Thursday, October 28, 2010

All Hallow's Eve and Public Education

It's that time of year.  Bats and witches and pumpkins, oh my!  Costumes and candy galore, and everything from haunted houses to trunk or treats.  Many schools still enjoy traditional Halloween celebrations, complete with candy, parties, costumes and games.  Some schools, in an effort to be more accepting of all cultures, have begun to call their celebrations "fall festivals" and stuck to fall themes, such as leaves and scarecrows, pumpkins and apples.  The celebrations still usually include candy and games, as well as special treats sent in by parents.

Recently, because of the obesity epidemic, some schools have passed policies forbidding any unhealthy foods from entering the school campus.  No sodas, cakes, or candy.  No chips.  Nothing that could be qualified as junk.  Supposedly this sends a message to kids that healthy food can be fun food too.

I think these are two different issues.  First, let's talk about Halloween in public school.  Anyone who's worked with kids can tell you that holidays--Halloween, Christmas, Easter, you name it--causes a stir of excitement and near craziness throughout the land.  Kids are excitable creatures.  Personally, I get super excited at the thought of watching my kids trick-or-treat, of decorating my house, of making a special Halloween dinner, or of attending all the local halloween haunts and events.  I'm a forty-one year old adult and I can easily spend HOURS fantasizing about the fun I'm going to have walking through a haunted forest or trick-or-treating with my kids.  So is it really reasonable to expect my KIDS not to get excited?  For them to be able to focus on school and completing tasks as much as they would on a normal day?

The National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC--look it up at has issued a statement regarding holiday celebrations in preschools and schools--especially for young children--as being contrary to children's best interests.  Children are bombarded by social media in our world today.  Television, computer, radio, ipods, even billboards all overwhelm children with the material excess of holidays.  One of the purposes of school is to give children a safe place to be kids.  A place where they can focus on what their work is, what their interests are, what is predictable and stable and safe.  For these reasons, halloween parties aren't optimal in school settings.  Of course, this reasoning doesn't even begin to address the fact that we are a culture made up of many different beliefs, some of which do not share the likes of the "fun" of Halloween.  In fact, we all know someone who finds the whole aspect of Halloween distasteful and offensive.  Imagine being the child who gets to spend his time sitting in the library because your religious beliefs forbid you from participating in the games, candy, and fun.

The second issue I want to address has to do with this huge movement toward eating healthy.  Believe me, I'm a huge proponent for healthy food for children.  Our school lunches in this society are a shame.  If we all ate what kids are served in school cafeterias, we would be hungry, unhealthy, and quite likely overweight, to say the least.  But to forbid sweets at parties?  Huh?

Any nutritionist (or most of the ones I've come across) will tell you that the key to a healthy diet is moderation.  Does that mean on a party day you give kids three kinds of cupcakes, bag fulls of candy, and plate fulls of chips, accompanied by everyone's favorite soda or punch.  That's not moderation either.  But I don't know about everyone else--when I go to a party, I tend to look forward to a special hors d'oevre, or a cool entree, or a tasty dessert.

My whole point is that, just as many schools have found a happy medium by celebrating Fall, we can find happy mediums with the food we serve as well.  When I was in charge of planning parties for young children on special days, we did a lunch party.  There were no special games, as the children were very young, but we did have a special lunch.  Somebody made fancy sandwiches (cut from cookie cutters), somebody brought a fruit tray, somebody else a cut-up veggie tray, somebody brought cheese and crackers, and somebody else brought A sweet.  Anything else that parents wanted to volunteer went into bags to go home.  This worked on a variety of levels.  First, it made the day a little different from the rest without being overwhelming.  Second, any allergies that children might have to candy (or desires that parents may have that their children not consume so much sugar) are addressed by allowing the parent to make the choices of what the child eats from the bag.  Third, it teaches children that moderation IS key...that we can have a wide variety of fun foods to eat together, and our company is the best part of all.

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, and I enjoy celebrating it with my children every year.  If you do too, I wish you a happy and safe one!  Thanks for reading, click on the links, share with your friends, and leave your comments below!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"I just LOVE children!"

When I was teaching college undergraduates, I got to know them as they entered the teacher education program.  One of the questions we would ask them to complete on a "getting to know you" form is "Why do you want to work in early childhood?"  The answer almost across the board was the inevitable, "because I LOVE children!"  Sometimes there were various descriptives that went with that answer--children are so honest, they're so sweet, they're so loving, etc.--but it all boiled down to a love for children.
By the time students left their teacher education programs, they were able to articulate a clearer point of view about why they wanted to teach, and it didn't just involve a love of children.  It involved the process of education, of teaching and learning, of journeying together down a new path and facilitating discoveries along the way.  THAT'S what teaching is about.

If your child is school-aged and you're reading this, you've probably encountered at least one or two teachers who really LOVE children.  I would argue, that in the absence of abusive tendencies, it's really no better to have a teacher who LOVES children than a teacher who doesn't.  Teachers who don't love children but are not mean are usually focused on the educational material more heavily than those who need to love and be loved by their students.  When I was in high school, one of my best English teachers could have given a bleep less if we showed up in her class or not.  She was an older woman, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and knew her material in and out.  I learned more from her than I did from a lot of my other teachers, but mainly I learned that not everybody had to love me to motivate me.  She didn't get paid to love me.  She got paid to teach.  And she was good at it.

Having spent time in a lot of public schools, both as an observer and as a parent, I have seen teachers fall  across the board in their skills in teaching as well as their interpersonal skills.  My own children have had teachers who just LOVE their classes.  Teachers who get stuck in the love trap often lose sight of the main goal of education:  to educate the child.  It's nearly as bad as having a teacher who is apathetic (which, by the way, our country has plenty of and many are hiding out in low-income school districts).  I've always preached to my students that if you LOVE children, you should become a parent.  If you LOVE teaching, you should become a teacher.

Right about now,you're probably saying, "Wait a minute,'ve always gone on and on about this rapport you're saying teachers shouldn't love their students?"  Nope.  Not my message at all.  Teachers who have good rapport with their students tend to naturally care about them and fall in love with them in a sweet kind of way.  That's part of building and having rapport.  But those teachers also understand that rapport is a step to the major goal of education, instead of getting stuck in the "love game".  Some adults are so needy for affection that they focus solely on providing for the emotional needs of their students (as well as themselves) and can't see past those needs.  Learning becomes secondary to "feeling good".  These teachers often discipline through whining, empty threats, and an occasional punishment for the whole class--for which they feel extremely guilty over later, and feel the need to reassure the children that they love them immensely.  That's teaching, but not the kind you want to do--you're sending crazy messages all over the place about misplaced priorities and your inability to follow through, and most of all, that the purpose of the classroom being a learning one is secondary to everything else.

A parents' primary job is to love their kids.  We're supposed to think our kids are the best, the smartest, the funniest people out there.  We're supposed to want to share their antics with anyone who will listen, even when their antics are ridiculously wrong.  We discipline BECAUSE we love them and want them to be good, successful, happy people when they are adults.  A teacher's job is to teach.  Granted, there is some overlap, but the purpose of teaching is never, ever to "love children".

If that's your purpose, go rock babies in the ICU ward of your local hospital, volunteer in your church nursery, or if you have the funds, make your own.  But for heaven's sake, don't make yourself responsible for their education.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Difficult conversations

A lot of times, I start this blog off with stories about my own kids, even though they are way past the "early childhood" stage.  The reason I do this is because many of the issues I struggled with when they were young reappear at older ages but in different ways.  One of the common things parents and teachers both struggle with is communication.  This isn't a skill that suddenly develops and there's never another problem.  There are as many different ways to communicate as there are people.  Because of this, learning to communicate with all different kinds of people is critical to ensure the absolute best education for our children.

