Many Snowy Weeks, One Word Hopes and Dreams

A long, long time ago, we began the process of revisiting our hopes and dreams for the school year, but we were determined to forge ahead from Here We Go, 2014.

The practice of having students articulate their hopes and dreams for the school year one of the many  Responsive Classroom practices that helps children be known, feel safe and take academic risks.  It leads to a positive communities, effective classroom management and learners who love to come together to learn.  Ideally, these hopes and dreams become a living, breathing, evolving part of the classroom, which can continue shed benefits when revisited throughout the year.

Each  year, no matter what grade I teach, we revisit these hopes and dreams  in a similar ways.  The challenge for me is to carefully consider the grade I teach (notice how I bounce around from preschool to middle school and most grades in between?) and the particular culture and dynamics in any given class mid-year.  I was feeling the urge to try something different, as these fifth graders have come up through a program that uses Responsive Classroom school-wide.  For some, this would be the seventh consecutive year of having the rock-solid foundation of hopes and dreams and class guidelines as the building blocks for social and academic risk taking in an authentic and engaging community. As a humanities teacher, there is also that tenacious voice inside nudging me to integrate technology in meaningful ways, even if it flirts with the edge of my comfort zone. Continue reading “Many Snowy Weeks, One Word Hopes and Dreams”

Toddlerhood/Take 2 – Part 3


Food. Glorious Food.

Teens eat. A lot.  I have two active kids with raging metabolisms and a huge grocery bill to show for it. I know what they look and act like when they don’t eat nutritious food on a regular basis.  Like toddlers, they need to eat often – every two to three hours in my house.

These days,  they don’t whine or cry or toss things on the floor when they are hungry.  They get sullen, cranky or behave like a ravenous monkey let loose in the market.  If you look closely and (without judging or taking it personally),  it’s so obvious when the need nutrient-rich, tasty food.  You can lead a horse/teen,  to water/food  but you can’t make him drink/eat.

I’ve met several food coaches, nutritionists, foodies, therapists and moms who simply claim sweeping the pantry and frig can solve those problems. Maybe for them, but that did not work in my house. That quiet heckler on my shoulder blamed myself for the lack of compliance when I purged all junk. First came the moans. Then the sighs and complaints. Then the self-transport to Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks.  (Some serious economics lessons there if one feels he has $5 for a smoothie, right?).  Worse, were the grumpies and lethargy when they went on a hunger strike.

I was not up for the power struggle.  I fueled myself with juices, which provided a secondary benefit of my juicer raging at 6 a.m, and kept plotting.  As I shooed the heckler, I figured I had to be more elastic and buoyant in my approach.  My friend and nutritionist Lisa Consiglio Ryan talks about the 80% rule – eat healthy 80% of the time and don’t worry so much the other 20%.  At first, I was hoping for a 50/50 split.  It’s a process, not a quick fix. And we slip, but we persist.   Just as with other aspects of parenting, it was time to play coach – to provide the training, to model, and to convince them healthy eating is not only a good idea, but it’s their idea.  Slowly, the “junk” reappeared in smaller quantities or a slightly better nutritional rendition. And the conversations began.

When they’re little, you can offer them good food and eventually, they’ll eat it  or perhaps like Peter Hatcher in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,  dump a bowl of cereal on someone’s head.  The goal is to build understanding and intrinsic motivation, not to black list Oreos, milkshakes, and  fries  (but some might eventually see granola, smoothies and sweet potato fries are good, too!).

