Leading by Example …

Years ago, I came upon a blog post written by Dharmesh Shah, Co-founder and CTO of HubSpot. He is ‘spot on’ (no pun intended) overall—and his thoughts are relevant to this leadership blog. The following are selected portions of his post, which I offer to you—the leaders (directors, managers, and supervisors) within our early childhood community.

. . . Leaders aren’t given respect; they earn the respect of the people they lead. Leaders are not automatically trusted; they earn the trust of the people they lead. In cases where someone “inherits” a position or is given a position arbitrarily, they don’t really have trust—they have a title. Those are different things.

The best way to earn respect, to earn trust, and to earn the right to lead others is to lead not by word, but by example. When I know you truly believe what you say—because your actions support what you say—then I will start to trust you. Then I will start to respect you. Then I will truly start to follow you.

Here are a few ways to lead by example. But keep in mind if you simply go through the motions, everyone can tell. If you don’t believe, deep inside, that what you’re doing is important— that what you’re doing is the right thing—then don’t do it. Everyone around you will be able to tell. People have a highly sensitive Insincerity Meter that rarely fails them.

GSD (Get stuff done).

Every business preaches action and execution, yet in many there is a major disconnect: “leaders” don’t actually produce; they ensure production. Many “leaders” care more about how things are done than about finding ways to do things better. Many leaders care more about their positions than their work.

Every day make sure you roll up your sleeves and do something. Sure, you might have administrative duties. Sure, you might be in charge of developing big-picture strategies. Fine. But never forget that work requires work—and getting things done.

Don’t say execution is important. Show execution is important.

Live your culture. 

Ultimately, every business culture is, or at least should be, an extension of its leadership. (Of course, if you aren’t actively creating your culture, one will be created for you—and it may not be one you like.)

Mission statements, value statements, and culture codes are fine, but if you are not seen as a living embodiment of your culture, then all those efforts will be wasted.

You should be seen as of the culture, never above the culture.

Take blame and share credit.

With authority comes responsibility—at all levels of an organization. Do you want your employees to feel a sense of responsibility and accountability? Take the hits you deserve.

And then take some hits you don’t deserve. 

Whatever the issue, regardless of who is actually at fault, don’t throw others under the bus. Throw yourself under the bus. Accept the criticism or abuse. You can handle it—even if you don’t deserve it.

And when things go surprisingly well, always share credit. Chances are, you didn’t pull it off alone. Nothing breaks trust more than when a leader takes full credit for what everyone knows was a shared effort.

When you take blame and share credit, a couple of things happen. Your employees know you ultimately feel responsible for mistakes and share recognition with others when things go right.

And when it’s their turn, they will take blame and share credit, too.

The cycle will continue, because selfless acts are contagious.

Trust so you can be trusted.

Things change when companies grow. More employees result in increased complexity, more mistakes, and greater ambiguity.

So, in response, you create guidelines and policies with enough leeway for employees to make good decisions.

At HubSpot we don’t have pages and pages of policies and procedures. We try to guide our decisions with three words: Use Good Judgment.

We define “good judgment” as favoring the company over the individual, and the customer over the company. It looks like this:

Customer > Company > Individual . . .

If an action is good for you but bad for the company, it’s not right. If an action is good for the company, but not for the customer, it’s dubious. (generally, what is bad for the customer is always bad for your company.)

Trust is based on action, not words. Give people the freedom to make meaningful decisions, to operate in a way that is most effective for them, and to simply do the right thing, and they will trust you.

Why? Because first you trusted them.

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The Delicate Balance Between Work and Life …

As the manager – of a home, a classroom, a school, an organization, a business – our weeks are filled with details – hundreds of details that need our attention. We must deal with hundreds of pieces of paper; hundreds of conversations, emails, or text messages; hundreds of interactions – in person, over the phone, or via Skype or FaceTime; and hundreds of tasks to be completed. All of this takes focus, skill, a bit of juggling, and extraordinary organizational ability.

And, most of us have both a career and a family, which easily doubles the details we handle. How do we do it all? And, how do we balance the demands of our work and our life?

Strategies, tips, short-cuts, realistic expectations, setting priorities, managing stress, and cutting ourselves some slack in the process of living and working help greatly.