When I first began teaching, parent-teacher conferences terrified me.  I was a very young adult and parents of the children I worked with were much older than me, and definitely more worldly.  What did I know, anyway?  Who was I to tell these parents anything about their children?  And God forbid there was some difficulty in the classroom--how do I broach that issue?

In the last ten years I've lived on both sides of the fence.  As my confidence has grown as a teacher and my ability to discuss all sorts of issues with parents, I have been on the other side AS a parent.  I have listened to teachers who have explained things that my husband did not understand, as his career is not in education.  I have listened to teachers who have given me glowing, general reports of my children but didn't really answer my questions or give me any valuable information.  I have also listened to teachers attack and criticize my children.  A few years ago, my son was in the hospital for an extended stay and my daughter was missing her brother tremendously.  She was struggling in school with talking out and a generally sad and angry demeanor.  The first thing her teacher said to me when I entered the conference--in front of a student teacher, no less--was, "She sure is bossy."  No kidding.  I live with her every you really think I don't know that?  Nothing else that teacher said throughout the year stuck in my ears as heavily as that statement did.  She, in effect, lost me in that first sentence of that first conference.  Our relationship deteriorated from that point, and unfortunately, my daughter had a pretty rough year.

So I'm going to offer some tips on both sides of the fence.  I know conferences may have already taken place, but it's never too soon to build relationships with parents and teachers.  After all, we're all working for what's best for our children.

For Parents:
1.  Make a list of questions in advance.  Any questions you have are appropriate.  You have the right to know what your child does during the day, how they do it, who they get along with, and what they excel at as well as what they struggle with.  You're also entitled to know how to help your child.
2.  Be clear with the teacher what your goals and expectations for your child are.  Often, parents and teachers hold different expectations, and this can cause problems down the line.
3.  Speak with respect and mind your time.  If you need more than the allotted fifteen minutes (and I almost always do), let the teacher know in advance.
4.  Tell the teacher if there are personal issues that make affect your child's performance.  Death or sickness in the family, divorce, moves, and the like can all cause changes in both behavioral and academic performance.  I find it helpful to write a letter for the teacher to refer back to.
5.  Listen to what the teacher is saying about your child, and ask questions if you don't understand.  Many teachers use jargon that the average parent isn't familiar with.  If you don't know what a DRA or an SOL is, then ask.  Have the teacher clarify for you, and if the teacher is unable to do so, ask an administrator.
6.  If for whatever reason, there is a personal conflict between you and a teacher, contact an administrator immediately and ask for a sit-down conference with the three of you.  Know what you would like to be addressed going into the conference.  Keep things on a professional level and maintain a respectful tone, even if you're angry.

For teachers:
1.  Contact parents before school starts and again immediately after.  One of my favorite memories was when one of my children's teachers sent me an email on the first day of school welcoming my child to her class and letting me know she was open to any questions I might have.
2.  Keep in mind the 5+ rule.  Before you ever even UTTER a negative word about a child you should have given the parent a minimum of five genuine, positive statements of feedback about their child.  This helps  parents understand you are on their child's side.
3.  When you do have to discuss difficult situations in the classroom, use the "sandwich method".  Something good, then something difficult, and finishing up with something good.  This helps everyone remember that you're focusing on ONE behavior, not a "bad kid".
4.  Be respectful of parents and their time and work schedules.  Some parents are hyper-eager to meet whenever you'd like.  Others, not so much.  Keep in mind that you don't live these parents' lives, you don't know their situations, and almost every parent loves their child and wants what is best for them.  Try to think outside the box in ways to communicate...and keep in mind not everybody reads, nor does everyone read English.
5.  Conferences should be a conversation, not a ten-minute report where a teacher throws information at a parent and the parent nods.  Consider sending home a questionnaire about what parents would like to talk about during their conference.  You might be surprised at the answers you get.

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Picking Up and Trying Again...

Kids are amazingly resilient creatures.  Not only emotionally, but physically.  It never ceases to surprise me what a child can bounce back from.  Over the years, I've seen children sustain a variety of injuries that would make an adult cringe.  Broken collarbones, broken arms, busted lips and teeth, stitches to the head.

Last week my daughter was complaining about her ankle.  It hurt.  Of course, I heard her say it hurt, but I think I heard the whine more.  "It huuuurrrttttsssssss," echoed in my brain repeatedly as she limped around before taking off in a full sprint after one of the dogs or giggling as she jumped around playing games.  Hurts my foot, I thought, eyes rolling.  How badly can your ankle hurt when you're throwing frosting at your mom during a frosting fight?  How bad can it be when your chasing your dog across the yard or taking a leisurely walk around the neighborhood?

This child has grown tremendously in the past few months.  My guess would be close to two inches in height, and a full shoe size, in two months.  I figured if she was having some pains, they were simply growing pains, because she's had those before.  So I brushed off the whining until last night, when she tripped over a box (darn those new longer feet) and came to me limping and whining again.  There was a little swelling and some slight bruising, and I thought, uh-oh.  This can't be good.

So we iced and medicated and went to the doctor today.  Two hours later, she's on crutches and I'm eating a nice big crow.  Of course, that's her favorite part...knowing that her mom is feeling incredibly guilty.  I probably would have been the same way as a kid.

I have seen parents do this to themselves over and over again.  Regardless of the child's age, we sometimes mess up with judgment calls.  We think we nail it right and roll the dice, only to find out we were wrong.  And then most of us torture ourselves over it.  But seriously, what good does the torture do?  To remind us that we didn't do it perfectly every time?

Since sharing my latest faux pax with my friends, I've heard numerous stories from moms who have made the same types of mistakes as me.  The reality is that we do our best and go on.  Let the guilt go, doesn't better you as a parent.

As I got my daughter in bed, pillows under her feet and an ice pack on her ankle, she grinned and said, "I bet you're feeling really bad."  I looked her in the eye and I said, "nope...just sorry that your ankle hurts...i know it's not a lot of fun to have to rest it.  Next time watch out for the boxes."

The grin disappeared as she processed the fact that Mom wasn't going to be held emotionally hostage anymore for a normal mistake.  Then she adjusted the television, got comfortable, and picked up her latest novel to read.

I'm hoping that by letting my own guilt go, I'm teaching her a bit about letting guilt go herself.  That people make mistakes and it's okay.  We all survive them (well, usually), and while guilt serves as a reminder, it shouldn't govern the way we live our lives.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

For Every Good Rant, There Must Come an Update

Dear Nameless Teacher (the same one I addressed a few posts ago),

I finally got to meet you today in a conference.  I wish we could have met under better circumstances.  You see, I couldn't wait until our original date of Thursday because my daughter was hysterical this morning. So hysterical, in fact, that my usually school-loving child refused to move, begging through tears and hysteria to please, please let her stay home.  Her legs, apparently, hurt too much to go to school.  I guess most kids get headaches or stomachaches, but that's my kid--gotta be original.

I guess I'm kind of slow on the uptake, because I found myself in the middle of a completely ludicrous argument at 7:30 this morning about going to school.  Finally, after guiding said child into another room and having her sit down and breathe, the truth came out--she was scared to go to school.  More specifically, she was scared of you.

Meeting you today, I was kind of taken aback.  I have taught in your school system before, and expected a very intimidating soul across the table from me.  Instead I found a very young teacher at the beginning of her career, a bit defensive and definitely full of self-confidence.  Thank goodness the assistant principal sat in on the conference with us.

