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.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Positive Reinforcement

A couple of weeks ago, my grandchildren and I visited the Wildlife Zoo in Phoenix, Arizona.  We attended a sea lion show , but there was no performance. The sea lions were fairly new to the zoo and were still in training.  One of the zoo keepers explained the training process, while another demonstrated with a sea lion.  It was actually a lesson in positive reinforcement.  If the trainer wanted the sea lion to touch a pole, she would wait until it came close to the pole, then feed it a little fish.  Next time, the animal would get the fish as it reached up for the pole.  This would continue, with the pole being raised and the animal reaching higher until it learned to jump and touch the pole with its nose.  Interestingly, we saw another animal show in which a porcupine, a muskrat, and a parrot also learned to do tricks by repeating behaviors that brought them treats. 

Positive reinforcement is a method of teaching behaviors and skills by rewarding the student for closer and closer approximations to the desired goal.  It is standard practice in early childhood classrooms.  A reward is as simple as a smile, a hand on a shoulder, a hug, a few encouraging words, even saying the child's name in a delighted tone of voice.  So let's say we want a child to clean up his toys.  As he begins to pick up a toy, we immediately acknowledge his effort, "You're starting to clean up the blocks, good work!".  This simple praise generally serves to reinforce the behavior.  The child will continue the behavior and look forward to more praise.

To be most effective, positive reinforcement should be immediate. We must be watchful for any attempts made toward the target behavior, and immediately give feedback. The objective is to catch the child doing the right thing.  A common example in early childhood education is getting the children to settle down for circle time. All the teacher has to say is "I like the way Gabriel is sitting", and the other children will flock to sit nicely and hear their names too.  Amazingly, the effects of positive reinforcement are physically visible, not only in the behavior, but in the child's body language.  She appears to grow before our eyes, standng taller, filling up with a good sense of self.

 Positive reinforcement is used to praise effort.  It specifically addresses the approximation of a desired behavior.  This can be particularly helpful for children who are timid or find something distasteful.  Think of a picky eater.  If he takes a small bite of a new food we can say, "I know it's hard for you to taste new things, but you did it anyway.  I'm proud of you.".  Of course, this would be most powerful if he actually likes the new food, but again, we are praising the effort so that he will be more willing to try again next time.  Positive reinforcement is also important in teaching skills; "You're working hard to practice writing "S".  It's getting better and better."  In this last example, it might help to give a suggestion, such as "Try to reach the hat line next time." 

Positive reinforcement is a great motivator for older children and adults too  Everyone wants a pat on the back for the work that we do, but few of us actually get one.  Feeling noticed and appreciated keeps us motivated to stay the course and to work even harder. Positive feedback also clarifies expectations.  As an early childhood director, I looked for opportunities to compliment my staff, whether on a creative bulletin board, new lesson ideas, or the way they spoke with a student.  I understood that this type of feedback would reveal what I valued as quality work, and would motivate the teachers to keep it up.  (Truly, they made my job easy.  I worked with some amazing teachers.)   As an educator,  my greatest rewards were often the notes of thanks from parents.  These notes are treasured by teachers, who give so much of themselves to their students everyday, and are rarely recognized for their commitment.  An appreciated teacher is happier to do her job, and a happy teacher brings about optimal learning for her students. 

In my post "Hello Sunshine" I talked about the uplifting effects that positive people have on us.  In offering positive reinforcement, we can build on our children's strengths.  We can create a pleasant environment for work and play.  We can celebrate together all the little steps that lead to big learning and growth.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Age of Entitlement

