Monday, January 16, 2017

Supporting Toddlers in Independence

Cohort 10 is approaching toddlerhood. That magical time when children begin to become aware of their ability and prefer to act independently, regardless of ability. During this time there is also a language explosion, it’s a time where they are mimicking noises we make and words we say but not knowing when to use what words and how to use the words they do know to express any big feelings they are having. This can also be a time of great frustration. We observe behaviors such as hitting and pushing as a way for the children to communicate their needs. It is important at this time to pause, evaluate, and give options.

The power of the pause. Children need time to process things; by offering a pause in between words and action it gives them that time. You narrate what you see or stop an action (such as hitting or pushing) then pause; allow them time to process what just happened or what was said before trying to correct or give solutions. Children can often resolve conflict between peers, when given time.

When we notice strong feelings arise we turn to our observational skills in deducing what is true for each child. Are they tired? Hungry? Do they need space of their own right now? Do they want to see why everyone is standing up on the steps? Is there a favorite toy that another child is playing with? Maybe they don’t need anything at all right now, and are exploring the limits.  For example, they might be thinking: “If I pull the back of your shirt, you fall down and cry; and my person (adult) comes closer.”  Or maybe “If I hit your face you cry and my person comes closer to check out what I did.” It’s a pretty powerful thing to be able to take an action and cause this big scene to play out. When you know the child, as we get to know them at Tumbleweed, it makes it easier to evaluate the situation and determine what they need from us.

We can best support this behavior of exploring limits by giving choices that always work.  Here are a few ideas:
* Avoid labeling children as a victim or aggressor, as these can only cause the children to seek more attention through fulfilling these roles.
*Simple language that creates a limit: “It doesn’t work for you to hit."  Then offers choices: "You can ask for space or stomp the ground if you feel frustrated.” 
*Narrating conflict encourages communication, “You were playing with that train. Then they took it out of your hand!  That feels frustrating.  I won’t let you hit. You can say….” 

Cohort 8 and 10 is a group of confident kids and they are exploring the limits and boundaries of their power  We know that when we give them the tools to negotiate their power in positive ways. As carers and parents we wear many different hats, and have multiple roles in the children’s lives. Sometimes that means bring a presences, narrating what we see then pausing to see what the children do. Other times observation is key to better understand and evaluate a situation before taking action. Mostly though we are support for their development, because they are capable and still learning.

Workshop Reflections: Limits, Choice, and Authenticity

"I'm in it with you,
I’m not here to fix you,
I’m not here to feel it for you,
I’m here to feel with you and let you know you’re not alone.”
-Brene Brown

When we set limits with children, there are many things we must take into consideration: location, time, energy level, safety, etc. Each of these considerations becomes simpler when we take the time to connect and become attuned to our child's needs and emotions. When the goal is to create a loving relationship built on trust while avoiding power struggles, limits become a comfort for both child and adult.

Types of Limits

Always Limits – These are always true, regardless of outside factors; they are often safety based.

Sometimes Limits – These are situational, time based, and more flexible.

Rare Limits – These are set on special occasions, for things that seldom happen, and may be based on our own energy level.

What is a true Choice?

Choices are REAL, concrete, and finite (not open ended)
It often works well to give children two things to choose between. Giving too many choices can be overwhelming, or lead to your child making choices that don’t work for you.

Examples of concrete choices:
“You can climb into your car seat or I can help you.”
“Which hat would you like to wear, the red one or the yellow one?”
“Would you like to pick out your cup for dinner, or would you like me to?

You can add in lightness, humor and something that is interesting to your child.

"Would you like to walk or gallop like a horse to the bathroom?"

Phrases we Use at Tumbleweed:

It works when ___.
That works for me!
Let’s make a plan.
These are your options... You can choose when you’re ready
I won’t let you do ___. You can do ___.
It’s up to you!
It doesn’t work when you ___. You can ____ or ____ instead.

In emergency situations we use:
These are rare, and are only used when there is danger for your child. When we reserve these to be clear markers of emergency, the child knows they are important.

Tools for Gentle Leadership:

Empathy - offering nonjudgemental understanding.
Attunement - stepping back and building awareness of and with your child, while remaining aware of your own emotional state. "Tuning in" to their station.
Slowing Down and Staying Present - This is where we set our intention and create a sense of confidence for our children, using language to scaffold and narrate, offering verbal support.


Every family culture is different, and being in a home is different from being at school. What works for us at Tumbleweed may not work for you at home, and vice versa. The unique circumstances and personalities in your family will inform the way you set and maintain limits.

While we strive to be steady, zen, gentle leaders for our children, no one is steady all the time! It is also our job to model authenticity. When adults feel strong emotions such as frustration or anger in front of or with children, we can show children that all emotions are accepted, and that there are safe ways to process big feelings. This also gives us the opportunity to practice repairing our relationship with children, and model that hurt can be acknowledged and assuaged through connection.


