Monday, August 20, 2018

Life's A Beach

I know I'm neither alone nor exaggerating when I say that I love the beach.   As I resident of Long Island, I am never far from the beach, and even in winter will often walk the boardwalk.  And as much as I enjoy all the seasons, I can't deny feeling that most of the year is a prelude to summer, when I can finally sit in the sun, on the sand, and dip in the water.  Experiences at  the beach are multi-sensory and for me, intensely spiritual.

Growing up, my family went to the beach almost weekly every summer.  My father liked to fish, but got seasick, so he fished off the shore at Jones Beach.  We would get there early in the morning and stay all day.  I was mesmerized by the beauty and power of the ocean and would make up songs to sing to the waves (okay, I was that kind of kid), just describing its strength, sounds, taste, sparkles from the sun.  And at some point I realized that those songs were a form of prayer.  That in admiring the ocean, I was praising its Creator.  If the ocean is so stunningly beautiful and majestic, imagine what its Creator must be like!  And now that I think of it, look at the interplay between heaven and earth, the way the waves reach up to the sky, how the sky uses tides to pull the waves heavenward.  Isn't that what we're all reaching for?  I'll never forget a Donavan concert I went to years ago (anyone remember him?  "Mellow Yellow").  It was the late 60's  and he was advising the audience not to do drugs.  He said he understood the desire to get high because "we're all fallen angels and we want to get back to heaven".

As a parent and grandparent, one of my greatest joys is sharing my love of the beach with my children, and in doing so, teaching them how to navigate the ocean.  As it turns out, this is an excellent metaphor for living a meaningful life.  For example, we start with our toddlers standing at the shoreline to feel the water reaching for their feet.  But they quickly learn that standing still puts them in a rut.  At the ocean and in life it's important to keep moving, keep trying, choose a direction.  Otherwise we can get stuck in meaningless routines and feel like we're going nowhere.   Once our children are old enough to wade in a little deeper,  we teach them to pay attention to their surroundings.  I tell my kids to look for our beach blanket and to keep it directly in their line of vision.  The water tends to pull us sideways and often we need to  wade back from where it carries us.  In life too, we learn to keep our sights on our goals and values.  It's easy to get carried away by life's distractions and we often need to realign our actions with our true intentions.  

An older child is ready to ride the waves.  At first, this can be terrifying.  The waves are tall and strong and our instinct is to run from them.  But running from them will cause them to fall on us and knock us down.  Instead, we need to move toward the incoming wave, to face it and meet it before it breaks.  Then, it lifts us off our feet and sets us down again.  It's exhilarating!  In the same way, as hard as it is, we must face our fears head-on.  Forcing ourselves to try something that seems scary will only make us stronger.  As a new early childhood director, there were many times when I had to fight my nature to do my job; things like disciplining teachers, alerting parents to potential special needs, advocating to the board or other administrators for appropriate class size, best practice, etc.  To accomplish this, I followed the advice I gave above, ie., I kept my eye on my highest value, which was the best interests of the children.  And in doing so, I became stronger and better able to handle more complex and troubling issues as they arose.  (And they always do.)

Just like time, the ocean is always moving, never still.  Nothing lasts forever.  If we get knocked down by a wave, we know that it will eventually recede so we can get back up again.  We go through scary times in life, we feel pain.   But hard times recede, pain ebbs or we learn to manage it.  When I was in labor with my first child, I was shocked and frightened by the intensity of the pain.  The midwife told me to ride it like a wave.  She said it will grow and crest, and then finally recede.  She was right, and I managed fine.

The ocean is mysterious.  There's a whole world underneath it, about which we know very little.  And even though we know the ocean ends at another shore, we can't see it.  We can't see the other side.  Like life.  We don't know everything.  We believe there's more on the other side of life but we can't see it or touch it.  The best we can do is make the most of what we can see and to continue learning as much as possible to make our experience, on the beach and in life, as safe, fun, and meaningful as possible.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Nonverbal Communication

 I  volunteer at the Long Island Children's Museum, a magical place where children actively engage in tons of fascinating and fun exhibits. Week after week, I have a blast interacting with children of all ages and entering their world of wonder, curiosity and play.  This week, I worked in Tot Spot, a play space dedicated to the youngest museum visitors.  While a facilitator conducted conversations with parents in a separate area, I and other volunteers monitored the babies and toddlers.  I connected with two youngsters in particular, a 9 month old girl and a 2 year old boy.  Each of them had some difficulty separating from their parents, but I managed to win them over and they both became attached to me.  The boy had only a few words and the girl was non-verbal.  Yet we communicated with ease and  really enjoyed each other.   That got me thinking about nonverbal communication.  I know it's essential  to children's sense of security and connection, but how specifically does it work?

For the most part, our interactions with others, including children, are natural and spontaneous.  We initiate or respond to conversations and actions freely, without lots of forethought.  So it's difficult to look back and identify the specific behaviors that led to my connection with the two small children at the museum. But that's what I've tried to do because I think it can help us learn a lot.  

I met the girl first.  She was sitting in a stroller while her older sister moved around playing.  I suggested to the mom that she put the baby in the cushioned pit with infant toys.  I got into the pit with her and starting rolling a toy to her, saying "Whee!" We made eye contact.  She grabbed the toy and tossed it.  I used simple language to talk about what we were doing as we continued this game, and that was it!  We connected!  Eventually another baby bumped into her and she cried, so I scooped her up and took her to another area.  That's where I  met the boy.