For several years, I was the Director of Work Life Programs for a large business in Boston. My job was to support our 6,000-strong workforce by helping them to find the balance they sought between their work and personal lives. Without balance, we cannot be effective in either arena. So, we added relevant informational programs, educational seminars, resources, and discussion groups to what we called our “lunch and learn” workshop program/schedule.

Because the world is moving at an even faster pace today, and finding balance between work and life is still a goal to attain for many, I have included some resources we found helpful. My hope is that you will, too. The following are all available through amazon.com.

The Art of Self-Renewal: Balancing Pressure and Productivity On and Off the Job, by Barbara Mackoff. Ideas for working productively without working yourself to death. Tips on managing stress and balancing work with the rest of life.

First Things First, by Stephen Covey. More life management strategies from the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Getting Organized, by Stephanie Winston. Practical tips on using time more efficiently, including ideas for organizing papers and belongings, managing family finances, and teaching children to be organized.

Organized to Be the Best, by Susan Silver. A practical approach to organization skills and time management, with reviews of available resources – from filtering systems and labeling devices, to software and personal information managers.

The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson. Simple meditation techniques that can be used to relieve stress.

Time Management for Unmanageable People, by Ann McGee-Cooper. Alternative organization ideas for those who don’t respond to traditional time-management techniques. Suggestions for “visual organizers” who like to keep their work out where it’s easy to find.

The Power of Positive Doing: 12 Strategies for Taking Control of Your Life, by Ivan Burnell. Workable strategies for accomplishing whatever you want in professional, personal, financial, and spiritual life. Includes self-tests and tips for how to change.

The Stress Management Source Book, by J. Barton Cunningham. A principle-centered approach, with information on how to deal with stressful work situations, life transitions, and loss. Includes self-tests, cites research, and offers catchy sayings.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Reaching Your Goals, by Jeff Davidson. Covers all aspects of developing and implementing goals in seven areas of life. Includes lots of tips, work sheets, illustrations, and side bars. Includes a good section on career goals.

Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No, by Herbert Fensterheim and Jean Baer. Best-selling all-time classic on assertiveness. Offers step-by-step suggestions for expressing needs, changing habits, and reinforcing skills.

Guilt is the Teacher, Love is the Lesson, by Joan Borysenko. Offers a thorough discussion of the subject of guilt and how to manage it.

Taming the Paper Tiger, by Barbara Hemphill. Tips and techniques for managing all the paper and clutter at work and in your home, including how to set up a work center, organize your home computer, deal with bills and tax information, and keep track of family records and memorabilia.

From this vantage point in my life, looking back on the balancing act between work and life that I performed for forty+ years – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – I can give you a light at the end of the tunnel when I tell you that both work and life will get easier, less frantic, more deliberate, more satisfying, and downright enjoyable.

“This, too, shall pass!” I love this quote! It has followed me everywhere, and early on became one of my balancing strategies, my mantra. I had it written above my office door, where I could read it as each person entered! It helped keep me sane, and gave me the ability to put the situation at hand into perspective. Feel free to use it.

My best to you! And, if you have an effective tool to share, please do. Making connections with one another and sharing what we have learned is what working and living is all about!

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Endings and Beginnings …

Two more days!

And in these two days, I find myself walking through the past months of 2019—re-living and remembering the events, the experiences, and the moments that made this year special. Some adventures were firsts; others were a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I had many more happy, joy-filled days than frustrating ones. And then there were the many—so very many—people I re-connected with. We picked up where we had left off 2, 10, 50 years ago! What a gift to have so many wonderful people in my Life!

As I sit at my desk, adding birthdays and events to my new 2020 calendar, I realize how much I love both endings and beginnings! 

Both give me an opportunity to take stock of my Life. Both give me an opportunity to begin again—to take from the last year what I now want in my Life. To remember those things that went especially well, and keep them in this year’s repertoire. And, yes, to reflect upon those things that didn’t go as well as I had thought. To end and then begin again is energizing! And, it makes my Life interesting! 