It can feel important to verbally set a limit, or enforce the importance of that limit, in the heat of the moment after a limit has been breached. Often, however, this is not the most useful time for a child to hear the reasons why a limit is important. Children are more receptive to language and to logic when they are calm. This is why we want to initially set and discuss limits in placid moments together. If a child is upset after not following a limit, it can be beneficial to offer connection and wait until calm returns before discussing what happened. This will allow the child to be receptive and truly hear what you have to say, and why the limit is important.

“When a [child] feels understood, she senses the empathy behind our limits and corrections.  She still resists, cries, and complains, but at the end of the day, she knows we are with her, always in her corner."
-Janet Lansbury

Friday, January 13, 2017

Independence and Supported Choice: Care Activities With One-Year-Olds

Following the threads of a child's development from infancy to toddlerhood is one of the thrilling parts of teaching a Tumbleweed Cohort.  We teachers get to see interest in shapes, contrast, and colors become interest in books, language, and sounds, become interest in letters, story, and characters, become early literacy.  We get to see object permanence play meld with one-to-one correspondence, counting, and interest in numbers to become early numeracy.  And, just as importantly, we get to see growing independence, body awareness, coordination, and many other skills become competence in care activities such as dressing and undressing, toilet use, and hand-washing.

Cohort 12 has been showing me their desire to take on parts of our diapering routine since we started together.  Since they began to crawl, they all wanted to get to the bathroom on their own.  Early on, they each learned how to climb up the stool to the sink, turn on the water to wash hands, and get a towel to dry.  Recently, the children have been taking on more of their hand-washing routine - getting soap, rinsing their hands, and putting their towel in the used-towel basket when they are done.

Once the children were confidently standing, by holding onto a stool or independently, I began having them stand up for diaper changes.  This allows them to see more of what is going on, and to have hands free to help with pulling pants up and down, picking out wipes, and more.

A big part of wobblers exerting their independence in the bathroom is the opportunity to make choices about their bodies.  Would you like to wear a green diaper or a blue diaper?  Do you want to wipe yourself or shall I wipe you?  Do you want to sit on the toilet?

While these choices may seem small, they are true choices I am offering to the children - what they decide is what we will do - and this is part of giving them power in and ownership of their activities.  The important thing for me is that each child is given the ability to make choices about their own body.  The act of sitting on the toilet is less important than the act of making a decision of whether or not to sit on the toilet - this autonomy of choice will carry over into every phase of toilet readiness.  After all, no adult can choose for a child when to eliminate, and therefore offering children as much choice and power in their care activities as possible now sets them up to be confident in their decision making as they begin to use the toilet.

As with every area of learning, one of my roles as a teacher is to offer scaffolding to support and extend the children's growth and development.  The curious and eager-to-learn one-year-olds of Cohort 12 are in such an exciting time of growing awareness, language development, and increasing independence, and I am fascinated to see how each child continues to take over their care activities!

Monday, December 5, 2016

"You're Not My Friend!"

Lately, this has been the phrase of the day at the Preschool House.  Variations on this include "you're not invited to my birthday party!" or "I'm never playing with you again!"  These are powerful statements, which are almost never substantiated by actual behavior -- there are any number of conflicts that arise throughout the day and resolve themselves with negotiation, time, and/or space, and things go back to normal.  After all, children have an incredible resiliency and gift of forgiveness, able to move forward from strife with a fair amount of ease.  So what is behind these statements?  What are children processing and testing with these exclamations?

Some time ago I wrote a post about testing certain behaviors in order to cause significant reactions from others. This was written almost exactly two years ago, when the children of Cohort 7 were all beginning to turn two.  Naturally, this meant that the behaviors being explored were physical in nature: what happens if I take this toy from you? What happens if I block your body from doing something I know you want to do?  The children were incredibly curious to discover that their physical actions had deep power behind them.  They could affect their friends and the environment by doing certain things, often receiving very loud, emphatic reactions.  Whoa! Once this realization had clearly been made, it was my cue that the children had left a stage of simply exploring cause and effect, and were wanting to experiment with a very specific effect again and again, already very much aware of their physical power in these situations.

At Tumbleweed, we view this stage of focused exploration as one in which we give children clear limits about what does and doesn't work in terms of treating others at our school.  Along with these limits, we practice safe and effective tools for asking friends for toys or space, as well as easy and clear statements like "no!" and "mine!"  Children who try these behaviors again and again are offered reminders and space, always in a safe, anti-shame manner.  Over time, their interest in these behaviors subsides, as children internalize the idea that in our community, it is our job to keep everyone feeling safe and welcome.

