by Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
Thanks to the New York Times, we’ve just learned that 29 states permit educators to bring guns to into their schools. Some people seem to think that arming teachers can be a solution to school shootings, even if the teachers have little training.
The Times asks educators what they think of this. If you’re a teacher of very young children, you may feel this has little to do with you, but we urge you to think of Sandy Hook and remember that there have been 40 school shootings this year.
This article is an interview with Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith, a law enforcement officer for 28 years. He first zeroed in on school shootings in 1999, when Columbine made all of us aware of what they can do.
After Smith discovered that teachers were bringing guns into their classrooms and leaving them unsecured, he decided to help them understand what arming themselves means and prepare them at least a little for a school shooting situation. His 6-week course, Teacher’s Academy, attracts teachers at all levels and currently has a waiting list.
Listen to the podcast and read the article before you complete the questionnaire.
By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
School shootings are very much with us, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t get them out of our heads.
First and foremost, we remember the terrible number of children and teachers killed and injured in a total of 35 school shootings in the U.S. so far this year. But school shootings affect us all, especially the teachers and children who must go to school and child care every day and the families who worry about them. School shootings have demolished our sense of safety.
What can we do about this?
Although schools across the country hold drills on lockdown procedures, there is no good evidence that they work, and they often evoke anxiety and stress instead of serenity. More important is a supportive, nurturing school environment—something teachers constantly strive to create and which is even more essential now.
In the meantime, we have begun to wonder if there is any other way that early childhood educators and K-to-12 teachers can have an impact on this epidemic. Can we help to prevent future shootings? Can we somehow reach and influence the children who might turn into school shooters and divert them from this path? Can we point them in a different direction? If so, how?
A Secret Service analysis tells us more about school shooters:
- They are mostly young men. The shooter in Uvalde, TX, was 19.
- They have histories of school discipline problems and contact with law enforcement.
- They have experienced bullying or mental health issues such as depression and suicidality.
- They have used drugs or alcohol.
- As young children they suffered from adverse childhood experiences, otherwise known as ACEs.
The last item on this list jumps out at us: That is, it tells us that during the first five years of their lives, at a time when their brains were establishing crucial connections, these children were very likely living with chronic, prolonged neglect and/or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing or being subjected to violence; or in the care of adults who had mental health problems, including depression and problems with substance abuse, who were incarcerated or otherwise absent, or who were experiencing poverty, food scarcity, and/or homelessness.
As a result, these children didn’t have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver. And if no caring adult was there to love, protect, and support them through these difficult events, they were living with high levels of toxic stress—which amounts to trauma. The more adverse childhood experiences in their lives, the higher their risk for social, emotional, and cognitive delays that could harm them for life.
How can we possibly fight ACEs?
To protect a child in a dangerous situation, the body immediately activates the stress system’s fight, flee, or freeze response and sends in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Under normal circumstances, when the threat disappears the stress system returns to a calm, relaxed state.
But if a threat is too long-lasting or intensive and the child has no caring adult to help him or her deal with it, the stress system responds more often and for longer periods than is necessary. As a result, the developing brain is overloaded with toxic levels of cortisol that disrupt its functioning, and the child is constantly on high alert.
For children who’ve been maltreated like this, the world feels like a dangerous place, and they arm themselves with challenging behavior. They believe that they deserve poor treatment and push away any adult who tries to love and accept them. Oppositional, defiant behavior is their way to communicate their fear and distress. It is a cry for help.
Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that their teachers become angry and frustrated.
You can make a difference
But a teacher’s best response to their behavior is not to yell or use time-out or take away privileges or suspend the child. Rather it is essential for teachers to remain calm and compassionate and use their empathy, energy, and ingenuity to build a relationship with each child. Above all, they must not to take this behavior personally.
