Posts Tagged EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

Little Kids Need Cool Places to Explore, Not Classroom Time

Published by EducationNews.org — Doesn’t anyone worry that pre-school can teach kids to hate school earlier?

kids playing outdoors

Early childhood education has become this year’s education-fix obsession.  From the President of the United States to the President of the Rhode Island Senate, we’re now pinning our hopes for improved academic achievement on more for schooling low-income, urban kids.  Specifically little kids.

The data on pre-school is far from clear.  Head Start, a signature program from the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, promised to improve reading readiness among low-income pre-schoolers.  But evidence shows the academic gains disappearing by grade 3.

Families are the kids’ first teachers and strongest connections, so the bang for the buck likely lies in working directly with them.  And I would argue the places where kids play and learn about the world is actually little kids’ second teacher.  More on that in a moment.

The dangers of doing nothing for kids from struggling families are all too real.  Research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, immortalized in their work The 30 million word gap by age 3, demonstrates how low-income urban children’s vocabularies put them at a huge academic disadvantage compared with their middle-class peers.  Later researchers such as Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen confirmed not only the scale of the gap itself, but also significant differences in the kinds of words low-income kids hear — fewer words of praise, more direct orders, and fewer open-ended questions soliciting their thoughts and efforts to formulate answers.

Sadly, pundits and pols still believe that the solution is early-childhood “education.”  Read: classrooms.  This gives me the willies.  Picture 3 and 4-year olds with more “seat time.”  Doesn’t anyone worry that pre-school can teach kids to hate school earlier?

Vocabulary is intelligence, says the wise E.D. Hirsch.

The size of a kid’s vocabulary is the size of her intellectual world.  Vocabulary and experience are the foundation for more information, skills and intelligence.  Children have different natural gifts, to be sure, but any of those innate abilities are enhanced by rich experiences and opportunities to talk about them.

Here’s what’s missing from the conversation, though.  For a gajillian years evolution has wired children to absorb and process information at an incredible rate.  They explore, put stuff in their mouths, pull up grass, make mud pies, splash water, stalk the cat.  Sometimes the cat retaliates, or an obstacle causes a fall, or the stick house keeps collapsing even after much effort.  That’s little-kid learning.  I call it downloading the software of reality.  Learning about the nature of physical reality depends on a place.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, just rich with possibilities.  The place teaches them — be it raw nature, a farm, an inventive playground, park or even a kid-friendly city apartment.  Anywhere but school, which is not a place they can make their own.

School-based instruction is not a memorable way to acquire words.  Better to have a wealth of experience to which vocabulary can attach.  Especially with electronic distractions, kids suffer mainly from a poverty of positive experiences that ignite and feed their own hard-wired, voracious appetites for learning.  Low-income kids don’t need school, but more access to cool places — whether as part of paid daycare or as public services to families.

Impressive experiences will find verbal expression.

At this year’s Child-Friendly Cities conference, keynote Jens Troelsen gushed about growing up in a veritable heaven, his family’s farm.  Adults were within earshot, but his real teachers were the stream, the animals, the bales of hay to make structures.  Yes, this was in Denmark, where Stranger Danger and safety obsession had yet to paralyze parenting.  But his point was that he and his friends learned a ton, chatting up a storm as they negotiated games and projects.  They shared vocabulary.

At public forest kindergartens in Europe and elsewhere (including New Hampshire) kids hang outside all year round.  A movie about one shows children managing fierce cold with sledding, huddling around kid-made fires, building with hammers and nails, and scurrying around like little animals.  Adults oversee proper use of tools and read to them daily. Otherwise the children amuse themselves, capitalizing on the enormous capacity to learn that has evolved since the dawn of humans.  As such, they are brilliantly prepared for school later on.

Home-visiting programs could help parents turn their apartment into a Waldorf-inspired “learning environment.”  Any kitchen can be arranged to have a play kitchen in it with access to the non-breakable muffin pans and pie tins.  Kids like to play at being adults.  Cast off clothing and shoes are a blast.  Blankets make club houses.  Parents would have to ease up on Disney characters and passive entertainment, but they should anyway.

This is a case of school getting in the way of learning.

Rather than subsidize yet another institution, provide Mom with information, support groups or even classes on how to provide spaces where kids learn on their own.  Put minimalist shelters and trained play leaders in the parks for a lot less money than supporting another institution.  But let the kids explore — something, somewhere.  Spend resources helping the parents any way we can, but especially help them foster rich and brain-building experience.  Forget premature school.

(Image: EdenProject)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Restore Kindergarten to Boost Social Skills

Published by EducationNews.org — What’s most fun for young kids is also what best prepares them for success.  So why are schools eliminating playtime?

kindergarten

Picture wriggly, shrieky, busy 5-year-olds exploring the kindergarten play yard’s treasures.  The sandbox brims with budding builders, diggers, landscape designers.  Some kids need mostly to run and scream.  Others settle into swinging, climbing and kicking balls to each other.  The luckiest kids have a bit a nature where they can make fairy houses for a community of imaginary beings living through dramatic, magical adventures.  They learn the arts of taking turns, helping one another on projects and solving their own problems.

Maria Montessori said that “Play is the work of childhood.”

Picture a wise adult or two, standing at a distance, perhaps out of earshot, eyeing the elements of the kids’ evolving social world.  The adults respond when asked to admire an accomplishment or play a role, but stay out of disputes unless it gets out of control.  A new kid or loner needs adult help connecting to others.  Grown-ups might redirect the aggressive impulses of a little bully and try to help her develop empathy by walking in her classmates’ shoes somehow.

