The April edition of the CCEI newsletter focuses on ways that leaders and team members can work to build a workplace culture in which all are included and valued. This requires that all members of the team contribute positively to that culture and take accountability for their contributions to the team environment.

Accountability refers to the act of taking responsibility for your actions and the impact that they have.  Accountability is more than completing tasks on time and following procedures, which are both important. It is a willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions.  It is also taking responsibility for how you show up for others. When we consider how many “others” there are in an early learning environment, the importance of accountability becomes clear.

Accountability is tough. Accountability requires self-awareness. It takes a measure of humility and a ton of honest self-reflection to recognize how your actions influence the environment in which you work.

Beth Strathman, from Firebrand Consulting, shares a few questions that you can ask yourself on a regular basis to build self-awareness and accountability.

  • What did I do that worked/didn’t work? Why?
  • What do my actions/reactions tell me about myself?  What patterns do I see?
  • What excuses did I make (in my head or out loud) for bad results or failures?
  • What did I do that might be part of my typical behavioral patterns?
  • Who do I want to be? How do I want to come across instead?

As a leader, it is vital that you model for others how to take accountability for your actions and contributions. Remember though, leadership does not require a title. Anyone who has someone following in their footsteps is a leader – How will you be a leader for accountability in your program?

Understanding Secondary Trauma

Working in the early learning field, it is essential that you are aware of and understand the impact of secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is sometimes called compassion fatigue and it can occur when educators support children and families who have been directly impacted by a traumatic event.

Traumatic events are those that disrupt a family’s sense of security and safety. Traumatic events include everything from the death of a loved one to natural disasters to experiencing homelessness, just to name a few.

Secondary trauma is the result of the indirect exposure to trauma and can occur after prolonged exposure or even a single incident. According to the Administration for Children and Families, signs that someone may be experiencing secondary trauma include changes to attitudes, behaviors, and physical health such as:

  • Lowered concentration
  • Apathy
  • Rigid thinking
  • Perfectionism
  • Numbness
  • Helplessness
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Sleep and appetite changes
  • Body pains
  • Immune system issues

The first step in combatting secondary trauma is awareness.  From there, educators can put in place strategies to help address the issue.  Many of the strategies are related to establishing a healthy work-life balance and practicing self-care. These terms are often scoffed at as being impractical, however, they are essential for preventing burnout and addressing trauma.

Educators and program leaders must create supportive working environments that encourage self-care, not as a frivolous practice but as one that is vital to the continued mission of the program.  Ideas include:

  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise, adequate sleep, etc.)
  • Stress relieving activities (time in nature, meditation, journaling, etc.)
  • Creative outlets (art, music, dance, poetry, etc.)
  • Support (peer-to-peer support, counseling, outside support groups, therapy, etc.)
  • Celebrating (recognizing efforts and successes, taking time to identify what is working, etc.)
  • Ongoing education (workshops, speakers, online learning, etc.)

To download a factsheet on secondary traumatic stress, click here.

Process versus Product: Art Experiences in Early Childhood

In the February newsletter, we provide a variety of art activity ideas that early childhood educators can use to help children gain a better understanding of the world around them as it exists now and what things were like in the past. Exploring a wide variety of art activities promotes creativity, self-expression, innovation, and the development of a positive self-concept. Art activities are also a good way for children to explore different cultures, traditions, and ways of life.

When using art activities in this way, it is important to keep in mind that the goal of art activities is not necessarily a perfect final product, but the process (and learning) that children experience as they work on the project.

This is the difference between process-focused art and product-focused art. Characteristics of the preferred, process-focused art include:

  • Child directed
  • A variety of materials and tools
  • Opportunities for creativity and exploration of materials
  • No step-by-step instructions for children to follow
  • No adult model for children to recreate
  • Original and unique results that don’t necessarily look like the other children’s work

In process-focused environments, children are responsible for the project in its entirety, from the initial concept to the finished product. While teachers may present an initial prompt or provocation, the rest is left up to the children to explore with minimal teacher support.

Product-focused projects tend to result in all finished products looking similar, sometimes even identical to an adult model. Often, these projects are justified as necessary to teach children to follow directions. We encourage educators to reflect on all of the other times of day when children are required to follow directions. There are plenty of opportunities to practice direction-following – art activities should be a place for children to explore creativity, experimentation, and self-expression.

