Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Planning With Intention by Mary O'Connell

“Focus more on who your child is than on what your child does.
Remember, you are growing a person, not fixing a problem.” 
L.R. Knost

Emily and I are currently taking a class together about the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards. The class, despite being held from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on Wednesday nights (yawn!), is interesting and offers insights into observing children and intentionally planning activities to meet their needs. The instructors are knowledgeable and engaging. Yet, I often leave the class feeling unfulfilled, like something deep and intangible is missing from the conversation.

This past week, the teacher said something that made me want to leap out of my seat. Luckily for all of us, the crazy LifeWays director managed to remain firmly planted and silent (except for an urgent whisper to Emily, who answered with a smile and a knowing nod.) Our instructor, who has years and years of early childhood education and practice under her belt, said, “I know you all take the children for walks in the snow and you sing songs about the snow. But we all know the real reason you are doing these things is to teach the children skills.”

It struck me in that moment, as I furiously scribbled notes onto my “What did I learn today?” activity page, that this is one of the primary disconnects in education right now, and one of the things that most profoundly separates LifeWays from the world of conventional early childhood education. We at LifeWays, believe it or not, do not hold “teaching children skills” as our main goal. I wanted to say aloud to the teacher, “No, we do not take them out into the snowy forest or sing seasonal songs to teach the children skills. We do these things because the cornerstone of our work is relationships.”

In early childhood, relationships matter more than skills. (The research on this assertion is pretty solid, and is well summarized in The Irreducible Needs of Children by developmental experts Stanley Greenspan and T. Berry Brazelton, if you’re interested.) Children need the freedom to explore their relationship to the natural world around them, the people they care about, the food they eat, and the things that make up their environment. And in the course of those explorations, the children naturally acquire knowledge and skills at their own pace. Forming secure, attached relationships and being given the freedom to discover the world around them is the very bedrock of skill building.  In the shelter of these relationships, the children begin to learn about themselves, and they begin to travel down the path of the life they came here to live. 

At LifeWays, we believe that each one of these children has come to this planet, to his or her family, to our community, at this time, for a reason. Each one came here with an intention, a purpose, and – try as we might – we have no idea what it is. Our goal is to offer the most supportive relationships in the most nurturing and nourishing environment we can to help the child fulfill his or her destiny, whatever it may be. Given this objective, it seems pretty presumptuous to pretend to know exactly which skills a child should be mastering today, tomorrow or next week.

If we view the children as little more than subjects to chart and assess and if our goal is to teach them skills so they look better on those charts and assessments, then we are sadly missing the mark. I think most educators would agree with me, including the teachers of the class Emily and I are taking. “Oh, yes, we value the whole child!” they say. But don’t they see that focusing so much of our attention on skill mastery and assessment sends a clear message that we really don’t?

There certainly is value in our understanding the developmental milestones that are typical for children at each age and honing our own observation skills so we can support them on their journey. That is why the primary caregivers and I are developing an intentional planning process here at LifeWays. Our goal is to create a process that allows the individuality of the child to shine through and guide us in our planning without getting bogged down in charting or reducing the child to a materialistic point of view.  I am hopeful we will succeed, and we will share the process with you as we go along.

Now it’s time to go out and play in the snow, just because snow is really cool and the children love it.

Stop and Smell the Flowers by Amanda Quesnell

Children have an impressive capability to take things slowly and live in the moment.  This can be frustrating sometimes for adults, because we all have numerous plans throughout our day.  But children only have one plan, and it’s to have fun.  One of the biggest things I have learned from working at LifeWays is to always take things slowly and make sure to give the children plenty of time.

