Tag Archives: group care

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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Group Care Schmoopcare

The idea of “group care” for infants is pretty uncomfortable, right? I mean, I hope it’s uncomfortable for you. It’s uncomfortable for me and I make my living by providing it. Even before I ever imagined that I would be doing this job, I engaged in philosophical debates regarding its (lack of) merits. Several years ago, one of my co-workers at the preschool where I taught reaffirmed my belief that infants should never be in group care. She told me stories about seeing them in the infant program at the place where she used to work and how someone was always crying and they never really got what they needed because the only thing they really needed was their parents. We climbed up onto our high horses, hastily constructed in our child development classes, and talked about how group care would impact their brain development. We shook our heads sadly: those poor babies.

Around the time of our conversation, I had to conduct some observations and evaluations at an infant care center for a class I was taking. I chose the one where my co-worker had once worked not only because I wanted the opportunity to see what she had seen, firsthand, but also because the program in question was the highest rated infant care facility in our city. Its reputation was second to none.

Conducting these observations changed my life. If I had not seen what I saw on those days, I would not be doing what I am doing today. In fact, it is fair to say that one child changed my life. I don’t know his name. He was sixteen months old, chubby, and gregarious. He was one of only two babies in the room the first time I visited the program. The other child was asleep and this toddler was being strongly encouraged to, “Be quiet.” At one point, when the caregiver mentioned the other child who was sleeping, the toddler wanted to take a look at him (clearly recognizing the child’s name and knowing also where the child slept). He went to the gate that separated the play and sleep areas of the room and stood on his tiny tippy toes to take a peek. He was as quiet as a mouse. Quieter, even! But the caregiver quickly grabbed him by one arm, without saying a word, and dragged him towards herself. There is no kinder, more generous way to describe her behavior towards him. She roughly hauled him into her lap, began to rock the rocking chair in which she sat, and said, “I told you to be quiet. Now let’s read a book.” It’s possible that she then read him a story and it’s possible that it was a beautiful booksharing routine, fit for my notes, but I can’t recall and I never wrote a single word about that. Instead, my heart pounding with injustice, I recorded exactly what I had seen.

I spoke to my class about my experience and, in dismay, on the verge of tears, expressed that if this was what “high-quality” care for infants looked like, I wanted no part in it. Not ever. I told my class that it seems easy to say that a program is “high-quality”. For example, the environment offered to children in that center was beautiful. Flawless. (Provided that caregiver was absent.) Their stated philosophy? Inspiring! Their written policies and practices regarding infant care were obviously very carefully crafted by someone(s) who really knew what infants need as individuals and in a group setting. However, there was clearly a severe disconnect between the public image, the written material, and the reality of day-to-day hands-on work with children. In my experience, there often is.

The thing about caregivers is that they’re human beings with flaws and weaknesses and baggage. (Except for one of my assistants. She is practically perfect in every way. She makes Mary Poppins look like a shrew.) In our society, those who work in the field of early care and education frequently work long hours for low wages and have little opportunity or motivation for professional growth. In some areas, this is changing, but it’s truly an uphill climb. Until we decide as a collective that children and families are a top priority, it will continue to be a battle.

Here is something that is unlikely to change: parents will need to work. Having a job, or two jobs, or three or four jobs per household should not and does not prohibit procreation. (I believe that some parents are better parents because they leave their child for a period of time every day.) Consequently, children need a place to go. Children of all ages. There are many reasons that parents choose to place their child in a center-based program rather than a home-based one. From my own life experience, I can share with you a big one: centers are more likely to have accountability. It’s less likely to find a caregiver completely alone, unsupervised, in a center-based program. It’s more likely to find a cohesive philosophy and overall plan for hiring and firing and caregiving practices in general. Many parents love the idea of their child spending the day with other children. Additionally, a center-based program is often more likely to have an opening when a parent needs care. But, really, the reasons that parents may choose this option for their children is irrelevant. The reality is that they do. And, in several specific cases, I’m sure glad that they do because I remain employed in a job that I never thought I would love but that my heart now beats for. It is hard to imagine what my life would be like without these children and families and the whole extended community we have constructed around us.

It turned out, those four and a bit years ago, that one of the other members of my class was part of the organization that was taking over the operations of that childcare center where I had done my observations. The center is a collaborative project between the city and the school district and the organization that had been running it for many years (and had hired the caregiver I had observed in the infant program) had not had their contract renewed. My classmate and her employers were starting fresh. And they were hiring someone to lead the infant and toddler program.

I thought a lot about the little boy I had observed in that infant room. I thought a lot about what I knew about Magda Gerber‘s teachings, Janet Gonzalez-Mena’s inspirational examples of quality caregiving, and my own teaching philosophy. I thought about how much I hated the fact that babies needed to be in full-time care settings. My ego got on board and I started to think about how I would do things. What would I have done with that little boy, for example? Finally, as you have probably concluded, I applied for and interviewed for the job. I got it. I’m doing it. I love it.

I’ll tell you the truth — it is very difficult for some babies to be in a group setting. It is stressful. There are times when it is difficult to be there with them. My entire day is consumed with helping each child to feel that they’re not in “group care” but are simply loved, valued, and cared for as an individual. And they are. They also get to be part of a warm, extended community. (I have written before about their relationships.) There are certain “benefits” to group care, but there are also harsh downsides that should not be ignored or brushed aside. It is especially important that parents who have chosen or are choosing this type of setting for their child be aware of the realities. One example is that their days are too long. Babies in group care don’t get a lunch break or coffee break where they can walk away from their peers and caregivers and get some alone time to regroup when they choose to. Babies in group care have to do more waiting, every single day, than they are comfortable with. Do you know that every one of them knows what time their parents come to get them at the end of the day? They learn this so quickly. They don’t know about the clock, but they know about routines and they can estimate the passage of time in a sophisticated manner. A mom of a toddler asked me one day, in genuine bafflement, “Why do all of the preschoolers go home so early?” They don’t, really, they just go home before the last infants and toddlers. Every day. Many of the infants and toddlers stay with us until closing time. I told her my theory: “They can tell their parents, with their words, how much they’re going to miss them, how much they want to stay at home together, and they can ask them to come early or at a specific time. The babies would tell you the same — sometimes they try! — but they can’t use words to pierce your heart. They’re happy here. We take good care of them. But they always, always want you.” (Maybe it’s a coincidence, but this mom now arrives at least thirty minutes earlier than she used to at the end of the day.)

I’m going to be working on a series of blog posts about group care for infants and toddlers because it has occurred to me, in my own education and wanderings in the world, that there is not enough information available on the subject for caregivers or families. So please send me your burning questions on the subject. You can leave a comment below or send me (Jenn) an email at likewetcement@gmail.com. I promise to tell you the truth about the inside of this industry.

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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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