Awareness and self-restraint are essential skills when moving toward a more process-focused art environment for children. Teachers need to first recognize whether they are planning process- or product-focused activities. If the teacher has a predetermined idea of what the final product should look like, they can take a step back and ask, “How can I add more opportunity for creativity and originality to this project?” Perhaps the answer is to simply ask a question or make an invitation for children to explore materials. Questions and invitations might sound like this:

  • I found these really fun materials. What do you think you could make with these materials?
  • Do you remember when we explored houses from different countries? Do you think you could use this cardboard to make a house from a different part of the world?
  • Today, I thought we could paint different emotions. I am curious to see what you create.

As you can see from the examples, there are ways to integrate art into other areas of curriculum exploration without controlling the final outcome. And of course, art materials should be available throughout the day for children to explore on their own, without any adult influence.

Happy creating!

Setting Classroom Resolutions with Children

The practice of reflecting on life and setting resolutions is top of mind for many adults during the New Year.  Children don’t really grasp the concept of time or the significance of midnight on December 31st. However, using simple language, adults can explain that a new year has started and that this may be a good time to think about making changes that add more joy and health to our lives.

For early childhood educators, it may be fun to work with the children to create resolutions for the entire class to share. The group can have more than one resolution, which can be designed to build classroom community or address some of the common challenges that the group faces.

To help children understand resolutions, teachers can ask:  “Who thinks it is a good idea to… ?

  • Dance every day.
  • Be a good helper.
  • Work together.
  • Take care of our toys.
  • Get rid of germs that make us sick.
  • Eat lots of yummy foods.
  • Be kind to friends.
  • Keep our friends safe.
  • Ask for help.
  • Read more books.
  • Do our very best.

Teachers can record the number of children who agree with each idea as a way to narrow down the list a bit.  Once the list is settled, teachers can ask children to illustrate their favorite resolutions and post these images on a bulletin board that shares the class’s resolutions with other children and families. When it is time to take down the display, the illustrations can be compiled into a class book for the library.

Older children may be able to reflect on their lives and come up with their own resolutions that you can help them stick to throughout the year.

As with adults, resolutions are ideas to strive toward. No one is perfect and mistakes are made. Resolutions should be reminders of what is important to us and how we would like to act in the future.  Help children see how they could make different decisions in the future that will align their actions with that vision.

Happy 2023!

Remembering Child Development During the Holidays

It’s hard to believe that 2022 is almost over!  We hope you had a year full of all of the things that made you happy.  Whether you achieved big goals or spent the past year taking things slow, we are glad to have been a part of your experience.

We hope that you take time during this transition into 2023 to recognize the important role you play in the lives of the children and families that you support.  That support comes in the form of direct day-to-day care and in the resources and information you share with families.  This month’s CCEI newsletter focuses on the convergence of the holiday season and child development. The holidays bring with them hustle and bustle, family gatherings, excitement, and stress. Children are not immune from the feelings of stress and anxiety that many adults feel during this time of year.

It is important for adults to keep in mind how stress impacts young children who are often put in situations that they are not yet developmentally ready to handle. Keeping the characteristics of different theories of child development in mind can help educators create learning environments that reduce stress for young children.  Educators can also share this information with families so that they can create realistic expectations for their children and help reduce stress at home.

In the newsletter, we reviewed a few well-known theories of child development that can shine some light on how children experience the world around them, including the extra stress of the holiday season.  Here, we will review Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which attempts to explain the elements that must be in place for a child to reach the highest level of fulfillment.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is often depicted as a triangle containing 5 levels with the most basic needs at the base of the triangle. Maslow’s theory states that human motivation is linked to meeting needs in a particular order. To reach the top of the triangle, one must progress through each of the lower levels.  Here are the levels from the base of the triangle to the top:

Physiological needs – This refers to the elements that humans need to survive, including water, food, and a warm environment. These are basic survival needs and they take precedence over all other needs, according to Maslow.  Consider a time when you have been extremely hungry.  At that moment, you were probably more concerned with finding something to eat than you were with becoming a better version of yourself.

Safety – Once a person’s physiological needs are met, they can shift focus to creating and maintaining a safe environment. Safe environments are not only physically safe but also emotionally safe. Humans seek safety in places that are predictable and familiar. Finding safe spaces reduces stress and opens the door for the next level of need.

Love and belonging – When a person lives in an environment that addresses their physiological needs and feels safe and secure, they are better able to focus on meeting the need to connect with other humans.  We are social beings and feelings of acceptance and belonging are important to our overall fulfillment. According to Maslow, a person may find it challenging to address the need for belonging and love if they are focused on meeting the need to feel safe, physically or emotionally.

