluate your personal comfort level.

As early care professionals, we have to take care of ourselves. If you do not put your own health (physical and mental) first, you won’t have anything left to give. The evaluation of personal comfort may vary from teacher to teacher within the same center, and that’s ok. During this unusual time, it’s ok for things to be a little different. Ask yourself these questions, and be honest about your answers:

  • Is the practice something that I really think should be eliminated for the time being? What about the practice causes the strong feelings for you?
  • Is this something that I feel is putting me at a risk level I’m not comfortable with?
  • Am I adding unnecessary stress for myself by implementing this practice?
  • Are there other factors that apply to me (but maybe not others) that make me uncomfortable with this practice for the time being?

If you answer yes to these questions, then it’s important to consider whether it’s worth the risk to you (physically or mentally). Remember, we all have different reactions to this pandemic. We all have different levels of concern. And that’s ok. Make the decision that is right for you in this moment. Research around this pandemic changes from day to day. If the decision you make today feels right, and in a few weeks no longer feels right, it’s ok to make a different decision. In a nutshell, every teacher will need to assess how comfortable they are being in a classroom to begin with and will have the heavy decision of weighing personal risk against good practice. That’s an individual decision that I don’t think anyone else can/should monitor.

3. Consider what children need for healthy development and what best practice indicates.

Child development and children’s needs do not change just because we are in the middle of a pandemic. To the extent that the teacher is comfortable, it is still important to provide children with the opportunities to develop holistically. Children still need opportunities to interact with both other children and adults. They need opportunities to practice their social skills and pro-social behaviors. They need hugs and touch from adults they have relationships with. They need solid, educational materials to interact with directly because we know children learn through play with hands-on materials. They need to be read to by caring adults. The list goes on and on. Remember that the state guidelines for early childhood are typically slightly different than the guidelines for school-agers because their development is different.

One of my fellow early childhood colleagues, Rachel McDonough, gave this advice:

“The goal is to try to provide as normal an experience as you can while still mitigating risk to the extent that you can. It’s impossible to complete eliminate any risk, and I think that parents understand that when they send their children to us. We are all doing so many things to ensure that children who are entering the building are healthy. I think that singing and reading in small groups is important, and it’s important to build those healthy relationships with children. The focus needs to be on having really good experiences with children and building relationships with them and to not have the pressure on us to eliminate ALL risk.”

We cannot eliminate all risk. We can mitigate to the best of our abilities. Centers are checking children for symptoms upon entering and cleaning and sanitizing as best we can to minimize the risk. We cannot eliminate all practices that we know are healthy for children. I don’t think any teacher should put added stress on him/herself because of a particular practice. The teacher’s mental health is important during this stressful time. I think Rachel said it beautifully. Honor the state guidelines, honor yourself, and respect the choices of others.

The Process of Art: What Do I Say?

Guest Blog by Jacki Leader

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Maya Angelou

Our field has come a long way in what we consider art for young children. In the past, the art tended to be cookie cutter models, with each child’s art project looking near identical to their classmates.  As I work with teachers and visit early childhood classrooms, I have seen more and more process-oriented art and less art that looks cookie cutter perfect. I love this shift in what I am seeing.  I have worked with many teachers to help them understand that the process of doing the art is more important than the end product, and on how to develop process-oriented art experiences.  This process-oriented art increases creativity and problem solving in young children.

While many teachers have embraced this shift to more creative avenues of art, they are often still unsure of how to interact with children during art projects.  Feedback tends to be in the form of generic “good jobs” to overused praise such as “I love your picture”.    The problem with “good job” is that the child is unsure what they did that was “good”.  The “I love your picture” praise also is problematic.  When we tell children how much we love what they did, the children tend to become praise junkies.  They develop a high need to get approval on what they did from an adult.  You may be struggling right now thinking that this is the type of feedback you give children during art.  If these techniques are not the best, then what should you say? Here are some tips to help you become a pro at interacting with children during process-oriented art experiences:

Focus on the process:

Since the process is more important in the artwork than the end product, comment on what the children are doing.

  • “That is an interesting pattern, how did you make it?”
  • “I see some different colors here, how did you decide what colors to use and where to use them?”
  • “I saw you were having a hard time getting the pieces to stick together, what finally worked?”

