Monday, August 14, 2017

Theory of Mind

The other day my three year old asked for a glass of milk. When I brought her the milk she burst into tears. "I wanted orange juice!" she cried. I groaned, and then logically tried to explain to her that she'd asked for milk. Milk! The words milk came out of your mouth- not orange juice. Why was this so hard to understand?

Then I had one of those strange moments where I suddenly realized what the problem was. "Let's play a game" I suggested. "See this toy car? I'm going to hide it right here under this pillow." Everyone in the room watched as I hid it. "OK, now, Daddy's going to leave the room." My husband looked perturbed. He was sitting quite comfortably in his chair, reading. "Up! Move! Out!" I demanded, and so he cooperated, more out of curiosity than anything else.

"OK, I explained to both my girls. "Now, we're going to hide the toy car again. Let's put it behind the couch. Now we'll bring Daddy back in." My five year old giggled at our trickiness. It seemed delightfully wrong to have hid the toy again from daddy.

"Where does Daddy think it is?" I asked, when my husband came back in. My five year old immediately pointed to the pillow, where we had originally hid it. My three year old however, ran to point behind the coach. "Daddy thinks it's here!" she announced, while her older sister groaned.

She doesn't have theory of mind yet! I realized. Of course she is upset that I didn't bring her orange juice. She still doesn't understand that we do not know the same information. She does not yet understand that my perspective is different from her perspective. If she KNOWS that the toy is hiding behind the couch, then daddy  must know that too.

We played the game a few times, and each time got the same results. The three year old had no idea that we were tricking the family member outside of the room.

Now, this is a great opportunity for getting the truth out of any situation as we know we can always ask her what is going on (until she develops theory of mind and then we'll have to resort to other lie detector test methods.) But it also explains a lot of that three-nager behavior we know so well.

It's so easy to forget that this confident little person who can speak in paragraphs, run, jump, leap, open small containers, and put on her own shoes is still not developmentally just like us. I mean, she looks like us, talks like us, and can fight with her five year old sister. She doesn't have a sign that says "I have no idea that you don't know what I'm thinking right now." But she doesn't. It's coming and pretty soon she'll understand that when she changes her mind and wants orange juice she actually has to ASK for orange juice. Or that she wants to go look at something on the other side of the store instead of just running and assuming I'll be behind her. Or when she started sobbing on the swing yesterday because her daddy wasn't pushing her high enough. She'd asked him to push her, but she hadn't high. Why was he ignoring her? It's got to be confusing to wonder why all these people aren't doing what you think they should do. While we're frustrated with her big emotional outbursts, our silly game served as an excellent reminder of the motivation behind some of her behavior. She's still figuring out the world, not just intentionally yelling at us (which is what it feels like sometimes).

This is also important to keep in mind with many of our high-functioning students with autism. They are slower to develop theory-of-mind as well, which creates conflicts for them in the classroom, as well as with peers in natural social situations. Not seeing someone else's perspective can make them targets, or put them in situations where they become easily frustrated. (Ever heard  a child say, "He's fat! Everyone knows that, why can't I say it?") This is when it's important to remember the question "Is it a can't or a won't" Is the child being intentionally mean (which is what we initially assume) or is it that he really does not see how his words hurt someone else? We can use this moment as a teaching opportunity to explain empathy, or we can punish the child, without explaining the problem, which won't help us or the child in the future.

In the meantime, while we patiently wait for my daughter to develop theory of mind, we'll keep occasionally testing her with our fun new game.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Drama Club Success!

On Friday afternoon, my daughter burst into tears as she watched us strike the set and turn the small stage back into our basement playroom. "But I want drama club to keep going!" she expressed through her tears. It's hard to be five and experience something fun ending.


But truthfully, I felt the same way. For the last two weeks I've hosted a drama club in my basement. It was just an hour a day, for two weeks, and was for a small group of early elementary school children. I designed it as a way to support children with their reading over the summer, but quickly realized just what a great opportunity it was to teach social skills as well.

I've always been a big fan of using readers' theater to support readers. In my last year as a full-time teacher the reading specialist and I started a drama club for fifth graders during their lunch time, so they could work on their reading and fluency. We were surprised by the amount of kids who joined the group. We never opened it to all of fifth grade, but kids heard about it and started showing up. Putting on shows is fun, and gives reading a purpose.

