What schools can do to support children and families this fall.
Preschool directors, teachers, and administrators are busy planning for a unique start to a school year that brings new challenges, rules, and a lot of uncertainty. With safety at the forefront of everyone’s minds, this planning includes rethinking everything from class sizes and classroom set-ups, to cleaning supplies, procedures, and even what materials can be easily and regularly disinfected. Plastic baby dolls, yes. Stuffed animals, not so much.
With safety as a primary concern, it can be easy to forget what in other years might be the most important part of planning for the start of school: how to build strong relationships with children and their caregivers. Relationships must always be centered as part of the care provided by preschools. This is the year to remember why classrooms have family pictures on the walls, why a phase-in period is best practice, and why that photo sent to a parent of their child playing happily minutes after a tearful goodbye is more than meaningful. It is essential.
For those who are working tirelessly to ensure that their school is ready to welcome children and families back this fall, this is an invitation to reflect on the ways you can support not just the physical safety but the emotional health of your community. As I know from my years in the classroom, this is one of the things that can make preschools so wonderful.
Bring home into the classroom. Parents may not be able to walk through the doors, but there are other ways to bring them in. Laminated family photos that are available for children to touch or hold offer comfort and show children that their whole selves are welcome at school. Including the children’s favorite books in the reading corner and singing favorite songs during circle time provides familiar pleasures when so much else is new and different.
Bring school home. Continue building a bridge between school and home by helping to facilitate families’ conversations about school. Share photos of teachers and staff with and without masks. Send a video tour or photos of the classroom from a child’s perspective. Even a simple description of the day’s schedule can increase confidence. For parents who will not be able to see their child’s classroom from the inside, sharing lots of photos of their child playing and learning in that space can provide great peace of mind.
Provide predictability. Knowing what to expect allows children to relax and focus their energies on self-regulating and learning. By setting up consistent routines and keeping materials the same, teachers can create an environment that is predictable. This stability is especially crucial in a year with many other moving parts.
Facilitate learning and processing through play. Early childhood educators know the great power of play. Facilitating play so that the children can process their everyday experiences is one of your super-powers. You’ll know by observing your class what themes and ideas they are exploring. My guess is that you can predict some of these themes, too. Invite children to play out separation through peekaboo games. Make masks for the dolls with stickers or tape. Put out spray bottles with water and rags so children can take charge of “cleaning.” And, as always, adapt to the group.
Preschools are uniquely positioned to help children and families through challenging times. This is true even outside of a pandemic. The strength of the relationships forged in preschools is what so often leaves children and caregivers especially bonded to these institutions and the teachers and staff who work in them. As early childhood educators, you already have the tools at your disposal to take on this unprecedented year. Don’t let the changes throw you. Dig into what you know: how to build trust with children and families. The learning and the joy will follow.
In my last newsletter, I shared a post written by a fellow progressive educator who goes by Teacher Tom. In his post Isn't it also belittling to children? he shares some thoughts on how well-meaning adults can inadvertently limit children's exploration, and by extension their learning, by offering their own explanations or definitions as a way of teaching or engaging in children's play.
I have witnessed many similar situations to those that Teacher Tom describes. Innocent questions such as "What are you drawing?" that result in a child's experience being abruptly and automatically limited by an adult's comment. As an early childhood teacher, a large part of my own practice is dedicated to understanding how to extend children's learning through our interactions. And it does take practice!
To be clear, it's not that asking a reductive question ("What color is this?") or making a comment that is prescriptive ("This is how you connect the legos.") is catastrophic or even deeply problematic. We experience enough pressure as parents to also be asked to second-guess every word that comes out of our mouths. Being in relationship and playing with your child is much more important than being able to ask the "best" or "right" question--as if there is one. But it you find yourself curious to explore different ways of participating in your child's play and learning, here are some things you could consider exploring.
1- Observe - Often just being with your child, watching what they are doing, how they are doing it, and staying close by is enough. The feeling of being seen and appreciated is valued by all people, including children. It alone can support learning and exploration. This pausing to watch also allows time for us to check in with ourselves before speaking. Am I present? Am I curious? Am I breathing?
