Monday, October 28, 2013

"Oh, man!" Empathy and redirection in two small words

A speech pathologist I worked with a few years ago taught kids to say "Oh, Man!" when they lost a game. She didn't say "It's OK to lose. Sometimes losing happens. Get over it" like I'm often tempted to say. She didn't prevent them from playing games so that she wouldn't have to deal with the emotions.

"Oh, man!" she'd say with full out honest. "Better luck next time!"

It was perfect. Those two words- oh man- let the kids acknowledge their disappointment in the game. They don't have to hide their feelings or listen to teachers lecture them on good sportsmanship. But they don't have to cry either. "Oh, man!" lets them communicate to us without a fit.

Basically it's replacing the temper tantrum/losing frustration with one phrase that will do the exact same thing for the child (let us know he is mad) without a great big fuss.

I use this with my daughter daily. I started to do it when she was just learning to walk and would fall down. She was shocked and surprised by the fall and needed a way to tell us. "You are OK" which is my first reaction- wasn't letting her say, "Hey Mommy, I just fell down and it sucked." It worked. She'd stop crying almost immediately and repeat "Oh man".

Now she does it herself without being prompted. She'll take a big spill, stand up, shake off her hands and say, "OH MAN!"

I've started using it when she wants something she can't get- like when I've left her favorite toy at home and we're in the car on the way to school, or when it is breakfast time and she wants crackers instead of cereal.
"OH man!" I'll say, "We left your baby doll at home! Oh, man!" I'm acknowledging how she feels and that the situation isn't ideal. I'm not solving it for her, we're not turning the car around- but I'm also not saying, "well, this is your problem to deal with." For whatever reason it works.

In fact, she's started saying, "It's OK Mommy" when I say "Oh, Man". She's stated her problem, I empathized with her, and now she can say it is OK.

Without thinking I started using this on kids at school too. They'll tell me something that is distracting/off topic/a very small problem and I'll look them straight in the eye and say, "Oh, man!" Like my daughter they often say, "Yeah, but it's OK. I'll do...." and describe how they'll fix the problem. Like suddenly they have to reassure me that it is OK they forgot their coat on the playground (even though it is math time and they know I'm not going to let them do anything about that now.)

Suddenly I'm not saying, "We're not talking about that now." or "How are you going to fix that problem?" or "Next time you should do x, y, z." Two words and I've communicated that
1)I heard their problem
2) I get why they are upset/worried
 3) I'm not going to fix it for them

I don't always remember to do this. Yesterday I sat with a math group and was constantly saying, "We're not talking about that now." "Get back to work" "What will you do next time?"  I showed no empathy and instead we wasted a lot of teacher-talk on redirection.

I know it won't always work, but so far those two little words seem to be working surprisingly well.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

It's OK to have feelings

One of the awesome teachers I work with is letting me take over her morning meeting for 5 minutes a day to teach about emotions. The goal is to get the kids talking and thinking about their own emotions, identify when they feel a certain way, and then give them the skills they need to independently use calming strategies. It's a a small five minutes a day but so far it is providing good conversation. We'll see if we reach our lofty goal of seeing more self calming strategies in play.

The other day we were reading Llama, Llama Misses Mama and we were identifying all of Llama's BIG emotions. At one point, after we'd identified that Llama, Llama was sad I asked the kids if that was OK. All but one said no, it wasn't OK to be sad.
"What about angry?" I asked. Nope, not OK to be angry they told us.

When kids don't let themselves accept certain feelings- when they feel ashamed or guilty about having certain emotions- they never learn how to regulate their emotions. You have to know when you are angry and why you get angry to be able to say "Hey, I'm angry. This would be a good time to take a deep breath and calm myself down." Or, "Wow, I'm really frustrated. Maybe I shouldn't make this really big decision right now."

If we never let ourselves be angry then we don't give ourselves permission to make realistic decisions. Instead we end up making big decisions out of anger we don't let ourselves acknowledge we feel, we say things we don't mean to people we love, and we deny that we are hurt by someone else's statements, which only leads to building resentment. We all do it. It's not easy to tell ourselves "It's OK to be sad."