By the teenage years, kids are bombarded with marketing and sales of fast food.  You’ve got to counter that jabber.  Here are 4 strategies:

  1. Ask and Listen:  Asking why they like certain foods and how they feel after turns to decision-making back to them.  Ditto on when they are run down.  They may not like the conversation or even mock you, but persist with humor, levity and then get to the real questions and answers.
  2. Go Under Cover:  Find  nutrient rich moles to  sneak into foods  – not the rodent, stuff like ground chia seeds or flax, chopped spinach or kale.  Sure, this strategy was eventually discovered at my house, but after they had eaten stuff and liked it, I reminded them it was a win/win (they liked, I felt better about healthier foods in them). See what you can find to slip in to their favorites.  Try shredded veggies in chili, sauces, tacos, chia or flax seeds in cookies, oatmeal, smoothies, omelets?
  3. Serve Them:  As an olive branch, I started making big breakfasts (yes, plural) so that everyone leaves with a full belly.  Sure, it took me years to do this as had delegated breakfast my kids years ago, so I’m a bit late to the table.  After getting into the “solid” breakfast routine, they’ll do it themselves as the need arises.  I packed, prepped or “noticed” plenty of easy to grab snacks to tote to school and activities.  Have the stuff handy and accessible and I believe they’ll eat.  And  plan for that special treats, too!
  4. Teach:  A bit of simple logic and science helps.  Just as with other cause-and-effect relationships, if we talk to our tweens/teens about what they eat and how they feel, they’ll slowly start to see the benefits of eating regularly and with health in mind.  Our bodies simmer down at night, hormone levels are low and they’ll need protein to fuel them back up for the day. Carbs and sugars don’t do that. With a basic understanding of science, explain why they need protein in the morning and mid-afternoon, is progress. Offer choices, require a decision on their part about which choice.

Help them make good choices and discuss the cause and effect relationship between intake and output. It’s not a power struggle but lessons about healthy choices and self-care. Be a role model and be a patient guide.  Keep cooking, keep offering, keep ‘em filled up.

Observe and Imagine, Part 2: Super Heroes and Super Powers

exploring super powers

In the last post,  Observe and Imagine, Part 1, the idea of imaginary play and super heroes revealed  the often blurry line between fantasy and real life in the minds of preschoolers.  But there’s more to the story.

Once I determined that not everyone was clear that while pretending to be somebody else, our class guidelines and expectations were suppose to guide us, we were able to more deeply explore those guidelines.  It wasn’t an easy path to travel, but once we did,  got to do some  truly interactive imaginary play.  And grapple with the super powers we’re all possessed with, but often fail to recognize.

(There were some history lessons in there, too! This part dates me, and probably many of you, because really, how many kids out there know what a phone booth is?)

original Superman...a far cry from cartoons of today

We began with talking about ways superheros from today’s media use their powers.  Having not spent much time in the past several years watching children’s tv (nor did I ever watch much…but I knew enough to know what I did NOT want my kids watching), I was a bit surprised.  Much of the Buzz Lightyear story line was the same, but was it somehow blurred with Cars in the minds of these preschoolers?  Or did Pixar really overlap some of the plots and characters?  I couldn’t answer that one, but it became clear that the basic mission of superheroes seemed be consistent both historically and with what is generally accepted:

"What are Superheroes?"
"Ways Superheroes Use their Powers"

However, what was striking was the ways in which superheroes act.  Whether it’s “really” what is seen on tv or whether it is the way those images are perceived in a preschooler’s mind, the connotations that “good guys” can do what they want and disregard the rules, can be the source of conflict and undesirable social behaviors, particularly in young children who are just learning to internalize the rules and self-regulate.  What I was hearing (and heard from dozens of other kids over the years) is that it was “okay” for superheroes to hurt others in the name of saving someone. Or just ‘cuz they are Superheroes (proper noun).  Which begs the bigger question of whether or not it’s okay to harm someone because you hold the power and/or authority.  I wasn’t going there. Not yet. Maybe ever. Just listen to what some experts think on this juicy topic by clicking here.

In a 2003 article, Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play: Meeting Children’s Needs in Violent Times,  Diane Levin asserts that preschoolers use war play to “work out an understanding of experience, including the violence to which they are exposed.”  This can lead to both therapeutic and cognitive growth as they struggle to work out and understand conflicting ideas – another good reason to establish a climate for imaginary play.  Children also have a need to feel powerful – whether it’s in the words they use, their own physical skills or in they way they engage in imaginary play.  Levin continues, and the research supports, the idea that children use  “war play to help them feel powerful and safe” and often these  are “the children who feel the most powerless and vulnerable.”

