Thursday, February 24, 2011

Discipline, Punishment, or Abuse? You Decide

I just finished reading an interesting article that you can find here:

Basically, the article discusses parents who have taken to publicly shaming and humiliating their children (or using rather creative but cruel means) as discipline tactics for their children's misbehavior.  The expert they interviewed, who has a daily column on the web, describes these behaviors as "bullying and narcissistic".  Parents, basically, are bullying their children into compliance to make themselves look better.

The term "narcissistic personality" is actually a diagnosis listed in the DSM-IV manual of psychological disorders.  Typically, narcissism involves one's focus on oneself and in the belief that not only is one right, but better than those around him or her.

I think it's clear from the examples given in the articles that parental behavior is unreasonable and unacceptable.  But I also think we have become a society in which terms such as "narcissistic" and "abusive" get tossed around far too easily.

I'd be the first person to state that all of the examples given in the article--hot sauce on the tongue, a child holding a sign with his GPA on it on a public street, and a mother taking pictures of her crying sons as they hold bags of their beyblades up for auction on ebay hardly qualify for parent of the year.  And yes, some of these actions could even be considered--and meet the definition--of child abuse.  Most states define child abuse as the purposeful harm to a child.  But I have to ask myself, are these parents making these choices because they're narcissistic, bullying, child abusers?  Or are they parents who have simply reached their limits and don't know any other way to discipline?

While I do wonder where the mother was when her children were busting up her bathroom, I also understand these things can (and do!) happen.  I'll never forget one year when my money was tight and I had just purchased contact lenses.  I left them in their new case in the bathroom, but was insanely sick and my attention wasn't where it should have been--on my four-year old, who found the container extremely interesting and dumped my new contacts down the drain.  This was the same child who, a few days later, locked a door on the inside and shut it, forcing us to call a locksmith to get it open.  Granted, it's not a $500 bill for fixing a tub (which, by the way, I don't consider a necessity), but I do remember how angry and distraught I was.  I, an educator trained to work with children birth to eight, was absolutely livid with this child.  Of course I didn't photograph  his sad little crying face and share it on facebook, nor did I have him gather his toys and auction them off on ebay.  But I remember the feeling.  And I don't think it was a feeling of being bullied or that I'm a crazy narcissist.  It was a feeling of frustration, with myself AND my child, and a fear of loss.  How would I pay for these things?  Our money was so tight.  Maybe because I am an early childhood educator or maybe for some other reason, the worst my child suffered as a consequence was missing out on a day trip with his Pop (grandfather) to a museum he had wanted to visit.  The money that would have gone toward the trip went to the locksmith, and we explained to my child that this was why he could not go on the trip, and we hoped he wouldn't make a choice like that again.

Here's my point:  it's super easy for most of us to point fingers at parents who do crazy hijinks with their kids.  Do I think it's okay to hot sauce a child's mouth?  Absolutely not, ever, but no more than I think the mother in question deserves to lose her child or spend time in jail.  She needs stronger and better parenting skills and someone to monitor her interactions with her child for awhile.

While I would like to say I would never engage in public humiliation of my child, I can understand the frustration of parents who do, and encourage ANY parent who is frustrated to reach out for help.  It would be wonderful to have programs that all parents can reach out to for support.  When I first became a mom, I was fourteen hundred miles away from my family with no real friends or support system.  Even  having a strong education in the field of early childhood wasn't enough.  I needed people I could count on, to call and to release my stress, to watch my children while I took a break, to go with me and the kids to the park.  Many parents these days are isolated in ways that are different than in past years.  There is no extended family to lean on, and most parents are terrified to call and ask for help, for fear their children will be taken from them.  Our whole system, instead of being proactive, is designed as a punitive one--ironically punishing parents in ways that we don't want our children to be treated.

It's time to change the system.  Until parents have more support and education, I fear we'll hear more stories of child humiliation--not due to narcissism or bullying, but due to ignorance and frustration.  And when that happens, whole families suffer.

Boo to Google AdSense

I'm going to take a moment today to write an editorial about Blogger, the system that I, like thousands of other bloggers, use regularly.  I will predicate this blog with the statement that there is a massive amount about blogging and the internet universe that I either a. do not know, or b. don't know and do not care to know.  This, however, falls under a.

At the time I started blogging, I did so to express my feelings in a private blog about the challenges my family faced regarding raising a child with attachment disorder, as well as one of my well-known passions: Law and Order: Criminal Intent.  If you're interested, you can read the entries at (See?  I don't even know how to do there "here" thing that sends you to the site).  But I didn't let that stop me.  My next blog was a long piece of fiction that I have shared with very few people.  No problem!

Then we moved and I found myself unemployed and one day it hit me--why not do a blog?  It might help bring in a little money to help my family and I have a plethora of ideas of what to write regarding my profession.  Being unemployed at the time, I also didn't have to worry that I would write something so controversial as to face a problem at work.