I sat the baby on the floor right next to me, near some shelves of plastic foods.  I took the foods out one by one, named them, and gave them to her to hold.  As she dropped them, I put them in a basket and she continued to explore.  The little boy was also taking food from the shelves.  I asked his father his name, and used that often in speaking to him.  I made eye contact, and basically narrated what he was doing.  "You're putting broccoli in your basket...Your basket is almost full.."  I challenged him to try new things "Can you walk in the garden?  Would you like to plant the banana..etc." (you had to be there).  Anyway, I continued chatting with him and the baby, and they both played near me.  The baby was bouncing up and down as she grabbed new toys, and the boy and I were laughing as he tried new activities.  

I've identified 5 strategies that helped me communicate with these nonverbal children: 

1.  Enter their world.  With the girl, I got into the infant pit and played with the toys.  With the boy, I narrated his actions and used simple questions to extend his play.  With both, I brought my body down to their eye level.

2.  Make eye contact. Smile. It's magic, it works. 

3.  Keep your body relaxed and your voice pleasant.  I was there to help them have fun and keep them safe.  Both of those messages are relayed by tone of voice and body language.

4.   Treat the child like a communicative partner.   Talk.  Narrate what he's doing.  Ask simple questions.  Wait for an answer, even if it's nonverbal.

5.  Respond appropriately to their body language and facial expressions.  When the baby cried, I moved her to another area.  When she was bouncing and grabbing, I knew she was happy.  When the boy stiffened up after I suggested he try the slide, I let it go.  When he looked for more toys to put on the conveyor belt, I knew he was having fun.

Nonverbal communication is a powerful teaching tool.  Young children are experts at interpreting our body language, tone, and facial expressions.  We don't need to tell them  how we feel and what we value, because they know by watching us.  I recently read that if our nonverbal communication differs from our verbal communication, a child will believe the nonverbal cues.  If we want our children to trust us, we must be genuine with them.  At the same time, by understanding what our children are communicating with their behaviors, tone, gestures, and facial expressions, we can meet their needs for security and connection and open the doors to rich learning and growth.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

Last night, I watched "The Notebook", one of the most romantic movies ever.  A particular scene set off an "aha" moment for me.  Allie (Rachel McAdams) was engaged to be married to a handsome, wealthy man whom she loved.  But then she reignited a romance with her first true love (Ryan Gosling), a boy she had met during the summer she was 17 and hadn't seen or heard from in years.  In this scene, Allie and her fiancee were discussing her dilemma, trying to understand her feelings and make a choice.  She said, "It's like I'm one person with him, and another person with you."  

Children are authentic.  As children, we are our true selves .  Who we were before we graduated high school is who we are now.  Your childhood friends know you and understand you in a way that's hard to replicate with friends you meet as an adult.  And the bonds we forge with friends in our youth last forever.  Even after decades of not seeing each other, reconnecting with an old friend feels like picking up where we left off.  Old friends make us feel "at home", because they remind us of who we really are.

Before we graduate high school, we are "just kids".  We typically spend our days with a core group of friends.  We have few responsibilities beyond school work, chores at home, and maybe a part-time job.  After high school, we have to make decisions and choose what we want to do. And we come to be defined by the roles that result from those choices:  our jobs, our marital status, our religious and political affiliations, whether or not we have children.  But what I've come to understand is that these roles describe what we do, not who we are.  These choices we've made as adults inform how we spend our time.  I teach, I take care of my children, I advocate for human rights... .  And when we meet new people, these roles are the criteria we use to describe who we are.  But that's not who we are; that's just what we do.  Who we are goes much deeper, and is hard to articulate.  Most of us are at a loss to describe who we are; sometimes our friends know us better than we know ourselves.  Yet friendship takes time; it takes time to really know a person.  And time is a rare commodity for most adults.

 This idea sheds new light on the age old question we ask young children, "What do you want to be when you grow up?".  It's a fun question, hopefully giving insight to a child's interests and particular way of thinking.  But it's important to understand that a child is not becoming something.  A child already is.  As parents and teachers, our role in a child's upbringing is to study, appreciate, and support his authentic self.  Interestingly, just as old friends know us better than anyone else, I have found that as a teacher of young children, when my former students become adults, I know them better than most people, even if I haven't seen them in years. Because I knew them when they were "just kids"; just pure souls whose only role was to make their way through life.  So the real question behind "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is "Who are you?".  Let me know you now, so I can know you forever.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The School Yard

If you were to ask any child, at any period of time, to name the best thing about school, the answer would inevitably be, "Recess".   Recess is the one unstructured time of day when kids are free to do what they like without adult restrictions.  Although recess is technically supervised by adults, the truth is that most adults see recess as their free time as well.  One of the greatest challenges as a school administrator was getting the teachers to break up their conversation clusters on the playground and actually watch the children.  Spending long hours with children leaves teachers lonely for adult companionship, and the playground is one of the few places where they can meet.

In thinking about recess, I came to a fascinating insight:   the activities most children choose at this time of day have not changed over the years.  Typically, the sexes separate at recess.  Boys tend to play sports.  All they need is a ball to organize a game of kickball, football, or basketball.  Boys seem very intent on rules, fair play, and competition.  And in their world, the skills in the school yard are way more important than their skills in the classroom.  

The school yard is also the place where scores are settled, and boys fight.  When I was a kid, boys' fights were common. But I remember an incident even years later,  when I was an educator.  I was in the playground, when a second grade boy came to me in tears, telling me that another boy hurt him.  In typical early childhood mode, I called the other boy over.  "So-and-so said you hurt him.  What happened?".  He answered, "Yeah, I kicked his ass.". (!!!) 