2- Connect - A close friend and fellow teacher would say he tried to be like the air in the classroom. Always there but an invisible support until needed or invited in. Sometimes the invitation is your child looking up at you. Sometimes it might be a question, a shared laugh, or a "Come play with me!" And sometimes it may be that it's you that wants to connect and let them know that you see what they are doing and are interested. Try starting with simply noticing together. "I notice how carefully you're lining up the blocks." "I remember you lined them up just like this yesterday."
3- Reflect together - In observing you might become curious to know more about what your child is exploring. Maybe you wonder what experiences are informing their ideas. Extending children's learning is not about telling them what you know, but rather guiding them to reflect and share their own ideas and finding opportunities to expand their thinking. Wondering together is a great way to do this. "I wonder if you've seen something like this before..." "Ah, yes! You are lining them up like train cars!" "I wonder where this train might be going."
These 3 steps can serve as a guide for playing with babies, toddlers and beyond! If you try them and find them helpful I'd love to hear.
One of the most common reasons that families reach out to me for consultations is to help them sort out their toddler's behavior. In these conversations there are some phrases that come up time and again. One of these is "It just comes out of nowhere." Or similarly, "It happens for no reason." I understand the feeling. Toddlers' reactions can often seem disconnected from the immediate cause. The intensity doesn't always match the perceived trigger. And to top it off, young children are generally not equipped to tell us why they felt the need to to throw themselves on the floor so dramatically when you suggested they put on their socks.
You might hear an "I don't like those socks!" but I have yet to come across a two-year-old who can express, "Well, I'm feeling ambivalent about going to daycare. I want to see my friends AND I'm sad to say goodbye to you. Sometimes it feels like a long time without you. As soon as my shoes are on I know we're on our way, so yeah... I don't really want to put on my socks."
The thing is there is always something behind the behavior. Children's behavior is one of their primary forms of expression. The challenge for us as parents or educators is understanding what is being communicated. What need are they trying to meet?
A very typical approach to dealing with unwanted behaviors is to focus on the behavior itself. Some families come to me having tried positive reinforcement techniques (praising desired behavior). Others have tried consequences or punishment to discourage unwanted behaviors. Most families I speak with have tried some combination of the two. These approaches are grounded in behaviorist theories of development. Behaviorist approaches aim to shape behavior. If they address underlying reasons, they do so only indirectly. In general, I find that at best they are effective only in the short-term. In response to these methods, the original behavior may morph into something else that looks very different, giving us the sense that the intervention worked when in reality the need is still being expressed. For example, a child may stop relying on hitting to communicate discomfort around a new sibling, but will seek to express their emotional needs through a newly challenging bedtime. The sleep disruption may then seem to "come out of nowhere," when in reality it is still tied to the feelings that led to the hitting in the first place.
A different approach, the one I use with families and the one that current research in neuroscience and development supports, is to focus on understanding and addressing the needs behind the behavior. If their needs are met, the child no longer has to rely exclusively on unexpected or challenging behaviors to express themselves. It's not that these will suddenly disappear (a toddler is still a toddler), but they will fall away more easily without necessarily hardening into stubborn patterns. Even better, by seeking to address root causes, you will be strengthening your relationship with your child and growing everyone's capacity for empathy.
Sometimes, stepping back to find the space and perspective to understand what is really going on with our toddlers can be hard. It can help to know about child development and common challenges at various points in development. It can help to put ourselves in our child's shoes for a moment and remember that when so much of your experience is new and few things are within your control, changes like a move to a big kid bed can be confusing and a big deal. And it can help to have someone who gets it to talk things through with.
With the first snow of the season, colorful lights have started to appear in windows and lobbies here in Brooklyn. The holiday season is upon us. Many families will soon be celebrating a holiday (or two or three), and everyone will notice the sights and sounds of this time of year, especially our children. December comes with excitement and anticipation. It also brings lots of stimulation, social gatherings, family, travel for some, and changes in routine. And feelings. Lots of feelings.
This is a month where finding balance becomes important for everyone. Which routines are okay to let go of? Which ones are helpful to keep in place? When it comes to young children, they are our best guides. Some babies and toddlers adapt easily to changes, and others will need more support. That support might look like setting boundaries around nap times, or it might mean that naps look different while you're away from home.
