Strengthening Mathematical Thinking: Program-Wide Efforts

This month’s newsletter explores many different ways that educators can incorporate math language and exploration into their learning environment.  At the program level, there are things the staff can do to ensure that everyone in the program is working toward the same math-rich environment.  Below is a list of recommendations put forth by NAEYC and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) to help programs determine strengths and areas of need related to math instruction. 

Work with your staff and coworkers to rate your program on each of the following recommendations.  Once you have identified opportunities for growth, create an action plan and get to work!

In high-quality mathematics education for 3- to 6-year-old children, teachers and other key professionals should:

1. enhance children’s natural interest in mathematics and their disposition to use it to make sense of their physical and social worlds

2. build on children’s experience and knowledge, including their family, linguistic, cultural, and community backgrounds; their individual approaches to learning; and their informal knowledge

3. base mathematics curriculum and teaching practices on knowledge of young children’s cognitive, linguistic, physical, and social/emotional development

4. use curriculum and teaching practices that strengthen children’s problem-solving and reasoning processes as well as representing, communicating, and connecting mathematical ideas

5. ensure that the curriculum is coherent and compatible with known relationships and sequences of important mathematical ideas

6. provide for children’s deep and sustained interaction with key mathematical ideas

7. integrate mathematics with other activities and other activities with mathematics

8. provide ample time, materials, and teacher support for children to engage in play, a context in which they explore and manipulate mathematical ideas with keen interest

9. actively introduce mathematical concepts, methods, and language through a range of appropriate experiences and teaching strategies

10. support children’s learning by thoughtfully and continually assessing all children’s mathematical knowledge, skills, and strategies.

Details regarding each of these recommendations can be found in the joint position statement of the NEAYC and NCTM.

Using Caring for Our Children Standards to Improve Program Practices

The Caring for Our Children standards provide guidance for early learning programs aspiring to create the safest and most healthy environments for young children.  Whether working as an individual, teaching team, or entire staff to improve practices, here are a few tips to help you utilize Caring for Our Children in your quality improvement initiatives.

  • Consider your priorities –Reflect on recent licensing inspections, family surveys, accreditation feedback, staff surveys, anecdotal observation, etc. to determine areas that could be improved upon. The areas that you identify will become your target standards.
  • Identify the audience – Not every standard applies to all teachers.  Some standards are specific to infant teachers or staff members who diaper children.  Determine who the right people are to evaluate the standards and current program practices.
  • Review licensing standards – In many cases, licensing regulations and CFOC standards are aligned, but it is critical that all staff members are aware of the small variations that may exist between regulations and standards. Determine the minimum requirements and strengthen your program practices from that point. 
  • Review the CFOC standards, rationales, and comments related to the area you aim to improve.  Explore the additional references that are provided after each standard as well as any related standards that align with the targeted standard. 
  • Discuss the elements of the standard to ensure that everyone involved has a consistent understanding of the language of the standard.  Use the glossary of terms and any related appendices to clarify terms or specifics related to the target standard.
  • Conduct a self-study – Staff members who are involved in the quality improvement effort should spend a period of time conducting an assessment of how they currently manage elements of the target standard.  This self-study should be and honest reflection of the current practices, where they exceed licensing regulations and CFOC standards, as well as where they fall short.
  • Identify actions that need to be taken based on current program practices and the language of the standard.
  • Create a realistic action plan – Plans may be easy to implement or require an incremental approach.  Some plans only require a change to a written policy.  Other plans will require behavior changes that take time to practice and master.  Set a date to evaluate success.
  • Evaluate and celebrate – Take time to recognize accomplishments. If further action is necessary, revise your action plan, but be sure to celebrate the dedication and efforts of all involved!

Supporting Team Development

Did you know that there are distinct stages of team development, just like there are stages of child development?

In this month’s newsletter, we explore ways to effectively onboard new employees. However, your work does not stop there.  As team members work together over time, their relationship to the team and as a team, evolves. 

According to phycologist Bruce Tuckman, there are 5 stages of team development:

  • Forming – As a team is forming, members of the team display different emotions.  Some are excited, some are anxious, some may be hesitate or even confused about the work they will be asked to do.  They will depend on leadership for direction and guidance. Activities that allow team members to get to know one another, communicate, and build trust are vital at this stage.
  • Storming – As teams begin to work together on tasks, leaders may notice conflicts or differences of opinions are common. People have different values and approaches to problem solving.  This can cause team members to clash with one another, divide amongst themselves, or give up due to undue stress.
  • Norming – As team members work through their differences and learn to communicate more effectively with one another, they start to come together as a cohesive team. Now, the goals of the team are front and center, rather than individuals’ opinions or ideas.  Compromise and collaboration are key indicators of the norming stage of a team.
  • Performing – During this stage, a bulk of the work can occur with everyone onboard. Team members are aligned with the goals and vision of the project.  Most tasks can be completed independently by team members, while leaders focus on coaching and building skills.
  • Adjourning – Once the project is complete, the team may stop meeting, as you might see happening with sub-committees. Adjourning may also occur is one or more team members leave a long standing team, which is what happens when employees turn over. This can be a disruptive and upsetting time for team members, who have built important relationships with one another. 