My daughter's daycare provider is excellent at this. When my daughter cries she doesn't try to distract her or instantly make her happy. She labels what she's feeling. She says, "You are sad. It's OK to be sad. This is what sad feels like." Then she walks my daughter through calming down. My daughter just turned two and she'll take calming breathes without being told to when she is upset. (I swear I work so my daughter can stay in daycare.)

I need to take a step back on my emotions lessons. Before we can get into what we do when we are angry we need to let the kids know that it is OK to be angry. Or sad. Or excited. Having them be able to verbally tell us what to do when angry/sad/excited isn't going to do them much good if they are angry and they can't even recognize it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Celebrate the Little Things

On Friday I sent what felt like the silliest email in the world to the school team invested in working with a particular student. My hand hesitated over the send button, wondering if it was really worth telling everyone about the small success the student had that day. It was small. Well, in the grand scheme of things it was small. For other children it was minuscule. For this child? It was monumental.

Out of context it seemed like a silly thing to celebrate. It was something we expect all children to do in school anyway. Even in context I worried about people on the team telling me that by celebrating things I wasn't having high enough expectations.

But we spend so much time getting bogged down in all the problems of the school day we often forget to celebrate the baby steps involved in moving forward. Sure, my email didn't say "the child is having a perfect day." But what I described is one baby step closer to our ideal goals for the child. And that is worth celebrating.

Identify problems in order to build strong solutions. Celebrate the baby steps along the way and keep focused on those long term goals. Use the excitement from the baby steps to give you the energy to keep going. Those long term goals will come.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Lost at School- initial thoughts

When I got home from school today I found an Amazon box waiting for me- with my brand new copy of Ross Green's book, Lost at School. His first book, The Explosive Child, is one I refer to all the time. The idea that he wrote a new book specifically addressing how to work with kids who have explosive behaviors in school was just too exciting. (And yes, the book is already out in paper back so I'm a little late to the party, but at least I'm here now!)

I immediately jumped into it (while my poor two year old was distracted by potty training her baby dolls).

I haven't read much, but I was already struck by a few ideas.

1. We have to shift our thinking from "Kids will do well if they want to" to "Kids will do well if they can." "Kids will do well if they want to" implies that they are intentionally misbehaving and that it is our job to cajole, manipulate and encourage them to behave, where "kids will do well if they can" gets us to think about the skills the student needs in order to behave. It stops us from thinking about how we need to motivate or punish the child and instead gets us to think about how we can teach the child the missing skills so that they are able to do well. (pg 10-11)

2. Are consequences (logical, natural, positive or negative) actually effective? Green writes, "...consequences only remind kids of what we don't want them to do, and give them the incentive to do something more adaptive instead. But they (the kids) already know what we don't want them to do, and they're already motivated to do something more adaptive instead. They need something else from us." 
Consequences will have no impact if we haven't helped the students get the skills they need to follow the rules. Kids know what the rules are, and they know we want them to behave, but if they do not have the skills to do so then how can they follow through? Consequences will only serve to frustrate them more.

So much of what we do in schools can be reactive. Even our proactive strategies aren't always focused on teaching missing skills. I'm really excited to dive into the book to read Green's suggestions on identifying and teaching the skills. Stay tuned for more...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Super Powers

Since it was pajama day at school I was wearing my "I teach, what's your super power?" t-shirt. 

This went over quite well with the third grade boys who were struck by the idea of teaching being a super power. 

One fairly active boy looked at me seriously, paused, and then said, "Teaching is your superpower and listening is mine!"

Dude, lets make that come true. I love that he decided listening could be a superpower, and that it was his.

And yeah, I kind of like the fact that the third grade boys decided I was a super hero. Even if it was only for one math lesson. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Pros and Cons

I'm about a month into my new position and starting to feel like I'm finding my groove. Maybe. If I'm honest with myself (which I'm not always because it is easier to not think about things I can't change) I miss my old classroom a lot. I miss the kids like crazy. I miss lesson planning for them. I miss doing read alouds and asking "wh" questions and teaching them the difference between a who question and a where question.
I miss my own classroom, where I had all my school items at my finger tips. I miss singing songs and leading games on the smartboard. I miss the small victories that came during the day and I miss being able to share those victories with parents. I miss teaching my kids to read. I really do. I miss taking kids who have trouble holding a book and teaching them about text. I miss being frustrated with my inability to get through to a child and then the feeling of a breakthrough when something finally clicks. 

