Staff Collaboration: Every School’s Secret Treasure

In schools across the country there are educators full of wisdom, experience, new ideas and unique personal skills. We all have wonderful ideas and information to share. We all love helping and we’re pretty good at being supportive (that’s a big reason why we chose this field). Yet most teachers are very isolated in their classrooms or only have opportunities to communicate with the other teachers or support staff within the same age-level group.

How well is your school using the resources you have in your own teachers? Many schools encourage mentor relationships between new and experienced teachers, but do teachers have an opportunity to come together as a school and share issues and ideas? Do you have a forum for group brainstorming to solve problems? How comfortable does your staff feel when it comes to sharing their ideas or insights?

Today’s schools and child care centers are facing increasingly difficult  issues. Children with complex cognitive, social, developmental or emotional problems. Families under great stress. Programs under financial stress or struggling with the burdens of unfunded mandates. Staff professional development is important, and can be very helpful, but you may be amazed at how much information is locked away in the minds of your teachers.

Complex issues require collaborative problem solving, and when teachers and administrators come together in a collaborative environment, effective solutions can be only a brainstorm away! Think about implementing weekly or monthly staff meetings. If you already do this, make sure you set aside time at the meetings for open discussions and opportunities for collaboration. A team approach to problem solving encourages everyone to become invested in the solution and can raise the quality of teaching across your school.

What is Academically Rigorous?

Today, as I was searching the internet for information on effective nap time routines, I came across an older article from the Washington Post, “Preschools Break From Nap Time“. Apparently Superintendents of  public schools in Virginia and Maryland eliminated nap time from their preschool day because it is precious academic time that is wasted.

Nap time needs to go away,” Prince George’s County, Md., schools chief Andri J. Hornsby said recently. “We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do.

After reading the article, I am dumbfounded! Yes, preschool and child care programs should provide opportunities for children to grow and learn, to partake in enriching and challenging experiences. Research shows that children who have these enriching early experiences are more successful in school.

Research also shows that elementary school children in classrooms where teachers group children into collaborative teams to explore concepts, topics or complex problems that are interesting and meaningful to the children perform better on standardized tests and have fewer behavior issues in school than their peers in traditional classroom environments.

The academic terms for these teaching practices include Complex Instruction, Inquiry Based Learning, Multiple Intelligence Theory, Collaborative Peer Grouping. These terms sound intimidating and complicated, but when you really take a look at the concepts, it is all about doing what most quality preschool programs do already. The teacher serves as a guide to help children learn more about the things they are curious about (brings a magnifying glass to a child looking at a bug on the playground) and invites them to try and explore new ideas (later shows the child a book on different bugs and their habitats). Teachers set up experiences so that children can learn in different ways (sing ABCs, read an ABC book, point out letters in signs). Kids work together to solve problems (how to build a really tall castle with the blocks).

It turns out that when elementary schools take these preschool teaching methods and tweak them to fit the learning goals of their students, the kids actually like learning! Instead of Superintendents trying to push outdated elementary school teaching practices to the preschool level, maybe the preschool teachers should be sharing some of their magic with the elementary schools.

Is Your Program Taking Advantage of Federal Stimulus Funds?

Did you know that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), or federal stimulus package, includes a decent amount of funding for improving early childhood education? And if our legislators have done any reading on current economic research, they will realize that funding early childhood programs is a great use of federal money.

The return on investment is unheard of in financial circles (close to 16%). Studies show that when states help all children go to preschool, they spend less on costly special education services as children enter elementary school, families have more disposable income which they spend in the economy, crime rates go down as these children get older, states spend less on expensive social support services… the list of positive, money-saving and economy-boosting impacts goes on and on!

PreKnow.org has devoted a page on their website to helping early childhood programs learn about state programs and initiatives that are backed by ARRA money. Take a look at what your state is doing and check out the other resources PreK Now has available to help you navigate the funding possibilities available to you as a result of this stimulus package. You could find funds for everything from teacher training to curriculum materials. It’s worth a look!

