Understanding the Emotional Health of Children

In the month before school started, my 6 year old daughter became an emotional time bomb. She would seize up with anxiety over what many might think of as typical kid activities- riding a bike, going to the swimming pool, even playing the wii. I was worried. Did she have an anxiety disorder? Should I allow her to skip out on these activities without a second thought, or should I push her to “get over it”?

Thankfully, once the school year started and the looming “unknown” of a new school transformed into an ordinary routine, the anxieties faded. She’s still a cautious kid, but she is no longer paralyzed with fear.

We live in stressful times. More and more children are being diagnosed with serious emotional disorders like anxiety and depression. Parents and caregivers worry about the emotional health of their children. When is a behavior normal, and when should we take it as a signal of something that needs addressing?

Keeping Young Minds Healthy is an article by Jeffrey Kluger that appeared in Time Magazine. According to this article, “about one in five children in the U.S. suffers from some sort of emotional or behavioral condition.” Kluger goes on to provide very helpful information for understanding when a behavior is normal and when the condition should be looked into further. Here are a few common issues and guidelines:

  • Anxiety– it is common for separation anxiety to be cyclical, peaking at around 8 months, 2 yrs and then again around age 5. If children beyond this age continue to dread separations because of fears of their safety or their parents’ safety, and if children constantly ask “what-if” questions (“what if there’s a fire?” “What if we get into a car accident?”) they could be having more serious anxiety problems.
  • Depression– moodiness and sensitivity are common personality traits and are not a signal of depression. Nor is sadness triggered by an event. If your child also has a loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping and seems unable to enjoy things in general, then you might want to look into the problem further.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive– most obsessive or compulsive behaviors in children under age 8 are just a normal part of development as they learn new skills or try to feel more in control of their world. But if these behaviors get in the way of your child’s happiness or ability to be out in the world, there may be an issue.
  • Attention Deficit (ADD/ADHD)– most children have moments of hyperactivity, difficulties staying on task and limited impulse control. This does not mean they have ADD/ADHD. But if you feel the behaviors are extreme- if your child is rarely not hyperactive, rarely on task and completely unable to control impulses, you might want to look into it. Symptoms usually become noticeable between the ages of 3 and 6 years.

If you do think your child might be struggling with a serious issue, look into it. Addressing these issues when children are young can be very helpful in preventing more serious problems down the road.


Teaching Social Skills to Preschoolers with Special Needs

Teaching social skills is a big part of the preschool experience. Usually this instruction is woven into our daily interactions with children. We model the behavior we want to see and most children pick up on it and begin to act as they see us acting. Unfortunately, for many children with special needs, this natural, hands-off approach to teaching social skills just doesn’t work.

Children with developmental delays, sensory integration issues, autism spectrum disorders and other challenges don’t pick up on social cues just by watching others. They need to be taught in a hands-on way and they need a lot of direct practice. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Be consistent with the phrases you use– when you teach a child a phrase to use in a particular social situation (“hello” as a greeting, “see you tomorrow” at the end of the day, “Can I have a turn?” to initiate sharing, etc.) make sure you always use that same phrase in that same situation. Teach other adults in your program and even the other children to use the same phrase as well.
  • Don’t be afraid of using direct instruction to teach social skills– consider using circle time to talk about the idea of sharing. Allow the child with special needs to practice sharing by giving him a toy and then asking for it back. Have the child go around the circle giving the toy to each friend and then getting it back.
  • Teach a new social skill using all of the children in your group– many children with special needs have a hard time generalizing a new skill. When you teach a child a new skill, encourage her to practice it with as many peers as possible.
  • Embed opportunities for direct social interactions into your daily routine– For example, when circle time is over, dismiss children in pairs. Call on one child to be dismissed and then ask that child to invite a friend to leave the circle with him. Do the same when going to the table for snack or going outside.
  • Teach kindness and patience to all children– be direct in explaining that we are all friends and we are all different. Everyone is good at something and no one is good at everything. We all need different kinds of help and we should always try to help each other.
  • Teach persistence– We can all get frustrated when we are working on something that is hard to do. Children with special needs are just more likely to be quick to show their frustration. Help them to learn persistence by breaking things down into smaller parts and by giving a lot of positive reinforcement.

Teaching social skills can be challenging, but when you invest the time to build a spirit of community in your classroom you will be well rewarded with fewer behavior issues and more time for fun!

A Deeper Look at “Autistic-Like”

At the NAEYC Annual Conference in Anaheim I had the pleasure of watching a showing of the documentary Autistic-Like by filmmaker and father, Erik Linthorst. The film chronicles the journey of a family as they come to the realization that their beautiful toddler is not developing as children typically do and follows them through the maze of doctors, testing, therapies and emotional highs and lows that follow.

