Teachers & Parents: Who Deals with the Pressure of Mandates?

“I just don’t know what to do. He has zero interest in the paper books that come home to practice sight words.”

Anxiety. Fear. Worries about falling behind. It was like I was looking in a mirror from several years back when I was stressing about my reluctant kindergartner.

Only this time, as the kindergarten teacher (and as a somewhat-less-neurotic parent than I once was), I was able to offer all the reassurance that I wished I had received for my kindergartner.

I told the parent, “If he is expressing disinterest in those practice books, please don’t push them. It means he just isn’t ready yet, and that is perfectly ok.”

That precise concern was what made me hesitate in sending home those books to begin with. They are part of a program that pushes reading faster and earlier than was ever expected of kindergarten even a few years ago (our state now has standardized testing even for kindergarten that expects them to be reading by the end of the year).

Schools here must comply with these standards in order to keep their doors open. And so, cushioned by as much developmentally-appropriate play as possible, we engage in guided reading, word study, shared/independent reading and writing, and sending home these paper books to practice sight word recognition, in order to coax literacy along.

But just because I’m feeling the pressure of the latest state standard, does that mean I should transfer that pressure to parents, or heaven forbid, to the children themselves?

There are those who believe that warning parents of the growing demands–that if they don’t push, the kids will fall behind–is a kindness; I can see why they would feel that way. They do not want parents to be blind-sided by the increasing pressures from grade level to grade level.

But we can equip parents with tools without alarming them, or putting them in a scarcity mindset with their young children that will only make children hate learning before they’ve even really started. It may be the teacher’s role to shoulder the pressures from educational mandates, but I don’t believe we need to push that on parents. Rather, we can focus on our shared roles as teachers and parents on nurturing a lifelong learner, on preserving and cultivating the innate curiosity we all inherit.

Which is why my weekly emails now include this reminder about those paper books:

“Thank you so much for doing your best to read these with your children at home. These are meant to help your child retain our sight words throughout the year, but of course the most important reading is the kind that makes your child love reading! Stories they choose, text you guys identify as you drive or look at restaurant menus, and other forms of reading are all so beneficial.” 

As I often try to point out, capital “S” struggles–such as developmental delays, disability, and profound lack of access to resources–these are all caveats that should never be dismissed when making decisions on the timing for and types of interventions that might be needed. But barring these extreme circumstances, most children will flourish at their own developmental pace if given the space and resources to do so.

It just so happened that that readiness was closer than either I or my student’s parent thought. Not 2 weeks later, this parent returned and told me, “I don’t know happened! I did what you said and stopped pushing those practice books. And now suddenly he is excited about trying to read everything! It’s hard to keep up!”

And I just smiled to see this beautiful & familiar pattern unfold yet again: when in doubt, go with the child.

Do You Teach Early Childhood Ages? This List Is For You

Around the time my daughter was 18 months old, I had an epiphany moment. I was a full-time stay at home mom. The majority of my focus was on raising and teaching her, so I needed to treat it more like it was at least my part-time job. I spent my day running my own errands, dragging her around with me, and when I needed to accomplish tasks around the house I would try to pawn her off to her room to play with her toys. 

Well, her toys eventually were boring to her and she spent more time clinging to me than ever before. That’s when I realized something needed to change. If my job was to raise and teach her, then that’s where I needed to shift my focus. 

I researched age-appropriate, educational activities for her, built up a good stash of supplies, and got to work. In the year I have been doing these with her, I have also come up with a decent list of tips that I believe can benefit everyone, whether you’re also a stay at home mom like me, a working mom, or a teacher of littles. 

Without further ado, here are the crucial tips I’ve learned. 

1. Everything can and will be cleaned up- Sensory bins are messy. Painting for the first ten times is messy. Even playing with stickers can be messy. This was so hard for me and I would have to just take a deep breath and remind myself that it will be cleaned up, but for now, she’s learning. 