Reading scripts is a natural way to work on fluency. Kids are not always willing to re-read a passage with expression, especially if they struggled through it the first time. But when you give re-reading a purpose - like say, needing to read it like an actor would, well then, the motivation changes. Re-reading familiar text is essential when children are learning to read, and repeatedly practicing a play lets kids do this in a way that doesn't create boredom or monotony. 

When you involve kids in the planning of the play itself, you are working on their retelling and comprehension skills as well. An actor has to understand a character's emotions before he can take on the part, and so just encouraging the readers to think about how their character feels is a way to foster deeper thinking about the text. 

What's more, in order to block out the scenes, you must be able to sequence the events in order, know which character comes first, next, then, and last, and consider what a character's costume may look like. You even have to spend time thinking about the setting so that you can create the scenery. All in all, you can't put on a play if you aren't comprehending the story.

Then we get to the social skills aspect of drama club. Improv is an excellent way to work on social skills. Any improv game requires its participants to watch one another's body language, and flexibly respond to the stimulation at hand. We played games where we could only communicate with each other by using our eyes (forcing us to make eye contact), or where we needed to guess what someone was doing based off of their actions and emotions (forcing us to attend to body language). We spent a long time discussing different types of emotions, because you need to be able to identify and understand emotions in order to act them out.

What I realized during this club is that the mere act of being in a play requires a fair amount of social skills. We came up with a list of "what actors do", that included reading with fluency and expression, changing their voice to match their emotions, waiting their turn to speak, staying near the other actors and not walking away, and listening to the other actors speak so they know when it is their turn. It might just be me, but these aren't just skills actors need...

On our first session we identified our goal (to put on a great play) and used the Goal, Why, Plan, Do, Check method from the Unstuck and On Target curriculum to create a plan to stick to over the following two weeks. We referred back to this plan daily, and always stayed focused on our goal (we can't put on a great play if we're talking while someone else is practicing). 

We spent the first week selecting a play, and we read many different scripts I'd adopted from different children's books. This required the group to read new texts, and then re-read them in order to decide what they liked better. Before we voted, we created a chart of the different books so we could compare the problem and solution in each text (another essential retelling skill). Finally, the group voted on the book Peanut Butter and Cupcake. 

We spent the second week practicing our lines, painting costumes and scenery, and blocking out the play, and ended with a performance for our parents on Friday.

Like my daughter, I found myself disappointed that it was over on Friday afternoon. The ten sessions gave so many opportunities for reading and social skills practice, and I want to keep working with the great group of kids.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Early Childhood

I had a few days in mid-July where I was able to attend an early childhood conference. I cannot say enough positive comments about this conference, because it did not just reach out to preschool teachers, or special education teachers, or education professors, or PHD students. It brought together everyone who works in early childhood - from those administrators working in the Infant and Toddler offices who are on the front line of meeting with families to assess whether or not their child may have delays or a disability - to the Speech Language, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, preschool teachers, special education preschool teachers, children's librarians, and parents. The message was clear - we are in this together, and we are looking at the whole child.

As I sat in session after session I began to realize how much our practices change when we get to elementary school. So much of early childhood is about what is best for the child. The session participants did not blink when a presenter suggested that it was totally OK for a child to be walking around during storytime. I heard this during MULTIPLE sessions (my own included, but other people said it as well). The ideas of meeting a child's sensory needs, supporting parents to make sure their wants and goals for their child are met, and asking "are we doing what is right for this child, not the process?" were not new ideas.

One session I attended (it had nothing to do with my work, but the one I'd wanted to go to was full and so I popped into the closest one), was intended for service providers completing the initial assessments for Infant and Toddler Connections. There was a very enriching discussion about the power of functional assessments and how standardized assessments are harmful for the child and family, as they don't give a full picture of the child's needs. And if we don't have a full picture of the child's needs, how do you fully help a child? (Good question friends. Let's ask that of the political decision makers who have gotten us to focus on end of year assessment data.) Or those of us doing these same process (finding children eligible for special education) in elementary school. The process somehow stops being about what's best for the child and starts to be about how to complete the legal paperwork and what accommodations a child might need to pass a standardized test.

