Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Tough Talks: Answering Children's Questions about Scary Events

September 11, 2001 was the second day of school at the early childhood center where I was the director.  The parents, teachers, and I had worked carefully at orienting the children to the new school year, and they were adjusting beautifully.  As news unfolded that morning of the horrific events downtown, I understood my responsibility to protect our students and offer guidance to their teachers and parents.

The first thing I did was to speak to each teacher privately, directing her not to speak about the news in front of the children.  We were all shocked and scared.  We didn't know what scenarios the children might encounter at home.  Our priority was to maintain an emotionally safe environment; to protect them from the news for as long as possible.  I also cancelled outdoor play for that day.  We just didn't know enough about the dangers and what might happen next.

Many parents opted to pick their children up early from school that day.  They felt safer having their children by their side.  For those that remained, I assured parents that we were doing everything in our power to keep them safe.

Some parents kept their children away from the television news, others didn't.  A few families lost friends or relatives.  There was a range of exposure among our classes.  One boy continually built a tower of blocks and knocked it down with a toy car.  A little girl began withholding her urine. I maintained our policy of not initiating class conversations about the attacks, but prepared my staff to be open to listen and respond appropriately to the children's questions and concerns.  The children who expressed their worries behaviorally, like the two mentioned previously, were addressed individually and in partnership with their parents.

How do we answer tough questions from young children?  I have a two-pronged approach: 
 1.  Be honest and direct.  Answer the question simply.  Don't elaborate. 
 2. Reassure the child that he/she is safe.  You will protect him/her.

Children often bring out the best in us, and this is especially true at difficult times when we must be strong for them.  We keep our antennae up for any signs of worry and give extra loving comfort and attention.  When they verbalize their concerns in a question, we owe it to them to tell the truth.  The truth is never as scary as our imagination. But we don't have to tell the full story.  Most children neither want nor can understand the full story (can we?).  They need direct, simple, unembellished answers, in language they understand.  

Being truthful with our children shows them that they can trust us.  And building trust while they're young earns valuable dividends as they and their troubles grow up.  We always want our children to turn to us first with their questions.  One of the greatest accomplishments I felt as a mother was when someone told my children something and they would ask, "Is that right Mom?"  They learned to trust me. 

Young children are by nature egocentric.  Developmentally, they are not yet able to understand life from someone else's viewpoint.  Therefore, the underlying question when asking about scary things is always, "Will this happen to me?".  They need to be reassured that yes, bad things sometimes happen, but you are safe.  We love you and will always take care of you.

We can't prevent bad things from happening in our lives, but we can help our children understand the good and bad in life at their developmental level.  We can help them build trust, resilience and compassion.  Tapping into our own sources of hope and faith, we can envelop our children in love and keep them happy and confident.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Back to School: Ready or Not

I have been involved in education since forever, in many roles:  student, parent, teacher, and administrator.  Every year, regardless of role, the anticipation of the new school year comes as a combination of butterflies and high hopes.  Students get a fresh start and resolve that this year they will take better notes, participate more in class, stay on top of assignments.  Parents outfit their children with supplies, line up carpools, make after-school arrangements and think about workable routines.  Teachers set up classrooms,  prepare syllabi, lessons and materials, attend professional development meetings and determine to reach and teach every child to his/her highest potential.  Administrators finish schedules and class lists, plan new programs, orient students, faculty, and parents.  We all put so much energy into preparing for this auspicious beginning.  And time moves quickly.  Each year, when asked if I were ready for school, my answer was always, "Ready or not, here we go!"

Preparing for school is somewhat different for very young children and their parents.  A child entering an early childhood program for the first time may be anxious about separating from his/her parents.  One of the best ways to help him/her prepare is to discuss routines.  "You will play with toys, read books, eat snack, and then mommy/daddy/babysitter will pick you up".  Knowing what to expect calms children; they gain a sense of control by following routines.  In time, when they see that they are consistently picked up at the same time each day, they can relax and enjoy the class activities.  

Most programs for young children will have some sort of orientation program before the first day of school.  This will give the children a picture of where they will be spending their time, as well as an opportunity to meet their teachers.  A brief, individualized exchange with the teacher is an important first step in making a connection and establishing trust.  In addition, many programs offer a staggered schedule for the first few days to ease children away from their parents and into their new routines.  And if your school permits, bringing a special toy from home may help provide an "anchor" while exploring new territory.

For children who are returning to early childhood programs, the preparations are much easier.  They are already familiar with school routines and with a certain amount of independence from home. Living in the present as they do, they are highly unlikely to worry about the new school year.  Getting these children ready for school is more about establishing healthy routines at home. They need regular bedtimes and lots of sleep, and regular, healthy meals and snacks. Their time on electronics should be limited. Unstructured playtime, outdoors and inside, interacting with friends and family, and being read to daily fully prepare a child to absorb any lessons offered in school.