2. Cleaning is fun for toddlers, take advantage of that- My daughter LOVED wiping up the table after a small sensory activity. She’s two years old now and still loves it. I’m taking full advantage of her help for as long as possible. It’s also teaching her some cleaning skills. Double win!  

3. Don’t overfill the sensory bin with too many tools- The first sensory bin I did with my daughter was a giant bust. I filled it full of fun tools she could use to play in the water. Right away she became overwhelmed with the number of things in front of her and refused to play with it. Too many options and information can overwhelm any child, even into kinder and first grade.

4. Just because they weren’t very good at a certain activity or bin the first time, doesn’t mean it’s a bust. They’ll get better and have more fun every time you pull it out.  

5. “Taste Safe” does not mean it’s an afternoon snack. It means you don’t need to try poison control when it’s put in their mouths- Especially small kids are notorious for eating EVERYTHING. So taste safe can be best, sometimes even into Kindergarten, because five-year-olds are just as guilty at placing anything in mouths, noses, and ears! This doesn’t mean they have free reign to eat cornmeal. It just means you don’t need to worry when it’s in their mouth, you just need to respond with, “yuck!” so it doesn’t continue happening.  

6. Don’t underestimate their abilities. 

7. Messes mean their learning. It’s hard, but it’s true.  

8. They don’t have to do an activity exactly how you envisioned for it still to be fun for them.

9. Some activities are a bust, and that’s okay. Try again later. 

11. Tape. Construction paper. Markers. You don’t need a lot of supplies, or even expensive supplies to make it fun and educational. In fact, the activity on repeat in our house is painting with water on construction paper. This takes construction paper, some sort of paintbrush, and a cup to hold water. So. Easy.

12. 1-2 drops of food coloring is all you need. 

13. Water play is the cleanest play. Nervous about sensory bins in your house or classroom because they are notorious for being messy? You’re not alone. If you have access to a non-carpeted area, water sensory bins are great because they can only do the floors a favor when all it needs is a good mopping when it’s over. 

14. They’ll never learn the responsibility of playing in a sensory bin or with messy activities if you never give them the opportunity to. 

15. You don’t have to understand what concepts they are learning, you just have to understand that it’s important that they really play. I used to be nervous about making hands-on activities for my daughter because I wasn’t exactly sure what she was learning or how to explain it to her. The good news is- you don’t need to either. In this photo, my daughter is experimenting with baking soda and vinegar. She doesn’t need to know that what’s happening are the hydrogen ions within the vinegar react with the bicarbonate in the baking soda, causing a reaction, creating new chemicals, which lead to a second reaction. All she needs to know is that when the vinegar hits the baking soda, it makes bubbles. Don’t feel daunted by the minute details. Just let them play. 


What’s The Difference Between Teaching And Learning? #TeacherMom

Have you ever asked your kids the difference? Can they distinguish one from the other?

I tried asking one of my kids, who responded, “Teaching is when a person who knows everything teaching other people what they know. Learning is people listening to the person teaching.”

That answer made me wonder: how might we help our children and students see teachers as learners every bit as themselves? How might we let go of the idea of the teacher of the main know-er of things in our classrooms? What are the benefits of children making these kinds of shifts in perspective?

Perhaps we might…

…share our (authentic) personal learning journeys with our students.

…ask students to help plan the learning that happens.

…ask students to help lead workshops on the concepts they are learning about.

…minimize “secret teacher business” by demystifying planning and letting students in on curricula (think “I can” statements that students revisit throughout the year).

What do you think? What kinds of values do you see in helping students compare and contrast teaching and learning?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

How Might We Remove the “Floaties” & Give Students “Goggles” Instead? #TeacherMom

A great Costco deal led to goggles for everyone in the family this summer. However, I didn’t bother with them for my 2 year-old since we were dealing with his floaties, which generally kept his face about water anyway. For those unfamiliar, they look something like these:

One day, he snatched his pair of goggles and insisted on wearing them, too. I realized that if he was going to get any use out of them, we would definitely need to give goggles a shot without with floaties:

Image result for speedo kids comfort fit goggles

I couldn’t believe what happened next.