Girls' games are more about turn-taking and improving skills, but not necessarily competitively.  My friends and I spent recess playing jump rope, usually with chants; "Strawberry Shortcake Huckleberry Pie....".  We made our own Chinese jump ropes with rubber bands and chanted "Anna Banana Plays the Piana...".  But the real stars of the school yard were the black girls, because they could jump Double Dutch.  They swung two ropes toward each other, like an egg beater, and had the best chants and rhythms.  I was mesmerized.  

It seems that even today, jump rope continues to be a favorite recess activity among girls. Otherwise, girls tend to walk around in groups and chat.  Another incident occurred with a second grade girl once while I was supervising recess.  Her friends came to me to tattle.  Apparently, she was talking to a sixth grade boy in another school on a cell phone, and told her friends that it was her boyfriend.  I called her over to speak to her and she broke down in tears.  The phone was broken, it didn't work.  She was pretending to talk to a boy so the other girls would think she was cool.

It's interesting that the sexes still tend to separate in the school yard, unless there is  equipment such as slides and monkey bars.  So even though there seems to be an effort today to deny gender differences, it's clearly natural for boys and girls to play separately. Boys and girls are different, and I believe it's healthy for them to learn about themselves and feel a sense of belonging .  Children need to be comfortable with their own gender before they can try to relate to another.  Empathy for others begins with understanding ourselves first.

Sometimes recess is taken away as a punishment.  I think this is cruel and counter productive.  Children need to move their bodies and get fresh air as much as they need food and sleep.  And often, the children who are acting out are the ones who most need the freedom and space of outdoor time.  Punishment should ideally fit the crime; it should be a logical consequence to misbehavior.  Withholding a necessity like food or play time only hurts the child, doesn't help him.

  Times have changed, society and its mores have changed.  But the school yard teaches us that, amazingly, children have not really changed.  A seven year old today is physiologically the same as a seven year old was in 1960.  There's something comforting about that.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bless Your Children

Every child is a blessing.  When a child enters our life, we are changed forever.  Our hearts swell with a love so deep and pure that it cannot be described, only felt.   We put our children before ourselves;  our needs become secondary.   We become better people, more patient, generous, kind and strong, because we want to be the best we can be for them, to model the kind of person we want them to grow to be. Children let us touch the future.  They are our connection to immortality.

When we are blessed with children, we become partners in parenting with G-d, everyone's Father.  We look to Him for guidance in the awesome responsibility and privilege of nurturing a soul. Even those of us who don't believe in G-d recognize that every life is a miracle. All parents harbor hopes for their children's well-being.  Those hopes may be directed at life in general or the universe at large, but to me they express a spiritual association.

There's a beautiful Jewish custom to bless our children every Friday night, just as we begin Shabbat.  Typically, the father places his hands on each child's head and recites a prescribed blessing, one for girls and one for boys.  This blessing pleads with G-d to bless the child and watch over him or her, in the same way that we ourselves hope to nurture and watch over our children.  The Hebrew word for blessing is bracha, which implies multiplicity.  As parents, our job is to build our children up, to increase their strengths and help them grow physically, mentally, and emotionally.   At the same time, we try to protect our children, to keep them away from harm.  We discipline them with limits so that they can grow safely and healthfully.  

Blessing our children can take many forms, and does not need to be a ritual to be effective.  Our intention is to communicate love for our children and faith that they have what they need to blossom and thrive in this world.  It's important for children to know that they are beloved and protected by both parents and G-d.  My maternal grandfather, Salvatore Bonanno, was a deeply religious man.  He converted from Catholicism to the Pentacostal religion after my mother and her brothers were grown.  He became a deacon of his church, gave lots of charity, and prayed several times a day.  One day he was sitting in a chair and called me over to him.  He put his arm around me and In his broken English he asked, "Georgia, who is more important, your father on earth or your Father in heaven?".  I had been attending catechism classes; plus I knew my grandfather very well, so of course I answered, "My Father in heaven".  He was very pleased with me and made me feel that I was blessed; that I was completely surrounded by love and protection.  

Our children are not ours to keep (as hard as that is!).  While they are still in our care, we can treasure the blessings they bring us and in turn, make sure they feel blessed as well.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What Happened to You?

Last night I watched a piece on "60 Minutes" presented by Oprah entitled "Treating Childhood Trauma".  Oprah explored a new strategy for working with troubled kids called "Trauma Informed Care".  The basic premise of this approach is that when adults observe challenging or risky behaviors in children, they should change their initial question from "What's wrong with you?" to "What happened to you?". Trauma Informed Care proposes that the best way to correct self-destructive behavior is to focus on the personal experiences that preceded it.

In a post I wrote in December, "Where Are You?", I thought out loud about how the interplay between the uncontrollable factors in our lives and our decisions about what we do with those factors determines who and what we become.  But another piece to this involves the unconscious reactions we make in response to our environments, and how those reactions may remain with us for life. Often, destructive behaviors are coping mechanisms that we develop in order to help us block out physical or emotional pain; and even when the painful experience is over, consequent feelings that echo that pain will trigger this self-taught behavior.  For example, one of my favorite TV shows is "My 600 Pound Life". (I'm the only one in my family who can bear to watch it, but I find it absolutely fascinating.)  Just about every person who gets to be this size has experienced child abuse and turned to food for comfort.  Even after the abuse stops, food is associated with comfort and the victims continue to rely on it when faced with stress.  As the people in this show struggle to give up their food addictions, they inevitably become depressed.  They require psychological counseling to tell their stories, understand their misguided relationship with food, and replace it with healthy behaviors.

