Monday, May 26, 2014

Kid Smiles: Pick Up Your Feet

Kid Smiles:

Pick Up Your Feet

Several years ago, I was teaching in an open classroom that had a painted plywood floor with area rugs. One day, one of our three year olds came in with a new pair of cowboy boots. He loved his new boots. Unfortunately, the rigid sole of the boots, coupled with his developing gross motor skills and his apparent joy at hearing the noise he made when he walked, made every step he took sound like a herd of horses clomping in unison, reverberating throughout the entire room. In other words....loud. Really loud.

One of my coworkers had asked him several times to please try to walk a little softer, but that is almost impossible when you’re three years old and your shoes don’t let your foot bend. Finally, my coworker had heard the last clomp she could bear, and said (gently and with humor, by the way), “oh for Pete’s sake, would you please pick up your feet?!?” My favorite part of this story is the little boy’s response: with a look of perfect bewilderment on his face, looking straight at my coworker, he reached down, raised one foot, and tried to “pick up his feet.”

Besides the fact that this still makes me smile every time I think about it (and every time I see the young man who is now in his 30s...not sure if he still wears cowboy boots....), there is another part of this story that has an important point (and speaks to one of my teacher/parent pet peeves): the shoes we put on kids’ feet, and why it matters.

There are two very good reasons that young kids need good shoes, especially when they are at school or on the playground. 1) Their feet are growing and they need arch support to make sure their foot structure is forming correctly; 2) Their gross motor skills are developing, and they need to have the combination of flexibility and support to facilitate that development.

Footwear that is developmentally appropriate for preschool children will have these important features:

Flexible, yet sturdy, sole.
Good arch support.
Good fit that keeps the shoe securely on the foot.
Tread pattern that helps the child to keep from slipping.

Footwear that meets these criteria includes tennis shoes, sandals with contoured soles and straps that fit behind the heel, “hiking” boots/shoes, etc. Footwear to be avoided for active play includes cowboy boots (unless they have a flexible sole and a good tread pattern), flip flops, “Crocs” or other clog-type shoes that fall off easily, flat sandals  that have no arch support, etc.

This doesn’t mean that children should never wear things such as flip flops or Crocs, but the suggestion is that you differentiate between “house” shoes and “active shoes.” One way to determine whether a shoe is helpful or restrictive is to watch your child run—if he/she hesitates, or is tripping/falling frequently, the shoe may not be secure on her/his foot; if he/she is running “flat footed,” the shoes may not have enough flexibility in the sole; if your child is slipping on grass, wet pavement, or smooth floors, it may be that there is no tread pattern on the bottom of the sole.

What about going barefoot? Great idea! home, or on the beach. And once a child’s foot “architecture” is well formed, there will still be plenty of time for flip flops and cowboy boots. It’s not being mean to make sure your child’s feet are developing with strength and support, any more than it’s mean to expect them to eat healthy food and limit their intake of ice cream or cookies. Think of the flip flops as an occasional treat, and the tennis shoes or sturdy sandals as “foot nutrition.”

And, oh yeah...we asked the three year old’s parent to save the cowboy boots for home. He did just fine in his tennis shoes, and we were all happier with the softer-soled “thud” instead of the herd of horses.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Kid Considerations: The "Underground Economy" of Child Care and Why We Should All Care About Quality

Kid Considerations:

The “Underground Economy” of Child Care and Why We Should All Care About Quality

Early childhood education and care has always been, in a sense, the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to local, state, and national economies. When parents are unemployed, they don’t need supervisory care, and they can’t afford preschool. When parents are under-employed (i.e., part time or in low-wage jobs), they may need the care, they may want the educational experience, but they can’t fit it into their budget. And when state legislators (as happened in Ohio recently), reduce support for child care subsidy programs by reducing compensation rates to providers and lowering the maximum income levels for families to qualify for assistance, it becomes even more challenging for high quality care programs to thrive.

I’m sure everyone agrees that high quality is an important aspect of early education and care settings, but there is not universal agreement about how to define that. Some folks believe that teachers must have degrees and/or certifications, while others would argue that pieces of paper and letters after your name mostly reflect that you managed to pay for higher education (but doesn’t guarantee how competent you actually are—you can graduate with a low “C” average, after all). Some suggest that large quantities of high-tech toys in a high-tech building with pretty furniture indicates a high level of quality, but others value smaller spaces that exude warmth and charm and have a modest (though ample) number of simpler, age appropriate materials. Some assert that quality depends on intentional instruction of basic skills that prepare children for kindergarten, whereas others emphasize learning through play with no specific instruction at all (and many will integrate both into a balanced approach).