As early childhood educators, we are often present in the lives of families when the process of diagnosis of autism begins. And while we may be aware that going through this is difficult for parents, it is eye-opening to see the parent perspective presented in such an honest and intelligent way.

What really caught my attention was the exploration of sensory processing disorders as another possible reason for autistic-like behaviors in children. Everything in a child’s environment is filtered through the senses, and when the senses are not coordinating well, children can become overwhelmed or feel a sense of detachment. This can lead to self-soothing and repetitive behaviors that look an awful lot like autism.

In the documentary, this family discovers that their son may have sensory processing problems, and may not be autistic after all. They explore “floor time” a therapy outlined by Dr. Stanley Greenspan and eventually decide to pursue a DIR (Developmental, Individual and Relationship-based) course of therapy that yields impressive results. It made me realize that the behaviors typically associated with autism are simply behaviors and when we see those behaviors, we need to take the time to figure out the reason behind the behavior before jumping to the conclusion of autism.

For parents interested in exploring more about sensory processing issues, there is an online parent network at www.sensoryplanet.com.

Creating a Classroom for All Abilities

As our society has become more aware of the importance of quality preschool experiences in general and the value of early intervention for children with developmental delays and other special needs, it makes sense that more and more preschools are including children with special needs in their classrooms.

Research shows that full inclusion benefits all children. Children with special needs make greater gains and develop better social skills when they are integrated into a classroom of children with typical development, and typical children learn to negotiate and value differences and often benefit from the variety of new teaching techniques explored by teachers. But what does full inclusion look like?

In an informative download created to encourage New York City preschool teachers to explore full inclusion, the author defines inclusion as;

a philosophy built on the belief that every person is a valued, participating member of the community and that people with and without disabilities benefit when they learn, work, and play side-by-side. For preschoolers, it means placing children with disabilities into classes with children without disabilities, as appropriate, and providing them with the necessary services and supports to enable them to benefit from being there.

The key to successful inclusion is to create an environment where individual differences are respected and celebrated and where a culture of friendship and mutual respect is fostered. I have had the pleasure of visiting several preschool programs that follow the model of full inclusion. While their teaching philosophies vary greatly, I found many similarities in the classroom climate:

  • Children are given the opportunity to learn about one another– whether through “show-and-tell” style opportunities at circle time or a rotating “special child of the week,” every child is given a chance to share information about their families, hobbies, likes and interests. This encourages friendships and deeper connections between the children.
  • Children are encouraged to ask for help and give help– nobody is good at everything but everyone is good at something. Recognizing and understanding this encourages self esteem and promotes positive interdependent relationships.
  • Children are given choices– when children are allowed to make choices about the activities they engage in, they become more committed to that activity and teachers are more likely to see a positive outcome. Offering choices acknowledges and respects differences among children and gives everyone the opportunity to be successful.
  • Teachers are honest and open with children about differences– children inevitably notice obvious differences in physical appearance, abilities and behaviors and are naturally curious. Rather than ignoring or skirting children’s questions, successful inclusive classroom teachers answer these questions in a simple but honest way. “Corey has a hard time talking and so he uses these picture cards to help us understand what he wants to say.”

After watching all of the children in these inclusive classrooms, and how naturally they interact with one another, it is easy to see how important skills of tolerance, patience, appreciation for the skills and understanding of the limitations of others will translate into a group of adults who will be more tolerant, understanding and socially skillful than most of us who have rarely interacted with people with disabilities. Imagine how all of society will benefit down the road!


What is RTI and How Does it Work in Preschool?

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a term that is being used a lot in schools across the country. Basically, it is an effort to give children a more customized educational experience. Over the past decade schools have found that an increasing number of their students need special education services. This is costly for schools, and because the special education referral process can take a lot of time, it is also costly to the children who have to wait to receive the support they need to succeed in school.

As a response to this issue, many states and school districts have begun exploring teaching techniques that can be used in elementary classrooms, with all of the children. The hope is that this effort to meet children’s individual needs early will help prevent the need for intervention services down the road. Because many children are referred to Special Ed for reading or or behavior issues, many schools’ RTI initiatives revolve around support in these areas.

While much of the RTI efforts across the country are in elementary schools, the approach can also be very successful in preschools. The earlier we can catch issues that may cause a child some difficulties in school, the easier it is to address those needs and keep that child learning at the same level as his peers.