But those were the kindergartens of yesteryear. 

These days kids spend precious little time playing at all in school.  Play and socializing might happen during short breaks between academic instruction, but many schools did away with recess altogether.  Now kindergarten teachers teach first-grade skills and have no mandate to help 5-year-olds develop the social skills that will serve them for life.  The Alliance for Childhood’s Crisis in the Kindergarten says, “Skepticism about the value of play is compounded by the widespread assumption that the earlier children begin to master the basic elements of reading, such as phonics and letter recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school.”  That assumption is wrong.

And recently yet more research shows how wrong the assumption is.  In “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health:  The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” Drs. Jones, Greenberg and Crowly examine the value of what they call the “non-cognitive” skills, or those skills not associated with IQ or achievement.  They argue that these playing-nicely-in-the-sandbox skills actually support the “cognitive,” or academic, abilities of the child.  The researchers mined the rich longitudinal data from the “Fast Track” study of low-income neighborhoods which collected teacher descriptions of a large sample of kindergartners starting in 1991 and then followed those kids’ outcomes 13 to 19 years later — until 2000.

Their studies reveal that when kindergarteners develop strong social skills, they have significantly higher odds of future success in a range of domains from physical health to academics.  Little kids who cannot manage feelings or negotiate well with others are more likely, statistically, to become young adults who use drugs, struggle in school, get involved in the justice system, be unemployed, and so on.

“Kindergarten” means “child’s garden,” where kids grow organically.

Common Core, while marvelous in some ways, is only the most recent instrument of pushing academic instruction into kindergarten.  In the 1990s, when computer-scored testing became cost-effective, states and their schools became obsessed with boosting their public image and value by increasing their scores.  I’m all for testing as a way of checking on the equity and quality of certain academic efforts, but schools became all about testing, needlessly squeezing everything else out.  Many early childhood experts are aghast about it.  Losing supervised play as the best and most natural way for young kids to learn cripples curiosity.  Developing self-control, cooperation and solving their own problems will produce the desired academic results, but only in good time.

Pre-literacy and play are not mutually exclusive. 

By all means, steep kindergartners in rich literature and intriguing stories.  Nourish the curiosity of those yearning to unlock the mysteries of reading.  Build out their vocabularies at every opportunity.  But mostly, let them love being at school — socializing, exploring.  That will do far more to boost 3rd-grade reading than un-fun reading instruction.

Kindergarten teachers wouldn’t mind teaching social skills if they weren’t also saddled with the pain of pushing instruction that many argue is inappropriately premature.  Harder, faster, younger isn’t working out.  And oh what a turn-off it is for so many kids.

So restore play in kindergarten.  Play is how children learn and how adults relax, recreate and restore well-being.  It’s the ultimate restorative practice.  In a world gone mad with aggression, you’d think we could agree that giving the kids a rich year of supervised play, learning empathy, would set them up with a higher quality of life.

Indeed, research strongly argues it will.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Refuel Kids’ Attention with Short Movement Breaks

Published by EducationNews.org — It makes no sense to take dynamic young bodies and insist they sit still for hours at a stretch.

movement_breaks

In a technology class at the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI, second and third graders are learning to change fonts on their laptops.  They look droopy, so I ask how they like the class.  They love it!  “Computers are so fun.”  “So cool!”

But the languid body language doesn’t match.  It’s the end of a period; they’ve been glued to screens.  So they’re fine with putting the electronics away and quickly arrange themselves into a formation that looks like back-up dancers at the ready.

Cynthia Sime, their regular teacher, leads them through a one-minute “energizer.”  Together they do a spoken-word doo-wop with a made-up word that sounded to me like Aroostasha sha sha sha.  The kids use the last four syllables to mark beats, as their hands slice the air from left to right.  It repeats as Sime adds a new physical challenge prior to each four-beat chant.  “Hands together! (hands smack together in front of their bellies).  Legs out! (jump into wide stance). Elbows in! (elbows whip back).  Knees bent!  Bottoms up!” (butts stick out).  And the last challenge she adds is “Tongue Out!”  With that the nonsense word sounds like total garbage, so when they’re done, kids dissolve into giggling.

Then, without asking, they settle right back at their desks, alert and ready for math.  The buzz in the air is palpable.  When Sime gives a first direction, they’re on it.

One minute of movement, release and a bit of fun tees up high-quality attention for this happy teacher, who isn’t battling restless, fried kids.

Darlene Pugnali, ICS Assistant Director, notes that outsiders often notice and commend the school’s calm and quiet atmosphere.  The quick, structured releases of energy, like the one I just saw, help the kids use the rest of the time for concentrated learning.  Pugnali explains that the school is deeply committed to Responsive Classroom (RP), whose website proclaims, “Teaching students to stay focused.”  They’ve generously put online a large library of these one-minute fool-arounds designed to give kids a jolt of fresh vitality and fun as they transition from one subject to another.

The payoff?  Better behavior, better academic results.

Pugnali says, “We’re always looking for the root causes of misbehavior.  Under what conditions does it takes place?  Sitting too long is certainly one of them.”

Many teachers at other schools say they don’t have time for breaks, recess, or any other down time.  Social Worker Soraya Gomes suggests that if teachers added up the time they’re spending redirecting behavior problems, they’d see it’s a whole lot more than one minute invested in recouping the kids attention.  “The engagement is so much higher.”

Jean Cavanaugh, Occupational Therapist, bluntly notes that energizers get “so much more out of them in a shorter amount of time.”