Knowing these children as I do,  I am confident the kids most interested in acting out war play are not personally exposed to dangerous situations or people, but rather are those who are exposed to media violence (cartoons, movies, digital media, etc.).   But watching tv is not child’s play. It requires some carefully thought and even a little soul-searching as to what you want for your child.  Consider these two reports:

  • A 1994 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) report stated that “much of what children watch on television is not specifically intended for children” – as much as 90% of what they watch.  Read the entire Position Statement on Media Violence in Children’s Lives.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics  recommends that preschoolers need to participate in nonscreen media experiences that promote language development, socialization, imagination, and physical activity.”

Read the studies. Consider what you want for your child. Then make your choice and stand by it.  I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s simply  not.  But the choices you make today have a lasting impact. More immediately, their daily play reveals what they see and what they are sorting out.

After a couple more days discussing super heroes and their powers, I happen to mention  that in “the old days” superheroes did take care of people, but that the superheros I knew when I was a kid, saved people and did far less hurting of others. Heads turned. Hands went over mouths. And one small, skeptical voice said, “So what’s so super about that?”

“Well, ” I began, “each of us has our own super powers. It’s how we choose to use them that makes us super or someone who hurts other or something in between.”  The ensuing conversation gave me a sense of relief that those who previously didn’t think “bad guys” had feelings and/or that they deserved to be hurt, were starting to see people as people.  I went on to tell them that the “original” Superman was  a regular guy who went to work in a suit and hat. When he needed his superpowers, he went into a phone booth and changed into his Super Man suit.  Adults old enough to remember this giggled as the passed by our room, particularly when I attempted to explain the whole phone booth part.

To help illustrate my point that we can all call upon on super powers, and to provide us with the feel of a phone booth, we set to work planning how to build one.

Next week, I’ll tell you how these:

Superman's Phone Booth

…became Superman’s phone booth and let us harness our own super powers.

Don’t Read This If You Want to Solve All Your Kid’s Problems

Rather than trying to solve his problems, considering asking:

So what ‘cha you gonna do about that?

It’s becoming a standard response out of my mouth.

Problem solving. It’s as much a part of life as brushing teeth and tying your shoes. It can be hard or it can be easy. It can be learned deliberately or by trial and error. It’s a survival skill that can be developed and nurtured so that kids feel a sense of control and independence.

But before adults can help kids problem solve, we have to do some problem solving to sort out what the real issues are and how we empower kids to exercise proper control which reflects their needs, development and results in growth and/or logical consequences.

As Joan Britz explains, “Problem solving is the foundation of a young child’s learning. It must be valued, promoted, provided for, and sustained in the early childhood classroom. Opportunities for problem solving occur in the everyday context of a child’s life. By observing the child closely, teachers can use the child’s social, cognitive, movement, and emotional experiences to facilitate problem solving and promote strategies useful in the lifelong process of learning.”

Let me try to simplify. Consider the following two stories and how problem solving is encouraged or not, and what the outcomes are in each scenario. Consider, also, the role observation and thought on the part of the adults, as well as how the healthy emotional development of children is valued and fostered.

A four-year old, who we’ll call Gus, gets easily frustrated by such things as having to take turns at school, not being able to move where he wants, that he can’t kick a soccer ball the way the big kids do, and that he has to go to bed before it’s actually dark.  Gus watches cartoons often and sees that those characters kick and swing hands when things don’t go their way. No jazzy talking bubbles saying “ka pow!” pop up for Gus, but he still tries to solve these problems the way he sees on TV – with his hands or feet. Adults around him see this as cute or as something that is just a part of Gus’s personality, so they’re generally accepted.  He has every excuse in the book to not go to bed, including tantrums, pleas for another story, and displaying his affection and love for mom. These behaviors are met with a broad range of responses, all of which involved lengthy conversations and often yelling, but never result in Gus asleep by his scheduled bedtime.

