By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
You’ve probably heard of critical race theory (CRT for short), and you may even know that it’s causing shouting matches and threats of violence in meetings of school boards across the country—school boards that are recalling and replacing their members in record numbers.
Why are they so upset, and why is this such a contentious issue?
When civil rights reforms like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) failed to eliminate racial inequality in the United States by the 1970s, academics at law schools wanted to know why. Their conclusion, now known as CRT, was that racism is not just the result of individual bias but is actually systemic. That is, racism is embedded in our laws, policies, and institutions—our schools, criminal justice system, elections, economy, health care, housing, military, water supply, and more—and has been since the United States was founded. The racism and inequities that people of color face today are the legacy of our country’s structure and its history of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws.
This notion of systemic, structural racism displeases many conservatives, from Tucker Carlson to former President Trump to parents fed up with the pandemic and angry at having their children out of school. Although CRT remains an academic subject taught almost exclusively in higher education, they have misinterpreted it and turned it into a catchall phrase for any initiative that advocates improving outcomes for children of color in elementary, middle, and high schools.
Many states are passing laws to outlaw what they are calling CRT; banning books, culturally responsive teaching, restorative justice, social emotional learning, and curricula that focus on different cultures; curtailing training to reduce implicit bias; and forbidding anything that could make White students feel “discomfort or guilt” because of their race or sex.
But what does CRT have to do with child care?
But, you may ask, how does this affect young children? Why would we teach 3- and 4-year-olds about slavery? And yet, because eliminating racism and inequality is so important, some schools are doing just that.
Learning about racism and inequity has become more urgent since the death of George Floyd and many others and the Black Lives Matter movement has taken hold. But schools, school districts, early childhood organizations, and early childhood centers nationwide recognized some time ago that children of color were being treated unequally, and the profession began taking steps to remedy the situation. In 2019, the National Association for the Education of Young Children adopted a position statement on advancing equity in early childhood education, and Exchange Press put out “Focus on Race.” This year the NAEYC published a comprehensive book on the subject, Advancing Equity and Embracing Diversity in Early Childhood Education.
Children pick up clues about race and racial bias from their environment at an early age. At 3 months, babies prefer people who are the same color as their caregivers, and by 4 or 5 years White children may say they don’t want to have friends who are Black. As they get older, children hear biased remarks on the bus and in the classroom, see racial violence on television, observe that everyone in their school is the same color, note that there are very few people of color in their textbooks and among their teachers, and may even notice that when a Black child and a White child commit the same infraction, the Black child is more likely to be suspended.
All of this is very confusing, and the research shows that colorblindness is not a solution. The issue is not about avoiding differences; it is about appreciating them. Although some educators want to restrict discussion of race and racism, many others believe it is their job to teach children to be critical thinkers and understand the world. Without help, children may invent their own false explanations of what’s happening, for instance that children of color are suspended because they aren’t as smart as White children. On the other hand, open conversations about race can reduce prejudice in White children and raise self-esteem in children of color.
Many teachers need training and practice in focusing on racial issues in the classroom, says Diane Hughes, Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. She and other experts provide these tips:
- Talk about race directly, not just about equality and kindness. Be intentional about what you want children to know. Frankness helps them to identify bias more easily. (An activity for young children might be one where they mix paint to create a color that looks like their own skin color. When they paint their hands with it, they can see how it matches and realize that everyone’s skin is a different color.)
- Choose and discuss books, videos, and movies with characters from many backgrounds. When all the characters are White, say so and ask why. Why doesn’t this represent our world? What was the writer thinking? Who has power and who doesn’t? Who is missing from the story?
- Create opportunities for children of different races to learn about each other and respect the gifts each of them brings to the classroom.
- If children make racist comments, ask them for more information before you respond. What did they mean? What did they think they were saying? Where did they learn to say this?
What can we teach?
Under new state laws, talk of race and racism may be prohibited. So what can we do?
We repeat: Early childhood educators aren’t teaching CRT or discussing structural racism, and it isn’t clear when it would be appropriate to introduce these issues. At what age can children grasp them? (It seems unlikely that Piaget and Vygotsky have an answer to this problem.)
