Sunday, November 11, 2012

Missa, why you're crying?

This week, we read A Poppy is to Remember by Heather Patterson and Ron Lightburn

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wait, you mean I'm doing something unusual?

"Hey, Melissa, you wanna hear this?"
"Hey, Missa! Dess what!"
"Melissa, listen to my story!"
"Wanna know something, Melissa?"
"Dat's Missa dere!"

My days at work are filled with children who enjoy my company and want to talk to me. The ones who have a reputation for being "quiet" or the ones who only speak selectively often tell me long, complicated stories, and take the time to make sure I understand what they are trying to tell me. Almost every child seeks out a quiet moment to connect with me at some point during the day. This makes sense to me: my job involves building relationships with these kids, and I have a knack for understanding near-unintelligible speech.

The thing that surprises me is when children I rarely interact with (specifically, the ones in the toddler room) fall in love with me. They all are excited to see me in the hallway and clamour to tell me where they are going or where they just came from (usually "outside" or "the gym"), and many of them seek my attention when I stick my head into their classroom for a moment to talk to their teachers. But I don't see them all every day. And yet... I found out today that the oldest girl in the toddler room talks about coming to Daycare to see the director and... Missa. Not her classroom teachers. My mind has been boggling over this all day, and then suddenly, I realised. All those times I saw her in the boot room in the morning and greeted her by name (even though I never got any sign of a response), and all those times I said "Hello, how are you today?" when our paths crossed in the park or the playground, all those times I said "goodbye" to her at the end of the day and got a hidden, below-the-hip wave in return, all those times when she held up something for me to see, and I noticed and commented on it, I was building something with her.

For years, I've been the kind of person that small children really love. I am not boasting, and I am not perfect, but young children just really seem to like me a lot. It's been a mystery to me for a long time, but I think I'm starting to figure out some of the reasons why. I think the biggest one is this:

I communicate with them.

There's no big secret to communicating with young children, even pre-verbal ones. Which is why I didn't realise that the way I communicate with them is unusual in any way. Apparently, many other adults in the world seem to believe that small children are either incapable of comprehending or reciprocating communication, or that they're not worth communicating with (which is not to say that said adults are aware they hold these beliefs, or that they are acting upon them).

So. Maybe big people need some pointers on how to talk to small people. How to communicate with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, Missa style:

  1. Speak to them like they are people, because they are. All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, even the very young ones.
  2. Listen attentively to what they have to say, and respond appropriately. 
 That's it. That's it? Really? Yes, yes it is.

But what does it mean?

When speaking to someone, most of us follow a number of rules that we learned and internalised when we were very tiny. We sometimes forget to follow those same rules when speaking to babies or toddlers, but they are still important. When speaking to someone, one ought to:
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact. This may mean squatting, kneeling, bending down, or holding a child in one's lap.
  • Pause after asking a question and wait for the other person to respond. Even when you're pretty sure you won't get an answer (like when I greet a young toddler in the morning with "Hi Jenny, how are you today?"), it's important to allow the opportunity for one to be given. Parents look at me like I'm slightly off my rocker sometimes when I do this.
  • Watch the other person's reactions to know how he feels about the conversation. We naturally watch for nonverbal cues from other adults to regulate when it is time to change the subject, when the other person wants a turn to talk, whether the other person is confused or bored or even listening at all, and so on. Young children are perfectly capable of showing you those same nonverbal cues.
  • Use an appropriate volume and tone of voice. Like shouting loudly at old people, using a falsely enthusiastic, loud, high-pitched voice to speak to children is condescending, and they know it. They're people, not puppies. Now I don't mean to say that the kind of soft, high voice people naturally use when speaking to tiny babies in inappropriate, but it's not necessary to speak two octaves above your normal voice every time you talk to someone smaller than yourself. Also: Talking like Dora the Explorer doesn't help you communicate effectively with a child. It's okay to be calm and quiet. Kids don't need to be shouting excitedly all day long, and neither do you.
Effective listening skills are sometimes difficult to engage. Particularly with young children, we tend to respond a lot with "YEAH? REally? Uh-huh? Cool! Oh... Okay." without having any clue what on earth the child is saying. Instead, one could try to:
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact (again? still?) and indicate non-verbally that you are listening and interested in what the child has to say. This may mean displaying appropriate facial expressions, nodding at key moments, and using those verbal nods more appropriately (in a quiet, normal tone of voice).
  • Confirm that the message you are receiving is the one the child is sending. This can be accomplished by asking clarifying questions ("I see you're signing 'more' but you still have lots of cheerios in front of you. Are you asking for something different?"), paraphrasing what you've heard, or (especially in the case of children with poor speech intelligibility), repeating what you think you've heard. ("I go simming!" "You went swimming?" "Yeah! I go simming Mommy Daddy! Sayd!" "You went swimming and there was a slide?" "No. Asayd." "Oh! You went swimming outside! With your mom and dad? That sounds like fun.") I know this sounds kind of tedious, but it really is worth it. First of all, you're sending the message that you really care about what the child has to say. And the more you work to understand what the child is saying, the less you'll have to rely on repeating it all to make sure you've heard correctly. I sometimes still quietly repeat things that some children say when there are less-familiar people in the room, because I know that I have learned to understand them, but others haven't necessarily had the chance to learn that a "weederwodder" is a "police-car helicopter" or that "Uhdah? oihprnefkflfmoisdc Dide?" means "Melissa? Can we go play outside?"
  • Take seriously whatever it is the child is telling you. It can be hard not to giggle sometimes when a young child shares some erroneous information or tries out some big, new words. Yes, they are adorable, and sometimes hilarious, but unless the child is clearly telling a joke, it is inappropriate to laugh. If you laugh or tell a child how cute or smart he is every time he tries to talk to you, he is eventually not going to want to talk to you at all. Instead:
  • Respond with compassion and respect to the child's message. "It sounds like getting a needle at the doctor's office was a little bit scary for you." is a much more appropriate response than telling the child it didn't hurt, for instance. We are so anxious to make sure our children never cry or feel scared or uncomfortable that we fail to realise that they are entitled to their emotions, and the only way they will learn to deal with them in a healthy way is if we allow them to experience and express said emotions fully and appropriately. Sometimes, I respond to a shouted "YOU'RE NOT MY FRIEND AND YOU'RE NEVER COMING TO MY BIRTHDAY PARTY EVER AGAIN!" (basically the most dire threat a preschooler can think of) with "You seem to be really angry with your friend. Did you mean to tell him 'I feel angry and what you did really hurt my feelings'? You don't have to threaten him." This often leads to either a tearful tattle from the shouter or a desperate self-defense plea from the other child. But it transforms a shouting match into a dialogue without discounting anyone's legitimate emotions.
  • Avoid interrrupting, and if you do interrupt, promptly appologise. This is especially important when talking to kids with impulse control difficulties (because you are, in fact modeling desired behaviour when you avoid interrupting) or with speech difficulties like stuttering (because it is important to allow the child to deliver his message, and he will feel more anxious, stuttering more, if he sees you growing impatient or interrupting). Basically, show some respect, as you would with an older speaker.
Phew! That's a long one! I firmly believe that speaking to young children is something that needs to be approached with thoughtfulness and respect, just like speaking to adults. It really is worth it, in the end. You never know what a child will be willing to tell you if she can trust you to actually listen to her message.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lunch Table Conversation

