Confirmation Bias and How it Detracts from Teachable Moments

This month’s newsletter focuses on those ever-present opportunities to build skills and promote development through teachable moments.  Skilled early childhood educators are on constant watch for teachable moments and recognize the value of these spontaneous learning events.  Unfortunately, it is common for adults to fall prey to a phenomenon that can actually decrease our ability to recognize teachable moments as they present themselves.

This phenomenon is called confirmation bias. 

Confirmation bias can be described as the inclination humans have to seek out information and evidence that aligns with their previously-established beliefs. In addition to being drawn to ideas that we agree with, confirmation bias also tends to reject or discount information that is counter to our beliefs.  In simple terms, confirmation bias is a tool we use to validate our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs.

In a learning environment, confirmation bias can present itself in several ways:

  • Teacher A doesn’t believe children can be trusted with tools. Teacher A focuses only on instances of children using tools improperly, rather than recognizing all of the instances of proper tool use.
  • Teacher B feels that toddlers are too young to participate in family-style dining. Teacher B reluctantly sets up family-style dining meals for the toddlers in her care because it is program policy. However, Teacher B only notices the messes children make during meals rather than observing the benefits of the learning experience.
  • Teacher C believes that outdoor play is not valuable and is too risky and dangerous for children. Every time a child gets hurt on the playground, Teacher C’s belief that outdoor play is dangerous and unnecessary is reinforced.
  • Teacher D believes that Johnny is a “bad” kid. Throughout the day, Teacher D (perhaps subconsciously) looks for evidence that proves the belief that Johnny is bad. This drive will likely prevent Teacher D from recognizing all the times that Johnny is engaged appropriately with toys and peers.

In each example, the teachers’ beliefs influence the observations they make. Research on confirmation bias shows that people are more likely to look for evidence that they are right than evidence that proves they are wrong.

This tendency can have a detrimental impact on a teacher’s ability to notice the teachable moments that emerge throughout the day, especially if they are strongly convinced of their beliefs.  Teachers might not notice an opportunity to show children the proper way to hold a tool or spoon if they don’t agree children should be doing so in the first place.  Teachers won’t engage children in exploring safe risks on the playground if they don’t believe that safe risk-taking is good for children. And teachers might not step in to coach Johnny through a conflict with a peer if they are already convinced that he is a “bad” kid who can’t learn appropriate ways to solve problems.

To combat confirmation bias, early childhood educators must reflect upon their practice regularly. They should ask questions about their beliefs about children and how children learn. They should challenge their preconceived notions about what children, families, and early learning should look like. They should look for their own teachable moments as strongly held beliefs and opinions arise.

You can read more about studies that have been conducted related to confirmation bias and why it exists here.

Reducing Stress in the Classroom

The CCEI January Newsletter explores ways to reduce stress during the transition into the New Year. There are a number of things that caregivers can do to reduce the level of stress children experience in the learning environment. These practices should be implemented throughout the year to ensure that children have an optimal early learning experience:

  • Establish a consistent schedule that allows children to know what to expect next and to prepare for transitions. This consistency helps children feel comfortable and secure.
  • Set up a routine for daily events like naptime, washing hands, and cleaning up.
  • Concentrate daily on building and nurturing your relationship with each child.
  • Accept, acknowledge, and celebrate individual differences in interests, abilities, and cultural backgrounds.
  • Include plenty of time for self-directed play. This is when children practice social and communication skills and learn to control the objects in their environment. The sense of competence derived from play fosters a positive self-image.
  • Offer choices to children in activities, materials, and directing their own behavior. This helps children learn that they have some control over what they do.
  • Emphasize cooperation and minimize competition. Fostering cooperation helps everyone feel like they have something to contribute and that they are an important part of the group.
  • Display photos of the children in the group and pictures they have drawn.
  • Greet children warmly as they arrive.
  • Listen when children share their ideas. Reflect back what was said in your response.
  • Recognize when children master a skill they have been working on. Be specific about the praise you give. “It used to be hard for you to zip your coat. Now you can do it every time.”
  • Provide activities that are developmentally appropriate and that are open-ended. Use more activities that focus on the process rather than the product. Children will feel more successful.
  • Keep your expectations realistic and convey your confidence by saying, “I know you can do it.”
  • Identify all the things you like about the children and talk about those characteristics often!