In my professional Life —each year I thought about how I had gotten to this point in my career; how all of the pieces somehow fit together at this point in time. I jotted down new ideas as they came to me; and I began to shape the new year ahead. I was always looking forward. Someone once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), How will you know when you’ve arrived, if you don’t know where you’re going?

As I saw it, that was my job as the leader of the program, school, organization—to set the course. And, the best part of beginning is that I could reset it annually. The comforting, flip side of this was that if something didn’t work out, I could end it!

What began in my work life seeped into my personal life, and I find myself just as excited at the end of each December as I begin to map out the new year. There is time to reflect between the holidays—and so I ask myself many questions in order to shape my next adventures.

What did I do in 2019 that I would like to do again in 2020? (I begin my list-making) What things on my current list never happened?  Should I add them to my 2020 list? Are they still relevant in my Life? What new things interest me now—and should I add them to my list? Are these things I am simply wishing for in 2020, or are they goals to accomplish? How do I want to live my Life next year? What is the ultimate purpose for my Life? Am I moving toward it? What will get me there? What path shall I take this next year? Do I need direction or shall I just wing it?

Lots to consider.

On my birthday and again at the end of the calendar year, I ask myself these questions—and more. And I reflect on who I am at this new point in my Life, and what now makes my heart sing. And, yes, I begin to write—whatever pops into my head. For these are always my best thoughts and ideas. They spring from somewhere else—and I have learned to follow their lead as I make my lists.

This blog post is an example. “Endings and beginnings” just popped into my head—as I sat down at the computer. And so, I am running with this line of thought.

This new year, I will continue this practice and see where it takes me.

This past year it brought forth my first book. I actually wrote all year (in my little cottage) and finished the first complete draft just before Thanksgiving. I’ve been letting it simmer during the holidays, and just after New Year’s Day, I will return to it. It will be fresh and new again to me—and I suspect I will make many edits as I polish it. The next phase will be its publishing—and I will listen for guidance daily as to the next steps involved. What pops into my head will be what I do. I have learned to trust this guidance. I have accomplished so much and experienced so much of life by listening to that still small voice—and then acting.

As this year ends, I know that my writing will continue. I have loved the art of writing in my peaceful country setting. And I know that I am meant to share many things that I have come upon in my Life—that could be helpful to others. This excites me—and, at 71 years of age, yes, I can tell you that one can still get excited about Life!

I will let go of other business interests I have pursued and greatly enjoyed. They were very satisfying and I learned so much, but they now pull me away from my true Life’s work. And I feel confident that writing, sharing, and teaching is what I am to do for the rest of this Life. As I write this, I am quite at peace. (I have learned to trust my gut as I make decisions—it never lets me down.)

So, what about you?

What do your endings and beginnings portend for you? Do you enjoy turning the pages on the calendar? Do you think about this stuff as I do? I might be onto something or, I might be quite an anomaly! I’d love your thoughts as you get ready to welcome the New Year. 2020 is not only a new year, it is a new decade with possibilities untold! 

My very best to you in 2020. May it bring something new—and quite wonderful—into your Life.

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Through a New Lens …

We have family living in Japan. We travel there, and when they come here to the states, they stay with us. It is an extraordinary time—bridging two cultures, two languages, two ways of living and being—and in the process, building relationships. It is very much a growing experience for me—letting go of some of my expectations and standards, and making room for a different perspective. At times I have felt a little stressed—my comfortable ways of doing things have been challenged a bit by “another way”. 

But, along the way, something wonderful has happened. I have begun to see my home, my way of doing things, my culture, my language, and my life through another’s eyes. More and more I am looking at everything around me through a new lens. What are our guests from Japan seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, touching as we introduce them to new experiences? As a result, I have begun to think more about “who,” and let the “what” and “how” take a back seat.

Their experience has now become all important to me; it is as if a light bulb has gone off in my head. The focus has shifted from what I am doing to what they are receiving. Let me say this once again, because it is so very important. The focus has shifted from what I am doing to what they are receiving. It is about them! And, as I make this deliberate shift in my head, everything has become clear to me. For every interaction, experience, situation, I am thinking first about our guests—and walking in their shoes. After all, this visit is about their experiences. 