At first, my plan worked out well!  I never "raked in the bucks" but I did make a small bit of money.  Then I started noticing that I wasn't making money at all.  So I went back and began reading the blogger site setups over again the other day.  This is what I found--blogger no longer places ads on my site for free.  I have to pay to create an ad to go on other sites, which will lead people to my site.  Apparently, if a person clicks on my link, a get paid a penny.  So say I pay Google AdSense ten bucks a month for my ad to be put on other people's blogs.  A thousand people would have to hit my ad in any given month for me to recoup my ten bucks.

I really wish that I believed ten thousand people would be interested in what I write, but alas, I'm not that full of myself.  So for now, I will write for free.  The reason I write is because of what I believe--making a better world for children and families, and giving people who work and live with children the education and assistance they need to do their jobs well.

So yes, I will continue to write.  But shame on you, Google.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Entitlement, Part Two

Yesterday, when I began to write about entitlement, I was hot.  Under the collar, that is--I had been talking with a friend who had spent the day dealing with adults who felt entitled to have things THEIR way, regardless of the effect on everyone else.  There seemed a lack of connect for these people between their actions and demands,versus the effect that these actions/demands would have on other people, including the children in the center my friend works for.

I've been working with kids and their families for the better part of twenty-three years and in that time the majority of parents I see are dedicated to their children and want what's best for them.  Sometimes there is a problem between a parent's perspective of what is best for his or her child and the school's view of what is best.  It's been my experience that most of these issues can be worked through using respectful communication and truly listening to one another.  This does NOT mean that one side is always right, nor does it mean that a school needs to always "tow the line" regarding policy.  It also doesn't mean that the customer is always right.  Sometimes the solution is somewhere in between, and one that is a new discovery for both sides.  However, there are very few situations that I have walked away from as a teacher (or a parent) and felt badly about.

When we have senses of entitlement, it's important as adults to check those and play devil's advocate.  Is the expectation reasonable?  Are we honestly entitled to it?  Is our child entitled to an extra ten minutes to finish an art project they really like?  Or are they entitled to a pleasant and effective school experience?  Is our child entitled to experience NO teasing in school or a school that quickly deals with problems such as teasing?

It's very easy for me to write as a mom that children are entitled to a "psychologically safe environment", meaning an environment in which children feel free to express themselves without fear of teasing from anyone.  But that doesn't take into account that it's typical at certain ages for children TO tease each other.  Therefore, it makes more sense to feel entitlement toward how the school will handle such situations, rather than an expectation they will never happen.

I spoke a bit about what children are entitled to, and I believe wholeheartedly in the concepts I listed.  What I didn't mention is most of these entitlements are things we are entitled to as human beings, not only as children.  Human beings are entitled to a certain level of treatment--physical needs, social needs, emotional needs, being met.  In some ways, our country does an excellent job in meeting these needs.  In others, we fail abysmally.  Other countries often fall even shorter than we do.

So what happens when the things we're supposed to be entitled to aren't there?  We fail to flourish as human beings.  We wither and in some cases, we die.  We are entitled to human rights.

We are NOT entitled to demand our children have a special lunch because they like it, or  a poptart for snack because they don't want applesauce today.  We are NOT entitled to attempt to run over people in positions of responsibility with our own ideas.  Democracy is not about entitlement.  It's about shared ideas and compromise.  We owe it to our children to model respectful concerns and communication; to resolve issues appropriately without hostility; and to model what to do when things aren't working out.

As many a parent has said to his or her child, the world doesn't owe you a thing.  You earn what the world will give you.  With the exception of human rights, our parents hit the nail on the head.

And take my word for it when I say to you nothing comes for free--yelling at your son's teacher this morning left a bad taste in her mouth; snapping at your server about your late lunch made her less careful in getting your food to the table; demanding fairness between all children in every situation fails to teach our children the realities of life.  But human rights don't guarantee you an equal shot; they guarantee you a fair one.  As a parent, I have one child who functions very well independently while another needs more guidance.  Should I pursue fair or equal?  Fair wins every time.  I've said it before and I'll say it again until the breath leaves my body:  our jobs as adults is not to give everyone equal time.  It's to give everyone what they need.  If my daughter needs more one-on-one time and my son needs more guidance n his homework, that's where my energy goes.  Neither child is entitled to the exact equal treatment, nor would they want it.

Nothing steals our uniqueness away like being treated exactly the same, and nothing encourages an overblown sense of entitlement like our misguided sense of equality.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Entitled to Entitlement?

When my dad was growing up, he lived on a working dairy farm.  I'm quite sure he was up before the sun, helping to milk the cows and gather the eggs before going to school.  His parents both lived through the Great Depression, and with that experience in mind along with living in an extremely rural area, they brought their two boys up with an extremely hard work ethic and a focus on analytic logic rather than empathy, compassion, and warmth.

