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

Resilience

Resilience can be defined as the ability to bounce back after experiencing adversity.  Imagine stretching a rubber band between your fingers.  In most cases, the rubber band will return to its original size and shape once you release the tension. In some cases, especially with frequently used rubber bands, they will stretch out and not return to their regular size.  In other cases, if you stretch a rubber band too far, it will snap.

As humans, we experience a number of stressors that cause tension in our lives. We should strive to be able to withstand the tension and stretching and return to our normal state of being. If we do not have the tools that allow us to manage tension, we could become stretched too thin, or even snap.

Fortunately, we can build the skills and practices that will increase our capacity for resilience. Here are a few ideas:

  • Build relationships with others who will support you in positive and productive ways
  • Educate yourself
  • Engage in acts of self-compassion and forgiveness
  • Seek connection with something bigger than yourself, whether that is faith or community engagement
  • Create a positive mind-set that limits fear and negative thinking
  • Become aware of your emotions, recognizing and truly feeling each one, rather than pushing them away or avoiding them

You can read more about these strategies and many others in this article published by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center here.

You can also learn how to help children build resilience by enrolling in this month’s free trial course, SOC109: Building Resilience in Young Children here.  Learn more about the course here.

The Importance of Self-Care

The March edition of the CCEI newsletter focuses on ways to include self-care into the daily routine among teachers, administrators, and parents, as well as how to build these habits with students. Most people get into the child care industry because they care so much about the health and well-being of the children in their care, which means that their needs often come last. However, this mentality is leading to high turnover and burnout. Have you ever felt so tired from a day that you could barely make it to the couch that night? Do you find it hard to find the motivation to accomplish tasks in your everyday life? Are you regularly sick? Or do you often feel exhausted and overwhelmed? These are just a couple of reasons why it has become increasingly important to practice self-care.

When you fly on an airplane, have you ever wondered why you are instructed to put on your own oxygen mask first, before you help anyone else? This is because you cannot help anyone if you do not help yourself first. This same concept can be applied to teaching. In order to give students the best possible education, it is important for teachers to be happy and healthy. Notice that happiness is listed first as mental happiness often leads to physical healthiness, and vice versa. Self-care comes in many different forms for everyone depending on their schedule and needs, but it is important to do something daily to help fill your bucket. A teacher can’t give something they do not have, so if they do not refill their bucket, they will lose their caring, compassion, and patience.

“By taking care of myself, I have so much more to offer the world than I do when I am running on empty.”

-Ali Washington

As important as self-care is for adults, it can also be beneficial for children, as it often gives them to time to recharge and reflect. Young children often have trouble slowing down long enough to evaluate how they are feeling and process their surroundings. Encouraging times of stillness and reflection can help children learn how to handle their emotions. Instituting moments of self-care in the classroom can help students build up the tools they will need to be successful members of the community.

Supporting the Development of the Whole Child

In the February Newsletter, we discuss several ways that common elements of the daily routine promote children’s development. When promoting children’s development it is helpful to think about the whole child as a learner. This means, that in addition to planning academic lessons, it is also important to intentionally plan activities that target social emotional and physical development skills. In many cases, you won’t need to create separate lessons to address these skills. Instead, create a plan for academic lessons that include opportunities for children to practice additional skills.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Look for ways to add fine motor movement to literacy lessons.
  • Explore math concepts using gross motor movements.
  • When reviewing weekly lesson plans, look for opportunities for children to work in small groups or pairs to accomplish tasks.
  • Think about elements of the daily routine that lend themselves to the practice of social skills.
  • Consider how your interactions with children model and promote appropriate language and conversation skills.
  • Identify lessons that help children develop emotional regulation skills.

In addition to planning where to integrate different areas of development in to the lesson plan, make notes of how you will assess the skills children are learning. Be prepared with your camera and sticky notes so that you can capture all of the learning that is happening as children explore.

Children’s Interactions with Loose Parts

The January edition of the CCEI newsletter focuses on ways to introduce loose parts into your learning environment.  These open-ended materials provide countless developmental and learning opportunities – once the children get used to using them.  Have you ever known a child who needed to have the directions to create something out of Legos?  Have you ever heard a child ask you how they should draw a tree or ask you to make a person out of playdough for them?  Of course, all children are different, some are more creative than others.  However,  in some cases, children come to us with a need to expand their creativity and build confidence in their own skills.  Loose parts can help with this!

After introducing new loose parts, you may notice that children use the materials in very ordinary ways.  They may line up and stack the materials or sort them into piles (very important skills, by the way).  As an adult educator and conference goer, I have witnessed this first hand in sessions I have facilitated and attended as a participant with other adults.  In the first few minutes with a new material, even adults revert to these simple forms of play.  But given ample time, I have noticed adults testing out materials, seeing what they can do, how they can be used, how they work with other materials. I have watched the expressions on adult’s faces change from, “Is this what I am supposed to be doing?” to “I love what I just created!”  In other words, the expressions changed from worry to joy and contentment.

For this reason, it is encouraged to allow children ample, uninterrupted time to explore loose parts. Observe children carefully, watching for signs that they are excited about their work.  They may not be using the materials in the way that you had intended, but as long as they are being safe, let the exploration continue. Let the creativity flow. Let children know when they use materials in ways that you had not thought of.  Help children build the confidence to be creative and use materials in new and exciting ways.

What are Leadership Skills?

As we approach not only the end of the year, but also the end of this decade (wow!), it is a great time to reflect on the idea of leadership in education. It is important to think about both our own role as leaders, but also how we are instilling leadership skills in the children with whom we work.

Spend some time thinking about these questions:

  • How have I grown as a leader over the past year/10 years?
  • What can I do to improve my leadership skills over the next year/10 years?
  • Where do I see myself as a leader in the field of ECE in the next year/10 years?
  • How successful have I been in introducing leadership skills to children over the past year/10 years?
  • How can I enhance my teaching of leadership skills to children in the next year/10 years?

You could also pick a child that you currently teach and image that child 10 years from now. What leadership skills will the child need to be successful? What can you do today to facilitate that child’s success as a leader?

Keep in mind, leadership is not necessarily tied to your role or title. Three year olds can be leaders, classroom assistant can be leaders. It’s not about the job title, it’s about the skills you possess that help you collaborate successfully with your peers.  Here is a short list of a few of these important skills:

  • Communication skills –not only the ability to clearly express your thoughts and feedback, but also the ability to listen and comprehend the needs of others.
  • Collaboration – this includes the ability to work as a team, share responsibilities, and hold yourself and others accountable.
  • Adaptability – this refers to your ability to respond effectively to the ever-changing conditions of projects and the needs of teammates.
  • Empathy – a skills that allows you to build trusting relationships that can inspire and motivate others.
  • Growth mindset – the ability to recognize, celebrate, and build upon the efforts of others, not just their successes.
  • Creativity –outside-the-box thinking that generates solutions to problems and new ideas.
  • Self-reflection – the mindful practice of reviewing your thoughts and actions to identify opportunities for growth.

As you move into the new year and the next decade, make an intentional effort to incorporate more of these practices into your professional work and into your work with young children. By modeling these skills to children, you will provide them with valuable opportunities to build their own essential leadership skills.

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.