The subject of slavery, for example, is far too complicated to make sense to young children. How could we possibly explain that White people felt they had the right to enslave others? Frighteningly, the result might be that the children pretend to be slaves and slaveowners (as happened in a high school in Traverse City, MI).
As human beings, educators should know about systemic racism. But perhaps what’s even more important for creating equity in the classroom is for teachers to be culturally competent themselves—to be aware of their own culture, of who they are and where they come from and their own implicit biases, as well as the culture of each child they teach. In this way they can build relationships and an inclusive community where all the children feel they belong, thereby enabling everyone, regardless of skin color or cultural background, to feel respected and safe, a necessity for learning.
In actuality, best practice in early childhood that emphasizes social emotional learning is already doing this. ECEs should be—and are—teaching what is essential to creating equity: to respect others and their differences, to recognize and appreciate the differences in the colors of their skin, the languages they speak, and the abilities they have. Early childhood educators can make a difference when they encourage children to recognize everyone’s strengths; when they teach them to empathize, to be kind, to be caring, and to acknowledge and believe that everyone has rights and everyone can make a contribution to society.
Strasse, J., & Coplin, L. (2021). Beginning (or continuing) the journey to a more equitable classroom. Teaching Young Children, 14(2). 21-24.
Weir, K. (June 2, 2021). Raising anti-racist children. American Psychological Association, 52(4). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/anti-racist-children
Wright, B. L. (2021). Now read this: Books that promote race, identity, agency, and voice. Teaching Young Children, 14(2). 25-27.
Just in case you were having doubts about the value of the work you’re doing, read this. It will make you feel valuable and proud.
Check out our article “It Won’t Be Easy: Back to School and Day Care” in the National Post’s Healthing section! https://www.healthing.ca/opinion/it-wont-be-easy-returning-to-school
Barbara has been giving webinars all through this pandemic about how it’s affecting children and what will happen when they return to child care centres and schools in the fall.
To see these webinars for yourself, link to the recording of Barbara’s two webinars on trauma and behavior on the Early Childhood Investigations website.
The webinars are free, but you’ll have to register.
- Beyond Covid-19: Supporting Children, Families, & Staff to Reintegrate to the New Normal (June 11, 2020). https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/8504397391560195083
- Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Behavior (May 25, 2020) https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/4086074786195542795
You can also access Barbara’s webinar, Opening Pre-Ks and Child Care Centres in the Time of the Coronavirus: Supporting Children, Staff, and Families, for the Early Childhood Community Development Centre in Thorold, Ontario (June 17, 2020) here:
The password is 7L?=O4^O
Be well and stay safe.
Who Will You Find in Your Classroom? Opening Pre-Ks and Child Care Centers in the Time of the CoronavirusPosted: May 6, 2020
Who Will You Find in Your Classroom?
Opening Pre-Ks and Child Care Centers in the Time of the Coronavirus
By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
Sweden never closed their schools and early childhood centers in response to the coronavirus, Taiwan sent their children back to school in late February, and now other states and countries are following their lead.
No one really knows when—or how—to reopen the schools or child care centers shuttered during this pandemic, including us. We are not epidemiologists. But we have some ideas about what teachers will encounter as Denmark, Germany, France, Norway, Quebec, New Zealand, and maybe even a few American states give it a try.
What do schools and child care centers have to do?
Some of the modifications they have to make are obvious: Hand-washing and physical distancing remain obligatory for both children and teachers, no matter how hard they are to achieve; children must be screened before they enter; parents must stay outside; and toys and equipment—including doorknobs and faucets—must be disinfected throughout the day.
In addition, officials, administrators, and teachers will have to figure out whether they’ll have enough staff, find ways to organize the space, agree about wearing face masks, and decide how they’ll limit group activities, provide circle time, seat children safely for meals, separate cots during nap, and restrict children’s contact to the members of their own group. They will even need to devise a policy on whether teachers should hug or hold a child.
Other decisions will involve families. Those in charge must determine how many children can attend each day and how to carry out that decision—for example, will those who’ve returned to work have priority? Will attendance be optional or mandatory? If parents choose to keep their child at home, will they be able to keep their place? If so, will they have to pay? To see how Quebec is managing all of this, click here.