            I remember one day when I took some children on a long nature hike through the woods. At the time I thought I had given us plenty of time to get back and ready for lunch, but I was definitely wrong.  On our way back from the hike the children wanted to stop and throw rocks in the river, dig up some worms, and pick some flowers.  But the entire time I just kept thinking, “We have to go, we’re going to be late for lunch!”  After a while of nagging the children to hurry up I thought, “I guess it’s not a big deal if we’re a few minutes late.”  I let us slowly work our way back to LifeWays, letting the children do their exploring.  Now I know to give us a lot of time to transition from one thing to the next so the children can live in the moment and explore.
            As adults there are never enough hours in a day.  Our schedule for the day is planned out for us hour by hour and it is easy to forget to live in the moment, and not worry about what’s going on next.  I know I personally get really anxious when I have more than one thing to do in a day, or I am constantly worried about being late.  The children at LifeWays have taught me to live in the moment, because if I always rush there are probably a lot of good memories I am going to miss out on. 

Half the Fun is Getting There by Jaimmie Stugard

     It is another frigid Wisconsin day here at LifeWays and we are getting all bundled up to go outside.  We begin by making sure everyone has at least two layers on top and bottom.  The children go to their drawers to fetch extra pants, socks and sweaters and we start pulling on all of our layers. I help the youngest children by laying out their snowsuits for them and helping them get their legs into place. I remind them to keep pulling until they see their feet. We go on like this for quite some time, singing a merry tune as we work, “Snowpants, boots, jacket, hat – Mittens are always last.” 
            Each child approaches this challenge in their own way depending on their personality and development.  Some children bundle themselves up in a flash while others are daunted with the task at hand, and just lay motionless on top of all their gear saying, “I can't!”  Now and then a couple of children grow weary of dressing and start up a game of ring-around-the-rosie or chase.  Others struggle to fit their growing bodies into their gear despite their best efforts.  Snow pants are backwards with straps caught between little legs.  Boots almost always find their way to the wrong feet. Sweatshirts bunch up and sleeves get confuffled. Yet they keep working at it.  
            I offer assistance when it is truly needed.  Usually, a bit of coaching and emotional support is enough to help them along. I encourage them to remain calm even as they struggle and strive to dress themselves by modeling a patient, calm and joyful demeanor.  We sing while we work and we take a moment to laugh at our huge muscles when we put our coats on while hats and mittens are tucked still into sleeves.  Even as lunch time draws near and we have yet to step out the door, there really is no hurry to get out into the 10 degree air.  Half the fun is getting there. 
            Now, there are times when we must head out to meet the school bus and some friends are still working (or refusing) to get dressed.  If they have indeed been working at it, I will calmly help expedite the process.  If not, I may leave a friend to finish getting ready with another caregiver because we have waited long enough for them to join us at the task at hand. Sometimes the child is just distracted, or perhaps they are not in the mood to cooperate.  In any case, they usually find motivation to dress once their friends are outdoors climbing snowbanks and eating snowflakes. 
            Of course, we adults are also struggling and striving and sometimes our patience wears thin.  We may be short with others because we feel hurried, tired, hungry or stressed (or our children are driving us crazy because they are feeling hurried, tired, hungry or stressed).  We know that the adult's attitude is of the utmost importance.  The children feel our inner tension even when we think we are masking our frustration.  At home, I have had to haul a tantruming toddler out to the car in pajamas in order to be punctual.  In these moments, I remind myself to remain calm and patient and forgive myself when I am not and learn from my mistakes.
            While it would be faster to dress the children ourselves or to carry them up the stairs, it is better to let them to explore their own growing capacities by doing things for themselves.  We can honor the child's emerging independence by assisting them when they need a little boost without doing too much for them.  Whether it is climbing a tree or negotiating a disagreement with a friend, I find it is best to observe and only interfere/help when it is necessary.  If a child has spilled her milk or splashed her paint, I calmly direct her to the cloths so she can clean up after herself.  I could do it more quickly and thoroughly myself, but I want her to learn to clean up her own mess.  When an older baby is learning how to use utensils, I let him make a mess of it and work at getting the spoon into his mouth.  I resist the urge to take the spoon and feed him and trust that he will use the spoon and his fingers to take the nourishment provided. 
            With our patient encouragement our children gain independence and confidence. When we offer them the time and space to persevere and master life skills, they will grow to cherish the opportunities to do things for others.  The oldest children in our suite love to help their younger friends put on their boots, turn on the water, reach their hooks, and do all sorts of things they couldn't do when they were little.  And when the weather takes a turn for the worse, they are happy take their little friend's hand and help him traverse the deep snow.