Many people forget that one of the things we do when we sit down to have a meal together is converse. Adults will sit at the table for hours sometimes, visiting over a meal.

We believe it is important for children to experience the social aspect of sharing a meal together, so we make a point of sitting down together, waiting for everyone at our table to arrive before we begin eating, and waiting until everyone at our table has finished before leaving. Preschool table conversation can be a lot of things, but boring is rarely one of them. Sometimes, it's ridiculous (such as the time some kids pretended every single edible item in their lunch boxes were telephones) or serious (like the conversations sparked by things kids have heard about on the news) and sometimes it is educational.

Today, the PA system interrupted our lunch conversation to inform us that "There will be a disruption of the fire alarm service in the West building. In case of fire, call 66#."

"That's not for us," stated J, authoratatively.
"What did it say?"
"What was that?" -- these are both frequently asked questions after an announcement. The children know that sometimes, the announcement tells us someone is sick or hurt and needs help from a doctor right away (code blue or nursing response) and that the person no longer needs help (code blue/nursing response is all clear). The important ones (and the reason the children loudly shush each other when the annoying dinging noise preceeds the announcement) are the "Code Red" announcements: Those ones might be "fire drills". We are really good at fire drills.

I explained that the announcement was so we know that if we see a fire, and we pull the fire alarm, it won't work, so we should just call the switchboard and tell them about it instead.
"Six-six-pound! That's what you call!" one child reminded me.
"Why is the fire alarm not working?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe they need to fix it or test it or do some work to it. Maybe it is just not working right now."
"Maybe it's not working because there's some wires, and the wires that go in it are rusty and they have to get it out," offered J.
"I think so maybe a ghost got in there and it putted its hand in and got rust in the wires and broke it," was A's thought.
"Ghost-iz are not real," Z objected, sparking a brief debate over whether ghosts are real or make-believe.
"HEY WAIT A MINUTE!" yelled J, "I know what happened to the fire alarm!"
"Oh? What do you think, J?" I asked.
"They have to take it down and take out the battery and put a new one and hang it back up."
"Oh, it needs a new battery? Could be."
"I think J was right all along!" exclaimed G, "It hadded to get a new battery and get the rusty wires out."

The conversation wandered away to something completely different, but I thought it was significant that one of the "medium" kids brought some of his prior knowledge (probably he is linking the fire alarm service with the smoke detector at his house) to share with his peers, who used it to construct new knowledge. Hours later, when the announcement came that the fire alarm "is back in service", someone who had not been sitting at our table (but had obviously been listening) piped up "I guess they finally changed the battery..."

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Someone needed it more than we did.

Tuesday, I took a small group of children over to our garden patch, intending to harvest George, Frank, and Harry, our trio of pumpkins. But when we arrived at the garden, we discovered Frank and Harry sitting, happy as can be, on either side of a blank space. George, the biggest pumpkin, had vanished!

 I suppose that in order to fully appreciate the significance of this tale, you need the whole story.  A long time ago, last spring, we started exploring seeds and reading about how they grow. 

We planted sprouts in the sand table.

 We transplanted a sprout into a pot.

We made an experimental window greenhouse display to see how different kinds of seeds would look when they sprouted.

We planted some seeds in egg carton cups, and grew them in the window.

We watered, and measured, and sang to our seeds to help them grow.
A family who lives nearby gave us some lumber to paint.
Then they used the lumber to create a raised garden bed for us. We transplanted our egg-cup pea plants into one corner.

We planted carrots, radishes, beans, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, watermelons, broccoli, marigolds, sunflowers, pumpkins, and chard. Some of those things we planted too late, and haven't been able to harvest. Maybe next year! But, many things, we did plant in time. The pumpkins were the seeds that excited us the most; we remember carving George the Jack-o-lantern and then turning him into delicious tarts last fall.
 We planted our pumpkin seeds in early June, at the same time as our sunflower seeds.

Soon, we had several healthy pumpkin plants sprouting in the back corner of the garden.

In early July, we thinned the pumpkins down to just one, the healthiest-looking plant.

 Soon, that plant was big enough to start training up the trellis, so it wouldn't overwhelm the entire garden.

 Here is the flower that appeared in mid-to-late July, and eventually grew to become George II.

Now, it is October.

Last week, on September 27th, George looked like this:

By October 2nd, he was gone, leaving only his two brothers flanking the empty space where he had been.
 The adults are far more upset over this development than the children. The ones who came to the garden with me to pick the pumpkins said "I think the wind blowed it away..." and when we told everyone about George's mysterious disappearance at meeting time, the theories were flying all over the place (from kids sitting on their bottoms, raising their hands, and listening to what one another had to say, no less!) about what had caused our biggest pumpkin to vanish:

"I think a bad guy stealed it," was the prevailing theme, with a few other ideas, such as "A purple polka-dot monster took it to feed its babies!" (we agreed that if the babies were hungry, it was okay for the moster to use our pumkpin) or "Maybe it got up on some legs and walked to its new home!"

Ultimately, the children decided that whoever took the pumpkin needed it more than we did. Maybe they didn't have a nice garden like ours to grow their own. And they left us two little ones, so it's okay. I promised to buy a big carving pumpkin closer to Halloween time for our jack-o-lantern, and we can use these little ones for tasty treats like roasted seeds... and George tarts.