Will the children be different?
Perhaps the biggest question of all is this: Who will you find in your classroom? What will the children be like after so many weeks in isolation at home? What will their confinement have done to them? Will life in early childhood centers, schools, and after-school programs actually return to normal?
Not very likely.
Young children may not be able to communicate their feelings in words, but they know that something is wrong.
Whether or not their parents are working, by now the adults in their life are exhausted, stressed, and short on patience. As hard as they’ve tried to keep to a schedule and provide activities for their children, the days at home were probably unpredictable and not much fun. The children longed to go somewhere, even just shopping, and yearned for the playground, missed their friends, and likely spent too much time on their parents’ computers or iPads or watching television. If they lived in a city, they had to stay away from strange creatures with scary masked faces whenever they went outside.
Many families experienced unemployment, food shortages, or the loss of a beloved grandparent, and those who were struggling before the pandemic may be dealing with domestic violence or child abuse. These worries will continue because no one knows when all this will end. The chronic stress is sure to have an effect on everyone, even very young children.
In short, the children will no doubt be excited to see you and their friends when they arrive in your classroom, but at the same time they will feel frightened and stressed, unable to understand or control much of anything in their lives. And the fact that you’ve probably rearranged the entire environment and they may have to attend in shifts won’t help, although it may give you more time to tend to their separation anxiety.
It is fair to say that many of them will have experienced some level of trauma.
What behaviors are you likely to see?
Every child will react differently, but you can be sure that a child whose classroom behavior was challenging before COVID-19 will almost certainly have upped the ante, and it’s likely that other children will act in an equally provocative manner. This behavior might not show up immediately, but don’t be surprised if it appears after a few weeks.
Infants may be difficult to soothe and comfort, resist being held, and show no interest in “serve and return” interactions with you.
Toddlers and preschoolers may see the world as an unsafe place where no one can be trusted, and if their fight-flight-and-freeze system has kicked in, they may be hyperalert, constantly on the lookout for danger, unable to concentrate or pay attention, and have trouble learning, processing, and retrieving information.
Their behavior may even be aggressive or defiant. Hitting, kicking, throwing things, or refusing to follow rules or directions are surefire methods for protecting themselves, attracting your attention, and getting the help they need.
Children of all ages will have issues of separation at both the start and the end of the day, struggle with transitions and naptime, and be prone to outbursts, tantrums, meltdowns, limit-testing, anxiety, and stubbornness. They may be afraid to venture outdoors or touch people and things, even the grass. They may cry and become fussy or easily upset, refuse to be comforted, or cling to you or their family and need lots of reassurance and empathy.
They may withdraw, avoid their peers, and isolate themselves, thinking, “I’m not safe here. I don’t want to be here. What if no one comes to pick me up?”
You may even encounter regressive behaviors, such as thumb-sucking, baby talk, bathroom accidents, and difficulties napping—and parents may report that their children won’t go to bed, don’t sleep, and have nightmares.
Even children who are securely attached may show signs of insecurity if their families are very stressed. Children who’ve lost a family member or close friend may be worrying that they—or their parents—will catch the virus and die. And children who earlier in their lives lived with trauma, adverse childhood events, or a disaster—such as neglect, child abuse, a mentally ill or drug-addicted parent, a forest fire, or a hurricane—are especially vulnerable and liable to act unpredictably.
You name it, you may see it.
What can you do to help?
Your first responsibility is to help the children feel safe. If your classroom is a safe place to be, they can begin to learn that the outside world may be okay, too. The best way to do this is to connect with them—to build a relationship. Show that you love them, tell them you’ll take care of them and keep them safe, and reassure them that they’ll be all right. Because children are very aware of nonverbal communication, be sure that your facial expressions and body language match what you say. Don’t forget to smile.
Let the children’s words and actions tell you what they need. Make it clear that it’s okay for them to have feelings and there is no right or wrong way to feel. Giving them time and space to ask questions and talk about their emotions and experiences enables them to feel heard, process what they’ve gone through, claim some control over their lives, and reach out when they need your help.