The Grace of Illness in a Fast-Paced World by Jane Danner Sustar

“A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than a pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.”
-Ogden Nash

     As a young mother, I was very lucky. My grandmother was a nurse, my grandfather was a doctor and my aunt was a nurse, so when my children were sick I had people to call. They were old school country medicine people. They were pragmatic, practical, no nonsense kind of people.  When Jennifer was born, Peter and I were living with my parents, saving up to buy a house. In the middle of the night I would come down to my parents’ bedroom cradling a sick Jennifer in my arms. My mother would come out, look at her and say, “She’ll be fine. Go back to bed; we will call Aunt Betty in the morning.” And that was that. I went back to bed, we called Aunt Betty in the morning, she told me what to look out for and Jennifer was fine. We did lots of home remedies, things my mother taught me or things that I picked up from friends. We instinctively stayed away from antibiotics, preferring homeopathic remedies, time and rest. My oldest three never went to the emergency room because when I was frightened enough to consider it, there was always someone to ask. By the fourth, fifth and sixth I was pretty confident in my ability to take care of my sick children and I never needed to until, of course, each one of them broke a bone!
     What made me really lucky, however, was the fact that I was at home with my children when they were young .  They had time to be sick and they had time to get better.  When Irene and Jennifer brought home chicken pox, it was almost three weeks before we were up and running as a house hold again, Peter taking up carpool and shopping while I administered oatmeal baths to the current patient and cooked batches of chicken soup.  It swept through all five children, one after the other.  All outside activities went on hold. I had the time and freedom to wait and watch until they were bright eyed before I allowed them back to school. It was a joke between my mother and I, she would call up to see how one of the children was doing in their recovery and I would reply; “just sick enough to be crabby today! Back to school tomorrow.”
     I find it is no different at LifeWays. Often the children come and the twinkle in their eyes is missing and the bounce in their step is bounce-less. On those days I try to slow down the day as much as possible and give the child time and space to fully recover, however that might look to that particular child. This fall has been particularly hard on one little boy in my suite. One day he threw up after lunch. The next day he told his parents he could not come back to LifeWays anymore because LifeWays made him sick and he did not want to be sick anymore!
      He still comes and his sparkle has returned but I have noticed something interesting in his play. He has been Iron Man every morning for a while now. He comes in and uses train tunnels and blocks as armor and goes through LifeWays blasting all the” bad guys”.  When I have convinced him that all the bad guys have been destroyed that morning, he is ready to put Iron Man away in his drawer for the rest of the day.  I believe he is playing out the physical reality of his health. I know, given time he will be ready to leave Iron Man at home completely, but not now, not yet.
     As my children got older, it got harder to know how much my children needed me when they were sick.  When Ian was a senior in high school, he was well into his second week of mono before my alarm bells started going off and I realized he may not just have the flu.  He still teases me about it. I still feel guilty. Elinore hobbled around for a week before I was convinced she really might just have a broken bone in her foot. A particular bad call came when I got a call from Gustav’s teacher. Instinctively, when I saw his ashen face I knew he was in a lot of pain. He had twisted his foot as he was playing football. I was supposed to go to a teacher’s conference in Detroit that night. We went to the emergency room and we were told that it was just a bad sprain. I knew I should cancel the trip and stay home but Gustav, Jenny and the doctor all convinced me to go, so I went. We got a call the next day from the radiologist. His leg was broken after all.
 I know each one of them wanted me to notice. Even when they are young men and women they still want you to notice, and to be there when they are sick and hurt.
     Recently I was given a beautiful picture of the difference between the “doing” of illness and the “being” of illness. I spent six nights with Carl recovering from bronchitis. It had been a long time since I had last seen Carl so sick. Jennifer is graduated from college now and living at home to pay off loans. She mostly works nights so she was home with Carl while I was at work.  It was nice to know that he could be home resting until his health was completely back.  I would go straight home from work to be with him, to fluff his pillow and make tea. While I sat at the end of Carl’s bed reading to him, I would think of my friend Erik. His wife had had a stroke and while she was recuperating, he would rush home from work, grab a bite to eat and then go to sit with Laura sometimes just holding her hand while she slept. He would stay at the hospital until visiting hours were over. When a friend suggested to Erik that those nights must be difficult because everything else had to be put on hold, he had responded, “When was the last time you got three hours to just sit and hold the hand of the woman you love? The nights are easy.”
     Not long ago, I was sick. Carl and Elinore brought me water and tea. Then they set up the stereo so that we could all listen to, “The Hunger Games” on CD. There we were the five of us; Carl, Elinore, Gustav and Jenny spread out like cats, doing nothing but listening to a good book. Sometimes that is the opportunity of illness. It gives you the excuse to just be with the people you love most in all the world.