As trauma expert Barbara Sorrels tells us in Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma, “Children who have been harmed in the context of relationship can only be healed in a relationship…. It is the ongoing, daily interactions with loving, emotionally responsive and caring adults…that bring about healing…. Because child care providers and teachers often spend more waking hours with a child than any other adult they are key players in the path to healing” (2015, 8-9).
How can teachers change their perspective?
The teachers’ point of view should not be “What’s wrong with this child?” but rather “What’s happened to this child?”
Instead of pushing the child away, says Sorrels, the teacher’s words and actions should convey that “We will love you through this unlovely behavior and help you to find new ways of behaving.”
Think of trauma-informed practice as best practice. The idea is to create a safe space where all children, especially those who’ve been traumatized, can learn to trust, where they feel respected, protected, and unconditionally accepted, where they believe they are valued, that they matter, that they are important to others, and that others will support them.
In addition to some of the tactics teachers are probably already using—such as having a predictable schedule with as few transitions as possible—here are some strategies Sorrels recommends to improve relationships with children with challenging behavior:
- Offer choices throughout the day so that children feel that they have some control over their lives.
- Teach children to ask for a compromise. This is a way for them to learn to express their needs and interests and regain their voice. Teachers can help them practice using role plays or puppets.
- Help children to see conflict as a problem to be solved, not as an opportunity to fight.
- Catch children being good by tuning into their interests and abilities. Talk less and listen more.
- Try do-overs, i.e., ask the child to replace inappropriate behavior with appropriate behavior—but make sure to explain what appropriate behavior is. Again, puppets and role plays are useful.
- To help a wound-up child to unwind, use slow, deliberate movement, quiet talk and singing, and gentle touch (but be sure to ask the child’s permission first). Talk about what both of you are feeling.
- Do not try to restrain a child without the direction and supervision of an expert. This can be dangerous.
Such a calm, caring approach reassures children that it’s all right to have strong emotions and these uneasy feelings won’t hurt their relationship with their teacher. They may even learn to tolerate them.
As a bonus, this attitude keeps the teacher from triggering the child’s stress response and escalating the challenging behavior.
The most amazing thing is that, used with patience and perseverance, this response can slowly change the way young children behave. That is, by improving their ability to deal with the stress in their lives, teachers can prevent them from acquiring some of the behavioral history described by the Secret Service and even stop them from eventually becoming school shooters.
By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
Like other teachers and parents all over North America, we are grieving for the families in Uvalde, TX—and angry that such events continue to happen.
We have two important questions.
- First, what can we do now, in the present, to help one another and the children we care for to live with this trauma and its aftermath (besides turning off the television)?
Here is some advice from experts:
- The second question—what can we do to stop this violence?—is almost impossible to answer. But the short answer is this: When you vote in any election, be it local or national, write or call the candidates to find out their views on gun control. Remember that the shooters in Uvalde and Buffalo were both just 18 years old.
By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
Black History Month may be over, but we need its lessons all year long—this year more than ever.
The death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others shook us up and sent us out to protest in streets all over America. As a result, their deaths led to important victories over hate crime in the courts.
But if we as a country are going to deal successfully with hate and racism, we’d be well advised to begin at the beginning—with young children, who may already be developing bias before the age of 5. For teachers that means recognizing our own biases and understanding how they impact our attitudes and behavior.
Like the children in our care, every teacher is different. We come from different contexts and cultures, and everything we think, say, and do is processed through the filter of our own culture. Culture affects more than just food and holidays. It influences our values and beliefs, our gender roles, family structures, language, dress, etiquette, approach to disability, child-rearing practices, communication—and yes, our teaching style.
But because culture is not explicitly taught but is instead silently absorbed from birth onward and passed down from generation to generation, we’re seldom aware of how it shapes our identity and provides us with ground rules for interpreting and acting in the world. Even very experienced teachers probably don’t realize how their unconscious attitudes guide their interactions with children, their expectations, and their appreciation of children’s skills, abilities, and behavior.
What lens are you looking through?