In my reflections on our current exploration of "you're not my friend!", I have seen some parallels to the physical experimentation that happens at a much younger age.  Our group of 3-5 year olds have recently become very aware that their words and the intentions and feelings they express have immense power.  We celebrate this!  We foster each child's unique identity, voice and sense of having an impact in their community.

And as we celebrate the beauty in this discovery, we are also met with challenges: what happens when certain phrases/statements are used again and again in order to instigate a negative reaction?  As teachers, we feel strongly that a) this doesn't work for our school and b) any redirection around this needs to be framed by our anti-shame approach.  What does this look like?

First, we engage in group discussion and bring thoughtful attention to the behaviors.  We stop and notice reactions together both in small groups and even during our circles with everyone -- we reflect on how certain phrases and words have been making people feel, and always agree that they bring negativity to our school and make people feel unsafe/unwelcome.  We then invite the children to brainstorm what they can do or say in response to such words, as well as alternatives to saying these hurtful things in the first place (especially if the phrases are being used in response to a frustrating interaction with someone).  We sometimes even act this out, which everyone feels excited to do -- it feels good to practice powerful, safe and effective ways of interacting and helps children to remember these strategies in the moment, when emotions are high and it is especially easy to fall back on impulses. When we discuss these behaviors openly with children and engage them in practicing safe alternatives, together we forge new neural pathways leading to adaptive, pro-social behavior. 

In the event that the behaviors continue in the classroom, we intervene calmly but firmly, reminding children of our agreement that the behavior feels unsafe.  As with physical testing, we offer a verbal reminder, and if that is not enough to stop the behavior, we gently but firmly lead children away to take space, deep breaths and to make a new plan.  We offer compassion to everyone involved in these situations, and if children are later tempted to point out specific children who have said mean things, we always draw attention to the safe, positive things they are doing and saying now.  It feels crucial that we create an environment in where there are no "bad kids", namely the children who are most drawn to this exploration.  After all, we view this kind of exploring as a very normal part of development, and we always strive to send the message to all children that they are loved and accepted at our school, no matter what.

Outside of our conversations directly relating to hurtful phrases and statements, we are always reinforcing and discovering with the children what it means to be a friend and a member of our precious community.  The health of our school and all of the families and teachers who are a part of it is something we all share responsibility for, and indeed, this is a message we have conveyed to children even as young as infancy: every person at our school is cherished, and viewed as powerful, competent and capable.  It is our work to keep ourselves and each other safe, both physically and emotionally.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"What do you need?"

Since I first stepped into Tumbleweed about a month ago, I've been constantly fascinated by all of the exploration, intention, and especially the tenderness I see going on around me. The kids surprise me every day with their deep curiosity and inquisitiveness, with their sense of imagination and play that so surpasses my own, and with their frequent and unexpected gentleness and care for their friends. It always strikes me how inevitably, if a friend is having a difficult time with a transition or feeling sad or lonely or frustrated, other children notice. Their brows furrow and they express concern and worry for their friend:

"Are they alright?"

"What's wrong?"

"What do they need?"

These questions, which I hear daily from the children, beautifully demonstrate a deep sense of empathy that we might not tend to expect from preschoolers, and that we often forget to express as adults. Even when a child is fully engaged in his game of pirates or dinosaurs or princesses, if a friend is hurt or sad, suddenly the game comes to a halt and all attention goes to checking on that friend.

Upon some reflection, I've also noticed that when children ask concerned questions and want to check in with a struggling friend, my impulse as a teacher sometimes is to try to keep struggles private and separate from another. As adults, we often impulsively tell children to worry about themselves, not to pry into other kids' business. I think we also try to minimize struggles by moving past them quickly, instead of creating the opportunity for growth and learning from the experience. However, what I see here at Tumbleweed among the children and encouraged by teachers is a beautiful openness about and acceptance of feelings and struggle. One child's sadness about saying goodbye to her mom at the beginning of the day can be a wonderful way for her to connect with other friends who have had similar experiences. Frustration over a lost toy or anger at an unfair game provides opportunities to discuss such issues as they relate to everyone, and these conversations can be building blocks for learning and growing from past experiences.

In our very individualistic culture, we tend not to share our struggles with others or to reach out for help. We often forget to ask others for what we need, and may even forget to ask ourselves the same question. In these past several weeks, the kids have helped to remind me of how natural and important struggle is for us as humans, and how it can be point of connection with ourselves and with others; an opportunity to ask, "What do you need?"

Sometimes it can help to have a friend there to offer encouragement while working on a task, like putting on shoes!

J and H negotiate the sharing of paints, making plans when one voices their need by saying "no."

It can feel good to give others what they need - like encouragement on their drawing or silly ideas when they get stuck!

Sometimes we all just need a little laughter!