These are important ideas for teachers.  Every year and every class will present children with challenging behaviors.  Of course I'm not suggesting that every child with challenges has been traumatized; but rather that before attempting to manage a child's behavior, we should take a look at her as whole person, with a life outside the classroom.  What can we learn about her family dynamic? How does her culture affect her behavior?  What has her school experience been like up to now?  I once had a student who I considered defiant.  She slouched in her seat, didn't seem to pay attention, and often expressed herself with wise cracks.  I met with her personally and was humbled by my ignorance and prejudice.  This girl's mother was dying of cancer.  She had a twin sister who was severely handicapped.  Her father traveled a lot for business, so she was often in charge of the household.  My G-d, I looked at all my students differently after that.

The best way for educators to start any new school year is to take some time to get to know our students.  Some teachers use ice breakers for the students to discover and share information about each other.  Others may use a "sharing circle", surveys, or individual meeting times.  A broad picture of our students will help us understand them, develop their trust, and truly, effectively teach them.  

Life takes its toll on all of us.  I love this verse from Judy Collin's "Both Sides Now":  

"But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed.
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living everyday".

(Check it out:

Yes, we have our ups and downs.  And when we have the courage to look inside, at ourselves and others, we gain the strength to make the most of what life has to offer.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Telephone Free-For-All

How many times has this happened to you: your kids are playing quietly in another room, getting along nicely while you're attending to some chore, maybe washing dishes or checking emails.  Then the phone rings.  It's a good friend and you start to chat.   Two minutes into your conversation all hell breaks loose.  Your son jumps from the sofa and bangs his head on the coffee table.  Or he's suddenly ravenous, and nothing in the refrigerator will do.  Or he decides that this is a good time to tackle his little brother.  And you think, "Really?  They were so quiet a minute ago!".

You probably have also experienced the other side of the call.  You call your friend, and she's so happy to hear from you.  Then every thirty seconds she interrupts to talk to her kids, "What do you want?"; "Not now"; or "OMG I'll call you back!".

I call this phenomena "telephone free-for-all".  Kids who were perfectly content without your attention will suddenly act up to get it once you try to engage in a conversation with someone else.  And it only happens with conversations, not texting or emailing.  And it even happens with infants!  Have you ever noticed how a baby will stop nursing or drinking her bottle if you try to carry on a conversation with someone?  She looks around to see who you're talking to and only goes back when you stop talking.  What's going on?

Years ago, as mothers began to work full time outside the home, many of us worried about the effects of leaving babies and young children in daycare.  After awhile, the whole question of home vs. daycare became moot, because two paychecks and daycare for young children became a necessity for most families.  So the arguments evolved into defining principles of high quality care for these little ones.  A new child development theory emerged called "quality time".  I believe psychologists developed this theory in an effort to assuage any guilt feelings that mothers may have had for leaving their babies in someone else's care.  Quality time assured parents that the number of hours a day they spent with their children was irrelevant; that ten or fifteen minutes of focused, individualized attention were more important than being at home all day, where mom would spend most of her time attending to chores anyway.  My own theory of telephone free-for-all debunks the myth of "quality time".

Telephone free-for-all teaches me that children feel comfortable and secure just knowing that mom is nearby.  As long as she's not engaging with someone else, children get the sense that she is available to them.  Conversation, communication are the means of connecting with others.  It seems to me that on some level, children must feel excluded when their mother is connecting with someone else.  That connection takes her away, even temporarily, and along with her goes their sense of comfort and security.    Mom is the most important person in the world to a child, and the child wants to feel that he is the most important person in the world to mom. Always.

Spending quality time with our children is extremely valuable, whether we stay at home or work full time.  But it doesn't take the place of mom's presence.  Children feel safe when we're near them.  We don't need to do or be anything special.  They love us and need us just the way we are.

Sunday, February 25, 2018


I joined Facebook about seven months ago.  I'm not sure what took me so long, but I'm very glad that I finally did.  Reconnecting with old friends is a priceless joy, and of course along with that re-connection come the memories of happy, younger days. I notice that many people post mementos of days gone by and I've been wondering about the role of nostalgia in our lives.  Is it unhealthy to reminisce?  Can reliving happy memories make the present seem dull in comparison?  I actually think that the opposite is true.

Nostalgia is defined as sentimentality for the past, for a place or time with happy personal associations.  The word is derived from the Greek "nostos", which means "return home", most likely influenced by the travels of Odysseus and the memories of home that sustained him through his travels.  In this sense, visiting the past brings comfort, warm feelings, and hope.  Happy memories validate that we are loved, connected to others, and that our lives have meaning.  Nostalgia can alleviate feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and boredom. Happy memories are forever; they cannot be taken away from us.  As Humphrey Bogart said in "Casablanca", "We'll always have Paris."  We will always have the precious moments that live in our memories. No one can touch them.

Nostalgia can be painful if we use our memories to compare the past and the present.  Think of Stephen Still's line in "Suite:  Judy Blue Eyes", "Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now".  It's unproductive and untrue to think that things were so much better in "the good old days"; to regret our choices and think, "If only...".   Instead, we should derive strength from our memories, understanding that our personal history is what makes us who we are now.  We can make better choices today when we recognize and stay true to the sense of self that continues to live in our memories.