Kate is a seven-year old girl vexed by the social dynamics in first grade.  She desperately wants a friend. She asks for play dates but mom has trouble scheduling and it never seems to work out. During recess, Kate makes up fictions play dates and brags about it to her friends, who in turn, become jealous. Verbal boxing matches ensue most days and result in one or more girls in tears.   At home after school, she broods in her room, slams doors, and repeatedly asks her parents to play with her, which aggravates the working-from home parents and lands Kate right back in her bedroom alone.

Obviously, these scenarios are a bit exaggerated, but rest assured the behaviors and lack of boundaries  are more common than you’d believe.

Let’s rewind and think about better boundaries and supports adults can put in place so that each child can play a role in problem solving.  There are real problems at the heart of each scenario, as well as secondary problems which arise out of the negative attention-seeking. Adults have to do the hard work of thinking about what kids need and what is developmentally appropriate (have I mentioned the book Yardsticks?),  and then to lay down some nonnegotiable boundaries which, if challenged, will have natural and/or logical consequences.

So let’s look at Gus and Kate, Version 2.

Gus – Four year olds are full on energy and move swiftly. They are full of imagination. Their bodies are growing rapidly, often too fast for them to keep up with themselves.  So getting frustrated when you can’t play a sport like a big kid, is frustrating.  Think back to the last blog on the encouraging language – tell them honestly and accurately the little things they are doing which show improvement. Help them choose one thing to work on (that’s goal setting – a prerequisite for solving larger problems). Let them imagine being a superhero, but remind  them that  in your house, hands are not for hitting. Allow him to be frustrated, but not hurtful. The logical consequence if Gus does hit, is that he loses the privilege of playing with the ball (or whatever the object he hit over was) or that he needs to take a break and be by himself until he can show better self-control.  Adults need to also model the language needed to ask for a turn or  express hurt feelings.  Set a consistent bedtime so that he can be well-rested and ready to take on the next day. Give small, but significant details, (like why it’s still light at 7 p.m. in May) that help make the rules make sense.  Don’t engage in an extended dialogue because – guess what – it allows him to stay up late, which is what he was seeking.  The natural consequence of staying up too late is that it’s hard to get up in the morning, it makes it harder to leave on time, etc. Dominio effect.

Kate is clearly a child who seeks companionship and friendship, as do most seven-year olds. One true best friend is what many late first/early second graders seek, but the mercurial nature of children at this age may also mean “here today, gone the next.”  Frustrating for sure. By seven, children have learned the power of their own words. Say something hurtful, and you’re likely to get a dynamic result, not to mention it’s likely to rock the boat and shake up a dyad you seek to make a triad.  Adults can start by asking, “who do you like to play with?” to help Kate generate a list of friends, then role play how to ask or engage in play with these friends as well as appropriate responses when a request is declined. Empathize with the hurt feelings and remind her that negative feelings are acceptable even if behaviors are not.  Consider what options are available after school.  Does Kate need some down time to consolidate learning from the day? If so, set aside 15-30 minutes of time for solitary play or rest. Is she seeking social interaction or physical activity? Go for a walk or bike ride, set up a standing playmate once a week, sign up for one weekly activity or sport a week.  If after-school time is also work time for mom and dad, set up a mini-office for Kate to work nearby or work with her to find meaningful ways to help out around the house while you work – set the table, play with the dog, tend a garden, etc.  Ask her how she can help out around the house so that when your work is finished, you have some time to enjoy each other’s company.

So next time you hear a child whine or complain or lose it in whatever form, think to your self, “what am I gonna do about that?” and encourage the child to do the same. By considering where they are developmentally, focusing on what they need, and standing by the established boundaries, you’ll both move into problem solving mode swiftly.

Need help getting a handle on emotions so you can move to problem solving mode? Read more from Hand in Hand on Parenting Science   101, Part 2 – Emotion.