According to the Center for Response to Intervention in Early Childhood, the hope is that RTI in preschool will provide:

  • General Pre-K instruction that is more individualized, more responsive to children’s needs, and that can be implemented without long delays
  • An increase in the percentage of children ready for Kindergarten
  • A reduction in children that need special education services
  • A coordinated system of care and education that finds children, and brings services to them at appropriate speed

There are some challenges that come with bringing the RTI model into preschools. For example:

  • RTI assumes coordinated teamwork between general and special education to carry out screening, progress monitoring and to implement tiers of intervention. Many preschools do not have special educators on staff.
  • RTI models assume a high level of expertise to carry out interventions in three tiers. Again, finding teachers with that expertise at the preschool level is not easy.
  • Few evidence-based curricula and interventions are available and widely implemented, especially at Tier 1

I have been involved with a team implementing RTI at a local preschool and going through the process of meeting our state’s desired preschool outcomes has been very beneficial for the staff and the children. It has created a better program. I am also happy to say that the WoW Kit curriculum was used to help meet tier 1 and tier 2 learning goals and we met that challenge with great success!

Making a Great Environment for All Learners

Quality early childhood programs are devoted to seeing all children grow, develop and thrive. While most would agree that this statement includes children with special needs, creating an environment where ALL children can be successful takes more than open hearts and minds. It takes thought, planning, preparation.

Beyond the Journal, an online publication from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has a wonderful article on the topic, “Including Children with Special Needs: Are You and Your Program Ready?” Here you’ll find a checklist for preschool and kindergarten programs that will give you a sense of your strengths and weaknesses as you build a truly inclusive environment.

The checklist encompasses:

  • Home-school communication
  • Supporting positive behavior
  • Assessment and curriculum
  • Supporting social skills
  • Issues related to specific disabilities including: physical disabilities, vision or hearing impairments, communication and language disorders, intellectual disabilities, sensory integration concerns
  • Considerations for outdoor space

Many programs serving children with special needs have found the WoWKits curriculum to be a very effective teaching tool. For more information see WoWKits and Children with Special Needs

Raising Bilingual Children

As the world becomes more and more connected, the benefits of celebrating diversity are clear. Children who are exposed to different cultures, different experiences and different languages will be better prepared for whatever lies ahead. Whether or not a parent (or parents) come from another country, it is this line of thought that is leading more and more parents to become interested in raising bilingual children.

Today, parents who are native speakers of another language, often choose to maintain that language at home. They promote English language learning through school and other outside experiences. In addition, many native English speakers here in the US are choosing to send their children to bilingual schools or hire a bilingual caregiver that can provide an environment of immersion for their children in a second language.

Either approach can be very successful. They key is to be consistent. Young children are sponges for language and will have no problem navigating two (or more!) languages, as long as they have clear expectations of when,  where and with whom they will be speaking each language.

According to an article by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children’s Association, the two most popular methods for dual language learning are:

  • One person, one language- one parent might speak only English to a child, the other only Spanish (or French, Dutch, etc.). In the home both languages are spoken, but the child knows which language to expect from which parent and that remains consistent.
  • Minority Language at Home- in this situation, English is not spoken at home, the entire family speaks only French (or Japanese, Spanish, etc.). Children learn English through interactions and experiences in the community, including attending preschool or other care environments outside the home.

This article stresses that while these are the most popular methods for raising bilingual children, the are not the only methods. Every family needs to find the right fit for them.

People working to raise bilingual children see the advantages of knowing more than one language or culture, but often struggle against the concerns of others. According to Bosemark:

When your child isn’t speaking the community language on the same level as his or her monolingual peers (generally the ML@H child doesn’t reach parity with them until around 5 years of age), it’s difficult not to worry…Some parents fear that he will never learn the primary language, even though this really only occurs when children are isolated from the primary language within a minority speaking community.

Child care providers and parents can work together to ensure strong language development in both languages.

Tips for child care providers/teachers:

  • Help break the ice by encouraging social interactions between English speaking and non-English speaking children. Block play, water play group games and other similar joint experiences can build relationships in a way that doesn’t rely on spoken communication.
  • Build English language skills through songs with finger plays, repetitive text books and a lot of conversation (even if it’s very one-sided at first!)
  • Promote self-esteem by celebrating the child’s native language skills and culture.

Parents can help by:

  • Supporting a child’s efforts to build relationships. Arrange play dates with classmates or other experiences outside the home to encourage English language development.
  • Find books in the home/minority language or engage your child in conversations about the topics that are introduced at school. For example, if your child’s class is starting a unit on Dinosaurs, look for dinosaur books in Spanish (or whatever the home language might be). Talk about the materials or activities your child encounters at school so that the home language vocabulary continues to grow and flourish through the school experiences.

Most importantly, whichever path you choose, be consistent so that your child will know when, where and with whom to speak each language.