Tag Archives: caregiving

Pushing My Buttons

Please note: I was conflicted as to whether or not to post the following. I want to be clear that I do not represent RIE™ as an organization. I have nothing but admiration for their work and do not want to misrepresent their message or philosophy. Like so many, I have found RIE™ Principles enlightening and helpful in building authentic relationships with the children in my care. RIE™ influences my practices. What I write about here are my experiences, my understandings, and my interpretations. I enjoy sharing my experiences with others because I think everyone — parent, caregiver, and human being — can benefit from Magda Gerber’s teachings. I am sharing my personal passion, I am not an expert. To better understand RIE™, please visit their web site or attend a training! You will find more resources at the bottom of this post.

“Having respect for the world is when you allow people to be what they are.” – Magda Gerber

Two of the words that are commonly used to describe RIE-influenced interactions with children are calm and peaceful. It has been my experience that the perception of what these words mean in relation to everyday experiences and interactions with infants and young children can cause some people to feel alienated from the true heart of Magda Gerber‘s philosophy. These words, in fact, can cause some people to think that RIE™ is something that they can’t “do” because what it sounds like to them is that they would need to become an entirely different kind of person. (In fact, my experience has been that incorporating just a few pieces of Magda’s advice will make you feel like a slightly different kind of person! And you will want to know and do more.) They feel intimidated by the idea that they don’t know the “right” words or actions. They may have come across some misinformation about what RIE™ is or what it looks like and they feel it’s not a match for their style. Because sometimes when you’re living and working with young children and their strong emotions, the very last thing you can imagine feeling, moment to moment, is calm and/or peaceful.

As the leader of an infant/toddler program and primary caregiver to three to four infants and young toddlers in an environment that is home throughout the day to at least eight small people and three adult people, I have days when I leave work on my lunch break and sit silently in my car, breathing in and out, consuming the silence like soul sustenance. There are days when I feel that, rather than anything resembling calm or peaceful, I have been marinating in an environment of disorder, borderline chaos, and noise pollution. There are days when I feel like I am failing.

The reality is that being with children in a way that is authentic, nurturing, and supportive is frequently quite exhausting and intensive. It’s work, this work that we do. It’s often loud and messy and seemingly chaotic. There are times when someone will open the door to my classroom and glance at the toys strewn across the floor, raise their eyebrows at the sound of a baby (or two, or three, or more) crying, and they will make a comment about it being loud, messy, and seemingly chaotic. “Yes,” we say, “we have a lot going on. Yes, we are busy being with our babies.” Sometimes the toys are all on the floor from 8:00 in the morning until after 6:00 in the evening (and sometimes when I’m walking out the door, I just don’t have the strength to put that last item on the shelf). Sometimes it seems that one baby or another has been crying nearly all day. Most of the time, I come home with stains on my clothing of dubious origin.

My understanding of RIE™ Principles makes the work that I do easier not because it is always calm or peaceful and not because I myself am always truly calm and peaceful, but because it gives me the tools to get through those times that feel chaotic and overwhelming. In the group caregiving setting that I work in, my understanding of RIE™ gives me the peace of mind that the caring is the curriculum. It gives me the confidence to consciously slow down in my responses during moments that can seem like little emergencies. My goal isn’t to quiet babies or to rush to meet their perceived needs, but instead to be with them and understand them on a deeper level. It’s an understanding that this moment, while fleeting, is built on in the next and the next and the next after that. Moments stacked together like blocks, building a long, meaningful relationship. I’m reminded that it’s a practice, not a perfect system to somehow flawlessly implement. Treating the children in my care with respect, treating their families with respect, and treating my co-workers with respect makes it possible to see myself with respect — with forgiveness and understanding for myself as a perfectly imperfect human being and caregiver. It allows me to really know the children and for them to know me as well. They know what to expect from me and from our days together.

Interactions, even respectful interactions, with young children are not always either peaceful or calm. They’re not always easy. Something that I frequently see mentioned about RIE™, in outside reviews and commentary, is that it advocates treating children “as adults”. My understanding is that this is an inherently flawed interpretation. Instead, what I understand of RIE™ is that children are recognized for being exactly what they are: children. They’re not condescended to or judged for being somehow less-than or incompetent. They are simply met respectfully where they are. There is not an expectation that they be anything other than human children.