You were quick to point out all the ways my child is struggling--she is missing a few assignments, is disorganized in the three (yes, three) notebooks that you insist they keep, and that she doesn't correct her work to turn it back in.  I acknowledged all of that was probably true.  She is, after all, eleven years old, in her first year at middle school in a new state, and managing seven different classes for the first time.  And she likes to try things on her own, which definitely isn't paying off in this instance.  Of course, all of this information would have been helpful when it first appeared as a problem.

You asked me if I was checking her homework each night, if I was keeping up with her assignments online.  I told you no.  I didn't know she had assignments every night, nor did I know until today there was a way to check them online.  If you told me, it was on the syllabus that we had to return to you after the first day of school.  With two kids in a total of fourteen classes, all of which want their syllabi back, it's hard for a mom to commit those things to memory.

I told you my concerns.  That you roll your eyes at my child, that you dismiss her questions with rude comments, that you huff at her and insult her in front of the class.  I told you that right now she doesn't like you.  And she doesn't.  And quite frankly, even as I sat and acknowledged what you said and was on my best behavior, neither do I.

The assistant principal helped my child understand that you are sometimes a little harsh in your tone and your expectations.  She explained it's nothing personal against my child.  That you're a beginning teacher and are still learning.

Somebody asked me recently if, as a teacher educator, I would hold my students to the same level of accountability as I have held you.  The answer was, without a doubt, yes.  My students would have been in serious trouble, with serious repercussions, if they ever treated a child with the disrespect you have shown my daughter. At the very least, my students would be counseled extensively on how to build appropriate relationships with children.  I hope that maturity and experience teaches you that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  It's an important lesson for every teacher.

I am hopeful that the next time we meet, our meeting will go more smoothly for my daughter's sake.  I hope that our conversation today helped you see that your forceful style isn't effective with every child.  And I really hope that you come to realize the tremendous power you hold over a child's self-esteem and self-confidence, because in the end, that is what makes or breaks so many children.

Yours truly,
An Anonymous Mom

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sweet, sweet messes

This weekend, my husband and son left to spend some time together.  My daughter and I had gone by a new cupcake place earlier in the week to try it out.  She had noticed the flyer almost as soon as I did--the Grand Opening was on Saturday and there would be frosting shots (huh???), cupcake samples, and a frosting fight.

Frosting fight?  At high noon???

The more we talked about it, the more psyched my kid was.  The idea of throwing frosting at anybody and everybody within reasonable distance resonated with her.  I should have realized that actually, the idea of throwing frosting at ME was what resonated with her, but I chose to live in denial.  It's a more comfortable place to be.

So we headed out on Saturday morning in our old clothing.  We ran errands and stopped for some lunch at a nearby Mexican place (awesome, by the way--I miss Mexican from Oklahoma but this is almost as good!).  Anyway, we got to the cupcake shop with ten minutes to spare.

The place was hopping.  It was hard to tell who was picking up orders, buying cupcakes, or there anticipating the joy of smearing frosting on a loved one.  I had brought my cell phone with me to capture some wonderful candid shots of my sweet (literally) child covered in frosting.  We waited excitedly for the big twelve-oh-oh to arrive.

And finally it did.  We live in an urban area, so the owner of the cupcake store led us through a tiny alley with broken glass and wire to a larger, mostly empty parking lot.  She then had everyone gather around the vat of frosting and passed out plastic spoons.  I stood back, messing with my phone, convinced I'd get a great shot of my kid covered in frosting and laughing hysterically.

I did get the shot.  She had frosting all over her jeans and her shirt, in her hair, as she approached me with a huge grin on her face sporting a giant spoonful of frosting, and as the air split with my cry of "NOOOO!", it landed--SPLAT!--on my shirt.  By the second shot the phone was in my pocket and I was running for the spoons.

My kid plays to win.  I got a few good shots at her, a couple in her hair and one on her elbow, before she took an entire handful and covered my face.  The next handful went through my freshly-washed hair, making me look like a younger Marge Simpson.  By the time the fight was done, it was clear to everyone fighting who the loser was.  Yep, you're reading her work.

I hadn't laughed so hard in a long, long time.

To make things sweeter, the owner gave everyone who participated a giant cupcake.  Yep, that's them, in the picture above.  My daughter chose peanut butter oreo, and I, a sucker for almond, chose Almond I Do.  It reminded me a lot of my wedding cake, which was a sweet, sweet memory too.

Two showers later we were clean but still laughing about our morning.

I remember a commercial awhile back where a mom shook up a soda bottle and shot it all over her kid.  They were both laughing hysterically, and at the time I thought that had to be the stupidest commercial I had ever seen.  Who in the world would want to clean orange soda off their cabinets, their floor, their refrigerator?  Sheesh.

But given the right circumstances (outside), sometimes it's worth taking the chance.  Playing with my daughter using frosting was the best thing we've done together in a long time.

And the rewards later?  Yeah.  They were really, really sweet.


When I was about six, my mom and dad took me and my little brother to a local pizza place.  Usually we went out to dinner on Friday nights--it was our routine--and this was a super exciting trip.  Instead of our regular fish house, we were eating pizza!

This was no ordinary pizza place.  It had rides for kids and music and was just an incredible atmosphere.  Before the days of Chuck E. Cheese, Incredible Pizza Company, and the like, this pizza place was rocking.  I was having an amazing time until I went to ride on one of the toy ponies.  Another little boy was on it, and when his turn was up, I told him so.  He was about my age, and looked me straight in the eye, with a sneer on his face, and said, "Shut up!"  Never in my six years had anyone ever spoken that phrase to me.  I was a very sensitive kid, and I'm sure I cried.  I know I made my way back to the dinner table, head hung low, and told my parents what the little boy said to me.

They looked at me, then turned back to their conversation as though I hadn't said a word.

Now, from the story above, you'd probably think my parents were horribly insensitive.  They generally weren't.  They were--and are--good people, but tough.  My dad grew up on a dairy farm where he worked most of the time when he wasn't in school.  Boys didn't cry--they manned up.  My mother was an only child of two parents who had experienced difficult childhoods themselves.  Her parents ran the town grocery and butcher shop, and by the age of nine my mother was responsible for all the household duties.  There was no time for cuddling and nurturing.  There were no "I love you's" or listening to kids. Children--at that time, in that world--existed to assist the family's success.  Plans for lives were mapped out years in advance.  In fact, my mother became a teacher because that was the expectation for her.  She lived half of her life trying to please her parents.  My father joined the Army before coming home and exploring a few different colleges, to settle on a career in finance.  Neither of my parents really understood how to parent a child any differently than they had been parented.  And they certainly didn't know how to empower their children.

Empowerment.  It's a big word we like to toss around in a lot of psychology and self-help circles.  But why is it so important?  If you're empowered, you feel like you're able to care for yourself.  You can solve your own problems....or at least make reasonable efforts to do so.  More importantly, you have a level of self-confidence that allows you to draw healthy boundaries between yourself and other people.

One of the most important things we can do for our children is to empower them to make good choices in their own lives.  On Friday, I posted a pretty rough letter about a teacher my daughter is dealing with at school.  I think so far, the biggest lesson I've learned in this is how empowered my daughter is.  At age eleven, she had created a plan on her own as to how to work with this teacher.  Was her plan without flaws?  Of course not...she's only eleven and we rarely have plans without flaws, anyway.  But when I was eleven, I would have never thought to assert myself or ask for help from school personnel over a school problem.