Sometimes, in the excitement and bustle of this time of year, we can lose sight of what things might feel like from our child's perspective. Holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah are often presented with much fanfare and enthusiasm. Whether it is the expectant gaze of a grandparent who is eager to share a tradition, or the Christmas carols playing in every store, children notice the intensity. Without many previous experiences to ground their understanding, this can sometimes result in discomfort or a child that is easily overwhelmed. Slowing down can help. So can adjusting our expectations, adapting our traditions, and preparing babies and toddlers for what their holiday will look like.
A joyful and peaceful holiday with babies and toddlers is possible, and an amazing opportunity for bonding and growth. Learning to adapt and be flexible will benefit our children (and our families) when we set ourselves up for success.
If you are local, and have specific questions consider joining my yearly Joyful Baby & Toddler Holidays class at The Wild on December 14th.
Topics will include:
Toddlers are confusing. Never did I understand this so well as when my own child entered toddlerhood. Even with over a decade of experience working specifically with this age group, at times I found myself scratching my head and wondering what in the @#$&# was going on. When it came to my own daughter, I needed to remind myself to step back and understand things from a developmental perspective, and so this workshop came about.
Understanding Toddler Emotions is the workshop I needed when my child started to assert her independence with a full-throated "NO." The information I have gathered here is what allows me to approach her from a place of compassion when she cries that I "broke her orange" by peeling it, and with patience and boundaries when she attempts to extend our night-time routine by just a little more each night. A combination of developmental theory, practical tools, and mantras to hold onto in the most challenging moments, this workshop is your companion guide to the toddler years. A year after I initially put it together, I still walk away from each session reminded of something that I know I'll use this very week in my own home.
If you've entered into this exciting chapter of parenthood, and are looking for some answers, some community, and some laughs, consider joining one of the next classes or hosting one in your home.
Understanding Toddler Emotions
December 7th, 3-4:40pm at The wild
I am a big fan of using mantras as a parent. The right mantra has the power to bring focus and awareness to a moment that has almost gotten away from me. It can help me quiet the static in my head so that I am able to respond to my child sensitively rather than reacting from a place of frustration, misunderstanding, or disconnect.
A good mantra is one that speaks to you. It should be simple and easy to remember. It could be a sound to bring you back into yourself. It could be a word that reminds you to "breathe" or "wait." It could even be a phrase that reminds you of an important truth and brings perspective to a moment.
One of my recent favorite mantras is Michelle Obama's famous phrase:
"When they go low, we go high."
There are several reasons why I find this an effective phrase to call up. First of all, I find that calling it up in the face of a negotiation with a determined toddler makes me laugh. Humor helps me find some space in the situation and I am able to breathe a little easier. It also gives me an instant perspective--the gravity of the low that Michelle was referring to reminds me that however big a conflict with a toddler can seem, I am more than equipped to handle it.
Most importantly it reminds me of a truth about development. Our prefrontal cortex (the outermost, frontal part of the brain) does not finish developing until the mid-late twenties. This "highest" part of the brain is responsible for executive functions including:
-reason & logic
It is the part of the brain we are relying on as adults when we have had a long day and our commute home gets extended. Here in NYC I see it on the subway. Delays are announced and folks have all kinds of "high brain" strategies for dealing with the frustration. Breathing, distracting themselves with reading or a phone, shifting back and forth, walking to the other end of the train, sighing, sharing the frustration with another commuter.
Toddlers, no matter how precocious, do not have the full range of access to these abilities that we do as adults. Even as adults, depending on our level of stress, our childhood experiences, our emotional state, past trauma, and other factors, we are not always able to rely on our prefrontal cortex to regulate how we respond to a given situation. In the subway example, I notice this in my own increasing desire to let out a frustrated scream.
So toddlers, especially emotionally overwhelmed toddlers, are operating from a deeper or "lower" part of the brain that is instinctive and impossible for them to rationally control. There is no conscious manipulation. There is no intent to hurt or anger.
