Perseverance

Today I watched a child working with some boards to create some ramps. It was quite a system that he set up:

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At one point, he had a really hard time balancing the boards on the different cones and objects that he was using for that purpose. I watched him closely to see if he would get frustrated, but he simply kept right on working and adjusting, trying to get everything to fit and stay the way that he wanted it to. When he was done, the results were very impressive.

I have watched children like this for a while. When they are creating and they are really in that creative zone, they don’t seem to get as frustrated as they would if they were being asked to do something or if they aren’t in that zone. They work harder and smarter and really focus on what they are doing. They don’t really give up until they get so frustrated that they have to walk away – and then they walk away. They don’t fuss or cry or scream, they just simply walk away.

The differences in attitude between the children who get in this zone and the ones who don’t are so astounding to me. I experiment with different materials in the classroom all the time to try to find things that allow children to enter into this state of focus. Open-ended materials, loose parts – these are the materials that guide children into flow. They are much better than the plastic toys that most manufacturers market as the best toys for children. Children don’t need fancy toys to create. They simply need real, found materials, some time, and some patience from us. When they have those things, they have super-focus and the perseverance to build amazing structures, all on their own.

“I Don’t Believe You”

So today I got a lot of writing done. I am determined to get a book done; I’ve been talking about it long enough. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback on Facebook for the topic of the book, and that is a good thing. I did start writing a book about six months ago, but what I was writing was way too much for me to start out with. This one is a lot simpler, and it seems to be coming together fairly well so far. I’m under no illusions when it comes to how long it will take me to get this book put together. I know it takes awhile, and I’m sure that I’ll learn a lot along the way. I’m always up for a good challenge, and I’ve always wanted to write a book.

While I was on the playground today I was listening to another teacher discussing a situation with a child. I’m not sure what the child actually did, but the teacher asked the child about it and the child explained what happened, and then the unexplainable happened: the teacher told the child “I don’t believe you.” I couldn’t really believe that I had heard that; I can understand not believing every word that comes out of a child’s mouth, especially if the child feels that there is a threat of punishment involved. However, to actually tell a child that you don’t believe them?

Think about it this way: Imagine that you are telling someone that you trust a story about something that happened, and they say that they don’t believe you. How do you feel then? Inconsequential? Like the story didn’t even matter? Like they don’t even trust you? How do you build a relationship on that? Working with children requires that we build relationships with them with mutual trust on both sides. If a child is telling you something untrue, then that means that they don’t trust you with the truth. And if you tell them that you don’t believe them, that isn’t going to repair the trust issues that are present. It is only going to make it worse.

I try really hard to make sure that there aren’t these trust issues in my classroom. I don’t use punishment at all. We talk through things until we figure out what happened and we figure out solutions to problems. I try to approach situations with as little judgment as possible so that children feel safe telling me the truth. Lying comes from fear, usually from fear of punishment. If you take away the fear of punishment then lying stops.

So how do you make sure that children know right from wrong without punishment? That is a question that I always get asked, and I just answered while writing my book today. Maybe my next post will be an excerpt.

Classroom Discipline: Taking Toys

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During one of my more recent workshops we were discussing observation and what to do if there is a conflict in the classroom. “If we don’t know who had a toy first, and two kids are fighting over it,” said a teacher, “its okay to take the toy and put it up, right?”

Why We Shouldn’t Take Toys

It is almost a reflex that we have, as teachers: if children are fighting over a toy, we put the toy up and give the children a chance to cool off, usually saying something like, “If you can’t play with the toy without fighting over it, then you won’t be able to play with it.” The problem with using this method is that most tug-of-wards over toys happen because children don’t know the words to use to express what they want, so they try to take. If we are simply taking the toy away and moving the children to another activity, they aren’t learning the words that they need in order to prevent a tug-of-war from happening again. Children need to learn how to stand up for themselves and say “NO” to another child that is trying to take their work, or even trying to harm them in some way. This teaches assertiveness, a key skill that children need that will enable them to stand up to bullying and other threatening behaviors later in life. The ability to be assertive also boosts self-esteem as children learn how to stand up for themselves, their desires, and their needs.