Esteem – This level of need relates to feeling good about oneself. According to Maslow, people seek to feel confident in their abilities and see themselves in a positive light. People want to contribute to their community and feel proud of their accomplishments. In Maslow’s Hierarchy, this can occur after the needs for belonging, safety, and physiological security have been met.

Self-actualization – At the top of the triangle is the need to feel as though we are fulfilling a purpose that is important to us. What is important to each person is unique, so this will look different from person to person. According to Maslow, the need to fulfill this purpose is something that is not reached by every person.

When we think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it relates to children, we can see that adults are responsible for helping children meet these needs at every level.  Adults must provide food and water. They must ensure that the environment is safe, both physically and emotionally.  They must create environments where children can feel a sense of belonging and where they can begin to feel confident about their skills.  From there, helping children discover things that make them feel fulfilled is a critical responsibility.

Unfortunately, there are situations in which this support is not available to children. This is rarely intentional and is often the result of circumstances or a lack of awareness of the importance of helping children feel safe, loved, and confident.

Educators can use the information from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to evaluate their learning environments.  Look for opportunities to create safe, predictable environments.  Find ways to recognize and celebrate the contributions of all of the children in the group. Help children make connections with their peers and do things in the classroom that they thoroughly enjoy.  Remember, this may be different for each child, so offering a wide variety of activities can help children meet these needs.

Think about how the stress of the holiday season may impact the children in your group as they seek to meet their internal needs and share information with families to raise awareness of this important theory of development.

Wishing you all the best this holiday season!

Boosting Child Satisfaction

In the November newsletter, we explore different ways that programs can measure and address customer and teacher satisfaction. Making sure that families and teachers are happy with the program can reduce disenrollment and teacher turnover.  Both of these scenarios impact the program’s reputation, the bottom line, and the culture of the program.  Most importantly, happy families and employees create a warm, nurturing, and consistent environment for young children.

One audience we neglected to consider when exploring customer satisfaction was the children. How often do we consider the satisfaction level of the children in our care?  As you reflect on overall customer satisfaction with your program, consider ways that you can bring children’s voices into the discussion.

Take some time this month to reflect on what child satisfaction looks and feels like in your program.  Consider talking with the children about the concept of satisfaction using language that is appropriate for their level of understanding.

Some synonyms of satisfaction include:

  • Happiness
  • Enjoyment
  • Joy
  • Delight
  • Fulfillment
  • Contentment

Create opportunities for children to share their thoughts and opinions about different elements of the program. Here are just a few ideas:

Thumbs-up or thumbs-down

Begin to ask children to rate different learning experiences by giving a thumbs up if they enjoyed the activity or a thumbs down if they did not enjoy it.  You can introduce a sideways thumb as a way to express neutral feelings about the situation.

It might be good to ask these questions to children in private conversations to prevent children from copying what their peers are doing.

Visual rating scales.

Create a visual rating scale with 3-5 facial features ranging from excited to neutral to unhappy. You can use illustrations or, better yet, take pictures of the children making these faces. You can rotate images so that children get to see themselves in the rating scale from time to time. Post this scale in the classroom in a place that is accessible to children.

Introduce the rating scale to the children by identifying the facial images and defining the feelings as they relate to satisfaction. From time to time, ask children how they are feeling about their day.  Ask them to point to the face that represents how they are feeling about being in school.  Follow up with a few open-ended questions to see if the children can tell you why they feel that way.

  • What happened on the field trip that made you give it an excited review?
  • I see that you are unhappy with the puppet show. What happened that made you feel that way?
  • What would have made water play better for you today?
  • Last week you were excited about music class but this week you are so-so. What changed?
  • Can you think of a way we can improve the block area?
  • Homework time can be frustrating. How can we make it better for you?

Children may not always be able to answer these questions or provide any helpful information. However, you are asking questions that encourage them to reflect on their thoughts and feelings. Eventually, they will be able to answer with more concrete responses that you can use to make decisions about future events.

Responding to feedback.

Be sure to incorporate more of what the children say they like and create a plan to address any areas in which children are less than thrilled.

Ask children to help you think of ideas for improving the environment and activities.

Create a happiness committee made up of children, teachers, and family members who focus on ways to improve the day-to-day experiences of everyone in the program.

Share summaries of some of the changes that you are making in program newsletters or on social media to show your dedication to a caring community where everyone has a voice!

Building a Nutrition and Culinary Vocabulary

When cooking with children, it is important to introduce new words and concepts to children who may have never prepared food in the past. There is an entire culinary vocabulary out there to explore with young children.  Some of these words will relate to instructions within recipes (“fold in the cheese”), while other terms are related to food items and preparation methods.