There is a lot I like about my current position. I have a lot more energy at the end of the day, which is a plus since I come home to a two year old. I get to work with amazing teachers. I get to co-teach, which I missed a lot last year when I felt like I was working in isolation. I get to have fun conversations with third graders, read and analyze books, and teach math beyond counting to 20. I'm learning a lot about third grade and I'm enjoying working with the kids. 

Both positions have their pros and cons. It's hard to walk by my classroom and not go in, but I'm starting to feel at home in my new rooms. 

I honestly don't think I expected to miss my class as much as I do. I knew I would miss them, but I was excited about the new challenges (and not having a choice means I didn't let myself take time to be sad about the change.) I'm meeting new kids and their finding their way into my heart, but I don't think they'll ever replace the amazing kids with intellectual disabilities that I had to leave. 

If Gangnam Style Hurts Girls Feelings Do Kinder Boys Care?

On Friday a group of kindergarten boys started into a rowdy rendition of Gangnam style. I went over and explained that although I too enjoy the song, it's not school appropriate.

"Why?" one asked.
"I KNOW" another said with big eyes. "Sexy lady"
Upset that I even was part of a conversation prompting this vocabulary I said, "We don't say that at school," and started to walk away, hoping that would be the end of that (like that's how it works with kinders...)

"What's that?" the first boy asked.
"Well," the second boy explained, "If you say that girls think you don't like them and that you aren't nice to girls. So you can't say it because it hurts their feelings."

WOW. Someone's mother did an excellent job of explaining that one.

The first boy shrugged. He didn't seemed to be bothered by hurting girls' feelings.

For the next 10 minutes the boys debated words they could put in place INSTEAD of sexy lady. It was an interesting debate of phonemic awareness and musical understanding. Luckily they soon found another topic.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hazards of Being Pregnant and Teaching

The larger my stomach gets the more my badge and keys bounce as I walk. As I walk down the hallway I'm my own personal marching band. I think I must disrupt every single classroom in the hallway now, and the problem is only going to get worse as I keep growing...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Character Traits of Princesses

At the end of one of my third grade reading groups the other day a group of girls started talking about how they hate princess stories. I joined in, sharing that I didn't want to read them to my two year old and that I didn't like that everything is princesses themed for little girls.
We bonded over our princess-disdain, which none of us really bothered to justify.
As I started to leave the group one little girl who had been quiet until that point tugged on my sleeve.

"I love princess stories " she quietly said. "Because the princesses are always brave and true to themselves."

It took me a second to respond. Here I was trashing princesses for no real valid reason other than "ugh, pink, really?" and this quiet third grader was able to not only respectfully stand up to my narrow minded opinion but provide a valid reason for her thinking.

I was immediately in love with this girl as a reader. 

"You know," I said, tipping my head to the side, "I hadn't thought of that before. What you said makes me like them more. I may need to re-read princess stories now to see if my opinion changed." She just smiled shyly and walked back to her desk.

We need more deep thinking, respectfully disagreeing third graders. Or deep thinking, respectfully disagreeing grown ups for that matter. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Talk, Talk, Talk

Last week Joanne Jacobs wrote about a Slate article that discussed how low income parents speak to their children.

It fits with all the other research that has been done on the subject, but it adds something more that has been haunting me for days.

It discusses one mother sharing her experience of talking more to her child and how her friends respond.
Newell said many of her friends and relatives think she’s crazy for talking to her daughter as if she’s an adult. “I can quote this: ‘Neisha, no one wants to sit and talk to the kids like they understand’ That’s basically the response I get.” - See more at:

We have to do more to educate low income families on how to talk to their children. Think of the impact we can make on kindergarten readiness if we just increase the amount of positive language children hear in their first few years of life. For years research has shown us the discrepancy between how low income and higher income parents talk to their kids. We need to do more about it.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reality 101!

I am excited to announce that I am one of four bloggers for the Council for Exceptional Children's Reality 101 blog this school year. Check out the blog and follow our four very different adventures in special education here!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

What is Really Behind Go Dog Go anyway?

On what I swear is probably my 100th reading of Go Dog Go this week alone I realized that I am totally not comfortable with the whole hat story line.