 My last post, Hello Sunshine, touched upon the effects of a cheerful greeting.  One reader shared her observation that today's kids are not being taught to greet people as they enter a room.  It got me thinking about the importance of teaching our children this common courtesy.  Children have as much to gain as adults in greeting others pleasantly.  And it struck me that our failure to teach this basic social skill might be a side effect of what teachers today refer to as "entitlement".  Entitlement is a buzzword in schools everywhere.  It refers to the attitude of many parents and children that they have the right to get whatever they want simply because they want it. To me it brings to mind a titled monarch; someone to whom others owe allegiance.  So many parents seem driven to shield their children from any unpleasantness in life while simultaneously pushing them ahead as far as they can. Teachers are no longer considered authority figures.  If a child doesn't do his homework for example, it's not uncommon for his parent to make excuses and argue that he not be penalized.  Some of us remember being in trouble at home if the teacher called to discuss our behavior.  Today, parents are more likely to place the blame for a child's misbehavior elsewhere:  on the teacher, the school, or the other students. A colleague of mine once dealt with a difficult parent over the phone.  His fifth grade son had been acting aggressively on the school bus, and actually bit another child. The father ranted about the other kids, the bus driver, the school's responsibility, until my friend said to him, "At some point, you're going to have to stop defending him and let him take responsibility for his actions.".  I could have kissed her.

 Entitlement is selfishness.  It dismisses the needs, feelings, and rights of other people.  I'm not sure that we can pinpoint a specific origin for this phenomenon, and I don't believe that it began solely with parents.  It may have begun years ago, when psychologists and others became concerned with the development of children's self-esteem.  This led to over-praising children, accepting mediocre work as a "good job" or effortless scribbles as "beautiful".  Many parents, for various reasons, are reluctant to say "no" to their children, so kids are accustomed to getting what they want.  (Take a look at my post "All You Need Is Love" for more on this).   Or it may be that a sense of entitlement stems from our stressed out, achievement oriented society, where getting ahead is a top priority. The  very term "getting ahead" implies competition; ahead of someone else.  We push our children to get into the best schools, to get top grades, to pad their college resumes with extracurricular activities.  And schools contribute to this feeling of competition as teachers and students struggle to meet the demands of more standardized tests and rigorous academics pushed down to younger and younger grades.  In addition, parents today may be more protective of their children because the world is a scarier place than it used to be.  Leaving children to play outdoors unsupervised is not an option for most families, so we keep them under our constant guard.  Children believe that they are special and that mom and dad will take care of all their needs.  But the job of parenting is to raise our children to be independent.  We need to guide them to make smart decisions and then to be accountable for their decisions.  It's important to learn to follow rules and protocols in order to be a responsible citizen.  We can't fix all of our children's problems, and we actually cause more harm than good by trying to do so.

No one wants a spoiled, coddled child.  How can we reasonably protect our children  without sheltering them in a gilded bubble?   How can we advocate for their best interests while teaching them to take care of themselves?   There is a terrific parenting book that addresses this problem.   It's called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, PhD, and was a cult favorite several years ago. It is a wonderful resource for raising resilient, self-reliant children.  The author basically promotes the idea that falling down, scraping a knee, making mistakes, even getting hurt, are all healthy steps on the road to growing up.  We want our children to learn to grow from their mistakes, not to avoid them.

A focused greeting can offset a sense of entitlement by forcing a child to acknowledge the presence of other people.  It can take her out of her own head for a minute and  demonstrate respect.  When I was a little girl, my parents would coach my siblings and me before every visit to friends and family.  We had to kiss every adult in the room hello, and then again when it was time to say good-bye.  We were not allowed to call any adult by their first name.  We were taught to look behind us as we went through a door, so that we could hold it open for anyone who might be following.  We learned to wait on lines and to only talk to people when they were in the same room as us.  We were expected to clean up our own mess, wherever we were.

These lessons work equally well today.  When we held kindergarten orientation programs in my former school, I included a bus orientation.  I taught the children to line up to enter the bus and to say "hello" to the bus driver.  I reviewed all the procedures that would keep them safe, then taught them to say  "thank you" to the bus driver as they exited. People who serve us, such as bus drivers, waiters, gas station attendants, etc., should not be made to feel invisible.  They are doing us a favor (yes, even though they're getting paid to do so).   Acknowledging them and the nice things they do for us shows respect and gratitude. 

 There are a couple of things on the educational horizon that I believe will cause the downfall of the Age of Entitlement.  One is the new approach to teaching called 'growth mindset'.  In a fixed mindset, a person's abilities, intelligence, and talents are considered fixed traits that cannot be changed.  Growth mindset proposes that everyone can develop their intellect, talents and abilities through effort and persistence.  In terms of entitlement, a child with a fixed mindset is more concerned with grades than learning.  If she does poorly on an assignment, she might fight the teacher for a better grade.  On the other hand, a child with a growth mindset will be curious about her mistakes, embrace the chance to try again, and continue learning.  Teaching a growth mindset holds exciting prospects for the field of education and the potential for authentic, life-long learning.