Needless to say, children also see and understand the world through the lens of their culture, which may be different from ours. This makes it essential for us to see and understand our own culture. Only then can we comprehend how the cultures of the children we teach influence their behavior. And only then can we give every child a fair chance to succeed.
Think about it: In what ways has your culture determined who you are today? How were you required to behave when you were a child? What were the adult-child relationships like in your family? What behavior was expected in your school? How has your upbringing influenced your view of children’s behavior and your connection with their families?
Your culture also dictates how you communicate with others. Do you listen carefully, or do you interrupt? Do you stand close to the person you’re addressing or far away? Do you gesture or do you touch one another? Are you comfortable talking about feelings? Do you think not just about what you’re saying but also about how you’re saying it and how your message is being received?
What lenses filter children’s behavior?
Most children don’t come to child care or school knowing what you expect them to do, and you may not be aware of their cultural and behavioral expectations at home. But each child brings his or her own set of culturally based scripts, skills, talents, and values into the classroom.
Children begin to construct their identity from understanding their place in their own family and culture and by responding to how others relate to them. To form a positive self-concept, children must honor and respect their own family and culture and have others honor and respect them too. If your classroom doesn’t reflect and validate the culture of the children you teach, they are likely to feel invisible, unimportant, incompetent, worthless, and ashamed of who they are.
But when you use culturally competent teaching strategies, children do not have to change who they are in order to fit in. Your teaching style, expectations, and program take every child’s culture and learning style into consideration.
Bear in mind that what children know when they first enter your classroom is a reflection of the opportunities they’ve had and the skills they’ve needed to function within their own cultural group. It doesn’t indicate what they’re capable of doing and learning.
The world’s lens
Anthropologists look at culture in terms of individual versus group orientation. People in most of the world have different cultural values from White European Americans, but our schools and early childhood centers utilize and teach European American values: individualism, independence, self-direction, initiative, and competitiveness.
However, other cultures emphasize interdependence—being closely connected, first and foremost part of a community where self-esteem is based on contributions to the good of the whole, not on individual achievement.
These different cultural orientations have clear implications for teaching young children and clarify why children from diverse cultures may have trouble learning, understanding the rules, and following directions. These differences can appear in instruction, language, and behaviors, such as moving around in class, shouting out thoughts during circle or meeting time, placing the trains and the blocks in the same bin at clean-up, chatting with a neighbor during nap, and going to the bathroom without permission.
Although these behaviors are usually unacceptable in a White European American classroom, they may be totally normal and acceptable in the child’s home culture. As a result of these differences, in many cases the teacher sees the children through a deficit-based lens and treats them as disruptive or attention seeking.
Play time is over. You say, “Joey, can you please put away the blocks?”
Joey replies, “No.”
You think he’s being defiant, but the truth is probably different. In almost every non-European American culture, parents don’t ask their children to do something. They tell them straight out what to do: “Joey, put away the blocks.”
Look again at that request of yours. It was in the form of a question. Joey honestly believes that you’re giving him a choice and it’s up to him to decide what he’ll do.
So is this child being insolent? And what do you think you should you do?
As you get to know your own culture you may begin to recognize some troublesome areas.
Microaggressions. More than just insults or insensitive comments, microaggressions are specific remarks, questions, or actions that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages based on a person’s group membership. They seem to be compliments or jokes, but in reality they contain a hidden insult. Part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they occur casually, frequently, and often without intentional harm. In an early childhood setting, a typical microaggression frames children’s differences as deficits rather than assets (“We don’t do it that way here” when a child wants to do something the way she does it at home) or mispronounces or substitutes a child’s name (“Your name is so hard to pronounce. Can I call you Mary?”).
Implicit bias. All of us have implicit biases—that is, automatic, unconscious stereotypes that form as a result of our upbringing, daily experiences, and media exposure and drive the way we take in information, judge situations and people, and make decisions. Despite the fact that they influence us at least as much as our explicit biases, they are called “implicit” because most of the time we don’t know they’re there.