I am particularly fascinated with the role of music in our memories.  I recently read that the music we love from the ages of twelve to twenty-two gets permanently wired into our brains and becomes "the soundtrack of our lives".   It is at this stage of life that our self-identity emerges.  Our hormones heighten our emotions dramatically, and the music we enjoy infuses the most momentous years of our lives. Our favorite music is tightly connected with our memories, and its relevance to us does not weaken as we age.  No matter how many years have gone by, certain songs can make us  relive the feelings we had when we first heard them.  The opening licks of Eric Clapton's "Layla" still pull at my heart, and bring me back to my days in the college pub (my favorite hangout).  I know that my thirty-something daughter's heart still beats a little faster when she hears Hanson's "Um Bop".

A few days ago, I was feeling sad about the horrors in Florida, as well as missing my sister, who would have celebrated her birthday last week.  I posted Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted", which I have been singing to myself relentlessly for days.  It seemed very cool to me that the people who responded to the post were friends of mine from junior high school, when that song came out.  We all loved Motown (and still do) and I remember us singing together.  I know that these friends could absolutely relate to my feelings through this song, even though I didn't verbalize them.  We will always share that musical / nostalgic connection.

I read somewhere else that children as young as seven can feel nostalgic, particularly as they recall holidays and other celebrations.  We cannot tell which particular events will make their way into our children's memories.  All we can do is to make each day as positive and wonderful as we can. And listening to their memories as they grow may give us a better view into the personal history they are creating for themselves. 

So as important as it is to live in the present, an occasional trip down memory lane has definite benefits. Joni Mitchell sings, "We can't return we can only look behind from where we came".  Happy memories, a strong sense of self to make good choices now; a full life.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Early Childhood Education: A Teacher's Role

In "Early Childhood:  A Plea from the Field" , I wrote about the importance of the early learning years, and how early childhood educators are so often misunderstood and under-appreciated.  It's harder to measure learning in early childhood because there are no products to assess achievement; no tests, quizzes, homework, etc.  The early childhood curriculum is more focused on building developmental skills.  It's about process, not content.  And since children learn through play, an outsider to the field may not understand the teacher's role in the classroom.  What does the teacher do while the children play?

I began to understand how children learn through play when I was an undergraduate doing field work for a developmental psychology course.  I was volunteering at an inner city nursery school in Binghamton, NY.  One day I was playing catch with a three year old boy.  As we played, the teacher said to me, "Use language, Georgia."  So I started labeling what we were doing:  "Catch the ball.  Good catch.  Now throw it to me.  I missed! ", on and on, adding new words such as high, low, far, close, etc. in the context of our play.  Aha! That's how you learn through play.  Not only did the child have words to put to our actions, but he learned about the effects of his muscles on the trajectory of the ball.

Children learn enormous amounts about the world around them through play.  A gifted, qualified teacher can help her students rack up major educational advantages. Early childhood professionals understand the continuum of child development.  They know the steps needed to achieve goals. Through observations and interactions, they determine each child's place on that developmental continuum and create an environment for optimal learning.  

Let's think about learning to read for example. Learning to read is a process that begins at birth and is not completed until the college years.  Since reading is a form of communication, it is intimately connected to the other components of language:  listening, speaking, and writing.  So the first step in learning to read is to build a rich vocabulary of spoken words.  A baby listens to the sounds around her and begins to connect them with things and actions.  As a socially motivated being, she coos and babbles in an attempt to become  a communicative partner.  When paired with a responsive adult, she learns the meaning of words and eventually tries them out on her own.  

This is the very beginning, the foundation of reading.  A skilled early childhood teacher creates a literacy enriched environment that can maximize her students' potential for language acquisition.  She listens to the children's conversations and imaginative play roles, and introduces words and opportunities for extending learning.  If children are playing doctor for example, the teacher can add props such as a stethoscope, band-aids, mini flashlight.  She can give the children a clipboard and notepad for prescriptions, maybe an eye chart or xrays.  She can transcribe the children's role-playing ideas and encourage them to dictate stories.  She can include books about doctor visits in the class library and read them at story time. She can invite a doctor to visit the class, and encourage children to ask questions.  

The doctor scenario is a rough outline of how children's play can be enriched to promote their emerging literacy skills.  Meaningful vocabulary, concepts, and experiences with print are naturally woven into the children's self-directed activities.  Early childhood teachers have an arsenal of such activities to promote every aspect of developmental learning, including math, science, social studies, art, music, and social-emotional skills.  Every corner of the classroom, and every minute of the day, is carefully and intentionally planned to promote learning that is fun, active, and appropriate to the students.

It might be important to point out what the teacher has not done.  She hasn't ignored the children's play.  She hasn't given the children worksheets, coloring sheets, or other two dimensional pencil and paper tasks.  She hasn't lectured, or followed up a book with closed-ended questions.  She hasn't limited the children's experiences to conform with what she knows and thinks.  She isn't "playing school", watering down elementary curriculum to fit younger children.

An early childhood teacher is more of a facilitator of learning than a source and sharer of knowledge.  Her work is thoroughly connected to the children's current interests and developmental levels. Children and teachers are collaborators in uncovering lessons from classroom experiences.  The rewards can be remarkable:  a timid child gaining confidence; a pre-reading child dictating a detailed story, a child who has learned to use scissors, grasp a pencil, write his name.  There are also many intangible rewards, which may be hard to see. But we know that it is in the early childhood classroom that children learn about respect, responsibility, kindness and compassion.