In the keynote session, the presenter asked how we could possibly teach children to problem solve if we weren't encouraging open ended play, providing opportunities for exploratory skills, and honoring the importance of one on one interactions. When did problem solving stop at early childhood? When did we stop encouraging open ended exploration in favor of rote skills? Why does the importance of play stop in preschool?

Our children's brains don't suddenly respond differently when they enter those elementary school doors on the first day of kindergarten. Why do we act like they do?

There were so many moments during this conference that I wished I was in a room with elementary school teachers so that we could talk about how to take the same scientific findings and apply it to our third and fourth grade students who have trouble sitting down and learning rote skills.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Open Letter to the Mom who was asked to take her kids out of ballet class

Dear Mom of Twins at Ballet Class,

You are amazing. You are amazing for many reasons, not the least of which is that you are the mother of twin preschoolers. Those of us who had just one child at a time have no idea what you've been through as you balanced the feeding, diapering, and sleeping needs of two babies at a time, and then two crawlers, two walkers, two new eaters, new talkers, and two active, bright eyed and excited little ones. I don't have twins myself, but my brothers are twins and I was five years old when they were born. Old enough to remember how hard it was to balance two babies. I have full, out-right respect for any mother of twins out there. You are amazing.

I wish I could erase what happened yesterday in ballet class, when the teacher looked over and asked you to remove your children from the class. I wish I'd stood up for you, and asked the teacher if she could be a better teacher, take more time to explain the instructions, and remind her that this is an introductory ballet class for three year olds and not for six year olds. 

Your children, at least, love ballet. Their energy and excitement in the class is because they want to do well. They are thrilled to be there, and want to do everything the teacher says.

My daughter, on the other hand, is miserable. She isn't running around the classroom only because she is angry she's not in gymnastics, or swimming, or any of the other fun classes we walk by to get to the ballet studio.The other kids? Half of them are not running because they are scared of the teacher, and the others are four and five and old enough to know that sitting quietly when you don't understand the directions is better than getting up and moving.

Your kids are the only ones who look happy in the class. The only ones enjoying it. Is it their fault that when the teacher says "No running!" they only heard 'running' and take off running? (Any preschool teacher can tell you that the only things kids remember is the last thing they hear. Always be direct with what you want.) Or when they are given verbal directions to skip (which is not an age appropriate skill for a three year old anyway) they resorted back to what they had done the last time they'd been in the circle? Your children were acting like three year olds. Three year olds who love looking at themselves in the classroom's full length mirrors, love moving to music, and don't understand why so much of ballet involves sitting quietly on the sidelines listening to the teacher.

I'm sorry the rest of us parents sat there silently, heads down, and did not come to your defense. I'm sorry that when I saw things going south the last few classes I didn't have a friendly chat with the instructor and offer her some ideas of how to get three year olds to listen. The rest of us just watched the disaster slowly unfold.

I know how that teacher felt too. I know what's it's like to feel like you have a large group of children who are out of control and whose parents are all sitting watching you, expecting you to be perfect. I know the self-talk that runs through a teacher's head when it feels like you've lost control. I know where she was coming from. It's a dark place of panic, where you don't know what else to do. I'm sure she felt like she had two choices - she could run from the room herself, or ask your kids to leave leave. (Leaving the room, taking a deep breath, and coming back composed may have been a better choice for her.) Acknowledging that your skill set does not include a particular age group is a hard task. I can tell she is a gifted teacher with older students. But three year olds are a whole other beast. They didn't coin the term 'three-nager' for nothing.

You are amazing. You didn't cry. You didn't argue. You didn't run from the room when your child begged to be allowed to stay. You didn't lose your temper with your kids or the teacher. You stayed strong. In that moment you modeled for all of our kids how to put your head up and stay strong when unfair moments come. You were a role model for those of us who fear the day it is our kid being asked to leave. 

I'm sorry it happened. I'm sorry I didn't help. I hope you will bring your delightful children back to class, and that they can continue loving ballet and making the class fun and exciting. 


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Most helpful?

During one of the sessions I attended at the Creating Connections for Shining Stars conference for Virginia Early Childhood practitioners, one slide caught my eye. Unfortunately, by the time the slide's message had sunk in, the presentation had moved on, and right as  snapped the picture they changed the slide, so I caught the next slide instead. 

