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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Make Time to Talk with Children

There is nothing more engaging to me than having a conversation with a three, four, or five-year-old. And I do mean a shared conversation—a two-way dialogue that travels wherever our thoughts take us.

Children of all ages enjoy talking with the adults in their lives. And it is one of the most natural things we adults do with the children in our care. Often, we don’t even think about it—it simply happens. 

Children like to talk about themselves, or about what they are doing. They talk about things that are familiar to them, and that draw upon their knowledge and experiences.

They tell make-believe stories and talk about things and events they cannot see; events that have already happened; or events that might happen in the future. 

It matters not what they are talking about. 

What matters is that they are engaging in conversation and in the process, they are building important language skills. 

These language interactions are the basis for building children’s understanding of the meaning of a large number of words, which is a crucial ingredient in their later ability to comprehend what they read.

Children need practice having conversations with the important adults in their lives. By our talking with them, they build their speaking and listening skills. They will use language to ask questions, to explain, to ask for what they need, to let people know how they feel. And they will learn to listen while others talk.

We can help children build language skills through our own language interactions with them, and by setting up an environment that gives children lots of reasons to talk, as well as things to talk about.

How we talk with children matters.

It’s important that our language interactions are the kinds that give children practice hearing and using rich vocabulary; hearing and using increasingly complex sentences; using words to express ideas; asking questions about things they don’t understand.

How do you interact with children?

Who does most of the talking? Whose voices are heard the most in the classroom or in a child care setting?

The child should be talking at least half the time. There is a real difference between talking with children, when the conversation is shared, and the adult listens, versus talking at children, where the adult does all of the talking and the children listen.

What kind of language do you use? 

Is it rich and complex? Do you ask children questions that require them to use language to form and express ideas?

The richest talk involves many “back-and-forth” turns in which the adult builds on and connects with children’s statements, questions, and responses. 

These extended conversations help children learn how to use language and understand the meaning of new words they encounter listening to other people.

Talking one-on-one gives the adult a chance to repeat (say back), extend (add to), and revise (restate) what children say. Children have the opportunity to hear their own ideas reflected back. This is powerful stuff for a preschooler! And, it goes a long way toward helping a child feel competent and confident.

Narrating what children are doing is another way for adults to not only introduce new vocabulary, but also encourage a deeper understanding of new words so the children can begin to define and explain the meaning of these words. 

Narrating also introduces and illustrates sentence structure. Describe (using verbs, prepositions, adverbs, and other descriptive language) what children are doing while they do it. Talk during formal activity time, at snack, clean up, outdoors during play—every setting during the day. And, follow up with conversation about what children did during these activities.

Talking with children makes a difference! 

“The more that adults intentionally make time for talking and sharing experiences, the more support there is for children’s language development and later reading comprehension success.” 

                                                (from the National Institute for Literacy)

Are you making time to talk?

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Let them be Little…

“So let them be little, cause they’re only that way for a while. 
Give them hope, give them praise, give them love, every day. 
Let em cry, let em giggle, let them sleep in the middle. 
Oh, just let them be little.”

These are the words to a song by Billy Dean, and every time I hear them, something stirs deep within me.

The longer I live, the less I understand the rationale behind the “rushing,” the “hurriedness,” the “sense of urgency” that accompanies everything we do today. Why the fast lane? Where are we going? What are we racing to? 

Many of us today are preoccupied—we are multi-tasking. There is too much to do, too much to know—all of it overwhelming to the spirit. And we can’t focus—really focus—on what’s right in front of us. Life is passing by and we are missing many of the ordinary moments—that, as we learn along the way, are anything but ordinary! These are the moments that make up the fabric of our lives.

I am most concerned what this “hurriedness” does to the youngest of our children. They are often swept along in the current of the adults in their lives. They have no control and no say in the matter. 

But, this “rushing” does go against their child nature. There is certainly a disconnect to their own sense of time and their personal rhythm—which is, in a word, leisurely.

Can we slow things down—for them? Can we let them be little? Can we follow their lead?

I marvel at children’s powers of concentration and focus when they are thoroughly absorbed in something. Nothing can move them from the task at hand. And we celebrate that the children are so engaged, and are learning so much from the experience.  

