Teaching with a mask on

When we decided to reopen in May of 2022, we put in place recommended Covid precautions, which included having all staff members wear masks.  

Most of our students have been with us for awhile and we knew they would be alright with us wearing masks but we had infants scheduled to start and we had some concerns about that. I spoke with other directors and with teachers and everyone was expressing the same concern. 

We worried that it would be difficult for them to get to know us and trust us with half our faces covered.  We worried that they would have a hard time with language development because they could not see our mouths to mimic our movements. I love having babbling conversations with infants and was worried that the mask might hinder that. Basically we worried about a lot of things but we knew that we had no choice, we needed to keep everyone safe, that was our first priority, so we needed to wear masks. 

There was no need for us to worry.  As often happens, we were not giving infants/toddlers enough credit. 

They have had no trouble getting to know us and telling us apart.  They can tell our faces by our eyes and eyebrow shapes.  They can tell us apart by our voices.  When a new teacher comes into the room and greats the little ones, their faces light up. 

They have not had trouble with language development. For one thing, they see their parents faces at home and can see their mouths move.  For another, they are adapting and focusing more on the  different sounds they hear than on the movement of our mouths.  I can still have babble conversations with the infants and while they can’t see my mouth as I make new sounds, they still try to mimic the sounds I make and laugh when I make the same sound they are making.

In the four months that we have been open, three infants have started in our program and there has not been any difference in how they have adjusted than infants in the past. 

We also have toddlers who are starting to mimic words and the masks don’t seem to be limiting their understanding at all. 

So, while wearing masks may not be ideal, it is not turning out to be the problem many of us thought it would.  

When you have staff who love their job and the children they care for, masks can’t hide that and the children know it. 


Not STEM, not STEAM but STREAM!!

 You hear a lot of talk about STEM education and about STEAM, I’m personally glad they added the A for arts because art is a great learning tool but neither of those are appropriate for early childhood for a couple of reasons. 

First, children are natural scientist, engineer’s, artist and inventors, all we need to do is give them the freedom to do so. So STEAM in early childhood should be naturally happening. 

Second, what is needed most in early childhood is relationships.  

Here at Birdsall House we let the STEAM happen naturally and we add the R to make STREAM through consistency in staffing and fostering respectful relationships from infancy on.  

By modeling caring respectful interactions we teach the children how to have caring respectful interactions, themselves.

I remember watching one of our students who was three at the time playing with a one year old.  She was using a blanket to cover and uncover the one year old and each time she would stop and say “did you like that? Do you want me to do that again?” which was met with a giggle indicating “yes”. 

Not only are the relationships between the children important but also the relationship between child and staff really matter.  When children feel safe with and loved by their caregiver, they feel free to experiment and explore, which leads to learning. 

There is one negative to building these strong relationship though, the same feelings of safety and love that allow an infants to explore, also allow a toddler to push push push the limits.  But we are ok with that, we know it’s their way of learning what is expectable and we feel honored that they trust us enough for them to push the limits, knowing they will always be kept safe and loved. 


Mixed ages, it’s only natural

One of the most unique things about Birdsall House is our mixed age group setting.  In a home, children are not usually born in litters and the younger ones learn from the older ones. Yet for some reason the traditional early childhood setting separates children by age. When you do find a program that has mixed ages groups they separate the infants and toddlers from the older children, in fact in Missouri if you have more than 20 children in your care, you have to have a floor to ceiling wall between these groups. When I found this out I was very disappointed and decided the benefits of mixed ages was so great that we will keep all our centers at 20 children or less.   

Here are the reasons I feel so strongly about letting our infants and toddlers interact with our 3,4, 5 year old’s and more. 

Children learn by observing and mimicking, if children are only with children their age, they will not be inspired as much as if they are with older children. 

Here we see a two year old being inspired to challenge himself by watching his 7 year old brother. 

Children develop a sense of family with their fellow students and the older children get the opportunity to mentor and take a leadership role. 

Children do not feel pressure to achieve a skill or reach a milestone.  Everyone is at a different place in their development. The children accept each other for where they are and encourage each other when they try something new.  

There is no better way to interest a child in learning than for them to see their bigger friends doing it. 

Not only do the children learn from and teach each other, they also stay with the same group of teachers from infancy to when they leave for elementary school. 

I can’t imagine going back to teaching in a single aged classroom, I see no benefit to it and would miss seeing magical interactions like this. 


The Job of a Toddler

Part one

I remember when I had my first toddler class back in the 1990’s.  One girl entered my class as a sweet agreeable toddler who had just turned one and was just starting to walk. In less than a month her mom was asking me “what happened to my sweet baby?”

Between the ages of one and four, children experience many changes, they learn to walk and talk and most importantly, they learn that they have power.

They have the power to express how they feel, they have the power to get what they want, they have so much power that they did not know they had before. 