The children are already making plans to grow next year's pumpkin:

"Hey, I know! We can put the pumpkin in the ground and grow more pumpkins!"
"No! You don't put the pumpkin! You get it open and then you put the seeds in the ground."
"Oh yeah, let's plant the seeds and grow more pumpkins!"
"Not now, it's going to be winter, guys."
"Winter pumkins!"
"If you grow pumpkins in the snow then they'll freeze and be dead."
"Oh. Maybe we should wait until it's not winter."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Preschool 'Bad-Bye' Blues

Thursday, I received a text from one of my closest friends:

"Got ideas on how I can get my son into school without him having a panic attack and complete meltdown?"

Unfortunately, Thursday was one of the days where we had seventeen children, and one teacher was off, at the text arrived right at the beginning of the most transition-intensive period of the day: The "wash hands/eat lunch/clean up lunch/toilet/go to sleep and do it all in 90 minutes with 17 preschoolers and only 3 teachers" period. So I didn't have a chance to answer her right away. So now I am going to answer here, where maybe other desperate moms, dads, and teachers can glean some ideas.

Every child has some difficulty being "left" somewhere while his or her parents go off into the wide world for a while. Some of them learn to deal with it sooner than others, and some cope internally, with barely a sign to us, the observing adults, that there was ever any anxiety at all. In the toddler room, we deal with children who may only have a shaky grasp of object permanence, at least at first, and might not understand that Mommy and Daddy still exist. In the toddler room, we tell the parents to say goodbye, promise to be back in a few hours, and quickly leave, screaming child or no. Eventually, the child will learn to trust his or her teachers, and to trust that Mommy and Daddy will return, as promised, every time.

Older children who maybe haven't had a lot of experience with daycare or similar situations very often have trouble separating from Mom and Dad at some point during the preschool or kindergarten experience. The same general theory applies with them as with the little ones: say goodbye like it is no big deal, say when you will return, and then leave. Screaming child or no. No "just one more hug" fifteen times in a row. No fussing about "you're fine, you're going to have fun, look! Your friend Johnny isn't sad! Why don't you go play with him?" Most teachers deal with goodbyes all the time. We know that it's hard on both parent and child, honest. It's hard for us and for your child's classmates, too! In preschool, children take social cues from one another way more than they do in the toddler age group, and they pay attention to how their peers are feeling and behaving.

It doesn't always happen on the first day, or in the first week. Sometimes, a child has "bad-bye" days sporadically for years and is fine the rest of the time.

Here are some tips from our classroom and from my background as a special needs educator that might be helpful if you've got a child who acts out at drop-off time, whatever the reason.

Speaking of reasons, it's important to suss out why your preschooler is anxious or upset about school
(For the sake of argument, I am referring to children who can have a conversation, usually somewhere after the second birthday and older, as preschoolers; I will refer to wherever-it-is you're leaving your child as "school" but the same applies for daycare... You get it, right?). Sometimes, it's anxiety over the unknown, particularly if your child is the type who has to know what is going to happen before it happens. Sometimes, the pressure of being expected to follow new rules and talk to new people and take instructions from some overly-friendly stranger is just too much to handle. Sometimes, the other kids make things too chaotic and overstimulating for comfort. Sometimes, Mom or Dad's over-the-top fussing is reinforcing to the child. Sometimes, tummies don't have enough food in them, there wasn't enough sleep had the night before, or a child is just not feeling well. Sometimes, children just don't feel like having a school day. Just like sometimes, adults just don't feel like having a work day.

Some of these reasons we, the adults, can address. Others, we cannot address directly.