And, as I reflect more on this personal “epiphany,” I have begun to think professionally, about the school year at hand, the children, and their experiences in our classrooms. It is an “Aha” moment! It is much the same. It is looking at what we do through a new lens and making room for a different perspective.

So, tomorrow, when you are in your classroom with your children, I ask you to think about a “different perspective.” Will you make the shift in your head from what you are doing to what the children are receiving? It’s a subtle shift, but it is transformational! Become the child and walk in his shoes.

Will you let go of some of your “comfortable” habits and routine ways of planning activities for the children; designing space for the children; creating routines and schedules for the children? Will you try something a bit different?

Will you look through a new lens this school year? Will you focus your energy first on the children and their individual and collective experiences with you? And then, on your planning, designing, and implementing phases?

Will you first take the time to see the entry to your school, the lighting, the color, the wall displays, your classroom, the furniture, the equipment, and the many materials available, through the eyes of your very young children? 

Will you first take the time to hear the sounds of your program—the buzzer at the front door, the talking, furniture moving, the giggles, the outbursts, wind chimes playing, water running, the background music in your classroom, through the ears of your very young children? 

Will you first take the time to smell the bread baking, the flowers, the herbs in the water table, the tempera paint, the clay, the glue, as your very young children do? 

Will you first take the time to feel the breeze through the window, the warmth from the sun, the texture of the walls, the gritty sand, the oobleck, the sudsy water, the soft pillows, as your very young children do?

I believe that if we can use all of our senses, and see, hear, smell, and feel as our children do, we can more fully understand their experiences in our classrooms. And, in the process together create an extraordinary child-focused, child-centered program.

Now, go back and re-read the first six paragraphs of this post—one more time …

In my world, it is always about the children! Bring your best to work each day—for them! Amazing things will happen in your work, and in your life!

Posted in Early Childhood, Early Childhood Curriculum, Early Childhood Leadership, Early Childhood Teachers, For Early Childhood Directors, Managing Early Childhood Programs, Performance Management Skills, Training for Early Childhood Directors, Training for Early Childhood Professionals | Leave a comment

Holidays as Early Childhood Curriculum …

From my vantage point as teacher, then director, and consultant to many, many early childhood programs, I often wonder why we celebrate holidays in our programs with very young children. 

Over the years, as I have observed the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in numerous programs, my thinking about this topic has evolved. By now, if you have read my blog posts, you will know that my focus for everything that happens in an early childhood program is about the children and their experience.  

So, when I observe very young children overly excited and melting down as the holiday frenzy swirls around them; when I observe very young children dis-engaged and clearly not understanding what is going on; when I observe very young children being pulled from a child-centered, age-appropriate experience like shaping playdough, to a teacher-directed activity—making look-a-like Santas from glue and paper, it begs the question, “What are these very young children receiving when we use holidays (Thanksgiving, Kwanza, Hannukah, Christmas, and many others) as our child care curriculum?” Sadly, I think that after all of the effort and the energy expended, the positive results for the children fall short.

Several more questions come to mind, and these need to be answered and discussed before making the decision.

Most holidays are based on abstract concepts that are beyond the young child’s comprehension. So, “Will the children understand?” is an important question to answer before we add a particular holiday to the curriculum plan.

As directors, what guidelines will we establish around celebrating holidays? How inclusive shall we be? Are we going to celebrate holidays based on the cultures represented in our program? What if there is little diversity?  Should we include many diverse celebrations? Which ones? What if some parents object to all holidays? How much of our curriculum will be devoted to holidays? And, are we missing other more important activities with our very young children by spending time on holidays?” There is lots to consider here. 

And, what about the parents and families of these young children? Many holidays are simply overdone! We are bombarded with the signs and sounds of holidays—months before the day. Because of this, our young children will have questions about what they see and hear, and I believe the answers to these questions reside first with their parents and families—as they make their choices about whether or how to celebrate these holidays. 

A final question to answer, “If families are celebrating certain holidays, why do we need to celebrate them as well?” Could we simply talk about these family celebrations after they happen and let the children share from their now relevant and recent experiences? 

There is much to reflect upon. And reflect, we should.

When we make decisions about whether or not to add holidays to our curriculum, I suggest answering this incredibly important question first: “Who are we doing this for?” For us? For the parents? For the children?

