Moms and Dads, I need your help. Please, PLEASE, stop acting like your child just won the World Series while they stood in the left-field picking their nose as their team lost the game. On the same note, don’t tell them they should get a prize for trying. All this bombastic praise is raising a generation (or two or three) of entitled, impatient, aren’t I the most fabulous children that don’t know the first thing about surviving in the real world. Now before you stop reading, thinking I am the meanest mom in the world, allow me to say this. I love praising my children when it is merited. They do not get a parade for picking their shoes off the floor, they do not get a plaque to hang on the wall for completing their homework, and they do not deserve a trophy for losing. They don’t.
How can our children learn to process disappointment, anger, sadness, and all those scary and ugly feelings if we don’t let them? It sucks, I know, I have watched my son cry because the camp he was looking forward to all summer was canceled. I have seen him stomp his feet in anger and frustration because he couldn’t quite get the new skateboarding trick. I had to explain to him that he wasn’t cast in the first play he auditioned for and really wanted to do. Instead of blaming someone or something else, telling him he was the greatest skateboarder ever or really deserved the part in the play over the other boy, I told him the truth. Crazy right?
I explained camp was canceled due to coronavirus that it was out of our control, and it is really disappointing, but some things we can’t change. I acknowledged his frustration with the skateboard and told him that the only way to get better was to practice and keep working hard, and I also acknowledged his effort. That’s different than blind, blanketed praise. I didn’t tell him he deserved something or was owed something, I said to him that I could see how hard he was trying and if he kept at it; eventually, he would get there. And when it came to the rejection from the play, as a performer, I had been there more times than anyone can count, and I said it sucks, it hurts, but it’s the way it goes. You wait for the next opportunity, and you try, and you try, and you try. As the saying goes, you fail 100% of the time you don’t try.
What you DO want to praise and encourage is their effort, hard work, determination, and insight. The key is to be specific. Tell them WHAT they did that caught your attention. Then, help them problem-solve to get to the next step. “You did a lot of research on your planet project, I saw you reading all those books from the library. Since you didn’t get the grade you were expecting, what do you think you could have done differently?” In one fell swoop, you validated their effort and work and opened the door to help them do better next time.
As parents, we want our children to have the sun the moon, and yes, throw the stars in too. We don’t want them to feel disappointment or shame or anger; how else will they learn? If we take every upset away and make them think they should always win despite lack of effort, natural talent, or unforeseen circumstances, how will they grow? If we hand them everything instead of teaching them the value of hard work, how will that benefit them? The best thing we can do as parents is to embrace the difficult times that come their way and use them as teachable moments. I know it’s not easy, but they will thank you later.
My youngest son is the equivalent to the Tasmanian Devil at times, and I don’t mean the actual animal that lives in the bush, I mean that little cartoon guy that just spun everywhere and caused destruction in his path. It has been a challenge dealing with his lack of control at times, but there is only so much control he has. At the age of 5 he was diagnosed with ADHD, and it’s severe. As an early childhood educator I knew something was off developmentally a few years earlier but ADHD and ADD are not typically diagnosed until school age. All we knew was that he was struggling, a lot, in preschool due to his inability to keep his hands to himself, his lack of self control, outbursts both positive and negative, and the Tasmanian devil that seems to have inhabited his body.
After conducting research on my end, talking to his teacher and other professionals in the field, we came to the conclusion that he should be evaluated for ADHD. Luckily for us, his pediatrician also turned out to be the leading expert on ADHD in the area. That gave us extra peace of mind as we went through this process. After meeting with the doctor privately and conducting evaluations with our son we decided we would try medication. Deciding to use medication was not a snap decision. We had heard horror stories about children turned into zombies and the last thing we wanted was for him to lose was his spark. When he is not in tailspin mode destroying all in site he is an intelligent, funny and entertaining kid.
My son loves Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi. He was so obsessed with the Broadway Musical Newsies that the age of 3 he was the main character, Jack Kelly for Halloween. He’s creative and silly but he also has no impulse control, yells his favorite phrase “Booty-Butt” without warning at the top of his lungs, and used to greet people by hitting them in the crotch. Not forcefully, but enough to hurt, particularly if you were a man. We knew he couldn’t continue on this path and be successful. This wasn’t just your typical case of a child gone wild. I am a career expert in Early Childhood, his father has an undergraduate degree in Psychology. We knew what we should be doing to help him and nothing seemed to work.