One of the young toddlers that I am currently working with is going through a period of pushing and shoving that is common in children of that age. It is not uncommon for the adults in our classroom to have to stop this behavior and remind the child a dozen times a day that we will not allow her to push and shove. Recently, I was changing the diaper of another child when the child who has been pushing came to stand beside me, whining to be picked up. The child on the diaper table turned to look, hearing the whine, and I said, “Did you hear M? She is asking to be picked up.” I then turned to the child who was whining and said, “M, I am with S right now. When I’m done helping S, I will be able to help you.” Predictably, in her agitated state, this did little to help M. She did pause momentarily in her whining, putting her hand against my leg, but then a third child came over to see what was happening. Seeing the other child approaching while she was trying to get my attention proved too much for M and she yelled in frustration before shoving the other child away from me, hard. The child who had been shoved began to cry loudly, as did M. It wasn’t long before the child on the diapering table began to wail as well. (“What’s happening?! Is this an emergency?”)

I think we can all agree that a moment like this can feel like chaos. I’m pretty sure I started sweating a little bit. The little voice in the back of my head began to question all of my choices.

So what happened next in this instance? Well, first I completed the diaper change, calming S through the familiar routine and then putting her down. I then got down on the floor beside the child who had been shoved and said, “You’re so upset that you got shoved! That looked like it hurt you and scared you. Do you want a hug?” She rushed into my arms and patted my back while I patted hers, her crying slowing to sniffles. And M? She stood close by, alternately crying and screaming. I turned to her, to include her, “M, I hear you. You wanted me to pick you up. O was scared when you shoved her and she needed help. It sounds like you’re feeling very upset too.” M cried, “Up! Uppie!” When another child peered around the corner at her, she put her hand towards them as if to push them away. “M!” I called sharply, “Stop! I won’t let you push.” She turned to look at me and I looked back steadily. The child in my arms had calmed and appeared ready to walk away. I whispered to her, “Can you go see P? She is sitting in the red chair with some books.” O walked away to where another caregiver sat with two younger babies. “I have free arms for you, M,” I said, “Can I help you?” She rushed at me with the full force of her powerful toddler body. She clung to me for a long time… and it was peaceful.

Inside, I was already replaying this scene in my mind, thinking about what I could have done differently to meet the needs of each child in my care.

That was not an isolated incident that day. I stopped M from pushing many more times and she succeeded in pushing several more. Each time, there were instances where neither one of us felt particularly calm or peaceful. At one point, we were face-to-face. She was tear-stained and red-cheeked and angry that I was (exhausted and frustrated) again stopping the behavior. “I won’t let you hurt other people,” I told her. She lunged towards me, as if to shove me, and I held up one hand, “Stop, M. I won’t let you.” She screamed (you may be able to imagine the sound if you have a toddler in your life). “What can we do, M? Do you want to go push the scooter or do you want me to hold you for a minute?” Her body slumped and she again asked, “Uppie?” I picked her up and held her until she had another idea of what she wanted to do.

Ultimately, M felt my calm resolve to help keep her from pushing other people. I wasn’t calm, through and through. I was concerned that someone would be hurt. I was concerned that M be able to express herself and communicate what was inside of her. I wanted to understand and meet her needs. But in my resolve, in what I wanted for M and the classroom at large, I was calm and peaceful.

“You have to do what you believe in.” – Megda Gerber

We do our best, my co-workers and I, to shine a light on the RIE™ Principles for our co-workers and families because these principles resonate with what we believe to be best for children and families. These things that I have described are all things that happen in families and with young children: sometimes there is pushing and shoving (sometimes physical, sometimes emotional), screaming, crying, falling down, helping up, and hugging. There are moments that are beautifully calm and peaceful, through and through. And there are moments that are … not. But they’re all real. Messy, maybe borderline chaotic, probably loud, and totally authentic. My understanding of Magda Gerber’s teachings is just like this: It’s respecting children enough to talk them through times that are difficult and uncomfortable and maybe loud and messy, without shaming and blaming and judging and labeling them. It’s being okay with them not being “okay”. It’s trying again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that (when M will finally internalize the limit that has been set regarding pushing and shoving).