Yet, we disturb all of this by ringing a bell, clapping our hands, turning off the lights, or (one of my pet peeves) yelling across the classroom that “it’s cleanup time.” We tell the children that we need to hurry, so that we can get outside on time. And, we begin to hurry—in our voices, in our actions—as we disturb the child’s activity and the tone of the classroom. 

The damage has been done—the magic of their moment has abruptly ended. Abruptly. No winding down; no opportunity for the children to figure out how they can continue their activity later in the day. No thought given to their interests, their imaginations, their conversations, their problem-solving—and their JOY!

We have to move on. Now!

We know this happens every day in our classrooms. But, does it have to?

Could we just let play, the children’s work, continue—for those who are so engaged? Must we interrupt their focus and make the transition to snack at exactly 10:00—for everyone? Could we think about another way to make snack available to the children—when they are ready for it?

Could we intentionally slow down our adult pace and consider the children’s needs (their sense of time and personal rhythm) when planning and carrying out activities and projects? Could we re-visit the amazing block structure later in the day—and not tear it down right now?

Could we provide sufficient time for them to be together with friends? To get things done with satisfaction? Could we allow the children plenty of time to complete their drawing, their book, their make-believe, so that they control the start and the finish.

Could we make the time for our young children to enjoy the process of learning? to experiment? to make mistakes and readjustments? to complete a task? to laugh? to engage with others? to have fun?

Lots to consider. Lots to reflect upon.

To my way of thinking, nothing is more important. Your thoughts?

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The 20th Reunion at the John Hancock Child Care Center

Collage“Some memories are unforgettable, remaining ever vivid and heartwarming!”
Joseph B. Wirthlin

It has been eight years since our John Hancock Child Care Center in Boston closed.

As we were all saddened by the corporate decision, we were determined to make our last months memorable. The following is from my journal entry of June, 2010.

“On a recent summer afternoon—a Saturday—when so many other events are planned, they came to ours! Hundreds of people attended. Unbelievable! The line to the front door stretched down the block! The perfect celebration for our 20 years as the John Hancock Child Care Center. And, it was quite the party! 

I’ve started many such programs during my career—for businesses, hospitals, communities. I’ve opened these programs, stayed on as the Director, grown them, managed them for a time, and then moved on to the next adventure. You could say that I was the “founding mother” of this Boston-based, corporate-sponsored, child care center. For I opened its doors as the Director in 1990, grew it to its 200-child capacity (with the assistance of some of the finest early childhood teachers in the area), created a leading edge early childhood program for the infants through kindergartners, managed and maintained its high standard of early education and care and, now, 20 years later, held a reunion for all who have been a part of this experience. The response was overwhelming!

What a rare privilege to create a community for thousands of young children, new parents, and young educators. And, what an honor to teach, mentor, manage, and lead!

That Saturday was a testament to a partnership, a team, a program—one that evolved from an idea whose time had come. We created a place where children thrived and where parents had complete trust. We worked together and made magic!  And, on that Saturday, I heard this over and over again as I greeted our families of the last 20 years! The children are now six to twenty-five years old—no longer the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that we cared for. They are poised and kind and funny and grown up—and not unlike the young children they were—just much, much taller. And, we spent hours talking about their lives, what they were now doing, what they enjoyed, their hopes and their dreams.

And, it was one of the best days of my life. 

To re-connect with all of these children (now young men and women) and their parents after all of these years—I hadn’t seen most of them for ten+ years—was amazing! So, you can imagine how overwhelming our party was! They came back to the Child Care Center. They came to play—in their old classrooms, on the playgrounds—and they came to see their teachers and old friends and to re-connect!  And, it was extraordinary!

There were pockets of people in all of the sandboxes—short and tall people sliding down the “roll-y” slide on the playground—others just hanging out. Little kids ran in and out of the crowds with their “big chocolate chip cookies” (a special treat at our Center). People sat on the stairs leading to the second floor, hung out at the Garden, in Infant and Toddler Squares, and in the Common where the Art Show was taking place. And, there were people visiting with one another in each of our eighteen classrooms. They found places to sit, to be—anywhere, everywhere! And, it was like old times. A homecoming, of sorts. Just as they did when they were little, kids ran to one another when they recognized a familiar face. There was lots of hugging, and laughter, and, yes, tears. It was an emotional day for most of us. 