In Ben Keefe’s class, fourth-graders sit on a rug studying literature.  Using a cue indiscernible to me, teacher and kids pop off the rug to do what looks like a squats exercise.  He sings “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” one syllable at a time, at irregular intervals, as the kids mirror his knee bends.  The rhythm gets faster, the squats more rigorous. It looks exhausting.  The kids plop down, ready to go back to examining their book.

Keefe is considered the energizer school champion.  He says that he himself went nuts trying to sit through his graduate courses for his Masters in Teaching.  “So here I am with 10-year-olds, thinking it’s got to be far worse for them.”  His class takes a break every 20 minutes, and if he goes over time, the kids tap their wrists to indicate to him that they’re due a break.

They’re not learning if you don’t have their focus.

While Keefe is the champ, everyone likes pick-me-ups for transitions.  Still, Pugnali says, “I remind them gently that if the transition is coming in 15 minutes, and you’re losing your kids, don’t wait.  If they’re restless, stop in the middle of a lesson for one minute to get them back again.  One minute of movement can buy you 13, 14 good minutes of attention.”

ICS’ big claim to fame is its dual language program with strands in both Portuguese and Spanish.  Teachers bring energizer-like games and songs from other countries as a way of immersing the students in their kid-culture — a totally fun lesson in social studies.

ICS’ academic achievement hovers just above and below state average.  This is a feat, given that 38% of the kids are fresh-off-the-boat English-language learners, as compared with 6% statewide.  Fully 60% are eligible for subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator), compared with 47% statewide.

Too often schools just burn out their kids’ attention and then get irate when they misbehave, space out or resist.  Our education system takes dynamic young bodies, sticks them in a box called a school, and insists they sit for hours at a stretch.  It makes no sense.  It’s like a college professor teaching to a class of students checking Facebook the whole time.  The channel for learning is just not open.  Focus and attention need to be cultivated and used wisely.  ICS has it down.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Beware Early Childhood ‘Education,’ Think Learning Instead

Published by EducationNews.org — There are times when school gets in the way of learning.

learning

From the President of the United States to the President of the Rhode Island Senate, early-childhood education is shaping up to be one of this year’s ed obsessions.

We’ve been here before, of course.  Head Start, a signature program from the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, was designed to improve reading readiness among low-income pre-schoolers.  Unfortunately decades of evidence show the academic gains disappearing by grade 3.  There might be lots of reasons for this, including sending those kids to crummy K-3 schools.  But my take-away is that early schooling didn’t build a good foundation for more school.  Low-income kids mainly suffer a poverty of positive experiences that ignite their own innate appetites for learning.

But a source of critical concern is the vast disparity between the vocabularies of low-income children and their middle-class peers, immortalized by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in The 30 milion word gap by age 3.  Urban children’s vocabularies put them at a huge academic disadvantage.  Later researchers such as Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen confirmed not only the scale of the gap itself, but also significant differences in the kinds of words low-income kids hear — fewer words of praise, more direct orders, and fewer open-ended questions soliciting their thoughts or efforts to formulate answers.

As the sage E.D. Hirsch says:  vocabulary is intelligence.  The size of a kid’s vocabulary is indicative of the size of her intellectual world, the foundation on which to build more information, skills and intelligence.  Children have different gifts, to be sure, but those gifts are enhanced by rich experiences and opportunities to talk about them.

Sadly, pundits and pols still believe that the solution is early-childhood “education.”  Read:  classrooms.  The idea of starting children ever earlier in classrooms gives me the willies.

Learning, yes.  Academics, not so much.

At this year’s Child-Friendly Cities conference, keynote Jens Troelsen began his remarks by saying that he not only grew up in a veritable heaven, but that he was exceedingly popular, since everyone wanted to play at his house.  He grew up on a farm.  There was a stream to dam up or float boats, animals to play with, bales of hay to make structures.  Of course, that was in Denmark, where Stranger Danger and obsession with safety have yet to paralyze parenting.  His point was that he and his friends were learning a ton, chatting up a storm as they negotiated games and projects, while having a blast.  The rhythms of farm life teach much science, without explicit instruction.  Troelsen twinkles as he talks about it.

For a more citified version, I recommend visiting urban Waldorf-inspired “learning environments,” which look nothing like whiteboard-plastered classrooms.  The wealth of toys for imaginary play are free of Disney characters, passive entertainment and cheap plastic.  The play areas mimic houses with kitchens, dining rooms, doll bedrooms, clothing closets.  Kids like to play at being adults.  And they like exploring sand and water, or making collections of rocks, bones, or whatever’s intriguing.  On a school visit I watched distinctly urban kids dash and scream, perhaps a bit more than the adults liked.  After being cooped up indoors with electronics, they were thrilled to have many choices as to what to do, and others to do it with.  The teacher’s job included monitoring children’s vocabularies with fun story-telling assessments, to ensure they were acquiring words at an accelerated rate.  They had techniques for helping those falling behind and worked with parents on game-like activities to do at home.  None of it felt academic.  Rich and brain-building, but not premature school.

Even more daring and exhilarating are the forest kindergartens of Europe and elsewhere (including New Hampshire).  Four to seven-year olds hang outside all year round.  A movie about a Swiss school shows them managing fierce cold with sledding, huddling around kid-made fires, and generally scurrying around like little animals out in nature.  Again, teachers support learning from a slight distance to oversee proper use of tools, and read to them daily. A doctor interviewed in the film says he’s never had to treat a kid for ADD who’d attended such a kindergarten.  They know how to amuse themselves exploring the world, with great concentration, and as such are well-prepared for school later on.

