Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Challenge of Behavior: When it is Out of Bounds

I write about how the arts enhance early learning, and in fact, must be central to it. That's my thing and I don't mean to veer from that theme. But there is a huge issue in early care that trumps all others: Challenging Behavior. In an arts-based, project-oriented center or classroom there should be ample opportunity for children to be wholly engaged in learning to the point that they themselves can be authors of the curriculum. In Reggio-inspired centers, the children know they are protagonists in the theater of learning. They are welcome to contribute ideas, and to even critique teacher decisions. This happens where I teach. It certainly keeps the teachers on their toes. No overused, tired themes and units for us! Our children are invested in everything that goes on in our little world.

Challenging behavior happens everywhere, even in the best of programs and centers. Defining it isn't really hard. Behavior that is annoying to teachers but developmentally appropriate and is even a welcome sign of maturing isn't what I'm talking about here. All fours are silly, potty-mouthed little beings. All fours are physically exuberant. If you as a teacher expect perfect behavior your are in the wrong profession. But there are children who go beyond the "norm". Those children who hinder the rest of the learners, and themselves by attention-seeking, even violent behavior that seems unpredictable and dangerous. These children are the ones who, still, are the most expelled individuals in education. 

In a center that prides itself on never expelling a child, such a ours, it is imperative to have both a uniform expectation for children's prosocial behavior, and the means to teach this behavior. Teachers meet to discuss learning progress and social-emotional issues, as well as evolving curriculum, every day. Planned, continuing observations inform discussions about what strategies to use to manage behavior, and to teach self-management, without the use of external rewards such as stickers and other non-relevant rewards. These rewards backfire when children cease to be interested in stickers, or up the ante by demanding better rewards, in order for them to be interested in prosocial behavior! If a chart is used, the child must be a part of the planning for the way it is used, and what the achievement will be when the chart is filled with his or her own check marks. "Rewards" must be meaningful to the child. 

The next step is referral. In the article cited above, mental health referrals are recommended. After you document behavior over time, parents need to be given choices for referrals. Presumably, you have already conferenced quite a bit about their child's learning, and its interruption by anti-social behavior (but don't call it that!). Child Find is also a good resource, if you believe that some developmental delay is involved. It's free, too. Make sure that your center submits a referral in conjunction with the parents, so that the experts don't assume that the parents aren't cognizant of behavior that is age-appropriate. It is also important for the center or school to refer so that the behavior isn't minimized, as parents so often say things like, "Well, she hardly ever does that at home...".

I didn't start this post thinking I was going to write a "how-to refer" piece! What I wanted to especially mention is that childcare centers, even the best of them, can be difficult places for many children. Walking in line, at any age, is purely for the convenience of the school or center. When do adults walk in a line? We "get good" at it in school, if we are lucky, then never use the skill again, unless we join the armed services. When I am at my best I sing us along the way. I try to give the children a sense of communal belonging and shared intent. We do "silly walks", or play "follow the leader". During transitions, when children are waiting to go outside with their coats and hats on, we read or play games until the last child is ready. Our newest intellectual game has been integrating the lines:                                                                                                                                                          
Numbers for lining up.

Children line up in two lines, one odd, the other even. We go down the stairs in two lines and then the children integrate themselves into one line, number order, all by themselves. We  have a list of names and numbers in case someone forgets (they do, of course). This exercise gives them ownership of the process, they each have their own place in the line, which changes every day. The first thing the children do when either Sue or I come in is ask, "Did you change the numbers?". They are fully invested. This is integrated curriculum. Math skills play alongside social skills and give each child his or her own place to "own". I recommend it for Pre-K and over.

But for the "out of bound" child, more is needed. Special strategies are a must, and referrals are necessary. For this you need experienced, well-trained teachers, and an administration that is committed to keeping all of the "friends" in the group. Let me know what you think about this issue.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Integration of Curriculum Outside

We didn't put the trash can and dry wall buckets out for drumming around the tree yesterday. Drumming wasn't set up, but cooking was. We have laundry baskets full of plastic dishes, and metal cookie sheets, muffin tins, and bowls, along with plastic and wooden spoons. All are adult sized (why use children's expensive toys when the children themselves prefer what adults use?). Somehow, while my back was turned, these items were purposefully laid out all around the bench that envelopes our tree. And the children were making music.

The four and a half year old girl on the left drummed a pattern, quarter note, quarter note, half, over and over. She told me it was a "pattern".

 Another boy found a bowl that sounded like a bell when he struck it. He was experimenting with the different sounds it could make, and comparing it to another item. His face was lit with joy as he struggled to find words to describe his discovery. My job, and the job of all teachers of young children, is to assist him in finding the words he seeks. (Kindergarten SOL's are cited here, to show that these preschoolers are on the way!)

Why did these little ones make music around our tree?

Because we had set the environment time after time for the pleasure of outdoor music making. With our hammock-like xylophone, our trash can and dry-wall buckets, our drum-sticks and shovels, we modeled the pleasure of rhythmic expression. Dancing and singing happen spontaneously.

Our playground is set up for such activities. The tree (shown before the bench was enlarged to allow tree growth), is a focal point for music, shows, hide and seek, and ball-hiding (in the crook of the tree), and other adventures invented by the children. The playhouses were constructed with cob (see earlier post) for the children to enjoy (and drag everything from toy trucks to old tires to dolls inside).

We talk about integrated curriculum constantly, now. Mostly it is discussed in the form of activities designed to teach certain skills and content areas. Some even integrate the arts. But children learn naturally by integration, and the job of the teaching staff is to scaffold (guide, then stand back) learning, including the learning of language and social skills. On our playground science, math, language arts, music and movement, and dramatic play all co-exist and intermingle through a carefully set variety of materials, with whole-hearted adult involvement. Children move at the speed of light (it sure seems that way sometimes) so adults need to think at that speed. Keeping ahead of their needs isn't easy (especially for a teacher of my age!), but to do otherwise is a disservice to the children.

I hear from my adult students about directors who do not allow materials that we use routinely because of safety concerns. I hear of teachers talking to each other teachers almost exclusively, occasionally shouting out admonishment to the children on my students' own playgrounds. I hear of my students' frustration when they want to try an idea from one of my courses (Northern Virginia Community College--Early Childhood) and then are shot down by an administration that prefers static playground equipment, with indoor worksheets and flashcards (inappropriate for early childhood). What a tragedy for children! Integration doesn't mean sticking two things together! It means that what is being done for children allows them to integrate organically! What better place to integrate curriculum than outdoors where the environment beckons?