The first medication we tried him on cost a whopping $60 a month after insurance. $60 a month for something my child needed to function. We saw results but he was still struggling. Especially as the evening wore on and the medication wore off. He became next to impossible to corral into anything productive. He started therapy with a psychologist and we were hoping to see major results. Unfortunately they seemed slow to come. On the upside he was getting much better reports from school and I was more confident about him starting kindergarten in the fall. At home he still wreaked havoc, knocked things over, ran around and caused general frustration for everyone.
Yes we tried discipline, time outs, meaningful chats, loss of privileges, positive re-direction. If it was in an expert handbook, we tried it. Nothing seemed to work for him. The only plan that has seemed to work is ignoring the negative behavior and over the top praise the positive choices. I have been reading the book Transforming the Difficult Child by Howard Glasser and his advice seems to be the first and only thing outside of medication that has had a positive effect on my son. And I love that feels built up by praise. I want to cheer him on and praise him and give him confidence, but there are only so many times I can hear “Booty-Butt” screamed at the top of his lungs while he claps his hands loudly. These aren’t discipline issue, these are impulse control issues. His brain is simply wired differently.
Amidst Cornoavirus shut-downs, he turned 6. We went in for his physical and I asked if there was something new we could try. After talking to me and performing the evaluation the doctor offered a new option. He said it was taken twice a day, was more potent and should have a more lasting effect. I was ecstatic. I went to get the prescription filled and they wanted $365. I’m sorry, for one month? On insurance?! That was simply not sustainable but my child potentially needed this to thrive. After frantic searching I found a manufacturer’s coupon that cut it down to $185 a month. The upside, it seems to be working wonders for him. I am seeing a more calm and engaged child. I am better able to hold conversations with him, and I see him able to focus for longer periods. In addition, it is not suppressing his appetite the way the first one was. These are all wins. The downside is I have to pay almost $200 a month for a medication, for a mainstream mental health disorder in order to help my child succeed and function they way a typical 6 year old should.
What does this say to you about America’s health care policies? Put simply, they are garbage. My son’s father is a doctor, he works for a major corporation, he should have top notch insurance, yet this is what he is offered. A plan that doesn’t even cover medications aimed at treating a common mental health disorder. It angers me and disgusts me. We are fortunate that while it’s not easy, we can afford to pay this amount each month to help our child, but what about all the people who can’t? Without insurance this same medication was over $600! As a mom and an educator I am calling out the U.S. Healthcare system and pharmaceutical companies. How dare you make billions each year and rake us over the coals for our basic needs. How do you expect America’s children to thrive and meet their potential when many don’t have access to their medication needs? It is an absolute travesty that in what is supposed to be the country of Freedom and Liberty the average American child does not have access nor can afford basic health care costs.
Arts and Crafts. That phrase probably revives memories of elementary school classrooms or summer camp. Being asked to wind yarn around Popsicle sticks glued together, or to paint a picture of the outdoors. More often than not cookie-cutter crafts and art projects would be produced, taken home to smiles from mom and dad and then eventually thrown away. Unless you are my mom, who apparently has boxes full of old items ready to be gifted back to my hands and out of her house. Why did we and do we continue to engage children in arts and crafts? The purpose surely cannot be so that can mass produce animal masks and dream catchers.
Early in my career as an educator I began thorough research into this topic and came across the phrase, “Process, not Product.” Put simply, this means your child’s process of creating the piece of art, or the craft is more meaningful and educational than the finished product. Isn’t that interesting? I thought it was. As a trained actor and musician the purpose of the finished product was to create something recognizable and enjoyable for the audience. What would “42nd Street” be without flashy costumes and tap shoes? Or what about a Mozart symphony where all the violins were flat. But then I thought about this further. Each performance of a piece, even with the same group of performers is never exactly the same. When a theatrical production is done by different directors, actors and producers it becomes it’s own entity, different from all that came before and will come after.
Then it made sense. As an actor learning my lines or my notes were only a part of the piece. Each show I have been in has taught me new words to add to my lexicon, a new technique or behinds the scene trick. With each show, I have learned something new through the process of creating the production.
So What’s the Process?
Open-ended art is a process of creating which allows free-range while creating. You create with what is available to you and possibly with no clear destination in mind. Open-ended art supplies are now common in a preschool or kindergarten classroom, including paper, markers, crayons, scissors, glue, stickers, stamps, paint, sequins etc. Children are free to create throughout the day. This type of art center can be easily made at home. Open-ended art allows children to use their imagination to explore and create without it having to be something. Young children who engage in art often don’t know what they are creating and will usually not decide if ever until they are completed.