Ironically, my father only remembers one incident where he felt greatly afraid and disrespected by an adult, and that experience was in second grade.  He had a teacher who regularly engaged in the practice of smacking children's hands with a ruler, hard.  Not for what we would consider disciplinary infractions, but for a lack of understanding of course material, working too slow, or a myriad of other potential infringements upon her "rules".  That memory was so vivid for my father that he, being a man who shared very little with us, had shared that memory with my mother and his children by the time we were six or seven.

You're probably wondering right now what the two above paragraphs have to do with the idea of entitlement.  Clearly, our definition of entitlement these days brings about images of demanding children and adults, or pictures of people who are needy and due the entitlements of all human beings.  One could argue that my father was entitled to some things he didn't get, and I'm not sure that I could say that's wrong.  From my own education and experience, I would agree that he would probably have thrived a bit more if he had been raised in a more nurturing home.  The results of his childhood years produced a young man who failed out of one school, enrolled and served his country succesfully for three years in the army, came home and completed two different degree programs before marrying, becoming employed, having children, and eventually completing his Master's degree.  To many people, my father would be the epitome of success.  His final position lasted over thirty-five years and led to him being vice-president of a four-year private college.

Today, we are much less likely to see parents who enforce early rising and even chores around the house.  It's becoming less apparent to see parents who can even say "no" to a toddler in the supermarket who is demanding a toy or a candy bar.  My experiences--which I'm sure echo most people's--tend to range from a screaming, out-of-control mother who is spanking her child in the grocery cart to a bawling child whose parent then placates with a gift.  Both actions send a message to the child.  The first mother sends a message of, "I can't handle this stress so I'll give you negative attention to get you to be quiet."  The second parent--the one we're most concerned with today--sends a message of "If you're loud enough, I'll give you whatever you want."

Children are quickly to pick up on a sense of entitlement, more from our actions than from what we tell them.  We may tell children it's not okay for anyone to hit them; but when we go to the store and the child engages in inappropriate behavior and is then rewarded for it, we teach a strong lesson of entitlement.  "I'm entitled to a treat for having to put up with this trip with my mom," becomes the lesson.  Even more powerful are lessons in which parents actually advocate strongly for their child to have something that they worry the child is missing out on.  For example, many years ago children in my class took turns in engaging in an activity at home.  More than one parent approached me, afraid that their child would not have a turn.  The reality is that somebody has to be first and somebody has to be last.  The order was a random one, chosen by drawing children's names each day.  I ensured the parents that yes, all children would have a turn.  But as parents, it's extremely easy for us to get caught up in our own senses of entitlement for our children.

Here is what our children are entitled to:  having all physical needs met (food, shelter, clothing); having emotional needs met (love, respect, caring); having the opportunity to build friendships in a psychologically safe environment (being able to socialize safely); having the opportunity to participate in a meaningful educational experience; and having the opportunity to express and work toward goals s/he sets for him or herself.

Here is what we often think children are entitled to, but are NOT: fairness, extra consideration (moreso than their peers), having their own desires put above those of other children or adults, experiencing rewards for poor behavior or even just mere existence, and the ability to say (and do) whatever they choose without experiencing the consequences of their actions.

You may be asking yourself right about now why in the world a child is not entitled to fairness, and it's a fair question.  I tend to see it this way: none of us are entitled to fairness.  We ARE entitled to concepts such as justice, freedom, and representation.  But the reality is that the world is inherently unfair. Our job as teachers and parents is not to make things fair for every child; it is to make sure the needs are met for every child.  Each child is an individual and therefore has unique needs.  It is a waste of time and energy to insist that every child experience exactly the same thing so that it is "fair".  None of us experience a level playing field, and the earlier children realize it, the better we can teach them the rules of society and the world, and the less entitled they will feel.

Many parents get caught up in the entitlement game in a desire to eliminate the lack of fairness in the world.  By trying to even out fairness, parents actually teach their children entitlement.  "I deserve a great car as much as the lady down the block, so I can take hers, or I can go buy one at a 19% compound interest rate."  These are the choices that entitled children often grow to reason with, instead of recognizing that yes, the lady down the street drives a cadillac, and I've worked hard to get my truck, but there's pride in that.  I worked hard to get it."

Challenge yourself to consider the hidden messages of entitlement you may send your child each day.  Thanks for reading, pass it on, and click on the links!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dear Mr. Alligator, aka How to Get a Preschooler Interested in Writing

Ten years ago, I had a life-altering experience.

I was attending a national early childhood conference and chose to participate in a session on puppetry.  The presenter was clearly enchanted with puppets, and her enthusiasm sparked a fire in me.  What if I pulled out some puppets and did my own version of The Muppets? Or Sesame Street, or whatever puppet show struck my fancy?

The cons were obvious.  I would look like a fool, not only in front of a bunch of preschoolers, but even worse, in front of college students as well as the children's parents, who often watched through a one-way mirrored observation booth.

But what about the positive potential, a little voice whispered inside me.  These kids might really enjoy the puppet...and I might too.