Keep these stages of team development in mind as you work with newly established teaching teams, staff meeting subcommittees, and family committees. How you plan activities and respond to team members will depend on the team’s stage of development.

Creating Mission Statements

In the August Newsletter, we explore ways that vision building can be incorporated into your work with children and families in early learning environments.  Vision building is the first step to defining the core values of your program.  Once a vision statement is developed, organizations can develop their Mission Statement.  Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference between vision and mission statements. 

Vision statements are an organization’s dreams or aspirations for the community they serve.

Mission statements  communicate broad actions that an organization will take to bring their vision to fruition.  Mission statements can include what the organization will do, why they will take these actions, and who will benefit from their actions. 

Take a moment to reflect on the vision you have for your program or classroom, whether that be a formal statement or your own personal vision.  After reminding yourself of your vision, consider the things you will do each day to make that vision a reality. 

Jot down the answers to the following questions:

  • What does our program/classroom do really well (in relation to our vision) and how can we build on this success?
  • What challenges exist in my learning environment and what are possible solutions to these challenges?
  • How do I want to be remembered by children and families?
  • What are the specific actions I need to take on a daily basis to ensure my vision is fulfilled?
  • Why are these actions important?
  • Who will benefit from the actions I plan to take?
  • How will these actions impact others in the environment?
  • What resources, knowledge, skills, or support do I/we need to move forward?

Once these questions are answered, you will have the essence of your mission statement, insight into what you need to fulfill it, and inspiration to do so.

Here are examples of mission statements to help you turn your vision into reality.

Teaching Children about Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

According to Usethisbag.com, the average person in the US throws out almost five pounds of garbage daily.  Added up over a year or a lifetime, that is a lot of trash that each of us is contributing to our environment.  Some of these discarded items take hundreds of years to breakdown, expanding landfills and harming the surrounding environment. 

Helping children become aware of how much trash we throw away can be one of the first steps to creating a generation that takes responsibility for keeping our planet clean.  Ask families to drop off plastic bottles that they collect over the period of one week.  Place the bottles collected by one family (anonymously) in a pile and ask children to notice how much space the bottles take up.  Next, add the bottles that another family collected.  Ask children what they notice about the pile.  Continue to add to the pile and ask children what they notice.  Talk about the fact that the final pile is just one week’s worth of plastic.  Ask what it would be like if there were two or three piles of the same size… then 10 piles, 20 piles, 50 piles.  From this conversation, you can transition into a conversation about efforts to cut down on the amount of trash that is thrown away. 

Discuss ways that families can reduce the number of bottles they throw away. Are there other kinds of containers that could be used.  For example, show the children a reusable water bottle.  See if the children can think of ways to reuse plastic bottles.  For example, they could be used as watering cans for your class garden or used in an art project.  You can also talk with the children about recycling programs in the community.  Invite someone from the community into the program to talk with the children about recycling or use some of the resources below to guide your conversation. 

Recycling Lesson Plan for Preschoolers | Indiana Department of Environmental Management

Kids Guide to Recycling | ReuseThisBag.com

Trash Talk and Recycling for Kids | Kids Discover

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Most of all Reduce. | NRDC

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Supporting Self-Advocacy

The June 2019 newsletter focuses on things that ECE professionals can do to become strong advocates for issues that impact children and families.  Let’s take a bit of time to explore how we can help children become advocates – not for government policies or safe communities – but for themselves. 

Self-advocacy is the ability to identify our own needs, communicate those needs, and seek the support necessary to address those needs. When children are able to advocate for themselves effectively they build confidence in their own skills and a positive attitude about problem solving and learning.

One of the earliest tools we can give children to promote self-advocacy is sign language.  Imagine an infant who needs to communicate their desire for food or drink – but they do not yet have the words to do so.  Having a tool (sign language) to communicate needs is empowering and can reduce stress in children and the adults in their lives.