I’m far removed from being an expert on RIE™. It’s just part of my journey and I appreciate all that it has taught me. I read, I listen, I reflect. I take those pieces that resonate most with me (for example, that little piece about telling M that I was with S, engaged in her diapering routine, and I would move on from that routine when it was concluded, trusting that M could wait and that S benefits from and deserves my attention and respect during such an intimate routine) and I put them together with the other pieces I have come across over the years from other sources.

About RIE™
What is RIE™?
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) by Magda Gerber.
Baby Knows Best: Raising a Confident and Resourceful Child, the RIE™ Way by Deborah Carlisle Solomon, RIE Executive Director.
Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Childcare blog.
Regarding Baby, Lisa Sunbury’s blog.

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The Best of Intentions

The best and the worst aspect of my classroom is that it is located at the front of our facility. We have walls of windows that overlook the courtyard and our play yard faces the lobby. This is the best because we have an environment that is positively flooded with sun all day long, we have lovely views of trees and leaves and butterflies and birds, and we can observe the comings and goings throughout the day (we especially enjoy the daily “parades” of half-day preschoolers). It is, at the very same time, the worst because we can sometimes feel that we’re in a fish tank or a zoo, as everyone who passes by is compelled to stop for a moment and admire the infants and toddlers like puppies in a pet store. “They’re so cute!” they squeal, peering over the fence as the toddlers climb the slide, ride their scooters, and glance in puzzlement at the strangers on the other side. One year there was a mom of a preschool student who was enamored with one of the infants in particular, admiring his golden curls and blue eyes and wide smile each day. One day she asked his caregiver if she could hold him. His caregiver shook her head and explained, “He doesn’t know you.” A smile from a baby doesn’t make you friends. When his parents leave him with us, they’re not anticipating that he’ll be passed over the fence into a stranger’s arms like a loaf of bread. This baby, this person, feels best in a safe and secure space. This baby, this individual, may prefer some privacy as he works. This baby, this human being, is not here for your entertainment.

We can stop other people’s disrespectful movements towards the children in our care to some extent. We field their comments as best we can (for example, countering, “They’re so cute!” with, “Yes, we are really enjoying water play today!”). (This is not to say that they’re not so cute. They are, of course. They’re ridiculously cute. It just doesn’t always need to be articulated. They’re really so much more.) Sometimes, however, our well-defended and intentionally constructed borders are breached. For example, one day a member of the staff rushed into the room because through the window she had observed a baby’s nose running and felt the need to wipe it. What happened instead is that her arrival in the room startled and upset a handful of other children who then generated enough tears and mucus to keep us busy for (what felt like) hours. When my aggravation had subsided, I tried to explain to the staff member why this was not okay and how it was not really about the baby or the nose but about her, the adult. “I was there to help!” she said. “I know. I think we all appreciate your intention,” I said, “but it can’t happen again. You can’t wipe the nose of a stranger.”

I believe that nearly everyone has nothing but the best of intentions towards infants and young children and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the elderly and infirm, when they seem to be in need of help. I also believe that there are very few situations that warrant jumping in and helping someone without assent.

We don’t tend to think of babies or young children that we don’t know as “strangers,” do we? My co-worker was offended by this word choice. We seem to have the idea that babies belong to the world! If they seem to “need” something, anyone with good intentions could provide it. The reality is that infants, young children, teenagers, adults, and stray dogs and cats are individuals all. They may not need or want what we have to offer. It’s generally best to slow down and consider what you’re offering. In this example, rather than grabbing a handful of tissues and rushing towards a baby, perhaps hold out a tissue and observe, “It looks like your nose is running.”

