Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Environment is Key: Keeping it Calm and Positive

I have long believed that environment is critical in helping kids become their best selves. As a teacher, it is critical that I provide a safe place where kids can take risks, grow socially, academically and emotionally and become independent learners ready for 1st grade! 
As I write this, I become even more painfully aware that this environment is in jeopardy each day as more and more cuts impact education. In some school districts, including a district where I previously worked, K-3 classes are going to rise to 34 students and upper grades: 38+ students. My school will go to 24 students in primary classes next year.  Now if all kids were coming to school healthy, emotionally regulated and ready and able to learn, perhaps there would be less of a  problem.
There seems to be a trend that kids are coming to school with more intense physical and emotional needs; many display challenging behaviors requiring intense individual intervention. From Autism Spectrum Disorders, such as Asperger's to serious food allergies, to asthma to ADHD, not to mention emotional regulation challenges, the average teacher has at least a few students who meet such criteria.
In my class this year, for example, I have at least 5 students who are identified as having asthma. When the weather changes, or after even something as simple as an upper respiratory infection many of those students are given medications which make them absolutely bounce off the walls. I have several highly emotional students whose "meltdowns", particularly in the afternoons when they are tired, are stress-inducing for other students.
Although I am not allowed to diagnose and even further, dislike "labeling" kids, there are at least three students who meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD in my class. These students have great difficulty sustaining attention, cannot sit for more than a few minutes, and disrupt those around them who are ready to learn.  Three of those students are also in the asthma group. Coincidence?
In addition to those with issues of inattention and constant activity, several of my students have recent life changes that impact their daily emotional stability. Divorce, new babies at home, parents laid off or returning to work, parental long-term illness and other issues seriously impact kids each day.  We must arm our kids with tools to deal with their emotions so that they can be in a state of relaxed alertness, ready for learning. 
So, what do we do?
First, we must be sure that we give kids strategies to work through emotions. In class today, we discussed what we can do when we are upset, angry or frustrated. The students came up with some ideas: count to 10, breathe deeply, talk to someone, walk around for a few minutes, get a drink of water, and try to not think about it! Not long ago one of my students came up with a helpful strategy for himself; he says that when he gets upset at school he can "walk around it" in his mind and come back to solve that problem later. Of course, what he says isn't necessarily what he does as he can be observed on many occasions when he doesn't get his way yelling, "I guess you just don't love us!" across the classroom. Although these wise 5 year olds can say what they "could do" they surely need practice and adults who regularly model healthy expression of feelings. 
Not only must we model and explicitly teach healthy ways of expressing anger and frustration, we must also be cognizant of the media influence on young minds. Kids often use video games, movies, tv, and even music lyrics as both models and excuses for their behavior and outbursts. How do they learn to use such excuses at the tender age of five?  Parents may not "allow" their five year olds to play violent video games or watch "mature content" shows, but if someone in the home is doing so with the child walking in and out of the room, the exposure is certainly there. 
Providing a calm, emotionally and physically safe environment must be a team effort between parents and school. The experiences in both environments greatly impact the child and his capacity for learning. We must be vigilant to keep kids feeling calm and safe. Only then will we see optimal growth for each child.
How do you keep the environment safe and positive for your kids, at home or at school? Please share so that we can all learn from each other!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

This is Why I Teach

This letter arrived yesterday, from a boy I taught in Kindergarten(2004/05 school year) during my two years of teaching at Shackelford Elementary. ( If you click the picture above you can read the entire letter!)  My friend Jen, who still teaches there, mailed it to me  (Thanks Jen!)  after Miguel made a point to visit her classroom to give her the letter. 
This letter made my day, as any contact from former students usually does.  The class that I taught that year was my first year in Kindergarten, filled with many little ones completely unprepared for school, and lots of kids like Miguel who would say almost all day long, "I just want to play with the toys!" I can still hear his high-pitched voice ringing in my mind.  Miguel was, and is an adorable kid with deep dark eyes and hair he loves to slick or spike up.
I think I like the part where he asks me to come to visit Shackelford, which I hope to do during my spring break. Or maybe my favorite  is the part where he says that I am the best teacher in the universe. Looking more closely, I think both the last line: So I guess this is the end of my lovely letter and the P.S. I will always remember you are at the top of my favorites.
When was the last time a former student contacted you? What did he/she say? It inspires me to hear about lasting impact and  connections between teachers and students, so please share your stories here!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Helping Parents to be Better Parents