Imagine you woke up one morning and discovered that you had a superpower, you would spend some time learning about your power, you would want to learn when and how to use it, how to control it, and just how far you could push it. In your attempts to understand and control your power, you might hurt other people; you might knock someone over as you fly by fast or startle someone as you run past.  You are not meaning to hurt them; you are not being mean; you are just not experienced enough with your powers to safely use them.  That is basically what a toddler is doing in those amazing and challenging toddler years.

This happens at different times for each child, just as all stages of development do.  I have known one-year olds who start testing boundaries and other children who do not start this until they are three.  No matter when they start, it is an important part of their development.  

They need to test the boundaries; they need to find out what happens when they take a toy from a friend or even when they knock another child down.  This is how they learn to use and control the power they have.  Some children push and test these boundaries for a short period and others will keep at it for months. 

This is one of the reasons why strong relationships with care givers is important.  Children need to know that they can push and push and test and test and still be loved and valued by their caregivers. Often the safer, more secure they feel, the harder they will test and push the boundaries. 

The important thing for parents and caregivers to remember during these times is that your child is not turning into a spoiled little sociopath and this behavior will not last forever.  It is also important to be consistent in how you respond to this behavior. 

I have found that the best strategy is to acknowledge how everyone in any given situation is feeling.  I recently had a two-year-old take a toy from a one-year-old.  The one-year-old cried for a few seconds and then went on to play with something else.  After watching to make sure the situation did not develop into a physical fight for the toy, I talked to the older child about what happened and about how the other child probably felt.  I did not force him to give the toy back, the other child had already moved on, I did not tell him that it was mean to take the toy, because he was not being mean, he was being two.  I helped him to understand how his action made the other child feel.  Will he take another toy, probably, will we have the same conversation twenty more time, probably? But if we consistently help him to understand the consequences of his actions, he will learn. 

There are many ways in which young children will test the boundaries, as long as you stay calm, stay consistent and talk to them, you will make it through and more than likely your sweet baby will come back as a sweet child. 

This toddler knows we don’t allow them to climb on the table but he wants to make sure we really mean it when we say “keep your feet on the ground, its not safe to climb on the tables.”


 The Job of a Toddler part two

Getting what they want

Toddlers are experts at trying to get what they want.  

While I have never agreed with the term “terrible two’s”, I fully agree with the term “tenacious three’s” but have also met many tenacious two’s and even one’s. 

One of the most important lessons learned during the toddler years is “how to get what I want”. Toddlers will try many tactics to get what they want and the lessons they learn all depend on how parents and caregivers respond to the tactics used.  

I just spent time with a very tired three year old who didn’t want to sleep. I know this child well and know that a skipped nap could end in a very unpleasant evening for her family. She employed all the typical moves, she got up and used the bathroom twice, she argued that she wasn’t tired, that she was hungry and thirsty, that her clothes hurt, and on and on.  I continued to assure her that she would be ok if she waited for after nap snack because she had JUST eaten a big lunch, that her clothes were bothering her because she was tired and on and on. While it can be very frustrating watching her fight sleep, I know that she needs a nap and she needs me to allow her to test and not give in.  

Keeping a calm demeanor while dealing with a testing toddler is not easy but is very important.  If possible, tag team with one parent or caregiver switching with another when needed. This sends the message that everyone is on the same page and models cooperative behavior. 

Don’t ever hesitate to say “I’m feeling frustrated right now and need to take a break, I’ll be back in a few minutes to help you some more”. Then go into another room and do whatever works for you to remain or regain your calm.  By doing so you let them know that you are not going to give up just because you are frustrated and also show that it is ok to be frustrated and to take a minute when needed. 

Many toddlers will at some point try the tantrum method of getting what they want.  I know that there is a lot of conflicting advice out there about tantrums and I always say to go with what feels right for you and works for your family. My advice is to acknowledge how they are feeling, restate why they can’t get what they want and go on with your day. Remember, they can’t always get what they want and they have the right to be upset about that.  

Here we see my granddaughter showing my entire extended family at a Christmas party how upset she was that she couldn’t have what she wanted. 

And now her reaction when she realized a room full of people were going to let her express her feelings, but were not going to give her what she wanted. 

I recommend only trying to stop a tantrum if they are throwing things or doing something else that could hurt someone.  As with all toddler behavior, acknowledge how they feel with statements like ” I know you really wanted a blue cup but all the blue cups are being used”, or whatever is fueling the tantrum and then let them be. They will soon learn that tantrums don’t work, it may take a few tantrums before they are sure that you won’t give in, but if you are consistent, they will learn that this is not an effective way to get what they want.   

The most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s ok for your child to have strong negative emotions, it is not your job to keep them happy all the time.  Despite what they may say, what they need most from you is to know that you are in charge, you can and will make the big decisions and you will love them no matter how hard they push and test.  