So this girl dog has a rather reasonable hat in the beginning but she goes fishing for compliments and the dog she is obviously flirting with tells her honestly "I don't like your hat." This is the equivalent of saying "I'm not buying you a drink. Go hit on somebody else."

But the chick doesn't take a hint.

She goes and gets a new hat, which of course the boy dog doesn't like. She chases him through the book, trying to change herself a little each time so the next encounter will have a different outcome.

And what happens? They meet up again at a party. A dog party. Have you seen what is going on up there in top of that tree? No good, I will tell you that. So the boy dog, who obviously sees an easy conquest ends up giving in after who knows what he's indulged in at the party. And what happens? They go home together, as though this is a good thing. Riding into the sunset? Lets not even touch on the fact that he isn't taking a cab after that party.

 The unwritten ending? Nothing but heart break. 

This book is telling young girls to keep chasing after rude boys until one day they decide to take you home for a night.

PD Eastman, what are you doing to our daughters? I think the only right answer to this is that I take the book out of my house so I am never forced to read it, I mean, never have to expose my daughter to it again.

I just made you say...

It's been awhile since I've been around your typically developing kid. I forgot how clever (and sometimes not so clever) they can be.

In kindergarten I rushed over to solve a small table squabble during reading stations. As I listened to a girl and boy explain the ins and outs of their woes in a very dramatic fashion another boy started singing quietly under his breath. "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen..." 

It was all I could do to stifle a giggle.

Later that day I was in third grade. Suddenly a bunch of boys went up to the substitute and said, "why were you under there?"
"Under where?" The innocent sub asked while the boys dissolved into giggles.
"Wow," one said to me as though I was his partner in crime. "We made a teacher say underwear." 
I guess Bare Naked Ladies would have been proud.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Getting Comfortable with a Steep Learning Curve

I sat down with a reading group yesterday and realized I had no idea what I was doing. I've never read with on-grade level third grade readers before. Even though I'd met with the reading teacher, filled out my lesson plans, and thought through each step I still felt naked in front of the group.

Guided reading to me is something I can do in my sleep. I love guided reading and for the most part I think I'm pretty good at teaching children to read (nobody is perfect, but I think it is one of my strengths as a teacher). Note that I said "teaching children to read". I can take a non-reader and immediately know what to do next. I can assess what strategies to need to be taught, what high frequency words need to be addressed, what book handling skills need to be put in place. At this point I have most of those low level books memorized so I barely have to think about my book introductions.

I sat at a table yesterday looking at 5 skeptical third graders, holding a book wondering how on earth I was going to make this book interesting for them. I listened to them read and wondered what words are suppose to be high frequency words. I wondered why they could read so fluently without stopping to decode the massive amounts of big words on the page. I wondered what next step to choose for them- what word study to pull from the book, what teaching point, what to have them retell.

These are all decisions I no longer agonize over in the lower grades. There was a time when I did, of course, but that time was years ago. This uncertainty isn't comfortable either. In fact, it's down right scary. What if I screw up these poor readers?

I remember my first year being so ashamed that I didn't know what "guided reading" was. I tried to hide that I had no idea what I was doing, and then was scared to ask questions because I felt everyone was judging me for not knowing what to do. I made it so much worse on myself by not allowing myself to ask someone to show me what to do.

Now, 11 years later, I'm slightly embarrassed by the amount of questions I keep shooting off to the reading teacher but now my embarrassment isn't going to stop me. If I learned to teach guided reading once I can certainly learn to teach it again. It's uncomfortable to no longer feel like an expert, but it's also a good experience. It reminds me how the kids feel when they are learning something new, and how the new teachers feel throughout their day. That unsettling feeling that you really have no idea what you are doing while you try to fake your way through the day. Luckily now I'm older and have less to prove. I look forward to one day feeling like I know what I'm doing, but until then I'll keep asking questions and chugging along.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How do you interpret "retell the story"?

Today I had a student completely retell a book for me using nothing but sounds. He acted out the noises the animals in the book made, the creak of a swinging gate, the bounce of a basket ball, and all the other noises that represented events from the book, all in the correct order.

Not exactly what I expected when I said, "Tell me what happened in the story," but now I know he can sequence the events of the story correctly. Tomorrow we will work on adding words to our retellings. And since the student is very literal, I will work on giving directions that completely and clearly show exactly what I expect. Teacher lesson learned.