Once I got back to school I perused the puppets we had.  Some were really nice.  Too nice, in fact, to be handled by children.  I put those aside.  Some were old and even unidentifiable.  There was one that I think might have been a bear, but it's possible it was something else.  I wasn't really sure.  So I cast him aside too.  I pulled out a rather rough-looking alligator puppet from the pile and, remembering one of the children's favorite songs involving an alligator and three monkeys, I knew I had hit the jackpot.

I just didn't realize how big the jackpot was.

Mr. Alligator has been my teaching companion for ten years.  Like any good puppet, he has a history that he shares with the children, involving his cousin Allie who lives in Mississippi.  He also has favorite foods (monkeys), songs (Three Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree), and people (pretty much any child he's with).  And he loves to travel to children's houses.  Over the last ten years, Mr. Alligator has had endless sleepovers that have been documented in notebooks bearing his name or his likeness that each child's family has added to.  The children have shared their stories of what they do with Mr. Alligator during their sleepovers.  He's quite rough around the edges these days, but as was recently proven during his last visit with kids, he still holds his magic.  The children love to talk with him, sing with him, and listen avidly to his stories and conversations.

Unfortunately, life is full of surprises, both good and bad, and I was forced to leave my last position quite suddenly.  Mr. Alligator and I said goodbye to our new friends together.  The children were far more interested in hugging him than me, but I learned my place long ago and was perfectly happy to let him have the moment of glory.

Flash forward three weeks and I ran into my previous supervisor, who informed me that the children I had been teaching have been writing letters to Mr. Alligator, and would it be possible for him to write back?

Possible?  Did I mention how good that reptile is with a pen?

The point of this whole story is that as adults, we often want children to write letters and words at early ages.  Even if children have the fine motor development to accomplish the task, writing needs to be meaningful.  After all, when's the last time any of us sat down and practiced writing our C's or Q's?

Writing a letter to Mr. Alligator is a meaningful activity for these children.  They are using words and language to communicate their thoughts to an old friend.  Children who aren't yet able to use what we call conventional print (writing so that we can read it) have received assistance from their teachers through a technique we refer to as modeling (the teacher writes the words so the child can see as the child dictates what he wants the message to say).

Mr. Alligator will be receiving his letters on Tuesday, and I'm quite excited to see what they say.  I'm sure we both will be busy answering letters next week.

Feel free to pass the blog on and please click the links!  Thanks for reading and for leaving your own ideas of getting kids to write!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I'm hungry for...a compliment sandwich

When I was in my early twenties, I taught two and three-year olds.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I was terrified of parents.  I was convinced they all knew more than I did, that they were all out to get me, and that there were clear right and wrong answers and I would, inevitably, fail the test.  It took me a long time to understand that most parents are just trying to figure this stuff out with their kids the same as teachers are, and sometimes (usually) much more so.  The reality is that some parents did know more than I did, but a lot didn't.  Some parents definitely were on the defensive, but most weren't.  And in the end, there was no least none that we could definitively measure.

Eventually--and sooner rather than later--I was presented with a situation in which I had to discuss something less than positive with a parent.  Being young and untrained (and uneducated in this field!) I had no idea how to go about doing this successfully.  Lucky for me, I quickly figured out that if I could communicate how much I cared about the child to her or his parent, the information would be accepted much more easily.  Because I was so young and so afraid to have face-to-face conversations, I relied heavily on my ability to write.  And guess what?  It worked!  The parent was able to take the information I gave her and see that I really did care about her child, and work with me to create a better situation for all involved.

As time went on, I stumbled upon a formula that worked wonders for me, both on paper and in person:  the compliment sandwich.  Now, I've mentioned in former posts that it's critical that teachers build a positive rapport with parents, and I truly believe that.  You should have had at least five positive interactions with a child before you ever THINK about breathing a word about a negative situation or habit a child has.  That means teachers have to be observant and TALK to parents.  Every. Single. Day.

When there is a problem, the compliment sandwich is a great strategy to use that reinforces your respect for the family and the child as well as give important information to the parent regarding any problem the child may be struggling with.  Here's how it works:  You begin the conversation as usual with a friendly greeting, then pay the child a compliment.  The compliment should be genuine and true to the child, and it can be something as simple as how s/he read a story with you today and you noticed s/he really enjoyed it.  Deliver the compliment with genuine, kind emotion.  Following the compliment, you "sandwich" in the problem.  After you've talked about the problem in a factual manner with the parent and listened to any information they may want to give you, then finish it up with another compliment.  Here's an example of how the conversation might sound.

Jeremy's mother has arrived to pick him up from preschool.  His teacher, Monica, has noticed that he has hit one of the other children the last two days in a row.  She knows that it is typical for children who are three, like Jeremy, to sometimes hit when they are frustrated or want something, and Jeremy seems to hit the same child when the two are playing together during center time.  She has decided to speak to Jeremy's mother to try to find out if anything has changed at home or if Mom  has any ideas of what might be helpful for Jeremy.