And on Saturday, the stories were told—the old familiar stories, the moments parents and children remember, the stories that make up the unique fabric of this place. These are the never-to-be-forgotten memories that we will cherish. For each family, there is a story. And, once again, I listened and took it all in. Every guest on Saturday wanted to share—and I loved hearing about their kids! The kids had their memories, too—which were often poignant, and amazingly detailed (given that they were so young when they were with us). And, the parents remembered the best parts of our time together. Things that I had long since forgotten were what parents remembered and took from this experience. They were shared from deep within.

What really hit me was the fact that we had made such a difference—a positive impact—in the lives of so many. I was truly unprepared for story after story. That our program had been a godsend for so many parents, that they had learned so much from us—that, while we were doing our jobs, they had been watching, listening, and learning how to parent. That our homelike environment had become an extension of their homes, and that we had become the extended family for so many. That there was a palpable feeling, a strong sense of being connected, one to another—as you entered the front door. That our early childhood program had made a difference in the lives of their children. That they had been well prepared for school and for life when they left us! That the children had done so well—and that a lot of the credit belonged to those who had worked with their kids while they were with us.

We heard this again and again and again on Saturday. And, it was so good for all of us to hear and to take in. The validation was real, honest, and freely given. Wow, all of our time, effort, and love given had been worth it! 

We leave a legacy at John Hancock. And its memories are forever a part of our being. What an extraordinary adventure it has been! Teaching young children is an honorable profession, and often, in the day to day, we tend to forget that what we do and how we do it will long be remembered by our children and their parents. As we learned on that Saturday, we may forget, but they will not. It is an awesome responsibility, a humbling experience, and life-changing work. And, it demands the very best we have to give.”

Thoughts? Memories?

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A Look Back …

dreamstime_s_112800467These past eight years I have had the privilege of working with numerous directors of early childhood programs, as well as their teams of teachers. And I have lots to share!

I presented training that ranged from building effective teams, to creating warmer, homelike environments; from finding and using unique materials and activities for children, to building collaborative relationships with parents; from learning how to set goals and then move toward meeting them, to de-cluttering spaces for children and de-stressing everyone in the process, and much more. 

I coached and mentored aspiring, new, and experienced directors alike—at their schools, over the phone, and via email—troubleshooting, and finding solutions to staffing, space, organization, the rhythm of the day, transition, parent, and child situations. I observed both teachers and children—as another set of eyes and ears for the director—helping to make changes as needed. And, I consulted and strategized with directors who were opening new programs; directors who were expanding their programs; and directors who were closing their schools. 

I have been pleased to experience, time and time again, the level of commitment, dedication, passion, and enthusiasm of these directors and teachers. They are reaching for quality. And, it has warmed my heart, because I know that the children reap the benefit by having wonderful early childhood experiences—and I have had the best moments!

One day, I returned to a program to retrieve my Sophia. Sophia is a puppet with spiky gray hair, wrinkles, and a long, black dress. To children, Sophia is real. 

Let me back up a bit. I was consulting with an early childhood program, and when I walked into one of the preschool classrooms, there was their puppet, Gloria, sitting on the sofa. Gloria is an identical twin to my Sophia! Can you believe it! Anyway, an animated conversation took place between the teacher and the children. And, I agreed to bring my Sophia to this busy room of preschoolers for a play date and an overnight. Well, apparently, the two puppets and the children had a wonderful time together, because, when I arrived at the school to retrieve my Sophia, I was greeted with stories, pictures, and a play-by-play of the Sophia/Gloria adventure:

“They had slept on the sofa under the peace quilt.” (that’s a story for another time)    “They weren’t afraid of the dark—they had a night light.” 

“Gloria gave Sophia her necklace.” (a beaded one that the children made)
“Gloria and Sophia are going to be pen pals.”
“Could Sophia come back for another play date?”

