Category Archives: Preschool

Favorite Letter-Writing Books

This is the time of year (Valentine’s Day) when many preschool classrooms explore themes related to writing notes and letters. For many programs who have a policy of not explicitly celebrating holidays, this is a way that teachers address the seasonal topics that can arise. I’m of the opinion that letter-writing at any time of the year is one of the very best activities to incorporate into your household or curriculum. It’s a unique way of connecting with people we care about while developing literacy and community skills. In our age of technological communication, there is something extra-special about putting pen to paper, sticking a stamp on a letter, and visiting an actual mailbox or post office! Allow me to put on my grandma hat for a moment and ponder whether kids today will learn how to properly address an envelope, look up a name or number in the phone book, or write an actual check. Are these lost arts? They don’t need to be.

Every preschool classroom (and home) should have a well-stocked writing center as well as a system in place for exchanging messages. In general, children love exchanging messages. In fact, who doesn’t? When I sift through the mail and find a hand-addressed card from my mom among the bills and junk mail, my heart skips a beat. If you need ideas and inspiration for creating, expanding, or maintaining a writing center, I suggest taking a peek at Pinterest (search terms: preschool writing center, writing center, preschool mailboxes), with the warning that you can easily lose hours down this rabbit hole.

There are countless beautiful books for all ages that center around writing letters or exchanging messages. Below you’ll find some of my personal favorites for preschoolers.

Dear Annie by Judith Caseley. Our heroine, Annie, has exchanged letters with her grandpa since the day she was born. This is a lovely catalog of their relationship, as well as providing great examples of the process of sending and receiving mail. A simple story at its heart, it provides rich fodder for class discussions about writing, adventures, and grandparents. Every child will be inspired to write a letter of their own to someone special.

Dear Juno by Soyung Pak tells a similar story of a grandmother and grandson, with the twist being that the grandmother writes in Korean and the little boy expresses his message with pictures. This is a gorgeous story about cross-culture communication (and cross-generational) that speaks to preschoolers who can’t fully “write” their messages. It’s an essential addition to the classroom library of every diverse program.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. Farmer Brown’s cows have begun sending him typed messages with their requests. This is a laugh-out-loud funny book about some ingenious barnyard animals and their sophisticated negotiation tactics. Children who feel empowered by putting pen to paper will particularly enjoy the message and the story can prompt some wonderful conversation about how to peacefully express wants and needs and how to meet in the middle. I have found this book to also be a great springboard to talking about different ways of communicating (what if you couldn’t speak? how would you communicate?) and what typewriters and keyboards are for.

A Letter to Amy by Ezra Jack Keats. This is the story of a boy who wishes to invite a girl to his otherwise all-boy birthday party and he wants to send her a written invitation. On his way to mail the invitation, he runs into the girl and knocks her down. He worries that she won’t wish to attend the party. The story may not seem highly relevant to today, but I think the work of Ezra Jack Keats is timeless. Preschoolers in particular are at a heightened awareness of boyness and girlness and that storyline will appeal to them. It will prompt passionate discussion about what should be done when you knock someone down, accidentally or not, and how friendships can start in the most unlikely of ways.

From the Frog and Toad Are Friends story collection by Arnold Lobel comes the perfectly lovely story, The Letter. Toad mournfully describes the time of day when the mail is delivered as the saddest part of his day, as no one ever sends him any mail. Frog immediately realizes what needs to be done and he sends Toad a letter. This is a classic tale of friendship for any age but resonates with particular meaning for small children. This short story is best for small group readings and is really enjoyable as an audiobook.

Send It by Don Carter follows the journey of a package cross-country. The simple but engaging book is wonderful to have on hand for independent reading while a classroom explores the ideas of writing and sending.

Tell me: what are your favorite books about corresponding?

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It Makes Me Sad

I encountered a flustered mom on the sidewalk outside my work building the other day. She was a mom that I knew by sight, not by name. For several months she and her son had been attending the parent-and-me class that takes place in the classroom next-door to mine a few times a week. Recently, she had made the decision to enroll her son in a preschool class that he would attend on his own for a few hours per day.

When I encountered her on the sidewalk, it was after one of her son’s first days in the preschool class. It was nearing lunchtime. Her little boy was refusing to get into the car to go home. Instead, he stood in the middle of the sidewalk, wailing, while the mom cajoled, threatened, and bribed in rapid succession to attempt to hurry him along. She was visibly flustered and frustrated, as nearly anyone would have been in her shoes. It is a unique test of one’s patience to stand in public alongside a wailing child. Even when you seem to be completely alone, you feel the sting and burn of a thousand eyes on you.

The mom glanced my way as I approached and, her patience at its limit, grabbed the little boy by one arm and hissed, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words!” The boy screamed as she finally lifted him up and put him inside the car.