 

Formal Family Engagement Programs

The December 2020 CCEI Newsletter focuses on family engagement strategies.  In it, we explore the benefits of family engagement initiatives as well as different types of engagement programs can introduce. The newsletter also provides recommendations for planning and implementing these important initiatives.

If your program is seeking a formal family engagement program, there are plenty on the market.  These programs are sometimes referred to as parenting interventions.  Think of these tools as a curriculum that you would use with the parents of your program to enhance parenting skills and to build stronger relationships with their children. Each program has unique features and costs associated with it so deciding on the type of program that would work best for you will take careful consideration.

The National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement has created a helpful resource that provides details on many of the family engagement programs that are available today in the Compendium of Parenting Interventions.

The document lays out the details of a variety of programs that may be appropriate for the families enrolled in your program. The compendium describes each program along with the types of families best served by the program. You can also find information about outcomes and objectives, the length of the implementation of the program, the languages in which the program has been published, and minimum workforce qualifications for staff who will be using the tool.  You can also find information about the costs as well as the type of training required and the cost to receive that training.

The Compendium is a very helpful tool for any program that is seeking to improve family engagement, especially if you looking for a program that would work for a specific target audience.

If you are interested in exploring the types of programs that are available but don’t want to get caught up in all of the details, you can find an easy-to-read At-a-Glance Table on pages 16-19 of the Compendium.

Self-Regulation Skills

The ability to manage emotions, behaviors, and attention is often referred to as self-regulation.  It is a term closely related to executive functions, which is the topic of this month’s CCEI Newsletter. Essentially, self-regulation is the ability to stop and think before responding to a situation. It means taking a breath to calm down before responding to someone’s actions or words. It is noticing when you need to walk away to compose yourself and having the skills to do so. Self-regulation impacts how we set and achieve goals and how we bounce back after experiencing challenges.

There are a number of strategies that can be used to promote the development of self-regulation. First and foremost is modeling. Educators and parents must be able to regulate their own emotional responses so they can model self-regulation to children. Imagine trying to teach a child how to manage strong emotions by expressing strong emotions in from of the child. It is not exactly a recipe for success.

Adults should model for children how to practice deep breathing during stressful situations, how to take a break during times of frustration, how to ask for help when feeling overwhelmed, and how to communicate needs in safe and respectful ways. Children are watching the adults around them for clues on how to respond to different situations, so adults must be on their A-game at all times!

After modeling, adults can help children begin to recognize and label the strong emotions that they experience. Teach children emotional vocabulary words so that they can express themselves effectively. Before children are overwhelmed with emotion, read books and tell stories that contain characters who experience strong emotions.  Talk about how the characters feel, how they react, and different options they could use next time they feel strong emotions.

Have conversations with children about how they feel inside when they are mad or sad. See if children can compare those physical feelings to how they feel when they are happy or excited.  Pointing out these differences helps children become aware of the changes in their bodies that often accompany strong emotions.  You can use color charts to help children identify how they are feeling, with green meaning great, yellow meaning, bothered by something, and red meaning upset.

Mindfulness practices include bringing attention to what is going on inside our bodies and minds in the moment. Children can be taught to check in with themselves to identify how they are feeling.  This can be done on a regular basis to help build this skill as a habit.

Self-regulation develops slowly and children will probably make many mistakes before they master the ability to regulate their emotions and reactions. In all fairness, adults often lose their tempers or become frustrated with situations, too. Everyone benefits when there is an intentional focus on teaching and practicing self-regulation in learning environments.  How will you incorporate some of these ideas into your practice with children?

 

Social Stories

Social Stories are tools that are often used with children and adults who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These stories are written in a manner that safely and simply teaches children how to navigate challenging situations. For example, Social Stories exist that teach children about what to expect when going to the dentist, the first day of school, or how to stay safe when playing outdoors.

According to Carol Gray, a pioneer in the work of Social Stories, there are several conditions for Social Stories:

  • They present information in a patient and supportive manner
  • They are descriptive of specific situations
  • They are meaningful to specific children
  • They provide information in a way that is physically, socially, and emotionally safe for the audience.

You can see a few examples of Carol Gray’s Social Stories here.

Teachers can use Social Stories to help children learn about all kinds of life situations. With a little creativity and research, teachers could create a Social Story to describe what children should expect as they transition to Kindergarten. It would be necessary for teachers to reach out to local elementary schools to find out details about the schools and daily routines.  These facts could then be worked into a story format.