New Tastes at My Own Pace by Jeremy Bucher

Getting children to try new foods can be a daunting task. Each child has his own palate which can be wildly different from siblings and other children in a similar age group. Every child will try new foods at their own pace but there are various ways in which to expedite the process. Pairing new foods with familiar foods, considering portion size, and positive reinforcement when new foods are eaten by the child all help the child to try new things.
Many children who are born and grow in a consumer economy are exposed to various images and advertisements in their daily lives, many of which consist of food or food products. This creates an image of what a meal should be, and when combined with the few foods they know that they enjoy eating, a very closed-minded attitude towards new foods ensues. Young children are often quite particular about what they eat, and new colors, shapes and smells appearing on a child's plate can be very distressing, especially if the foods that they are used to seeing on that plate are nowhere to be found. Pairing new foods with foods children already know and enjoy is an easy way to expand the child's diet without upsetting the flow of the meal. There are children at LifeWays who are very timid about new foods. On soup day, I serve a soup along with the fresh bread the children bake with their caregivers in the morning, and for the children bread is a familiar and tasty food to eat. Some are reticent to eat the soup and will often ask for more bread after their first serving, to which the common response is, "Try your soup and you may have a little more bread." Sampling a little bit of soup is a small task for more delicious bread, and often elicits a positive response from the child. This may only lead to a small taste the first time, but can bring about a half-eaten bowl before a request for more bread during the next soup meal.
Providing larger portions of familiar food alongside smaller portions of new food also helps children become more accepting of new foods. The children who are unsure about a new soup are often given a smaller portion alongside the bread that they enjoy. When they are asked to try their soup, they are not faced with a heaping bowl of soup in front of them, and this makes the task seem less daunting. As children get more brave and adventurous with their eating, they receive larger portions.
It is also important to give positive reinforcement to keep children trudging forward in their palate-expanding odyssey. Without being too attached to children eating all of the food on their plate or creating an emotionally charged stand-off, simply and matter-of-factly stating how happy you are that they are trying new foods goes a long way in promoting their sense of adventure. Children take pride in trying new things, especially if they like the new thing they've tried. I have heard calls of, "I tried the soup, can I have more bread?" grow into, "I ate all my soup! It was really good!" Fostering their joy of experiencing unknown flavors will add to their sense of adventure when it comes to eating.
New foods can be fun and exciting but frightening and distressing at the same time. It is important to bring new foods into a child's meal in ways that keep them tethered to the diet they know and prefer. In this way they will move forward into a full and balanced diet at their own pace.