Within about 30 minutes of swimming in the 2-foot end of the pool, he went from a formerly clingy, somewhat nervous state to confident explorer.

Where I had once struggled to convince him to try blowing bubbles, or to let go of me even to stand up on a bench, he was now diving under the water. He couldn’t get enough of enthusiastic underwater waving, suspending himself with his feet off the floor, and testing his breath-holding ability.

As with hiking (and pretty much everything else!), I have been pondering teaching connections to this shift. In what ways might we similarly replace the floaties with goggles? How might we give our students tools for deep experimentation, and remove structures that might actually be impeding that opportunity?

Perhaps we might:

I think the real reason for my toddler’s transformation was that the goggles literally gave him a new lens with which to see water. No longer was it a threatening, mysterious body, but something with which he could actually interact and discover his own capacity. Meanwhile, without the floaties, I could no longer push him beyond his comfort level and had to stay near his side. Yet with the goggles, he was pushing himself in his own way.

What shifts have you seen give students a new lens for the structures and concepts around them? How else might we allow students to dive in when given some “goggles instead of floaties?”

featured image: Thomas Hawk

Who is asking for the trophies in the “Everyone Gets a Trophy” era? #TeacherMom

In each of the city recreation classes my kids have tried out, they have always ended with a trophy or medal. Why? I never asked for one. My kids never asked for one.

And yet the plastic clutter ensues, while bewildered parents also shoulder the blame for this “everyone gets a trophy culture.”

On a highly scientific poll I conducted on Twitter last week, not a single parent marked that they had ever requested these trinkets.

I’m starting to suspect that this has more to do with Alfie Kohn’s (far more scientific) research demonstrating that blaming young adults and parents is simply tradition:

“With respect to the specific claim that “kids today” are spoiled and their parents permissive, I had fun a few years ago digging up multiple examples of how people were saying exactly the same thing about the previous generation, and the one before that, and the one before that, and the one before that.”

~Alfie Kohn

Certain traditions, like providing a trophy for participants, may perpetuate amid people’s good intentions. But for parents (and teachers) facing criticism for coddling kids, may we find confidence as we continue striving to simply meet developmental needs. May we avoid perpetuating inaccurate generalizations. And may we continue to try to listen to each others’ voices and be responsive to one another.

featured image: Selbe

The First Time Our Child Was Asked “To Come Out and Play” #TeacherMom

My oldest was 4 years old, and she was happily playing with her toys in our 3rd-story apartment. Suddenly, a knock came on our door: a 7 year old girl who lived a couple blocks away wanted to know if our daughter could come out to play.

My husband and I looked at each other. Could she just go out to play? Where would she even go? Our apartment building was mostly surrounded by parking spaces. And could she just skip away with this little girl without one of us accompanying them?

We asked our daughter what she thought about the idea. Her response was to leap up and run for her shoes. So we told the neighbor that it would be alright if they stayed nearby. Our 4 year-old couldn’t have been prouder to cross our threshold without us.

And we were left peeping through a a chink in the blinds to make sure everything was alright.

And it was! They had a great time running around a little patch of grass for a while, and then the neighbor brought her back upstairs. Pretty tame, as far as first outdoor independent play goes. But powerful. It was the first foot in the door to a world where our child didn’t need us anymore. A scary prospect for all parents, but especially when we’re bombarded daily with headlines and messages that make us all want to keep that door locked tight until the 18th birthday.

But the problem, of course, is that it doesn’t work that way. Growing up to become an autonomous adult is a process that must build throughout childhood. Parents should feel supported as they make decisions on what exactly this will look like for each of their own children. It’s hard enough to do this confidently — even without the internet endlessly supplying worst-case scenarios and vilifying parents for daring to make reasonable decisions about what their kids are capable of.

And if parents aren’t trusted in these judgement calls with their own children, how can we possibly trust our teachers?