Monica:  Hi!  Jeremy's busy in the blocks today.  Have you noticed how much he seems to be building these days?
Mom:  I've seen him over there most afternoons.  Does he do that a lot?
Monica:  Yes, he does.  I've noticed he's really been building symmetrically--his buildings are the same on each side.  That's a great geometric skill he's learned!
Mom:  (laughing a bit) Maybe he'll be better in math than his father and I were!
Monica: (laughs too) Well, he definitely is showing a talent for it.  The one thing I have noticed lately is he seems to be having a little bit of trouble working together with another child in the class.  I've noticed the last couple of days he's hit the other child if the other child gets too close to his building.  I just thought I would mention it to you in case there was something different at home or if you'd noticed something.
Mom: (looks puzzled for a moment) No, I can't think of know, sometimes he does get a bit possessive of his space when he's working.  You know, his little brother is at the age where he always seems to want to pull Jeremy's blocks down.  We seem to deal with that a lot.
Monica:  Well, that makes a lot of sense!  We'll watch carefully to make sure Jeremy understands that everyone will respect his building.  He really does seem to love doing it, and we want to encourage him to continue.  I can't wait to see where he goes from here with it!
Mom: (smiling again) Thanks, Monica. (heads over to pick up Jeremy)

The most important part of a compliment sandwich occurs before the conversation--it's the respect and relationship that teachers and parents have developed.  Not every parent would react as this mom did, but even quieter or more defensive parents can often be reassured that the teacher isn't looking to punish the child; she's merely seeking information to help her work with the child in the classroom.

That, in and of itself, brings up another important point.  The purpose of these conversations is NOT to get the child into trouble with the parent.  Consequences for school behaviors should stay at school nearly all of the time.  That means that teachers also must consider the parents' potential reactions.  If the parents WILL punish the child, the teacher may need to consider if the child's behavior is extreme enough to warrant a discussion with the parent.  When teachers and parents are able to work together, however, the entire classroom benefits.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to leave comments!  Click the links and pass on the blog to anyone you think might be interested!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Talking with the Client

Well, it's bound to happen.  We all have to do it.  It makes some of us feel defensive, others feel superior, and still others feel like hanging their heads in a toilet.

Yes, I'm talking about parent-teacher communication.

I've blogged about this in the past, from both perspectives.  But today, I want to focus on early childhood educators talking to parents, or, more specifically, child care and preschool teachers talking to parents.  And not in a formal fashion.  We're not talking parent-teacher conference here.  We're talking your everyday, necessary, but often awkward conversations.

There are lots of reasons teachers feel awkward talking to parents.  From my own experience, I felt awkward talking to parents because I was by nature a shy person.  In addition, I was very young when I started in this field and most parents were older than me.  I was positive everyone knew more than I did (and sometimes i was quite right!).  In fact, I was so afraid of parents, there were many times I failed to even acknowledge their presence when they dropped their children off or picked them up.  This, my friends, is a mortal sin in the early childhood world.

One of the things that we often forget in childcare is that, whether we like it or not, in many situations the parents are paying our paychecks.  They are our clients and customers.  And just as you would expect an encounter with a friendly cashier at the supermarket, a greeting from someone at the front desk of a hotel, or a friendly "hello" when you enter a clothing store, parents expect the same from us.  A friendly hello goes a long way in developing a positive relationship with parents.

This isn't to say you'll be greeted the same.  Just as we've all had days where we grunt in response to a cashier, you may get a grunt in return.  But it doesn't lessen your responsibility to treat parents with respect.  If nothing else, remind yourself that you are modeling behavior for the children in your care.

Often I've talked about building relationships with people in this business.  The first step to any relationship is a warm and welcome "hello".  I remember when I had two young children in childcare.  I would pick them up after a full day of working with other people's children, as well as adult students, meetings, and the like.  I encountered a fair number of teachers who never raised their eyes to meet mine, never told my child goodbye, never acknowledged my presence of that my child was leaving.  Experiences such as this made me irritable and sometimes downright angry.  As a teacher myself, I felt that even if a teacher couldn't bring herself to acknowledge MY presence, she needed to acknowledge my child.  However, I also encountered multiple warm, friendly teachers who greeted me as I entered the room, sometimes sharing a funny anecdote about my child as I waited for him or her to clean up and gather his or her things.  A pleasant goodbye from a teacher sometimes literally turned my mindset around, reminding me of how lucky I was to share this journey called life with my children and giving me a little more energy to enjoy them.  So practice, teachers.  Practice putting on your happy faces and spreading your friendliness.  I promise, for somebody, it makes a difference.

Tomorrow, look forward to a post about sharing less than happy news with parents.  Tricky but doable, you too can deliver unhappy news successfully to even the most difficult parent.  Thanks for reading, pass it along, and click on the links...really...they pay me if you do.  :-)


Quite often, when discussing my work as an early childhood educator, the term "love" comes up.  I know I've posted before about how being an educator has very little to do with love.  If you love children, I often tell students, then go have one.  If you love teaching and learning, then be a teacher.