Listen hard, and respond honestly and clearly. But before you answer the children’s questions, find out what they know—what they want to know, what they’re thinking, what they’re worrying about. Correct and explain things they’ve misunderstood, but remember to make your answer developmentally appropriate and not to overwhelm them with information.
Emphasize social emotional learning because early childhood trauma affects children’s ability to recognize their own feelings, understand the feelings of others, and identify social cues accurately. Read books and talk about being afraid so that they can understand that it’s okay to be scared and there are ways to feel safe. Remind them again and again that you’ll take care of them. It’s also important to role-model and explain how you manage your own upset emotions—by taking deep breaths, hugging a family member, talking to a friend, going for a walk, baking cookies, doing a puzzle, reading a book, listening to music.
Mindfulness exercises can help children to relax, and it’s a good idea to create a cozy corner with blankets, pillows, and music where children can curl up and calm down when they’re feeling stressed.
But play is perhaps the best way for children to deal with their feelings. When you keep the dramatic play area open and set up a host of free play and open-ended activities, you provide ways for them to express their fears and cope with and solve their problems. They need opportunities to play alone, to play with you, and to play together. Keep your ears open to learn what’s on their minds and follow their lead—you may hear themes of illness, isolation, hunger, fights between siblings and parents, maybe even death. Help them to focus on the helpers, the doctors, nurses, firefighters, ambulance drivers, EMTs, paramedics, etc.
Art—drawing, painting, writing stories—and pretend play also offer chances for them to express what they can’t say in words. And blocks, Lego, and other construction toys help some children to relax and concentrate on the present.
This is not the moment to introduce new material. In these uncertain times, predictability and structure are essential to helping children feel safe and secure. Create a schedule with regular routines and rituals so they always know what’s coming next. This is particularly important for children who’ve been exposed to trauma.
Focus on individual strengths and interests to build their mastery and self-efficacy. Provide choices and trust the decisions they make. This will help them to regain a sense of control over their lives.
When challenging behavior occurs
You need to be in control of yourself. It’s essential not to take children’s behavior personally or let it push your buttons. Instead take a deep breath and recognize that every child needs a bit more space and understanding than usual. Separate the child from the behavior, and rather than using aversive consequences find ways to show you care and will listen. Be aware of your nonverbal communication and distance from the child, and watch for cues that indicate that he or she is calming down.
Feeling overwhelmed and traumatized yourself?
Teaching young children is stressful enough under ordinary circumstances, without worrying about whether you’ll catch the virus and die or make your family sick, or how you’ll pay your bills, or if you’ll continue to have a job, or if you’ll have personal protective equipment, or how you’ll teach online, or how you’ll take care of your own children. You may be wondering how you’ll be able to teach at all.
We can assure you that it’s possible, but the bottom line is this: Before you can take care of others, you must take care of yourself. As they say on airplanes, put on your own oxygen mask first.
This advice is especially relevant when you’re working with children who’ve been exposed to trauma, because in order to meet their needs you must be your best, most regulated self. Try to be flexible and patient and open to new ideas. Adjust your expectations. Remember, behavior is a form of communication, and your job is to understand what it’s telling you. Then you can prevent your own negative emotions from intensifying children’s anxiety and fear and inadvertently triggering a stress response that sends them out of control. Emotions are contagious. If you’re calm, the children are more likely to feel calm and safe.
How can you take care of your own needs?
- Taking deep breaths brings down your heart rate and blood pressure.
- Limit the time you spend watching or listening to the news.
- Each day do something that makes you feel good, such as dancing, singing, taking a long bath, doing yoga, or practicing mindfulness.
- Connect with your own family and friends for emotional support. Strong relationships strengthen our resilience.
- Allow yourself to laugh and cry.
- Take up a hobby.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
This won’t be easy. You’ll probably be exhausted at the end of the day, but what you do for children and their families is vital, appreciated, and noble.
How are you dealing with the idea of returning to work?
We’d love to hear what you’re thinking and feeling. What are your views about the situation you’ll face and how you’ll handle it?
Reopening guidelines available at https://wisconsinearlychildhood.org Go to “New Resource Page: COVID-19.” There click on “Child Care Operations During COVID-19,” and then download “Reopening During COVID-19 Guidance.”