In my world, we planned and implemented curriculum activities and experiences for the children! In fact, most of the activities and experiences emerged from the interests of the children. The early childhood programs that I directed did not celebrate holidays. We asked the aforementioned questions; we reflected upon their answers; we discussed thoroughly; and we made an informed and principled decision about holidays as curriculum.

Given the issues of time, energy, resources, and educational objectives, we decided to mark other occasions that are the more developmentally appropriate for very young children.

Some of our alternatives to celebrating traditional holidays were to:

  • Celebrate milestones—the first tooth; navigating the stairs; tying shoelaces; making a friend. 
  • Celebrate children and families—the birth of a sibling; moving to a new house; a new puppy. 
  • Celebrate the natural world—rain puddles; the first snowflakes; the flower that bloomed. 
  • Celebrate learning—the color purple; the number 3; tyrannosaurus rex. 

The list of these types of celebrations is endless! They are relevant. They are developmentally appropriate. And, they are child centered and focused on our individual little ones!

Let me also say that I love celebrating holidays. And, as children grow older and their understanding of specific holidays takes form, I think it a wonderful expense of time, creativity, and resources—to mark special days within the larger community. For the youngest among us, however, I stand my ground.

Your thoughts …

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Spaces and Places for Young Children—Thoughtfully Designed

I love creating aesthetically pleasing environments for children! I love the possibilities within each space! I love moving furniture to get just the right placement! I love finding the perfect container for our nature walk treasures! I love adding unique materials to the shelves! And, I love to watch the children discover all that is waiting to be discovered! 

Years and years ago, when I opened my first child care center, my instinct was to re-create (as closely as I could) the home environment that the children had lived and played in before coming to us.

We had natural wood furniture, valances on the windows, lots of soft spaces; we had baskets of green plants, pottery vases of pussy willows, mason jars of wild flowers; we baked breads and cookies; through open windows, we heard the chirping of birds, the wind through the trees; we watched rainbows, shadows, and sunshine on the carpet as the light transformed our space; outside, we made good use of everything—the pine needled paths through the woods, the pond where we ate snack in our canoe, the hilly landscape that invited us to roll and roll in the summer and slide on the snow all winter long.

As I look back, I realize that instinctively we were taking our inspiration and shaping our ideas from those places where we experience the world of people and things most fully—through our senses. Our child care environment appealed to our senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. And, it did so, naturally. Everything somehow fit together—the color, the light, the natural beauty, the smells, and the sounds. 

And I learned that it is the aesthetic elements of life that make the world a rich experience. They stimulate and nurture our many moods. They are the elements in the places where we live—and I think they are the elements we should have, especially in settings where children and adults spend their days together.

I have always been a proponent of creating inviting, homelike, and aesthetically pleasing environments for young children. The little ones essentially “live” with us five days of the week. Shouldn’t we strike a balance between the living and learning of their days?

Fast forward to my fourth child care center—thirteen years later.

I am reading about the new early childhood environment trends in one of our professional publications:

“The aesthetic appeal is all about color, lighting, display, texture, nature, sounds, and smells and the warm, home-like feel is about softness, real-life materials blended into the child’s world of things.” 

Sometimes, we just know!

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What’s the Hurry …

More than twenty-five years ago, I had the privilege of speaking with a professor from Tufts University. He had written a book, and was at our AEYC meeting. Little did I know then that my work with young children would be shaped by this chance discussion with David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child.

What he said, and wrote, resonated with me:

  • “We have been inadvertently stepping up the assault on childhood—in the media, in schools, and at home.”
  • “We sometimes blur the boundaries of what is age-appropriate.”
  • “We expect or impose too much too soon.”
  • “We force our kids to grow up far too fast, and they experience overwhelming, unhealthy pressures.”

As a teacher, and later as a director of many early childhood programs, I found myself agreeing with his body of work. In my heart, it was what I believed.