What We Should Do Instead

When children are involved in a tug-of-war over a toy, we should first try to figure out who had the toy first. Teachers should always try to know who had what in the classroom so that they can easily solve these kinds of issues. Usually when I am doing a workshop, the words “Observation is SO important in the classroom” leave my lips at least once during the workshop. This is a time when observation is so important. It is important that we observe enough to know who has what, because we are better able to help children solve their social problems the more we know about the situation. Once we know who had the toy first, we can coach that child to tell the other child “NO” or “I don’t like it” if they are a younger child (1-3 years old). If they are older, we can teach them to use even more words: “I don’t like it when you take my toy. Please give it back.” Usually, the words are enough for the offender to give back the toy.

Our job during these altercations is not to hand down a sentence or an ultimatum; when we take toys and put them up, that is what we are doing. Our job is to coach the children to the solution. We have to back up the child that had the toy first by telling the offender, “He didn’t like it when you took his toy. You can ask him if you can use it when he is done with it.” This teaches the child the words to use if they want something that someone else has, and teaches him how to respect the rights of the child that has the toy. For younger children, we can simply say, “He is playing with this toy right now. Let’s do _________ until he is done with it.” This beginning step shows the younger child how to respect the rights of others, and helps them ease into an alternative while they are waiting for their turn.

But I Already Told You, I Don’t Know Who Had The Toy!

Okay, you really don’t know who had the toy, and this can be a real problem for teachers of younger children who can’t tell you who had the toy first. One thing that I have found through trying to solve this problem in my own classroom is that the child who had the toy first will be the most upset when it is taken. It is almost akin to the story of the Wisdom of King Solomon. When I worked with younger children and there was a tug-of-war, I would take the toy just to end the tug-of-war. Usually one child would move away and the other child would become more upset. I would give the toy back to the child that was upset.

Why Do You Do This?

Any time you take something away from a child, it triggers a fight-or-flight response. The child does not feel safe any longer and reacts to this (hostile, in their minds) takeover by becoming upset. Different children can manifest this response in different ways, from crying to an all-out tantrum. Because we want children to feel safe and loved at preschool, we need to do anything we can to minimize the fight-or-flight response and foster connections and relationships with the child instead. This is one of the reasons why I say that it is SO important to be observant and know what is going on in the classroom as much as you possibly can. The more you know, the more you can do to help children who are involved in tricky social situations like this.

Do You Have Any Questions About How To Handle Other Classroom Situations?

If you do, just post your questions in the comments section below and I will try to feature them in an upcoming blog post!

What Are They Trying to Say?

Today was a big day in our classroom. We have been incubating eggs for about three weeks, and over the weekend several of the eggs hatched. Today was the day that the children got to meet the chicks.

Incubator with thirty eggs

Incubator with thirty eggs

We had talked to the children about chicks and birds and eggs a little bit, but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in it. After all, when you look at eggs for twenty-one days, they really don’t do much. There isn’t a lot to get excited about. But when they hatch – oh, when they hatch!

We decided to make a project out of it. We had the children draw pictures of what they thought the chicks were going to look like before we brought the chicks in for them to meet. The pictures were very interesting, but even more interesting were the quotes. One of the things that I usually do when I have children draw pictures of learning opportunities is ask them to tell me about their pictures, and I write down what they say. It gives me a different perspective – the children’s perspective – when it comes to where the project should go and what topics we should explore.

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The first chick

I usually don’t take a lot of time to look at the quotes and really check them out, but this time was different. I’m not sure if it was all of the work that we had already put into this budding project, or the fact that this time I really wanted to try to do this right, but I really took the time to notice where each child was coming from and what they were trying to explore through their pictures. It was amazing. Some children were focused on gender and how to tell if the chick was a boy or a girl. Some were focused on how the chick would move or fly around. Some were focused on the different parts of the bird. There were many different areas of focus, and each one was worthy of its own place in the life of our project. It was amazing to slow down and really look at what the children were trying to say.