“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” -Jean Vanier

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

We Are Scientists

This afternoon we had a small group where we talked about what it means to be a scientist.  The children are very familiar with the term science and even scientist, though when I asked them what these things meant, they had very different answers.  They knew a scientist was a person, doing experiments were NOT magic, and they found dinosaur bones.  I agreed!  Scientists ask questions and try to figure out the answer.  I had been thinking about this, because each of us every day asks many questions and is often on a very pointed quest to find the answer.  Introduced this group in a way to encourage focus, while also introducing key concepts of the scientific process:

"Today, we are going to become the scientists.  We are all going to ask the same question: What happens when you put water beads in water.  It's a pretty easy question, because we all know things about water beads, but this way we can practice how scientists find their answers."
I moved on to explain that the next thing scientists do after they know their question, is to make guesses.  We made a list of the guesses we had for the water and water bead question:
* The water beads will grow!
* Maybe they will pop
* If there is a hole, we could use them for beading
* They will grow quickly
* They will grow slowly
"Now it is time for us to find the answer.  We have to test our guesses!  This is called experimenting."  Everyone was excited by this familiar word and I invited each of the children to the table where a tray of tools and small containers was waiting for them.  I gave each child just 5, tiny dry water beads and a color of watercolor of their choice.  Immediately everyone started using the pipettes to suck up water, mix colors, use spoons for scooping and jars for pouring.  As everyone worked, I sat near by and offered my observations returning us to our original guesses and posing what I said in the form of a question: "I wonder....." and "Did you notice....."  
As the experiment began to wind down, I took out another dry erase board to record our findings:  What did we learn?
OM said, "Well, I just dumped out my water and squished up my beads and now they're all gone.  I guess it didn't really work."
"Oh!  So if you choose to dump your water, you can't really find if the water beads can grow or not.  That makes sense, " I observed.
VM said, "I wanted to know what was inside by squishing them."
EK added, "If you squish them with your fist they go flying across the room.  I'm cutting mine with the edge of the bowl."
"I noticed you are all breaking the beads.  It seems like our experiment today lead us to wondering about what these are made from." I observed.  
"If you fold the pipette, you can suck up the water.  I wonder if you can suck up the beads with the pipette?" said LC.
"The only thing I have to say is that it worked," stated AH.  "The water beads grew and I knew that would happen."
The last step for every experiment, and every small group, is to clean up our work.  As the children tidied their materials we compared our findings to our question and our guesses.  We all agreed that the best part was playing with the water and water beads and we needed to work with them more.  As we headed outside, within the chatter of happy voices were many, "I wonder...." and "Next time I'm going to try..." as the children absorb this natural process of inquiry.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Talking to Babies

At Tumbleweed, we talk to babies.  As part of our core belief that infants deserve respect and recognition as individuals, we use language as one tool to communicate plans, responses, limits, and love to the tiniest people in our care.  As the teacher for the current infant cohort, there are many ways that I use language throughout our days together:

"I'm going to go to the kitchen and get the snack tub.  I'll be right back, and then we can sit down at the table to eat."   These phrases communicate a few things:  I am leaving the room, and your sight.  I'll be back soon.  We are about to transition from one activity (playing in the classroom) to another (eating at the table).  While some of the infants will still be sad when I leave the room, they are building the experience to remember that I always come back.  Others will begin moving towards the table, choosing a chair, and attempting to climb in.  By establishing the pattern that I always let the group know before leaving the room, even for a few moments, the children learn to trust that if I haven't told them I'm leaving then that means I'm not leaving!  This gives them the ability to relax and trust that they know I'm close by, even if I'm out of their sightline.

"I'm going to pick you up," or "I'm going to set you down now," or (during a diaper change), "I'm going to lift up your legs now."  Before I move an infant's body in any way, I come close to them, make eye contact, give a verbal cue, and give them a chance to anticipate the movement.  There are no surprise movements, no jarring from one direction to another.  The children have a chance to participate in the movement, whether by lifting arms to be picked up or lifting hips to help with a diaper change.

"You picked the blue block."  "The pear is so juicy and sweet!"  "The play dough is so squishy; what will you do with it next?"  Much of the day in an infant classroom is devoted to uninterrupted time to play and explore.  When children look to me for my reaction or acknowledgement in the work they are doing, part of my response is to put words to what they are up to.  This builds connections between language and actions, objects, and the world.

"You are so happy to see your friend today!"  "You slipped and fell -  that was so surprising."  "You're feeling really sad that your dad is leaving.  You're going to miss him so much." Part of my job as an infant teacher is to bring language to the big emotions that the children experience all day.  This begins building their emotional vocabulary.  It also sends the message that all emotions are accepted in our cohort.

As the oldest children in Cohort 12 begin turning one and experimenting with words, the vocabulary in our classroom will become more rich and varied, hopefully building on the foundation of language we are already building together.