I passed by and walked into the building to begin my work day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene. I still can’t. And here’s why: this mom is a shining example of someone who is trying to do all the “right” things. She is really trying to use the “right” words with her child in a difficult situation. She once worked in a preschool setting herself, I had learned. I would have guessed at it, had I not been told. Because somewhere in the history of preschool training, parents and teachers began to use the phrase, “It makes me sad when you…” in an attempt to dissuade children from behaving in ways that make the parent or teacher feel a number of emotions that may or may not include genuine sadness. (Does it matter how the child is feeling?)

When the mom on the sidewalk glanced my way, I wanted to communicate somehow with my body language or facial expression or even with words that I was not judging her. I wasn’t. If anything, I felt empathy for her situation. Have you been there? I have. I’ve wrestled a reluctant toddler into a carseat more than once. It’s not fun for anyone involved. (Think how the toddler feels!)

I looked at the mom’s face as she hissed angrily at her little boy. His eyes widened as he looked into hers. Her mouth told him, “so sad,” but her face told an entirely different story, as plain as day. I wish she had told him what she was feeling. Why not? He was doing his very best to express his honest, raw emotions to her. (What was he feeling?)

In that long, uncomfortable moment on the sidewalk, the goal of this mom was most likely (we can presume) to get her child into the car so they could head home for lunch and a much-deserved nap. Thinking long-term, I like to imagine that the goal of this mom, who uses phrases like, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words,” is to raise an emotionally mature and connected individual. This is a mom, I imagine, who doesn’t want to snap and yell and berate her child. This is a conscious, caring woman who has read something about child development. She is someone like you, perhaps, and someone like me.

We know by now how incredibly valuable empathy is. It’s important to empathize with your child. Empathy is a package of abilities in the brain, shaped by experiences. The way I think about it, each time you meet a child with empathy, you’re helping to wire their brain for future success. Plant this seed in your own mind and you could quadruple your patience in trying times like the one described above.

I don’t believe you can be empathetic or teach empathy to a child without honesty. What does that mean in a real-life situation like this? It means that you don’t tell your child that their actions make you sad when what you’re really feeling is frustrated. You’re feeling angry and embarrassed. You’re feeling tired. (Of course you are!) Even if your child doesn’t have the words for these emotions, they know them. They know them in themselves and they see them in you. When you grab their arm and hiss about feeling sad, they probably don’t even hear your words but you know they see through you.

Being honest doesn’t mean joining them in their tantrum and screaming out your frustration too. It might mean crouching down in front of them, meeting their eyes with your own, and saying, “It sounds like you don’t want to stop playing and get in the car. It sounds like you’re really mad right now. I’m frustrated too. Your choices right now are to climb into your seat or to have me help you. Will you climb in or do I need to pick you up?” If you need to pick them up, you can tell them, “I hear you. I know you don’t want to fasten your buckles right now. You’re feeling really upset that we have to go. I’m upset too, but this is something that we have to do right now.”

Later, when your child has calmed down, you could talk more about leaving preschool and getting into the car. You might have to talk about it often over the next few weeks. Your child might tell you that it makes them upset when they have to stop playing. You might tell your child that it makes you upset when they scream on the sidewalk. It’s okay to tell your child that their actions make you feel whatever it is that they make you feel: angry, scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, even sad. What’s even more important, however, is to show and tell your child that you notice and care about what their actions express about their own feelings in that moment.

You may also be interested in the post Reunion Meltdowns.

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Favorite Nap Reads

When I was teaching in a full-day preschool program, one of my favorite times of day was nap time. Not for the obvious reason (all the children sleep for a couple of hours and teachers get to catch up on paperwork), but because of the routines we had established in my mixed-age classroom. Each student was responsible for getting their napping mat, blanket, and comfort item and taking it to their designated spot to set up for sleep. The younger children needed help with putting on sheets and laying out blankets, and sometimes the older children would assist them. It was a point of pride to get the sheet fitted over the mat properly and they would congratulate one another on their efforts. Each child wanted to be “tucked in” in a different way — some with their blankets wrapped around them (“Make me a taquito!” they begged), some with their blanket laid gently on top of them (“Float it over me like a butterfly,” one girl instructed), some with it simply beside them. Before we dimmed the lights, each child would go to the library and choose a book to “read” on their bed before sleep. Another book would be chosen, sometimes by a child and sometimes by myself, to be read aloud when they were all settled and their own books set aside. We would choose books that were peaceful in tone, but interesting enough to generate some quiet discussion and eager anticipation of the ritual. The best part of the routine, in my opinion, was the nature of the reading. It differed from our usual booksharings in that the children were laying down in the dark, unable to see the book and examine the pictures. I would encourage them to close their eyes and see the story in their minds. One especially enthusiastic little boy would exclaim each day, “I can SEE it, Maestra! I SEE the pictures IN MY HEAD!” Magic. These were some of our perennial favorites.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. This classic is near and dear to my heart for personal reasons. As a child, I would go on walks at night with my dad, looking for owls in the woods near our house. This book is visually beautiful, but also a lovely, peaceful story with evocative language. If you haven’t shared this with a child, I encourage you to do so. It can prompt the most wonderful discussions and explorations (nature, night, winter, snow, hikes, etc.). Also try Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