When confronted with a toddler who is "going low" our responsibility is to "go high." This means that we, who have access to reason, understanding and perspective taking, put those abilities to good use. We meet our toddler with empathy. We become their calm. We acknowledge their emotions without judgement. We wait with them. Each situation will be unique.
As we model "going high" the most amazing thing happens and our toddler's brains begin to learn and shape themselves after us. Over time, and with lots of repetition we are giving them the gift of a robust and well developed brain that can handle anything that comes its way.
Sleep regression. Potty training regression. Separation regression. The implication is always of a step backward. A loss of sorts. Of course, what we mean as parents is that our baby or toddler is behaving in a way we thought they had outgrown. Maybe they're waking more often or clinging to us at drop-off when they used to walk in to daycare without a second glance.
Regressions are such a normal part of development, that some are even presented as inevitable. "The dreaded four month sleep regression" comes to mind. They become something to check off a list of milestones. Something to get through. To tackle.
A different way to think about regressions is that they are periods of time when our baby or toddler (or child, or spouse, or friend) needs more support to do some of the things that they are capable of doing. It may be that they have acquired a major new skill that their body and brain need to practice over and over to master--like learning to roll. Or that a new perspective on their independence, such as when they learn to crawl, has suddenly made them more aware that they don't control your comings and goings. Maybe they moved up a room in daycare and the change in environment means they need extra cuddles and time to feel safe.
Whatever the reason, these are moments when our child is seeking support and reassurance. Sometimes it may be emotional, such as reminding a recently potty trained child that they will always be your baby and you will always care for them. Sometimes it may be more physical, such as helping your newly rolling baby get back to sleep comfortably. At times it may require lovingly holding boundaries to help a toddler feel safe. Rest easy that your child is not somehow backsliding. They are growing and changing, and needing help from their loved ones is a part of that.
There is a predictable cycle to development. One part of the cycle is outward facing. These are times when our child is feeling capable, confident, and curious to venture into the world and try new things. The other part of the cycle faces in, towards home. These are times when our child needs reassurance, welcoming arms, and some willing help. Children are always at some point of this cycle, and it can change from moment to moment. Our job as caregivers is to notice and respond as well as we can. We won't be able to always meet the needs but it matters that we're prepared to try. When children can draw nourishment from our empathy, they are able gather themselves and reemerge with confidence.
What would happen if instead of framing the inward facing moments as regressions, we thought of them simply as a time when our child needs us close by. A time of gathering?
The first few months home with my daughter were a time of tremendous growth for my husband and I. There were many things that we suddenly found very difficult to do. Making dinner felt nearly impossible some days. So we reached out for help. What did that help look like? Having a parent or friend make us dinner. Ordering take-out. Hearing, "This is a hard time right now, I can help." not "You can do it! You know how to make easy dinners. I believe in you." Just because you offer your child more support today, does not mean that they will become dependent on it for the long run. If they have been given sensitive support, your child will shortly go back to doing things for themselves, just as my husband and I now cook dinner most nights. (And when we need to, we still order take-out.)
A very important caveat, a true developmental regression such as a loss of skills, vocabulary, or movement abilities should be discussed with your child's pediatrician as it could be a cause for concern. Similarly, if you sense that your child's development has stalled, it is always best to bring up your observations with your child's doctors, teachers or team of specialists. Trust yourself if you have any doubts.
I have been speaking with my daughter in Spanish since before she was born. It is my first language, and I feel strongly about sharing it with her. I have family in Chile, Puerto Rico, the US and France. Besides genes and shared history, the thing that unites us all is language. Whether we call a bean un frijol or una habichuela or un poroto, we understand each other. I want my daughter to be a part of that.
As an early childhood educator I understand the benefits of bilingualism--there are many. As a mother, I wanted to hear my heart language in my home. My husband is a native English speaker who learned Spanish while working in a Mexican restaurant. I am grateful that he was willing to join me in expanding the languages that make up our lives. He speaks primarily Spanish with our daughter as well. And while at 2.5 years old she is picking up English at lightning speed, Spanish is truly her first language.
As my child began to look outside our family and take an interest in her world, it became important to surround her with more opportunities to hear Spanish outside the home. I knew from experience and from my education that in order for her to continue to speak a language that is not dominant in her home country, she would need to find social value in it. Exposure is not enough. Community is essential.
