Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Purpose of Education

I was running errands today when I saw something that took me back many years ago and gave me pause to think.

I had gone to pick up my father and run him by the bank.  Afterward, he wanted a cheeseburger, as I suppose most 73-year olds do (or he does, anyway), so we picked up a burger for him and headed over to drop off paperwork for my son to attend camp.  The desk worker asked  me to wait to speak to the camp leader, so I took a seat.  Behind my seat was a window that looked into the nursery.

I love babies, probably more now than I ever have in my life.  In the last few years, it has become clear that I most likely will never have a biological child.  Both of my children were toddlers when they came to live with me, so I missed the whole baby time.  I'm fascinated by these little people, from their size to their smiles to their wiggly, squirmy little selves.  When I see my friends' children, I'm equally intrigued by how quickly they grow!  They start out so tiny and helpless, and before you know it they're crawling and giggling and even saying a word or two.

So I settled on my bench and watched the one infant in the swing by the window.  He wasn't particularly happy.  He was squirmy and began to fuss a bit, and a worker came over and straightened his blanket, then pushed the swing again.  Clearly unhappy that he was still in the swing, he began to protest louder, clenching his tiny hands into fists and waving his arms around.

I'm a forty-something woman with a master's degree in early childhood.  I don't have a baby so I'm never tired of watching them, nor am I annoyed when they don't sleep when they should.  I wanted desperately to go into the room and pick him up and comfort his cries, then find whatever it was he wanted to do.

The worker, however, is not a forty-something woman with no babies.  She picked up the blanket, then laid it back over the entire baby, covering his head to his feet, and tucked it in to the sides of the swing, making it harder for the baby to move.  Not only could he not move, he couldn't see either.  The worker then sat down next to him and began kicking the swing with her foot.  At that point I chose to look away.  I had seen enough, and I was desperately close to saying something not so nice to the powers that be.  Sensibility grabbed hold of me though--I needed my son to have this camp experience.  Because of his needs, he needs to be in a structured camp program, and let's face it--the few spots that were left probably wouldn't go to the big mouth mother complaining about the way an infant was rocked.

Many years ago, I had worked for this same organization.  I had privy to see some less than pleasant child care experiences, and the ones that stuck out most to me were in the infant room.  Babies often were left to fall asleep in their lunches, put in swings for hours at a time, left to entertain themselves.  Babies were left alone to "cry it out", even when there were more than enough hands available.  The multiple staff members would be sitting and eating as babies cried, alone, in their cribs.

For the majority of my professional career I've been a "pick up the baby" type of person.  I mean, the kid isn't going to roll over and pull a Stewie on you, asking if you could kindly come change his diaper.  Babies have one way to communicate their discomfort, hurt, or fear, and that's through crying.  So pick up the damn baby.  Thank you.  :-)

I'm not so rigid as to not recognize there are times that it isn't in the baby's best interest to be picked up.  Sometimes, parents need more sleep and babies are old enough to make it through the night.  Sometimes the baby is just a bit fussy and isn't really upset.  And sometimes you just can't get there--something else is more important at that moment.  But I always find myself cringing when I hear parents of young babies talking about "sleep training" and such.  Huh?  Are we in the infant military or something?  Is there some need for your baby to rise and shine at six a.m. and that can only be accomplished through sleep training?  I don't get it.  It seems like one of those things that as parents we make into mountains, when they're really molehills.

As for the situation with the baby and the worker--after giving it several hours to mull around in my head, I decided to call  and report it.  The young woman who talked with me was very pleasant and listened to my concern.  Will it change?  I don't know.  But maybe if the worker is educated about other ways to calm a baby, she'll do better.  Most of us, when educated about better ways, do better.  That was the purpose of my phone call--to encourage the organization to educate their caregivers about how to work with infants.  And who knows?  Maybe they will.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Quality Preschools

A friend of mine was lamenting her job just yesterday.  She's a preschool teacher and has found herself in a common situation--hired to teach in a preschool where the director seems to have a poor understanding of child development.  For educators, this is a nightmare.  If you're a teacher, you need enough room to teach and air to breathe.  When you've got other people breathing down your neck and they're not even espousing reasonable expectations, it's very difficult to feel like you can be an effective teacher.

So what's a parent to do?  In my opinion, parents don't have to have a degree in early childhood education, but they do need to understand the following:

1.  Teachers who hold a bachelor's degree in early childhood education are trained to teach children from birth through age eight, just as english teachers are trained in english and math teachers are trained in math. We have taken multiple classes that specialize in early childhood development and prepare us for the classroom.
2.  Teachers who are in preschools aren't there because they cannot get a job in public school.  They are there, almost always, because they have a passion for working with young children.
3.  Children sometimes behave differently at home and at school.
4.  Although your child's teacher may be excellent, it does not absolve a parent's responsibility for being involved in his or her child's development and education.