Elementary school children will likely be ready to take on true self-advocacy.  They will have the maturity and self-awareness to be effective at identifying and addressing needs.  In early childhood, we can help prepare children to be self-advocates by engaging in the following interactions:

  • Help children identify their emotions in a variety of situations. Use empathetic statements to help children recognize their feelings.  For example, “It looks like you are sad that Mommy went to work this morning. Sometimes feeling sad makes us cry. Are you feeling sad?” Once the child confirms your observation you could say, “When I am sad I ask my friends for a hug. If you want I could give you a hug.” If the child accepts, hug the child and say, “Anytime you are feeling sad, I am happy to give you a hug.” 
  • Acknowledge children for expressing needs, even if those needs are communicated non-verbally.  For example, if a child points to a desired toy, you could say, “I see that you are pointing to the truck. That tells me that you might want to play with the truck. Do you want to play with the truck?” Once the child confirms your observation you might say, “Thanks for letting me know that you want to play with the truck. You could also say ‘Truck, please.’ to let me know that.”
  • Teach children easy ways to ask for help.  When you notice a child who seems frustrated, acknowledge his/her efforts and remind them that you are someone who can assist them if they need it.  Attempt to identify words and actions children can take to communicate they need help.  Be sure to model these actions with other adults (and the children) in the learning environment.
  • Talk to children about their personal space and encourage them to talk to other children about maintaining personal space.  Encourage children to tell peers to step back if they stand too close.
  • Empower children to speak up about the actions of their peers that they do not like. For example, if a child is throwing sand, encourage the other children to talk about how they feel about it.
  • Help children discover strengths and areas of need. Remind children that they were not always good at the strengths that they have now.  You might say, “I know you are a fast runner, but when you were younger, you were not as fast. You practiced hard to be a fast runner.  What do you think you could do to improve your handwriting?” Let children know there are tools or strategies they can use to address the needs they have, but most things take time to develop or strengthen.

By learning to communicate needs and identify solutions to problems at a young age, children will have the tools necessary to become effective self-advocates as they age. 

Tell us how you promote self-advocacy in your learning environment on our Facebook page here

Making Connections between Play and Assessing Children’s Learning

This month’s newsletter is all about play and how teachers can engage in play with young children.  In the newsletter, we acknowledge the many tasks that teachers are responsible for completing on a daily basis.  Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day to sit down and play, which is unfortunate.  Luckily, there are ways to multi-task, by using free play as a time to complete those ever important child assessment tools. 

Free play provides an excellent opportunity to gather authentic assessment data. Being at the table or on the floor with the children will allow you to get a more accurate sense of how they think, solve problems, interact with peers, and regulate their emotions.

Here is a list of things teachers can do to integrate authentic assessment into their play with children:

Learn the standards. Take time to become familiar with the learning standards or skills included on the assessment tools used by your program.  Over time, you will probably have much of the list memorized, which will help you recognize skills as they happen during children’s play.

Focus on one skill or area of development at a time. Be intentional about where you want to start your observations.  Pick one area of development or even one specific skill to focus upon each day or even each week.

Provide materials that promote the skills you hope to observe. Once you have identified the area of development or skill you want to observe, consider the materials available to you. Determine which materials would be most likely to bring about the skills you want to observe.  You don’t necessarily need to plan a specific activity for children to complete – simply make the materials available in a learning center and plan to engage in play with children in that area. See what happens next.

Brainstorm prompts and questions.  As we discuss in the newsletter, your questions should not derail children’s play, but a few properly timed and worded prompts can drive children’s thinking in a new direction. Without directly asking children to perform the task you want to observe, you can work questions into play scenarios such as, “How could we solve this problem?”

Post cue cards. Make notes on cue cards that you place in prominent areas of the classroom. Your cue cards can have the learning standards written on them or the open ended questions and prompts that you want to use.  Write these statements on Post-it notes or sentence strips to remind yourself and your coworkers of the skills and prompts you plan to use during play.

Think creatively about the materials and how they are used.  Sometimes we get stuck thinking that materials can only be used for one purpose or in one learning center.  Open your thinking to consider different ways to use materials to promote child engagement.  Ask colleagues and even the children if they have any ideas about new ways to use materials that might have lost their appeal.

Tell us about other ways that you have used free play as a time to assess children’s learning on our Facebook page here.

How to Write a Philosophy Statement

In this month’s newsletter, we discuss how teachers can compile and organize their professional portfolio.  One of the elements of a portfolio is a statement that describes your philosophy of teaching. Creating such a statement can seem daunting if you have never done so before.  Here are a few tips for how to get started:

Practice self-reflection using prompts similar to the ones below: 

  • Think about the things you learned from your formal education and how you have applied them in your practice. 
  • Make note of connections you have noticed between what you learned in school and what you have learned on the job.
  • Determine your approach to teaching and interacting with children.
  • Think about what you have noticed about how children learn best and what types of activities engage children fully in your experience.
  • Determine what you believe are the most important things that you can do to support learners in your care.
  • Recall situations when things did not work out the way that you expected and what you learned from those situations.
  • Identify how your practice has changed as you have gained experience. 