Empowerment is easier for some children than it is for others.  My son, for example, struggles with some emotional and neurological issues that make it more difficult for him to calm down and consider his options rationally.  Acting impulsively or selfishly is not the same as being empowered to make positive choices to fix a problem.  Despite his struggles, he is beginning to be able to verbalize a need to express himself in a calm, appropriate way.  That is empowerment, and is huge reason to be proud.

We do our children a disservice when we don't listen to them, as much as we do a disservice to let every word out of their mouths haunt us.  Children need to be given the opportunity to learn what boundaries are and how to appropriately express themselves to work toward mutual goals.  When we model this behavior and correct inappropriate responses, we are teaching our kids how to be empowered and how to stand up for their rights.

My daughter is smart enough to know a teacher's job is to answer her questions without belittling or verbally abusing her.  She understands that rolling your eyes at somebody--especially somebody outside of your family--is completely unacceptable.  And more than anything else, I am extremely proud and humbled by her willingness to stand up for herself and her rights as a human being.  That's the nature of being empowered.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Choices We Make

Have you ever considered how many choices you make in a given day?  Sometimes I think about how many things young children are required to process and choose, and it boggles my mind.  Of course, as adults, we understand that every choice has a consequence that comes with it.  It's a simple matter of cause and effect--if you do A, then B will follow.  Well, most adults get it, anyway.

One of the most effective ways that we learn life lessons is through consequences.  Most consequences we experience as adults are natural consequences.  For example, if you do as I did this morning and take the dog for a walk in a short-sleeved shirt on a brisk fall morning, you freeze your butt off.  Hopefully, you remember to take your jacket with you next time.  However, we also learn from logical consequences as well.  If you don't pay your electric bill, the electric company cuts you off and you freeze your butt off again.  The second is a logical consequence because it's imposed by somebody else.  Natural consequences occur without imposition of anyone or anything other than the natural environment.

Logical and natural consequences are, in my opinion, critical teachers for all of us, regardless of age.  For young children, logical consequences help draw connections between cause and effect and to make sense of the world around them.  If your child consistently leaves his toys out around his room, a natural consequence might be that somebody steps on one and breaks it by accident.  A logical consequence would be Mom or Dad removing the toys for a period of time.

Consequences, whether they be good or bad, are particularly helpful when they are consistent and children can start to predict what will happen after their actions.  I do believe that the conversations we have with kids about consequences are particularly important as well.  Helping children understand that good things happen when we make good choices and unpleasant things happen when we make bad choices encourages kids to think about what they're doing and take more responsibility for themselves.

One of the biggest problems that I perceive when it comes to discipline is then inability of parents and teachers to find a middle ground in discipline.  Discipline isn't supposed to be happy all the time, nor does it need to be punitive.  It should be full of teachable moments that encourage the child to think and reason and develop a moral code.  That doesn't happen through cruelty, nor does it happen when we rubber stamp "great!" on everything a kid does.

Adults need to help kids focus on fixing problems.  All of us, regardless of age, make mistakes from time to time and when we're adults, we try to fix them.  Take the example about the electric company from above--if I don't pay my bill, I fix my mistake by paying it as soon as possible.  With my own kids, this skill has become increasingly important as they've gotten older.  At eleven and thirteen, they are now able--most of the time--to think about how they want to fix problems they created and even ones they just encounter.  The ability to problem-solve, to me, is critical to self-discipline.  People who can't solve problems for themselves are more likely to continually encounter more and more problems, and more and more negative consequences.  The same is true for people who have difficulty predicting the consequences of their actions, or are too impulsive to consider the consequences before they act.  The inability to do these things makes life a lot harder as an adult, when consequences are much more serious than losing your bike for a day or having to clean up your dirty dishes.

The crux of discipline--teaching children how to handle life in a socially appropriate manner--is going to vary family to family, culture to culture, society to society.  How we get there will differ as well.  The important things are in reminding ourselves that discipline is one area in which middle-of-the-road really is the best way, and often the most responsive and respectful way, to teach children to become the citizens we hope they will be.

Thanks for reading, click on the links, and leave your comments below!

Friday, October 15, 2010

We interrupt our regularly scheduled posting...

so that your friendly blogger can rant about a shall-remain-unnamed educator.

Yeah, you may not know her but I guarantee you knew one like her.  You know, the one who called you out in front of the class when you didn't know the answer?  Who made you feel stupid when you got the answer wrong?  Who rolled her eyes like she couldn't imagine how she could ever be burdened with someone so ignorant?  Yeah, that's the one.  I had one too...a band teacher who sat me in last chair the entire year for some unknown reason.  The next year I moved to second chair and stayed there the rest of my years playing flute.  Who knew?

Hey you.  Yeah, I'm talking to you, the one who told my kid she shouldn't be struggling because hers is an honors course so the work shouldn't be that hard for her.  Uh, yeah.  Actually, the work in honors courses is, by definition, harder.  That's why it's an "honors" course...get it?  You're the one that my usually loves-school-can't-get-enough-of-it kid complained about a few weeks after the year started.  Yeah, you remember now, with the first incident I described above?  I let it go then because I thought maybe you were having a bad day, and after all, my kid's eleven and she does need to learn to handle some things on her own.

But you've done it crossed a line and I'm roaring mad.  I'm so angry that I can't pick up a phone right now and call the school because there is no way in hell I could facilitate a meaningful and positive conversation with you.  When you implied she was dumb not to understand the work, that was bad enough.  But when you told her that she asks too many questions and rolled your eyes?  What did you think her response would be?  That she would work harder for you?  Maybe you thought she'd pull an Edgar Cayce and sleep on her books, so the knowledge could somehow seep into her brain during her state of unconsciousness.  Or maybe you thought she's SO smart that she had nothing better to do than to sit around making up random math questions to torture you with.  Are you kidding me?  Oh, and to put the icing on the cake...when she asked why she got a question wrong you told her "Because it's wrong.  Do the math."  Sister, if she could DO the math she wouldn't have gotten the question wrong, now, would she?

I'll tell you what her response was.  She pulled her mother aside in a room with a closed door, told me the story, and cried.  And she doesn't want to go back to your class.

A teacher's job is to assess a student's learning and then reteach if the assessment indicates a failure of understanding.  Clearly, you don't understand your job.  Your teaching methodology is leaving at least one (and according to my kid, many others) confused and belittled.  Nobody performs up to standard when they're beaten down.  Nobody.

It's ironic that this experience has come on the heels of my unofficial discipline posting week, because I think it's an excellent example of how discipline has no starting and stopping point.  It's also a great reminder that even when kids reach whatever difficult stage they're in, whether it's toddlerhood or adolescence, they still deserve respect. While we all reach different levels of accountability based on our age, ability, and careers, we never stop learning about discipline and self-discipline. We never forget how it feels to be respected and valued, nor how it feels when we're disrespected and dismissed as though we mean nothing. You, my colleague, could take a lesson from some of the children around you, including my child, who have treated you with respect and professionalism.  She has come to you asking for assistance.  Assisting her is your JOB.  If you don't like that job, then get another one.  Sheesh.

People who disrespect children in this manner bring out a level of contempt in me that is forceful.  Nobody deserves to be belittled or insulted while trying to learn.  My kid can be as snotty and eye-roll-y as anyone else, but she has never done that to you.  She has shown more maturity in this situation than you have, teacher colleague.  She has approached you asking for assistance in a respectful manner multiple times and been treated as though she is a stupid, whiny brat.  Shame on you.