Things to do to help smooth out that good-bye transition:
  • Establish a comfortable night-before-school routine. You may find it helpful to pick out tomorrow's clothes together, or pack lunch/snack together, and get your child thinking about his school day in the calm, comfortable environment of home. This is your opportunity to talk him through any of the fears or anxieties he might express (without dismissing them! Your child's fears, no matter how trivial or absurd they seem from an adult point of view, are very real to him; hard as it is, you need to take them seriously). If a particular worry comes up, you can make a plan together to address it: "I know you are worried about zipping your coat up at outside time. It's still kind of tricky for you, isn't it? What do you think you could do if you need some help?" 
  • Make sure your child is well-rested. I know, I know, this one is easier said than done. On average, children between 1 and 3 years need 10 to 13 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Children 3 to about 12 years need 10 to 12 hours of sleep. Depending on your routine, some of this sleep may happen with a midday nap, especially for toddlers and preschoolers; at our centre, the preschoolers lie down for naptime between noon and 12:30, most are asleep by 12:45, and they all sleep about 1.75 to 2 hours. That means they need to get another 8 to 10 hours of sleep at home. Hard to contemplate when you have to get out the door at 7:30am, get home at 6pm, and need time for supper, bedtime routines, and spending time together (not to mention the separation-anxiety-driven bedtime battle!), but that's the reality of working full time and having your child in a full-day care program. There's more schedule flexibility to a half-day program routine, as you could let your child have a "rest"/nap before an afternoon class or after a morning class.
  • Try not to stress out over breakfast. It's hard to eat a good meal when you're nervous. Being nervous makes your tummy feel funny. Offer some nutritious choices for breakfast, remind your child that if she's hungry later there will be snack at school/her lunch is available at lunch time/whatever the case may be, and leave it at that. If she eats breakfast, great! If not, try offering a banana or some apple slices on the way to school, in case she changes her mind, and maybe give the teacher a heads-up about the non-breakfast (it makes a HUGE difference with some kids!) and leave it at that. Kids this young tend to balance out their caloric intake over the course of a day naturally. As long as breakfast-skipping doesn't become habitual, it won't hurt to let it happen a few times. It's more important to avoid making breakfast into a power struggle.
  • Make a one-one-one-one rule for yourself. One hug, I love you. One kiss, I will be back when school is all done. One hug, good-bye. One wave on your way out, if necessary, either through the door or through a window if the school's setup and schedule allows. Then flee out of your child's sight and cry if you have to. This is possibly the hardest part of separation for parents. Please, resist the temptation to give in to pleas for "just one more minute" or "just one more hug"; this is the reason schools adopt a policy asking parents NOT to stay when dropping students off. It may feel like you're meeting your child's need by doing this, but really you're validating his anxiety. By reacting like it's something that requires your comforting presence, you're telling him there really is something to be afraid of. Also, as with any tantrum, he might just be pushing your buttons to prove that he's still in charge. 
  • Be honest about when you are coming back. Please, please please, for the love of your child's trusting heart, never succumb to the "bait and switch" tactic: "Oh, I'll just wait until he's involved in something and slip out before he notices" seems to work, but that's because you don't have to deal with the terror your child feels when he realises you've vanished. Nor do you have to calm his frantic screaming and pounding on the classroom door to try to get to you. Similarly, do not tell your child you will "be right back" or be back "in a few minutes" unless you will actually be right back in a few minutes (and to a preschooler, three minutes is a few minutes). It is not fun for a teacher to explain to a distraught child that her parent actively lied to her. Instead, you could say "It's time for me to go now. I will be back in three hours to pick you up." Or, "I'll see you when school is over/when I'm all done work/later this afternoon." Make it clear that time will pass before your return. 
  • Use visual reminders to support your promise to return. If your child's school will allow it, and if you consistently pick your child up at the same time each day, this may be a useful tool for your child to manage his or her own anxiety: Get a wallet-sized photograph of yourself. Go to a photo booth if you have to! On the back of the photo, draw (or print out and paste) an analogue clock showing the time at which you will pick up your child. Laminate the photo or wrap it in clear packing tape for durability. Let your child keep this tool in his or her pocket to pull out for reassurance. Point out the clock in your child's classroom, so there is a reference to compare the "pick-up" clock to. Your child will be empowered by this, as he or she will not have to keep asking teachers "how long until my mommy/daddy is going to be here?" As long as the pocket card doesn't become distracting, most teachers should be fine with it.
  • Find out your child's school routine and talk through it. When kids come up to me, watery-eyed, telling me they miss their mommies, I talk them through what's left of our day. "I know you miss your mommy. Mommy's at work. We'll see her when she's all done. Right now, we're going to sleep (these miss-my-mommy chats often happen right at nap time), and then we'll wake up, put the beds away, and go outside/to the gym/whatever. Then we'll have a snack and a meeting, and play a little while longer, and then Mommy will be here." Sometimes, the kids talk me through the routine after I give them the "right now" step. A little cuddle, and away we go. You can talk through your child's school routine on the way to school or during your evening-before routine. "When you get to school, you will have free play, and then circle time. After circle comes centres, and then snack time." etc., until... "and then I will be there to pick you up! And we'll (go to the library, go home for lunch/supper, pick up your sister from out-of-school care, whatever you plan to do after school)!"
  • Tell your child what you will be doing during school time. Some kids need to have a constant inventory of what their loved ones are doing. "Daddy is at work. Mommy is going to a meeting while you are in school. Big brother is at his school. The dogs are at home in the back yard." Some kids need to know they're not missing out on anything more exciting than school, too! Especially if you've got another child who has preschool on different days/times. Maybe school time is gym time for you, and whichever child doesn't have school that day gets to chill out in the gym's daycare (oh no, that is not a very specific, possibly personalised suggestion at all, noooooo...). 
  • Trust the teachers. These people to whom you are entrusting your child have dealt with the bad-bye blues over and over again. Talk to them about what will make the transition smoother for your child and what will work with the routine of the classroom. In our class, we allow a few of the children to show their treasures to their friends before sending the treasures back with mom or dad (toys from home aren't allowed, except naptime loveys and sharing Fridays!). A few of the children need an extra hug from a teacher once mom or dad is out the door. One or two of them need a reminder from a teacher that even though they are sad to say goodbye, the time until mom or dad returns goes by faster if you find something fun to do. One family wrote "Mommy loves you" on the sole of their son's left shoe, and "Daddy loves you" on the right shoe, and regularly leaves little love notes in his lunch box. One of our newest preschoolers has a small blankie that she carries with her in the morning. It's usually forgotten in the dolly bed by meeting time, resurfaces for her snuggling pleasure at naptime, and gets rescued into her cubby when the beds are put away, until it's retrieved when Mommy picks her up at the end of the day. One of the boys (one of the oldest, now! How did that happen!!!) asks me to read him a story when he's really missing his parents. Another goes straight for the art centre to draw a picture for his mommy if he's having trouble getting into the swing of things. We will figure out what works best for your child; we just need you to let us do it! It's not ideal if we have to pry your screaming child out of your arms as you give her eighteen more kisses and hugs and apologise for leaving her, or if we have to tell her that you tricked her and snuck out, or that you lied about being back in a minute. Talk to us, and we can figure out together what will work best for your child!
Every child has the bad-bye blues once in a while. If your child expresses anxiety or fear, address the specific fear. But most important of all, build on the trusting relationship that already exists between you and your child. Make sure he or she knows that you will always come back, no matter what. And hang in there! In most cases, the preschool bad-bye blues don't last. They might come and go, but they're usually resolved by the end of kindergarten.

Feel free to share your transition tips in the comments here: I know there are a number of experienced parents and teachers among my (five) readers!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Preschool Revolution?

About three months ago, I wrote an article about Running Down the Ramp. Hospital administration apparently believes that such behaviour will inevitably lead to a lawsuit because someone will fall down and get hurt.

Every time we go down The Ramp, it stirs up chatter:

"Let's run!"
"No, we can't!"
"Can we, Missa?"
"Not anymore. The people in charge said we aren't allowed to run down the ramp anymore because they think we might get hurt."
"They never said we couldn't skip down it..."
"True, but we are still going to walk down right now."
"We need to wear helmets!"
"Yeah, we need safety... things to protect us so we can't get hurt!"
"What about armor?"
"I think so maybe we should have on some goggles."
"We need gear, like hockey."

I love that these kids, these amazing, imaginative, inquisitive kids, refuse to accept a senseless and (in their eyes) unjust decree imposed on them by such an ambiguous entity as The People In Charge. I love that they start brainstorming workarounds and solutions instead of raging, complaining, or meekly obeying. I love how they seek to address the reason for the rule instead of just finding ways around it. These marvelous, intelligent children have already formed the basis for effecting changes in a democratic society: Critical thinking skills. Granted, they are pretty rudimentary at this point, but am I ever proud of these kids. Obviously we are doing something right.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

If you've got a song in your heart, you can sing!