Over the years, I have become convinced that quality is not dependent solely on philosophy, curriculum approach, credentials, or furniture, but can be boiled down to two primary criteria that can apply to private center based programs, publicly funded programs, and home care providers:

1. A physical environment that is safe and appropriately equipped and furnished.

2. Teachers/Caregivers who consider themselves to be professionals engaged in a career.

It’s that second point (and the way it influences the first point) that is the focus of this post. “Educarers” (i.e., caregivers who educate) who recognize the seriousness of their work and its importance in the growth of young children will understand that there is always more to learn about the field, and will actively pursue ongoing professional development, and will apply what they learn to their interactions with children and the safety of their surroundings. The problem is that, in a depressed economy, we see a substantial increase in licensed programs cutting corners, as well as a proliferation of home care providers (mostly unlicensed) who see child care as an unskilled job that anyone can do just to make some money. It is these types of providers that proliferate and thrive in an “underground economy” of poorly regulated care situations. There are certainly a far greater number of dedicated professionals (both center and home based) than there are sub-standard programs and home care “child hoarders,” but the “face” of early childhood care and education that is presented in the media is dominated by the horror stories, and no child should ever have to spend so much time with adults who don’t care about quality.

Complicating efforts to improve quality and encourage providers to follow basic safety rules is an overburdened regulatory system that is underfunded, understaffed, and overburdened. In these circumstances, the “underground economy” does not have to operate in the shadows, because the only time they come under scrutiny or are subject to sanction is when someone complains to the regulatory agencies (or when a tragedy happens). This quote from an online discussion group typifies the attitude that contributes to this problem:

“At least in [city name removed], no.... one.... cares. I know that's bad to say, but literally, EVERYONE seems to be confused about the official, correct rules. Person after person after person has some different spin on what they think the ratios are supposed to be, and NO ONE follows up to enforce it. Now I don't mean go crazy and be a kid hoarder, and please don't think I'm some ridiculous person either, but I just mean if you're out of ratio here or there, it's really not a big deal.”

It is a big deal. Or should be. The ratios in the licensing laws in Ohio (where this post originated) are clearly stated. And there are definitely people, including professionals, licensing specialists, and parents, who do care. However, many parents either don’t know when a provider is violating the law, or choose to look the other way because the underground provider charges less than the licensed provider or center based program, and the parent’s options are limited. Meanwhile, home care providers and programs that “play by the rules” and are committed to maintaining high standards of quality wind up struggling to fill spaces, because it is hard to compete in such a context.

So, what can we do to allow for a variety of options, while maintaining quality care and education for all young children? Here are some suggestions:

  • If you are a parent looking for care for your child, make sure that the provider you choose takes the job seriously. There are obvious signs, such as the TV on all the time, or a dirty or dangerous environment, but also look for the subtle signs: Is the space the children use shared by other family members while the children are present? Is there a sufficient number of toys and learning materials readily available? Can you see children’s artwork on the walls? Is the provider certified in first aid? Ask the provider if she takes advantage of professional development opportunities to learn more about child development.
  • Become familiar with the regulatory laws in your state and locality. For example, in Ohio, if a provider has 6 or fewer children (including her own) in her home, she does not have to be licensed unless she wants to accept the state subsidy (but she also can not have more than 3 children under the age of 2 in that group). If a provider is caring for more than 6 children (including her own) in her own home, she is required to be licensed as a Type A Home Care Provider AND to have another adult helping any time there are more than 6 in attendance. If she is caring for children in a rented or borrowed space, or has more than 12 children on the premises at one time, she MUST be licensed as a Child Care Center. If you know of a provider who is in violation of these ratios, contact the licensing agency (in Ohio, it is the nearest regional office of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services). If they have a report, they can investigate.
  • If your home care provider offers high quality care, but is in violation of ratios or other regulations, encourage her take responsibility for her commitment as a dedicated professional and get licensed. If she declines, place your child with a provider who is willing to “talk the talk AND walk the walk.”
  • Contact your local, state, and national representatives and encourage them to prioritize funding for early education and care that is appropriately (not overly) regulated and accessible to all families.
  • If you are a home care provider, demonstrate your commitment to quality by pursuing ongoing professional development and operating within the law.
  • If you are employed in a center-based program, make sure your program owner/administrator facilitates high-quality practices that go beyond minimum standards for safety and learning. If not, suggest changes that can be made, or contact your licensing agency.

