Imaginations

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.

Superhero and Gun Play in the Classroom

Around the age of 4, many children begin to exhibit behaviors, such as gun play or superhero play, which enable them to feel a sense of power or control. Teachers often feel unsure of the best way to handle this type of play. Traditional approaches of banning the play or allowing the play with limits often result in meeting the teacher’s need for classroom control but do not address the developmental issues with which children are dealing. Teachers who actively facilitate children’s gun play or superhero play provide for both children’s needs as well as their own.

Superhero play, gun play, and war play are types of power play that share common characteristics.  Power play generally occurs among children between the ages of four and six. All types of power play share some common characteristics.  First, there are always good guys and bad guys, or good versus evil.  In power play, there is no gray area. You are either a good guy or a bad guy, never a combination of the two.  Children at this age are very “black and white” in their thinking and often have a difficult time seeing two aspects of the same situation.  For example, in the Piagetian conservation tasks, pre-operational children focus on only one aspect of the situation. In the conservation of number task, children concentrate on the length of each row of objects when making a decision about which row has more rather than focusing on the number.  Another common characteristic of children’s power play is that there is always a conflict between the good guys and the bad guys.  Regardless of whether children are engaging in superhero play or war play, it is the responsibility of the good buys to fight the bad guys.  Lastly, control or power is the central theme of the play.  Children are trying to answer the question of who will ultimately win or be in control.

THE APPEAL OF SUPERHERO PLAY

There seems to be a universal appeal of superhero play among young children.  Bauer & Dettore (1997) suggest several reasons for this.  Through this type of play, children have the ability to possess the power that superheroes have enabling them to perform amazing feats.  Since children little control over their world, superhero play allows them to be physically powerful and to have control over the events around them.   Children make the rules for the play and draw the boundaries, thus giving them another avenue for feeling powerful.  They have the ability to stop the game, giving them the greatest power.  Superhero play also allows children to try on new roles and become capable of solving problems.  They have the pleasure of knowing that good triumphed over evil and that they had the power to overcome the bad guys.  It also gives children an opportunity to engage in physical activities such as running, jumping, and kicking.

SUPERHERO PLAY IN THE CLASSROOM

Although power play is common among young children, teachers often feel uncomfortable when this type of play emerges in the classroom. According to Bauer & Dettore (1997) teachers frequently view power play as meaningless and aggressive.  They believe that children will become out of control, disruptive, or threatening.  Power play has a tendency to turn rough and noisy, and often creativity is diminished.   Levin & Carlsson-Paige (1995) surveyed teachers about their concerns of this type of play in the classroom. Their concerns fell into two main categories:  “increased levels of violence among children and violence, imitation, and lack of creativity in children’s play” (p. 69).

Teachers have several choices to consider when superhero play or war play appears in their classrooms.  Carlsson-Paige & Levin (1987) outline the following four options:

Option 1: Ban the Play

With this option, teachers forbid children to engage in the play. They may or may not give an explanation to the children.  This option may address the teacher’s need to maintain a peaceful classroom environment, but it does not adequately address the children’s needs.  Kuykendall (1995) supports the banning of this type of play because children can work out feelings in other areas.  She adds, however, that if teachers choose to ban this type of play then children must have other opportunities to feel power.  Boyd (1997), however, opposes banning superhero play.  When superhero play or war play is banned, children do not have an opportunity to work out their developmental needs.  Banning the play sends a message to children that their interests are not valued at school.         

Option 2: Take a Laissez-Faire Approach

With this option, teachers openly allow children to engage in the play, but do not take on an active role.  Teachers may support this option because they realize the benefit of allowing the play and supporting children’s interests.  However, this option does not usually allow a role for the teacher to actively facilitate the play and truly meet children’s developmental needs. 

Option 3: Allow the Play to Continue with Specific Limits

This is similar to the laissez-faire approach in that teachers are allowing the play to continue, but in this case with specific limits.  The limits may include where the play can take place or the types of materials that are permitted to be used.   These limits help teachers to maintain a peaceful classroom environment while still attempting to address children’s needs.  However, the limits that are set attempt to establish classroom values for the children (such as guns are not acceptable) rather than letting children discover their own values.  Teachers have a limited role with this option as well; therefore children’s developmental needs may not be adequately addressed.