Your own attitude about the upcoming school year is another major factor in your child's ability to transition well.  Children are fine-tuned to our feelings.  If we are confident and enthusiastic about their school placement, they will be more comfortable about entering a new environment.  On the other hand, if we are uneasy or ambivalent, even without telling them in words, they will be too.

These tips may seem overly-simplified, but they are incredibly powerful, and their importance should not be minimized.  A child who lacks sleep loses focus and sometimes control of his/her emotions.  A child who lives on junk food will lose energy and can be irritable.  A child who spends most of his/her time on electronic devices cannot think for himself.  He looks to be entertained or directed.  His play is shallow and unimaginative.  And his fine motor skills are underdeveloped.  And a child who is solitary, with few communicative interactions and unstructured play, may lag in language skills.  A well cared for child follows healthy routines at home, and is equipped to learn.  A child whose parents are confident about his school placement is ready for a smooth transition from home to school.

Preparing for a new school year takes a lot of thought and energy.  School can be a very exciting place, rich in meaningful experiences that make a real difference in our lives.  Get ready...and have some fun.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Raising Readers

There are many well known benefits of high quality early childhood education, and parents enroll their children with high hopes.  Among these benefits is the opportunity to develop strong foundational skills in reading. Building literacy skills is an important educational goal of the early years.  However, parents' understanding of the reading process is often dramatically at odds with what early childhood educators hold to be best practice. And this difference in understanding can lead to stress and anxiety in teachers of young children and misunderstanding on the part of parents. 

Most parents look at reading at its face value, simple decoding of words.  Many believe that acquiring this skill as early as possible means that a child is smarter, or more advanced than his/her peers.  At the beginning of one school year, the mother of a 2 year old came to my office (I was the Early Childhood Director) and told me that her child knew the alphabet.  "What can you do for him?", she asked.  I should have taken more time to think, but my immediate response was, "I can teach a parakeet the alphabet.  It doesn't mean anything."

Reading is a process that begins at birth and continues through the college years.  It is one of the four components of fluency in any language:  listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  If you think about it, reading is directly related to listening.  We receive the communicative expressions from a partner, and make meaning from those words to understand his/her message.  In the same way, writing is similar to speaking.  We encode our thoughts into words so that our communicative partner can understand what we mean to say.  In every case, the core value of language is using words to make meaning.

When you look at the reading process in this way, you can see that the first important step in learning to read is to acquire a rich vocabulary; to soak up as many life experiences as possible in order to build a repertoire of meaningful words.   So for example, when it comes time for a child to decode the word "a-p-p-l-e", he or she has already had direct experience with apple trees; with sorting apples by color; with tasting a variety of apples and enjoying the juice and crunch; with cutting apples in different shapes, removing the seeds and planting them; drying apple slices; making applesauce, apple pie, etc. When this child reads the word "a-p-p-l-e" , it is so much more than a mere collection of letters to sound out.  The word apple comes with a world of meaning.

Another equally important component of learning to read is to develop a disposition for reading.  In becoming proficient readers, children learn that reading is pleasurable.  We want them to turn to reading for fun, relaxation, and information.  There are a couple of ways to encourage this disposition.  One is something I mentioned in my last post, "Look Ma No Hands".  That is to remember that the trusted adults in our children's lives are very real role models.  If they see us using books for fun and information, they are more likely to want to do the same.  And most effective is to join our children in reading.  To my mind, there is no better way for a child to end the day than being wrapped in a fluffy towel after a warm bath, dressing in cozy pj's, and sitting with mom or dad for a book or two before bed.  The words and images procured from books are the stuff dreams are made of.

A powerful way to build reading skills in young children is to appeal to the the way they learn best:  play.  Nursery rhymes, fingerplays, circle games, chants, tongue twisters.  There are many fun ways for children to play with words and sounds and in so doing to develop phonological awareness and a love of words.

The driving literacy goal of early childhood education is to provide rich, meaningful experiences, relevant to our children's lives, putting those experiences into words.  Reading to them, playing with them, enveloping them in a love of words and language. Long before they begin to decode letters into words, young readers will have a natural sense of the sounds of language and a rich context of meaning to draw from.

Do you enjoy reading with your children?  Do you worry about them gaining academic skills?  Was this helpful?  Share your thoughts!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Look Ma, No Hands!!: Sharing Ourselves with Our Children

Whenever I took my kids to a playground or park or even just sat outside while they played, they inevitably and constantly called, "Watch me!  Mom, watch me!!".  I would look once or twice and then get annoyed.  "Just play!  Why is it only fun if I watch?".