Young children deserve the best that we can give them, and we all have to accept responsibility for ensuring that all early education and care situations are safe, loving, and professional.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Kid Tips: Something You Can Sink Your Teeth Into--Understanding Why Toddlers Bite

Kid Tips:

Something You Can Sink Your Teeth Into—understanding why toddlers bite, with tips for redirecting behavior and learning healthy communication

When my daughter was a toddler, her teacher told us of an incident in the classroom one day. All five children in the group, ages 18 months-2 1/2 years, had lined up a row of chairs side by side, with each child occupying one chair. They were playing quite nicely and calmly, when, for no discernible reason, the child at one end of the row bit my daughter, who was in the second chair, on the arm. My daughter then turned and bit the child in the third chair, who bit the child in the fourth, who bit the child in the fifth, who turned, then, seeing no one else to bite, began to cry. This entire sequence of events took a matter of seconds, quickly enough that, by the time the teacher realized what was happening, they had already passed the bite down the line. When the teacher told us this story, she was a little concerned that we would be worried or upset that our child had been bitten (and was biting). On the contrary, we were rather amused by the incident (since no skin was broken or bruises were left), and it has become a favorite example for me about the nature of biting in young children.
The overwhelming majority of biting incidents in toddlers is a reflection of a perfectly normal, albeit painful, developmental progression. Children who have not yet developed sufficient language skills to express their feelings and desires will find other outlets, and for many children, this outlet will be with their teeth (though not all children bite—some will become vocally very expressive, even if it is not possible to understand what they are saying, while others may use tantrums). Young children are still generally orally focused, as their mouths are the source of the pleasure of food combined with the pain of teething. If we understand it as a normal developmental pattern, it is easier to calmly strategize ways to address the behavior.

·       If you have the opportunity to observe your child in a group setting, notice the circumstances of any biting incidents you may see. Does the biting seem to be connected to a particular emotional state, such as anger or frustration, or does it occur over a range of conditions?  One young child in my care was an avid biter, but very rarely bit in anger or aggression. One of his frequent “targets” was another little boy who was one of his favorite playmates. Every time this playmate arrived, the child would run up to him, give him an excited hug, then bite him on the shoulder. His joy at seeing his friend was so profound that he had no other way to express his intense pleasure.
·       The disciplinary response needs to be immediate, but measured and calm. Remove the child from the immediate situation, provide a simple, firm explanation that biting is not acceptable, then suggest and demonstrate a more positive response. Be sure to communicate with your child’s teacher or caregiver to make sure you are both responding in a similar manner.
·       Offer a variety of textured foods, and notice if the biting subsides or intensifies after particular types of foods. For example, many children will lessen their biting response when they are offered a wider variety of “crunchy” foods (such as carrots or crackers) that enable them to fill a sensory need for intense oral activity.
·       One simple technique that can be very effective is to have available a wash cloth or small blanket that the child can “chomp” in place of another person’s arm. Pacifiers are not good for this purpose, as they encourage sucking, not teething, and can seriously inhibit the development of language skills that will ultimately make biting unnecessary.
·       Be aware, however, that if biting behavior continues after your child has developed a sufficient vocabulary, this may be a sign of a more significant behavioral issue or physical problem. In either case, consult with your pediatrician or teacher/caregiver for advice.

Above all, the encouragement of language development is crucial to giving your child the tools he/she needs to find a means of expression that is satisfying and safe.

Kid Tips: Lift and Separate--Separation Anxiety in Young Children

Kid Tips:

Lift and Separate—separation anxiety in young children at different levels of emotional development, with tips for easing the trauma for children and parents