Another staff member looked through the window one day and observed an infant crying on the floor. She opened the door. “Can I come in and pick her up?” she asked. The baby’s caregiver explained, “She’s feeling frustrated because she is working to roll over and she hasn’t gone that way before. We are giving her time.” Not to mention that this baby, as an individual, is very wary of people she does not know and an offer of arms from a stranger would be far more distressing than the moment of struggle she was working through (and did work through). Again, the intention was wonderful (and that she stopped and asked was outstanding) but completely adult-based, stemming from this woman’s distress at hearing a baby — any baby — crying.

The other day I was outside with a few infants in our garden. The same baby mentioned above, now a master of rolling over, was deeply engaged in digging her fingers and toes into some mud. To me, it was a wonderful moment to witness, as she explored the texture of mud for the first time. Another infant sat nearby, dipping a finger in the mud and smearing it on her bare leg. Both babies were busy and content. A staff member stopped by, alarmed, and cautioned me, “Oh! She has mud on her finger! Don’t let her put it in her mouth!” The infant who had been smearing mud on her leg stopped her work and stared at the staff member, then looked at the mud on her finger. I acknowledged her acknowledgement, “H. was noticing the mud on your finger. I saw you were putting it on your leg. I wonder how it felt on your leg.” She resumed her work. I smiled at the staff member and reassured her, “They’re okay. They’re busy exploring the mud. I think it feels good.” She walked on. A few minutes later, a preschool parent was passing by and stopped to mention, “That baby has some mud on her.” I smiled again, “Thank you.”

Some of us have ideas about how babies should appear: faces wiped clean (noses not allowed to run); fingers scrubbed; socks on. I have many parents request that their children be changed into “clean clothes” before they are picked up to go home at the end of the day. I understand these desires. We encourage our toddlers to clean their faces after each meal, passing them a washcloth and talking about “cheeks, chins, mouths, and noses.” When they have done their work and food residue remains, I ask, “Can I help to clean your chin?” and when they agree*, I wipe them clean. This keeps their sensitive skin from becoming irritated, ensures that they don’t rub the residue off elsewhere in the room, and makes them both look and feel cared for. When we have played in the mud, we always clean up afterwards. And when a nose runs, we address it with tissues. Together. We don’t do these things to the babies, but with the babies. It makes all the difference.

* In general, when toddlers don’t “agree” to have their face wiped by an adult, we take a look in the mirror together and talk about where else on their face seems to require wiping. We encounter little resistance when it’s not made into a battle and it’s being done in a matter-of-fact rather than a directive manner.

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He’s Perfect

I work with a toddler who may be “on the spectrum“. It’s too soon to say for certain what a diagnosis would look and sound like, and it’s much too soon to say for sure exactly who this sweet boy will be in later life. He’s receiving some wonderful intervention and support therapies, in addition to the exceptional care and support offered to him every single day by his mom and dad. He’s going to be just fine. In fact, he’s going to be fairly exceptional, it’s plain to see. I can see it in his bright blue eyes that beam into mine with wisdom and understanding. I can feel it in his gentle embrace of my neck before his nap each day. I can hear it in the voices of his parents when they greet him at the end of the day, exhaling with, “I missed you, buddy.” He’s going to be just fine.

That is not to say he will not face challenges unique to his situation. That is not to say that his parents won’t (continue to) lose sleep sometimes, worrying, wondering. The fact is, he’s not exactly who people expect him to be, and that will be difficult at times.

This boy was originally “scheduled” to transition out of my program and into the room next-door several months ago, due to his age. Instead, we kept him with us, where he was just starting to feel comfortable and confident, so that we could support him in emerging a bit more from his shell. At the time, we didn’t know that he may be “on the spectrum”. What some would now call warning signs or symptoms at the time looked like possible and predictable separation anxiety and uncertainty about his new environment. It’s never easy for children to adjust to a group care setting (even when it looks to be “easy,” there is generally more churning under the surface) and part of my job is to slowly melt through the shields of anxiety, stress, confusion, and fear to find out who that child really is and attune myself to their rhythms and needs.