Amos and Boris by William Steig. Call me sentimental (guilty as charged!), but I think this is one of the best books ever written about friendship, love, and courage. Amos is a mouse who is rescued by Boris, a whale. Years later, Amos is faced with the opportunity to help Boris. Who could believe that a small mouse could come to the aide of a whale, such a massive, noble creature? There are layers of gentle, moving lessons in this lovely book. William Steig has been a favorite of mine since I was small and I also had great success sharing and reflecting on his story of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble with this age group.

Llama, Llama, Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney. Little llama has trouble going to sleep alone in his bed and his mama offers him reassurance. Preschoolers who are away from their moms and dads for an entire day love the reassurance of knowing that their parents are thinking of them and loving them every moment that they are apart.

A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. This classic has stood the test of time so well. My students related to this structure of this family unit, the idea of saving pennies, and they loved hearing about a mother and about love. Terrible things happen in the story, but also wonderful things and preschoolers appreciate a true-to-life tale. This is a well-told story for any time, but it lends itself to snuggling up for nap.

How Do I Love You? by P.K. Hallinan. There is nothing more reassuring than drifting off to sleep knowing that you’re loved. This simple, rhyming book tells children that they’re loved on their “very best and very worst of days.” My students would request this one again and again. I recommend the bilingual version.

When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth by Jamie Lee Curtis. In my experience, children love to reflect on their youth. This book always prompts fun discussion, but it’s also just fun to listen to, like all of Jamie Lee Curtis’s books for children. Preschoolers will find much to identify with and mine always found it very affirming of their own routines and habits. When it’s no longer naptime, engage with some of her other titles including Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day, Big Words for Little People, and (my personal favorite), Is There Really a Human Race? (my nieces cannot get enough of the illustrations in this one).

A few classics that require no introduction, but should not be overlooked: Caps for Sale, Where the Wild Things Are,Harry the Dirty Dog, Little Bear, and of course Goodnight Moon, which most of us can recite by heart but truly stands the test of time for a soothing bedtime read.

What are your favorite naptime reads?

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Speaking in Abstracts

“That’s not nice!”

“Are you going to be good today?”

Good. Bad. Nice. Mean. Kind. Unkind. Friendly. Unfriendly. What do these words really mean to very small children? Most children are masters of reading context and signals to try to decode our meaning. They’re observant and intuitive, to a truly remarkable extent. From your frown and your tone, they will deduce that, “Not nice!” makes you unhappy, and they may feel upset, unsettled, or saddened by this, but will they understand why? And (here is the real heart of the issue) does nice or not nice always mean the same thing? They can’t possibly.

Think of the limitless possibilities in these subjective descriptive terms. A day can be nice, in general. A person can be nice, in general. A specific act or word or gesture from a person could also be nice (sharing is nice, hugs are nice, smiles are nice). Ice cream can taste nice. A sunset can look nice. Some music can sound nice. A new sweater can feel nice… or not nice, depending on how scratchy the wool may be. Wearing a sweater that doesn’t feel nice could make a person act, “not nice,” by inciting grumbles and moans and disgruntled expressions. Hopefully it wouldn’t lead to hitting or pushing or biting, but if you’re sensitive enough to scratchy fabrics and you’re having a day that is reaching that level of “not nice,” it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and that really wouldn’t be nice at all, would it? It certainly wouldn’t be good. Oh, but don’t get me started on good and bad. I’m not sure I could be nice about it.

Here’s my point: say what you mean. If you want a child to sit down in their chair, on their bottom, with their feet under the table, tell them that, rather than, “Sit down nicely!” If you want a child to stop hitting or pushing, tell them that, rather than, “I want you to be good today,” or, “Be nice!”

The issue with these subjective adjectives is that very young children will have a hard time deciphering what we’re asking of them, leading to frustration on our part and A LOT of frustration and confusion on their parts. I believe they are more often than not trying their very best to understand a pretty consistently confusing world. I don’t believe it’s fair to them. (Especially when they don’t live up to a seemingly arbitrary standard of nice or good that they didn’t understand in the first place and then we accuse them of not listening!)