Discuss  and explore the materials:

Having a variety of art materials available for the children to use inspires the children to be creative.  Sometimes the children are unsure about what the materials can be used for.  Consider talking with them about different types of materials and how they could use the materials in their artwork.

  • “What type of material is this? What could we use it for?”
  • “Today we are going to use finger paint. How is the finger paint different from the paint we normally use? How does it feel?”
  • “We have tape, bottle glue and a glue stick, what might work best to stick your materials together?”

Interact during each step of their art making session:

Each step of the art making session provides for opportunities to talk with the children, inspire and enhance their ideas.

  • In the beginning ask the children what they plan on making, what materials they may need, and what their first steps will be.
  • While the children work, focus on what they are doing, what problems they may be having, and how they solved the problems.
  • After they have completed their masterpiece have the child describe their artwork. What did they enjoy about making the artwork? Ask the child if they want to display their artwork in the classroom or take it home.

Finally, if you are ever at a loss for words when a child shows you his/her artwork, one of the best things to say is “Tell me about your picture”.

Goodness of Fit – Do we really practice it?

As I prepare to teach a temperament class today at a conference, I’ve been reflecting on the topic of temperament. As I thought about the 9 different temperament traits I became very aware that the importance in knowing about these traits isn’t actually in the traits themselves, but rather in knowing how to approach, accommodate, and adapt to the traits. Sure…it’s always beneficial to have information about yourself or someone else to understand how that person approaches the world..but that information is pointless if you don’t actually do something with it.

Therein lies the importance of the term “goodness of fit.” Goodness of fit is a term used in a variety of context, but when it’s used to talk about temperament it means matching your caregiving style to what the child needs. This is especially important at an infant and toddler level. What I often see happen is that teachers try to force children to adapt to a behavior that they find easier to handle. For example, a teacher that has a child that is highly active may try to help that child calm down. This isn’t what’s intended when we ask caregivers to practice goodness of fit.

To truly understand this, we need to take a look at the developing brain. There are two aspects that are particularly important to understanding goodness of fit:

  1. First, the limbic system, which is the system that experiences and controls emotions, has two components: The lower limbic system which experiences emotion and the higher lymbic system which regulates emotion. The higher limbic system is located in the cortex…the part of the brain that doesn’t really start developing until children are a bit older.
  2. Young children (kindergarten age and below) tend to live more in the right side of their brain than the left side…and the right side of the brain is the one that is processing things like emotions, facial cues, gestures, and body language..while the left side is what processes the language.

So how does this relate to temperament then? Well…first, infants and toddlers do not yet have the brain skills to control or regulate their natural state of being. For young children…it’s the things unsaid that make a huge difference in their self-concept. What is the unspoken message you are sending when you try to make an infant or toddler adapt to your preferences instead of honoring the child’s preferences?

The key then in promoting a positive sense of self and honoring the way the child’s brain is developing is for the adult to make the adaptation. Have a toddler in your classroom whose activity level is extremely high? Provide a climber for the child. Have a child who is slow to warm to new experiences? Provide extra time for that child to become comfortable. Meeting the child at his/her developmental stage will allow the child to develop the positive self concept and regulation skills that will help the child to be able to adapt to situations at an older age.

Remember to always ask yourself: What is the unspoken message I’m sending…and is that what I really want this child to hear?

The Problem with Behavior Charts

I recently taught a class in which we engaged in a discussion about the use of behavior charts in the classroom. These come in all different varieties….from forms sent home with parents to charts on the wall to flipping cards to those infamous stop light systems. Do these types of things really work? And are they fair?

I’m all for communicating with parents so that they are informed about what is going on with their child’s behavior while at child care. However, too often, these forms become nothing more than a way to communicate negative behaviors rather than a true communication tool. I think to evaluate whether any of these are helpful, we have to look at the purpose of discipline in our classroom.