Write down your responses to these questions and then ask yourself, “How have my experiences influenced my approach to working with young children? “

Create a 1-2 page statement describing your beliefs about how children learn best and the actions you take on a daily basis to meet the needs of the children in your care.

Here are a few online resources that you can read to learn more:

https://ucat.osu.edu/professional-development/teaching-portfolio/philosophy/

https://www.colorado.edu/career/2018/02/28/how-write-your-philosophy-education-statement

http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/document-your-teaching/writing-a-teaching-philosophy-statement

Superhero Play

In our March 2019 newsletter, we explore the benefits that risk-taking and big body play provide to children in early learning environments. One theme that often promotes both risk-taking behaviors and big body play is superhero play. Children are drawn to the action and power that superhero play provides. It excites children, engages their creativity, and offers a wide variety of scenarios to explore. And yes, it can sometimes become aggressive, which is why teachers should be prepared to guide children away from the aggressive aspect of superhero play, back to a more creative and pro-social interactions.

Placing a ban superhero play is rarely the best choice, and can be extremely difficult to uphold. Superhero play allows children to:

  • Explore elements of humanity such as bravery, and the difference between right and wrong
  • Build confidence
  • Experience a sense of control over their lives, which is dominated by adult control
  • Improve physical skills, strength, and coordination
  • Let their imaginations soar as they look for new ways to solve problems
  • Work as a team to accomplish a goal
  • Communicate with peers in a way the promotes collaboration
  • Practice taking on the perspectives of others, which is key to developing empathy
  • Develop leadership skills

Instead of banning this type of play, consider how you might build upon it and incorporate superhero play into engaging learning activities.

  • When it seems that children are “fighting” each other, encourage them to both take on the superhero roles and figure out a way to defeat the villain together.
  • Encourage children to create a back story for their superhero. Perhaps these stories could be illustrated and turned into a class book.
  • Measure how far the superheroes in your class can jump or throw a ball as a way to incorporate math skills into superhero play.
  • Ask children to think like a team to solve a problem that you “discovered” in the block area.
  • Discuss the notion of “good guys” and “bad guys”, make links to the actions of these two characters and the actions children can take in the classroom.

For more ideas, check out these articles:

Program Policies that Support Dual Language Learners

Contrary to many of the myths related to Dual Language Learners (DLLs), it has been proven in study after study that learning two (or more) languages in early childhood is actually beneficial to young children. 

In a review of research conducted by Linda Espinosa (Challenging Common Myths About Young English Language Learners), some of the following conclusions were made:

1. All young children are capable of learning two languages. Becoming bilingual has long-term cognitive, academic, social, cultural, and economic benefits. Bilingualism is an asset.

2. Young ELL students require systematic support for the continued development of their home language.

3. Loss of the home language has potential negative long-term consequences for the ELL child’s academic, social, and emotional development, as well as for the family dynamics.

4. Teachers and programs can adopt effective strategies to support home language development even when the teachers are monolingual English speakers.

One recommended strategy for programs includes creating a written policy for support DLLs and their families.  As you work with staff, families, and other stakeholders to create your program’s policy on supporting DLLs, consider the following suggestions:

  • The program will provide forms, information, and other methods of communication in multiple languages.  For examples, see resources such as ECLKC.
  • The program will make every effort to screen and assess children in their home language.
  • The program will intentionally incorporate professional development opportunities related to supporting DLLs and cultural responsiveness.
  • The program will plan bilingual activities, regardless of the presence of DLLs in the learning environment.
  • The program will employ a diverse staff, some of whom are bilingual and speak the home language of the majority of DLLs in the program.
  • The program will create family engagement activities that actively invite all parents to participate.
  • The program will implement the use of a home language survey or other data collection tool upon enrollment.  Information gathered will be used to create a plan of action to support the needs of the child(ren) and family members. 
  • The program will support and encourage families to maintain the use of the child’s home language while the child is also learning English.
  • The program will make efforts to place DLLs in learning environments with other DLLs who speak the same home language (not as an isolation practice, but to reduce the sense of isolation).
  • The program will set aside funds specifically for the purpose of supporting DLLs in the classroom.
  • The program will design outreach programs to attract and enroll diverse families, including children who are DLLs.

Many state requirements  and quality improvement  initiatives have started to include language specific to meeting the needs of DLLs. Be sure to research the resources available in your state to guide your policy making efforts.  More information can be found here.