The young brain is hard-wired to suck up information.

Memorable experiences build synapses that should have trunks like oaks and branches that resemble well-fed crabapple trees.  Such experiences invite discussion and whet appetites for learning.

To my mind, what the three kinds of early-childhood experiences mentioned above have in common are charm and beauty.  Raw nature, cultivated farms, and even cultivated learning spaces are sensual, visual, physical, living places.  There, kids can thrive, learning to handle autonomy and calculating risks for themselves.

But well-meaning minds are stuck in the sterility of “early-childhood education.”  There are times when school gets in the way of learning.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Unplugged Elementary Kids and Online Tests Don’t Mix

Published by EducationNews.org — Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

Recently I was at a luncheon where a Mom and Grandma minded their two-year-old by plugging him into a propped-up iPad and putting food at his right hand.  He remained inert unless the iPad fell flat or snacks ran out.  But twice in the roughly two-plus hours his animal self erupted out of the e-prison.  Unexpressed energy thrashed his body until he could get out of the high chair to run, screaming at the top of his lungs, with the two women giving chase.  Both times his restlessness was sated after tearing around uncontrollably for a while, when he willingly returned to his addictions.  Guests shrugged it off because, after all, this is the new normal.

Only 20 years ago, teachers, me and others bemoaned the posture of children watching TV — passive, glazed-eyed, slumped.  Now we’re maddened by the behavior and the nano-second attention span of plugged-in children.  Doctors, among others, beg parents to limit “screen time.”  Children should have 2 or 3 hours of rough-and-tumble play every day, but they don’t get that.  Electronic sitters and sedatives are too convenient for the adults.

Increasingly, teachers and doctors see physical, psychological and behavioral disorders.  Heavy technology use is associated with epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, as well as soaring rates of ADHD, autism, developmental, physical and speech delays, learning difficulties, sensory-processing and sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.

The terrific Susan Linn calls the commercial world of electronics “mitigated reality.”  But young children need to download the software of real reality by getting out in it, falling down and going boom, discovering insects, making friends, mud pies and forts, exploring the neighborhood.  Currently a minority of families, usually well-educated, keeps their kids unplugged and learning the way biology built their brains to learn.

Don’t get me wrong:  Skype with Grandma is fine.  Assisted technologies for special-needs children and anything that gets squirmy children through a coast-to-coast flight are just fine.  But.

Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

By grade 5 or 6, children have had an actual childhood and are starting to bump up against puberty.  The pre-adolescent brain gains significantly increased capacity for abstraction and needs complex challenges.  Computer skills, including internet research and coding, can draw students back into the world of learning, just as young adolescents are asserting themselves and detaching from childhood ways.  There’s no downside to putting off computers, except the inconvenience to adults.

But elementary public schools have no choice but to plug kids in.  Third-graders must be ready to be successful on online standardized tests.  So little ones, kindergartners, prepare for computer-based tests from the moment the schools can get them started.  If schools don’t, the kids’ poor results will feed the naming-and-shaming frenzy that characterizes the education-industry’s punitive use of otherwise interesting data.

Since the passage of NCLB in 2002, annual online testing has become the new norm.  Students in grades 3-8 — and one grade in high school — have been tested with computer-based assessments every year since.  Now the fast on-coming Common Core tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, will not just be online, but administered more often, with interim and so-called “formative” assessments.  While education leaders give lip service to “alternative assessments,” they don’t mean portfolios, writing samples, paper-pencil tests, or any way of assessing kids that doesn’t collect data via computer and score it electronically.

High-tech data collection made online testing seem essential.

Scoring the old paper-pencil, bubble-in tests was expensive, even with scanners and other machinery helping the process.  Prior to the 1990s, the norm was to give one basic-skills test in elementary, middle and high school.  Buzz generated by the release of the scores died down quickly and indifference set in.  Ultimately, the data weren’t very useful.  And without the data, the public had no idea how underserved certain kids were.  So no one, including me, wants to return to the days of zero information about the quality of the schools.  We want data, but not necessarily via kids on computers.

Families committed to keeping their elementary-age kids unplugged are forced to home-school or pay for private schools.  Not even charters offer an out because they have the same public-reporting accountability requirements as every other public school.

So who’s thinking this through?  If we don’t like the unteachable behavior of plugged in kids, what are we doing plugging kindergartners into online testing?  We can’t wag our fingers at parents and homes for delivering distracted, impulsive kids, and then plug them in at school for “educational” purposes.  The situation is a mess.

Technology is convenient.  Kids are not.  If we don’t slow down to pay attention to their needs, we’re going to raise a whole lot of young adults whom we don’t like and who aren’t good for much.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her atjuliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Giving Thanks for What’s Left of Childhood Magic

Published by EducationNews.org — You rarely see a place that actually belongs to children.

Completely by accident, on a get-away to Maine, my husband and I ran across a fairy village created by children.  It was so large and thrilling, it took us a minute to take in its riches.

I’d been focused on the views of the Casco Bay.  But tucked on the interior side of a woodsy path going around one of Maine’s myriad islands were dozens of structures big and small, each quite unique, though made entirely of the natural materials at hand.  We were already content with exploring the moody, fall-colored coastal woods, but unexpectedly encountering children’s magic made us gasp.