Young children tend to be pretty black-and-white and literal in their understandings. I’ll never forget when my little brother was about four years old and was having a hard time expressing something to me. “Spit it out!” I told him, impatiently, and, panicked look on his face, he began frantically spitting onto the carpet in my bedroom, thinking that there was something awful in his mouth. Talk about a good reminder for me to say what I mean! When it comes to children’s black-and-white rules, we need to tread lightly with terms like “good” and “bad”. When we request that children, “Be good!” we are not only providing no clear direction for what we specifically want them to do or not do, but we’re also applying an unreasonable amount of pressure. If they’re not “good” in every sense we’ve ever taught them, are they then “bad”?

Communication is always a two-way street. Children are doing their part to read between the lines, jump through hoops, and understand what in the world we’re trying to say. The least we can do for them is do our best to be understood.

Reading in Our Changing World

Mari Passananti posed the most interesting question in her blog post, “If You Read But Your Child Doesn’t Realize It, Does It Count?” She writes,

Many of you will remember a widely reported twenty-year study that concluded that the mere presence of books in the home is as important as parental education level in determining children’s educational level. Everyone knows reading to your kids is good for their brains. And since children learn by example, it follows that seeing adults reading is beneficial.

But the study about the mere presence of books was a ground breaking testament to the power of suggestion. If a child sees things, in this case books, treasured and valued, the reasoning goes that s/he will grow up to share those priorities. Which in turn will hopefully set off a desirable chain reaction: I.e. value books, love reading, love learning.

So here’s the gazillion dollar question:

Do ebooks count?

What do you think?

I love this question and the dialogue that it can prompt. The Pew Research Center reports that parents prefer physical books for their children, even while they value e-readers for themselves.

Parents of minor children do not necessarily read more than adults who do not currently have minor children (“other adults”), but they are heavier consumers of audio books and e-books. Sixteen percent of parents have read more than 20 books in the past year and an additional 13% have read 11-20 books while two in ten parents (22%) report no reading in the past 12 months. [more]

In-person focus groups by Pew revealed what I would have speculated:

  1. Parents want to recreate for children the shared reading experiences that they themselves had as children.
  2. Parents want children to know that they’re reading, so choosing a physical book seems a better choice than a device that could be used for other activities like games, Facebook, etc.
  3. Parents value the sensory experience offered by physical books as opposed to e-books.

As a teacher and reader, these are the same things that I argue in defense of physical books. Although a study conducted in Germany found there is no difference for your brain between reading a print page and reading a screen, readers often insist that the experience is different. (Please note that the study in question involved adults, not children.) That’s because the act of reading a book is more than your “reading behaviors” and eye-tracking. The act of reading a book may be the experience of turning pages, smelling paper and glue (and maybe some mildew or smoke or other traces of the book’s journey through the world), marking it up, and sharing it with others — it is undeniable that there is a difference between passing a book to a friend over coffee, with your dogeared pages and broken spine, than sending a link via email. I fully, deeply acknowledge the sensory pleasures of books and reading, even while I do the majority of my reading via e-reader these days. My house is still packed with books, stacked on tables and floors and overflowing their shelves. If I love a book, I want to see a physical embodiment of it in front of me. I just do.

But we’re not talking about me or us as adult readers. We’re talking about the experiences of children and what children need to be successful readers. An opinion piece by Amira Hood entitled Physical Books Provide Tangible Benefits mentioned a study reported on by The Guardian.

This is an age where, according to a study reported by the Guardian UK, children are being deprived of the joys of reading a physical book. The study determined that when children used e-books, it “prompted more non-content related actions (eg behaviour or device-focused talk, pushing hands away)… Children reading enhanced e-books also recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.”

Even though the campaign to get kids to read is nothing new, new attention is being drawn to the subject due to the many lifelong dangers presented by e-books for both children and parents. “Some of the extra features of enhanced ebooks may distract adults and children alike from the story, affecting the nature of conversation and the amount of detail children recall.” In the article, researchers say that the priority of “literacy-building experiences over ones intended ‘just for fun’” will give children a better foundation.

The study in question looked at so-called enhanced e-books, which offer bells and whistles not found in physical books, which frequently distract from the reading experience. The thing I found most interesting from the study was the report on non-content-related actions. “The enhanced ebook was less effective than the print and basic ebook in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions. When adults prompt children with questions pertaining to the text, label objects, and encourage them to discuss the book contents in terms of their own experiences and curiosities, this elicits increased verbalisation by the child and can lead to improved vocabulary and overall language development.” I think this is really the most important aspect of the study because it gets to the heart of this discussion as it highlights the parental behavior. Are you teaching your child to use an e-reader or tablet or are you sharing a story? There have been studies in the past that reveal the same sort of behavior-correcting actions with physical booksharing. We know, in child development, that the best booksharing with young children allows for them to skip pages, to “read” back-to-front, to stop “reading” the story altogether to talk about the picture of the dog or to ask questions like, “What do you think is going to happen next?” When we bookshare, we don’t just open to the first page and read each word on each page from front to back until The End. It’s a shared experience, a conversation, a dance. When parental corrections intrude on the experience, they intrude on literacy and relationships with books.