The slide I'd wanted to capture was on the results of an older study - The Funds of Knowledge from 1992. Part of this study asked parents of children with special needs a variety of questions to gain an understanding of what parents understood about their child's needs, what was and wasn't helpful as their child was going through the diagnostic period, and who was the most helpful to them. This slide in particular reflected the results of who families found the most helpful - teachers
- and the least helpful - doctors.


Let that sink in for a minute. 

Teachers. 

At the top. 
Number 1. 
Most helpful. 

Our pay may not reflect this fact, nor the reaction we get when we tell people we are teachers. We may not get the same respect from society as we would if we were doctors. But families found us more helpful than the doctors. 




We're the ones holding the families hands, listening, talking, celebrating, and learning along with them. We have the benefit of not having a 15 minute window in which to diagnosis and provide treatment suggestions. 

We need to take a moment to realize how important we are, even if no one else realizes this. We need to understand our impact goes beyond the kids we teach, and touches the families. 

And next time we feel bad about ourselves that we aren't a pediatrician like cousin Eddie, or a lawyer like cousin Bobby, we need to stop and think about this slide. Because what we're doing, when we do it well, is bigger and has a longer lasting impact than everything else.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Still Face Experiment and Our iPhones?

During my first DIR/Floortime course we were introduced to the Still Face Experiment. In this research, a parent is asked to interact with their baby by responding to the baby's coos and gestures. The babies in the experiment use gestures, babbling, and their affect to interact with their parents. The beginning of the experiment reflects Stanley Greenspan's theory that a baby's first understanding of cause and effect is not at 9 months when they pull a bell on a string like Piaget theorized, but is instead much, much earlier when the child first learns he can interact with his parent through pre-verbal communication such as smiles and coos. It's here that not just communication is born, but also a child's sense of self. In these moments babies learn that everything from their gross motor movements to their babbles can have meaning.

In this video of the experiment, the baby points and the mom looks to where the baby points, honoring the baby's motor planning and intent to communicate. Then the parent is told not to respond to the baby's attempts to interact. I find myself becoming physically uncomfortable every time I watch this part of the video. The baby becomes desperate to interact with the mother, and tries everything until finally shrieking, crying, and turning away from the mother. At the end of the experiment the mother is able to comfort her child.

The first time I saw this I had an immediate sick feeling in my stomach. Not just for the baby in the video, but I saw uncomfortable parallels for my own child and my phone. Yes, the great iPhone. The very thing that kept me sane in those middle of the night feedings, and allowed me to form great bonds with friends across the country as we sent each other "Will this baby ever stop eating? I may never get up from this chair" texts. The phone gave me sanity during those infant days. But what about now? How often have I unknowingly reacted this experiment with my own children, honoring their communication attempts during play, and then suddenly stopping and going cold when I get a text, email, or even a Facebook post I "have to" respond to right away?

The behaviorist side of me thinks "It's good for children to learn to wait. Even from a young age children should know that mommy will go away for a minute and then come back. The world does not revolve around them." But watch the child in the video. Mom is there, but not. With our iPhones, it's just a thin rectangle suddenly in between mom and the child. How does the child know why the iPhone is suddenly more important than their coos?

How many of us are creating this experiment on a daily basis, over and over again, and not honoring our children's attempts to communicate because of this tiny little rectangle that constantly takes precedent over them? Our children have learned of course, that this is a part of daily life. That their parents are there, and then suddenly not there, and then there again, as we toggle back and forth between honoring their sense of agency and then ignoring them while we respond to our phones.

One blog notes that this experiment  while may see the Still Face experiment as a recreation of children growing up in neglectful situations and experiencing a loss of attachment, what it  also shows is an example of a child suffering from a loss of agency.   Our sense of agency is our understanding of how our movements, and actions have meaning in the world. In this experiment, for a brief moment, the baby's emotions, ideas, and thoughts are ignored, suddenly sending a confusing message about how the child is able to interact. Which is exactly what we do to our children when we interrupt their play to check our phones.

I don't mean to write this as a guilt trip for us all. I am hugely guilty of frequent phone checks, and even after wrestling with this question myself for a few months, I'm still guilty of it. But it does make me wonder. I'm trying to be more aware of honoring my children's thoughts and expressions in the moment, and if I can't respond to them I try to tell them exactly why "Hang on, I need to text Daddy and ask him to stop by the store" just so they know I'm ignoring them for a reason, and not just leaving them to flounder alone. I have no idea if that helps. But I suspect there is a connection between the Still Face experiment and how we constantly parent with a phone in our back pocket.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

True Educational Leadership

In my fourteen years of teaching I've worked for four principals. One I try not to think about much, but I have been very lucky to work for the other three. I admire each of them as leaders, and know that much of my teaching has been shaped by their leadership.