As my daughter shamefully told me today, amidst tears, how she is struggling in your class because she isn't understanding the material and you refuse to answer her questions; how you belittle her in front of her classmates and roll your eyes at her questions, I was reminded of what a great kid she is.  She's already made an appointment with the school counselor to discuss her options in dealing with this situation.  She may not get any resolution, but at least she's trying.  And guess what?  If she doesn't get resolution at the ripe old age of eleven, you're going to be dealing with me.  And an angry fellow educator who's the mother of a student you bully is a lot harder to push around.  I most definitely will kick your figurative ass if need be.  Too bad you've missed out so far on seeing what a wonderful, smart child you have sitting in your midst.

Just sayin'.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jump, boy, jump!

The other day I was sitting on the porch and Gabi, my dog, had followed me outside.  She's easily distracted and barks every time something moves.  So we began working on the command of "quiet".  If she wasn't quiet, then I told her "inside", and walked her inside, blocking her access to the porch until she was quiet.  Then I told her quiet again and "come on", letting her return outside.  We repeated the process several times.  When she and I sat on the porch two days later, she was easily redirected with the "quiet" command.

Gabi's training is based on behaviorism, a psychological approach that stresses the idea of rewards and punishment to shape behavior.  When Gabi is quiet, she is rewarded by coming back outside.  When she is barking and does not respond to the "quiet" command, she is punished by being sent inside.

Behaviorism is often used with children too.  When we reward our children with stickers, candy, movies, popcorn, or what have you for good behavior, we're using behaviorism in an effort to motivate good behavior.  When we take things away or are punitive through scolding, spanking, time outs, etc., we are attempting to shape behavior through punitive means.

So what's so bad about behaviorism?  What psychologists have found is that the motivating factors, whether they're good or bad, become the subject's focus, rather than the act we want them to focus on.  For example, if I give children a sticker every time they speak kindly to one another, the focus very quickly changes from doing the right thing (speaking kindly) and on to earning the reward (getting the sticker).  In essence, we change the motivation for behavior from being one that's internal, where the child is making decisions based on what s/he feels is right, to being external, or based on what the child perceives s/he is going to get from others if the behavior is performed.

It's very typical for young children to be motivated and to make moral choices based on how they perceive the responses of the people around them.  But generally we hope that children eventually mature and develop the ability to make moral choices based on what they believe is right rather than what's in it for them.  If you're interested in reading more, a top-notch authority on this topic is Alfie Kohn.  Check him--and his books--out.

As I mentioned yesterday, behaviorism was strongly stressed in my teacher education program, and always left me with a bit of a disgusted feeling, as though I were manipulating children into doing what I wanted them to do.  I still feel that way.  I don't believe in rewarding children for good behavior, nor do I believe in punishing children for bad behavior.  Natural rewards occur when children do the right thing--the day goes smoothly, we have more time to do fun things, everyone is happy and comfortable with one another.  These natural consequences are by far more effective teachers than random positive and negative enforcers that adults often use.

As for my dog, she's a bright one, but she's an animal, not a child.  I'm not in the business of training children; I'm in the business of teaching them.  My dog is another story.  Tomorrow--logical and natural consequences, an adult's best friend!

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dr. No--aka "Could you please move your hands away from Jimmy's nose now? It's bleeding."

When my son was in early elementary school, he went through a pretty typical phase of thinking that he should never have to do anything that he didn't like.  I remember riding in the car with him one day as he was grousing about having to do something, and Sheryl Crow's tune "If It Makes You Happy" was playing on the radio.  To this day I still affectionately think of that song as belonging to him at that time, because of the lyrics:  If it makes you happy/ It can't be that bad/If it makes you happy/ Then why the hell are you so sad?  My son, like an amazingly large number of people, could never move past the first line and get to the second.  Everything should make me happy, and if it does, it's good, right?

We have become a nation held hostage to our own children.  Over and over I see parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults who are afraid to utter one word to children:  NO.  The word "no" has taken on evil connotation in our society; we have somehow come to believe that telling a child no squelches self-esteem, creativity, intelligence, curiosity, and a whole host of other traits that are good and desirable.  Even my daughter weighed in on this the other day as she told me with all of her eleven-year old confidence, "Did you know by the time a child is twenty-five years old she has heard the word 'no' more than any other word?"  My response to her?  "Really?  It takes twenty-five years for that to happen?"

Much of this fear of limit-setting and the word no, in my opinion, is an unintended result of a very popular parenting approach from the nineties known as Positive Discipline.  Jane Nelson, Ph.D., wrote several wonderful books about her approach, extolling the virtues of respecting your child and using more positive approaches to disciplining children.  Basically, the approach calls for adults to use more positive phrasing with children, encourage them more, listen to them more, give them age-appropriate choices to help them learn how to make good ones.  All good, right?  And it is, until the public at large got hold of it without a comprehensive understanding of what Dr. Nelson was talking about.  You know how they say that you can have just enough information to make you dangerous?  Well, yeah.  Case in point.  

Dr. Nelson's approach somehow morphed from "use positive phrasing" and "listen to your children" to "never tell your child no"; "give your child lots of choices" became "give your child all the choices".  Positive phrasing can be a very powerful tool in parenting and teaching, in my opinion.  Telling a child what you WANT him to do instead of what you don't keeps the focus on a positive outcome and is a good, direct teaching tool.  Too many parents tend to tell their children, "Don't do that!" without explaining what they want to see instead.  In offering children age-appropriate choices, kids get experience making choices before the consequences become too dire.  Have you ever seen a kid get to college who's been either completely controlled or never controlled?  It's not pretty.  But nowhere in her books does Dr. Nelson ever say, direct or implied, that setting limits with children is a bad thing.  In fact, it's something she thinks is critically important--it's her strategy in how to set those limits that was considered extraordinary.  If you're interested in reading her book Positive Discipline, you can check it out at your local bookstore or library--it's a good, easy read.

One of my colleagues and I were talking once about our experiences in our teacher training programs.  She had been told, as a student during her classroom laboratory time, that she was not allowed to say "no" to a child.  Ever.  I remember in my laboratory time, I was highly encouraged to utilize behavioral techniques that today I find to be manipulative of children in a misguided effort to avoid any kind of negativity in the classroom environment  (I'll talk more about this in tomorrow's blog--rewards and punishment).  Neither of us was taught how to set appropriate limits with children because limit-setting sometimes involves telling children "no".  My colleague expressed how frustrated she often felt, and how little respect she had for her lab instructors, because of their inability or unwillingness to stop the insanity.  I remember myself having an uneasy feeling that somehow I was disrespecting the children I was working with, and twelve years later I still feel the same way.

I've worked with kids for twenty-three years, and here's what I know.  No child has ever suffered horribly at the hands of a caring adult telling him or her "No, you can't do that, and here's why."  In fact, for many children, a direct answer of "no" is extremely helpful.  Often, adults make the mistake of trying to reason with young children, who are incapable of processing large amounts of information at once.  Kids need to know if something is or isn't okay and why.  They need to know what you want them to do.  If you give them that information in a simple format and show them what it looks like, most problems dissipate on their own.

I'm not saying it's a great idea to run around after your child yelling "No!" every time she touches something you don't want her to touch.  Certainly, "no" can be reserved for more serious situations.  I tend to rely on, "Oh, we can't do that because..." and explain the reason why in a few words, as well as what we can do instead.  But I'm not afraid to tell kids they can't do something that's dangerous, disrespectful, or just plain ridiculous.  They have limited life experience here and are relying on us as adults to guide them.  If we aren't willing to step up and do it, who will?

