Best Laid Plans

Question: I’m a toddler teacher and my director has been talking about how I need to do lesson plans for my kids. My center doesn’t have a particular curriculum we have to use, and honestly I think babies and toddlers are too young for lesson plans. By the time we get through all the diapering, feeding, changing clothes, going outside, and napping, we hardly have time for anything but just loving on them. Aren’t toddlers too young for a lot of formal lessons?

Answer: We are in whole-hearted agreement that toddlers are, indeed, too young for “formal lessons,” or any type of instruction that involves sitting and listening to teachers for long periods. Toddlers and young children are hands-on learners, and learn best through play and active engagement with materials.

That being said, when done correctly lesson plans can be very helpful, even with toddlers. This doesn’t mean you have to plan every moment of their day, or get so invested in a plan that you’re frustrated if you don’t get through it all. Lesson planning for toddlers often means just having a general idea of what you want to focus on for a day, week, or month, in order to keep offering creative experiences for them. In some ways, they’re more for the teacher than the children. It’s easy to keep pulling out the same favorite toys or sensory materials, because you have a thousand other things to think about, and the fingerpaint has worked before. But toddlers like novelty, too, and if you have a lesson plan in mind, even something as simple as “this week we’ll be talking about balls,” it can lead to new and interesting experiences for them. You might offer a box of plush balls indoors, focus on the circle puzzle, or share some books or pictures about children playing with balls. If some of your children don’t participate in any of this, it’s okay; it’s meant to be an invitation, not a requirement that they master the art & science of all things spherical by Friday.

It’s easy enough, even without a specific curriculum, to Google “toddler + ball” (or any topic) and get loads of ideas for activities, books, and songs. There are also blank lesson plan templates available online aimed at toddlers, if you don’t want to create your own. You can fill in your ideas for the week – which activities or materials you will plan to offer each day – so you’re organized and prepared, rather than frantically searching for an activity in a chaotic moment.

Having a plan in mind can also make it easier for teachers to guide young children’s play intentionally. For example, imagine a toddler playing with foam blocks on her own. She might chew on them, stack a couple, throw them, and examine them. An attentive teacher playing next to can add so much to her experience. A teacher might encourage her to notice the colors, shapes, sizes, and textures of the balls, point out and naming these qualities for her. The teacher might toss or roll the ball to the child and encourage her to roll or toss it back, both to model play and also to get important information about the child’s development – does she favor one hand or the other? Does she have the hand/eye coordination to catch or kick yet? The child is getting an experience full of new language and conceptual development, as well as just enjoying the equally important emotional connection of having fun with a caring, attentive adult. The teacher is getting to offer a new experience, and some insight into a particular child’s developmental milestones.

Anxiety and Bleach

Question: My two-year-old son is getting ready to start child care, and my friends have told me he needs to stop using his pacifier because it won’t be allowed in the classroom. Is this true? He’s used to having it whenever he’s upset or goes to sleep, and it seems like his first few weeks in childcare will be stressful and he’ll need it more, not less.

Answer: Policies about children having pacifiers and “lovies” in classrooms vary from center to center, and are unfortunately not always child-centered. Many directors and teachers have concerns about the challenges that these items present in the face of sanitation rules they need to follow – for example, if a child with a pacifier in his mouth drops it and another child picks it up, the pacifier should be sanitized. Similarly, if a stuffed animal that a child has been holding with unwashed hands (or possibly chewed on) touches a sanitized surface, that surface would need to be re-sanitized.

Although providers have legitimate concerns about sanitation issues, many centers also understand the importance of comfort items like pacifiers and lovies in young children’s success at adjusting to being in a group care situation, and learning to self-regulate. Group care settings are stressful for young children, especially at the beginning of a school year when the teachers and other children are not yet familiar. It is the responsibility of caregivers to make this transition as smooth as possible, which means providing developmentally appropriate comfort and responsiveness based on a child’s individual needs. For some children, this would mean offering a pacifier or favorite stuffed animal or blanket until they are able to find other ways to soothe themselves.

Directors and teachers can be overly zealous in their focus on sanitation rules, sometimes due to an incomplete understanding of what the rules really are. “Caring for Our Children,” a document that outlines the rules and regulations for child care providers, addresses the procedures for children having pacifiers and lovies in care situations, and does not prohibit their use.  It does provide specific guidelines about washing and storage, as well as policies to ensure safe use. It is, of course, important to make every effort to keep a child care environment clean and free of possible contaminants. However, the emotional impact on an infant or toddler who is in a new, stressful situation and not allowed access to familiar self-soothing techniques also needs serious consideration. Caring for children’s emotional needs is not less important than attending to the cleanliness of the environment.

It will be important for your child’s well-being to find out what your specific center’s policies are around this issue, and see if it feels like a good fit based on your child’s temperament and needs. You can ask the director as well as the teachers what they do when children have trouble calming themselves down, and how they help children adjust to the classroom routine. You also can observe a class in action on a visit, and pay attention to how teachers react to children who are upset or anxious. Although your son won’t be able to use a pacifier forever, the weaning process goes best when it’s done gently and gradually, in a way that allows him to still feel safe and secure.

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.