I’ve said this a lot lately, but it becomes increasingly true every time I do something involving my classroom: slow down and look. Listen. Find out what the children are saying through everything that they do. Everything that children do has purpose and meaning, but sometimes we get so involved in teaching that we don’t slow down and listen to them. What are they trying to tell us? What are they trying to teach us? Today, they taught me that if I just slow down enough, I can hear wonderful things – not just in their words, but in their pictures as well. After all, children do have a hundred languages.

It’s Just a Popsicle Stick

Or is it?

I’ve become very interested in adding different types of loose parts into the classroom, but I am very methodical and intentional about what I add. Most of the time I view my classroom as my laboratory, to experiment with what kids will play with and how. The best part about it is that every set of kids will interact with materials differently. Sure, there are some similarities and some broad themes that will likely be seen, but no two groups of children are the same.

We have been doing a lot with letters lately, and I have been trying to encourage children to write. It hasn’t always been successful. I think I have a lot of anxiety in my classroom when it comes to writing.2015-03-05 15.43.08 So I decided to introduce the concept of making letters out of different materials. The material that we started with was popsicle sticks. I introduced the popsicle sticks during our large group experience so that there would be a lot of sharing of ideas and children could observe the creations of other children. They really seemed to enjoy creating letters (and later, shapes) with the sticks. But what I was really curious about was what would happen after the group experience was over. I left the popsicle sticks out and let the children know that they could play with them if they wanted to. What happened next was pretty spectacular. All sorts of shapes were being created. One boy made a “Y” with a tail that stretched out across the room. Some children were creating houses by making squares out of the sticks and putting people inside the squares. It was really interesting to watch their work. 2015-03-05 15.44.18

I decided to introduce some other materials into the play to see what would happen. I gathered some large glass beads and some small stones and gave them to the children who were experimenting with the materials. Rather than incorporating those into their figures that they created, their play changed entirely. Their focus became filling containers with the beads and the stones and the sticks. They completely forgot about the figures that they had made on the floor and focused instead on filling. I had not anticipated this change in dynamic and tried to encourage them to put some of the materials inside the shapes that they had made, but they were having none of it. They wanted to fill and transfer, and the sticks made new tools, as well as another material to use to fill containers with. This shift has caused me to rethink how I am presenting these materials to the children, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Mindfulness on the Playground

The word “mindfulness” has been thrown about quite a bit in the education field lately. Usually people use it to talk about meditation in the classroom and giving children a chance to experience the stillness of that but to me, mindfulness means something much greater to me. Being mindful means being aware of yourself in relation to others and being aware of others – aware of their feelings and their physical presence. It means being aware of your own emotions and how they affect you throughout your day. That is a lot for a young child to handle, and every day is a new lesson in what it means to be mindful.

Yesterday I was watching several boys playing on the playground. They had tipped a wheelbarrow over onto its side and they were throwing rocks at it. Each time a rock hit the wheelbarrow it made a loud, satisfying sound. I enjoyed watching the boys as they threw their rocks at that wheelbarrow because they seemed to really be enjoying their sound effects.

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wheelbarrow strategically on its side

And then it happened. Since the boys were throwing rocks at the wheelbarrow, they eventually had to retrieve their rocks so that they could throw them again. One boy went to retrieve his rock just as another boy was throwing his, and it hit him in the head. Luckily, it wasn’t a big rock; otherwise this story would have a much different ending. But it was big enough that the boy started crying, prompting me to go over to him and ask him what was wrong (as if I hadn’t been watching their play). As if sensing the gravity of the situation and anticipating getting into really big trouble, the other boys scattered as soon as I came near them. I comforted the boy with the hurting head and called the others back over to me, explaining that no one was in trouble, but that I really needed them to watch out for their friends’ bodies when they get ready to throw a rock. No one wants to be hit by a rock, and getting hit by a rock hurts! I prompted them to make sure that their friend was okay, and then I coached them on how to look and make sure that no one was standing in between their rock and the wheelbarrow before they threw the rock.