I began to look into Spanish language programs. We discovered wonderful music classes--Canta y Baila with Anath Benais at Hootenanny Brooklyn. I toured some preschools. And because nothing near us quite offered the mix of immersion, free play, child-led learning, engaged and like-minded teachers, and community building that I was hoping for... I enlisted a friend and colleague, Paulina Trevino-Oliva, to start our own program.
NIDO Forest has now met for two seasons, and has just started its Otoño / Fall season. We have welcomed families with all kinds of connections to Spanish into our fold. From parents who are native speakers, to families' whose nannies have brought Spanish into the home, to families who have lived abroad, and those who are just curious to try something new. We open our group to all.
My daughter who, in spite of being extremely verbal at a young age, was at first unsure about how to communicate with other children has blossomed socially in this group. The children have grown in their confidence, risk taking, creativity, and problem solving. Most importantly we have shared many laughs--a universal language.
You can learn more about NIDO Forest, including how to register at www.nidoforest.com
Some of our classes are at capacity, but there are a couple of spaces left in others and we are exploring how and where to grow in the Spring. Feel free to reach out with ideas!
Of all the questions that would come up at parent-teacher conferences when I was in the preschool classroom, the one that came up most often was "How do we start potty training?" Sometimes it was asked in other ways like "Is she ready to potty train?" or "Is he interested in the potty at school?" Sometimes it was asked in hindsight, "We tried to potty train last weekend but..." As a teacher, I appreciated being included in the process so we could join forces to sort out the noise from what we knew about each particular child, their abilities and their needs.
There seem to be two loud voices when it comes to potty training these days. On the one hand, are folks who say that children will do it on their own, which is often misinterpreted as needing to do nothing at all as a parent. On the other, are the folks that claim that children can be trained in a weekend if only you would clear your schedule and just do it already. In my experience, most families' lived experiences are somewhere in between.
Mindful Potty Training aims to demystify the process of learning how to use the toilet. This process is unique and individual to each child, so the workshop is not a straight how-to. Instead, I present families with the knowledge and tools to support their child through understanding and connection. Yes, there are concrete suggestions. And yes, I lay out some guidelines for how things can unfold. But the focus is on understanding how to support YOUR child and why it matters.
Learning to use the potty is more than a milestone to check off a list. It is an opportunity for a child to grow in their self-confidence, while building their relationships with caregivers. And it can be stress-free!
Whether you're curious and looking ahead, or needing an alternative after a stressful attempt at teaching your child to use the potty, consider joining an upcoming Mindful Potty Training class at The Wild or hosting one in your home.
September 7th, 3-4:30pm at The Wild
November 2nd, 3-4:40pm at The Wild
The first workshop I developed for Babies & Toddlers Understood was a separation workshop for parents whose children were starting preschool. It is a very familiar subject for me as a former preschool teacher, and one that I feel passionately about. I have co-led and observed orientation and separation workshops at all of the schools that I have worked at, and have seen what a big difference it makes for parents to go into the first day feeling informed and confident about how to say goodbye and why it matters.
Often orientation nights also include a flood of other information like what to pack, whether to bring snack, how to label things, illness policies, classroom policies, how to sign a child in or out... you get the idea. The best orientations, and I have had the good fortune to be a part of some great ones, are able to balance this with the important task of helping parents understand separation. In others, this is lost or not even discussed.
Keys to a Successful Drop-off is an opportunity for parents and caregivers to focus exclusively on separation and how to support the process. It offers a close look at separation and attachment, and how to help a child transfer trust from their parent to a teacher. I believe parents are better prepared when they understand the reasons behind their children's behavior, what a school is asking of them (phase ins, quick goodbyes, or never sneaking out), and my suggestions. This workshop balances theory and knowledge with practical advice and concrete suggestions.
As we look towards a new school year, I have revisited my notes for this workshop with the feedback I received and am looking forward to supporting more families as they reach this exciting milestone!
Whether your child is starting preschool or daycare, this workshop is for you.
August 27th, 6-7:30pm at The Wild
August 28th, 6-7pm at Busy Bodies