And just before Sophia and I left, the entire classroom serenaded us with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”—Gloria’s screeching voice heard above all others! Sophia and I blew kisses as we left the children and teachers. Pure magic!

Gloria is a treasured part of this classroom. She is real. The children talk with her, care for her, worry about her, include her in everything. She listens, and whispers her thoughts. She is the voice for many of the “unspoken” things young preschoolers think about. And she is their friend.  

The teacher who added this puppet experience to the classroom is a masterful teacher of young children. She added another dimension to an already rich program. In fact, a gift to everyone in the school—for Gloria is known and loved by all of the teachers, parents, and children! 

Isn’t this what working with young children is all about!

I observed many magical moments these past eight years, as I moved from program to program and built relationships with the directors, teachers, and children. What a privilege to observe so many wonderful things happening for so many.

Our early childhood colleagues (directors and teachers alike) are doing extraordinary work with the young children in their care. They love what they do. And, there is the desire to want to do it better.

I saw the passion in their eyes; heard the enthusiasm in their voices; and noted the strong commitment to quality in their words and actions. 

We are fortunate to have such people in our programs. As we know, it begins with a few, and then ripples throughout the organization. And, as we also know, it begins at the top. 

As a Director, are you creating a climate for magic?

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The Image of a Child

If, as a Director, you follow the trends, research, and best practice in our field, the phrase “the image of the child” will bring your thoughts to a community in Italy, Reggio Emilia, where many have studied the principles and fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia approach. Many of us have been deeply inspired by this philosophy – this way of thinking about children and early education – and it has greatly influenced our own programs.

In Reggio Emilia there is much discussion around this principle – The Image of the Child. For it is the point from which all teaching and learning begin. What the adults believe about children determines everything. These teachers and parents give great thought to the quality and the instructive power of child space. And so, for the children, how will the environment be designed? What will it include? How will children move through their day? What experiences, opportunities, and possibilities will children be able to explore and discover? And, how will the adults support all of this?

Reggio Emilia schools are places where children come first – before anything else. I’ll repeat that because I, too, believe this – deep in my soul. Children come first – before anything else! Children are the focus of all that happens. Visitors see and hear this message as soon as they enter a Reggio school – it is palpable. The presence of children and their work is everywhere.

Reggio Emilia schools are places where children are powerful. They are in control. The space belongs to them. They create again and again. They make choices and decisions. Everything is accessible and organized for them and is arranged artfully to draw them in. And, yes, they are inspired by what awaits them. They are naturally curious and interested in constructing their own learning – by touching, investigating, exploring, questioning, manipulating, taking apart, observing, discovering, enjoying, listening, discussing, putting together – everything in their environment.

This is so because the adults (both teachers and parents) hold an image of the child that allows all of this to take place. They see children as capable, competent, interested, powerful, creative, curious, thoughtful, imaginative, expressive, engaging, and involved communicators, collaborators, and learners. And, it happens, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How much time have we spent thinking about our image of the child? And, do our early childhood settings reflect the image we hold?

Do we put children first? Are they the focus of our work?

What we do and why we do it are important questions to visit and revisit from year to year. I invite us to look more closely at our work with young children, and reflect upon our own practices of teaching, directing, and leading.

Some questions to get us thinking and focusing – yes, on the Child:

  • Do we value and respect all of the ways a child expresses his thoughts and feelings?
  • Do we value equally the verbal and nonverbal child? the rational thinker? and the creative thinker?
  • Do we listen to what a child says with her words? her behavior? her body language?
  • Do we interrupt the thinking processes of a child when we follow a rigid daily schedule? 
  • Are we driven by the clock? Are so many transitions necessary?
  • Do we carry out meaningless activities during the day that are not relevant to the child’s real world and experience?
  • Do we pay enough attention to a child’s strengths?

And, the most important one of all, What is our Image of the Child?

I’d love your feedback on this topic.

See also the writings of Loris Malaguzzi and Lella Gandini.


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Building a Team: The Developmental Stages of a Teacher

It is fair to say that the team of teachers the director of a child care center assembles will be a diverse group of people. Educational levels, job expectations, and career aspirations will differ widely – as will experience, professional demeanor, individual learning styles, cultural and, now, generational differences.