Well, because mostly it is.  Kids are often more engaged in play when adults join them.  I learned that when I was 19  and worked the summer as a Recreation Leader in a public park about a block from my home.  The city supplied me with crafts materials for the kids; lanyard, crepe paper, markers, etc.  But unless I joined them in crafting something, very few children were interested.  That went for games too.  They were much more likely to play kickball or duck-duck-goose if I played too.

As an early childhood educator, I learned to deeply appreciate this child-quality.  I found it to be an innate mechanism children employ to acquire skills and values.  Children, like everyone else, want to be noticed, to be heard.  They want to know that we value whatever it is that they may care about.  They will look to loving adults to confirm that "Yes, you're a good climber; yes, that bug is fascinating; yes, you can jump really high".  Our confirmation makes it true.

When we in turn share our passions and interests with children, and actually live the values we profess to care about, we can profoundly shape their understanding of the world and even help to build their character. We don't have to tell our children what's important to us.  They know since infancy what we value, by our actions, our tone of voice, our body language.  Long before they can speak, our babies are watching us carefully, and learning.  My grandfather, who smoked at least a pack a day until he died at age 80, used to say, "Do what I say, not what I do".  Sorry grandpa, that didn't work.  I smoked cigarettes for 13 years.  The opposite of that refrain is actually true:  children learn from what we do and who we are, not from what we say.  

A few months ago some of my high school students and I were discussing the qualities they felt made a good teacher.  The consensus was, 'someone who loves sharing his/her passion'.  Think about your favorite teacher(s).  I'll bet he/she was enthusiastic about the subject matter and cared a lot about the students with whom he/she shared it.

So, I make an effort to put down my book or crossword puzzle and play with my grandchildren.  And  when something cool snags my interest, I'll call them over and say "Hey, take a look at this!".

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

All You Need Is Love:

When I was pregnant with my first child, I worried about the future life of the little person within me.  Who would this child be?  How and where would she make her life?  Thoughts about the responsibilities of raising her washed over me like a giant wave of fear and awe.  I relied on one of my mother's many pithy remarks (my kids and I now call them "Nani-isms"):  "All you have to do is love your child".

Well now, what parent doesn't love his/her child?  That seemed easy enough.  And in hindsight, I actually think my mother was right for once.  What I needed to learn was the physical practice of love.  What does it look like to love your child?  How does that love inform your actions and decisions?

Love is a warm and cozy feeling.  It's hugs and kisses and smiles.  It's looking at your child with an insatiable hunger for every part of him/her.  It's giving, giving, giving, no matter what you have, need, or want, to keep your child happy, well-fed, and safe.  That's the easy part of love. 

The hard part doesn't feel so great.  It hurts to hear our child cry.  We hurt when our children hurt.  But love means that sometimes they have to cry.  We can't let them eat candy for dinner, for example, or run and play on a busy street.  Young children don't understand what's best for them, and they protest when we say "No".  No, you can't stay up late, you can't use my phone without permission, you can't use markers on the walls.....

Sometimes "no" is the first word a child learns.  But that's not a bad thing.  Parental love is double-sided. On one side is the warm, cozy, good-feeling stuff, and on the other side is "No".  Look at the 10 Commandments:  half are things we can do, and half are things we can't.  Setting up rules is a sign of love, of caring.  We feel safe knowing the limits.  

Years ago, it was considered prudent to spank children.  "Spare the rod and spoil the child".  I like to think of the rod as the one a shepherd uses to keep his sheep together; to guide them, not beat them.  Think about the well-known Psalm 23: "Your rod and your staff comfort me."  Your rod keeps me in line, prevents me from straying from what is best for me.  Your staff shows me where you are; I know you're there to keep me safe.

Learning when to say yes and when to say no is probably the hardest part of parenting.  When do I hold on to my child, when is it okay to let him go?  We have to think hard about the outcome of every decision we make, big or small, and make sure it aligns with what we know in our heart is best for our children.  Then we can bask in our children's smiles or rest easy knowing that their present tears are necessary for their own well-being.  Awesome, awesome work. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

10 Years After

Gruesome photo, I know.

Last month was the 10th anniversary of my sister's death.  As an Orthodox Jew with an Italian Catholic family, mourning Gina has been painful.  In Judaism, there are prescribed outlets for grief and for honoring the departed, which serve to comfort the mourner and wean him/her back to life.  For example, immediately following the burial there is shiva; 7 days of sitting at home accepting condolences of friends and family. For a year, the mourner doesn't listen to music or attend parties.  And every year on the anniversary of the death, we light a candle and commemorate the day.  Even during services on certain holidays, there are special prayers recited only by those of us who have lost members of our immediate family.  

