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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Working Together: Attitude

Dog SledOnce a team has come together (that is, been hired), the work of the director, supervisor, and teammates really begins. It is work that is never-ending – if we are doing it right!

The longer I live, the more I realize the tremendous impact of attitude in a work environment. For years, as a means of emphasizing this, I have been using the following little formula with my teams. I’m not sure where this came from originally, but my thanks – many times over – to its author.

Food For Thought…

We have all been to those meetings where someone wants you to produce over 100%. Here’s a little math that might prove helpful in the future.

What makes life 100%?

If:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
is represented as:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

then:
H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K (8+1+18+4+23+15+18+11) = ONLY 98%

and,
K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E (11+14+15+23+12+5+4+7+5) = ONLY 96%.

But,
A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E (1+20+20+9+20+21+4+5) = 100%.

It stands to reason that HARD WORK and KNOWLEDGE will get you close, but ATTITUDE will get you to the top.

Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think, say, or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill.

It will make or break an organization, a child care center, a home.

The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace – just for that day!

We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we CAN do is play the one card we have – and that is our attitude.

I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. So, I offer the following challenge to you:

  • Join me in working on our collective attitude – wherever you find yourself, in whatever work situation, in whatever position you hold. It begins with one! And, it is contagious.
  • Be the pebble in the water – and watch the ripples form and spread. Make the shift from negative, complaining, and gossiping, to positive, acknowledging the good, and passing on encouragement, praise, and congratulations. There is so much more going right than going wrong!! And sometimes, as directors, we forget this!

Your thoughts?

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Working Together: A Word About Expectations

Dog Sled“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

Michelangelo

In my professional life, I believe, live, and observe that if I set high expectations for myself and those on my team, we will rise to the challenge and meet or exceed those expectations.

Nowhere has this been more evident than working with the staffs of the many child care centers I have directed, and the early childhood programs with which I have consulted.

The lessons I learned growing up in a family with a strong work ethic, values, and a solid belief system naturally carried through to every facet of my life. So, when I began building teams and programs, and moved into leadership roles, I had a way of being and working that many people in our early childhood field appreciated. As a result, together, we achieved extraordinary results!

I have high standards. I expect to do my best, and I expect others to do the same. I hold people accountable for their behaviors, actions, and performance. And, I recognize and reward those who exceed the expectations set.

In fact, those who exceed expectations are the best of the best on a team! They are respected and greatly appreciated, and are an enormous gift to their supervisors. Their numbers are small at first, but as they do their work at this higher level, others take notice and join them. And then, the performance of the team shifts to an even higher standard – the bar is raised. And, my experience is that people respond and meet this higher expectation. And, so it goes.

During this process of setting the standard, the expectation, and working together as a team, I have learned much. How does one cultivate a climate where people consistently do their best? And, what is our role in this?

To other directors or leaders of educational programs, I offer the following:

Put People First

Ours is a people-centered profession – period! Our most important work is about the people, so make them the priority. When people know they come first, they see themselves as worthy; they know they have something of value to add to the organization; they take ownership of their work; and, they begin to exceed expectations. And so, as a director or leader, when there is a choice between a routine paper task or a conversation, always choose the conversation. Make the time – it will speak volumes about your commitment to the people on your team. Remember, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Inspire People to Focus on a Vision

There are many things in our work (e-mail and phone messages, assessments, regulations, paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork) that have the potential to derail our best intentions to motivate, inspire, and lead. We, as directors and leaders, need to stand firm, and remain focused on our original vision. And, to that end, cultivate a community of innovation; nurture the sense that more is possible; and feed the desire to be part of transforming how things are, into the possibilities that await.

Directors who see themselves as leaders, and not just supervisors or administrators, inspire people to focus on the vision. They expect people to contribute. That is, to come to the table with solutions to the problem; to introduce new ideas that (given a chance) might work; to share more effective ways of performing routine and procedural tasks; and, to exceed our wildest expectations!

Everyone on a team has something important to offer. The message from the top should be, “We need what you have, and we’ll support you to figure out what it is. We expect great things from you!”

Observe and Dialogue

Experienced teachers thrive when they receive consistent feedback about the great things they are doing that further the vision of the program. Not just “good job,” but rather an insightful observation of what is happening followed by a reflective exchange of thought. With less experienced teachers, this feedback could take the form of offering a tip, a technique, some guidance, or a strategy to try. And then, a reflective conversation. Whatever the interaction, this one-on-one should happen frequently.