You so rarely see a place that actually belongs to children.  In a regular public park or a playground, if children took down a structure and made it into something else, painted or decorated it with fun found materials, they’d be vandals.  Miscreants.  They’d be bad kids deserving to be punished for defacing some painfully sterile bit of “play equipment,” designed primarily to pacify adults and lawyers.

But in a fairy village, reconstruction is what children do.  Well, minus the paint.  A sign put up by the local Parks and Rec Department specifically asks children to use only the natural materials they can find there.  In deference to one another, the kids probably didn’t dismantle one another’s structures because they could just keep delving into the ample woods to find more space, more tree roots, stumps and hollows that would make a perfect foundation for a new fairy home.

The inventiveness.  The charm.

Without any hard evidence to back me up, I thought I could see gender and age differences.  To my mind, girls had continued along the path a ways and taken the long flight of stairs down to the shoreline for seaside materials.  Seaweed thatched the roofs of small structures, and served as curtains elsewhere.  Shells, sometimes matched with great precision, provided the Spode china for tea parties.  The place settings were laid out on a variety of tables, suitably flat surfaces, sometimes fashioned from a split branch, supported by fat legs of stones balanced on top of one another.

Surely it was older children who’d woven a biggish Lincoln-log sort of structure with ingeniously-defined doors and windows.  And surely older children were the ones to build a house up in a tree, though below my eye level, with a base balanced on a couple of broken branches.

Branches made Stonehenges, reverently adorned with shells, rocks, pine needles and bark.  Designs on the ground carpeted the way between houses.

I’m thinking the boys and tomboys, perhaps with the collusion of their dads, had hauled logs, larger branches and pieces of driftwood to make tepee-shaped hobbit houses with yawning doorways.  A supplemental sign, merely laminated paper, forbade the use of any wood longer than three feet, arguing that large structures could be dangerous to animals, children and in bold, block letters, to FAIRIES.

But the three-foot rule had been broken repeatedly, and indeed the largest structure would have collapsed on any little fool who’d dared to enter it.  But really, nothing serious could have resulted.  Seemingly, adults whose kids frequent the place allowed the more impressive monuments to stand.  Some rules beg to be broken.  So these kids have very common-sensical adults in their lives, including the Parks and Rec folks.  If only many more were like them.

When I was growing up in the middle of Los Angeles, we had no such woodsy areas for fairy villages.  But we certainly had magic spaces.  Ours were corners of garages and city gardens, fed by the then-plentiful scrap wood piles, bags of fabric left-overs, all manner of found objects, and natural detritus.  We banged things together with hand-me-down tools.  These were our spaces and our structures, destroyed only by weather, or by being cannibalized for better uses, or by ill-advised sprucing up by the adults.

When I see the word “interactive” on video games, all I can think is that the buyers don’t know the meaning of the word.  Magic spaces invite genuine interaction, because there is no “there” there unless kids make it themselves.  Today “interactive” refers to a kid plugging into a pre-fabricated electronic world that has fantasy aesthetics, but none of the kid’s own imagination.  Consumerism has colonized all that once was magic, so adults pay through the nose for admittedly-fun, but passive entertainment, like Disney’s “Magic” Kingdom, where Snow White looks the same in everyone’s mind.

If urban kids had bits of woods where they could build little structures, they might learn to love nature, and even science.  Yes, it  might take a generation before older kids and nasty adults would quit vandalizing such places.  I assume that present-day graffiti defilers and similar hoodlums did have not have their own building spaces as children, so they don’t know the pain of someone wrecking their creation.  To have a sense of place, kids need little corners of the world where they can make magic.

As some kids in Maine do.  Let us at least give thanks for that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Why ‘Bad’ Moms Still Should Parent Their Kids

Published by EducationNews.org — Teach incompetent parents responsive, responsible parenting to avoid taking babies away from the people they love.

In her own opinion, Dr. Brenda Harden has made serious mistakes with other people’s lives.

Thirty years ago Harden was a front-line social worker for Child Protective Services in New York City, frequently removing children from troubled, violent or drug-addled homes.  But now, as an Associate Professor at University of Maryland College Park, she develops remedies for what she now considers to be flat-out damage inflicted on vulnerable children.

Speaking at a recent conference, she says, “I’ve done a lot of bad service in my life.  I have moved children with clothes in black trash bags, and with all the metaphor that goes along with it, about being throw-aways.  I can’t tell you how many attached family relationships I’ve interrupted.  Sometimes there were good reasons.  But mostly we (social services) are re-traumatizing children in our efforts to help.”

That’s some indictment.

If a state’s Child Protective Services (CPS) find that a kid’s parents, usually Mom, are substance-involved, hurtful, mentally ill or neglectful, obviously the best thing to do is to get that kid out of there, asap.  Duh.  Right?

But Harden’s research proves that it’s absolutely the worst thing you can do — except in totally hopeless cases when Mom is irredeemable.

Automatically removing a child treats moms and babies as though they’re just spare parts.  When Mom doesn’t work out, switch her out for a better one.  Even “congregate or residential care,” essentially institutional orphanages, are preferable to letting Mom keep a baby she doesn’t deserve.

But such babies plunge into mourning.  They can’t express deep loss in ways adults recognize, but mourning it is.  Babies know and love the sound of Mom’s voice, smell, her familiar movements.  Mom is inevitably the first love relationship.  The health or weakness of that bond affects kids’ capacity to attach to others in healthy ways going forward.  Strong mother-child attachments give kids a resilient, socially-healthy start in life.  Weak, screwed-up, or broken early attachments often lead to a range of future problems, including attachment disorders, depression and other mental health issues.