The children at my centre have one full hour of music instruction per week, delivered in two 30-minute sessions. It's one of the few times when they are expected to sit on their bottoms, pay attention, and answer questions, following someone else's agenda. They love it, most of the time. I can see hints of their advanced music knowledge spilling over into other areas; using musical dynamic terms to describe volume, drawing musical notation elements in their artwork, linking fractions to note values, and so on.

Recently, a new music teacher has taken over, as our beloved Miss Jesse is moving on to new, exciting opportunities. The new teacher has some different expectations, and it will take some time for her and the children to come to terms with what works the best for our class. She was surprised this week when she introduced a new song and the children began to sing along right away. "You guys are picking this up quickly!" she remarked. What she doesn't realise is that they aren't "picking it up" so much as they are jumping in impulsively, almost instinctively, relying on the groundwork of ear training Miss Jesse spent the past eighteen months fostering in them.  They've got great intonation and rhythm sense, and need only one or two repetitions of a simple melody before they're willing to try singing along. They are quiet and tentative at times, and bold and brave at others. Some are quicker to sing out than their friends, and no one thinks there is anything wrong with that. They make mistakes, sound bad sometimes, forget that 'forte' and 'yelling' are not the same thing. Generally, though, they make a joyful noise together.

Over the past two years, my brother and I were spearheading a choir at our church. We struggled desperately to convince people to join us, and heard the same thing over and over again: "Oh, you wouldn't want me... I have a terrible voice... I can't sing anymore... No one wants to hear me..." What a tragedy that what seems to be an innate human ability has been discouraged, even squashed, in all these adults. My preschoolers know that singing together is natural and fun. What if all these adults had been given the chance to flex their musical muscles as young children, when they still didn't know that they "couldn't sing," before some misguided choir master in elementary school asked them to "sing very softly"?

Recently, a flashmob video started making the rounds on the internet from Spain. Watching it makes my heart happy. The music is lovely, and flashmobs are cool, but the thing that really makes me smile is seeing all the small children in the crowd reacting naturally to what they are experiencing. I think we can learn something from them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The man who made a very poor choice

"Hey um, Melissa?" I never know what is coming next when I hear this request for attention, especially from the lad uttering it this time.
"I... My mommy said she heard on the news they caught that bad boy with the... Shootin' things..."
"Ah, it's true, the police caught the man who made a bad mistake and shot his friends. They took him to jail."
"Hooray, they got him!"
"Hooray, maybe they will help him learn to make better choices while he is in jail."

This conversation took place on the way out to the playground yesterday afternoon. He was talking about it again when he came in this morning. "They catched him when he was trying to um go out of Canada but soon they are gonna bring him back to Edmonton."

While I believe that The News is inappropriate for young children, I also believe they have the right to know (to an extent that is within their grasp) what is going on in the world. When children bring up something from The News, it is almost always something very scary. I think they're looking for someone to help them make sense of it all. I see it as an opportunity to equip them with some survival and coping tools. One child brought up a news story about some "bad guys in a white van" who were "tryin' to steal some kids" one day at lunch, which sparked a conversation about "what do you do if someone is trying to steal you?"

The news story mentioned yesterday was about the recent U of A shooting at Hub Mall last week. A man made a very poor decision. He shot four of his friends. Three of them died. The other one is still in the hospital, very badly injured. The man who made the poor decision also stole a whole bunch of money, and then he ran away. The police caught him at the US border. Now he is going to jail for a very long time.

Scary stuff, but the kids are aware of it. Two or three of them have been telling me little details about Travis Baumgartner and the people he shot. I take their input seriously, and try to give them a relevant framework on which to hang it. I can feel the cognitive dissonance. One boy seems to find it intolerable to think of Mr. Baumgartner as anything besides "the bad boy." I don't know if it's about the implications of a grown-up committing crimes or if it's because the child tends to identify with villains and bad guys, and actually wants the villain in this case to be a boy like him. Either way, I make sure to point out at every opportunity that he's "A man who has made a very poor decision" and that doesn't make him "bad" necessarily.

In the weeks leading up to the fateful day when a security guard shot four other security guards and drove off with a truckload of money, the kids in our centre were increasingly "playing guns". We have very strict gun and shooting rules in the preschool room. They are one of the sets of teacher-created rules, but there is a kid-created rule that addresses playing guns, too: "No shooting." I've tried very hard to teach the children as much as I can about guns and gun safety, empowering them to explore the concept and the power of guns without allowing them to threaten other people with said power. I passionately believe this is more important than simply banning gun play, partly because of an incident in which one of my classmates was accidentally shot in the face by her babysitter, who was playing around with a rifle and didn't realise it was loaded. We were in grade two at the time. The incident never would have happened if the babysitter had known the most important rules about guns.

Here are the teacher-created gun rules, which are simplified and amended to fit each situation:
  1. You never, ever, EVER point a gun at a person. Not even a pretend gun.
  2. People who point guns at people get their guns taken away and go to jail.
  3. If you see a gun in real life, don't touch it! Tell an adult right away. Guns are not toys.
  4. Assume every gun is loaded.
  5. Only aim at things you plan to shoot.
  6. You can only shoot at targets that are not alive. 
  7. You can only shoot a living thing if you are going to eat it or if it is about to kill you.
  8. If you shoot a living thing, it might die. Dying is forever.
  9. People who shoot other people get their guns taken away and go to jail for a VERY long time. Jail is not fun.
Recently, I have been confiscating a lot of "guns" (mostly wooden blocks and foam L-shaped blocks, or guns built out of Duplo blocks, but some invisible guns, too) and sending a lot of kids to 'jail' (I never specify where jail is or how long they have to stay there. Usually they go sit on the rocking chair or go behind a shelf, and then come back on their own, spontaneously telling me "I won't shoot anymore" or "I'm all done being a bad guy"). I have heard kids reminding each other ad nauseum "NO SHOOTING! You shooted me, you have to go to jail!" to no avail and getting frustrated and angry. Now that they are talking about a guy who shot his friends, I am cracking down hard on the gun play. No more warnings. No more polite reminders. Today, we linked guns with "the man who made a poor decision and shot his friends" in conversation. I hope that further exploration of this discussion will lead the kids to an understanding that it is NEVER okay to shoot their friends. After all, dying is forever.

Monday, June 11, 2012

We don't teach reading and writing here.

No really, we don't.