I don't follow any of these traditions.  They wouldn't be appreciated by my sister, or father, who passed a year after Gina.  There's little comfort for me.  Most people in my community are not even aware of my losses.  I feel a stark sense of just how different I am.  Different from the members of my Jewish community, and different from my own family.

My kids and I have found a way to remember Gina on her death-date, because she died on July 11th.  So we toast her with free Slurpees from 7-11.  Gina was an incredible aunt to my children.  

Gina was 4 years younger than me.  She had a heart of gold and was always giving of herself to others.  I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone.  She married young, and divorced after several years.  She never had children of her own.  In her early 30's, she complained of a backache.  Her doctor sent her for surgery to repair a slipped disk.  When the surgeon opened her up, he found tumors growing on the nerve sheaths of her spine.  She slowly deteriorated.  She had 5 surgeries and a lifetime dosage of radiation.  She went from using a cane to 2 canes and leg braces, to a wheelchair.  The last thing she did before losing her mobility was take my kids to Disney World.  

Gina was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes for close to 15 years.  I always left her side with a terrible sense of guilt.  I had my health, a loving husband, 5 beautiful children; everything.  And she had nothing.  Then one day, my perspective changed.  She was down to 80-something pounds, in a hospital, on morphine, so sick.  The nurse brought her a cup of cold apple juice.  As she sipped the juice, her whole body relaxed, she smiled broadly, and said, "Aahh, so good".  She took enormous pleasure in that small gift.

Anyone who can feel such gratitude for life's small pleasures is not to be pitied.  Gina was clearly beloved by G-d, no less than me with all my blessings.  Gratitude recognizes how much we are loved; how very precious each of us is.

I miss my sister very much.  My children, parents, and I were all present when she died.  Before she became unable to speak, I asked her if she was afraid.  She looked me in the eye and said, "Not anymore".

I don't know what to expect after this life.  But if there truly is a loving G-d, I know that Gina is wrapped in His arms right now.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Hey Siri : Generational Views on Technology

Remember Rosie, the Jetson's robot maid?  Well, she's got nothing on our modern day gal Friday, Siri!   Years ago, the idea of a disembodied, portable, know-it-all voice would have seemed like the ultimate space-age innovation.  And truly, Siri's capabilities are pretty astounding.  She has changed the way we travel, communicate, and look up information. Yet Siri can mean very different things to different people.

My 89 year old mother wouldn't trust Siri as far as she could throw her (it).  She pretty much feels the same way about all technology.  After all,she lived through a time when the push of a button set off an atomic bomb!   As far as she's concerned, ATMs lose your money.  A microwave ruins food (actually, she has a good point here).  And computers are unfathomable, magical devices that can wreak havoc and destruction with one wrong move.

I have mixed feelings about Siri.  I use her when I'm driving to make calls or texts, but she doesn't seem to have a good grasp of English.  Like my husband meant to leave a message saying, "if you pick up this message..." which transcribed as "if you pick up the cherries". (?)  She also doesn't distinguish between Holliswood, NY, where I worked, and Hollywood, CA.  Speaking of Holliswood, the maze of small streets there causes her to "recalculate" so often she actually breaks down.  So many of my interactions with Siri end up with me screaming at her about what an idiot she is.  

For my 16 year old granddaughter and her friends, Siri  is practically one of the girls. She helps them call and text one another and is the ultimate homework helper.. She's great at providing answers to quick questions like definitions of words or concrete facts. These girls take technology in their stride as an unremarkable fact of life.

Siri's biggest fan is probably my 2 year old granddaughter.  Young children are unafraid to push buttons, experiment, and explore.  I once caught her sneaking her mother's phone under a blanket.  She pressed for Siri and whispered, "Pees I have a soda?".  Diplomatically, Siri answered, "I'll have to look into that".  Now that's putting your trust in technology!

Technology continues to change at a rapid pace. Like all change, some of us are afraid of the unknown and some of us are ready and eager to embrace it.  My intention is to balance the caution of my mom with the enthusiasm of my grandkids; to be open to learning more about ways that technology can serve me in my life and relationships.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Time Flies: Staying Present

Today I was privileged to hear my oldest grandson Binyamin layn his Bar Mitzvah parsha from last summer. As it happens, my son Simmy had layned the same parsha for his Bar Mitzvah, 18 years ago.  Listening to Binyamin today, thinking about him and Simmy, made me think about the passage of time.