Harden says, “Good mental health is what gets us through life.”

Harden’s research shows that what works best for everyone involved is to teach the “defective” mom how to parent well.  Strengthening rather than weakening their bond gives both the mom and the baby their best shot at future health and success.

Granted, if everyone’s best efforts reveal the situation to be hopeless, of course you have to terminate parental rights and liberate the child for adoption to improve his chances for success.

But before that happens, Harden has trained workers to go into troubled homes to teach moms how to be responsive, affectionate, attentive, playful.  They find a spark between mom and child, and fan it by modeling responsive parenting.  Some women have little feeling for their child, and must fake it until they make it.  But sparks can burst into flames.  Harden shows videos where we see her nurture the mother-child relationship.  One technique is to give Mom a video edited from the workers’ research tapes, that captures happy moments when mom parented well and was rewarded with her child’s joy.  She showed one such, set to the song “Eres Tu” — a tear-jerk, partly because of how much the child adored the awkward mom.  The point is that responsive, responsible parenting can be learned.

“Brains always have capacity to change.  But experience matters.  For a baby, the experience of adversity is the absence of stable care-giving.”

So Harden adores programs that keep “bad” moms and babies together, stabilizing the bond.  Surely her most controversial, but also most convincing example is of incarcerated moms who are allowed to keep their babies.  “Most of the women are in for petty crimes and will be out in 3 months.  Put Early Head Start in prison.  The moms are a captive audience, so build the mother-child care system right there.  Strongly bonding with the baby gives the mom motive to succeed on the outside, when she’s released.”

That makes painful amounts of sense.  The alternative is ripping the baby away from Mom to punish her, but what about the baby?   Strengthening the bond helps Mom stay clean or to lose the drug-dealing boyfriend.

“Moms have a host of problems, DV (domestic violence), substance abuse, mental health issues, developmental delays of their own.  Unless you add services into their lives, you can forget the baby.  With substance abuse, we bring mom into treatment and put the baby somewhere else.  These programs don’t work well.  The moms get out and use again.  The babies provide motive.”

As a culture, are we just too punitive to get our vengeful eyes off the offender and onto collateral casualties, like the kids?  By removing defective moms as though they didn’t matter, social services endorses the kick-out mentality.  The mom is bad, thus disposable.  Labeling people “bad” and putting them aside is too simple.  It ignores all the connections, the attachments, the context.

As such, automatically removing children from troubled homes is an early-childhood version of the kick-out mentality that leads to the classroom-to-prison pipeline.  It demeans how critically important relationships are to kids — all kids, of all ages.  Family members are not spare parts.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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What Does a Flourishing, Healthy, Competent Kid Look Like?

Published by EducationNews.org — Child Trends is working on a new project to track positive trends among children and youth.

Child Trends has started a “Flourishing Child Project.”

Ironically, Child Trends (CT) has long been among my most reliable sources of data about the state of American kids, almost all of which is depressingly negative.  Their briefs cover substance abuse, grandparents taking over for parents, obesity, and other sad social indicators.

But getting away from this intense negativity is precisely the point.  As their site notes, “There is a critical need to monitor positive development among children and youth.”

Yes.  What gets measured, gets valued.  What gets valued get attention and resources.

So they want to balance our obsession with kids’ deficits and problems — teen pregnancy, poverty, juvenile incarceration — with attention to the qualities we want to see in kids.  What do we hope for them?  Only to graduate and get good test scores?  Really?

What else does it look like when we’ve got it right?  Not for the schools, not for the tests, not for meeting state accountability standards — but for the flesh-and-blood kids themselves?

What, in Child Trend’s words, does a flourishing kid look like?

They’ve come up with a draft of 19 qualities, under six domains.  Under the largest domain, “Personal Flourishing,” includes Gratitude, Forgiveness, Hope, Goal Orientation, Life Satisfaction, Purpose, and Spirituality.  Environmental Stewardship stands alone in the smallest domain of the same name.

With these and other qualities in hand, the next task is to find or invent ways of measuring whether we’re getting better at helping kids develop them.  This will be a big job, to be sure.

But as the site insists, “It’s good science.  The study of child development, and of human development more broadly, encompasses both positive and negative developmental processes.”

Education as a field is terrific at measuring the negative.  Or at least coming up with negative conclusions thanks to narrow measures.

So, for example, the Project will develop reliable measures for characteristics like “educational engagement.” Test scores indicate what kids have learned, but tell us nothing about whether they actually give a fig about the stuff.

When educators, officials and the public — though definitely not parents — look to see if students meet goals, they look at a few bits of data.  Winning scores and graduation rates keep the state and federal accountability police at bay.  Schools with low scores are named, shamed and in some cases threatened with take-overs and job losses.

I’m all for accountability and test scores, but where on earth are the kids in all this?  We don’t measure whether students are kind, generous or civic-minded?  And if those qualities don’t matter, what does?  Do we just want schools to feed a workforce to the Economy — a goal that’s not working out all that well anyway?

I love Child Trends’ use of the word “flourishing.”  It’s organic, like juicy apples and happy babies.

Under the right conditions, all children can flourish.  They may not finish college, though there should be more of that.  However, they might thrive in a trade apprenticeship that will lead to good money and useful occupation.  They might be content supporting themselves in a dumb day job while pursuing an art or personal passion.  They might know how to gather a team around themselves to help the struggle through illness, a parent’s death, a bad break-up, or major disappointment.  They might develop the critical combination of altruism and thick skin allowing them to become effective leaders.