Yes, we call ourselves an accredited preschool childcare program. But if you walk into our classroom, you will not see brightly coloured cartoon alphabet banners adorning our walls. The books on our shelves are chosen purely based on their relationship to the children's current interests. There is no drilling of letters and sounds, no singing the alphabet song unless the children initiate it, and well... almost no direct instruction, except music and the "advanced drawing class" that some of the older children choose to attend.

And yet, our children are remarkably literate (with the possible exception of a couple of kids with differing learning needs and one whose first language is not English and does not use our alphabet).

To be fair, we accidentally taught the oldest preschooler how to write last spring. Oops. He was doing some drawing exercises for his advanced drawing class, including making lines, points, angle lines, circles, and curvy lines. Susan pointed out that everything he would ever draw was made of those elements. I then made the mistake of mentioning that all the letters and numbers are made from those basic shapes as well. Oops. Over night, he unlocked the secret to writing. He started by copying out all of his classmates' names over and over again. He wrote his name and his best friend's name on anything he could get his hands on. He asked how to spell the name of his favourite Pokemon character. Now, he has the tidiest, most compact printing I have ever seen from a five-year-old (it rivals that of some nine-year-olds) and in the ensuing year, I have spent countless moments telling him how to spell the things he wants to write down, letter by letter.

I suppose we may have accidentally given some of the children other literacy tools. Just this morning, a group of children at the art table discovered an amazing thing. It all started when the newly-returned 4-year-old asked one of the soon-to-depart Big Kids how to spell her name. He wrote every letter as she dictated, until the final letter, where he misheard "T" and instead wrote "P".

"Wait a minute! That's not how you draw my name!" exclaimed the name's owner.

"Melissa, what does this say?" asked the writer, turning to me.

I wasted no time in reading the name he had written, emphatically pronouncing the P at the end. Hilarity ensued. That could have been the end of it, but the boy's analytical mind went immediately to work, and he wrote his own name, replacing the final letter with a P. "What does this name say?" I obligingly read it, again being sure to pronounce the final P.

I could see the wheels turning in his head, and all but heard him thinking "Oh boy, if changing one letter makes a name say something different and silly, I wonder what happens when I add letters, or change more letters..." and all of the sudden, I was being bombarded with pages of coloured paper with felt-marker letters scrawled across them: "What does mine say? What does this say? Read mine now!" The boy had unwittingly stumbled across one of the most important pieces of knowledge that are Top Secret to children who are too young to go to school: Letters stand for sounds, and sounds combine to make words. And by drawing them into his joke, he shared his forbidden knowledge with not one, but two of the Big Kids! Why, one of those girls handed me a page reading "ACHHHHO" to read, and then fell over laughing when I told her it said "ach-OOO!" and THEN she had the nerve to write it again on another page! And she read that page to her friends, without any teacher to decode it! Kindergarten won't know what hit it in September.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Toddler assertiveness training?

I recently came across an article explaining why a video of a little boy repeatedly trying to hug a similarly-aged little girl despite her very clear resistance is profoundly disturbing. I want to add my two cents.

I would estimate the kids here are around or just under two years old. The girl pushed the boy forcefully away from herself, making him fall down several times, and at one point shouted something at him. He said something back (they're not speaking English, and the annoying added soundtrack obscures their words) and continued to pin her against a wall over and over again. The boy probably hug-attacked the girl ten times or more before she got smart and tried running away, at which point he chased her and kept trying to spin her around by her wrist to face him again for more hug-abuse.

If we were talking about teenagers here, or even school-aged children, you would all be dropping your mouses in horror and dashing off to file complaints with the police or at least the principal. But because they're "babies" and they "don't know what they're doing" this is somehow supposed to be adorable and perfectly acceptable.

I have been the responsible adult present countless times when a situation like this begins to develop. I think this is a fantastic learning experience for both children. On the one hand, I could just stand by and let the natural consequences unfold. On the other hand, these situations tend to rapidly lead down a road with Multiple Incident Reports at the end of it, and they also ignore or negate one of the most important lessons that I strive to teach children of all ages: Your body belongs to you. No one is allowed to touch your body without your consent (of course there are circumstances in which adults necessarily override this right with young children, and it is challenging to avoid doing so unnecessarily...). So, had I been the adult present at the incident documented in the video, I would have stepped in. I would have stepped in after the second or third hug-attempt, to give the children a chance to work it out naturally. I would have talked them through their conflict, given them the tools they needed, reinforced each child's body autonomy, encouraged respect, compassion, and kindness, and provided an alternative behaviour for the "troublemaker". Sounds pretty complicated for toddlers, doesn't it? It's possible, though! Hard work, yes. But rewarding. The three remarkable two-year-olds in our preschool class spent about 11 months each in the toddler room learning these skills before they "graduated" into the preschool room. The teachers in the toddler class do really good work!

So, here is a fictional scenario based upon multiple actual incidents from my Toddler Teacher days:

Jimmy tries to hug Sam; Sam pushes him away forcefully, wearing an angry expression. Jimmy gets up and tries again, with a similarly strong reaction from Sam. As he moves in for round three, I say "Jimmy! I hear Sam saying 'NO!'. Sam does not want a hug right now." If necessary, I interpose as much as my body as possible between the two children, even if it's just an arm. I then address Sam: "Sam, you can talk to Jimmy. You can say 'No! Stop! I don't want a hug! I don't like it!" I pair each of these exclamations with the ASL sign for "stop":

 (More later on why I prefer using the ASL "stop" with young children rather than the commonly-used palm outward "traffic cop stop"). Back to Jimmy: "Jimmy, if you want a hug, you can ask your friend: Hug please? Or you can hug Missa. I like hugs. Would you like a hug right now?" If Jimmy says no (in any way at all, verbal or nonverbal), I will model the desired behaviour by respecting his answer: "Okay, Jimmy. I hear you telling me 'no hug'. I won't hug you right now." Hopefully, Sam is satisfied, Jimmy gets a grown-up hug if he wants one, and both children are ready to move on to more enjoyable tasks.

(I deliberately avoided assigning a gender to Sam, and Jimmy could just as easily be Janie. At this age, gender plays a much smaller role in these exchanges.)