Malley, H. (2020). Not forever but for now: A story for children about feelings during the pandemic. Lake Balboa, CA: Stuart Tartly Press.
On the one hand, the idea is shocking; on the other, it is seductive: Why not teach pre-K online?
Wouldn’t online pre-K be better than no pre-K at all for the four-year-olds who live in remote rural areas or urban deserts or whose families can’t afford to send them to real, in-person pre-K?
Dozens of entrepreneurs think so—and believe they can make a lot of money by developing programs that promise to deliver kindergarten readiness at home in front of a computer screen.
Giant for-profit corporations such as K12 and Connections Education already dominate the nation’s online charter school market, and because their schools have been certified by a public school system, they are able to offer free tuition and collect millions of taxpayer dollars—this despite investigations showing gross financial mismanagement and graduation and achievement ratings far below those of brick-and-mortar schools.
Recently an online newcomer took aim at preschoolers: Waterford.org, a non-profit company that has captured the support of the government of Utah—one of six U.S. states that has no public pre-K. It has reeled in millions of additional dollars from philanthropies and the federal Department of Education to build, maintain, and propagate a pre-K program called Upstart that now serves 16,000 children in 15 states.
What does online pre-K do?
The attractions of online pre-K are easy to see. With the government’s support, it is usually free, and some companies (including Upstart) supply needy families with computers and internet service for nine months so that their children can spend 15 minutes a day, five days a week, learning pre-reading and pre-math skills.
Cyber pre-K overcomes distance and travel problems, suits families and religious communities that believe in educating children at home, and may boost literacy scores, at least to begin with.
But most important, it is cheap. It costs the government about a quarter as much as real pre-K which, with its real teachers and real equipment, runs to an average of $5175 per child. Very high-quality full-day pre-K can be even more pricey.
But is this what pre-K is all about?
What does this pseudo version of pre-K actually provide, especially to poor and disadvantaged children already on the wrong side of the achievement gap, who, studies convincingly show, benefit the most from in-person pre-K?
Any self-respecting early childhood educator will tell you that pre-K is about much more than letters and numbers. In fact, 100-plus experts, organizations, and teachers recently got together to condemn online pre-K.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, who taught teachers in child development at Lesley University for 30 years, dubbed it “a sorry substitute for the whole-child, play-based early childhood education that all young children deserve to have.”
Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, added, “It just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children. Children at that age learn best when they’re engaging all of their senses, when they’re using their hands, when they’re in social situations with peers and caring teachers…. None of that can happen when a young child is on a computer.”
The programs themselves also create concern. The content should be developmentally appropriate and reflect a child’s knowledge, lifestyle, and values, but the animated scenes, characters, and words seem to be totally unfamiliar, especially for children living in poverty or rural areas or who come from different cultures.
Several well-controlled, long-term studies show that children who’ve been in play-based preschool programs do better in elementary school than those who’ve attended academically oriented preschools that feature early reading instruction. Although children who’ve gone to academic preschool may perform well initially, they have significantly lower marks and “notably poorer” behavior by the end of elementary school, when they need more initiative, independence, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills—skills that children acquire in play-based programs.
What does real pre-K do?
Pre-K is important because of the experiences it provides. Indeed, a key ingredient of its success is children’s interaction with others—with their peers and a trained, real-life pre-K teacher who creates a warm, orderly classroom and activities and uses an evidence-based curriculum, but above all talks with the children, reads to them, and asks them questions that help them learn to think, reason, focus, solve problems, make friends, share, cooperate, control their impulses, wait for a turn, follow instructions, empathize, and persist at a challenging task (among other accomplishments); in short, a teacher who provides them with a solid, in-depth foundation for learning more advanced concepts and skills later on.
Says Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, “The initial school experience sets the stage for later behavior. Those in classes where they learned to plan their own activities, to play with others, and to negotiate differences may have developed lifelong patterns of personal responsibility and prosocial behavior that served them well throughout their childhood and early adulthood.”
High-quality preschool can help mitigate the effects of poverty and adversity, which compromise brain development, and “this is pre-K’s primary function,” says Deborah Phillips, professor of psychology at Georgetown University and a leading researcher in child development.