When we read with babies, they learn how to turn pages (fine motor!), to track with their eyes, to make meaning of symbols, to understand conversation. They also hear our hearts beating, feel our arms around them, feel the rhythm of the language from our throats and chests, hear emotion, and — often, I hope — taste, smell, and feel the book itself as a physical object. Many of these aspects of booksharing can be effectively created with “basic e-books,” that present the words and pictures without the bells and whistles. A large portion of the sensory experience, in terms of holding a physical book, will be lost, but will a child miss them? A child will choose the sensory experience of a parent’s arms over the sensory experience of a book just about any day.

The question becomes: Do we want our children to live in a world without physical books? Will this happen? It could, but I think it will be a long time coming, due to our own nostalgia. Parents who were raised on physical books can’t resist passing that tradition down to their children. Last night, my husband leafed through one of his childhood books before bed, having unearthed it from a closet in his parents’ house while they packed to move. He was transfixed, a wistful smile on his face. Books, like so many sensory experiences, can be portals to another time. We live in a nostalgic society. For example, Polaroid cameras are very in (again). I have a weakness for old typewriters. My generation obsessed over 60s and 70s fashion and now I see young kids in 80s-style clothing. In this kind of world, books will never fade away.


So what are parents to do? READ WITH YOUR CHILDREN. Read books, real books! Go to libraries. Read e-books. Explore enhanced e-books and resist the urge to correct what your child may be doing “wrong” in the process. Listen to audio books. Read store and street signs, magazines, newspapers, online articles, letters, junk mail, cereal boxes. Read, read, read. Model reading: read cookbooks, read warning labels, read driving directions, read books and read e-books. Write, and model writing. Make lists, leave notes, draw maps, send letters, and write down stories. Type. Let your children type. Most surveys seem to indicate that in the era of e-books, people are reading more. Let’s go for it, full-force. Don’t let the bells and whistles of brain-draining technology distract you. Your child’s brain will develop at a rapid pace, so make sure that yours continues to work at it as well.

Literacy and a love of learning don’t develop in a bubble, with an iPad. They’re developed through curiosity and enthusiasm and relationships. Follow your child’s passions and consciously bring books and reading into the equation. That’s your job, in fostering a future reader. And if you’re really dedicated to the task, demonstrate how books — physical books — can be used for research purposes, not just Google. But that’s another post for another day. Stay tuned!

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The Perfect Blendship

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered. “Yes, Piglet?” “Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Several months ago, a one-year-old infant enrolled in our full-day program. Prior to starting with us, his parents had employed a nanny to care for him at home while they worked. Now that he was a bit older, however, they felt it was time for him to be around other children, so that he could begin to — cue ominous music — socialize. After spending some time in our program, observing how we work with the infants and toddlers, his mom asked me about their friendships. “Do they tend to make friends pretty easily?” she asked me, as we observed several infants playing nearby. I considered her question for a little while before answering, as it seems to me to be a complicated issue. Relationships at any age can be complicated things, can’t they? They’re tangled webs of unequal parts history, fiction, hopes, and emotion. As adults, we tend to simplify and romanticize the relationships of young children. We tell children to “go and play,” assuming that certain groups of children will simply find common ground and get along and successfully, peacefully. And quite often, left alone and trusted, they do. By the same token, we often devote a substantial amount of time and energy to telling children exactly how to interact and play with one another. We force them to be inclusive, to be nice, and to share. We’re uncomfortable with their disagreements and their sometimes strong opinions regarding one another. In a wide, bland swath of dishonesty, we tell preschoolers, “We’re all friends!” Is it because we think saying it will make it so? That we can right the wrongs of society with our words? In truth, children learn relationships like language — soaking it all up like a sponge, both consciously and subconsciously observing the way that everyone around them interacts. They learn to be friends by being treated as friends. They learn to include by being included. They learn kindness through kindness. They learn all the worst of us as well: how to hurt with words, with actions, with a cold shoulder.

It’s intensely heartwarming and often humbling to watch infants interact with one another at the earliest stages because they demonstrate the purest of intentions with one another, beginning with a genuine curiosity about one another’s facial features and expressions, bodies and movements, and sounds. There are those who say that children don’t truly make friends until they’re older — three, even four years old — but I think this is subjective depending upon your perception of what friendship is and what it means to children. Based on my observations of the interactions between infants and toddlers, I believe that many children delight in friendships much earlier. I see a genuine caring and compassion and mutual enjoyment between infants sometimes even before they’re walking. I see very young children expressing preferences for who they want to spend time with and expressing joy at seeing a familiar peer again.