One of my favorite quotes is this:

If we reflect on this quote, our true intention with any type of behavior management system is to teach children. These behavior management systems rarely do that. Let’s look at some of the reasons that teachers should stop using these systems:

  • They don’t work. Look at the stop light systems. The kids that are on green are always on green. And the kids that are on red are always on red. That should tell you something. If the system was really working, then the kids that are on red should quickly start moving to yellow and green rather than always landing on red. What was it that Albert Einstein said…….Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is….insanity. When we implement a system like this and see the same results day after day….we should notice that it’s not really working and try something different.
  • They are shaming to children. When you post the chart in the classroom or announce to the class that someone’s card is being flipped or their clothespin is being moved, you are shaming and humiliating children in front of their peers. No one wants their indiscretions announced to the world, including children. Being shamed rarely results in a child learning a better response. You wouldn’t share children’s academic progress with others….why would you share their behavioral progress?
  • When you consistently label a child with a bad report or constantly put them on the red stoplight, you are giving that child a role to play in the classroom and announcing it to everyone in the room. You’re labeling that child as “the bad kid” even if you never use the words. Everyone that walks in the room….parents…teachers….children….they all see who is being “good” and who is being “bad”. Give a child a role to play, and he/she will play it. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • What makes a day “good” or “bad”? What happens if a child has a terrible morning but a good afternoon? Or what happens if a child makes some bad decisions in the morning but then does something really nice for someone in the classroom? When we label children’s days as good or bad, we create a dark shadow that follows them around. When a child misbehaves, teachers and parents need to deal with the misbehavior in that moment and then let it go. Moving a card or filling out a behavior report is like double jeopardy. It’s two consequences for the same behavior. Instead of creating this dark shadow, give the child every opportunity to start fresh and turn things around.
  • Behavior charts rarely account for baseline behavior. If Johnny never hits anyone, but today he hits two people…..he had a rough day. But if Emily typically hits 20 times a day, and today she only hits 15 times….that was a really good day for her. Even though she hit people, she made some improvements. We need to make sure that we are measuring children’s progress against their own baseline behaviors…not some imaginary standard of perfection.
  • And speaking of perfection, we often expect perfection from children. We expect them to never do anything wrong, to never be distracted, to never be disrespectful, to never be in a bad mood…..that is completely unrealistic. We need to allow children to be human.

So if we don’t use behavior charts in the classroom….what do we do? We use techniques that actually work. There is no magic wand, but when we approach children with empathy, view misbehavior as communication, help children deal with their difficult emotions, and look for the reasons and/or unmet needs behind the behavior, we find that we actually don’t really need these tools after all.

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?

The Problem with Worksheets

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

I was teaching a class recently, and I noticed a common theme…as much as teachers have heard that worksheets are not appropriate they just seem to have a hard time letting go of them. I think the problem is that perhaps deep down they still believe that worksheets have some value to children, or that if they aren’t using worksheets then they aren’t really teaching. That could just not be further from the truth.

So what’s wrong with worksheets?

  • Worksheets often have a “right” answer. Which means that they also have a wrong answer. However, the wrong answer doesn’t allow children to use trial and error to learn from it. Instead, the wrong answers on a worksheet lead children to believe that there is no value in risk-taking because only the right answers are valued. Seeing a lot of wrong answers can also reduce a child’s belief in her/his ability.
  • Similarly, worksheets can only be used in one way. This means that children aren’t using higher order thinking skills like they would if they were playing with concrete materials.
  • Children are concrete learners, which means they need concrete objects in order to learn a new concept. Worksheets are abstract, and are therefore incapable of teaching this type of learner. This is what makes them developmentally inappropriate.
  • Since worksheets can’t teach children of 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 are task-oriented activities rather then learning activities. When completing a worksheet, the goal becomes to finish the worksheet rather than learn the task at hand.
  • They don’t allow children to work together or collaborate on a project. At an age where social skills are of the utmost importance and are still forming, the activities in our classrooms should promote collaboration, not discourage it.
  • Worksheets do not allow for creativity, divergent thinking, or the opportunity to display learning in different ways.
  • Most often, all of the children in the class are working on the same worksheet. This goes against common logic, because we know that not all children will be at the same level of development.
  • Worksheets waste valuable time, focus on teaching only rote skills (Volante, 2004).
  • 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. Children from overly academic schools may not have engaged in the higher-order thinking activities that help them understand why things are the way they are. They don’t have a firm foundation for later success. They also have less time for social skills development and often show higher levels of test anxiety compared with their peers from play based schools.
  • Any concept portrayed in a worksheet can be taught better in a hands-on, meaningful way.

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

Letting go of worksheets 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, which unlike other neurotransmitters is spritzed on the brain causing it to reach larger areas. Motivate children and you increase learning.

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