The answer is that eventually some other kid will, but that's another post.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where are you going?

Apparently we're trying a new font today.  I have no idea why--my mac just decided it likes it, so we'll roll.

When I was a kid, nobody used the word "discipline".  You were either doing the right thing, which you were supposed to do, or you weren't, and you got punished.  At least that's the way it always worked in my house.  I don't remember ever being rewarded for good behavior but I do remember being punished for poor behavior.  Life as I knew it was pretty cut and dried in that respect.

As I've worked in the early childhood field I've seen a lot of different discipline ideas fall in and out of favor over time.  The term discipline actually means "to teach", and that's exactly what discipline should be doing--teaching children (and adults!) appropriate limits and behaviors.  Nowhere in that definition do we talk about punishment, rewards, consequences, or strategies.  Teaching is about learning and understanding.  The definition, then, is very broad and doesn't do a very thorough job of defining our end product or the specific means to employ to get there.  You can look at that in one of two ways--either it's a benefit, because it leaves lots of room for interpretation, or it's a drawback, because it leaves lots of room for interpretation.  :-)  Like most things, it's all in the hands of the user.

I think the first thing, as a parent or a teacher, that is critically important when you're thinking about discipline is to define what you want your end product to be.  I know that sounds very...well, sterile...but it's important to know what you think kids should be doing.  What are your goals for your child, both long- and short-term?  What are you hoping your child will turn out to be like?  That's where you're going.  Consider your values and what you think will benefit your child in the long run.  

As a teacher, one of the most important times of the year is the first few weeks of school.  This is when you're setting your rules and expectations for children so that they understand how the rest of the year will go.  Teachers who do this successfully will have fewer discipline issues for the rest of the year in general than teachers who don't.  But in order to do that, you need to know what your expectations are and if your expectations are appropriate.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that discipline starts at a specific age or time, with a random start and stop point.  Discipline actually begins as soon as your relationship with a child begins.  If you're a teacher, it's the first time you meet that child; as a parent, it's the day you give birth.  When you respond to a baby's needs, you're teaching him to trust.  That's discipline.  When you greet a new student warmly, you're teaching her respect.  That's discipline too.  All of your interactions that teach children, either directly or indirectly, are linked to discipline.

I wrote once before about the importance of rapport with children both in and out of the classroom; rapport, in my opinion, is a basic building block of discipline.  If you can't relate to someone or s/he can't relate to you, you're going to have a very poor teaching and learning relationship.  Since discipline is about teaching and learning, it's critical that positive rapport is established through stable, consistent responses and boundary setting.

The main difference that I see between parenting in the seventies, when I was a kid, and now, is a push toward helping parents and teachers treat children more respectfully.  We've moved away from a "seen and not heard" mentality to more mutual respect. This idea, in and of itself, is terrific.  Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know how to execute and have misinterpreted "mutual respect" to mean "level playing field."  If you ever tune in to shows like "Supernanny" or "Nanny 911" or even "It's Me or the Dog" (if you're a big pet lover), you see this in action over and over.  Overall, many adults just lack the knowledge and skills needed to understand and execute proper discipline.  Think of it this way:  can you really have a group of children learning anything in school if there's no teacher?  Children know there needs to be somebody in charge.  If the adults in their lives aren't going to step up and do it, by golly, I guarantee there's at least one kid in every group who will!  

Defining what a disciplined person looks like to you is a starting point for developing a strong relationship with your child(ren) and figuring out what your a big part of your role as a parent will be.  My hopes as a mom are for my children to be respectful of themselves and others, and responsible--for themselves, for their environment, and in a myriad of other ways.  Figuring out how that looks at different ages can be tricky, but I know where I'm going, and the rest is a map I'm creating as we move along.

Tomorrow--the much-loved and touted positive discipline approach.  Thanks for reading, click the links, share with your friends!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Movies and Mayhem

I think I'm going to unofficially make this "Guidance and Discipline Week" (or maybe month...or year, heh) over here at the Jumping Bean.  In twenty years of working with kids and ten years raising them myself, discipline still seems to be the most difficult and elusive topic for most adults I know.  I'm going to post on a lot of different issues surrounding discipline this week, but first I'd like to start with the inspiration for this--a visit to the movies yesterday.

It's been a crazy summer for our family--a cross country move, changes in jobs and schools, caring for extended family.  I've always tried to make sure I spend one on one time with each of my children, and so yesterday my eleven-year old daughter and I headed out to the mall to do some shopping and hit a movie.  We went to a local second-run theater to see Despicable Me, which, by the way, I would highly recommend for both adults and children.  Great movie.  Anyway, whenever you go to a kids movie, you learn to expect certain things--some kids are going to be super excited and yell or talk or move around.  That's typical.  But unfortunately, so is what I witnessed before the movie--a mom and dad so focused on their thirty minute conversation with their friends outside the theater that they practically ignored their three young children the entire time.

So I've decided to write them a letter.  Maybe a reminder for all of us what discipline's about.

To the Mom and Dad at the Movies--
I got the chance to watch you today as my daughter and I sat for a half-hour waiting for the theater to open up.  You had run into some old friends and were excited to see them, remember?  You seemed like a nice couple, and you had three beautiful kids.  Your daughter looked to be about six or seven, a son around five, and a second son who was not quite two.  You both were sweet with your children and clearly were out to have a nice family afternoon.

The disturbance started innocently enough as you stood chatting with your friends.  Your kids got impatient, as kids that age often do, and began to wander around the lobby.  Mom, you spoke to them sweetly and reminded them to stay calm and behave appropriately.  A few minutes later, though, as you were still continuing your conversation, your kids began to chase each other around the pool tables, running through other guests and laughing hysterically.  After a few minutes you stopped them again and reminded them of appropriate behavior.

The third time you stopped them was ten minutes later, when they were racing around said tables again, loudly screeching and giggling.  The toddler was falling down, tripping over his own feet.  You told your older two they were setting a bad example for the little one, and if they ran again, they would have to sit.  Two minutes later, your two boys were once again racing through the lobby as your daughter took giant strides to keep up and continue the game without technically running.  You've got a clever kid, anyway!  :-)  Dad, you stopped them and told them to sit down, but before they did, all of you said goodbye to your friends and left the theater.  The entire exchange was nearly thirty minutes in length.

I've been where you were a million times.  Often, because of my husband's work schedule, I had two little ones and no adult with me at those types of venues.  One kid in each hand, literally.  And maybe I'm way too strict of a mom on my own two--I've wondered that a million times--but I would never, EVER, have allowed my kids to race through a lobby with virtually no consequences for thirty minutes, and here's why:  other people have paid to be there too, and they have the right to a pleasant experience without having to dodge my kids or listen to them screaming, laughing, giggling, or yelling.  They paid their money to go to have a pleasant afternoon too.  As lovely as you think the sounds of your children's happiness are, the raw truth is that other people don't share your same enthusiasm.  Nobody will ever love your children like you do, and that's true even in a movie theater.  Especially in a movie theater.

It's wonderful to see parents who are patient and loving with their children, but not when their children are out of line.  Truth be told, your children are probably great kids.  They were set up in a situation yesterday that led to their misbehavior.  Do you know how long thirty minutes is to wait for somebody?  Now that I'm caring for an aging parent, I find myself waiting a lot at doctor's offices and such.  If I have nothing to do, thirty minutes is a long time.  For a kid, I would imagine it feels like forever.  Your kids were resourceful and did what kids do--found something naturally entertaining--and to your credit you didn't punish them for it.  But you did unleash all of that unpleasantry of mania on everyone else around you.