Often, parents don't really know what to look for in a quality preschool, and so they fall back on the expectations that they remember from their childhoods mixed with a bit of what they've heard from other parents or in the news.  Usually this comes across as expecting children to learn to listen to teachers, learn the alphabet and their numbers, and write their names.  None of these are actually the sign of a good preschool.

Quality preschools focus on developmentally appropriate practices.  These are practices in the classroom that meet the developmental needs of a child.  For instance, it is very common for two year olds to practice how to wash their hands appropriately.  Four year olds may be learning some basic patterns or letter sounds.  Infants are being nurtured and having their needs met in a timely manner.

Quality preschools have a warm, comforting feel about them.  Classrooms resemble the home environment and should have a "pleasant buzz of activity".  Children should be moving freely around the room during free choice time.  Teachers are pleasant, classroom rules are clear to each child, and the children helped make the rules.  The classroom is shared by all children as well as the teacher and is referred to as "ours", not "mine".  There is a balance of children being able to choose activities and activities being chosen by the teacher.  Children are respected by teachers and are encouraged to work out their problems with one another rather than being punished.  There should be a wide variety of activities to choose from, and children are appropriately supervised.

Some teachers may debate this, but I am a firm believer that the primary purpose of preschool experiences should be socialization.  When children have had practice working with other children prior to kindergarten, they tend to do better when entering school.  They understand how to wait for a turn, how to ask for help, and how to work with a partner.  These are all critical skills in our public schools today.  Even if you choose to pursue a more academic type setting for your preschooler, it is imperative that the children are given plenty of time each day to play together and make their own choices.

I also believe it is critical for parents to share the same values as the philosophy of their child's preschool.  If your child's preschool stresses academic structure but you're more of a play-to-learn type of parent, it won't be a good fit; neither will a child-centered preschool work for a parent whose expectations are worksheets and lots of papers.

Obviously, parents can't be in a preschool center every day, nor are most parents as knowledgeable about what good childcare looks like.  To assist, there are national organizations that provide accreditation for childcare centers.  Accreditation is an optional process but generally indicates a higher level of quality interactions and care.  In addition, each center (with the exception of centers run by churches) must be licensed by your state.  Licensing requirements vary state to state, but generally this information is available online, as well as recent licensing reports for all licensed centers.  Many states are going to a leveled licensing center, to give parents more information about the quality of a center; generally the higher the level that a center achieves, the higher quality it is.  If for whatever reason you are unable to find the information online, most states require centers to share licensing reports with parents.  You only need to ask your director, and s/he should be able to furnish you with the latest report.

So, you parents may be asking, what's MY job in all this?

First and foremost, your job is to communicate clearly with the staff about your child.  It's always better to give too much information than not enough.  Your mention that your child didn't sleep last night helps your child's teacher understand his or her behavior today.  Letting the teacher know you're potty training at home is critical--children are most successful when they are trained in all situations at the same time.  Even your loving mother-in-law's visit may throw your child off his or her regular routine.

Next, it is a parent's responsibility to supply what the provider asks for.  Most children have a supply list they need for preschool or childcare.  This usually includes a change of clothing.  This is incredibly handy not only for potty accidents, but also if your child gets too wet in the sensory table, spills juice by accident, or is covered in...something!  If you supply diapering supplies, check them regularly and ALWAYS send a couple more than you think your child will need.  Better safe than sorry!

Third, parents are responsible for reading the information that comes home with your child.  Yes, I know it's a pain in the butt.  But--and this is SUPER important for busy moms and dads--it helps to keep you in the loop as to what your child is doing.  If you ask your child, you will probably have this conversation:

You:  Honey, what did you do today in school?
Child:  Played.
You:  What did you play?
Child:  I dunno.
You:  Well, who did you play with?
Child: My friends.
You: What are their names?
Child:  I dunno.

That's given that your child doesn't answer the first question with "I don't know".  All those papers we teachers send home to you are for your benefit as well as mine.  We try to keep things clear and keep you up to date on what we're doing.

Finally, and I can't stress this one enough, parents are responsible for ongoing monitoring of their children's day-to-day care at the facility, and bringing concerns to the appropriate person.  You are NOT required to give notice before you stop by to see your child.  As a parent, I often swung by at lunch time to see my children, or even to just peek in on them.  If you have a child who will become upset if s/he sees you, don't plan on making your presence known.  Even if you hang by the front desk, you can generally tell if the center is a stressful place to be or a comfortable one.  Laughter and calm voices indicates a good place.  Screaming children and teachers does not.