Get in the Habit of Starting the Day Right

For most families, the time between when the alarm goes off and when we get to work is the busiest, most stressful time of the day. We wake up tired and move non-stop getting kids out of bed, getting everyone dressed and fed, packing up daycare bags, school bags, work bags and herding the kids out the door with a lot of arm-waving and hollering, as if that will some get them out the door on time. It is not a happy way to start the day for anyone.

Believe it or not, there is another way! Recently I came across an article on Wrightslaw.com with tips for parents on how to get the day off to a more positive start. It is geared towards parents of school-age kids, if you can get into the habit of following these tips when your kids are small, they will become lasting habits that will help your family get through the many years of school mornings to come.

  • Plan ahead– lay out clothes and pack bags the night before, set everything by the door that needs to leave the house with you.
  • Get a good night’s sleep– parents and kids need to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep leads to health problems, focus problems and makes it harder to manage stress.
  • Moment of morning peace– parents, get up at least 15 minutes before the kids so that you can enjoy a cup of coffee and a moment of peace before the rush or the day begins.
  • Wake them with a smile– get creative about how you wake up the kids. Wake them up with fun music, kiss them awake or have a stuffed animal do the job. Try to get a smile.
  • Give them time– some kids need more time to shake off the night’s sleep. Wake kids up with plenty of time so that they don’t have to be pushed through the morning. If this means enforcing an earlier bed time, do it!
  • Talk– now that you’ve planned ahead, have relaxed a bit yourself and are less rushed, take some time to talk with your kids about what the day will bring. What are you excited to do today? Take advantage of an opportunity to make communication a habit! It will pay off as the kids get older.
  • Laugh– morning is a great time to get goofy. Sharing a laugh is a great way to start the day.
  • Eat well– breakfast is the most important part of the day. Feed your kids healthy food that will stick with them, and remember your job as role model- eat a good breakfast yourself!
  • Hug– squeeze in that hug before you part with your kids for the day. It’s a small gesture, but a little love goes a long way to get you all through the day.

Teachers know that a child’s state of mind when they walk through the door in the morning has a huge impact on their ability to be successful in school. These tips sound simple, but they can make a big difference.

The only addition I would make is to plead with parents to turn off the cell phone during those moments when you drop of your child in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. Children need to feel loved and missed. They are not going to get that message if a parent has their phone on their ear during those moments of transition.

Tackling the Transition Time Challenge

Whether you are working with toddlers, preschoolers or young elementary school children, the most challenging parts of the day tend to be those moments when everyone must stop what they are doing and transition to starting the next activity. A recent article in Child Care Information Exchange, “Eliminating Transitions“, tackles this issue head-on and asks, why do we have so many moments of transition anyway?

How are transition times working in your classroom? Change causes stress, especially if children are really involved in play or some other project. Chances are it is during transition times when most behavior issues arise. We choose to be early childhood educators because we love to nurture and support children, but during transition times, we often become more like drill sergeants! Even for teachers transition times are stressful.

Here are some of the questions the authors encourage teachers to explore as you evaluate their own schedule:

  • How often do children go through transition times? Count the number of transitions that occur throughout the day. Aim for 6 or fewer for half-day programs and 8 or fewer for full-day. How many of these transitions involve the entire group?
  • Time each transition from beginning to end. What percentage of your day is actually spent in transition?
  • Are some transitions more difficult than others?
  • What are the children doing during each transition time? Note instances of challenging behaviors. Notice if many children are spending a lot of time waiting for others. What are they doing while they wait?
  • What are the adults doing during the transitions?

Once you’ve gathered this information, really think about how your schedule is working for you and your children. Can you redesign some transitions to involve small groups of children at staggered intervals? Can you eliminate some transitions all together?