Always remember that the safer, more loved they feel, the harder they will test you.  So the next time your toddler melts down in public and you feel everyone’s eyes on you, remember that what they think is not important, your child seeing you be steady and accepting in the face of their emotions is. 


 Let them cry

It might surprise you to know that I do not mind walking into the center and hearing children cry, in fact I like it. 

If the children never cried, I would worry. 

I would worry that the children were not being allowed to experience conflict.

I would worry that the children were being placated to keep them happy.

I would worry that the children were getting the message that it was not okay to cry.

I remember once when I worked at a traditional center in the infant/toddler room and my director walked in and asked why one of the children was crying.  I replied that she was sad, and the director told me to make her stop because they were giving a tour and it did not look good.

As my past employers will tell you, I did not always follow orders.  This child was sad, she wanted something someone else had and despite us offering other toys, she was still sad and deserved to be allowed to express that sadness.  Fortunately, she had moved on by the time the tour came by, but I had been prepared to defend her right to cry if needed.

Not only do infants deserve and need to cry and express their emotions, so do toddlers, preschoolers and even adults. 

That baby that needed to cry became a toddler and preschooler who sometimes needed to cry.  Why would she need to cry you might ask, well, there are many reasons.

None of her friends wanted to play what she wanted to play.

One of her friends played with someone else.

Someone else was playing with the toy she wanted.

And so on, there are many reasons for a child to be sad, frustrated, or angry and they deserve to be able to express those emotion

As adults most of us don’t like it when we are upset, and someone tells us to “Calm Down” or says, “It’s Ok, don’t cry”. I know for me, when someone says those things, I feel like they are not really understanding or listening to me. Instead, I like it when my friend says, “I know that you are feeling sad and if you need to cry, then cry”. 

When we go to great effort to stop a child from crying by distraction or bribery, aren’t we really telling them that it’s not okay for them to be crying? That how they are feeling is wrong and they need to stop expressing it?  That the only emotion we are comfortable with is happiness?  What do they learn from that? 

It seems like we expect our children to control their emotions better than adults do, but when we do not allow them to express emotions, how are they supposed to learn to control them.

The crying child I mentioned earlier is now an amazing 8-year-old who is wise and empathetic, yes, she still cries but don’t we all. And that’s okay.

child development positive guidance respectful parenting

Let’s talk about biting, hitting and other disruptive behaviors.

 I have recently learned that there are many childcare centers that terminate for things that are developmentally appropriate.  One of our parents shared with me recently that the center her child was at before coming to us had such a policy for biting and that her 10-month-old was on bite number two, with the third bit meaning they would be terminated. 

Parents are under enough stress without having to worry about their whole life being disrupted because their infant behaves in a developmentally appropriate way.  I know it is upsetting when your child gets hurt while at childcare. Over the years, I have had many parents threaten to leave over their child being bitten.  I feel these policies are a knee jerk reaction to such threats. 

Creating policy that punishes a family for their child behaving like a child, is a missed opportunity. It is a missed opportunity to educate parents on natural child development.  It is a missed opportunity to educate parents on why biting happens and what to do when it happens.  It is a missed opportunity to educate parents to see what is often seen as misbehaving, as what is really is, natural child development.

When one toddler hurts another, it is rarely, if ever, an act of aggression.  In this piece I am going to use the word bite to stand in for all the words listed in the title to avoid having to list them all the time. When we have a child who bites our first step of action is to look at what was happening right before the bite.  There are some obvious reasons like fighting over a toy or someone was in their way, and sometimes there seems to be no cause. 

One common reason for biting is frustration. Not necessarily frustration at what just happened but built-up frustration. I’m sure most of us can recall a time when we had a rough day and then snapped at someone for some small infraction.  The same thing happens with toddlers, maybe their morning was rushed, and they didn’t like their breakfast and one friend had taken a toy and now another friend looks like they might take a toy and snap, they bite that friend.  To the observer, it looks like they bit for no reason, but that is not really the case.

Another common reason for biting is a lack of verbal skills.  We all know that in a toddler’s brain, what they had 10 minutes ago is still theirs.  They see another child start to pick up a toy they had earlies and without the words to say “hey, that’s mine” they use the tools they have and bite.  

Curiosity is also another reason for biting.  I have seen toddlers look at another child and simply bit them just to see what happens.  Experimenting is what toddlers do and they don’t know that biting is not an allowed form of experimentation.  Just yesterday, I had a toddler who was sitting near me, bend over and bite the tip of my slipper. This child was not mad at me, this child was not wanting to hurt me, this child simply looked at my slipper and thought “I wonder what it would feel like to bite that?”

None of these children are being bad, they are expressing emotions, communicating and experimenting.  Which is exactly what they are supposed to be doing.