What Are They Learning?
Mathematical and Spatial Reasoning
Our house is a well-spring of supplies and yours is too! Recyclables are some of the best items you can use and kids adore them! All of those empty cereal and snack boxes, catalogs you toss away, junk mail all can be used in open-ended art. If you are like me and believe an Amazon Delivery Away Keeps the Urge to Raid Target Away, save the boxes and let them use those! My youngest son has created rather elaborate forts of late out of boxes with just scissors and markers and my older son created airplanes and boats with empty 2-liter bottles, egg cartons, and cardboard. Consider collecting buttons, fabric scraps, string, twine, Popsicle sticks. If you can save it, they will use it.
At times our child’s art leaves us thinking… what is that?! Instead of asking your child, “What is that?” replace it with, “Can you tell me about what you made?” When we ask a child what their art is we immediately imply we can’t recognize it, aka, it’s not good. When you ask them about it you provide the opportunity for an open ended answer. Often when young children are engaged in art they don’t even know what they are making, so asking them what it is puts them on the spot, which is an uncomfortable position for children and adults alike! Follow up with further open-ended questions which will promote language skills and critical thinking. Some suggestions are
Can you tell me more about this blue line you drew?
I see you drew triangles, can you count them?
Why did you choose to use red and purple?
How does your drawing make you feel?
Accept the Mess
This can be the hardest part, but it should become our mantra to ensure our kids feel the freedom to create. This doesn’t mean we allow them to trash the kitchen with paint and glitter, but messes that occur as part of the natural process when making art are OK. Help your child build a sense of independence and responsibility by teaching them in clean up process. Breathe easy, go mediate in the next room is mess bothers you and allow the mess to happen, but make sure clean up is a group effort!
So grab the glue sticks and glitter because it’s time to get messy!
I spent fourteen years as a classroom educator before recently switching to writing full time. I was very green when I began in this field, and I had never intended to become an educator. Instead, I had studied Music and Theater and dreamt of being on Broadway. Yet there I was at the age of 26, embarking on a new career in which I only had passive, marginal, and informal training and experience.
Since I spent 14 years teaching, I will share 14 lessons I learned during my time “behind the desk.”
You are going to make mistakes, lots of them.
It’s OK. It’s part of the human experience is messing up. We all do it. Whether we forget a friend’s birthday, sent the email to the wrong person, or become distracted and cause a fender bender. Mistakes come in all sizes and shapes, and you are 100% going to make them as a teacher. Probably daily. Probably several times a day. There are so many times when I forgot the book I needed for a lesson, assumed I had the supplies I needed for a project in my closet, or said something more harshly than I should have. When working as an educator and with young children, we need to set the example and own our mistakes so they can learn that it happens and it is entirely OK.
You Can’t Win Them All
You will create some of the most fantastic lesson plans and activities that this earth has ever been graced with. You are also going to have ideas that flop so severely they should be featured on Rotten Tomatoes. These failed activities will leave you standing in a haze of confusion and smoke as you try to figure out how this fantastic idea fell short. Use this as a time for reflection. Once the dust settles, take your time to go through why it failed methodically. Was it beyond your student’s abilities? Did it not hold their interest? Did you purchase the wrong ingredients or supplies? Did you lack in your presentation? Self-reflection is a powerful tool when teaching.
There Will be Children You Can’t Reach
As much as you will want to help every child that passes through your classroom, there will be some you won’t be able to help. The obstacle may be your lack of knowledge in a particular area. The parents don’t want to see the issue you may be seeing, or the child may have personal or developmental problems beyond your professional scope. Again, I recommend this as a time to self reflect. Then, go out and learn more. Take a continuing education class, attend a webinar, or read up on related situations. Maybe next time a similar child passes your way, you will be more equipped. You still may not be able to help them, but there is truth in the saying Knowledge is Power.
Never Stop Learning
This tip goes along with what I mentioned above. Take continuing ed classes (beyond what is required), read articles, subscribe to educational newsletters or journals. When you encounter a situation, child, or topic you aren’t familiar with, take it upon yourself to learn more. Learn from those more experienced than you and from those who come from a different walk of life. Talk to those who have been through similar situations before. Fellow teachers can be one of your best resources. The more you can learn, the better teacher you will be.