Implicit bias is one of the reasons that young African American children—especially boys—are suspended and expelled from school and child care at a much higher rate than young White children. An experiment by Yale psychologist Walter S. Gilliam revealed that teachers often expect Black boys to misbehave because of their race, an assumption that is completely false.
Fortunately, with conscious effort we can reduce our implicit biases by recognizing them, using self-reflection, empathy, and mindfulness, and learning new information about children’s families and cultures. To check out your own biases, take the Harvard Bias Test.
Structural racism. Racism is not just the result of individual bias but is actually systemic and part of our culture. That is, it’s embedded in our laws, policies, and institutions—our schools, criminal justice system, electoral system, health care, housing, military, water supply, socio-economic status, 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.
Inequitable opportunities, privileges, and life experience based on economic class deeply affect young children’s lives. Although a family’s income doesn’t determine how much they love their child or how skilled they are at parenting, poverty can make the fundamental necessities for their children’s healthy growth and development (such as safe housing, nutritious food, regular health care) very difficult or impossible to get. How does this reality impact your relationship with the children and their families, the opportunities you offer, and your expectations of children’s ability and behavior? What can you do to change things?
Cross cultural competence
Understanding your own culture and the culture of the children you teach offers an important step toward better care and learning. So how can you acquire this understanding?
Cross cultural competence is something we all should be striving for. It is the key to working effectively with all children and their families and requires us to:
–be self aware—to understand ourselves, our culture, our biases, and our level of curiosity about getting to know others
–have an open attitude and awareness of others and be able to appreciate differences as well as similarities
–develop a knowledge and understanding of the cultures of the children and families we teach
–be able to adapt our communication and teaching style to different individuals, groups, and cultures
Cross cultural competence is an asset-based approach. At its heart is the belief that every child is unique and interacts differently with the world, and it embraces the idea that all children have knowledge, beliefs, and patterns of interaction that teachers can build on to teach new concepts and skills.
So how do we recognize and teach children with different skills, knowledge, and abilities if what they’ve learned so far in their home culture doesn’t apply to ours? Your interest shows you care about them. When you make positive observations and ask questions about things that are unique to them, you help them to become more open to learning.
Equitable is an adjective that means fair or impartial, and equitable practice means providing the support that each child and family need. Equity in early childhood education requires eliminating obstacles to opportunity regardless of children’s gender, family background, language, and economic status. Knowing each child’s preferences and strengths will allow you to offer a program that reinforces and integrates the children’s interests and strengths. Do you know what engages each child? Where each one’s talents lie? Whether they feel comfortable in structured settings? In large or small groups?
Families are a powerful source of information—they naturally pass along the ways that people in their culture use to survive and succeed. Children’s interactions with their family often act as the archetype of how to behave by demonstrating a variety of cultural rules, expectations, and taboos. Try to find out what’s important to each family—their cultural norms, values, traditions, and goals. What do they want their child to learn?
It is up to you to ensure that children think differences are positive. Spend time modeling and teaching them how to notice, appreciate, and support others. Fill your shelves with books featuring diverse children and families and encourage open discussion about the similarities and differences among the children in the class. Teach them that it is our differences that make us special.
Be aware of the children’s interactions. Are they treating each other differently based on race, ethnicity, or gender? Work with them to resolve the issue and use these situations to inspire your story selection, activities, and projects. When the children know that difference is a good thing, they feel more comfortable asking questions and talking about the differences they notice in themselves and in the people in their lives. And when you discuss race, ethnicity, disabilities, LGBTQ families, and even issues like weight and poverty, you are working to prevent biases from forming.
Understanding the impact of your own cultural background as well as that of the children is a process, and it will take time to recognize and work through your patterns of thinking. The ultimate objective is to make sure that every child comes away with a strong sense of self-awareness and pride in who he or she is.
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.