Teachers will grow when we create a climate of expectation in which everyone participates in dialogue – our teachable moments, our delights, our ideas, our questions, and our thoughts – as we observe and work with children. The key here is for people to expect their supervisors to engage in regular dialogue with them. It will keep everyone on the team developing, reaching, stretching, and visibly more engaged in their work.

And, the result just might be tangible evidence of your vision! Expectations being met! Celebrate that it’s happening!

 

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Working Together: Characteristics of Effective Teachers

Dog SledEvery now and then I come across an article that fits beautifully with my vision and my work toward quality early education and care. And, I am especially pleased when it is the kind of message that I can use over and over again in different venues.

Several years ago I came across one such article from Young Children, which is the Journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

“Twelve Characteristics of Effective Early Childhood Teachers,” written by Laura J. Colker, compiled feedback from forty-three experienced teachers as they thought about what it takes to excel in their work. Reflecting on their practice, they identified the personal characteristics they believe are integral to effective teaching. Keyword here is effective. If we’re going to teach, our aim should be high!

These personal characteristics, which are often based on feelings and beliefs, are sometimes difficult to identify. But, when one combines these characteristics with both knowledge and skill, you have the makings of an excellent teacher.

The twelve characteristics are:

  • Passion about Young Children: Enthusiasm is one thing, but something stronger, drive and passion, set the excellent teachers apart. When you feel you can make a difference, passion is ignited!
  • Perseverance: Dedication, sometimes tenacity, but always the willingness to advocate for something better for the child.
  • Risk-taking: Sometimes thinking “out of the box” makes the difference when working with children – despite the fact that it has never been done before.
  • Pragmatism: Compromising moves the plan along. Even if the gains are small and steady, effective teachers know they will eventually accomplish their goals.
  • Patience: A long fuse is necessary when working with so many. Patience is a must!
  • Flexibility: The expectation is that a teacher will be able to deal well with change and unexpected turns. That is the nature of the work.
  • Respect: In thought, word, and deed!
  • Creativity: Essential! The hallmark of an effective teacher!
  • Authenticity: You know who you are and what you stand for. Children are very good judges of character – they know who is real, authentic, and they respond accordingly.
  • Love of learning: To inspire this in young children, the teacher must also exhibit the characteristic.
  • High energy: Most children respond positively to the teacher who has energy, physical stamina, and the ability to play.
  • Sense of humor: Isn’t learning supposed to be fun? There is nothing better than children’s spontaneous laughter in a classroom. Enjoyment! Besides, laughing feels so good!

A pretty good list. Do you agree?

If you would like to read the entire article, you can find it in Young Children (March 2008). NAEYC members can access the article via www.naeyc.org.

I have used this article with my teaching teams – as a basis for reflection and as a tool in setting professional goals. Teachers choose one characteristic on which to work for the year. Reading, thinking, and talking about each of these characteristics reminds all of us why we love the work we do, and why we continue to grow in the field.

Our goal – to become excellent teachers of young children!

I share this article with you in order to continue to motivate and inspire those with whom you work. Let me know if you use it – and in what context.

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Make Time to Talk with Children

The Image of a ChildThere 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 adults build on and connect with children’s statements, questions, and responses.

These extended conversations help children learn how to use language and understand the meaning of the 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 a 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 are doing 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

The Image of a Child… 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 them cry, let them 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. Life is passing by and we are missing so many of the ordinary moments – moments that, as we know, are anything but ordinary! These are the moments that will tell the stories of our lives; but, if we are hurrying through life, we are likely to miss them.

I am most concerned about 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 children’s nature. There is certainly a disconnect to their own sense of time and their personal rhythm – which is, in a word, leisurely.

For them, can’t we slow things down? Can’t we let them be little? Can’t 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?

Couldn’t we just let the 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? Couldn’t we think about another way to make snack available to the children – when they are ready for it?

Couldn’t 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? Couldn’t we re-visit the amazing block structure later in the day – and not tear it down right now?

Couldn’t we provide sufficient time for them to be together with friends? to get things done with satisfaction? Couldn’t 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.

Couldn’t we provide 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? to be little?

Lots to consider and reflect upon.

To my way of thinking, nothing is more important. I’d love your thoughts.

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