Option 4: Actively Facilitate the Play. 

When teachers facilitate children’s play, they intervene to extend the play.  Teachers may offer suggestions to children about new roles or materials, or take on a role within the play to help children enhance the quality of the play.  For example, a teacher may ask a child who has made a gun to show her how the gun works.  She may then ask question to encourage the child to expand his views of the play situation. She may ask, “What if you just wanted to capture the bad guy instead of hurting him.  How would your weapon be different? How could you make a weapon like that?”  When facilitating power play, it is essential that all of the children remain physically and emotionally safe.  No one’s feelings should be hurt during the play.  This option is often more difficult for teachers to accept, but is more beneficial to both the teachers and the children because it aids in children’s development.  Carlsson-Paige & Levin (1987) point out that

The teacher is helping the children to gain control over their impulses, to take points of view other than their own, to distinguish between fantasy and reality, to work out their own understanding about what they have heard about the world around them, and to experience a sense of their own power and mastery through play. (pg. 49).

Teachers have several options when responding to superhero play in the classroom.  Each option has potential benefits for either the children or the teacher, however the best option for handling superhero play in the classroom is to actively facilitate it.  This option allows teachers to meet children’s developmental needs and become active in the children’s play.  Teachers who take on a role, ask questions, or make suggestions show respect for children’s ideas and encourage children to extend their thinking and use creativity within their play experiences.

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.

What is my best advice for challenging behaviors?

Check out my newest feature, the 5-Minute Professor, in which I answer questions about teaching and parenting young children.

Read the transcript or watch the full video below!

Hi. I’m Dr. Jenni Jacobs, Founder of The Learning Professor. Welcome to the 5-Minute Professor where I answer your questions about early childhood. One of the questions that I’m often asked is, “what’s a quick tip that I can implement to help children behave better or to help them get through difficult times or misbehaviors?’ And my quick answer to that is to show empathy. When we tap into children’s feelings, it has a truly magical effect. And it’s not just children. It’s really any person that is going through a rough time. So an example of this: If you have a young child who is playing on the computer and you tell them that their time is over and they start to throw a temper tantrum, we often want to talk to the child about appropriate behavior. But the thing is, when a child is having a struggle like that, they’re not in the thinking part of their brain. They are in their primitive brain, and all they can think about is their own feelings. When we tap into that part of the brain and we help the child process those feelings, it enables the child to grow back up into their thinking brain and know what the right choice is. We just have to wait for a little bit for them to get there. So to help them grow back up into that thinking part of their brain, we want to talk to them about what they’re feeling. Now, I know sometimes it’s hard to put yourself in their shoes because their struggles seem so little compared to what our struggles are. But remember how young they are and that for them, this is a real issue and a real struggle. So what are they feeling in that moment that they wanted to keep playing on the computer and they couldn’t? Tap into that feeling, whatever you think it might be. You might say something like, “Wow, it looks like you are having a really hard time giving up the computer. You were really having fun with that. It’s hard to give it up when you still want to keep playing it, isn’t it?” And let the child talk about their feeling. Or you might say something like, “you’re really angry that you have to give up your turn on the computer. You really want to stay there.” Just talk about their feelings, and what I like to say is sit in the feeling for a little bit. Help the child process it, let them know that their feelings are ok, it’s alright to feel that way. And when the child’s feelings start to dissipate or go away, now you can talk about the rules of the classroom. Then you can say, “When your time is up, I can help you find something else to do” or you can give them a choice or whatever your next strategy might be. One of the problems I find with a lot of discipline programs is that they talk about this kind of thing and they say to talk about the child’s feelings and acknowledge the feeling and then state the limit. Well the problem with that is that when you state the limit immediately after talking about the feeling, it just negates the whole thing. It’s kind of like somebody saying to you, “Oh, you look really good in those jeans, but you still need to lose 20 pounds.” That second statement makes the first statement completely null and void. I don’t even care that you just told me I look good because all I’m focusing on is the last part of the statement and what I need to do instead. And that’s a lot of times how it is with children. You say something like “I know you’re having a really hard time leaving the computer and you wish you could stay, but the rule in the classroom is that you get 20 minutes and then it’s someone else’s turn.” Well all they’re hearing now is the rule, and they don’t feel acknowledged at all in their feelings. So we need to sit with the feeling, just talk about the feeling, until they’ve processed it and then move on to whatever the classroom limit is. You’ll find when use this strategy it works amazingly well, and it’s really going to feel like magic in your classroom. For more tips and tricks, check out my website www.learningprofessor.com And try to influence someone’s life today in the most positive way that you can!