Another trend in education today is the emphasis on projects and collaborative group work.  In the high school where I taught Spanish, many teachers assigned projects to their classes in lieu of unit tests.  For example, in one of my Spanish classes, we learned vocabulary related to homes.  I assigned a project on Antoni Gaudi, a famous Spanish architect.  The students worked in small groups to research his biography and one of his buildings.  They used this information to compose a multi-media presentation, in which one student played the role of a real estate agent, and two others were a couple looking for a residence with specific amenities.  In order to complete this project, students needed to employ a range of skills, including research, organization, writing, video and computer skills, oral language, and role play.  Projects like this require sophisticated social skills, as each student works with her team to include, modify, and build upon everyone's ideas.  Students were graded according to a rubric that addressed  individual contributions and evidence of learning as well as the quality of the end result.  This sort of assignment is a more accurate assessment of a student's learning, and better reflects the skill sets needed in today's work environments . 

Entitlement is not a pretty word.  No one is perfect.  Life is not perfect.  Let's not set our children up for unrealistic expectations.  We can teach them to try again, work harder,  take pride in their efforts and welcome challenges. We can help them to acknowledge the people they meet throughout the day and to appreciate the role that each one plays in our lives.  They can view their peers as collaborators instead of competitors, and come to know the  profound  joy of true learning.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Hello Sunshine

Before taking my first job as Early Childhood Center Director, I underwent several interviews.  One school leader, whom I deeply respected, asked a question that threw me for a loop.  He said, "How do you say good morning to children?".  Huh?  How many ways are there to say "good morning"?  What did he really want to know?  

To prepare for this new position, I spent a day observing the center in action.  I was present when the children began arriving, and suddenly understood the meaning of that nebulous question.  Two boys walked through the door chatting, laughing, and gently pushing each other.  A teacher reprimanded them to stop that behavior and take their places on the floor, where they waited for their teachers to bring them to their classrooms. Ouch.  No one said "good morning" to those boys.  Their introduction to the new school day was a negative encounter with an impatient teacher.  They had to wait as a group, with nothing to do, before they could even enter their classrooms.  My heart sank.  

The way we greet children matters a lot and sets the tone for the rest of the day.  Every child deserves a warm, individual greeting at the classroom door.  Eye contact, a big smile and a brief, personal comment make our students feel welcome and special.  "Hi, Marcy, that's such a pretty bow in your hair.  Is it new?".  Marcy will feel noticed and appreciated.  Being the teacher's center of attention for a minute builds her confidence and energizes her to tackle the day's activities.  The teacher has established a personal connection that will motivate that student to participate and follow class rules.  That's a lot of value for a couple of minutes worth of pleasantries.

The same is true at home.  Whether welcoming our children at our door or at car pool, a smile and a hug show them how much they mean to us. That moment of focused attention is powerful, non-verbal language that says, "I love you, I missed you, you're important to me." .  Do your eyes light up when your child returns to you?  That's emotional gold to little egos.

Treating other people with respect and dignity is a basic human obligation.  Greeting each person we meet with a friendly smile is an expression of this obligation.  There is a famous verse in Ethics of Our Fathers, a Jewish text on ethical behavior and interpersonal relationships, that teaches: "Receive every person with a cheerful face".  A smile is an uplifting action that can profoundly impact another person.  I remember my surprise when I read something that a boy I hardly new wrote in my high school year book, "The smiles you gave me when you walked past me in the hall I won't forget".  I had no idea that I had made such an impression on him.  I learned that a smile is a gift.  It is an expression of love from one human being to another.  It says, "I see you. I recognize you.  We're connected by our humanity.".