Rocks ripe for throwing

Rocks ripe for throwing

This seems like a very counter-intuitive way to handle a situation where boys are throwing objects that could very well be deemed extremely dangerous. After all, someone could seriously get hurt by a thrown rock. Someone did get hurt. But the boys had been throwing rocks for five minutes before someone got hurt. Five minutes is a long time when you are talking about boys throwing and retrieving rocks. The rock that hit the boy was not thrown with malice; it hit the boy by mistake which created a learning experience for all of us.

That is what we need to be aware of when we look at different situations around the classroom and outside: what is the intent of the child. If the intent had been to hurt someone by throwing a rock at them, then I would have stopped the game and directed the children to something else. This was not the case, so there was no reason why the boys could not continue their game. They just had to be aware that they needed to look out for the other boys when they threw a rock at the wheelbarrow. Throwing rocks isn’t an activity that I endorse simply for the pleasure of throwing a rock, but these boys had another end entirely in mind: they wanted to hear the sound that the rock made when it hit the wheelbarrow. Because of that, I felt that there was no need to stop an activity that had such an innocuous goal. A little while later another teacher on the playground commented that the boys should not be throwing rocks and the game was ended. But valuable lessons were learned with the freedom to throw those rocks: the sound they make against metal, and the fact that they can hurt people so we need to be careful with them. Wise mindfulness lessons, indeed.

Leaving the Past Behind

Recently I was confronted with a situation in which one of my ex-coworkers was discussing problems with her center, many of them reasons why I left the company. The news of what was going on opened up the deep disappointments that I had felt while working there, and I thought about writing a letter to the corporate office to express my concerns. I voiced my thoughts to my colleague, who urged me to do it. So I began composing the letter, and while all of these disappointments began to bubble to the surface, a funny thing happened. Actually, several funny things happened: I didn’t sleep good that night, and yoga the next day was impossible. Not only could I not center enough to do yoga, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to meditate. When I got to work my co-teacher repeatedly asked me what was wrong. My mind felt foggy and I couldn’t concentrate well on what was going on.

After I finished the letter I had an uneasy feeling. Did I really need to do this? I talked to my fiancé about it and he urged me to really examine my motivation for sending the letter. After all, it really wasn’t going to help me any to send it. I wasn’t planning to go back to the company, and I had already voiced my unhappiness by leaving the company in the first place.

And then it hit me: I didn’t have to send the letter, and I didn’t have to worry about what was going on at my old place of employment. It didn’t concern me any longer because I no longer worked there. I didn’t have to write anyone a letter and tell them anything. I had moved on to something infinitely better, and all of that stress and drama was in the past.

As soon as this realization sunk in I felt the weight of what I had been carrying lift off of my shoulders – the weight of issues and concerns that weren’t even mine. It is hard to carry around so much when you have so much that you are already carrying. I felt happier and the fog lifted. And I thought to myself, “How much of this have I still been carrying around? Have I been carrying this around inside me ever since I left my old job? Have I been pushing away opportunities to connect here because I have been holding on to things from my old job?”

Because of these questions I have begun to really examine my interactions and my frame of mind in my classroom to see if I am holding myself back from having the best experience I can possibly have at this center. I work in a great, Reggio-inspired environment that affords me more opportunity than I ever had at my previous job. The best thing I can do at this point is to make sure that I am fully enjoying the journey, and I am sure that I will be doing plenty of meditation to that end. After all, the past just weighs us down. It is the present that lifts us up.

