Down in the Dumps

Down in the Dumps – February 3rd, 2017

Question: My center is going through rating scales, and my consultant keeps talking to me about how I need more materials in my 2-year-old room. I’ve tried to give my kids more things to play with, but they just dump everything out or break things and lose the pieces. Can I just get what I need and put it out when the window opens?

Answer: Anyone who has worked with toddlers or 2s knows they are exuberant dumpers, and don’t always know how to treat toys appropriately. Many teachers handle this the way you have – by limiting the materials kids have access to. Unfortunately, giving children a bunch of new materials right before an ITERS assessment to meet the requirements is a recipe for disaster. Raters can tell if children don’t typically have access to materials: they tend to mob anything new, fight over it, and they clearly don’t understand how to use it. Chaos quickly descends, which opens up other rating issues related to discipline and teacher interactions.

Your better bet is to do everything you can to actively TEACH your kids how to play appropriately, regardless of ITERS. That means sitting with them on the floor, modeling appropriate use of, say, blocks, by building, talking about what you’re doing, and encouraging them to try things out. If children are using materials in a way that’s dangerous – such as hitting with the blocks – it’s okay to put them up for a little while or to remove the child to a different center for a short period to help convey that this behavior is not safe. But it’s equally important to let them try again as soon as possible, and reinforce appropriate behavior with lots of praise and attention.

Also, remember that 2s at the beginning of the year are different animals than by the end of the year, and different materials are often needed as their abilities and interests shift, so you don’t need to have all possible materials out all the time. In fact, it’s often best to rotate toys in order to provide some novelty and to observe how they interact with materials differently as they grow.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that even though you can’t expect 2s to know how to clean up after themselves, you can start guiding them in that direction by using buckets or bins that are clearly labeled with pictures of what’s inside them, and identical pictures on the shelf. Showing them these pictures – and a lot of repetition — helps them begin to understand the idea of what goes where. Giving them very specific tasks at clean up time can help build these skills – not “everyone clean up!” but “Chloe, can you please help me put these potato heads into this bucket.” Arranging your shelves and furniture so there are clear boundaries and centers can also help contain the mess, as children often will tend to run or roam more in wide-open spaces.

It’s a natural part of children’s development that they love to dump, and that can create a stressful situation for teachers. Sometimes it helps to give children an appropriate outlet for this interest, such as providing purses and shopping bags they can put things in and carry around, or big plastic pitchers and bowls they can use to pour things back and forth. Actively playing with them can give them new, more interesting alternatives, too.

You might find that the more children have to play with, and the more time you spend interacting with them around their play, the fewer behavioral problems there will be. Boredom can spell disaster for a room full of 2s, but children with enough to do to engage their interest are usually too busy to get up to much trouble.

Why Ask Why?

Why Ask Why? – February 8th, 2017

Question: I’m a pre-K teacher, and my director keeps telling me I need to “interact more” and “talk more” with my kids. I love my class, but I really don’t feel like I need to constantly be interrupting them, as long as they’re behaving. Why do so many people insist we constantly talk at children?

Answer:  Try this little experiment, just for a moment: think back your earliest memories of day care, school, or home. What stands out for you? Was it toys, or places, or people?

For most, what we remember first and what makes the strongest impressions on our lives is our relationships with other people. And when we’re little, those relationships are built through lots of repeated interactions over time. Neuroscience research is revealing more all the time about how the brains of children are formed primarily in the first 2000 days of life, and how the vast majority of relational patterns – how easily we form bonds with others, how quick we are to trust, how well we can regulate our emotions – are formed in those early years too.

So that’s one reason to interact with young children as much as you can: you are literally building the parts of their brains that they will depend on all their lives to have strong, healthy relationships with others. Of course, their peers, families, and wider communities are doing that, too. You’re just one piece of the puzzle.

But you do have a unique role in the lives of children in your class. For however many hours a day they are in care, you are the most important grownup in their immediate environment. When you’re four years old, getting an important adult to give you sustained attention is pretty much the best thing ever, and something you will go to wild lengths to achieve (which can be why so many behavior problems arise when children are not getting enough attention).

By the time children are 4 or 5, they often can play together reasonably well, especially if there are enough materials and interesting activities. But you can still enhance their play, and teach them all kinds of things in the process. For example, if some of your kids are in dramatic play, go sit with them and listen to what “roles” they are playing, and suggest things they might be able to do or say in that role that they hadn’t thought of. Asking open-ended “why” questions to explore their thinking helps build language and reasoning skills.

For example, lots of kids like to use dramatic play to take care of babies, or take them to the “doctor.” Asking questions like “what’s the doctor going to do?” or “what is the baby sick with?” can stimulate more complex play scenarios. When they run out of ideas – because, after all, their life experience is pretty limited – you can suggest something else: “Why has the baby been throwing up? What do you think we should do to help her?”

Just sitting down with children and asking what they’re doing, no matter what materials they are playing with, tells them that they are valued, that their thoughts and actions are important to you, and also gives them a chance to practice explaining their activities and thoughts out loud. Saying “nice job!” to a child’s block building is nice, but much less effective in terms of developing their brains than asking “I’m curious why you put those big blocks there? Can you tell me about it?”

And chances are, you have enough kids in your room that you don’t have to worry that playing with them will keep them from learning to play independently or with their peers. There aren’t enough hours in the day to spend lots of extended time interacting with every child, every day. So join them as much as you can. It’s actually one of the perks of the job: you get to play too!