Many parents and teachers seem to feel a great deal of pressure to help young children make friends and maintain friendships. We talk a lot about making sure that children are socialized. It is my belief that it would be impossible to overstate the importance of helping young children to develop positive social skills because once they acquire them, they’re good for life. I once read (and wish I could find a source for the information) that if children haven’t acquired certain social skills that help them to get along in a school setting by the time they’re five, they won’t have the chance to master them until middle school. This is one of the reasons that preschool and preschool-like settings are so important. We want children to walk into the world with confidence and kindness. We want them to be friendly and to feel safe asking for help from others. We want, essentially, for them to be a part of a community. At the same time, I believe we all need to take a breath and give children a little bit of space. Relax about it because it’s not a scientific equation that can be solved from the outside. In general, children will be drawn together at one time or another due to common interests, shared curiosity, and a sense of plain old fun. Let’s see what happens when we allow them to navigate early relationships without being told how to do it right (spoiler: they’ll mostly get it “right” on instinct alone). Let’s allow them to bump up against each other and experience conflict and also experience working it out, within safe boundaries. Let’s bite our tongues for a minute and not blurt out who was “using that!” or who “was there first!” Leave that grown-up baggage outside and see what happens. It will be amazing. It may even change your perception of your own relationships.

Here are a few suggestions for promoting truly positive social skills in young children:

  • Help children be empathetic by articulating the emotions expressed by them and those around them. For example, when infants notice another child is crying, acknowledge this by saying, “You see that she is upset. She’s crying because…”
  • For toddlers, make simple suggestions of how they can help others. For example, “Sam is sad. Maybe he would like to hold his blanket.” Acknowledge when they have offered help, no matter how clumsily or how ill-received.
  • For preschoolers, simply ask what they think might help someone else. “I wonder how we could help her,” you might say. Listen to what they have to offer.
  • Respect children’s preferences. They don’t have to like everyone. Here are the limits: They may not hurt others. They must be kind. But, really, truly, they don’t have to be friends with everyone. Listen to why your child doesn’t want to play with someone.
  • Give children the opportunity to resolve conflicts. Stay close. Intervene if someone is going to get hurt, but don’t stomp all over their interactions. They’re learning.
  • Allow your children to have ownership over their things. It is not necessary for them to allow their friends to play with and use whatever they want to. Your children can set boundaries. Respect them. (When you have friends over for a visit, do they slip into your favorite pajamas and eat from the crystal dishes you inherited from your grandmother? Perhaps not. We all need sacred spaces.)
  • Help your child understand how to be a respectful guest in a friend’s house. I’ll never forget a child who came to play at my niece’s house when she was about three years old and had my niece pinned against the wall of the playroom, whisper-hissing to her, “You have to let me. I’m a guest!”
  • Talk to your child about things they can say when conflict arises, before conflict arises. Role play, use puppets, use teddy bears. Practice, practice, practice. “What will you say if someone takes something you’re using from your hands?” (“I was using that.” “I don’t like when you take something from my hands.” “Please pass that back to me. I wasn’t finished.” “Do you want to use it when I’m done?”)
  • Model the kind of interactions you envision for your child: smile at people, even strangers. Hold the door for others. Say please, thank you, and excuse me. Be kind but assertive when necessary — have boundaries. Share because you want to and because it’s nice. Hug your loved ones. Take an interest in other people.
  • Be genuine. (As in: if you don’t want to be friends with someone, don’t pretend that you are. Your children are so perceptive. And they do as you do.)
  • Trust your children to make choices and to interact with other people without you being on their shoulder (you’re already in their head, for better or worse).

Now take three giant steps back and just watch. This is the greatest honor and pleasure of working with young children — simply being able to observe their amazing interactions with one another, undisturbed. We adults can learn so much in these moments. So much that we have forgotten and so much that maybe we never learned in the first place.

Please note: some children do need more hands-on help with social interactions than others and I’m not suggesting you throw one socially awkward/delayed/timid child to the wolves. I recently heard what I thought was a wonderful way to support a child who is trying to enter into play with others and is being rebuffed. Rather than asking, “Can I play?” encourage children to ask, “How can I play too?” As in, “What role can I take here?” I feel like there is a lot adults can take away from this idea. Also, respect the child who wants to work on their own. Children need to have time and space to themselves too.

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The Forced Apology

Were you ever forced to apologize to someone as a child? If you were, you may be able to recall the mix of negative emotions flooding through your body at the time. Perhaps you were still angry about whatever had previously transpired; perhaps you were feeling a bit resentful of how things were being handled; perhaps you were a bit embarrassed by the whole situation; perhaps there was a little bit of a guilt, deep inside, and somewhere nearby perhaps some true apologetic feelings lurked, not quite ready to swim to the surface. Then came the forced apology — more than likely given in a mumble and devoid of eye contact — before all parties walked away, no one feeling a sense of closure. Nearly everyone I know can relate to this experience as a child. And yet, as adults, we continue to force apologies from children in the face of our own frustration, embarrassment, or sense of duty.