Did you notice the other kids there?  The ones who waited quietly with their families, who giggled quietly and laughed with each other, whose moms and dads led them to movies and birthday parties or out of the theater?  That's because a theater lobby isn't the best place to catch up with your friends.  Go grab an ice cream or a soda--you're at a mall, for goodness sake's.  But please remember that public places aren't open territory for you and your kids, just because you paid your ticket fare to be there.

I've raised two great kids too who have had more than their fair share of challenging moments.  I've left movies, restaurants, grocery stores, and malls because of my children's misbehavior.  It took awhile, but once it clicked, it clicked, and my children were often complimented on their behavior at your kids' age.  Why?  Not because my kids did anything grand, mind you; it's because of people like you who let your kids run all over the place.  Your parenting choices, to a lot of people, ends up reflecting poorly on your children instead of the other way around.  An elderly gentleman once stopped both of my children at a restaurant when they were about your eldest daughter's age and gave them each a dollar.  Why?  Because he said they were so well-behaved, and you didn't see that kind of thing anymore.  That's incredibly sad to me.

As parents, we have a responsibility to treat our children lovingly, which you obviously do.  But we also have a responsibility to teach them about a responsibility to others, which they won't learn when they are set up to behave poorly; nor will they learn it when consequences are threatened but there is no follow-through.  But our responsibilities don't end there either--we have responsibilities as people to be respectful to one another.  It was in this you failed most abysmally yesterday, and taught your children through your actions that this respect isn't necessary.

Hopefully over time this will occur to you, and quickly.  I worry about so many young children with so few limits in our world, whose parents are afraid of saying no or following through, or don't understand what kids are developmentally able to do, or even worse, don't care.  Perhaps yesterday was the exception to the rule.  I hope so.

In case you were wondering, I was the mom with the eleven-year old painting my nails.  Like I said, a half hour is a long time to wait with nothing to do.

Another Movie Mom

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Puppy Love

I have a mini-poodle mix named Gabriela.  She came into our lives three years ago from a rescue shelter in town.  We had recently lost our beloved dog Amanda, who we had loved for seventeen years, and I found myself missing the companionship of a pet.  Gabriela had arrived at the shelter on the day I visited.  She was a five-month old scrawny, dirty puppy, barely weighing four pounds.  We had to wait for a week for the shelter to finish giving her a medical clearance before we could bring her home, but as she climbed into my then-eight-year old's arms at the time, we knew we'd found a keeper.

Gabi (as we came to call her very quickly) was a pretty sick little girl.  She'd been a stray that had ended up in another town's animal shelter before being brought to the rescue shelter in our town.  She had a broken tail, worms, kennel cough, and was extremely underweight.  As we nursed her through the first few months, she and I developed a close bond.  She came with me pretty much everywhere she could, including work once it was medically safe to bring her.  I learned quickly that this puppy absolutely loved children and they loved her.  Unlike my sweet Amanda, Gabi had energy to spare, and would sprint across the playground in giant leaps with groups of preschoolers following chase.  When the kids caught up to her, she would roll on her back, tail wagging, as they petted her and fussed over her.  She was a puppy that loved to play.

Bringing Gabi into the classroom is something that would probably be frowned upon by some educators as well as parents.  I always made sure to check with parents before I brought her to ensure they were comfortable with their child being around Gabi.  We took precautions to keep Gabi away from children who were uncomfortable with dogs and let those children approach her as they chose to.  I got interesting feedback from parents who delightedly told me about how their children would regale them with stories of Gabi and what she did, both at school and at my home (I talked quite a bit about her!).  I even had a parent tell me that she felt Gabi had helped her child get over a fear of dogs.

From an educator's standpoint, I think the most meaningful part of that experience was the ongoing humane education the children received.  Learning how to care for a puppy, how to pet her and be gentle with her, were important lessons for them.  They got to touch her broken tail (the bone had fused before we had gotten her) and to talk about how important it is for owners to take good care of their animals.

Too many people--both teachers and parents--think the idea of pet ownership for children is a great one, that it can teach their children responsibility.  Unfortunately, in too many situations children are not taught appropriate ways to interact and care for animals.  Children's behavior is written off as being "developmentally appropriate" or even funny.  Shaking an animal's cage, pulling it by its hair or tail, even squealing loudly near it isn't appropriate or funny--it's scary for the animal and dangerous for the child.  These situations don't teach responsibility; if anything, they reinforce the idea that it's not important to consider the feelings and impact of your behavior on others.

Pet ownership can be a wonderful thing for families as well as classroom communities, but it's our jobs to teach kids how to care for animals and to always, ALWAYS monitor their interactions at young ages. The children in my class talked about how Gabi would feel if somebody pulled her tail or hit her, and agreed it would hurt, so we needed to use gentle hands.  I'd like to say we never had a problem with anyone being too rough, but in a classroom of nearly twenty preschoolers, that's next to impossible.  Instead, as those incidents occurred, we taught appropriate touches, guiding the child's hand more gently over Gabi, until all of the children were able to use gentle touches nearly all of the time.

I think if I wasn't a teacher I'd probably work for the humane society--I've always loved animals and have a soft spot in my heart, particularly for shelter animals.  We owe our children and our animals the guidance and protection that ensures positive relationships for both.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hot About Homework

I just finished reading an update from a friend on Facebook about her daughter.  The little girl is in kindergarten and she's already struggling with huge amounts of homework being given every night.  Yes, that's a kindergartner.

One of my biggest pet peeves about people's reasoning in general is the ever-present excuse of "Well, it worked for me," or "Well, that's how I was raised/taught/(whatever)."  It's a lame excuse even in good situations, because it shows absolutely no critical thinking skills or reasoning.  It only proves that we as people tend to fall into the patterns of behavior that we experienced ourselves as children.  So--hint--don't use it.  But over and over again I've been privy to conversations with a wide variety of people who believe that because they were taught or raised a certain way then it's okay for kids now.  Here's what's wrong with that reasoning (beyond the fact that it's just plain lazy and silly, as explained above):  first, we KNOW better now.  Just like we used to think leeches were a great way to get rid of sickness, we know now that they're not and don't use them to bleed people dry.  The same can be said for education, parenting, or any other topic--our knowledge base has grown.  Research has been done, studies have shown repeated results, and it's our jobs as parents and educators to be familiar with them.  In addition, our culture and society is always changing and more complex than it's ever been before.  Would you really want your child being taught to use a typewriter while everyone else is on their laptops?  We have to keep up with the times and best practices, period.

Which brings me back to homework for little ones.  Could someone please explain to me what in the world is the point???  The most common response I get for this is that it "teaches children to get into the habit of being responsible for their own learning".  I don't know about you, but I'm definitely smart and creative enough to find ways to do that without wasting paper on a useless ditto sheet.  Children are responsible for their own learning, period--it's not like we perform some Jedi mind trick to transfer information into little brains.  Kids have to be curious and want to learn, which is inherent in their nature if a skilled teacher taps into it. I've even heard stuff like, "it makes them responsible in returning things to school."  Well, not really.  Some kids learn that lesson, but others have parents who take care of it for them.  Besides, if you want to teach a lesson in responsibility, work on civics, not on homework.  Service learning projects--projects in which children learn to care for and support the community--can't be beat in teaching not only responsibility but interconnectedness and relationships to others. Just my opinion.