One of the most common scenarios repeated daily in early childhood care settings is the sight of a crying toddler clinging to an anxious parent, trying to keep dad or mom from leaving her/him behind.  In the vast majority of these cases, the tantrum quickly subsides once the parent has been able to extricate her/himself and drive away.  Even when parents know this to be the case, these interactions can be exhausting and stressful for both parent and child. 
Secure attachment between a parent and child is a fundamental emotional building block for healthy psycho-social development.  A secure attachment is exactly that—a bond that is never questioned and always present.  It’s more than unconditional love—for a child, it’s the safety of knowing that there is always a caring adult who will protect you, and for the adult, it’s the assurance that your child trusts you and can count on you.
With so much riding on this essential connection, separation anxiety in varying degrees is an unavoidable, necessary, and generally predictable response, though the timing, intensity, and duration of separation responses is based on circumstance, experience, and personality.  All of these factors are critical to take into account anytime your child enters a new situation, or experiences a change in her/his physical, emotional, or contextual space.  We tend to think of separation anxiety as something that is experienced almost exclusively by very young children when they enter a new care situation, but, in fact, separation anxiety can be a result of many different types of changes, including:
·      Physical, emotional, or cognitive “growth spurts.”
·      Significant changes in routine or place, including extended vacations or change in residence.
·      Changes in family dynamics or composition, including death of a family member, even if that person has not been a significant daily presence in the child’s life, but is mourned by the child’s parent(s).
·      Friends who have moved, loss of a pet, or change in caregiver.
All of these, and other, events and experiences, can create a dynamic of uncertainty that, for children, can prompt a need for the reassurance of attachment.  Even though it may not seem like “separation” behavior, responses in such situations may be rooted in the basic human need for the certainty of connection.  Perhaps, rather than “separation” anxiety, it would be more helpful to think of it as “alteration” anxiety.
Sometimes, separation responses are delayed.  For example, many children experience separation anxiety immediately upon entering a new care situation, while others may be enveloped by the initial excitement, and not develop the separation response until the excitement has “worn off.”  This is particularly true for older children, who are better able to anticipate events and verbalize that anticipation, but then react with anxiety when that anticipation is no longer present.  For most situations of separation anxiety, regardless of the age of the child or the circumstance of the response, there are two main things to keep in mind when helping the child work through these difficulties:
·      LISTEN, WATCH, AND REASSURE: Separation responses are not always characterized by clinging and tantrums.  Watch for any type of regressive behavior, such as toileting problems, uncharacteristically finicky eating, sleep disturbances, helplessness, etc.  It is important to recognize these behaviors and respond compassionately without inadvertently reinforcing their continuation. 
·      BE CONSISTENT:  Especially in terms of discipline, it is reassuring for children to know that, even if other things have changed in their environment or routine, the reasonable expectations for their behavior have not.  Indulging negative behavior can actually do more harm than good, since it may signal to the child that there is even more uncertainty than he/she had thought.
With patience, consistency, and connection, separation (or alteration) responses can be emotionally positive growing experiences, for both child and parent.

Kid Tips: Movin' On Up--Transitioning to Kindergarten

Kid Tips:

Movin’ On Up: Transitioning to Kindergarten, with Tips for Easing Anxiety

As we near the end of another school year, many parents are concerned with helping their children prepare for the transition to kindergarten in the fall. For some children, the anxiety of entering kindergarten is matched by the anxiety of leaving the surroundings in which he/she has been nurtured and cared for, especially if it is a situation that has been a consistent one for the child for a long period.  Children form meaningful attachments with caregivers, teachers, and friends, and the awareness that those attachments will be disrupted can produce increased anxiety, even when it is mixed with excitement and anticipation about starting the adventure that is kindergarten.  Here are some tips to help make that transition as smooth as possible.

·       If your child is currently in preschool or center-based care, be sure to have a conference with the teacher to get a clear picture of your child’s developmental capabilities and needs.  Being ready for kindergarten isn’t just about knowing letters and numbers, but is also about social and emotional development.  You know your child better than anyone, but your child’s teacher or caregiver has particular insight regarding her/his social interactions and emotional maturity.   Children often behave differently when parents are not around, usually displaying more maturity, sometimes less—either way, the teacher/caregiver can give you a richer picture of your child’s behavior when independent of the family.
·       You can help your child with the separation anxiety by remembering that children at this age are developing an increasing level of emotional awareness, but still don’t usually have the emotional “vocabulary” to express those feelings.  It is very common for children in this situation to begin exhibiting regressive behaviors—temper tantrums, toileting accidents, increased “clinginess,” for example—that are all perfectly normal and can be seen as healthy attempts at releasing or dealing with the uncertainty of change and the sadness of separation.
·       It is important to empathize with your child’s anxiety, but also to remain consistent in terms of behavior management and expectations.  Your child may be testing you to make sure that, as so many things around her/him are changing, your presence and support are constant and dependable.  Extra hugging, talking, and playful interactions are reassuring, but increased leniency with unacceptable behaviors can actually create more anxiety.  It is important during this time that discipline continues to be firm, loving, and predictable.
·       One of the behaviors that sometimes baffles parents the most is when a child who has always eagerly left for daycare or preschool suddenly begins complaining that they “don’t like school” or “don’t want to go.”  This is often a response not to unhappiness with the school, but to the unhappiness about leaving a situation that is a positive, nurturing one.  Again, consistency is the key—keep attendance consistent, while talking with your child about the feelings he/she is experiencing.  If your child’s friends at daycare are not going to be attending the same kindergarten, consider the possibility of arranging play dates to help maintain those friendships that are important.

With compassion, reassurance, and consistency, your child’s transition to kindergarten can be an exciting and positive one for the entire family.