My Confession

My way of ringing in the New Year has always been to look back on the past year and figure out what I can do in the next year to improve upon it. Rather than just picking out some random things that I would like to do and creating resolutions or goals to that end, I think about my journey thus far and the next steps that I want to take to further that journey. For example, I started writing my book in 2014. For 2015 I am planning on scheduling my time and creating goals for completing my writing because I am not getting as much accomplished on that front as I’d like. It wouldn’t make much sense to me to create a goal having to do with going to the gym because that isn’t a passion of mine. If I just started doing it because I think I should do it, I wouldn’t get anywhere with it. I’ve proved that with that very goal for several years; this year I am being smart enough to not join a gym. It all goes back to my belief (that has become stronger in the past couple of years) that life is a journey, and you need to focus on the road that you are taking. Once you focus on the road, when you come to a fork you will be able to better decide which direction to take.

One of my big accomplishments in 2014 was graduating with an associate degree in Early Childhood Education. Ever since I graduated I have been contemplating my next steps for educating myself. I’ve discussed options with my director, and thought a lot about what I want to do but the thing is, the answer has been in front of me the whole time. For a really long time, actually.

Ever since I was in high school, I have wanted to study psychology. People fascinate me. Why they do what they do fascinates me. But my fascination has become a lot more specific since I began studying education, because a lot of what I have been studying has a lot to do with psychology. How people learn fascinates me. How they think, what they think, how they solve problems, all of that fascinates me. The brain fascinates me. How infants and toddlers learn so much so quickly fascinates me. Not the fact that they learn so much, but how they learn so much. All of that is a big, wonderful puzzle that I am dying to uncover.

In all of my conversations about furthering my education that I have had with other people (except for the ones with my fiancé), they have told me that it would be hard to get a job if I study psychology. But I don’t want to just be a psychologist. Psychology is a vast area of study with many different branches. I want to study educational psychology. I want to study how people learn, how different people learn differently, and I want to apply the knowledge that I gain in a classroom. That is what I want to do. That is what I’ve wanted to do for years now, and it is high time that I stop listening to everyone around me and do what I really want to do.

This whole thing reminds me of the Sir Ken Robinson video that I passionately share with anyone I encounter who is at all interested in education; in it Robinson states, “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that.” That is pretty much what every administrator I have talked to has said about my ambition to study psychology. The problem with this advice is that they don’t know that I won’t get a job doing that, they don’t know about my absolute passion for the field and how long I have been holding this passion, and their goal is to have teachers in their building with the highest level of ECE education that they can get. Their goal shapes the words that come out of their mouth, and their goal is different than mine. My goal is to learn how people learn and how they think. For once I need to be true to myself, that self that has long wanted to study psychology, and do what I really want to do. And that is one of my goals for this year.

My New Mindful Year

‘Mindfulness’ is a term that has been bandied about quite a bit recently on the internet; I didn’t even know this until just a few weeks ago when I discovered just what mindfulness means to me. I was looking up information about mindfulness in teaching when I realized that there is a trend going on. I’ve managed to stay out of the general trend of mindfulness as it deals with the masses. I don’t like getting caught up in the trend stuff because it cheapens it for me. It makes it almost faddish, and that isn’t a good thing for an idea that has meant so much to me lately.

So what does mindfulness mean to me? It means being aware of what is going on right now, and being less concerned with what is going to happen in the future or what happened in the past. My mind practically lives in the future. It lives in the “what would happen if I do this” or “wouldn’t it be nice to do this in six months” place where nothing is really happening yet because I am fantasizing about something that can’t possibly happen yet because there are many steps to get there. Yes, I know – that was the worst run-on sentence in the world, but that is just how my mind works sometimes. On and On and On and On. Constantly.

As you may know from a previous post, I just finished reading Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray. In it, he talks about how pressure takes away creativity and the power of play. He quotes several authors who say that in order to write a book, you can’t think about your audience or the critics or anything else; you simply have to write the book. I haven’t necessarily been struggling with this, but it did make me think about the whole writing process, especially since I have been stuck (with no good reason to be). Actually, I’m stuck because I was thinking too much about the audience or what other people would think about what I was writing. I attempted to revise an entire chapter because of a conversation that I had with someone. There was nothing wrong with the material that I had at first, but I chose to try to re-work that chapter, and it failed. Miserably. I really tried to make it work, but I know that it doesn’t. So I have to go back and re-write the whole thing because I didn’t trust my own judgment. And the kicker is that this material that I am writing on has already been tested – I’ve done several workshops on the material, and they’ve all been very well received. So there was no good reason for me to change the material.