Usually, one or both of the children is surprised by my intervention in the first place, and the conflict pauses immediately, but sometimes the persistent "aggressor" just tries harder to achieve his goal. I will stop him from reaching his target by the gentlest means possible. I might also describe any communication I see: "I hear Sam's voice. Sam says 'nonono!' Sam is signing 'all done.' Sam is pushing Jimmy away. Sam's face looks afraid and angry." Reminders (frequently mistaken for admonishments) to "use your words" and "keep your hands on your own body" and "ask before hugging" are generally reserved for kids who have already gained enough skills to understand what the reminders mean (read: preschoolers!). Toddlers are still learning about the power of expressive language, have not yet developed a whole lot of impulse control, and are frustrated by tasks requiring complex reasoning. Reminders won't help them navigate a peer conflict any more that a reminder to "signal correctly" and "give right-of-way to the inside lane" and "don't miss your exit" will help a first-time driver navigate a traffic circle during rush hour.

If we equip our toddlers with the skills they need for asserting their body rights, they will be better prepared to protect themselves from physical abuse as they get older. They will be more likely to stand up for themselves and for other people who are being harassed, bullied, and abused. They will be less likely to harass, bully, or abuse others, because they will already know that everyone has the right to feel safe and that there are other ways to attain their objectives.

If we stand by and allow things to carry on as they did in that video (and I will admit to snickering when the boy would "pretend" to fall down after the girl's shove failed to knock him to the ground), we are teaching our toddlers that it is a good idea to continue to harass people to get what we want because eventually they will give up. We teach them that it is acceptable, even expected, for one group of people to persistently insist on violating the rights of another group of people, and that the "nother" group of people ought to learn their place and let it happen without too much fight. We teach them that it's cute and funny to be mean to someone else. That, my friends, is NOT OKAY.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Democracy only feels fair if you're on the winning side.

This afternoon, Susan took a group of children out to the small park, leaving six in the classroom while the stragglers finished using the bathroom and performing other necessary tasks. They were leaping and running about the room, threatening to knock down or dismantle the "penguin house" their friends had been working on for the past two days, so I invited them to come sit with me while I told them a story. By the time I was finished telling a short tale (shamelessly borrowed from Robert Munsch, like many a great story), The Littlest Preschooler was finished with his jobs and had come to join us.

"Are we ready to join our friends outside?" I asked, enthusiastically.

"NO!" "Nah." "Nope." "I don't want to..." were the replies.

"Well, that was a unanimous no..." I observed.

The Littlest Preschooler turned to his friends and pronounced (albeit with some difficulty, as I'm sure he was using a word he had never tried to say before) "Dat was a unanimis no, eveebody."

Wanting to make sure each child's voice was heard, I asked them one at a time whether they would prefer to stay in or go out. All said "stay in" except for Z, who wanted to go out.

"Susan already has as many kids as she can have by herself, and Anna has to go help the toddlers right away here. That means that either we all have to stay inside or we all have to go outside. I'll ask one more time and then we'll decide."

So I asked them all again, in reverse order, after casually mentioning that the "new bikes" (tricycles recently donated by another program in the same building) were out there. C, the youngest of the girls, leapt to her feet and patted my thigh excitedly. "I have a helmet!" She practically vibrated with enthusiasm.

In the end, C and Z wanted to go outside, and the rest wanted to stay in.

"Well, the most people want to stay in, so we are going to stay in the classroom and work on the things we have in here."

"But I want to go outside!" protested Z.

"I know, and so does C.  But A, Ch, JD, and H all want to stay in here. More people want to stay in."

I could sense a big arguement brewing, so I opted for a visual representation. I held up four fingers on my right hand. "Four children really want to stay in." Then I held up two fingers on my left hand. "Two children would rather go outside. Which one is more?" After a short discussion, we all agreed (except for Z, whose mind is difficult to change!) that 4 is more than 2. "Guess what!" I gasped. "That's called a vote. This is how adults decide important things. Everyone says which thing he wants, and the thing that the most people want is the thing that happens. That's just about as fair as we can make it in a situation like this."

"Oh." Z was not happy to discover that I was standing by his opponents' decision.

"That's called democracy. YAY, DEMOCRACY!"

"YAY, DEMOCWASEEE!" crowed The Littlest Preschooler.

Then, the children spontaneously formed a percussion band and rocked out to their innovative cover of "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep: The Remix" for twenty minutes.

Friday, April 13, 2012

You can't do this.

Today, being a cold and rainy day in which I had already tried to develop rain-related hives, we decided to stay inside. After our always-amazing music class with Miss Jesse, we went for a walk about the building (which is a rehabilitation hospital) for a change of scenery and to pass some time before lunch. So the children organized themselves (with minimal cajoling) into our standard "field trip" formation: Everyone hold hands with a partner! And away we went, two-by-two, to see what we could see (I will one day write about my thoughts on being forced to hold someone's hand when you don't want to, but for now. we'll let it rest). We walked and quietly chattered about the things that we saw.

Our pace was relaxed; we had nowhere in particular to go, and I, The Leader, had The Littlest Preschooler for my partner, meaning we generally followed his contemplative, drifting tempo. We went up an elevator, wandered through an atrium and, by chance, encountered the father of one of our former/future classmates (a child who had left us to stay home for a year with his new baby sister, but will return next month to drop off his sister in the toddler room and come be one of our Big Kids. Older siblings apparently get some version of maternity leave if they're below school-age when the squalling attention-stealer arrives).

We noticed and commented on several of the paintings that adorn the walls in the hallways, and graciously accepted the compliments and somewhat-condescending observations of the people that we passed (Oh they're so cute, just look at them...) and because we really were doing a marvellous job of sticking together, being respectful of this borrowed space and of each other, when we came to the ramp leading down the hall from the elevators towards our classroom, I bestowed upon my young friends the privilege of partaking in one of our favourite rituals: Running down the ramp. This is not to be confused with The Ramp, which has a double switchback and comes out on the second floor. This is just a sloped hallway. Not particularly steep, but steep enough to be both fun and challenging for the younger children, and just plain fun for the rest.

Our Running down the ramp ritual looks like this:
1. A teacher stands at the bottom of the ramp and calls each child by name, one at a time, while the other teacher(s) remain with the waiting children at the top.
2. As each child's name is called, he or she runs, grinning wildly, down the slope, revelling in the barely-controlled descent, using gravity as an accelerating force instead of fighting it as usual. Their flights end when they reach the teacher who has called them down, either because they've judged correctly the maneuvers they need in order to stop at the last instant, or because the teacher has physically caught them or stepped into their careening paths.
3. The children who have reached the bottom press themselves tightly against the wall to avoid being crashed into, and cheer their friends on, until, one-by-one, every child has had a chance to come zooming down. The teachers at the top come down to join us, we re-form and we continue on our merry way.