But there is an element of love that has to exist in the classroom.  I love watching that moment of clarity for my students, whether they are three or fifty-three.  I love facilitating someone else's understanding of a new concept.  I love teaching and the excitement and pleasure those new skills bring to people.

And yes, I love my students.

I don't teach because I love children, but I do love them, both as individuals as well as childhood as a unique life stage.  In addition, I love my adult students and the excitement and passion they bring to the field.  I love their energy and the belief they still have that they can change the world.  I love the feeling I get from being around them.  Their enthusiasm is contagious and encourages me to be a better teacher myself.

On Valentine's Day, we often think of our love partners.  Sometimes we think of our children, and sometimes we even think and appreciate all those who touch our lives in a special way.  I could write pages on how much I love my family and friends and how wonderful they are to me.  But today, I want to encourage my readers to think of doing what they love.  Your life should be filled with passion--not only for people but for how you spend your time.

For me, I love teaching.  I can't imagine a life without it and love the blessing of being part of the learning journey with every person I partner with in education.  Because truly, as teachers or parents, who are we, if not partners to our students or children?

Happy Valentine's Day.  Do what you love, and share it with the world.

Thanks for reading, share the blog, and click the links...and know that I love my readers too!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Autism Lie--the MMR vaccine

Autism.  The word strikes fear in the hearts of many parents of young children.  Autism involves neurological impairments that inhibit social and communication abilities.

Asperger's Syndrome.  An extremely high functioning form of autism, in which a person may still communicate with others yet has difficulty reading social cues accurately.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder.  The spectrum of disorders that includes both Asperger's and Autism; a continuum of neurological disorder impacting the social and communicative realms.  Often people who are diagnosed with any form of pervasive developmental disorder will repeat motions or words, form strong connections to inanimate objects, and/or exercise rigid routines.

So why write about autism?  The number of autistic children is growing astronomically in our country, and we don't know why.  One in 128 children will be diagnosed with autism.  That's nearly one percent of children who will be diagnosed with a devastating illness of which we understand very little about.

Several years ago, there was research conducted regarding the MMR vaccine and a potential link to autism.  Most children receive the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) around age two, which coincidentally also seems to be the same time that many parents and pediatricians notice the beginning signs of autism.  Children who should be talking don't.  Children who should be interacting with their environments aren't.  Some children have very rigid routines that they can't give up, or favorite toys that they seem bound to.

We all know kids who have a favorite toy, or ones who like things done a certain way.  These can be chalked up to developmental milestones or temperament in many cases.  The difference is that a child with pervasive developmental disorder seems a slave to their routine.  They are more attached to their favorite toy than a loving caregiver.

Initial and controversial research indicated that yes, there may be a link between the vaccine and autism.  This was finally the answer so many parents and professionals were looking for.  However, for a study to be considered valid, it must be repeated and the same results found to be true.  To the best of my knowledge, this study was not repeated, leaving parents and professionals in a quandry:  could it be true?  Could we really be vaccinating our children in a way that caused autism?

In the last few weeks, another article was published in which the authors claimed that the original research was fabricated and there is no causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine.  If this new article is correct, it leaves us all back where we started, only now looking at an increase in the diagnosis of children with this disorder.  At the time the first article was published, one in 150 children could be expected to be diagnosed; today, it is one in 128.  This leaves one to wonder what we will be looking at in ten more years.

The problems with this disorder run farther than figuring out what causes it.  There are a variety of treatments that therapists follow as well as autism-specific behavior training.  But many times treatment--even common therapeutic treatment--is expensive and not covered under insurance.  Parents cannot afford to provide their children with the therapeutic means necessary to improve their neurological functioning.  I liken this to one having a stroke and being denied physical, speech, or occupational therapies.  We know autism is a neurological disorder.  We also know that using a variety of interventions, especially early ones, can help children to function at a higher level.  But for most families, the only interventions offered to them come in the public realm, through an already burdened school system.  Therapeutic services are covered for almost all other disorders.  Why not autism?

Why not autism?  It's easier to dump the problem on an already-overburdened school system.  Autism-specific treatment is intensive and expensive.  And there's no guarantee that the child will make significant progress, although many do.  My educated guess would be if there were a powerful lobby in Washington fighting for autism, it may be covered under insurance in some way.  Until more people are willing to insist on this type of coverage, children will continue to suffer and insurance companies will continue to avoid responsibility.

It is common for schools to attempt to put children with autism in the same classroom to teach specific skills they may need.  This may be suitable for part of the day for some children; however, including autistic children in regular environments with well trained staff (a practice called inclusion) often results in tremendous social and communicative growth.