It’s been an unexpected journey to the heart of this little boy. I have treasured it. I could write pages and pages on what he has taught me about himself and about myself along the way, but instead I write pages and pages of notes to help his new caregivers understand him (to help them to love him, like I love him) because the time has come for him to transition out of my care. It’s difficult to accept that someone else is going to be taking care of him and that they’re going to care for him differently than I do. They’re going to care for him with their own philosophy, their own agenda, and their own ideas about what is best for him. He and I will both have to set forth with some trust in the process and in humanity.

It’s my belief that young children should not have to learn to conform to the way that I, as a teacher and caregiver, want them to be. Their only task, in my care, is to be their perfect selves. It’s my job to be who they need me to be and to create the environment that best suits them. That’s one of the things that makes my job a joy to do. Every day is different. Each child is a new challenge, a new experience. This beautiful boy in my care does not have problems that require fixing. He’s not an issue to be resolved. He’s perfect. While I, as a teacher, and his parents, as parents, want him to be the best possible version of himself, we realize that this is subjective. He can be only himself. He’ll change and grow and develop in ways we can’t even fathom today, as we see him before us now, less than two years old. There’s no stopping the process. There’s really no controlling it, although we’ll try, sometimes without even realizing it. All we can really do is influence the path he follows.

The best advice I can give to his new caregivers is to follow him, come alongside him, and reach out a hand. This is the best advice I can give to all caregivers. Just slow down and learn who this child is, at their core, before you make decisions about what you think they need. As Magda Gerber said, “Observe more. Do less.” There are times, in my work, that I feel like we’re all in a hurry to diagnose and intervene and arrange for services for every possible “issue” that could arise. This is not to say that early intervention does not have a very important place — I truly believe that it does and I’ve had the opportunity to see this good work in action, getting very real results. But I also think that too many caregivers look more for the “problem” than they do for the person. I believe that we sometimes waste time and energy on trying to fix things and change individuals who we could learn something from, exactly as they are.

On the days that this little boy is so deep inside himself that he seems unreachable, it’s on me to set aside my agenda and honor who he is. Sometimes he has a need to retreat (don’t we all?). I wish I knew where he goes and what he sees there, deep inside his own thoughts. Sometimes I sit close by and just watch quietly, but sometimes I can’t resist tossing him a line. Once in awhile, he’ll grab on and allow me to pull him back to the surface, where I wait. He does that for me, I think, because he’s perfectly content in his own thoughts, deep inside, but he recognizes my need. (It’s his recognition and acknowledgement of that need that makes me realize, upon reflection, that he will be okay, out there in the world without me.)

When I look at him, I think of all of the adults I know today who are “on the spectrum”. They’re at both ends: at one end, a highly successful attorney with a young family; at the other, a woman living in a group home with a very small, very insulated world around her. Here is what they all have in common — they all have love, support, and passionate, diverse interests. They all have things that make them laugh and things that make them cry. They all have things they’re really very good at it. Some of them have had years of intensive therapies and some of them didn’t even have a diagnosis until they were well-established in life. They’re all okay. They’re all perfect and unique, like you and I and my young friend, about to fly.

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Leaving a Legacy

Working with infants and toddlers, I have often reflected on this quote from poet Maya Angelou: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

These babies come into my life for what seems like just the blink of an eye, but they stay in my heart for all time. Long after they have left my program, moved to other towns and cities, started preschool, forgotten all about me, I remember with great clarity details about their care and their amazing personalities. I remember the stories of their families. I remember the very first moments we truly connected — sometimes minutes after meeting, sometimes weeks, sometimes even months. I remember singular days we spent together — the very, very worst and the very, very best. I carry them with me for years and years, knowing all the while that they have moved on and would likely not recognize me if we passed on the street. (Sometimes I see children I worked with as kindergartners or third graders or fifth graders and my heart does a little flip-flop, seeing them now as half-grown people out in the world. Sometimes they look right past me, with no idea that I once helped them to add two and two and tie their shoes and rubbed their back when their friend hurt their feelings, while I study their faces for traces of who I knew them to be and breathe a few silent wishes out into the universe for them.)