Pre-K’s up-front costs may be higher, but the list of its benefits over time is long and impressive. It:
- Reduces child abuse and neglect
- Increases school readiness and achievement
- Diminishes the need for special education
- Decreases grade retention
- Boosts high school graduation rates
- Raises participants’ earnings and taxes paid
- Cuts crime rates
- Lessens welfare use
- Improves health and behavior
What are the dangers of online pre-K?
The early childhood experts’ biggest fear is that governments and foundations will put their money into online pre-K, claiming that they’re offering something as good as the real thing; and the result will be to threaten much needed investment in actual high-quality pre-K, widen the achievement gap, and increase inequality.
During the Great Recession of 2008 and beyond, state revenues—including funding for pre-K—dropped, and Betsy DeVos and President Trump have repeatedly proposed huge cuts to the Education Department’s budget. Fortunately, so far Congress has vetoed their requests.
At the moment, only a third of four-year-olds and 5.7 percent of three-year-olds are getting the helping hand that public preschool can give them. Oklahoma leads the way by providing high-quality universal pre-K. But every state has a responsibility to make real, relationship-based pre-K available to its young children, and according to the “State of Preschool 2018” report, at the current anemic rate of growth it will take 20 years to serve 50 percent of four-year-olds.
What is the solution?
The 2008 recession has taken a toll on the nation’s birthrate and immigration numbers, which have been falling steadily ever since. Schools—whose financing depends on the number of children they enroll—will soon find themselves with too many classrooms and teachers and too few pupils, therefore too little money.
But this fall, when yesterday’s four-year-olds have turned into five-year-olds, the states will somehow find the funds to transport these children to kindergartens in their local public schools.
Isn’t the obvious solution to the budget and the pre-K problem to prepare the empty school spaces for public pre-K and put the next cohort of four-year-olds onto the buses with the new kindergartners?
With its focus on pre-reading skills, the Upstart program might be a useful addition to the preschool curriculum, especially for children from low-income families. But using it or any other online pre-K program by itself, as a substitute for real-life public pre-K, would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All children deserve the opportunity to engage with their peers and participate in a high-quality, play-based pre-K learning experience guided by trained professional early childhood educators.
What do you think?
Does the idea of online pre-K make any sense to you? Let us know about your thoughts and experiences.
We’ve been thinking a lot about how administrators of early childhood programs and schools can support staff, families, and children when challenging behavior appears.
Directors, supervisors, head teachers, principals–whatever they may be called–have a crucial role to play in enabling children with problem behavior to succeed.
Read all about it in our article, “Challenging Behaviors: How Directors Can Help,” in the November-December 2018 issue of Exchange magazine.
Do you have tips for supporting the people in your program in this situation? We’d love to hear from you.
We know: We’ve already written about the immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border. But in the avalanche of news we live with on a daily basis, these children aren’t making headlines any more, and it’s altogether too easy to forget about them. So here’s an update, and a short summary: For most of them, the situation isn’t getting better.
The Trump administration is no longer separating children from their parents when they cross the border into the U.S. illegally.
Instead, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is putting the whole family—including very young children—into detention together.
At the moment, a legal settlement bans officials from detaining children longer than 20 days, but the administration is trying to overturn that ruling and keep them in shelters until their asylum claims are settled one way or the other. That is, indefinitely.
This would mean building more and bigger mass shelters—and endangering more and more children, who suffer serious and long-lasting harm from being institutionalized, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The administration also wants to halt inspections at these shelters (several of which already face abuse charges) and make it significantly harder for children to be released to the custody of family members and friends.
In the meantime
Over 500 children who were taken from their parents earlier in the year still have no idea of when—or whether—they’ll see them again. Some parents have been declared “ineligible” for reunification, and 300 plus have been deported. No one knows where they are.
Non-profit organizations have shouldered the job of locating and matching them with their offspring, but the work is grueling and time consuming, especially since the administration insists that reunification take place in the family’s home country, where there is often no phone service and people speak neither English nor Spanish.
Then parents must decide whether to bring their children home and relinquish their hopes of asylum, or to let their children stay in the U.S. and pursue asylum alone.