The other day I observed a teacher extracting an apology from a three-year-old child. The child hadn’t been “a good listener,” and so was sitting to one side of the play yard with a teacher as she talked about the importance of listening well. She talked for awhile and the child fidgeted on the bench beside her for awhile and then she asked, “Are you ready to say ‘sorry’?” The child perked up right away. “Sorry!” he eagerly chirped, sliding forward on the bench, preparing to launch himself back into play. “I forgive you,” the teacher said with a smile, and both parties left the bench.

I don’t know this child and I don’t know what happened from there for the rest of his day. I can speculate, however, that he wasn’t feeling terribly apologetic for not listening (incidentally, it doesn’t seem to be the listening that was the real issue, but the following of directions). It seemed clear to me that his pat apology was issued with confidence, so somewhere along the way he had already learned that, “Sorry!” was an effective way to extract oneself from these situations. And he’s only three! I feel we have enough evidence from this alone to declare this child not only a Good Listener but also an absolutely terrific observer. As for what the teacher took away from this experience, it’s hard to say, but she did seem to be satisfied by what had transpired, so I imagine that this was a case of a teacher going through the motions. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a forced apology? It’s generally not a very satisfying place to be.

What is the goal with forced apologies? In some cases, it’s an almost reflexive end to what one perceives as a teaching moment, as seen above — the teacher wished for the child to feel regretful about not being a better “listener” and tried to prompt those feelings (and, one presumes, the resultant listening) with a forced apology. In other cases, it’s more guilt or embarrassment-driven, as when one child has hurt another or conflict of some kind has arisen. We force children to apologize when we feel an apology is called for. That’s not wrong. We want children to get along in society with “please”s and “thank you”s and “excuse me”s and apologies too, when apologies are necessary. And how will they learn unless we teach them? That’s our job, as parents, as teachers, as caregivers. But I would like to suggest that we teach them not through telling them, not through forcing them, but through demonstrating true empathy and by modeling active conflict resolution skills.

Awake Parent Perspectives writes about how forcing children to apologize undermines real conflict resolution:

[W]hen we ask children to apologize prematurely we are actually devaluing the process of working through conflict. We’re sending the message that we ought to just quickly apologize, even if we don’t feel sorry as a way to smooth over the incident. We’re also inadvertently teaching kids that conflicts should be avoided, rather than used as an opportunity to connect further and get to know each other better.

Conflict can be intensely uncomfortable. It’s unpredictable, it doesn’t feel safe, and often we adults have spent most of our lives trying to avoid it (by doing things like saying, “I’m sorry!” almost instinctively). Learning the skills to use in navigating conflict makes it much easier and more effective, if not more comfortable. Young children can really find their voices and their confidence through learning conflict resolution skills and these are skills they will carry with them for a lifetime. In the preschool environments that prioritize conflict resolution and the development of pro-social skills, it’s awesome to hear the children using the language and skills they have soaked up from their teachers.

A good place to start with young children (as young as older infants or young toddlers) is to look at what’s happened and simply narrate and explain it. An example might be when one child has pulled the hair of another and the one who has had their hair pulled is crying. “You’re upset that your hair got pulled!” you might observe, “That really hurt your head.” You might offer additional comfort to the crying child, if needed, and observe to the other, “It hurts when you pull hair. This child doesn’t like to have their hair pulled.” When I’m working with infants and toddlers, I tell the child who has been hurt, “You can tell them you don’t like that. You can tell them it hurts.” Depending on their age and developmental abilities, I might show them the sign for “hurt” or the sign for “stop”, I will model talking directly to the child who did the hurting, and I will repeat, “You didn’t like that. They didn’t like that.” I will model “gentle” hands by touching both children gently and signing “gentle”. A positive replacement for prompting an apology might be to ask, “How can we help?” Young preschool children will have dozens of great ideas for how to help their friends and sometimes their ideas even circle back to, “I could say I’m sorry,” or, “They could tell me sorry.” True, heartfelt apologies are a wonderful balm for hurts.

I use the words, “I’m sorry,” when I feel bad about something that has transpired. Not to assume responsibility, but to express empathy. For example, to a child who has had their hair pulled, I’ll often say, “I’m sorry that happened to you. That hurt you.” I am sorry it happened. If you find yourself feeling sorry for a child who has been hurt by your child, I think it’s great to express that. You don’t have to force an unwilling child to apologize when there is no meaning behind it, but you set an example of empathy when you tell a hurt child, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” and you ask the child who did the hurting, “I wonder how we could help them to feel better?” When you truly model kindness and empathy, you will begin to observe that the forced apology has no place because children are handling their conflicts and reflecting those values.