When designing staff development opportunities, we know that there is not a one-size-fits-all product. Directors of early childhood programs must know the individual members of their teams. And, if developmental events are to really make a positive impact, they must, as a first step in assessing training needs, observe and reflect upon the ages and stages of these teachers.

When thinking about and planning for staff development and training, I tend to begin with the end in mind. And then, work backwards. Who is the audience? What are their specific needs? What is to be accomplished? And, what will most effectively get us there?

Dr. Lillian G. Katz, Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois, and a distinguished leader in our industry, has written numerous articles about the Developmental Stages of Teachers, and, in this post, I will highlight her work.

Among others, Dr. Katz suggests the following dimensions of training for teachers:

  • Developmental stages of the teacher
  • Training needs at each stage
  • Location of the training

So, for your consideration:

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Building a Team: The First Days – Orientation

I am a huge fan of preparing well – down to the tiniest detail – so that the conversation, the training session, the event, looks like it just happened – effortlessly. I’m the proverbial duck that, while gliding gracefully across the top of the water, is paddling like crazy under the surface. I do much of my work behind the scenes.

So, when it comes to building a team and adding to our staff, I put a lot of effort into the “new” teacher’s first week. When people know what is expected of them, when they know who, what, where, when, why, and how about the child care center, and when they have all of this information in a staff handbook, they begin their work more confidently. We have seen this over and over. But, this process didn’t just happen overnight. It took years of seeking feedback from new hires and tweaking, tweaking, and more tweaking.

Our orientation sets the tone for the entire work experience, and we want to make this first impression a positive, and lasting one.

Several members of the team participate in the orientation – each of us sharing our unique perspectives and experiences – thus providing an immediate “go to” network of colleagues for our newest teammate.

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Building a Team

Migrating GeeseAll this summer, I watched many flock of geese fly over my house in their familiar “V” formation. Consider what some believe about why geese fly the way they do. And then, consider what we can learn from them …

  • As each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in “V” formation, the flock adds at least 70% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.

Successful teams share a common direction and sense of community, and can get where they are going more quickly and easily, because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

  • When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone – and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front.

There is no “I” in team. Successful teams stay together and learn to work well together by building on the strengths of each person on the team. There is great advantage to this – for everyone involved. 

  • When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point.

Successful teams share the work. Each person knows the others’ jobs and can jump in at any time, as needed. Each can lead and each can follow. The team works together and gets the job done – every time, without fail.

  • Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Successful teams cheer their colleagues on, and celebrate the successes of their teammates. 

  • Finally, when a goose gets sick or hurt, and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose and follow it down to give help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose until the crisis has passed, and only then do they launch out with another formation to catch up to their group.

Successful teams stand by one another, offering support, assistance, and help when needed. Teammates know they can count on one another. There is a give and take in the relationship, a respect for one another, and a knowing that we all, at one time or other, “need.”

I’d love your thoughts on this one!

Stay tuned. My next few blogs will be about building a successful team. It is, perhaps, the single, most important work of the leader of an organization.

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Building a Team: First Things First …

GeeseWhen it comes to hiring, leave no stone unturned – look everywhere!

Oh yes, look at colleges, job fairs, and early childhood conferences. Use ads in all types of media – but remember, everyone else is doing these very things. Amid a sea of “teaching positions” in local newspapers (And it is a sea!), what will bring attention to your program?

Do other professionals know of your school? Host an open house or other event now, even though you’re not looking to hire, so that other professionals (potential future hires) have an opportunity to visit your program. People tend to imagine themselves working in places they visit, so give them that opportunity. Also, visit other schools and learn about your competition. What makes your program unique? Capitalize on what sets you apart in your marketing strategy.

And then, if you ultimately hire (and hire well) from any of these venues, keep a record, so you can use the same successful recipe again. You’ll also know which methods took a lot of time or resources ($), and whether you gained or lost.

For my money – and I wrote about this in an earlier blog post – it’s all about making connections. For me, personal networking is the way to go. Who do I already know, and could they help me get the word out?

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