This is a no-win situation. No matter what happens next, children are experiencing extreme fear and toxic stress, and their future is likely to include developmental delays, PTSD, and other mental and physical health challenges.
Living with trauma
You may be seeing some of these children–or others who’ve lived through traumatic events–in your classroom. If so, be aware that they and their families will require extra sensitive attention and security.
If you’ve already encountered children with these experiences, how have you managed? Have you been able to help them? If so, what have you done and what works?
Question: What do hundreds of thousands of children worldwide have in common with Google employees, US military personnel, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Boston Red Sox?
Answer: They all practice mindfulness.
No matter which mindfulness program or app is guiding them—whether it’s Calm Classroom, Mind Yeti, MindUP, Mindful Schools, Quiet Time, Inner Kids, Kindness Curriculum, or one of the many other programs available—it is sure to stem from the Buddhist tradition of meditation.
In the late 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, realized that a non-religious form of meditation, which he dubbed “mindfulness,” might help patients deal with chronic pain.
His hunch was right. Since then, studies have shown that Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program—and its many offspring—reduces chronic pain, as well as lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, stress, anxiety, and depression. Mindfulness is even used to treat post-traumatic stress, rheumatic arthritis, eating disorders, immune disorders, insomnia, and irritable bowel syndrome.
So what is mindfulness?
Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” He saw it as a way to train the mind, which he thought of as being like a muscle: With exercise, it could get stronger.
The exercise he chose—and the core of most mindfulness programs—is concentrating on one’s own breath. That is, he taught people to select a quiet spot, sit still, close their eyes, and focus on their breathing. When their attention wandered, as it inevitably does, they learned to observe their thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judging them, then to gently bring their attention back to their breath and the present moment.
Kabat-Zinn also taught patients to perform a body scan, a second way to train their attention. They could lie quietly, concentrate on each tiny bit of their body in turn, and notice how each part feels, from their scalp to their toes.
What does mindfulness do?
Practicing these exercises develops:
- Attention. Because our minds have a tendency to roam, mindfulness asks us to concentrate on the here and now—the present, not the past or the future. It helps us to focus and switch our attention more easily when situations change.
- Awareness. With mindfulness we become aware of each one of our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations and see it more calmly, clearly, and accurately.
- Acceptance. Mindfulness allows us to accept our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without judging them or reacting to them; it enables us to be neutral, open, curious.
Through the practice of mindfulness, we cultivate the ability to observe, recognize, and change ordinary patterns, to become more reflective, calm, empathic, and kind, and to achieve greater control of our actions.
Is mindfulness just for adults?
At first Kabat-Zinn and his followers prescribed mindfulness only for adults. But eventually people began to think that mindfulness could help children, too.
As they grow, their brains are learning how to regulate their attention, thoughts, and emotions; and researchers now theorize that mindfulness practice could help to shape children’s neural networks and support their emotional regulation and executive function, which develop rapidly in the preschool years.
Mindfulness targets self-regulation, and recent research has shown that the ability to self-regulate in childhood makes a huge difference. In fact, it predicts everything from kindergarten readiness to SAT scores to adult health, income, educational achievement, and criminal activity.
The research on children and mindfulness is promising but preliminary, meaning we need more studies to demonstrate what researchers already suspect: that mindfulness can boost children’s attention (which helps them to concentrate), working memory (which enables them to remember directions, among other things), and inhibitory control (which makes it easier for them to stay on task, follow rules, and have friends). It should come as no surprise that all of these skills are crucial for school success.
Some researchers even see signs that mindfulness could prevent aggressive and challenging behavior, beef up empathy and resilience, and reduce visits to the principal’s office and school suspensions as children begin to respond more mindfully to difficult situations.
Research in adults shows that practicing mindfulness actually changes the brain. Most notably, it thickens the brain regions responsible for learning and memory, strengthens those involved in self-control, and facilitates communication among different areas, making the brain more efficient.
It also shrinks the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure deep within the brain that detects threats and triggers our freeze-fight-flight reaction. Although it’s supposed to alert us to danger, it can also hijack the brain and make us act before we have a chance to think. As MindUP puts it, “The amygdala is like a barking dog—he keeps us safe from external dangers but sometimes he barks for no real reason.”