That’s why, when I talk about independent play, my first goal is to reassure parents. They need to know they are not bad parents for letting their kids walk 3/4 mile to school (even in the rain!), or for allowing their child run a lemonade stand without continual supervision, or even for leaving him/her in the car on a mild day while you run in for a quick errand, if you, as their parent, have judged them capable of handling these scenarios.

The hardest part about building autonomy in our children is that it is almost guaranteed to feel uncomfortable. We can’t predict exactly how it will unfold — will they get along with others? will they remember the path home we’ve walked together many times? will they remember how their bike lock works? — but that unpredictability itself is one of the essential ingredients required for autonomy to unfold.

So let’s think about ways we can support and reassure parents as they strive to build autonomy in their kids:

  • Share accurate statistics on crimes (Pew Research Center is a great source), such as the fact that violent crime has decreased since 1990, or the low chances of random child abductions from strangers (“…if you wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger, do you know how long you would have to leave that child outside, unsupervised,  for this to be statistically likely to happen?…You’d have to leave your kid waiting at the bus stop 750,000 hours [or 85 years].” ~Lenore Skenazy)
  • Hesitate before sharing that scary “see-how-easy-it-is-to-snatch-a-child” video or “my-child-was-almost-abducted-from-our-shopping-cart” story. Given the statistical rarity cited above, the sad truth is that such stories tend to be rooted more in racial bias than actual danger.
  • Encourage adventure playgrounds and other environments that promote healthy risky play.
  • Join your school’s Safe Routes to School organization to help make kids’ walk or bike ride to school safer.
  • Share strategies for reasonable precautions parents can take without making them feel like they have control over all possible scenarios.
  • Support legislation like Utah’s free-range parenting bill that protects parents trying to make these judgement calls for their children’s autonomy.

From that first encounter with outdoor unsupervised play to watching a high school grad embark on their new journey, let’s find ways to help parents feel confident in building happy, healthy, and independent children!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Parents, Reject the Fear-Mongering #TeacherMom

Phones are destroying our teens

…except that it turns out the negative connection between tech and teens’ mental health is fairly minor, according to research.

Children are being abducted on their way to school or from distracted parents…

…except that “children taken by strangers or slight acquaintances represent only one-hundredth of 1 percent of all missing children.”

The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live

…except that the opposite is true. See below:

Where are his/her parents? a passer-by might wonder…

…except that unsupervised play is critical for children to develop properly.

(sidebar: isn’t it funny how despite essentially every child in human history spent their days getting dirty, it’s only now that showers are ubiquitous that we have grown uncomfortable with the idea?)

Parents are bombarded with worst-case scenarios every day. Even casual Facebook posts from a concerned friend or relative often contain terrifying videos or messages that end with “Keep your babies close.” I shared one such example with my daughter in our conversation about how strange it is that these videos go viral when they really don’t represent the actual dangers kids face today. Far more threatening to our kids are dangers of childhood diabetes, obesity, heart problems, and mental health issues that seem inextricably tied to the modern lack of childhood independence.

For those in the U.S. observing Independence Day tomorrow, celebrate by saying no. Push back against those viral videos. Question the frightening headlines (see this excellent piece on zooming out for context). And above all, allow your children to experience some of the same freedoms you yourself probably had as a child. Perhaps start by asking some of these questions:

  • Does my elementary-aged child know how to navigate our neighborhood independently? Does she know where her friends and family live within a mile radius? Could she get herself home from school?
  • How might learning to ride a bicycle help further my child’s independence?
  • Has my child ever tried to earn money independently? Lemonade stands, bake sales, yard work, etc?
  • Can my child handle something risky by the same age I was permitted to as a child (starting a fire, using a pocket knife, etc)?
  • Does my child know how to go inside a store to handle purchasing something independently? How might allowing my child to help with groceries help foster their sense of competence?

What better ways to celebrate independence are there than fostering it in our children?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto