Friday, September 6, 2019

Processing Emotions with Preschoolers: Anger

Anger is an emotion that is hard for anyone, regardless of age, to process.  We are told that our anger is dangerous and wrong from a young age.  In homes that embrace gentle parenting practices, parents often fear that the anger they sometimes feel toward their children (which is, of course, inevitable in such a close relationship) is in itself toxic and damaging.

At Tumbleweed we talk a lot about embracing all emotions.  We know that feeling happy doesn't make you "good" and feeling sad or angry doesn't make you "bad," that our light and shadow selves are two sides of the same coin, and that one can't exist without the other.  It is not always easy to convey this to children, or even to feel it ourselves.  And no matter how effectively we communicate this emotional acceptance to the children in our care, we are combating a world of media images and the larger culture which celebrates contented, happily playing children as good, and portrays children expressing anger as bad. Our cultural fear of anger leads to a stigmatization of that emotion, which in turn leads to anger being expressed in unhealthy or destructive ways, when anger itself isn't inherently unhealthy or destructive at all.

Part of the reason why anger is so difficult in preschool aged children is that they have reached an age where their physicality can have a much different effect on the adults in their lives than it did when they were an infant or toddler.  As a child grows and gets stronger, it can be harder for adults to remember just how young they are, and that when their emotions boil over, they haven't yet learned to maintain control of their body.

Where an adult may see an angry four-year-old and interpret their punches and kicks as deliberately trying to harm, the child is feeling out of control, most likely scared, and is looking for a limit to be set.  Sometimes that limit setting looks like holding a child to help them be still, or giving a child space to fully feel their emotions in a place that is safe.  Sometimes setting those limits doesn't feel good to anyone involved, and that is why after fully feeling anger it is so important for a child to be offered connection and a chance to repair the relationship with a trusted adult.

This process of repair often begins with telling the story of what happened.  I'll ask a child, "What do you remember?" and offer my own memories of an incident to fill in the blanks; it's difficult to form memories when we are overwhelmed by emotions.  My own recounting of the incident will be given in a neutral tone with no judgement.  For example: "I remember you were feeling so mad.  I saw your arms flying out and I knew your body needed lots of space.  You didn't like that I moved your body.  That felt so hard."  Asking lots of "why?" questions is usually not effective - when a child is feeling that strongly they've gone beyond the point of reason.  They don't know why they behaved the way they did, but they want to know how to do things differently next time.

During a recent group time, we talked about anger.  I told a story from my childhood of a time I felt angry - hearing stories of adult emotions may feel scary or overwhelming to preschoolers, so it can be helpful to recall childhood stories instead.  In the story, I remembered holding my anger inside and not letting it out, and how bad it felt to not know how to let the anger move through my body.  Then we began to talk about safe ways to let ourselves feel anger.  Some ideas generated by the group included:

CKP: Push a wall
EB: Give yourself a hug
EM: Ask your parents for a hug, or hit a bed or something soft
CN: Hug a stuffy
EB: Yell!  Make a big sound from your belly

As we discussed how anger can feel when it's inside of our bodies, we all agreed it doesn't feel good to keep it inside, it feels much better to let the anger move through us in a way that feels safe.  The teachers present emphasized that it's okay, normal, and expected to be angry, and all feelings are welcome in our school, and that the teachers are always there to help anger be expressed in a way that feels safe to everyone.

At a different group time, we read the book Anh's Anger, a beautiful story by Gail Silver about a boy learning to sit with his anger.  EM asked, "Is his anger going to hurt him?" and this gave us an opening to discuss how healthy and normal anger is, and how part of what we try to learn as we grow older is how to express anger.  We talked about how anger can be a force for good - in the past we have used the example of the civil rights movement to talk about how anger at injustice leads people to take action.

At the end of each discussion about anger, we circled back to something that feels very important: in our community, we accept all feelings, and children all get to keep working on expressing those feelings safely.  Teachers are there to help when feelings feel so big that children lose control, and no matter what, at our school, children always get to try again, to make amends, and to express feelings without judgement.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Diapers to Undies: How We Think About Potty Training

When children begin at the Preschool House, whether they are transitioning into care with us from the Infant House or are new to the Tumbleweed community, one of the first questions we often hear from parents is about potty training.  When will it happen?  What will it look like?  What should parents be doing?

The first thing we like to remind parents of when we discuss potty training is that we must let the child be the leader.  There are few things in their lives over which preschoolers get control, but they do have absolute control over what goes into their bodies and what comes out (and where).  So, rather than setting up a power struggle that we are sure to lose (as we can't force a child to pee or poop when we want them to), we want to follow each child, with as little pressure as possible, trusting that they know what is best for themselves - and knowing that it is physically more safe and healthy to do so.  

This is an area in which parents often feel the pressure of deadlines and comparisons.  As much as possible, we encourage parents to let this go.  We want to follow each child's timeline and agenda rather than our own.  We know that all children will learn to eliminate on the toilet without being "trained" or following a program.  Adding our own agenda, or pressuring children based on what we think they should do, will only make the bathroom a scene for testing and resistance, and likely make the whole process take longer than it otherwise would!

Every teacher at Tumbleweed has had the experience of a child who absolutely refuses the toilet every time we are in the bathroom, and then one day the child sits on the toilet and pees, and from that point on pees on the toilet every time their diaper is changed.  Children's timelines in this area can be opaque to the adults in their lives, but eventually each child will have a good relationship with sitting on the toilet as an accomplishment they achieved all on their own, while also furthering their relationship with the adults in their lives when we showed them the trust and respect to make the decision themselves.

So, what we won't do: pressure, adhere to external timelines, have our own agenda for your child's toilet learning schedule.  Then, what can we do to encourage your child to be ready when they do decide it's time to sit on the toilet?

-Involve children in diaper changes.  Encourage them to be focused and engaged, not distracted, at changing time.  Talk about what you're doing ("I'm opening up your diaper using the snaps.  Here they go:  One, two, three!") and have then do every part of the change they can: putting pants on and off, choosing a diaper, getting up and down from the toilet.  Have them get their own wipe, wipe themselves after peeing, throw the wipe away - encourage them to take over every part of the process they can!  At Tumbleweed, this starts when children are infants.  We talk every child through every diaper change, and invite them to participate as much as they can.  We have children stand up for all diaper changes, which allows the most active participation.

-Talk about urination and bowel movements with accurate language (we use the words poop and pee at school).  We use these words without negative connotation or disgust - we want to encourage the kids to have a happy and healthy relationship with their bodies and what they produce.

-Offer the toilet at every diaper change.  Sometimes a child will say "NO."  Sometimes they will spend weeks saying "NO."  We trust them and move on, and continue to make the toilet available.  We do diaper changes in the bathroom, which helps this become routine.

-We encourage each child's awareness and ownership of their body. We use phrases like "You climbed onto the toilet by yourself.  That looked really tricky!" or "Did you hear that sound?  That's your pee!"  These things help us directly connect the child's awareness to the power and control they have over using the toilet.

-Slow down, never rush.  This is on their time and speed, never ours.  The only little pushes we may give are statements like "Next time when you get that feeling, when you need to pee, you could do it on the potty!  Wouldn't that be great?"

Our main message is that each child in our care is right where they need to be.  We choose to trust them and follow them and have potty training be an exciting journey toward greater independence.  We are there to support their learning and celebrate each step of the journey with them!

Monday, April 1, 2019

Empathy in Toddlers

“Empathy is not a fixed trait; it can be fostered. It can be encouraged and cultivated”

A quote by Samantha Rodman

    Starting at 12 months of age children begin to develop a sense of individuality. This comes from realizing that they are their own person with their own thoughts, feelings and ideas. And noticing their peers have their own as well. We as mentors get to observe as well as guide the children around us down this path of discovery. Teaching others to understand the deep meaning of empathy can feel really tricky at times but demonstrating these strong ideas and with passion can assist us as mentors and parents.
    When talking to a child about his/her emotions it always feels important to pause, hear them, and validate their feelings. This feels important because every emotion or feeling that we feel as humans are valid. Even though you might react or feel a certain way towards one situation doesn’t mean that everyone will feel those same feelings and it works for our thoughts to differ. When speaking with a child we can use this idea to help us model a bond of equality between mentor and student. Practicing this between peers can help support the understanding of empathy.
    Another idea is practicing the concept of empathy through play. This can be modeled in multiple ways; We can pause and notice how our friends are feeling during key points of play time, whether that be solving a problem between peers(at this time we can obverse, sadness, anger/frustration and contentment, etc) or achieving a goal(and at this time we can observe happiness/excitement, togetherness, etc)
For Example:John has a toy truck and Sarah wants that truck. Sarah takes away the truck. John begins to cry. 
One thing to try:
Take a moment to Pause. Sometimes, the best intervention is none at all. When you notice the situation escalating, move closer.
Narrate what happened
 "John, you were holding that truck. Then Sarah grabbed it. You both want this truck."
Guide Sarah into noticing John's feelings.
"Oh. When you took the truck, it made John feel ________ (sad, angry, frustrated, etc)." Giving children words that label emotions, empowers them to use them for themselves over time. Bring attention to each of the child's faces, which builds a concrete connection between how children express and communicate with each other. "John's face looks sad. He wanted the truck. And you wanted the truck. That can feel so frustrating!"
Give guidance about what to do next time.
"Next time, you can hold on tightly and say, 'I'm using it!' This helps Sarah know it's not available."
"You can say, 'Can I have it?'. Then John will say yes or no, and you can see if it works!"

A common mishap with teaching empathy is teaching the words “I’m Sorry” as stated in a blog written by Dr. A. Graff, “We often insist that our toddlers say “I’m sorry” as a way for them to take responsibility for their actions. But many toddlers don’t fully understand what these words mean. While it may feel “right” for them to say “I’m sorry”, it doesn’t necessarily help toddlers learn empathy.” An approach that Graff suggests in the blog is to help direct children to focus on one anothers feelings and checking in to discuss them, being encouraging about the communication and labeling of emotions can also greatly support in guiding empathy in children. The discussion of different emotions can help better the depths of our understandings about each one.
    When we notice growth of empathy within the children around us it can feel so amazing! It is so wonderful to observe growth as a mentor; so it works to really support and encourage those empathic actions you observe.   

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Transitions: Dropping off with Ease, Love, and Calm

Our Tumbleweed houses are often buzzing with activity in the morning.  There are tables set with provocations the teachers hope will spark creation and inquiry, free play happening, stories being read or told.  We greet our friends with stories of our evenings at home yesterday, or what we had for breakfast this morning.  Parents chat with children, teachers, and one another.  It's a lovely part of our day.

Of course, along with the loveliness, comes the time when parents and children separate for the day.  Sometimes this is as simple as a hug goodbye and a wave from the window, and sometimes dropping off can come with big, tough feelings, even for seasoned preschoolers who have been doing this for a long time.  Some of the factors that go into having a smooth drop off can't be controlled: a child's health that morning, the night of sleep they had, the weather, or just everyone's mood!  So what can we do to increase our chances of a calm, secure, and relaxed transition from time with parents into the school day?

Ritual and Routine
One of the most important ways to help a child enter the school day feeling good is to build a routine so they know exactly what to expect every day.  What that routine looks like depends on how much time a parent has in the morning, their child's temperament, and what works for their family. A routine might be as simple as: wash hands, give a hug, say goodbye.  It could be more involved: wash hands, pick out a book, read together, settle in at a table to work, get three kisses, and say goodbye.  It could involve a special goodbye phrase you say every day, a specific spot to get a hug, or a hand off to a teacher.  The important thing is to repeat the routine at every drop off.  This helps your child have the security of knowing just what it will look like when you leave.  They don't have to be worried that they'll look up and you'll be gone because they know you leave after you high five (or give a hug, or wave at the window, etc.).

This routine-building will also help on those rushed mornings when you don't have time to do the whole thing.  If your child knows the usual routine, you can tell them "I won't have time to read a story today, but we can still do our secret handshake and two big hugs."  Your child may not be happy about the change in routine, but the fact that you've normalized what you do every day will help them to understand the change.

The other element of creating a routine that will help your child experience that valuable consistency and predictability is making a plan and sticking to it, even when things feel tricky or highly emotional, or so fun that you don't want to leave!  A reliable goodbye routine will help your child build the knowledge that the transition into their day is safe and predictable.

Calm Parent, Confident Child
A preschool classroom is full of sensory input in the morning.  It can be a bit overwhelming, for parents and children alike.  One way that parents can help keep the environment (relatively) calm, is to have a steady, even demeanor as their children acclimate to the day.

This can be really hard!  If your child is feeling super sad about being dropped off, we know that this can feel heavy and sad to their adults as well.  Retaining a stance of confidence and calm (until you leave the classroom) will let your child know that you trust them to be okay on the other side of the transition .

If a child is feeling really excited and wants you to throw them in the air a few times before you leave, it can feel so good to join them in their happy, silly energy.  Children are helped the most, though, by feeling a calm, steady energy from their adults, even or especially when emotions are feeling high.   This also helps your child feel confident that they know the agreements we have at school - consistency and clarity about our agreements helps everyone feel safe since we know it never works, for example, to run in the hall, even when parents are still here.

Ask for Help!
While your child's teachers have a lot going on in the morning, we always also make sure that we are available if help is needed during the transition.  Maybe there's information about your child's morning that we need to hear, maybe your child is clinging to you and you need to hand them to another adult to feel good about leaving, maybe your child has questions about the day that a teacher can help answer so they know what to expect.  We are all so happy and eager to help in these moments.  Not wanting to interfere in your daily routine, we will most likely take a step back unless a parent asks us to step forward, so please don't hesitate to ask.  Our job is to be on the same team with you and your child, helping everyone to navigate the transition into the day.  In order to feel the most available, it's so helpful if families arrive during our free play and table work time before 9:00, but we know that isn't always possible, so please do let us know you need a hand - even if we look busy.

We are so grateful for the families that make up our Tumbleweed community.  We value the opportunity to connect with parents and other family members in the morning, and we admire and are touched by the drop off rituals we witness daily, from a special hand washing song, to a specific window to wave goodbye, to a sweet phrase that's repeated again and again.  We thank the adults and children of Tumbleweed for their efforts to make drop offs wonderful.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Emotional Intelligence in The Classroom

In my most recent blog post, I wrote about my new favorite book, No Drama Discipline , the concepts presented in the book and how I apply it to to my work with children. You can read that here. Today, I am excited to share my experiences I’ve had talking with the children at the preschool house about the inner workings of their brains.

I’ll start by introducing a couple of  our characters. There’s “Alerting Allie” who lets us know if our body is in danger. Make way for “Flexible Fred” who helps us compromise with our friends. After introducing these  characters and their feelings, the kids set up the brain-house: putting the downstairs below and the upstairs on top. Alerting Allie lives downstairs to keep us safe, but Problem Solving Pete lives upstairs to make sure we are making the right choices.  I lay the basis of the storyline with the kids to help them grasp the idea of how our brain works, explaining that the downstairs folks need to send messages up the ladder to the upstairs characters so the brain is able to do what it is supposed to do when everyone is working together. 

Our brain  supports us with the ability to manage, vocalize, and identify  feelings that help us make good choices, get along with our friends and self soothe to help us get out of sticky situations. Adding conflict in the story is a great way for the children to creatively brainstorm ideas about resolution in which they feel pride and ownership, which will in turn foster more motivation about actively applying these new tools. I add in dialogue like: “Oh no! Alerting Allie spots some danger! Frightened Felix panicked and now we don't know where we are going. Boss Bootsy sounded the alarm to prepare our body for danger. He shouts ‘the downstairs are the leaders now! Our upstairs friends can work together again when we are safe!. ” 

This is Bootsy (our downstairs brain) flipping the lid on the upstairs brain. This means the stairs are no longer connected and our messages from downstairs won't make it to the upstairs, causing all kinds of commotion in our brain house. Sometimes flipping the lid is what keeps our bodies safest. Bootsy signals other parts of our body to either turn on or off; for example our downstairs brain can help warm up our muscles so we are able to run really  fast, or help keep our body super still to keep quiet. When storytelling with the children I tend to keep this part very light, using examples that won’t actually happen (so we can imagine these ideas in a playful way!). “What would Alerting Allie do if you met a dinosaur on the playground?”

We all sometimes flip our lids (even teachers!), and I’ll  remind the children of this, again in a light tone. “One time I was looking for my pen and I couldn’t find it ANYWHERE! I kept looking in the same place because my downstairs brain took over and flipped my lid so my brain wasn’t working properly”. Sometimes our downstairs brain gets it wrong, and  we flip our lids when we actually still need the upstairs gang. Although we all flip our lids, children tend to flip their lids a lot more than we do as adults. I remind them how much practice we have using Problem Solving Pete and Calming Carl and that’s why you don’t see grownups laying on the supermarket floor screaming for chocolate (hopefully),  even though grownups love chocolate just as much as children do. In addition to this reminder I use examples from my day with them when I worked with Problem Solving Pete or Calming Carl. "Earlier when I went outside I was so frustrated because I forgot my coffee. I wanted to scream, but I talked to Pete and he reminded me I could still go get it. Calming Carl then helped me breathe slower and my heart stopped pounding so fast."

Friday, February 8, 2019

Anti-Racism and Our Classroom

To recognize the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday this year, we have been talking about citizenship, service, and anti-racism.  On Tuesday morning we discussed why our school had been closed this Monday.  We all agreed that for schools and businesses to be closed for someone's birthday might mean that that person was important and special.  We wondered at morning group time, what made Dr. King so special?  What did he stand for and what can we learn from him?

As we discussed Dr. King's legacy and some reasons why the teachers admired him, we were sure to speak about racism truthfully and age-appropriately.  I asked, "Did you guys know that people are sometimes treated differently because of their skin color?" and even more specifically, "Have you heard of people with light skin treating people with dark skin unfairly?"  This information doesn't come as a shock to preschoolers, who are avid observers, constantly taking in both spoken and unspoken information about the way the world works and how people are treated.

One thing that is amazing about preschoolers is that they are fierce advocates for justice.  Fairness and unfairness are huge concepts for children of this age and because of this they are eager to know how they can help make their classroom, their community, and the world more fair.  At two to five years old, this group of children understands where their skin color comes from - their ancestors, the sun, and melanin - and that while our skin color can be one of many unique and interesting attributes we have, it isn't something that should affect how people are treated.  That's unfair, plain and simple, and easy for preschoolers to understand when explained in these terms.

The injustice of racism brought up big feelings for the group.  Adults who wish to be advocates for anti-racism are familiar with these feelings: anger, sadness, fear.  Those feelings are hard, and we don't want to overwhelm children, but our goal also isn't to create comfort or complacency around these issues, because injustice and racism exists. Overwhelm can also lead to a feeling of helplessness, which is also not what we want.  For me, what helps to integrate these feelings of anger and sadness is action.

As teachers we want to offer actions to children that are attainable right now.  Some of our ideas: If you hear someone say something mean or treating someone poorly based on another person's skin color, tell them that's not okay.  If you notice someone who is different from you, try and get to know them and ask them questions.  If it's an adult, you could ask one of your trusted adults to help you.  You can also ask yourself and your trusted adults questions when you're wondering about someone's differences.  Ask your parents about doing a service project as a family.  Participate in our school service projects.

We also want to offer hope and momentum for change.  One of the best way to do this is to learn about the history of activism and change-makers, from the Civil Rights Movement in which Dr. King was a leader to more recent movements such as Black Lives Matter.  Preschoolers see their own desire for justice and action reflected in the examples of activists from history and right now.

As a white teacher, part of my work is addressing my own internal biases, not becoming complacent, and inviting other teachers and parents to do this work with me.  Some resources that have been extremely helpful to me in my work are ReThinking Schools , So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo, and What If All The Kid Are White? by Louise Dermin-Sparks.  I believe talking about race and racism is essential to helping the next generation to recognize and dismantle bias, and I look forward to continuing discussion with both families and children in our schools.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Fully Human with Full Emotions

Communication and the words we use during our day with the children at Tumbleweed, can be a rich opportunity to offer ways to connect, process feelings, and even build neural pathways. It is also an important way to hone in on what we consider the important work in early childhood in regards to supporting emotional intelligence, relationship building skills, and identity work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the words I use to describe anything to the children in my care.  I spend my days thinking and re-thinking through everything - it’s how my mind works and a powerful tool in building my skill and wisdom as a teacher. Recently I began to notice when talking to the children that at times I added a word or two to my communication which may indirectly minimize the emotion and activity of the children. I started to notice that I would say phrases like, “just”, “a little”, and other qualifying phrases when I was either describing a child’s emotional state or their behavior.

  You’re feeling a little angry”

You’re just tired”

“They gave you a little push”

When I stepped back to really analyze my intention, I realized that these small words carry a heavy weight. It also brought to mind the ideal of childism, an often systematic condition that is prejudicial and/or discriminatory towards children. I recently came across an article regarding this topic, which was so beautifully explained by Sara from Happiness Is Here blog:

You can likely see examples of childism every time you step out of the house or open up the internet. Every day, in many ways, children receive the message that they are less important, less deserving of respect, unequal, and inferior, whether we mean to send that message or not. It is so ingrained into our society the majority don’t even recognize it.”

This makes me wonder: How do our words, even our unintentional ones, make the emotions and actions children experience small and inconsequential?  How can we start to see children as fully human from birth with a full range of emotions?

The natural answer for me was returning to Magda Gerber, founder of RIE, who talks about using tools like, sportscasting what you see children doing, integrating ideas of mindfulness, being objective and non-judgmental, being an active observer vs active participant, noticing emotions and actions as I see them, and modeling my own emotions and actions honestly and truthfully. So by removing the qualifying words, it transformed my communication with the children to come from a place of truth and reflection: 

You are feeling sad.”
You are angry that your tower got knocked over.”
“They hit you! I can see that made you feel _______ (frustrated, angry, etc).”

Observing and verbally reflecting, while giving space for their unique feelings and experiences is the best way for us to support healthy, emotional intelligence.  Our goal always is to show the children in our care that, “I hear you, I see you, I accept you.” That there is no emotion that is too powerful that we cannot handle, and we will give them the best way to process and learn how this is part of their identity.

The Brain House: Building Strong Foundations for Emotional Intellegence

This past month I have read and reread the book No Drama Discipline by Dr. Dan Siegel. I was amazed by what I was reading and upon finishing the book I had two immediate thoughts: every new parent should be handed this book and any person working in the education sector in any capacity should be required to read this. This book explains how the brain develops, how it works and how to relate and support children as they learn to identify, deal with, and learn from their emotions. The book provides concrete examples and lessons so the reader has a healthier understanding of what children are facing on the inside. It shows how to connect with them, help them to feel safe and how to become proficient in teaching the most effective lessons.

It can be frustrating when it seems there is nothing you can do to get through to a child, you’ve exhausted every last consequence (positive or negative) and you resort to punishing your child and maybe even engaging  in behavior you aren’t proud of. I will be the first to say that it is hard to admit defeat with a child and it makes you feel completely powerless. It can become argument after argument with and sometimes asked myself, “Why can’t they just listen?”. After trying countless teaching practices and numerous discipline approaches it has become fairly clear to me that when emotions are high it is impossible to have clear communication. While a child is in a state where they are consumed by their feelings, their actions are emotionally driven. If we fight back with emotion it will only escalate the situation.

Mindfulness is something we talk about often and this is a great opportunity to take a step back and breathe. Practicing mindfulness with children is important so that when situations arise they are able to self soothe. In No Drama Discipline Siegel talks about the "upstairs" brain (neocortex - our thinking brain)  and "downstairs" brain (the limbic system - our feelings brain), and sometimes our brains can become overwhelmed with feelings such as fear, sadness or anger, and when this happens it is confusing for children. If they are operating from their "downstairs" and you are trying to talk to them "upstairs" they won't hear you.
Giving children ways to make sense of what's happening in their brain is so important, but this is a lot of information for them to process. I like to create stories to better help them understand. For example: I will use characters that live in a house together, some upstairs and some down. I tend to give them silly names like frightened Fred and calming Carl but maybe you can think of your own names with your child. The downstairs folk are the feelers. They are very focused on keeping us safe and making sure our needs are met. Our instinct for survival originates here. These characters look out for danger, sound the alarm and make sure we are ready to fight, run or hide when we are faced with a threat. 
Don’t expect to move all the characters into the brain house and unpack on the same day; moving house takes time, and so does learning about brains. Start the conversation and revisit it. Using similar vocabulary so they can get acquainted with it, and practicing mindfulness activities are great ways to get started.

I would love to hear of ways you may explore the brain with your child!