To Trace or Not to Trace?

Of all the topics about preschool literacy that I teach, the most hotly debated among teachers is that of tracing. A simple google search on preschool writing or curriculum ideas will no doubt result in some form of tracing. In fact, even some handwriting curricula encourage the practice. Whenever I introduce the idea of no tracing activities in the classroom, I am often met with a barrage of arguments defending the practice. Some teachers are so tied to this practice that they almost become angry at the idea of giving it up, insisting that tracing has helped their children learn to write.

After years of observing children as they learn to write, I suggest that asking children to trace alphabet letters actually does more harm than good.  The typical tracing activities involve broken line letters to help children make a “correct” letter. The problem with this is that children pay more attention to the broken lines than the actual letter and letter shape. In their attempts to connect the lines, they start at random places to connect the lines, go repeatedly over their marks to ensure the broken lines are completely covered, and often create letter shapes that do not have a written fluency to them. These actions, if repeated enough times, will result in habits that later interfere with both legibility, muscle memory, and writing fluency.

Although the end product may result in a letter that seems satisfactory, it is likely that the lines were traced back and forth and started at a point of convenience with no regard for the sequence of how to create the letter. To account for this, teachers may stand over children with specific directions of where to start and how to make the lines, resulting in low feelings of self-efficacy (i.e., I’m not good at this).

Another issue that arises with tracing involves the control that it takes to stay within the lines. In order to hold a pencil correctly and make letters correctly one has to develop the small muscles within the wrists, hands, and fingers. If a child is struggling to hold a pencil correctly or stay within lines on a paper, this is a clue that the child’s fine motor skills need to be more developed. The best way to develop these skills is by giving the child more manipulative activities, such as searching for pony beads in playdough, picking up small pieces using a pincer grasp, or using puzzles with small knobs. I’ve seen many teachers attempt to correct the pencil grip of a child only to see the child revert back to the “comfortable way” after the teacher walks away. This demonstrates that the correction of pencil grip does nothing to promote control…rather the teacher must look to see what is causing the issue to begin with.

When children have the fine motor control to create letters free hand that are similar in size and shape on paper without lines, they now have the motor skills needed to write on lined paper. By the time children reach this point, they do not need tracing activities because they either are already making the letters or already have the skills to create recognizable letters.

This begs the question, how will children learn to write their names or letters if they don’t have tracing activities? The answer is actually quite simple. Children need many opportunities throughout the day to write freely on topics of their choosing. They need access to writing materials and blank paper. They need models of the alphabet that are on the same surface on which they are writing, name cards to look at so they can recreate the names, and words that they are interested in so they can view the model and then attempt to recreate the letters. There is no shortage of appropriate and interesting writing activities for preschoolers. The key is to find activities that the children want to participate in. Here are just a few examples that you can easily incorporate into your environment:

  • A writing table that is related to an interesting book, topic, or song. Your writing table should include blank paper, an alphabet sample, name cards, interesting word cards with pictures, and writing utensils. I like to use half sheets or quarter sheets of paper to encourage children to refine their writing and write smaller letters rather than larger letters.
  • Clipboards in appropriate areas throughout the room so that children can practice controlling the pencil or writing words, such as in the block area so they can draw and label buildings or signs or in the science area where they can write observations about a science display.
  • Opportunities to write in dramatic play, such as taking an order, writing their name on a train ticket, copying their address for a flower delivery, or filling out a patient chart for their pet. The ideas for implementing writing within dramatic play are unlimited. Children love imitating the adults in their lives by writing lists and filling out forms.
  • Opportunities to write their name using a model. Have a basket of name cards in the art area, at the easel, at a morning sign in sheet or anywhere else children might need to or want to write their name. We often ask children to write their names on their art work, but often they don’t have a model close by to look at.
  • Allow children to create lunch requests in which they fill out a form indicating who they would like to sit next to at lunch or snack. This can be a great way to motivate children to write who might not otherwise be interested.
  • Tactile activities that allow children to feel the shape of a letter, such as writing in the sand or sandpaper letters. With activities like these children are less likely to engage in the bad habits they would create when using pencil and paper to trace.