Whatever their test scores, these are adults-in-the-making whom we would love to have among us.

And it only stands to reason that kids who are flourishing would, oh btw, get better test scores.

So Child Trends will counter-balance miserable indicators with measures of healthy kids.  Qualities like self-control, empathy and optimism can all change for the better under improved conditions.

For example, it’s possible Child Trends’ research will show that girls with a strong sense of purpose reliably avoid premature pregnancies.  Okay.  Well, both community service and career exploration are very good at helping middle-school kids get their heads in their futures, sparking dreams and ambitions that give them a sense of purpose.  Both initiatives have slipped out of fashion in recent years.  But surely they’re a wiser, never mind cheaper investment than paying the expenses incurred over the lifetimes of the roughly one million babies born to unprepared teens each year.

The Project is hoping that documenting trends in such data will be able to convince the folks with the purse strings to invest in kids’ positive development, instead of spending gobs of resources on prisons and other failures to clean up our social messes after the fact.

The Flourishing Child Project is an overdue effort to shift to a more satisfying conversation about kids.  What do we want?  How do we measure it?  A love of learning is innate.  So the healthier the kid, the more she’ll take charge of her own learning, on her own, for her own reasons.

Given decent teachers, an optimistic focus, and juicy opportunities, students will make sure the test scores take care of themselves.

Accentuate the positive.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears atGoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Comforting a Child is a Basic Life Skill

Published by EducationNews.org — At a Waldorf-inspred school in Providence, a caring adult helps an angry boy learn an important lesson in caring and empathy that teachers and schools would do well to consider.

A delicious grandmotherly smell wafts through the Mariposa pre-school in Providence.  This old-fashioned-looking childhood oasis, in the midst of city grit, is idyllic.

Well, except for the boy banging the head of a cloth baby doll against a table.  Hmmmmm.

An oven in the real-kitchen area – there’s also a play kitchen – is baking granola-bar snacks that the four-year-olds made with Miss Susan, an adult aide.  While one little baker stirred the dough, others sang a cooking song.

At the sink, two girls stand on chairs to “wash the dishes” in super-sudsy water.  The kitchen is a floury, sudsy mess.  But the clean-up song and Miss Susan help them get it tidy again.  Even housework looks fun.

Across the way, a kerfuffle erupts because the grocery-store shelves are empty.  How can they play store, shrieks one irate customer?  An adult wonders aloud if the store might be re-stocked with the toy food and packages that found their way to the play dining area.  The little rocket scientists light up with a genius solution – grab baskets and move the stuff.

At this Waldorf-inspired school, the playthings are attractive, non-commercial, designed for imaginative play, and distinctly unhip.  (Who needs hip 4-year-olds?)

But that boy – we’ll call him Roger – can’t seem to stop banging that baby’s head, even when asked nicely.  His vehemence is upsetting.  Perhaps a new sibling at home has ignited murderous Cain-and-Abel passions.  This could happen to any family.

Or he could be signaling bigger, distressing issues in his life.

One of six public preschools being piloted in Rhode Island with a federal grant, Mariposa’s students are predominantly urban.

So however gauzy, pretty, and middle-class the atmosphere, Child Protective Services has been called more than once.

My heart warms all the more to see low-income urban kids having a blast, losing themselves in self-made games, make believe, and building projects.  Without Mariposa, they’d likely be home with too much TV, or in a less-gorgeously appointed daycare center, also with TV.

Head Teacher Miss Meghan (McDermott) finishes what she’s doing to work with the boy whose attacks are turning full-on violent.

I can’t hear specific words over the kinder-din.  But McDermott gets down to child-level to show him how to hold a baby.  This only triggers his inner Cain.  So she gently takes the poor baby doll herself to comfort it, with the gestures of a fabulous mom.  She cradles it in her arms, rocks gently, and repeatedly kisses what would have been a fatal concussion.  Occasionally she strokes Roger’s arm, to help him feel what the baby would be feeling.  He nods studiously.  He looks at the doll at least as much as McDermott.  He asks questions.  She answers one by showing him how to put the baby over her shoulder and pat it.

Then, with outstretched arms, he wants the baby back.  Okay.  McDermott gets another doll and together they mother their respective babies, cradling, rocking, stroking.

Waldorf classrooms always have squares of fun-colored cloth hanging about, as an all-purpose toy.  McDermott adroitly fashions one into a snuggie for Roger’s baby.  Roger, enraged moments ago, holds very still, as though the operation were quite delicate, and with surprisingly bright eyes, watches her tie the baby to his body.

By then an audience of three other boys had assembled, fascinated.  With Roger’s sling complete, they all want babies and slings of their own.  McDermott obliges.  Roger, now an expert, instructs them in his new-found skills – stroking, kissing, snuggling.  McDermott generously praises them.

So there they were, four urban boys practicing mothering in a comically-serious way.

Perhaps such care and comfort is not so available at home.  They’re learning it now, though, rehearsing the sweet behavior of a confident, secure mom, not harassed by the challenges of poverty, or working long hours, or single motherhood, or having more children than she can handle.  McDermott leaves them, busy soothing their babies, and in the case of Roger, soothing himself.

Mariposa’s Director Dr. Kristen Greene says, “Modeling mothering is a great route to teaching empathy, caring, kindness – all qualities we know we want to bring forth in our little ones.  Sadly, we are ignoring these human traits too much of late. Gentleness is actually something that children need to be taught.  The gentle person is considering another person’s experience, wanting it to be loving and caring. Children must learn this skill, or at least see it, experience it, have it recognized and affirmed when they act in this way.  Our predominant culture contains a lot of violence, especially in the media, and does not offer children a lot of opportunities to observe gentleness in action.”