So the bottom line of what to look for?

1.  A clean and well-maintained center with enough for children to do.
2.  Respectful, communicative staff;
3.  Values that you share and respect;
4.  Ideally, an accredited center.

In the last post that I wrote, I made some large generalizations and was rightfully called to the carpet for it.  Childcare is incredibly expensive.  Because of cost, many parents look for shortcuts to lower their childcare costs.  I am no more immune to this than anyone else.  When my children were in after school childcare, I was forced to evaluate the cost versus quality of their care.  I was not happy with what I was seeing when I picked my children up; nor was I happy with what I was paying.  Fortunately, I was able to juggle my hours a bit so that we could avoid the after school care altogether.  This post isn't supposed to be about saving a few bucks, but here's a bit of advice:  in all honesty, most of the time, you get what you pay for.  So if you find the caregiver who's charging fifty bucks a week and will keep your child 24 hours a day, you might need to be a little skeptical and watch closely.  My advice?  Consider developing a babysitting co-op, or hire one babysitter to watch two families' children and pay the sitter a bit more than usual.  If the average cost of a babysitter per week in your area is a hundred dollars, consider having a friend's children join yours, pay your babysitter $150, and you both still save $25 a week.

Thanks for reading!  Comments are always welcome, and pass the link on to your friends!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

And We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Post...

Okay, so I know that for those of you who regularly (or semi-regularly) read this blog I had promised to write about choosing quality childcare.  I still think this is an absolutely critical subject and will be happy to write about it, but not today.

It is currently 3:33 a.m. and I am having a bout of sleeplessness.  I am not employed currently, with it being summer and school out and all, so I have been looking for a good babysitting/nanny type thing to do to keep me busy and bring in a little extra money.  In fact, it was this search that made me start writing about the whole quality childcare issue, because I saw so many parents posting on babysitting sites about needing a sitter TONIGHT.  Huh?  I have always considered myself an overprotective mother so maybe it's my Mama Bear coming out of its cage, but who in their right mind hires a babysitter the DAY THAT YOU NEED ONE?  And you're hiring somebody off a babysitting board?  HUH?

But I digress.  There is another phenomenon out there that is just as shocking to me, and I'm willing to take the flack for it because I know this is incredibly un-PC to talk about.  But I find myself shocked and even a bit disgusted at the number of parents willing to leave their babies with a caregiver for ten or twelve hours a day.  Some of these infants are only two weeks old.  Some of these parents want to pay fifty or sixty dollars a week.  Let's see...ten hours a day times five days a week divided by fifty equals...one dollar an hour.  To care for your CHILD.

This isn't the time to be thrifty, folks.  I do understand there are some parents who absolutely must work to stay afloat.  But I also know there are some parents who willingly choose to have the larger house, the more expensive cars, the incredible vacations, because a two-parent income will allow them that, especially if they can get by paying a low wage for their childcare provider.  I also understand that some women would go nuts if they had to stay home all day, as would some men.  But if that's the case, is there a reason you can't hire a babysitter part time for a decent wage and work part time, or better yet...volunteer for your community???

Here are my issues with this situation:
1.  If you don't like babies, or children in general, why have them?  There are excellent birth control methods on the market, and there's this thing called adoption, too.  It may sound cold, but being a woman who is unable to conceive myself, I would have welcomed the opportunity to raise a healthy baby.
2.  How in the world do you expect to get to know a person who spends the majority of his or her time with you while s/he's sleeping?
3.  Since when did a big house signify excellence in parenting?  Has anyone seen The Real Housewives?  Come on, people.  Stuff is just stuff, and is no sort of measure of anything, except one's ability to acquire it.
4.  Speaking of Real Housewives and parents who just don't think they could handle being at home with their children, there are excellent parenting courses out there to help you manage your concerns and fears.
5.  When you look back on your life do you really think you'd regret having spent more time with your children?  Most people don't die saying, "I really wish I had finished that budgetary report in 2010."

Yes, in case you haven't figured it out I am a huge proponent for children being raised by, well, their parents.  Parents who choose to have another person raise their children have no room to complain about nannies imparting different values to children, nor do they have a leg to stand on when their child cries for the nanny.

You conceived them.  You wanted them.  Please have enough long-term thinking to realize you'remaking a lifetime commitment.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a wonderful saying.  Once you have gotten sober, get a plant.  If the plant is still alive in one year, get a pet.  If the pet is still alive in one year, get a significant other.  I don't know where children fall in that, but I would imagine it falls much after the significant other.

People die every day with regrets of not spending enough time with loved ones.  Don't be that person.