So there we were, the first four of nine children already pressed against the side wall near the bottom of the slope, and the fifth one on his way down, when the pediatric PT receptionist came by and said "You can't do this. We can't have this here."

"Really?" I replied brilliantly.

"No. It's not safe. Someone might fall."

The children were all silent. The one who had been in mid-flight sort of drifted quietly to my side.

"Oh. That's really too bad. This is one of our favourite things to do."

"The gym is just around the corner" she suggested.

"Yes, and it's fantastic when we can actually get in there." (our scheduled gym time has been drastically reduced this year, and we sometimes only get half the gym, which we frequently forfeit to the toddlers because half the gym is not enough for up-to-sixteen preschoolers learning how to control their large body movements without hurting or terrifying the up-to-twelve toddlers trying to share the same space.) "We learn how to handle ourselves on slopes by experiencing them."

She proceeded to tell me that she "was supposed to tell" us and that "we've had it happen before" and that if someone trips and gets hurt, "it's a liability issue for the hospital."

The children paid closer attention to this conversation than they have ever paid to anything before, collectively, in the year-and-a-half that I've known them. Speaking my mind was not an option. Instead, I kept my face and my tone calm and pleasant. I said "Oh, okay. What a shame. Thank you for letting us know." The receptionist continued on her way up the ramp to wherever-it-was she was headed. Nine preschoolers, one field placement student, and one newly-hired staff stared uncertainly at me.

"That's too bad." I was mostly buying myself the time to think.

"We aren't allowed to run down the ramp anymore." Some of the children squirmed a little, but no one said anything.

"What a shame that they don't trust us to know what our bodies can do. It's too bad they don't know how capable our children are." I expressed genuine sorrow with just a hint of frustration here.

"And half of us have already run down, but the other half are still up at the top." When in doubt, restate the facts.

"The lady told us we can't run down. Hey Julie (fake name, of course), I wonder if it would be fun to scoot down on your bum like a slide." Everyone smiled, and some said "yeah!" and I suggested different ways to come down the ramp for each of the four children who had been "stranded" at the top. I really think they saw it as being stranded. So, we had someone scoot partway down on her bottom, decide it was too much work, try slithering like a snake, only to find her shirt was too grippy, and come the rest of the way down on her hands and knees like a kitten. Someone came down the ramp crawling furiously, like a puppy. Someone came down hopping like a frog, which was probably less safe than just running, but no one said we couldn't hop. The last child, who was processing both his bitter disappointment at not getting to run down the ramp AND the conflict he had just witnessed (he's a child who is frequently in conflict with the authority figures in his life), didn't want to come down the ramp at all, but finally decided he would roll like a log. And roll he did, carefully, adjusting his course as he approached a wall, squirming out of the way when someone needed to walk past... And then we went back to our classroom and ate lunch.

I think it was important for the children to witness this conversation. It was important for them to see two adults enter into an apparently unresolvable conflict, have "their" adult respond assertively, graciously admit defeat instead of creating a bad situation, and manage to make the best of it in the end. I know I didn't handle it perfectly, but I think I did pretty well, all things considered. Sometimes, things just work out.

They talked about it a few times throughout the day. In their retelling of the tale, it wasn't Melissa who accepted this edict from "The Lady" and found a way to have fun in spite of it all. No one said "Melissa did this" or "You said that". The children included themselves in the tale, accepting my unspoken intention to speak on their behalf. They retold it as a "we" story.

"We told her we love running on the ramp and she still said no."
"We said we can be safe but she didn't believe us."
My favourite comment form the children was "She said we might fall down, but we fall down all the time!" after which, the child who uttered the statement flopped to the floor and proclaimed "See? That didn't hurt!"

One boy asked me, over lunch, why we weren't allowed to run down the ramp anymore, and I reminded him that "they" were scared that our mommies and daddies might get mad at them for having a ramp there if we fell down on it and hurt ourselves.

"But we don't fall!" he protested.

"That doesn't even make sense," offered one of the oldest children, "Our moms and dads don't get mad at the floor when we fall down. That's just crazy."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I've missed you, too.

There's a little boy in the centre where I work who makes no bones about letting me know he loves me. When I am off for a day, or out of the room all morning doing administrative work, or something else takes me away from the children for an extended amount of time, a few of the children run to wrap their little arms around my knees and have their heads tousled in a hasty, spontaneous toddler-hug upon my return. This little boy, however, is rarely one of the huggers (in fact, he is quite conservative in doling out physical affection of any kind, under any circumstances). Instead, he is usually the first to notice and announce my return: "Hey, Melissa's here!" Then, he makes eye contact with me, and very earnestly proclaims, "I miss you, Melissa!" to which I always reply with a smile, "I've missed you, too!"

Today marks the first day back to daycare after the Christmas holidays for a handful of children, most of whom either have school-aged older siblings or parents who are teachers, and therefore didn't come back last week with their friends. The boy I'm talking about was one of those for whom today was the first day back after two weeks. Today, when I arrived at work, rather than say anything at all, the boy leapt to his feet, abandoning his very interesting project in the block centre, and raced over to cling to my legs, starting the impromptu flood of hugs from his friends. "I've missed you, too!" I assured him, and he smiled and returned to his project.

I never cease to be inspired and amazed by the emotional honesty of very young children. They haven't yet learned the terrible lessons of life that lead us to fake our responses to one another. If they're angry, they scowl and clench their fists and stomp their feet. If they're afraid, they cry and seek comfort in the safety of loving adult arms. If they're excited, their little bodies cannot contain all of the energy that generates. But most of all, when they love you, you know it. Young children are generous with their love, and so very sincere about expressing it. They don't waste time waiting for the right moment, or looking for the right words to tell us. They are spontaneous, living in the moment, as for many of them the present is all that exists. They give us hugs and sloppy kisses. They follow us around, copying our every move. They bring us treasures. They tell us their joys and their fears. They may not always use the phrase "I love you," but the message is still there, plain as day. I think we all could learn something from them.