My most recent principal announced he was leaving us a few weeks ago. I was stunned. He opened our school five years ago. He led us to becoming the first recipient of the National DuFour award. Through his leadership we ended up on the front page of Education Weekly. Educators from around the world travel to our school to observe us at work, in the structure he set up. The school has never existed without him.

Of all the principals I have worked for, he is the one who has impacted my educational philosophy the most. When I first came to our school I was not sure of how much I bought into the Professional Learning Community (PLC) theory. I was skeptical, made worse by the fact that I was on the intellectual disability team and as a new school we were struggling to figure out how to include my team into the PLC process. I've written before about how my opinion of the PLC process changed over time. I went from being skeptical to becoming a true believer. Now, it seems like a crime to have schools operate in any other way.

Beyond coming to be an advocate for the PLC process, my principal also pushed my thinking about education. He constantly challenged our special education team to think about what special education is. What is the purpose behind special education? Why do we put students into special education? What do we do with them once we put them there? Why does a child need a label? What do we do differently for a child once they are in the special education system? Every Wednesday, when we sat in special education eligibility meetings, he pushed us to answer these questions. I know there were times when he knew how I would answer, but he asked anyway. He never wanted us to blindly sign off on a child needing special education services unless we had fully considered the whole child, and whether or not he or she would truly benefit from these services. No child would get pushed through just because. He made our work harder, but he made our work better.

These questions changed how I thought about special education. They made me look beyond my own beliefs, and see that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we do lower our expectations for a child once they are in the special education system. That the IQ number does not always accurately reflect a child's ability, and that we keep pushing, despite what any test says.

In times of conflict, crisis, or uncertainty, he never took the party line. Not the county's party line, or even the school's. He did not care how anything has been done in the past, or how we did it last week. Every decision we ever brought to him he questioned, considered, and then had us justify our thinking. We cannot make lazy decisions, or ones based on institutional knowledge.

One of the rules at my school is that we are not allowed to use acronyms. I want you to spend the next day trying not to use any acronyms. That means you can't say the HOV lane. Take IEP, NOVA, LRE, FCPS, or any other familiar acronyms out of your vocabulary. It's harder than you think! His constant line is "clarity proceeds competence." If not everyone at the table knows what you are talking about, then communication has eroded and you have a problem. He pushes us to be as clear as possible in our language. While I appreciate the theory, it is hard, especially in special education. And frustrating, when you are already nervous in speaking in front of a group, and you utter an acronym by accident and then get called out.

But this practice makes us better. It catches us from using phrases in front of parents that they don't understand - or even phrases general education educators don't understand and are afraid to ask. This also creates a culture of feeling comfortable enough to ask for clarification when one is confused - even in a large meeting.

My principal has changed how I see education. He's challenged the idea of the effectiveness of the individual teacher, working in isolation. He's challenged the idea of why and how we educate children. He's changed my focus in how I see educational outcomes of students with disabilities. Every teacher believes they have high expectations for all children, but he's made me realize that when we say those simple words we often are just doing lip service. If we are truly honest we take away all excuses we may have for a child, we erase our knowledge of anything going on at home, and we truly look only at the child in front of us at that moment.

He taught me that high expectations mean high expectations for all. The goal for every child is to make a year to a year and a half's growth, no matter where they are currently performing or what is going on in their lives. Having an IEP or speaking another language is not an excuse for a child to not make that progress. And as teachers, we need to work together as a team to get the child there, in any way possible.

I've joked that my first four years at this school school was an equivalent in a graduate degree into the PLC process. I was skeptical of the process when I began there, and not even aware of how much I had to learn. After five years I am stunned at my own transformation as an educator. I went from skeptical to full-believer.

Working for him these last five years was an honor, and I cannot imagine where I would be now as an educator if I had not worked at his school. While I cannot image the school without his leadership, I know that how he challenged and changed our thinking will stay with the school even after he leaves. The field always needs someone to constantly push us to look beyond ourselves, and although I will miss him, I know his move is a benefit to the field of education itself.