I felt that young children needed a day that suited their temperament and their pace. A day that was leisurely, and without constant interruption; a day in which one part seamlessly flowed into the next—and it all made sense. Children were already motivated to explore and discover all that was waiting to be discovered. I saw my job as creating an environment in which this could happen naturally. If a child wanted to continue building the construction after rest time, that could happen—we protected the structure so it could be finished later. If another child wanted to wear dramatic play accessories while listening to a story, that could happen as well. Ours became days that flowed easily. Ours became days in which limits were set only when they were relevant and made sense, or when they addressed safety and health issues. Our daily pace was child-centered and child-focused.

But it was very easy to get caught up in the cycle of hurry! Many parents were on this “hurry” track and, at times, took us with them. Our child-centered pace sometimes gave way to the needs of the parents, and, sadly, the child’s day for a time turned into the parent’s day. Both the tall and the short people in our world fell apart from time to time from the sheer stress of keeping it all going.  Life was a little too fast, too much, and too stressful—especially for these young children.

As early childhood educators, even we sometimes added to this hurriedness by “pushing” children as well. Some in our field were not solidly grounded in child growth and development and, as a result, made inappropriate choices for activities and experiences for the children in their care. Sadly, children who weren’t ready physically, emotionally, socially, or cognitively, were frustrated that they couldn’t do what was presented to them. Too many of these frustrations led to defeat, or to the beginning of a downward spiral, and, invariably, we had to manage the results of the stress!

This was not what I wanted for the young children in our care.

I began to slow down and put the needs, desires, interests, and developmental skills of the children first—with my own children, and then with thousands of others. I hoped that if I modeled this, others would take note and do the same. And, it often worked— just this way. I held my ground with those who wanted to “hurry” our pace. With many I discussed the pros and cons of celebrating every holiday on the calendar, and stayed away from those celebrations irrelevant to the very young children in my care. I held my ground when teachers presented ideas for field trips that were clearly not age appropriate. I held my ground when parents lobbied for performances, French lessons, dance instruction, or trick-or-treating. I ignored comments that “everyone else does it,” and felt unsure at times because we didn’t simply “follow” every other program. But my heart told me that what we were doing was better for the children—we were following their lead!

Thirty years later, I have slowed my pace; I am more deliberate in what I do; I have time to sit back and observe; I am more present in every moment; and, yes, still totally focused on the children in front of me. I work to create an oasis of calm in this otherwise hurried world—for all of us.

People are still hurrying through life. I’m not sure I know where they’re all going at such a pace, but I do know that this way of life will eventually take its toll—especially on the children.

My desire for all of us who live and work with children is to read, absorb, and reflect upon The Hurried Child. And if what David Elkind says speaks to you as well, make changes in your life—and in your work with these little ones.

Along the way, I began asking four questions before “doing” anything with our young children. But, in fact, I use these same questions when I work with teachers and other directors.

Is it relevant? Does it matter? Can it wait? Is it good for them?

Asking these questions helps me to focus on the children, and to provide the most appropriate experiences for their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive developmental ages. 

My goal for children is to feel confident and competent, and then, to succeed! And, I am passionate about creating an upward, positive spiral for those (short and tall people) with whom I work.

Your thoughts?

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“Read the Air …”

The Japanese people have an expression, “read the air,” which, in essence, means to take in one’s surroundings before acting. Take a few moments to use one’s senses—observe and listen—to gauge what is happening in this place at this moment, before doing anything else. “Reading the air” is a respectful practice. Enter a space or situation quietly and absorb what is going on in it— the level of activity; the level of conversation or silence; the level of engagement—how others are interacting, responding to one another, or not. The Japanese people observe and listen first. And then, they act or react in a way that ‘fits’ the situation. If everyone is deeply engaged, talking quietly with one another, then enter in the same way. A loud and boisterous entry into a quiet place will have others shaking their heads and murmuring “she does not read the air.” In Japan, “reading the air” shows respect to the people already involved, and to the situation at hand. It is a polite and considerate way of being.

We, in early childhood education, can also tap into this practice. “Reading the air” easily applies to the way we enter a classroom of young children; how we join a group of preschoolers already at play; and how we enter a conversation between colleagues. Do we enter quietly, respectfully, and take in all that is happening within the space? Do we observe and listen first? And then, do we enter in a way that “fits” with what is already happening? Do we “read the air?” 

Or, do we enter the room with no thought to what is already happening in it and clumsily interrupt the activity and hum of the classroom?