Mindfulness works because of this two-pronged approach: It enhances conscious control at the same time that it dampens automatic reactions like fear and anger that can interfere with learning and rational thought.
And it is likely that the effect of mindfulness on the developing brain intensifies when it is introduced early. So far evidence indicates that children at high risk—including those experiencing poverty, trauma, or toxic stress—benefit the most.
How can kids learn mindfulness?
Children seem to enjoy mindfulness practice, and practice is just as important for children as it is for adults. Here are some basics to keep in mind:
- Make mindfulness a special time. It’s probably a good idea to move to the carpet or another space where everyone can lie down.
- Practice often—several times a week, every day, even several times a day. A few short practice periods spaced out over the day work better for learning than a single extended one.
- It’s best to be consistent, so select times you can stick to, for example, after recess, after lunch, before math.
- Keep the sessions short. One to two minutes is enough for younger children; five-year-olds can pay attention for about three minutes.
- Use props such as stuffed animals. Kids can lie down, put their stuffies on their bellies, and rock them to sleep with their breathing or pretend they’re boats bobbing up and down on the waves of their breath. They can also do a body scan lying down or standing up with the aid of a hula hoop and the teacher’s direction.
- Include mindfulness in ordinary activities like snack or lunch—for example, ask children to notice whether their food is hot or cold, hard or soft, bland or spicy.
- Incorporate movement such as yoga stretches.
- Metaphors are useful, too. Help children visualize their thoughts passing by like clouds in the sky or floats in a parade.
Bear in mind that despite the vast number of programs and apps available, most of those aimed at young children have not yet undergone rigorous scientific evaluation. There isn’t even consensus about how much training and practice teachers need!
It’s important for your program to be evidence based, so be sure to check out the research behind your choices. Don’t forget to note the age of the children the program is designed for.
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How can you recognize good research?
The most reliable research will include:
- Publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
- Detailed information about the program itself (number, length, and frequency of practice sessions, training of teacher, etc.).
- Use of multiple methods and informants to assess outcomes (such as grades, office referrals, suspensions, recognized tests of children’s skills, and outside observers).
- Random assignment of participating children to the training group or an active control group (which is preferable to a wait list control group).
- A large number of participating children and a description of them (their age, race or ethnicity, income level, disability).
- Corroboration by similar independent studies.
- Follow-up data.
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What about teachers?
If you’re thinking, “I could use some mindfulness myself,” you’re probably right! Teachers work under stressful conditions, and emotional regulation is especially important when you’re facing challenging behavior.
A study of the CARE program (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Educators), which teaches teachers mindfulness and social and emotional skills, found that it reduced stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout, while improving teachers’ empathy, relationships with their students, classroom management skills, and the learning environment.
Although there’s no consensus on the subject, having mindfulness training and your own practice will probably help you to teach mindfulness to your class.
Here are some programs to consider
Calm Classroom. A research-based program for preschool and kindergarten, Calm Classroom was developed by the non-profit Luster Learning Institute. It trains teachers, administrators, and support staff on site in schools and also offers individual educators online training that comes with a manual and a CD. You can try it out by clicking here.
Mindful Schools. Mindful Schools, which was designed for kindergarten to fifth graders, offers both a six-week basic online course and a more advanced online course under the guidance of experienced mindfulness teachers. Educators can also sign up for group instruction. Examples are provided on the website.
MindUP. Accredited by CASEL, the MindUP program grew out of the earlier Mindful Education and consists of 15 lessons for PreK to grade 8 students. It draws from neuroscience, positive psychology, mindful awareness, and social and emotional learning and offers whole-school or regional training for classroom teachers, a curriculum guide, and a digital option.
Mind Yeti. Developed by the Committee for Children, the non-profit organization that produced the Second Step social and emotional learning program, Mind Yeti is an animated web-based program for “children and their adults” created by educators, psychologists, researchers, and mindfulness experts under the guidance of University of British Columbia psychologists. You can try it out for free through Apple iTunes.
What do you think?
We’d love to hear about your experiences with mindfulness—either your own or your students’. Has it changed the ambience of your classroom?