Adults often remark that time flies.  "It seems like yesterday"; "It's been how long? I can't believe it!".  This is especially true of teachers in June:  "This year went by so fast!".  Honestly, I don't feel that way at all.  I feel like I've been on this planet a long time.  I often wake up in the morning and think, "Really?  I get another day?".  But I do feel like large chunks of my life are missing, because I simply don't remember.  I remember incidents from my childhood, or from my children's childhoods, but much is lost to me.  I'm wondering if time just seems to pass quickly because many of our experiences get sucked into oblivion.

 I believe my faulty memory is due in large part to my failure to stay in the present moment.   John Lennon sings:  "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans".   It is so difficult to quiet my scattered thoughts and just be fully present to where I am and what I'm doing at any given moment.  My yoga instructor calls that "monkey brain"; my mind jumping from one random thought to another, like a monkey from branch to branch. 

We've all been advised,  "Enjoy your children while they're young; they grow up before you know it."  But our monkey brain often robs us of that enjoyment because we're too busy thinking of our endless to-do lists, or ruminating over some past hurt, or tensing up about some future event.  Or maybe we're checking emails, texts, posts; mindlessly jumping around our devices.

We can learn from children to live more in the present. Young children don't have an acute sense of time.  Days are measured by routines:  meal time, bath time, bed time.  So they are always in the present, always learning, reacting, and experiencing life in real time.  (The exception is when/if they're hooked up to screens, which rob them of real time.)  

Children spend their time playing.  Play is so important to them that most children are happy to play with whomever is available at the time.  They may fight over toys or their roles in play, but chances are they'll be best of friends again shortly. They don't waste time holding grudges.  Have you ever noticed how much quicker a young body heals from physical injuries than an older one?  The same is true of young egos.  Whatever is happening at the moment takes precedence over any insult, whether past or anticipated.  I read a study once that found that children laugh many, many more times a day than adults do.  No wonder.

At this stage of my life, it feels like my days are more precious.  I'm trying to tame the monkey, put away the phone when I'm with my loved ones, bring more play into my life and live every moment to its fullest.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Being Grandma: Leaving Discipline to Parents


The joys of grandparenthood are well known.  Don't all grandparents love to brag about their grandchildren, and share photos and anecdotes, even after their audience has lost interest?  There really is a special joy that comes from having young children in your family, that you neither bear nor raise.  You get to spoil and enjoy them without the burdens of 24/7 care and responsibility. The experience of having raised your own children also gives you a more relaxed perspective that can only come from truly seeing the big picture of growth and development.

Being a grandparent can be more challenging when you actually live with your children and grandchildren, as in an extended visit, for example.  Then you are present for the daily realities of tired, cranky, hungry, demanding, ornery, rude, tantruming, annoying, fighting beings that even the most delicious grandchildren can become!  And now, because you're not the parent, you walk a fine line.  Sometimes you can help in positive ways.  You can feed a hungry child, or read a book and cuddle with a tired child.  But you cannot discipline a child in the presence of his/her parents.  And often, you will disagree with your children's methods (of lack thereof) of discipline.

I've crossed that line more than once, and have always regretted it.  My grandchildren feel hurt; I'm supposed to adore them unconditionally, not find fault with them!  And my children feel hurt; mom is judging them unfavorably in raising their children, which is the most vital and heart-wrenching job of a lifetime!  

So, I am learning to take a breath, look the other way and, unless the issue is very serious, only give advice when I'm asked. 

Beauty Around Us: Observing Nature

Going about our daily business, it's easy to ignore the beauty that surrounds us.  But it's just as easy to open our eyes and hearts and seek out the small gifts of nature that can brighten our day, quicken our breath, and bring us a smile.

This is a reflection of palm trees on Risa's pool.  I was struck by the lovely juxtaposition of blues; the sense of calm and beauty that it brought me.  And I thought that this might be a good way to teach young children about colors and shapes.   

The world around us, both natural and man-made, abounds in colors and shapes.  Why not use these examples when exploring colors with young children?  For example, we name "blue", often with pictures or toys or plastic shapes.  But imagine the depth of meaning that "blue" takes on when we take children outside and observe blue in all its variations. Look at the sky at different times of day, during different weather conditions.  What is blue?  How many blues are there?  Can we reproduce those blues?  

How fun would it be to use paint chips for an outdoor matching/scavenger hunt?  Cameras, paint, or crayons can document the findings for a beautiful and meaningful bulletin board or homemade book. What a wonderful way to strengthen focus and attention skills.  And think of the expanded vocabulary developed as we give names to various hues or have children make up their own!

Most importantly, noticing the colors in our world reminds us that beauty, and its Creator, are always close at hand.