Research supports this idea of allowing children to free write. Neuroscience research has discovered that there is a specific area of the brain that must be activated in young children in order to become a good reader. This area, the visual word form area, is often called the letterbox region. In the research studies, seeing letters, typing letters, and tracing letters did not activate this letterbox region in four year old children. However, free-writing letters (no lines, blank paper, no dotted letters) did activate the letterbox….further proof that free writing is a more productive activity than tracing. Why is this? It’s thought that as the child produces the letters, he makes them a little different each time. The brain is really, really good at recognizing patterns. So the process of writing the letters free form helps the child differentiate which parts of the letter are important for letter recognition and which things are not important. It activates something in the brain that begins to recognize that this isn’t just another shape…this object is a little different…it connects to a word I know that has sounds in it. In FMRI studies, children who just traced the letters didn’t activate the letterbox area and had less letter knowledge and understanding than children who were free writing.

Tracing does not activate the region of the brain necessary for good readers. Free writing does.

At this point, teachers hearing this information are generally convinced that free writing is a good thing, but they are still reluctant to let go of tracing activities. I often get the question, “Can’t I do both?” My answer to that question has multiple layers. First, is the child establishing bad habits in the way he/she is making the letters. If the answer is yes, then I would avoid the activity. If the answer is no, I would probably ask myself if the child is really benefiting from the activity. The answer is likely that the activity is nothing more than busywork. I hear many teachers complain about the pressure of getting the children in their classroom ready for Kindergarten. With this type of pressure, it makes sense that we would want to ensure that any activity we do in the classroom would promote development. I just can’t seem to find a good reason to trace. I’d rather spend my time on other types of phonemic awareness activities.

The second layer for me involves thinking about whether children actually enjoy the activity. It’s completely possible to engage in an activity without putting forth any mindful effort. When this happens we have to ask ourselves how much learning is actually taking place. Also, forcing children to do an activity that is not enjoyable often results in behavior issues. For the child that doesn’t enjoy the activity, it’s important for teachers to consider whether the child is really gaining anything from it, and whether the battle is worth fighting if behavior issues ensue.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours. However, DAP guidelines, neuroscience research, and literacy experts do not endorse tracing activities. So my final answer to “Can’t I do both?” would be, “Why would you want to?”


For more information about Literacy and the Brain, check out our course, Creating Neural Pathways for Reading.

Language Matters When it Comes to Shame

Recently I’ve joined several parenting (mom) Facebook groups online to get a sense of some of the topics that parents are struggling with. It’s supposed to be a place of support, where mothers can ask questions without fear of judgment. I have found it is quite far from that. I think I naively assumed that other people would obey the rules and stay silent if they didn’t have something nice to say. It’s far from that in fact. It’s a cesspool of judgment. But that’s not actually what I’m hear to talk about. One of the other things I found interesting in the groups was the way some of the moms were responding to discipline related posts. They weren’t just recommending spanking…but their ideas of how children should be disciplined were filled with rage, power, humiliation, embarrassment, and shame.

Shame was the one that really got me though. I’ve been reading and listening to a ton of Brene Brown’s work, and that’s the topic she studies. So these responses just kept coming back to me. In her work, she tells us that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. Guilt, she says, has the opposite correlations. So what’s the difference between guilt and shame? Shame is focused on the person (you are bad) and guilt is focused on the behavior (you did something bad).

Isn’t that just semantics, you say? Actually, it’s not according to the research. Language affects the way we internalize messages, and how we internalize those messages color the way we view the world. I doubt there is any parent out there that would want their child to grow up with the list of things associated with shame, yet many of our discipline strategies are entirely shame based.

It’s embedded in our language and our daily interactions with children. I remember as a young mother playing with my toddler and laughing as I said “You’re bad” as she was being sneaky in a game we were playing. It was an innocent comment on my part, said in jest, but did it affect her in a negative way? I’ll honestly never know for sure.