We don't have the answers for autism, nor do we have all the answers in how to treat it.  But denying these children the services they need to be successful is, in my opinion, criminal.  School systems can only handle so much of the responsibility.  These children need the opportunity to work with private therapists on a regular basis. And we need to continue our research, and fast--we are facing an autism epidemic.

If you are interested in advocating for autism or even just gaining more information, you can access the Think Autism page on facebook.  Let your feelings be known on this important matter.  It's important for no child to be allowed to fall through the cracks, never mind one in 128.

Thanks for reading, pass it on, and click on the links.  :-)

What to Look for in a Preschool

Whether you're a parent or a teacher, in my opinion it's important to know what to look for in a preschool.  If you're searching for your child, you're looking for an environment in which your child can grow and flourish in a caring environment during early years, and if you're a teacher, you're hopefully looking for the same types of things for yourself.

Throughout my career, I've worked in a variety of environments and done about every job known to man in child care environments, from assistant teacher to director and everything in between.  As a mom, my children attended both part- and full-time centers, with similar yet markedly different philosophies.  They flourished in both environments because of the similarities more than the differences.  These similarities are also the very things that made me a good teacher and happy employee.

I could easily write a chapter, if not a book, on what to look for when looking for a preschool, but I'll try to hit the main points.  All of these should apply for both children as well as early childhood educators who are looking for work.

First, when you enter the center, how does the environment feel?  Is it warm and cozy?  A bit nutty?  Is there someone in charge or nobody there?  I have long held that you can tell immediately the tone of an elementary school by how you are treated by the secretaries.  Pleasant secretaries generally work in pleasant environments.  The same is true for the staff that you encounter upon first entering a child care center.  Pleasant staff generally work in a pleasant environment.

Is the space itself--both in and out of the classrooms--comfortable and homey?  What does it communicate to you?  Is it in good repair and safe?  Do you see bright colors, children's unique artwork, photographs of children at work?  Is there a parent corner to either sit and relax or to grab some helpful informative brochures?  Is there a family or parent board that gives you information about the center?

When looking in classrooms, does it appear that there are enough adults to meet the needs of the children?  This can be a tricky question.  All states have varying ratios and it's important to know the ratio of adults to children in your state.  However, in my opinion, it's just as important to see if there appears to be enough adults to manage the group of children.  Some groups of children simply need more adults to assist them to be successful.  Along with this, ask yourself if the size of the group is overwhelming or feels comfortable to you.  Unfortunately, many corporate childcares now try to place as many as thirty to thirty-five children in a classroom with multiple teachers.  Regardless of how many adults you have, there is no way teachers can provide quality learning experiences when there are thirty-five children in a room.

Note the daily schedule.  Are there periods of activity mixed with periods of more quiet experiences?  In addition, is there a good balance of teacher-directed activities with child-selected activities?  The majority of time young children spend in preschool should be spent in learning centers where they can choose what they would like to participate in and who they would like to participate with.  Is this the case at the center you're looking at?

Does the staff appear to be trained and knowledgeable in working with children?  Don't be afraid to ask how long teachers have worked at a center, and don't be afraid to observe their work.  Do they approach children positively and with a problem-solving attitude, or are they punitive?

Many states are now moving toward a rating system for child care centers.  Contact your local department of human services and find out about your state's rating system and what it means.  This will help you to "decode" the quality of the center you're visiting.  Ask if the center is rated, and ask if it is accredited and by whom.  Child care centers that are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) generally offer a higher quality program than other centers.

Watch the children themselves.  Are they involved? Do they seem to be enjoying themselves?  Do they get along with one another, or is there a lot of arguing or fighting?  Remember that some arguing and fighting is typical at this age, but it is important for teachers to be able to help children to talk through their differences.

Keep in mind that your child will be spending the majority of the day in a particular classroom with a particular teacher, so those are the areas you need to focus on.  If you are an educator interviewing for a job, keep in mind that this space and these children will be your classroom.  Does it seem like a good fit?  As a parent, you may love the director and the feel that you get upon entering the center, but if the actual classroom doesn't seem like a good fit for you, it's probably best to keep looking.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, find out the center's policy regarding parents "dropping in".  In some schools, there may be a special room or observation booth that allows you to watch your child.  In schools that do not have this, I highly recommend unannounced "visits", even if it's just to drop something off at the front desk.  It's important that your child not be disrupted, but unexpected visits tell you a lot about a center and how people behave when they're not expecting company.

Regardless of the type of curriculum or school you choose, your child (or you!) will be much happier in an environment that meets your specific needs and developmental issues.  Thanks for reading, pass it along, and click the links--they actually pay me for that stuff!


Recently I was recalling one of my early experiences as a preschool teacher.  At the time I was teaching children ages two and a half to three, and I adored my job.  I spent a lot of time playing with my little students, and as is expected, our class had a regular routine.  For those of you who may not be familiar, most routines at this age include a snack time, a potty time, a play time, and a brief group time,  

As a master degreed educator with several years experience, I can tell you that how I conducted group then was extremely different than how I conduct group time now.  Part of that is due to education, but a large part of it is due to experience,as well as my own personal philosophy regarding how children learn.