Here is a list of other scenarios that can be introduced using Social Stories:

  • Preparing for a field trip
  • The arrival of a new sibling
  • What to do if you get separated from a parent in a store
  • How to enter into games or play situations
  • What to do when you feel angry, sad, frustrated, disappointed, excited, etc.
  • How to respond to bad news
  • How to transition from one activity to another
  • How to complete a task in the daily routine

While formal Social Stories are a tool used with individuals with ASD, teachers could adapt this strategy for use with all children. Teachers may find it helpful to introduce expectations and routines using stories, in addition to giving verbal instructions.

Building Empathy and Prosocial Behaviors with Children’s Literature

Educators have a powerful tool at their disposal for helping children develop important prosocial behaviors. Prosocial behaviors are those that help us get along in the world with others.  They are the behaviors and skills we use to successfully collaborate with others and contribute to our communities.

Fortunately, children’s literature is full of examples of characters engaging in behaviors that would be considered both prosocial and antisocial. This means there are thousands of opportunities to engage children in conversations about the choices that characters make, the soundness of those decisions, and how outcomes could be altered of different decisions had been made.  These conversations can become just as ingrained in children’s minds as the stories themselves.

Here are a few tips to follow when planning to use literature as a teaching tool:

  • Pre-read the selected book or story. Determine where in the story you want to stop and ask a question about a character’s choices or behaviors. Decide which questions you will ask ahead of time.
  • Plan for stopping points. Recognize that these important conversations will extend the length of time that children are expected to sit and listen. As you know, this can be difficult for some children, which is why best practice recommends limiting it. It is perfectly fine to read only half of a book at a time. Make an intentional decision to read a story to a particular point, engage children in conversation, and then tell the children that you will come back to the story later in the day to find out how the story ends.
  • Interject prosocial vocabulary into your reading of stories from an early age. If you read part of the story where a character helps another character, stop and say, “It was very helpful of Kaya to stop what she was doing to clean up the kitchen for her mother.  Earlier today, I noticed Davina being helpful when Marcus was cleaning up the block area all by himself. I think it is great that we have such helpful friends in our class.”
  • Introduce books and stories from a variety of ethnic and cultural traditions. Not only will this help children feel represented in the classroom, but it will also introduce different cultural norms and expectations for children to consider.
  • Create activities that allow children to re-write the ending of the story, based on prosocial behaviors that they would choose. Children may be interested in illustrating their chosen ending or acting out the new ending for the group.
  • Refer back to characters of books when children are struggling with interactions with their peers. Say, “This situation reminds me of what happened to Jack in the story we read the other day. Let’s think about how the characters solved that problem and see if we can try that option.”

Tell us how you use literature to introduce prosocial behaviors to young children.

Talking to Children About COVID-19

It is likely that the young children in your care have heard adults and siblings talk about coronavirus and CODIV-19. It is also likely that each child in your care has a different understanding, and maybe even a different capacity to understand what they are hearing from their family members.  One thing children do understand is that life has changed. Perhaps one or both parents have been home for an extended period. Perhaps there have been financial struggles as a result of unemployment. Time at home with family members could have been joyous for some children and scary for other children.

When considering conversations with children about the coronavirus, it may be a good idea to speak to children individually first, to gauge what children know and understand.  This initial investigation will help you make decisions about how best to move forward with conversations.  If you have a conversation with a group of 15 children, you risk confusing some of the children who may not have as much information as other children.

At first, just ask questions.  Ask children what they think is happening. Ask them to tell you more, or attempt to clarify their responses with additional questions. You don’t need to impart facts at this time, just listen.

Be sure to validate any feelings of fear or unease that children communicate. Let children know that it is a confusing time for everyone and that they are not alone in the way they feel.  Also, let them know that you are doing all you can to keep them safe. Don’t force children to talk, if it appears that they are not interested in the conversation. Let them know that you care about them and if they ever want to talk, you are there to listen.

Once you have a sense of what children understand, you can create a plan for small-group or large- group discussions.  You may choose to start the conversation with a book or a social story, like the example here.  If you use a prewritten story, be sure to modify the language to meet the understanding of your audience. You might also ask for some keywords to be translated into the home languages of your students.

Keep in mind, children may have experienced the loss of a loved one, or are currently separated from a loved one because of isolation protocols. It is important to have open lines of communication with families so that you can offer as much support as necessary.