But what I do know is this: given the knowledge I now have around shame and its affects, I will make every attempt to focus on behavior rather than character in all of my interactions…whether those interactions are with children or adults. If shame has all of these negative correlations, I don’t want to be part of it. Do you? 

Spoiling Babies???

A friend of mine has a 7 month old infant in a group care setting. She came over with him the other day and told me that the day care had asked her not to hold him so much on the weekends because she was spoiling him. Apparently he was expecting the teachers to hold him during the day like his mom did when they were at home. She was heartbroken and devastated. She already felt like she wasn’t spending enough time with her son because she had to work, and now the precious little time she did have she wasn’t supposed to hold him? You can see why she was upset. She asked me what to do.

I find it absolutely heartbreaking that a parent would be asked not to hold their baby. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence. It stems from the belief that babies that want to be held a lot are spoiled. But here’s the thing….it’s not possible to spoil a baby until about 9-12 months of age. Before then…babies are just communicating their needs. Being held is just as legitimate of a need as wanting to be fed, wanting to be changed, or needing to sleep. Human touch is fundamental for development and survival, and helps to establish a secure attachment to caring adults.

During the first 9-12 months of life, children are in the sensorimotor modulation stage of self regulation. This means that they really don’t have any prior intentions in their behavior, and they don’t yet understand the meaning of a situation. Infants react to things that the caregiver does, but they are not able to reflect on the action, the meaning, or the consequence at all. All of their actions are doing one of four things:

  • Engaging in voluntary motor acts – learning how to move their bodies in different ways in the outside world
  • Learning about cause and effect – every thing is a new experience for them…they are figuring out how things work
  • Exploring their environment – this is a brand new world and it’s exciting to see what’s out there!
  • Trying to get their needs met – they can’t use words to tell you what they need, and they haven’t always developed enough mechanisms to be able to self-soothe all the time

Since their have no prior intention or awareness, their desire to be held is not manipulative. In an way. In fact, infants need to be held a lot to develop a sense of trust, which is critical to healthy development. Science agrees with this. You simply cannot spoil a baby.

So what about the baby that comes to child care on Monday crying to be held, but by Wednesday has stopped? It’s simple. He’s just learned that his cries for help aren’t answered so there’s no point in trying. If you ask me, that’s a sad place for a little baby to be. I know that in a group care setting it may be impossible to hold a baby as much as they might be held at home. So what’s the answer? You do the best that you can at meeting EACH child’s needs. And you talk to the child to let the child know that you will be there as soon as you can….that they aren’t alone….that you haven’t forgotten about him.

So my answer to my friend? Hold your baby as much as you want to. That’s what he needs, and that’s what’s healthy.

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?

Math Made Fun

Math is one of my favorite areas to plan for in the preschool classroom. Sometimes teachers get so focused on the counting sequence that they forget about the other types of math activities that are just as, or even more, important! Number sense is just one area of math development that should be an important area of focus for preschoolers. Number sense for preschoolers is really a group of related math abilities that are key predictors of children’s math achievement. In essence, they are the skills that children need 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 quantities of objects using terms such as more, less, equal, larger, and smaller
  • recognize the relationships between individual items and groups of items (i.e., when counting a group of objects, when the child says “3” it means the whole group of three….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 (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 4 bears)
  • problem solve – such as figuring out how many paintbrushes are needed for the special activity based on the number of children that are seated at the table)

As you can see…these skills go far beyond just being able to recite the counting sequence! What are some specific activities that you can implement in your classroom to promote these skills?

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.

Numerals

Numerals are such an abstract concept for young children. While they may be able to recognize the numeral and name it, they also need to be able to start associated the quantity that the numeral represents with the numeral. Many activities that work with numerals offer no support for helping children understand this association. I like to add “quantity dots” to my numerals so that as children begin to match up the numeral to a quantity they can check their work to ensure that they are choosing the right numeral.

Turtles in the Pond

In this fun activity, children are matching the number of shapes on the turtles back to the numerals on the pond. The turtles have a clothes pin on the back so that they can be clipped to the correct pond. The dots on the numerals help children know if they are choosing the correct numeral.

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).

Ice Cream Math Manipulative

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

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

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

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/

What types of math activities do you plan to encourage number sense?