I have had several conversations this week with parents concerned about social-emotional development. They are concerned and committed to ensuring that their child is growing up strong, resilient, able to self-regulate and able to take risks in learning! I find myself often referring parents to the following resources, so I decided to list them here:
  • One of the most helpful websites I have found that helps parents understand factors for building emotional resiliency, empowerment, and overall well-being for kids is Fishful thinking, hosted by Dr. Karen Reivich, co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project, http://fishfulthinking.com/  On this website, there are parent questions and answers, videos, activities for kids, and links to a wealth of resources parents can use to become more aware and better able to meet their child's emotional needs.
  •   Another researcher who has impacted and affirmed my beliefs about kids and success is Carol Dweck from Stanford.  Her book Mindset and links to her work are in great detail here:  http://www.mindsetonline.com/
Both of these websites are filled with a wealth of resources. I often revisit them when an issue with a student leaves me searching for more understanding. I love to find resources to help parents understand and empower their children.
What are your favorite sites to help parents become better parents? 

    Wednesday, March 3, 2010

    Dr. Seuss In My Head

    Oh what a fun day we had yesterday
    As we celebrated Seuss and we learned through word play
    Cat in the Hat, The Foot Book, and Green Eggs and Ham
    How the kids love those rhymes with that Sam I am!
    Little ones will remember
    That school can be fun
    Not just sitting so quietly
    And getting "work done"
    They will smile at home with their striped rhyming hats
    They will practice word families, like "at sat and cat"
    Some will draw funny pictures and then will write more
    Silly kids may chant rhymes as they shop in the store
    So thank you Dr. Seuss with your love for word play
    In Kindergarten we love you on more than one day!

    Monday, March 1, 2010

    Easier to Blame the Kids Than Reflect: What Happened Today?

    Today was not one of my most favorite days in kindergarten. A multitude of factors influenced the day and I must give them their fair props. Amongst those that stand out in my mind:
    • I was out of the classroom for an entire week while my intern was doing her solo week. She is wonderful and the kids love her; it's just that having 2 teachers is a lot like having a 2 household situation as in the case of divorced parents.We are consistent, but they still test us!
    • Before last week was winter break, so it's been 2 entire weeks since the kids have had me with them in class.
    • It was Monday, a day in general where we have to introduce lots of new information; This means lots of time on the carpet and lots of having to participate and pay attention! Even though we have movement breaks, long stretches on the carpet pose a huge challenge.
    • I felt stressed after reading the District writing assessment prompt which requires my students to do writing that, at first glance, appears to be much higher than the stage they are at. 
    • My most unique special student normally has some transition challenges on Mondays; so, with me being back and, in addition, a new class helper for her today, things were a bit high energy/anxiety.
    • The kids talked over whoever was talking at many points in the day; whether it was one of their peers sharing or me speaking, they were interrupting and generally being disrespectful. Do they do this at home? It makes me wonder.
    • Kids are still adjusting to their new seating arrangement from before winter break. I am still evaluating if I have put the best combinations together. Time will tell.
    • One of the students has been acting out with attention seeking phrases and today hit an all time high or is it low with his blurt out, "I just wanna die." Of course I am concerned about any child who utters those words and will be following up with his parents. 
    So now that I reflect, was the day all bad? Well, not really. Did the kids learn their new "word of the week" and letter of the week? Did we introduce the new theme, "Wheels go Around" and share items brought from home? Did we work together in partners to decide which vehicles from our story are most important?  Did we celebrate a student's birthday? Did we learn about subtraction and make up stories on our white boards?
    Yes, we did all of that. And I think we went home with smiles on our faces. Perhaps everyone, except for maybe me?
    I need to remember that teaching is messy, imperfect, and often exhausting. And when I am mindful of that, I can have much better Mondays.