Here is an excellent resource entitled, Supporting Young Children after Crisis Events, written by David Schonfeld from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.  Be sure to seek out additional information as children’s individual situations become apparent.

The Difference Between Equity and Equality

When doing the work of an early childhood consultant, it is common to hear teachers say that it is difficult to dedicate too much time and attention to one child because it is not fair to the other children.  To a degree, this is true; teachers cannot focus all of their attention on just one child.  But on the other hand, when we shift our thinking from equality (everyone gets the same resources) to equity (everyone gets the resources they need to succeed), we can begin to identify opportunities to support children in different ways.

Consider the example of the child who is acting out as a way to get attention from teachers or peers. The behaviors can be looked at as a form of communication that is telling us that an underlying need is not being met. The child is likely seeking connection, relationship, affirmation, and/or reassurance. The equality mindset says, “I want to spend extra time with this child but I can’t because I have to divide my time equally amongst the children.”  However, an equity mindset says, “I recognize that, at this stage of development, this child needs something more from me.  I would like to find a way to provide this child with what he needs in this moment, to ensure he/she has the tools needed to succeed moving forward. This extra time or attention will not be required forever.”

In this case, the teacher may choose to do some reflection to identify times of day where a little extra attention and nurturing can be provided to the child.  Perhaps the child could sit next to the teacher during meals. Perhaps the child could be assigned a job or special responsibility. Perhaps, while other children are working independently during center time, the teacher could read a story to the child and a friend. During these interactions, the teacher could present the child with appropriate options for communicating needs, such as saying, “You know, if you ever want to get my attention, you can just say my name or tap me on the arm.”

This targeted approach to supporting children as they are learning new skills is at the heart of equity.  Not every child requires the intervention described above. Another child in the class may need support with an obstacle on the playground, while another child may be ready to write the letters of his name.

Early childhood education is the perfect place to adopt an equity mindset, because the children have such varied needs and abilities.  What can you do today to shift from an equality mindset to an equity mindset?

Practices to Reduce Stress During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Last month’s blog explored some of the common signs of stress that people may be experiencing during COVID-19 related shut-downs.  Even though some states are opening up or loosening restrictions on stay-at-home orders, stress is not going away.  Now we will face new stress-inducing experiences, such as returning to work, venturing out using public transportation, and facing crowded business.

The Medical University of South Carolina suggests a number of tips for reducing stress related to COVID-19:

  • Recognize that we are all in this together. Knowing that you are not alone in what you are feeling and experiencing can be helpful.
  • Be sure to breathe. This means creating time each day to sit quietly and get in touch with your breath.
  • Reach out for support and help. You don’t have to navigate this situation in isolation, even if you are alone at home. There are people in your social network willing to help you.
  • Be kind. Engage in quiet acts of kindness. They don’t have to cost money. Look another person in the eye and greet them warmly when you pass them on the street.
  • Look for the positive. It is easy to focus on the negative at a time like this. Make an effort to notice positive things going on around you.
  • Limit your exposure to social media and news coverage. Put yourself on a media diet and only seek information from reliable resources.
  • Adjust your language. If you notice that you are repeating negative phrases, such as “Everything has changed for the worse,” try to change that to, “Things are definitely different, but I will be able to adjust to the new normal.”
  • Use technology for good! Explore apps (Calm) and podcasts (Ten Percent Happier) that promote healthy living.
  • Stay connected with friends and loved ones in creative ways. Attend religious services online, organize a sing-along over Zoom, or challenge someone to a friendly game of online Scrabble.

To read more of the ideas shared in the article, click here.

Common Signs of Stress

Whether your daily routine has remained the same or been turned upside down by the Coronavirus pandemic, you are most likely experiencing more stress than usual.  It is important to keep the common signs of stress front and center in our minds so that we can take action to reduce our stress when it begins to impact our lives in a negative way. If you experience any of these signs of stress, reach out to friends, family members, or medical professionals for support.

According to the CDC, common signs of stress include:

  • Disbelief and shock
  • Tension and irritability
  • Fear and anxiety about the future
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Feeling numb
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nightmares and recurring thoughts about the event
  • Anger
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Sadness and other symptoms of depression
  • Feeling powerless
  • Crying
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches, back pains, and stomach problems
  • Trouble concentrating