Best practice teaching is often described as a cycle that involves watching and listening—with care. Teachers observe everything going on carefully and listen closely to the children. Teachers reflect on, think about, and engage in dialogue with others about what is happening. Teachers respond thoughtfully in ways that support children’s ideas, questions, and thinking. Teachers gather data from the children, use what they learn, and act as a resource for the children. Teachers ask questions and discover the children’s ideas and theories. Teachers then find additional materials and equipment to test out the children’s ideas.

The best teachers of young children are keen observers and listeners. I suspect they “read the air” quite well and act appropriately and respectfully toward their children.

What about you? How do you see yourself? Are you adept at first “reading the air” in your classroom and then acting? Upon entering, are you respectful of the children and adults already engaged? Do you first observe and listen to everything going on? And do you then insert yourself into the mix with care and consideration? 

If you haven’t yet spent some good time observing and listening to the hum of your classroom, I invite you to add this practice to your teaching this new school year. It will take some slowing down a bit to actually do this, but once you begin to “read the air” you will see the enormous benefits for both the children and adults who live with you.

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Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever

“It stands to reason that if we’re able to raise happier, brighter children by reading aloud to them, the well-being of the entire country will ramp up a notch. Children who realize in their first few weeks and months of life that listening to stories is the purest heaven; who understand that books are filled with delights, facts, fun, and food for thought; who fall in love with their parents, and their parents with them, while stories are being shared; and who are read aloud to for ten minutes a day in their first five years, usually learn to read quickly, happily, and easily. And a whole lot of goodness follows for the entire community. Great news, isn’t it?”

Mem Fox
Author, Professor of Literacy Education in Australia, and Respected Literacy Expert

Reading aloud to children before they start school is a win/win situation for all concerned. The research is in. There are huge gains to be made—for children and adults alike. I’ll spend the next few minutes hopefully inspiring you to read, read, read aloud to the young children in your life and, as Mem says, “change the world one page at a time.”

As we share words and pictures, ideas, rhythms and rhymes, and life issues that we encounter together in the pages of a book, we connect with our children through our minds and hearts. Questions, thoughtful conversation, silliness, laughter, closeness—it is such fun to truly enjoy a story together and to share the warm feelings that accompany the experience. And, if we, the reader, are throughly enjoying, you can be sure our listener is as well!

The emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading, light the fire of literacy. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it is the relationship of the three coming together for the pure enjoyment of it all.

As well, brain research has revealed that the early years of life are more critical to a child’s development than we ever realized. 

By the age of one, children will have learned all the sounds that make up the native languages they will speak. The foundations of learning to read are set down from the moment a child first hears the sounds of people talking, the tunes of songs, and the rhythms and repetitions of rhymes and stories.

Reading aloud to children early in life rapidly develops their speaking skills. They don’t learn to talk unless they’re spoken to—which is why psychologists and speech pathologists tell us we need to have loving, laughing, deep-and-meaningful conversations with our children long before they turn three. 

Read-aloud sessions are perfect times for engaging in these sorts of conversations because the reader and listener can chat endlessly about the story, the pictures, the words, the ideas. Reading aloud and talking about what we are reading sharpens children’s brains. It helps develop their ability to concentrate at length, and to express themselves more easily and clearly. The stories they hear provide them with witty phrases, new sentences, and new words to try out.

Before long children begin to understand the look of the print and the way words work in sentences, why this happens, and that happens, and, how it all comes together to mean something. In other words, they learn to read.

Experts tell us that children need to hear a thousand stories read aloud before they learn to read for themselves. It sounds a daunting task! But, it’s not so bad when you do the math—three stories a days will get you to one thousand in a year—so, this is easily do-able before kindergarten!

The ideal three stories a day are one favorite, one familiar, and one new. But, the point is to read aloud the three stories! If your child chooses the same story three times, so be it! The end result is the same—win/win.

Read-aloud sessions can happen at anytime—whenever and wherever. As long as you have a few books with you, you’re good to go—when the moment presents itself.

It is also beneficial to continue to read aloud to children for as long as they’ll let us—even after they can finally read themselves. I remember several of my teachers reading to us in elementary school—we could put our heads on our desks and simply listen and imagine! These are still some of my best memories.