No one enters the field of early childhood education to make a lot of money.  Teaching young children is as much a calling as it is a job, and early childhood educators are among the most committed, caring, hard-working and talented folks around.  Learning looks different in the early years, and it takes a qualified professional to understand that.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Kids Are People Too

Growing up, my favorite show to watch on TV was The Little Rascals.  I have a whole repertoire of quotes from those short movies, and to this day love watching them.  The Little Rascals are independent, resilient, resourceful, and really funny kids.  They made me feel like being a kid wasn't a handicap.  After all, kids don't have the freedoms, rights, and choices of adults.  Kids can feel powerless in a confusing world.  But the Little Rascals were not helpless.  In their world, kids could do and be and have just about anything.

Happily for me, my grandchildren are also fans of The Little Rascals. (Unhappily for my children, they're also quoting some of their favorite lines.) We watch episodes on youtube, and the kids laugh so hard they sometimes fall off the couch.  Recently, we watched a newer, color movie version which happened to be really good.  There were several cameos of famous people, such as Whoopi Goldberg as Buckwheat's mother.  In one scene, Spanky and some of the kids pretended to be adults so they could apply for a bank loan to rebuild their clubhouse.  The banker was played by Mel Brooks, and of course he saw through their disguise immediately.  As a busy banker, he was impatient and dismissive with them, and Spanky said, "Hey mister, you can't talk to people like that.".  And Brooks yelled back, "You're not people, you're a kid!".

Few of us would be rude enough to make that statement in real life, but the truth is that many of us convey that exact message to kids non-verbally.  And they get it.  For example, many adults seem to think it's okay to use swear words or hold adult conversations in the presence of small children because they assume that the kids don't understand.  Wrong.  Children are highly attuned to our tone, facial expressions, and body language, and even if they don't have a grasp of all the vocabulary we use, they understand what we are communicating.  Anyone who has learned a second language knows that sometimes you can get the gist of a conversation without grasping all the words.  Children have strong, innate communicative abilities.  Underestimating those abilities is disrespectful.  

Children entering toddler and early childhood programs are not empty buckets waiting to be filled up with knowledge.  Even our youngest students bring with them a world of experiences and understandings.   Ask any mother how quickly the first year of life goes by --zoom!  And in that time, our children are gathering tons of information about their bodies, about the people and things in their surroundings, and about communication.   Developmentally appropriate practice, which is the professionally accepted approach to early childhood education, means using the developmental levels of our students as a starting point for teaching.   Lesson plans are based on the children's interests and personal experiences.  So, let's say a holiday is coming up and we want to learn and celebrate in class.  The first step is to find out what the children already know about the holiday, what experiences they've had with it, and then develop activities to extend their knowledge.  All learning is about making connections between new concepts and prior knowledge.

It's important to be every bit as thoughtful in talking to children as we are when speaking to adults. We may never know the full impact of our words.  Once, at the beginning of a new school year, a four year old boy said to me, "My teacher last year said I was a tzaddik "(righteous person).  I answered him, "You're still a tzaddik".  To me, it was a nothing conversation.  Days later, his mother repeated it word for word.  She said that another adult might have paid little attention to him " That's nice"; but that my words touched him deeply.  Wow.

It's important to treat children as our conversational equals.  This will:  1) demonstrate that their thoughts and feelings have value; 2) build their self-confidence; and 3) strengthen their own communication skills.  Of course children deserve to be treated with respect.  They're people too!!

Saturday, February 10, 2018


I always have a song in my head.  Sometimes it's annoying because I can't get rid of it, but mostly I'm used to it.  Anything I see or hear can trigger a song.  For example, the other day my grand-kids were playing with play-doh, and my three year old asked his brother for the "roller" (rolling pin).  Immediately, Jim Morrison started singing in my head, "You gotta roll, roll, roll, you gotta thrill my soul, all right."  Years ago, I woke up with a song in my head that I didn't recognize.  It was a Friday morning, and I was facing an extremely busy, hectic day.  After awhile, I stopped whatever I was doing to listen to my own head and try to identify the tune.  It was the theme song from "Mission Impossible"!!

Music is a universal language that connects us to the world physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  I read somewhere that the reason music affects us physically is because we subconsciously relate it to the natural rhythms of our body:  our heartbeat, our breath, and our walking patterns.  Music can give us goose bumps, calm us, or literally get us on our feet.   It changes our moods and emotions.  It speaks to something deep within us.  I've relied on music to help me through some of the toughest times in my life.  The greatest support for my young, broken heart was Eric Clapton's "Bell Bottom Blues".  I listened to it almost constantly for weeks.  When I lost my family daycare business years later, I played the Grateful Dead's "Touch of Gray" over and over to give me strength.  After my sister died, I turned to Eitan Katz's "Gam Ki Eilech", playing it for months.  In fact, I sang Neshama Carlebach’s versiĆ³n to her at her deathbed and later at her funeral.  

Music is a spiritual connector.  King David served G-d with music, and Jews continue to use many traditional tunes in prayers.  Gospel music and hymns are part of church services, and Christmas carols are an intrinsic part of the holiday.   Music stirs our souls and focuses us on our intentions during prayer.  It inspires us to something greater than ourselves.  Think about national anthems and how they can stir our feelings of patriotism.