The article goes on to describe the many benefits of lengthening blocks of play time and reducing the number of transitions children experience each day, including:

  • more opportunities for teachers to interact with children
  • more opportunities for children to interact with one another and develop social skills
  • more elaborate play and increased levels of problem-solving by children as they get more involved in dramatic play or self-created projects
  • less stress on teachers and children
  • more opportunities for meaningful observation by teachers

In short, reducing the number of transition times can create a better learning environment.

Get Parents Involved From Day One

Just a few days before the new school year began, my son’s preschool held a parent orientation social. For the school is was part of a new initiative to be more open to families, though it was presented as an opportunity to meet fellow parents and the school staff and also to learn of some of the changes parents might notice in the upcoming school year. My older daughter had also attended the same school previously but this was my first invitation to such an event.

Even though I was very familiar with the school, the idea of “important new changes” made it an event I didn’t want to miss. We learned about the new school calendar, listened to various speakers, enjoyed food and drink and socialized. But the benefits for me went way beyond schedule updates. I met many new parents and renewed connections with returning parents. Most importantly, I left the event with a better understanding of the motivation for and the philosophy behind a lot of the school’s rules and quirks and gained a renewed appreciation for the dedication of the entire staff.

Whether you work with young children in a public school, private school or child care environment, parents have a huge impact on a child’s success. Why not bring them on board with your program from day one? A parent orientation night is a great way to begin building the home/school connection. Here are a few tips:

  • Make it a relaxed experience- the more informal the better. Have it outdoors if you can (be sure to invite parents to explore the classroom!), keep lecture-style sessions short and sweet.
  • Review basic expectations- A parent handbook is great, but is only informative if a parent reads it! Review some of the more important expectations of your program, but try to frame it by talking about the best interest of the child. For example, “school starts at 8:30am. If your child arrives late they miss out on an important adjustment period and the opportunity to socialize. They will have a harder time adjusting. Please try to be on time.” A parent is more likely to respect an expectation if they understand the potential impact on their child.
  • Offer your experience- Yes, rules of the school are important, but equally important are tips or insights that will reduce a parent’s anxieties. What is the best way to say good bye? What can I do to prepare my child for school? How can I expect my child to react the first few days?
  • Make it a fun- give parents lots of breaks between information sessions to socialize

Later in the week I thanked the director for hosting the event and in our conversation I learned that the school experienced an equally positive and unexpected outcome.

  • fewer issues with separation anxiety
  • children adjusted to the classroom more quickly

Thanks to the information parents received at that orientation meeting, children were better prepared for the school day and parents were better prepared to say “good-bye” at drop-off in a healthy, positive way. The director commented that while the start of a new school year is always exciting, this year there seemed to be a lot more positive energy coming from the staff and parents.

Early childhood teachers have a unique opportunity to get parents on the path of school involvement, a habit that, once they pick up, they’ll likely continue into grade school and beyond. Getting parents involved isn’t easy. Capitalize on those “first day jitters” by hosting a parent event. When parents are involved the child benefits and the school benefits.

Tips to Ease PreK and New School Anxieties

It’s that time of year again and parents everywhere are preparing to send their kids off to begin a new school year. While some kids (and parents) are thrilled with the idea, for many the upcoming changes can be a source of anxiety.

These simple tips posted on a Baltimore, MD, ABC affiliate’s web page will help calm those anxieties and ease the transition to a new school year.

  1. Don’t ignore the worries. Help children to understand that being a little nervous is normal.
  2. Prepare your child. Talk about what they might do in their new classroom. Visit the school or program ahead of time. Meet the teacher. Read books about going to school
  3. Be understanding. Children who are feeling stress might start having accidents, not sleep well, have a hard time eating, etc. Take notice of these signs, and don’t add to the stress by punishing your child.
  4. Focus on the good. Ask your child what they are excited to do, see or try at their new school.
  5. Play it cool. While you want your child to be prepared for the upcoming changes, you don’t want to talk about it so much that you create new anxieties.