Last year I ran into a family I had worked closely with when their baby was between eight and eighteen months old. The mom and I hugged, the baby’s two big sisters danced around excitedly, and the once-baby boy eyed me intensely while his mom asked him, “Do you remember Jenn?” I smiled and crouched beside him, saying hello and, “I knew you when you were just a little baby.” After a period of serious silent consideration, he smiled slowly and passed me the toy frog he had clutched tightly in one hand. “He remembers you,” his mom declared delightedly. I was not quite so certain, but I do like to think that on some level every child I have worked with carries a little bit of something inside of them that I helped to plant there.

When I was teaching preschool, the teachers and administrators would frequently have very serious discussions about kindergarten-readiness and preparing our students for all that lay ahead. We had lists of expectations from the public school kindergarten teachers (“Children must be able to follow directions!“) and we had goals and strategies and hopes and fears for every child. It’s an unfortunate reality for young children and their families that in many schools in many cities across the United States, kindergarten is becoming a really difficult year for them to get through — filled with pressure and stress and expectations that often seem unrealistic for their stage of development. Over the years, from preschool teaching to infant and toddler caregiving, I have taken the approach of filling the children in my life up to the brim before they leave me. The world will not always be kind to them, but I can be. I can fill them up with the goodness that will help to light their way through the darker places. I can foster their resilience, their creativity, and their sense of themselves, at any age. (And I’ll tell you a secret: preschool children don’t get ready for kindergarten by learning to walk quietly in lines and sit criss-cross applesauce; they get ready for kindergarten by learning to trust that teachers have their best interests at heart. They follow directions like real champs when they have had reinforced to them that everyone deserves to be listened to and treated with respect.)

One of the very best and the very worst things about my current position is that my time with the infants, toddlers, and their families is limited. The children tell us when they’re ready to move on, and we owe it to them to listen and follow their lead. They deserve new challenges, new adventures, and the opportunity to expand their little community. It’s a wonderful, magical gift to see them grow. It’s also heart wrenching to see them go.

I like it best when the children in my care move to the room next-door, then across the yard to the preschool rooms, so I can continue to be with them, albeit at a greater distance, for a few more years. They often come by to visit with their families, standing outside and pointing through the window, saying, “I played with that when I was a baby. You held me like that when I was a baby.” They love when their infant caregivers tell them stories about when they were babies. One little girl, now a preschooler, is so tickled to hear about the days when she “cried and CRIED!” She prompts us, “What did you do? How did you help me when I cried and CRIED?” We tell her, “We held you. We carried you. We sang you a little song. We said, ‘We’re here with you.'” She smiles.

Recently, a child who had left our center after graduating from my room returned over a year later as a three-year-old ready for our preschool program. One day I ran encountered him and two other Infant Program graduates in the kitchen with their preschool teacher. We chatted about when they were babies. “I remember when I was a baby,” one girl proudly stated. This very quiet little boy, who had been gone from our center for over a year, said shyly, “I remember too.” I asked him what he remembered. “I would play outside and I would play inside. Then I would eat lunch. I would take a nap and cry a little. Then it would be tickle time, and then my dad would come and pick me up.” “Tickle time?” I asked him, laughing to myself on the inside. “Yes, it would be tickle time,” he said somberly. When I relayed the story to my assistants, they reminded me of another boy who had been a toddler at the same time and, having been tickled at home by his sisters, liked nothing more than to rub his fingertips against the bare soles of other children’s feet, laughing, “Ticka ticka ticka!” Perhaps it is the memory of this shared experience that sank deepest into this small boy’s memory.

As an infant and toddler caregiver, I often reflect on the positives and negatives of group care. There is much to be said for both sides. I wonder how it impacts the very youngest of children — two, three months old — to begin forming their sense of self away from their families for long periods of time. How does it impact their worldview and their overall well-being? It’s all quite individual, I believe, and it’s not possible to make blanket statements except to say that all children require high-quality and personalized care (at every stage). One thing I can say with certainty is that it could never be a bad thing for a child to know that they’re loved by so many: by not just their families, who made the effort to determine where the best care for them could be found, but also by their extended family of caregivers. I know that when these little ones leave my program, they know in their heart of hearts how it feels to be loved.

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