They say that music makes children smart, and I believe that is true.  Calming music, like many classical pieces, causes our bodies to relax, making it easier for our minds  to concentrate.  Playing soft background music in class during independent or small group work time can set a calm and productive environment for learning.  And using music or rhythmic chants as teaching tools will practically guarantee sustained learning.  Our minds naturally look for order and patterns to make sense of the world around us, and these are plentiful in music.  To this day, I only know how many months are in a year if I recite a poem that I learned in elementary school (30 days hath September...).  And how about the spelling rule, "i before e....".  

Music is an incredible memory aid.  Certain songs have the power to bring us back to specific times in our lives.  Don't you remember the songs of your childhood?  Do you still know the words to your favorite songs?  What we learn through music stays with us. Interestingly, studies have shown the amazing effects that music can have on Alzheimers patients.  When these patients hear music that is personally meaningful to them, it taps into their deep memories.  At these times, they feel like themselves again, can converse, and stay present.   

Music is thought to be a "soft" subject and is often quick to be cut in schools where funding is low.  But since the beginning of time, music has been an essential part of our human experience.  It's rhythms, patterns, and harmonies are closely correlated to mathematics, and make learning more accessible.  Music improves listening skills, attention skills and memory.  It  brings us peace and connects our inner selves to a higher power.  Play your favorite music often, and make sure to share it with your children.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Early Childhood Education: A Plea From The Field

Eighty percent of a child's brain development takes place by age three.  Early childhood, which is defined as birth through age eight, is the optimal time of life for building cognitive and social skills.  Teachers and parents can deliberately influence their children's intellectual and social development by creating rich learning environments.  When we combine an understanding of general child development with what we know about the particular temperaments and character traits of individual children, we can manipulate the physical, social, emotional and mental environments and capitalize on children’s readiness to learn.  Clearly, the most important element in this formidable task is the human one; the adults who interact with the child on a daily basis. So to a large extent, the present and future success of young children depends on the knowledge and commitment of their parents and teachers.

Why then are early childhood teachers the lowest paid and least respected in the field of education?  Unfortunately, few people  understand what early childhood education is all about.  Some consider it glorified babysitting that practically any warm body can do well.  Upsetting to me personally are the schools that do not hire professional teachers for their young students. These schools feed into and encourage this misconception.  At this most vulnerable time of life, children deserve well-educated and highly qualified teachers.  I know from experience that teaching preschool is just as complex, demanding, and important as teaching high school. 

What makes a quality early childhood teacher?  Someone with both good instincts and a good educational background.  Someone who grew up with a knack for interacting with young children, maybe working as a babysitter or camp counselor.  Someone who majored in education in college and took courses in developmental psychology, educational philosophy, and pedagogy.  A qualified early childhood educator would have completed a practicum or semester of student teaching.  She would be committed to ongoing professional development throughout her career.  She is someone who understands the range of child development.   She adapts the curriculum to each new class, as well as differentiates instruction according to the needs of individual students.  She identifies at-risk children and children with special needs and she advocates for best practice for all of her students.  ( I purposely used the feminine pronoun because the majority of early childhood teachers are female.  There is a real need for men to join this profession.)

A college background in education gives teachers a rich vocabulary and a grounding in academic subject areas.  Well qualified early childhood teachers tap into children's curiosity and current developmental levels to maximize and extend learning.  They know how children learn and see to it that lessons are active, hands-on, and primarily directed by the children themselves. Their classrooms are lively laboratories of  child exploration and experimentation, where learning is visible and expressed in multiple ways. Interestingly, the older grades are beginning to catch on to the value of early childhood practices.  Elementary and secondary school teachers are learning the benefits of active learning, project based learning, differentiated instruction, and teaching the whole child.  These educational approaches work for every age, and have been employed by early childhood teachers for decades.

Long term studies have demonstrated the lasting effects of quality early childhood education on adults, with higher rates of graduation and income.  Psychologically, we know that our adult behaviors have their roots in our early childhood experiences.  Young children are susceptible to the environments that we create.  They deserve the best teachers:  teachers who are well trained, well paid, and respected for the awesome work that they do.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hug a Tree

This week in Jewish schools, children will celebrate Tu B'Shvat, the "birthday of the trees".  They will eat fruits, examine nuts and seeds, maybe do some planting, and learn about the multiple ways that trees serve people, animals, and the environment.  Trees have real and symbolic meaning in many cultures and  religions.  They are a treasure of the natural world, and they depend on us to take care of them.

Some of my favorite childhood memories involve trees.  My close friend Diane lived at the top of a hill that was a dead end.  Her house was surrounded on two sides by trees which kept it buffeted from the parkway.   We called that section of our neighborhood "the woods".  Diane and I often climbed a tree at the side of her house, sometimes just hanging out, sometimes bringing books to read.  Our elementary school was a block from Diane's and just across the street from my house.  There were several trees in our school yard.  One was a big pine tree that we climbed in competition with other neighborhood kids to see who could climb the highest.  I usually got in trouble at home for getting pine sap stuck in my hair, which was hard for my mom to wash out.  Diane and I also claimed a tree of our own:  a mulberry tree at the side of our school, that only blossomed in June.  We would climb the tree and gorge ourselves on all the mulberries we could eat.  Yum.  And another big, old tree in front of our school was my secret spot for imaginative play.  The roots stuck out, and the tree was surrounded by dirt.  I would take twigs and pebbles and design the floor plan of a house, including furniture and a pool. I could lose myself in that play for hours.

Do you have memories of childhood experiences in nature?  What emotions do they evoke?  