So many parents today, at every socio-economic level, had poor models of sweet and gentle parenting when they were little.  How would they know how to teach it to their kids?

These boys’ lesson in nurturing might stay with them, if their schools continue to reinforce such values with them and their parents.  All problems, at home, school and elsewhere, are more tolerable when people treat one another mindfully, affectionately, playfully.

Nurture is a critical life skill, like showing up to work every day on time.  Everyone should know how to comfort a child.  (And how to comfort one another.)  How will children learn to be kind and caring, if they don’t see us model the behavior we want to see in them?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears atGoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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A Focus on Brain Development, Relationships Pays Off

Published by EducationNews.org — By paying attention to brain development, neurological health and parent relationships at the earliest ages, we can radically improve outcomes for more kids.

Here’s a jaw-dropping stat: A kid’s brain develops 50,000 synapses EVERY MINUTE.

Synapses are the connections made by the brain’s information-carrying cells, neurons, that “wire” our experience into knowledge, skills, and emotions.  Synapses build neuronal strings that form a foundational network that starts in utero and continues after birth when life experiences flood the baby’s brain.

Eventually, a typical 22-year-old male has about 105,000 MILES of neuronal strings in his brain.

The problem is that bad early wiring inevitably produces problems later on.

The way Dr. Charles Zeneah puts it, “The brain grows from the bottom up.  If we can establish lower-level capacities, the rest is easier.  Like a house, if the foundation is well constructed, it’s a whole lot easier to fix, if you have to.  As time goes on, the window of opportunity to change the child’s trajectory starts to diminish, and the cost of correcting a maladaptive brain goes up.”

Zeneah was in town to address Rhode Island’s Infant Mental Health Association, on:  “When is it too late?  Intervening after early adversity.”

A professor of psychiatry at Tulane, Zeneah is a board member of Zero to Three.  They collaborated on Neurons to Neighborhoodsa seminal book, fully 2 inches thick, presenting evidence that shows how failing to nurture healthy infant brains, right from the start, has dire consequences.

So even if you only care about tax dollars, know that fabulous mothering at the outset radically reduces the cost of special education, residential placement and prisons.

Still, policy-makers and the public are having a horrible time wrapping their heads around the importance of strong mother/child attachments.  But a healthy young brain is precisely what establishes a resilient, creative, trusting foundation for the inevitable adversities that all children will face when older and more independent.

Zeneah always shows videos, often heart-breaking ones, to make his points.  Today we’ll hang out with “Harold.”  We meet him at 15 months old.  He’s in child-protective care because Mom dropped him off at a neighbor’s and said she’d be back in an hour.  After several days she hadn’t shown up.

In Louisiana Zeneah created an Infant Mental Health Team program that works with child-protective services, the courts, and kids like Harold.  The Team supports both child and mother, if possible, to salvage that relationship.  When they can’t, after plenty of trying, they recommend the termination of parental rights to release the child to a loving mother as soon as possible. (All states need these teams.)

Zeneah insists that all kids need a mom, one specific person committed to the child, who’s nurturing and responsive, over time.  Babies must be “the apple of someone’s eye.”  Food, shelter and clothing are by no means enough.

In the video, Harold is weird.  He sit frozen in an uncomfortable-looking posture.  His biological mother tries to engage him with bubbles, conversation and toys.  He watches her intently, but is otherwise non-responsive.

Often, when researchers observe mother/child relationships, Mom leaves the child alone for a minute and then returns.  When Harold’s mother steps out, he crawls awkwardly to the door, gurgling a creepy, desperate cry.   When Mom returns, Harold acknowledges her with a little smile, but heads right past her out the door.  Not much attachment there.  She picks him up, but he can’t be comforted.

That video was taken when he was living with a first foster mom who was overwhelmed with caring for too many challenged people.  So they gave Harold a new placement where he could get more individualized attention.

The next clip shows us Harold at 18 months, after only 6 weeks with the new foster mom.  He thinks she’s a blast.  He’s walking, chasing the bubbles this time, smiling, verbalizing.  And when she returns after the minute of absence, he throws himself into her arms.

Six weeks.

“Harold’s a new man.  He’s in love, and he’s all right.”

With the right nurture and responsiveness, those 50,000 synapses a minute built Harold a new attitude and approach to life.

Infant brains are hardwired to attach to a mom.  If that early attachment gets screwed up, the child is not “securely attached.”   After 22 months, building a strongly-attached relationship gets harder and harder.  It’s critical to get it right the first time.

Zeneah laments, “The biggest disappointment in my career was in the 1980s, when relationships and relationship disorders were getting attention, but little research was done.  We still don’t have good descriptions of relationships themselves, so we can’t communicate effectively about the problems we are dealing with.  Even so, we know quality parenting matters.  But when it comes to foster care parents, we’re desperate.  Please take this kid.  Do you have a pulse?  Instead, we should figure out who’s really good at mothering and use marketing to recruit them.  So much involves the commitment to the child.  That’s one thing we can improve.”

He recommends finding and paying super-moms.  By all means, do everything you can to improve mother/child relations.  But if and when that fails, intervene with someone really good.

Harold’s behavior tells us his second foster parent has the super-mom chops.  Support more of the likes of her.  Create professional super-mom jobs AND develop a healthier bunch to join the workforce later on.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears atGoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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