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. 


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.