We often talk about teaching the "whole child", facilitating all the components of his developmental growth:  physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and moral.  Allowing children to experience the natural world addresses each of these developmental areas.  Take a look at my memories, for example.  What did I learn?  I learned that trees could be a place for solace and tranquility, whether reading a book in its branches, listening to the wind and birds, or sitting and playing at its trunk.  I learned the capabilities of my body in climbing, balancing, understanding which branches could or couldn't support me.  I learned that trees give off delightful products, like pine-smelling sap, or delicious berries.  I also learned the difference between deciduous and coniferous trees, though I may not have had the vocabulary at the time.

There are endless lessons that teachers can develop around trees, in every area of early childhood curriculum:  math, science, literacy, art, music and movement.  Expounding on any one of these areas would be way more than I could reasonably fit into a blog post.  Each area is rich with possibilities and absolutely fascinating.   Several years ago, I gave a professional workshop on teaching math through nature.  In preparing for this workshop, I learned about fibonacci numbers.  These are numbers that are used repeatedly in patterns in nature.  It is a remarkable topic and to my mind proves the existence of G-d.  Take a look at this youtube video and see if you agree:

  The natural environment is a teacher. It stimulates our imagination and sense of wonder.  It encourages us to use all of our senses, improving our focus and attention skills.  All children deserve the chance to form a relationship with nature, both for the myriad of benefits they will gain as well as to motivate them to protect it.  Trees grace our world with both beauty and function.  Their survival in large part depends on how we choose to teach our children.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Violent Children

This is a picture of my brother Felix with one of his favorite toys.  In those days, it was common for little boys to play with guns.  They pretended to be Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers.  One summer, the boys in my neighborhood spent several weeks playing out the Civil War with both Union and Confederate armies.  As the Boomer generation, we grew up on stories of WWII.   Boys played with plastic soldiers and drew pictures of planes dropping bombs.  But there were no news stories about real life gun violence.   

Times have changed dramatically.  I'm not even sure if toy guns are sold anymore, except for water pistols.  The type of gun play that exists today is more likely to be paint ball, laser tag, or video and arcade games.  Yet news stories overflow with horrible mass murders, often committed by young people who have access to real guns.  Gun violence in our society is an epidemic.

Adolescent and adult behaviors have their roots in early childhood.  When children are very young, their bodies and brains are growing more rapidly than they ever will again. This is a critical time of life to acquire moral values and learn social behaviors.  Any aggressive behaviors in young children must be firmly addressed.  "Boys will be boys", expressed as rough and tumble play, is normal.  ( See my post on boys:  BOY POWER!)  Aggression is different.  Aggression is an intentional attempt to hurt someone, and cannot be tolerated.

Violent children are the most challenging to teach and to raise.  Most aggressive behaviors in young children are normal and can be managed relatively easily with positive discipline . (More in my post:  Discipline:  Key to Maturity)  Other times, aggressive behavior is a symptom of an underlying developmental issue, such as a learning disability, ADHD,  problems with sensory integration, an emotional disorder, or a medical condition.  Sometimes we find the roots of aggression in a child's environment.  Children suffering from abuse or neglect, children who witness violence at home, children caught in the middle of a highly contentious divorce, often turn to violent behaviors as an outlet for their pain.  And then there are a few children, very few, for whom we cannot find a source of their aggression. 

The examples above point to the dominance of nature, the qualities we are born with, and nurture, the effects of our environment, in determining our behaviors.  The truth is that both play an equally powerful role in deciding who a child will grow up to be.  When we observe aggressive behaviors in a child, we first look for a cause.  We take note of when and how the aggression takes place, seeking clues to both his nature and his environment. Is he bored, frustrated, confused, hurt, anxious....?  How can we modify his environment to help? A three year old was biting his classmates. We kept a log of his behavior and noticed that he bit different children during different activities.  The one constant was the timing; he usually bit about an hour before lunch and again just before dismissal.  We began giving him pretzel rods to chew on and the biting subsided. 

It is not easy to identify the causes of a child's aggression, and even harder to figure out the best way to help.  And what about those children for whom we cannot find a reason  for their behavior?  I've only met one, maybe two, in my career.  They scared me.  These are children who hurt others without provocation and without remorse.  They seem to like seeing others in pain.  They only care about their own desires.  They have a strong need to control their environment.  I just read a book and a magazine article that helped me understand these children better.  The book is Savage Spawn, by Jonathan Kellerman, a clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology, better known for his murder mystery novels.  The article appeared in the January issue of National Geographic, and is titled "The Science of Good and Evil".  I learned that empathy, the ability to experience how another person is feeling, can be measured in the brain by the size of the amygdala, and that psychopaths actually have smaller amygdalas than the rest of us. Fascinating.  That means that some people are genetically predisposed to be colder and more violent than others.

 Differences in a child's brain do not sentence him to a life of psychopathy or anti-social behavior.  All young children are ready and able to learn.  Their brains are still malleable.  Directly teaching appropriate behaviors helps every child learn social responsibility. Those  with a predisposition to violence can be trained in a structured environment that targets specific goals for behavior.  Positive reinforcement works by granting and removing privileges based on reaching these goals. This is a daunting task for teachers and parents who need to remain patient and positive for years.    

There are many curricular activities that teachers can bring into an early childhood classroom to promote compassion and cooperation.  Children can learn at an early age that it's cool to be kind.  They can be taught to identify their own emotions, as well as those of others, and to respond appropriately to those emotions.  At home and at school, adults can highlight the value of giving and doing for others.  We all know that children are our future.  With hard work and cooperation between teachers and parents, we can help make that future a bright one.