Don’t Pigeon Hole Yourself
Just because you went to school and studied Elementary Education, or American Literature, or Earth and Space Science, it doesn’t mean those are the only things you can teach. I earned two degrees, one in English/Theater and one in Music. I wound up with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and a TEFL certification. I was able to use the skills I learned as an actor and musician and translate them to teaching. You may have a degree in science but have spent years writing books and literature reviews as a hobby. Use what you have. There are certifications galore out there that can boost your resume without costing a ton of money.
You Will Not be Liked by Everyone
It’s ugly, but it’s true. You will have co-workers that, despite your best intentions, find you annoying, or eccentric, or boring, or too loud, or strange, etc. It’s just the way life is. You will also have parents that don’t like you, They will think you’re not doing enough for their child, or they won’t care for your personality, or they may not enjoy hearing that their child is struggling in your class because of course their child is perfect.. Develop a thick skin, read up on how to deal with conflict and challenging personalities, and buckle down. And again, I say, self-reflect. There will be reason beyond you that people don’t like you, you cannot change that, but you change change how you deal with that.
Some Parents Will Love You!
To some parents, you will be the greatest thing that has ever happened to their child, and this time, believe it because it’s true. You will find the most amazing connections with some of the families that pass through your walls. Embrace those, enjoy the love and respect that comes with that relationship. Those are the experiences you will draw on when things are rough when you feel challenged, and when you think you don’t want to do this anymore.
You Will Not Like Every Child
You just won’t. Children are people, and never has there been a person who has liked everyone they’ve met. It’s OK. I struggled with this at first. I thought, how can I not like a little kid? The answer was because they were annoying to me. Again I say, it’s OK. You are not required to like every child who walks into your classroom, you ARE required to treat them all with the same level of respect and care.
You Will Never Feel So Loved
Young children have a never-ending supply of love, and they are happy to bestow that love heavily on those who care for them. Hugs from kids can be one of the highest parts of the day, especially when you are feeling off. They will make you all kinds of gifts and cards that are guaranteed to make you smile!
Engage in Self Care
Do not deprive yourself. Teaching can be a demanding job, so do not allow it to take over your life. Engage in whatever forms of self-care are most meaningful to you. I always enjoyed walks with music on my breaks, power naps, and on really rough days an extra caramel drizzle caramel Frappucino from Starbucks. Carve out time for yourself every day to unwind and do something you find relaxing.
Maintain A Sense of Humor
I have had children throw up on me, pee on me, and bite me. I have cleaned up poop of the floor and poop off of children. I have stood by while children have thrown epic tantrums smiling at as parents dropped off their children, quoting Olaf, “This is fine.” Children will say the most astounding things, and you will have to keep a straight face because they are deadly serious. They will say funny things that will have you laughing until tears are coming out of your eyes. The good, the bad, and the ugly come with teaching young children. The ability to laugh at yourself and the situations you find yourself will come in handy.
You, Will Be Underpaid, Over-stressed and ALWAYS have to Pee
You will never make enough money teaching Early Childhood. It is a sad truth that needs systematic changes in this country, but this is not a job you do for the money. If you are lucky enough to work this job and not have to work a second or third job, consider yourself lucky. The more educated you are, the more you will make, but the difference is marginal. There is little to no room for career advancement in this field. It is a high-stress job and, as a result, has a lot of turnover. People do not appreciate early childhood educators in this country. You will often be referred to as “daycare’ or “baby sitter.”
You Will be Mary Poppins, The Punisher, Mom, Physician, Psychiatrist, and Best Friend
You will play every role in your students’ lives, usually all in one day. That rash that popped up? You will have to determine if it might be an allergic reaction or possibly viral or just a skin irritation. You will have to dish out consequences and pull magical tea sets out of your bag. You will sit and listen to their disagreements and problems and dispense out wisdom help. You will be their confidant and the one they run to when they need a hug or have something exciting to share.
You Can and You Will
Even on the days, you think to yourself, I cannot listen to that child scream all day again. I cannot spend another day in the cycle of potty-training and diapering. I cannot have so-and-so’s parents complain again about something they don’t like. I cannot struggle through circle time with this group that doesn’t seem interested, no matter what. I cannot, I cannot, I cannot…. you will. And when and if the time comes, as it did for me, you have to make the bittersweet decision to move in another direction with your career. You will look back on your time as an educator and be grateful for all that you learned.