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“You did it!”

Abundant Life Children posted about “4 Small Changes To Enrich Your Journey with Young Children,” including using the words, “You did it!” in place of, “Good job!” To some this may seem like an insignificant difference, or even semantics, but there is no question that the words we choose to use with children, and the real message behind them, really matter.

Being honest with children is a necessity that cannot be overstated. Small children are incredibly perceptive, so the intent of your words and the feelings you have underneath are obvious to them. When you say, “Good job!” while barely glancing up from your email in response to a picture they hold up, you may as well have said, “I’m bored.” Likewise, when you lavish their picture (and only the picture; the product of their labor) with praise that does not come from an honest place, you may as well have said, “It looks like every other picture you’ve done for the past three weeks.” Too much praise can quickly shift children’s focus from their intrinsic motivations (for example, painting for the joy of painting) to a need for approval. “Good job!” puts a gold star on the top of their work. “I can tell you worked really hard on this!” shows an appreciation for the (good, thorough, wonderful, difficult, all-around amazing) job they did. “You used so many different colors! Tell me about this picture,” can prompt a child to articulate and explore their own creative process or work (and, from a teacher standpoint, can promote a rich and wonderful exchange that unveils language and literacy skills). To me, it’s a measure of respect for children.

When students of child development are learning about working with small children and they’re being taught the theory and practice of why we encourage them rather than praise them, they often become self-conscious in their exchanges with children. When a child does something fantastic or shows them an example of their work, the college students may become completely tongue-tied as their brains quickly rattle through everything they know NOT to say. This is where I think honesty really comes into play. When a child shows me something they have created that strikes me as beautiful, I tell them so. I may tell them why it strikes me as beautiful or what I most admire about what they did, in the most genuine and specific way possible.

What about when a child shows you a picture they’ve done that’s honestly not-so great? Consider why it’s not their best work. Did they rush through it? Being honest with them does not mean being unkind. “It looks like you drew this really quickly!” you might observe. “What were you thinking about when you made this?”

It is easy to lose your footing in the encouragement versus praise debate, or to throw up your hands and decide that much too much thought has been put into a seemingly minor issue. At the end of the day, here is the way it all breaks down for me: Do we want children to do things because they’re seeking a gold star and the approval of other people outside of themselves or do we want children (future adults) to do things because they feel inside that it’s what they want to do? My goal for all of my students is that they know they’re good and smart and wonderful and beautiful and valued ALL THE TIME from deep inside themselves, not just when someone is there to see what they’ve done and stick a sticker on their shirt.

What a world we can create if we raise children to carry those feelings within themselves all the time and to realize how to cultivate that goodness and motivation from the inside! Think what they would pass to all those around them. Think what they could accomplish with the kind of persistence and courage that come with intrinsic motivation.

I’ve mostly given examples of encouragement versus praise as it relates to children’s artwork, so I wanted to share another kind of example, just for fun.

The other day I was with a group of two-year-olds as they were getting up from their naps. One of the things they do as they’re getting up and preparing for the rest of their afternoon is to get their shoes and socks back on. One of the children marched over to me, shoes and socks in hand, and proceeded to sit directly in front of me, saying, “Watch this.” She stretched her leg out in front of her and laboriously pulled on one inside-out sock. “See?” she asked me, with the beginning of a smile. “I see,” I said, “You’re putting on your socks.” “Yep,” she replied, and very slowly pulled on the other one before sliding her feet into her shoes (on the wrong feet, I will mention, only because it seems relevant to my story) and jumping up from the floor. “LOOK!” she cried triumphantly, a huge smile on her little face, “I DID IT!” I smiled back and echoed, “You did it!” Beaming, she ran to the snack table and sat down with some other children, filled up to the brim with satisfaction for her own (fantastic) accomplishment. I walked away with a big smile on my face for having witnessed one little girl who KNEW from the very tips of her toes to the top of her head that she was pretty fantastic. She needed nothing more from me than to have me beside her as witness to her work. She didn’t need to hear that she was good and smart and independent because she feels all that and more from within.

This will serve her well as a teenager, we can all agree. Let’s go ahead and foster that intrinsic motivation so that small children who grow into bigger children and adolescents and adults will know how to face doubt and uncertainty within themselves: strong and head-on. With honesty.

There is an ever-increasing body of scientific research surrounding this subject, which may be of interest to some. A few links in that direction follow:

A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation [pdf]
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions [pdf]
Motivating Learning in Young Children [From National Association of School Psychologists]
Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in Early Childhood Classrooms [pdf]
Alfie Kohn explains praise as a way of “doing to” rather than “working with” people.

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