Here is a sampling of words you could introduce to children as you explore food together:

  • Absorption – when flour mixes with and retains liquids.
  • Acid (or acidic) – the element in food that makes it taste sour, like lemons and other citrus fruits.
  • Aerate – to sift or beat quickly to add air to the ingredients.
  • Al dente – cooking an item (e.g., pasta) to the point that it is not too soft or too hard.
  • Antioxidants – substances in foods that combat aging.
  • Antipasto – a selection of meats, vegetables, and cheeses that are served as an appetizer.
  • Appetizer – small portions of food that are served before a meal.
  • Apple corer – a tool used to remove the apple core.
  • Arroz – the word for rice in Spanish.
  • Bake – to use an oven to cook a dish.
  • Baking pan – metal containers used to hold items placed in the oven for cooking. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and depths.
  • Batter – the result of mixing wet and dry ingredients in a recipe. It can be thin and pourable, like pancake batter, or thick like chocolate chip cookie dough, which you place on the pan with a spoon.
  • Beat – the act of mixing ingredients to a smooth texture using an electric mixer or a tool such as a whisk or a fork.
  • Blender – an electronic tool used to mix ingredients to a smooth consistency.
  • Boil – to heat a liquid to a temperature where bubbles form and rise to the surface.
  • Bread – to coat a piece of food in bread crumbs before cooking.

So, going through just two letters of the alphabet, you can see that there is a lot to talk about.  And there is so much more.

As you review recipes with children, ask children to find words that they don’t know. Use internet resources to find the definitions of any unfamiliar words.

Use these words as children are cooking in the dramatic play area. For example, “It looks like you are using the whisk to beat those eggs.”

Encourage children to demonstrate different preparation methods, even when they are not cooking, as in a game of culinary charades.

Look for other instances where these words can be reinforced.  For example, “This bread is yummy!  Who remembers another meaning for the word bread?”

Gather vocabulary words from families as well to ensure that you are representing a variety of cultures in your culinary vocabulary.

Most importantly, model the use of different words often and have fun!

Reframing Failure

In the September edition of the CCEI newsletter, we share numerous strategies and resources related to exploring engineering with children. Engineering activities are great opportunities for children to not only explore fundamental science concepts, but also build their creative, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills.

One resource that engineers use to guide their work is called the engineering design process which requires engineers to ask questions, brainstorm solutions, build and test prototypes, and perfect the solutions they create. Within this process, there is lots of room for failure, but the failures don’t hinder the process. That is because engineers are trained to look at failure as a vital learning opportunity.

When they test a new product and it fails, they analyze the problem and head back to the drawing board to make adjustments.

Unfortunately, accepting failure, let alone enthusiastically welcoming it, is not really a common practice. Failure has gotten a bad rap. Generally speaking, we feel bad when we fail. Many of us shrink a little bit when we experience failure. Other people look at us differently when we fail (or so we think).

Early childhood is when many of us learned how to respond to failure, mainly by watching how people around us responded to failure, both ours and theirs. Watching someone crumble under the weight of failure sends a powerful message. Having our own failures met with harsh responses sends an even more powerful message.

So, how do we help children recognize the value that exists within failed attempts? You guessed it – we have to change how we view failure. This is hard work. However, when you look carefully you can see that there are two choices; to learn from the experience and move on or to succumb to fear and insecurity.

In an early learning environment, there are ways to demonstrate an acceptance of failure that are less risky or weighty. For example, you wouldn’t talk with children about a failed relationship but you could talk with them about how you got lost taking a detour to the grocery store. You could talk about how you failed to make it to the library yesterday, so today you don’t have the book that you had planned to read to them today.

In these conversations, you could share how you got into the situation, how you felt, and most importantly, what you learned and what you are going to do differently in the future.

This same approach should be used when children make failed attempts in the classroom.

  • Mistakes happen.
  • They can make us feel uncomfortable.
  • What can we learn from the experience?
  • What can we do differently next time?
  • How can we fix it?

So, go out there and make lots of mistakes; they really are a great way to learn.

Best of luck as you begin the new school year!

Making Decisions about Character Education Programs

CCEI’s August Newsletter explores the importance of exploring character traits and how they develop with young learners. Several considerations arise when a program decides to implement a character education program. First, will they purchase a commercial program or develop their own?

There are pros and cons to each approach.  Developing a unique program takes time and experience. It can be challenging for new teachers who are developing their curriculum planning skills. However, the lessons can be tailored to meet the needs of the children and the program.

Purchasing a commercial product is easier but it has a cost associated with it. The style of the curriculum might not match your program’s philosophy and sometimes teachers feel their creativity is limited when using commercial products.