Another excuse I hear is that it "reinforces" whatever concepts have been taught.  But teachers, consider this:  are you sure that's what we want to happen at home?  Many children don't receive assistance with their homework, which means that for the ones who have already figured out the lesson, it's a pretty rote practice that doesn't enrich anything.  For the ones who haven't caught on, they're reinforcing the wrong way of doing things.  If they don't understand it, do you really want a six-year old to sit down and try to figure it out himself on a piece of paper?  Generally, they're not going to get it, and God help you if they get it wrong...they've just spent time figuring out the WRONG way of doing things.  And it's an incredibly frustrating role for parents.  I'm a teacher, and for years I was constantly having to teach myself the lesson my kids were learning by reading some teacher handout on the subject and then attempting (usually begrudgingly, out of frustration) to assist them in figuring it out.

Then there's the grading.  Do you grade or not?  Even if you just CHECK to see if the homework is done, recording credit for completion, you're engaging in practices that are inherently unfair to young children.  Who knows whose parents are helping them and who isn't?  Do you know what each child goes home to each evening?  If Claire is getting one parent answering everything for her while June is going home to parents who are apathetic for whatever reason, how in the world is it fair to punish June for her life circumstances at age five?  In reality, that's what happens.  And if you are actually foolish enough to take a grade on homework, please realize that you are NOT assessing anything more than how much parents help their children with their schoolwork in many cases.

The final reason I've heard for homework is that it "keeps parents involved in what their children are learning".  Look, all sorts of parents are out there.  Some are going to be super involved in everything their child does and others won't ever step foot into their child's school.  Homework does nothing of the sort.  If a teacher wants to communicate with me, let him or her do it through newsletters, emails, phone calls, know, information that I can use.  I've already completed elementary school and if I wanted to teach it, I'd be homeschooling.  My biggest concern about this idea is the pressure on parents to teach the methods and strategies taught in school.  Parents definitely play a strong role in their children's views and values about education, but they are not trained educators.  In an effort to increase parental participation and honor parents, I fear that we have "dumbed down" the role of the teacher and frustrated many parents into giving up on assisting the school altogether.

When kids have homework (especially a bunch of useless regurgitation of information), they miss out on valuable time to experience the world without adult pressure breathing down their backs.  They miss out on the opportunity to pursue their own learning and feed their own interests, whether that's playing sports or digging worms from the backyard.  More importantly, family time takes a back seat, and often family time becomes "homework time".  How much quality do you experience with your kids when someone else is setting your agenda five nights a week?  That's what I thought.

Until parents and teachers together are willing to stand up and put a stop to this nonsense, homework--and lots of it, for some children--will continue, and so will posts from my friend about the hours her five-year old is spending doing it.


Monday, October 4, 2010

The Tattler

It sounds like a really good gossip magazine, doesn't it?  If you're like me, you've experienced it with kids, whether your own or in the classroom--kids who have the NEED to tell you what somebody else is doing.

Kids tattle for lots of different reasons.  It's been my experience that most young children "tattle" because of their developmental stage.  Morally, they're very bound to rules, and everything is black and white.  They look to adults as rule enforcers, so when something goes wrong some kids are going to feel the need to inform adults.  It's a way to feel stable and secure.  You know, just in case it got past you, I'm letting you know that Jordan took that other block.  Children at this age are still distinguishing the difference between tattling and getting help when it's needed as well.

I think often we assume kids are "tattling" for attention or for the opportunity to get another person into trouble.  As some children get older, this may happen, but it doesn't always, and it sells our relationships with kids short to post blame for something that is developmentally typical.  So the question then becomes one of teaching children what's necessary to tell about and what isn't.  Generally, a good rule of thumb is to guide kids to "tell" about things that might hurt themselves or somebody else.  As children start having to evaluate actions of others, it causes them to think critically and redefine what requires adult intervention.  This encourages children's autonomy and self-regulation.

Some kids don't pick up on this idea too easily or really feel the need to continue to tell adults things that they don't need to know or don't need to be involved in.  For these children, I'm a believer in setting some boundaries around when and how "reporting" (tattling) takes place.  One of the things I've found particularly helpful is giving kids a place to "write" about what it is they need to tell me.  Even children who are not yet writing can participate in this by drawing their ideas or "writing" to themselves.  The key here is to set up a time of day where the child or children can report whatever it is they need to say.  Whether you promise older kids you'll read through their notes or younger kids the opportunity to tell you whatever bothered them, that time for reporting is critical because it reinforces the idea that you take their concerns seriously.  It also provides a "teachable moment" for you to explain the difference between telling you things that are critical and telling you informational items that don't really affect anyone.

Helping kids differentiate between true tattling behavior and asking for help to solve problems beyond their control is a responsibility adults need to embrace.  The end result of stronger critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as greater social skills, make it worth the investment of time.

Friday, October 1, 2010

What's for lunch?

My kids are eating a school lunch today.

If you aren't yet yelling "Eek!" and jumping away from your screen, it's because you either a.) have never eaten a traditional American school lunch; b.) have an extremely poor grasp of nutrition; or c.) probably lack the taste buds to differentiate between decent food and what's served at school.  

The fact my kids are excited about it is what alarms me so.

I ate school lunch occasionally when I was a kid, and I was fine with it.  Fat, greasy, fried nasty lunch, with hundreds of calories in a few mouthfuls.  Yep, that's it.  I was fine with it because I had a problem with my weight and when my mom packed my lunch, I got things like pickled beets and cottage cheese, which did NOT make me the most popular kid in the class.

I ate school lunches when things got hectic at home, when both of my full-time-working parents didn't have the time to make me lunch or someone didn't stop to purchase whatever was needed so I could make my own (darn!  we skipped the cottage cheese again!).  As a teacher, though, I'm well aware that the majority of kids who eat school lunch every day do so out of economic necessity, not because they particularly love the taste of stale, cold fries and greasy fish.

It's something to think about--how the school lunch program is there to support all children, to ensure everyone gets a decent lunch, and yet children who rely heavily on that program are more likely to be, well, heavy.  In a program where funding is as short as time and imagination, most kids don't get what most of us would consider a healthy meal.  Instead, they get a massive amount of carbohydrates, sugar, fat, and sodium, not to mention a wide array of additives and preservatives. And we think it should do.

There's a tremendous amount of literature out there about the potential health risks as well as the potential addictive traits of these food components.  As a person who's struggled with my weight, I can tell you personally that nothing does it for me like a pint of Ben and Jerry's.  I have friends who rely on chocolate as though it were air.  Studies have shown that rats respond to these substances as though they were drugs, continuing to ingest amounts far past satiation, resulting in obesity and eventually death.  

Probably one of the reasons most of us are content to sit on our duffs and lament over how gross school lunches are is because we don't have to eat one, and neither do our kids.  It's an easy thing to turn a blind eye to.  Besides, in our economy, most people aren't looking to increase their taxes so a bunch of little kids can have a fresh apple instead of processed and sweetened applesauce.  And for people whose kids have no other options, life is generally tough enough already that nobody is going to make a huge issue over school lunches.  I mean, why fight over a hamburger when you're struggling to pay your rent?  At least your kid gets to eat, right?

Nutrition affects our mental awareness, which in turn affects educational learning and output.  If you really want to raise scores in the nation's poorest schools, a lot of things need to change--support systems, materials, teaching strategies.  But also, school lunches.  Our nation's twist on raising test scores by practicing unhealthy habits--limited recess and P.E., stressful classrooms, and yes, poor nourishment--will only continue to be reflected in numbers as the affluent grow in their rewards and the poor continue to lose the battle.

Who knew?  School lunch--crack for the underage masses.

I'm feeling the need to pack a couple lunches.