Of course, reading aloud is not quite enough—as teachers, we need to read aloud well.

There’s no one exact right way of reading aloud, other than to try to be as expressive as possible. Be aware of our body position, our eyes and their expression, our eye contact with the child, our vocal variety, and our general facial animation. Each of us will have our own special way of doing it.

The way we speak the first line should be sensational. The aim is to grab our audience immediately and never let them go. 

And, if anything could be more important than the first line of a story, it’s the last line. It should be slow…ly delivered and drawn out. It is, as Mem Fox calls this final line of the story, “an absolutely delicious experience” of completed-ness.

The bottom line is to thoroughly enjoy this read-aloud time with the children. The rest will magically happen. 

For more information about the benefits of reading aloud to children, about the other books written by Mem Fox, please visit her website: www.MemFox.net.

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Helping Children Make Friends

A preschool classroom isn’t a community unless every child has at least one friend.

We have found that children need three types of skills to make and keep friends. They must be able to establish contact with another child; they must be able to maintain a positive relationship; and they must be able to negotiate when a conflict arises.

And, this is where we teachers come in.
By coaching and teaching, we can help children practice the skills they need to make friends. 

To make contact with another, a child has to use the same behaviors that are required in any community, and that are accepted by other children. These include smiling, asking a question, offering an idea, making positive comments, inviting someone to join them, or offering to share something.

To maintain a friendship, children must know how to cooperate, share, show empathy, express affection, offer ideas, help, take turns, and express enthusiasm. Children who have these skills are key members of their community, and are viewed as reliable and fun to be with.

The behaviors that cause trouble and isolation from the community at this stage include aggression, unwillingness to cooperate, showing off, trying too hard, or acting in ways that annoy others. 

By observing and then coaching with specific teaching, we can help children to see how their behavior causes them difficulty and to learn some positive alternatives. Every child wants to be accepted, so we usually have a willing participant wanting to learn!

Like all communities, classrooms can be the site of disagreements. Since disagreements inevitably arise in any friendship, children must know how to resolve differences.

Children who resort to either physically or verbally violent outbursts, or who withdraw from the conflict entirely, fail to maintain and deepen their friendships.

Socially successful children express their ideas, explain how they feel, listen to another’s point of view, and work out solutions to problems. As each child masters these strategies, the entire community benefits.

There are some classroom strategies that support friendships. Again, this is where we come in. We set the tone and then help those who are in need.

Have discussions about making friends.
A good way to introduce the subject and start a discussion is to read a book on the topic. (Will I have a Friend? By Miriam Cohen)

Coach children.
Sometimes, it’s really difficult to enter a group. To help children, model for them—practice how to ask a question, make a positive comment, and offer help. As children master these skills, coach them on how to share, offer trades, take turns, and make conversation. If what they do produces good results, they’ll be more willing to try—and the better the classroom community will function as a whole.

Pair children to work on a task.
Partnering provides an opportunity for children to work with someone they normally wouldn’t choose—and to establish a friendship. So, find opportunities to have two children, who are not usually together, share a job or help set up for a cooking activity. Soon they may work together on their own! Success!

Interpret children’s actions.
Children who have difficulty making friends often don’t know what they are doing that alienates others. By describing their actions in words, we help them become more conscious of their behaviors and better able to change the troublesome ones. You may find you need to stay with the child and continue to model and help him practice—and that is reassuring to the child. (Trust is a wonderful bi-product of taking the time to build authentic relationships with children.)

Point out the benefits.
“Look at that smile on Christian’s face—he’s happy that you shared your markers with him.” A child who recognizes the positive consequences of a behavior is more likely to share again—because the sharing skill pleased another child and paves the way for him to become integrated more fully into the classroom community.

And finally, minimize rejections.
Rejection is a powerful and hurtful issue in preschool. One effective rule to establish is, “You can’t say you can’t play.” This tool has been used successfully again and again. It minimizes the instances of rejection, but it also helps children to be more assertive. They can all remember ‘the rule.’

Through our observations, we can usually find the reasons why a child is regularly excluded. 

And yes, this is where we come in!

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