It is important for program staff to have multiple conversations about what the character education curriculum will look like in their program.  This may look completely different from the practices used at the center down the street.  Here are some things to talk about during these discussions:

  • Traits most important to your program culture – What are the character traits that align with your program’s philosophy, vision, and mission statements? Decision makers should gather feedback from the teaching staff and families to make sure that important elements of character development are apparent in any curriculum that is purchased or developed.
  • Developmental appropriateness – Some programs may be too advanced for use in the early learning environment. Some programs utilize worksheets or coloring pages, which may not align with the approaches used in your program. Discussions should be had concerning the language and activities provided in different programs to ensure there is a good fit.
  • Materials provided – When possible, staff should be able to preview the materials contained in any commercial kit. It might also be a good idea to share materials with the programs’ family committee so they have a chance to provide feedback.
  • Value of materials – Serious consideration should be given to the value of the materials provided in any commercial curriculum. Is it possible to accomplish the same outcomes with the books and materials that are already present in the classroom? What unique features do the materials add to the environment?
  • Flexibility – Commercial products will likely require adaptations. Teachers should be comfortable adding their own touch to any product to ensure they are reflecting the interest and needs of the children in their care.
  • Staff buy-in – Conversations must be had with staff to encourage participation and create positive feelings about the program. Conversations can focus on the benefits of character education and how it can beneficially impact the overall classroom atmosphere.
  • Professional development options – Some curriculum companies provide training on their materials. Sometimes, teachers benefit from additional training on the topic. What training resources are available to ensure that whichever approach is chosen is effective?
  • Time and resources – If everyone is feeling short on time or having difficulty completing assessments or other daily tasks, asking staff to develop character education lessons from scratch may not be successful. The same could be said for introducing a new and complex curriculum product.  It’s best to meet employees where they are and determine the most effective way to incorporate character education into weekly planning.

Programs should engage in these types of conversations before making a purchasing decision. Doing so will make it more likely that the curriculum chosen will actually be used. More than likely, programs will opt for a hybrid approach that utilizes pre-planned activities and teacher-initiated interactions to help children strengthen their character development.

Best of luck!

What Community Means in Early Childhood Education

CCEI’s July newsletter focuses on ways that ECE programs can strengthen the sense of community between every person who walks in the door.  The goal is for every child and adult to feel a sense of belonging, respect, and connection. This is the foundation for all learning that occurs within the walls of the program.

We can refer to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and their most recent position statement on developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) for guidance on what community means in early childhood education.

Specifically, NAEYC states, “The role of the community is to provide a physical, emotional, and cognitive environment conducive to development and learning for each child.”

According to NAEYC’s DAP position statement, in an early learning community:

Each member of the community is valued by the others and is recognized for the strengths they bring.

      • When teachers model behaviors that communicate respect, it is possible for children to learn these skills as well. This is accomplished by honoring the unique makeup of each family and working to build on the strengths of both children and their family members.

Relationships are nurtured with each child and educators facilitate the development of positive relationships among children. 

      • Educators who are community builders recognize that strong relationships make everything else just a bit easier. Whether faced with a challenging conversation with a parent or helping a child work through challenging behaviors, the trust that blossoms from a positive relationship will be beneficial.

Each member of the community respects and is accountable to the others to behave in a way that is conducive to the learning and well-being of all. 

      • Teachers set the tone of respect but every member of the group is responsible for maintaining the sense of safety, caring, and cooperation that keeps a community strong. This is accomplished by focusing on ways to communicate needs and emotions and work within a set of expectations that keeps everyone safe, both physically and emotionally.

The physical environment protects the health and safety of the learning community members, and it specifically supports young children’s physiological needs for play, activity, sensory stimulation, fresh air, rest, and nourishment.

      • This means that teachers manage the daily schedule to ensure that children have the opportunity to explore an engaging selection of activities. The flow of the day should allow ample time to complete tasks, rather than rushing through them.

Every effort is made to help each and every member of the community feel psychologically safe and able to focus on being and learning.

      • This is accomplished through reflective and responsive practices teachers put in place in response to individual children’s needs. Teachers look for signs of stress and act to reduce it. They reflect children’s home lives within the classroom and maintain an organized environment that promotes play and exploration.

Sometimes, the idea of creating community seems like an abstract concept.  It may seem more difficult than it actually is.  Shifting the focus from a purely academic approach to a more social and emotional approach is the first step to building community.  That means slowing down, getting to know children and families, and putting practices in place that meet their unique needs.

Best of luck!