Those many years ago, my group time was quite likely your typical parents' dream.  We sang a few songs, practiced counting, reviewed our calendar, and practiced our alphabet.  After all, knowing how to count and recognize your letters are important skills, right?

Most parents who choose preschools for their children base their choices on several factors.  One of the factors, of course, is the feel of the school--does it seem like a pleasant place for my child to learn?  But more and more frequently, parents choose preschools based upon academic offerings.  Do the children learn their alphabet?  Do they count?  Do they learn how to write their names?  Do teachers review colors and shapes?  These expectations often begin as early as two, and continue to grow at an alarmingly quick pace through preschool ages until kindergarten.

As I would sit with my preschoolers, I would listen proudly as those children recited the alphabet and their numbers.  I patted myself on the back for being such a good and effective teacher.  It never occurred to me that teaching a child to recite 26 letters was somewhat akin to teaching my dog to sit before I gave her a treat.  

Is it critical for children to memorize all their letters and numbers?  It's definitely helpful, but it's more helpful for adults to recognize that this is an exercise in memory recall, not one based in understanding language or number.  In order for the letter A to mean anything to a child, the child has to understand that A is a symbol for a sound.  The next step is recognizing that putting several of those symbols together stands for multiple sounds being put together that create words.  Reading skills are not as simple as letter recognition.  In fact, letter recognition is one very small part of a complex number of skills needed to read a word or sentence.

So here's a few things that as a parent, I would NOT be looking for in a preschool.  I wouldn't want a school that drills letters and numbers.  I wouldn't want a school that focuses heavily on academics.  Instead, I would want a school in which all children's efforts are encouraged.  A school that focuses most heavily on social skills in early childhood gives children a head start, and that's what I would choose.

Stay tuned for a post on what to look for--and ask--when choosing a quality preschool.  Thanks for reading, pass this blog on, and click on the links!  Thanks!

Gender and Self

Just today, one of my friends posted a statement on facebook about how she didn't understand what all the fuss was about regarding boys playing with dolls.

I don't live in the same area of the country anymore, so I'm not quite sure what she was referring to, but my guess is some article has been written in the paper in her area or something said on the television about how playing with dolls, dressing up, having a dollhouse, or such things make boys into "sissys".

I'm not sure who first came up with the sissy theory.  Perhaps it was a man who felt his masculinity was impaired upon seeing a photograph his mother had snapped, capturing him with a head full of barrettes.  Maybe it came from a man's memory of running out of his house, thrilled with his creative costume, and the realization that he was ridiculed by his friends.  More likely, it comes from fathers who feel the pressure of our society to masculinize young children.  It's uncommon to see boys snuggling baby dolls in the media, or boys dressing up in nontraditional garb--or even worse, "girl clothes".  We want to imagine our little boys as being firefighters, police officers, even Wall Street wonders.  Most people don't imagine their sons as early childhood teachers, nurses, or adult models.

When my own son was four, his class had a career day.  He came home very excited at the idea and told me he wanted to be a teacher, like me.  At the time I was a preschool teacher, and he thought I had a super cool job--probably because of the toys I had in my classroom, not to mention I was his mom.  Within a few days, however, he had changed his mind and was torn as to what he wanted to be.  Why?  Because he was a boy, and boys don't grow up to be teachers of young children.  At four, he had figured out from his friends that his gender should limit his career choices.

Why should we even care whether boys are given the opportunity to dress up or play with dolls?  Why should I care if my little boy reins himself in and doesn't allow his friends to know what he really wants to be, because they'll make fun of him.  He was right, after all; most men do not choose careers in early childhood education.  Well, I'll tell you why.  Because we want boys to grow up to know how to nurture others.  It's a good thing for a man to know who he is and to make his own choices, and not based upon his physical parts.  Boys who have the opportunity to explore roles--female and male--are more confident in the choices they make later on.  Children who are provided a variety of gender-specific toys without stereotypes experience a higher level of creativity and a deeper understanding of the roles of those around them.  Any child who is encouraged to be true to him or herself in expressing his or her desires for the future has the opportunity to feel competent, appreciated, and encouraged to pursue his or her goals.

I've been married for eleven years, and I can tell you from experience that I want a spouse who is respectful of me; who understands my role as a woman and a mother and a wife; who encourages and appreciates me as a person.  When we give our children the opportunity to express themselves freely without rigid stereotypes, we give them the opportunity to develop these skills.  And over time, these skills develop into social skills that make people more desirable as citizens, friends, and even spouses.

Most of us have, at one point or another, seen a child play with a toy weapon, but we don't fear the child will develop into a sociopath who will manipulate and kill all those in his or her path.  Neither should we fear that a boy who tries on a pair of heels will become a cross dresser, or a girl who enjoys building elaborate block buildings will become a lesbian.