Because of this, and the fact that it just happened a month ago or so, that part of the book really resonated with me and made me think about my intent to be more mindful. Of course, I want to inject mindfulness into every aspect of my life, not just my writing, but this example shows just how much can be impacted if I stop thinking about the future or everyone else and simply worry about the next step that I need to take in order to do what I want to do.

I recently saw a video of an interview with Oprah in which she talked about the concept of mindfulness and how everyone has a path. You know when you are on the wrong path because your body and mind tell you that you are on the wrong path. Be mindful of the signs and do what you can to get on the right path. Everyone has one. That is mindfulness.

The Year In Review

If there is one thing that I hate, it is New Year’s Resolutions. To me, it is a bunch of hyped up junk about things that we want to do, but we never really say how we are going to do them; we just state that we want to do it. And so we set off with great intentions, only to fizzle out a couple of weeks, a month, two months into the year. So I stopped doing the New Year’s resolution thing several years ago. Instead, I like to take a look at everything that I have done in the year past and celebrate the year that it has been. I think it is more motivating this way; if, at the end of a year, I can be proud of my accomplishments, it makes it a much more productive year than if I state half-baked goals at the beginning of the year and then don’t complete them. 2014 brought a lot of interesting changes to my life:

  • I got the live workshop portion of Project: Preschool up and running, only to put it on hold after I changed jobs.
  • I graduated last May. No more school for a while.
  • I started writing a book about classroom management.
  • I ditched my high-stress, low-autonomy teaching job for a low-stress, high-autonomy teaching job.
  • I tried (and failed) and tried to start blogging more regularly.
  • I bought a bicycle so that I could enjoy the great outdoors more. And then I promptly didn’t use it.
  • I continued doing the yoga that I started when I was completely stressed out last December. I don’t know how I lived without it before, and I surely don’t want to live without it any more. I can tell when I don’t do my yoga. From what I hear, everyone else can tell, too. But I’m stronger than I was a year ago and more flexible, too. And much less stressed.
  • I started doing some meditation. It is amazing how much meditation has helped me as far as focus and slowing down. I haven’t really been that consistent with it, but it is amazing when I do put forth the effort to include it in my routine. And the more I do it, the more amazing it is.

As far as I’m concerned, 2014 was an amazing year. It definitely had its ups and downs, but overall it was great. I’m going to carry that greatness into 2015. I have a lot of things that I want to do with 2015, like

  • Start offering online workshops for Early Childhood Educators
  • Finish my book. Or at least make a lot of progress on it.
  • Do some research about play. I’ve already started this one.
  • Take up photography. I’m planning on getting myself a camera for my birthday.
  • Continue my yoga. I can tell how much stronger I am now than I was at the beginning of the year. There’s no telling what I will be able to do at the end of 2015.
  • Be more consistent with my meditation. I use a timer app for my meditation practice. It tracks how much meditation I do based on when I use the timer (and I use the timer every time I meditate). This morning I looked and it said that I had meditated 36 times since I started using the app, which was last December. There are 365 days in a year. That’s just pathetic. Especially with all of the insights and progress I have made with meditation lately.

Will I do all of these things? I don’t know. I’m not sure if the online workshops are going to happen. That used to be higher on my priority list, but now writing the book has taken over that spot. I am learning a lot from the research I am doing for this book, and that alone is motivating me a lot to try to work on it more throughout this year. Plus, I try a lot of new things in my classroom based on the research that I do, so you will probably be seeing a lot of that this year. I haven’t done quite to much research or experimenting since before I was in school. That alone should make 2015 a year to remember!