Another benefit of greeting people warmly is that it helps us to accomplish our goals.  We all enjoy the company of positive, upbeat people, and are more willing to hear them out, more comfortable to work with them. Positive feelings give us energy, motivation, and confidence.  Smiles are contagious.  Even on the phone, people can relate to the tone of our voice.  When I recorded a voice greeting for my phone at the early childhood center, I always smiled  while I spoke.  I believed that smile could be heard.  It communicated non-verbally that my school was a warm, positive, welcoming place.

Quick smiles don't come naturally to all of us, but they are easy to learn.  If we consciously put a smile on our face each time we make eye contact, even with a stranger, it will eventually become a habit. Motor memory.  And a default smile will in turn help us and those around us feel more positively.  Spread some sunshine in our world.  Smile!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Prejudice: Teach Your Children

Yesterday I spent the day in Los Angeles with my teenage granddaughter. Her brother is studying in yeshiva there, and between classes we took him out for lunch and dinner.  In the afternoon, we spent a few hours at the Museum of Tolerance, established by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  It is an experiential museum, guiding visitors step by step through various scenarios leading up to and including the horrors of the Holocaust.  At one point, we were faced with two doors:  a red one labeled Prejudiced and a green one labeled Unprejudiced.  I asked my granddaughter which we should choose, and she said "Unprejudiced, of course".  But the door was locked.  Only the door labeled Prejudiced was open.  Hmmm....

Is prejudice inevitable?  It's certainly very hard to trace.  No one thinks they are racist or bigoted (except some very misguided souls), but somehow those feelings creep in without us noticing.  Even really kind, open-minded people harbor hidden traces of prejudice.  My daughter was once playing in our backyard with a little boy from across the street.  They were both about six years old at the time.  His family was Catholic and very fine people.  The boy said to my daughter, "You're Jewish, and the Jews are going to hell because they killed Jesus.  So you're going to hell."  I was shocked.  I knew he didn't hear that at home.  And I myself had gone to Catechism classes, and knew he hadn't learn it there.  What was up?  My daughter had no clue of what he was talking about, but in a matter-of-fact way I  told him that it was time for him to go home.  A few minutes later his mother came to my house in tears, unable to understand where he learned that.  "He's mixed up" she said.  

Fast forward a few years and I was the deeply embarrassed mom. To this day, I have difficulty even admitting that it happened.  My kindergarten daughter drew a picture in school.  When asked to describe it, she told the teacher (who wrote it on the paper), "It's a black man climbing in the window to steal a TV".  I was devastated.  I thought I was so careful to teach kindness and tolerance to my children.  My daughter couldn't explain to me why she had said that.  I went to school in tears, mortified to show my face.  But I wanted to hear from the program director, to learn where I had gone wrong.   She tried to reassure me that children pick up all sorts of things from television programs, adult conversations, etc.  She hadn't assumed that my family was racist.

If prejudice can enter our psyches subconsciously, how in the world can we prevent it?  I'm not convinced that we can.  What we can do is be hyper-vigilant, both with ourselves and our children, for any signs of potential prejudice.  Tolerance of other people requires active teaching.  We all feel most comfortable with people who are like us; differences make us uncomfortable, not "at home".  The role of teachers and parents is to constantly be on the look-out for opportunities to educate children about differences between people, whether racial, religious, ethnic, physical, mental, etc., always emphasizing that our similarities are greater.  Every life is sacred.  No one is better or worse than anyone else.  We are all connected.

One of the things that left a big impression on me at the Holocaust exhibit was the unconscionable  murders of children.  A few days before visiting the museum, I was at a park with my grandchildren.  They found a bug that made them scream.  They wanted to kill it, but I wouldn't allow them to.  I picked it up in my hand, showing them its legs, antennae, eyes.  They still thought it was ugly, but I made them understand that G-d created this creature just like He created us.  It has a purpose in the world.  We are not allowed to harm it.  As I looked at the pictures of beautiful, innocent Jewish children, I wondered -- if children learn to cause no harm to a bug, can they grow up to brutalize and kill a defenseless child?  

Children are open and curious.  They may say embarrassing things in public.  But we should welcome their comments as teaching moments.  We can teach them not to stare, we can model respectful language about things that make people different, and things that make us the same.  We can help them see that there is space for everyone in this world.  We all belong.  We all have the right to dignity and respect.