Friday, May 27, 2011

Sit Down, Shut Up and Learn

It's been a rough couple of weeks for me. I've been struggling to keep up my spirits through the spring that feels more like a very wet California winter. I'm struggling to follow through on getting the word out for our summer program. I'm struggling to finish up the kids school year.

I'm also struggling to maintain a positive attitude in light of the course that public education seems to be taking. I've been struggling with this for a long time. I try to stay informed with what's going on in public education because I feel that of all the government programs, this is the most important. I go from being depressed about what I read to being horrified by it. I recently wrote a long post in opposition of making school days longer. While I stand by what I wrote I am willing to concede that longer school days may be advantageous to a small percentage of students. Just as I was coming to this conclusion, just as I was thinking that perhaps I'm viewing public school programs from my one-sided perspective, I received this gem in my inbox. I was livid! I decided not to write about this program right away. I decided to let in sink in, to view it from a different perspective. In the meantime I checked into the credentials of Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. and her Deputy Assistant, Joan Lombardi, Ph.D. Ms. Sebelius holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Kansas and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Trinity Washington University.* Dr. Lombardi holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Boston College and a Ph.D. in Human Development Education from the University of Maryland. Dr. Lombardi is the author of Time to Care: Redesigning Child Care to Promote Education, Support and Build Communities, and co-editor of A Beacon of Hope: The Promise of Early Head Start for American’s Youngest Children.* These certainly are impressive credentials.

What is not at all impressive is this new government program. According to the HHS Secretary herself, this $500 million early learning initiative is designed to deal with children from birth onward to prevent such problems as 5-year olds who "can't sit still" in a kindergarten classroom. When did we start to consider this a problem? Five year olds are not supposed to sit still. It's reading about programs like these that want to make my head explode.

Five year olds are active curious children. Spending $500 million to teach them to sit still is like spending money to teach a river to flow upstream
. We may accomplish it, but at what cost and for what purpose? It seems that there is a huge disconnect between achievement and learning in our public schools. Our students can achieve any task we set ourselves to enforce, that does not mean that they are learning anything useful from it. I use the word "enforce" because I cannot forsee "teaching" a skill such as sitting still. This is not something that is taught, it is enforced. Enforcing rules is not a bad thing per se, if it sets the child on the path to success. Here we thrive on following daily rhythms with the sole purpose of instilling healthy habits in the youngest children. These routines or rules must always meet the child where he is developmentally. A five year old is just mastering his physical abilities. He thrives on "see what I can do." The child has an intrinsic need to be physically active, to be physically challenged.

The article goes on to equate "sitting still" with health:

“You really need to look at the range of issues, because if a 5-year-old can’t sit still, it is unlikely that they can do well in a kindergarten class, and it has to be the whole range of issues that go into healthy child development,” Sebelius said during a telephone news conference on Wednesday to announce the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge.

While I agree that there are a whole range of issues that go into child development, I don't see how spending millions to promote "sitting still" contributes to any of them. I want you to forget for a moment about these women's credentials and I want you to think about what you have just read. Does that sit well with you? Does it make sense to you? What does your gut tell you about this program?

There seems to be something sinister here, when our government can misspend this kind of money but 47 teachers in our Salem-Keizer school district are getting pink slips which will leave already overcrowded schools with even more overcrowding. It seems that these programs are missing the mark. Our goal should not be to prepare children for school, our goal should be to prepare children for the next stage in development and subsequently for life. We are so concerned whether or not children are prepared to enter school that we seem to forget that school is a place of learning as much as home is. What a child does not know, he can learn. He can learn it in kinder or in first or in second grade. There is no tragedy here, except for our expectations. My own children differ greatly in the progression of their physical and cognitive development. My son starting reading at 4 years of age with little help from me. He was 8 years old before he finally conquered the monkey bars at the park. My daughter is an artist and a bit of a daredevil (sometimes) but struggled to read. At age seven, she still reads slowly and needs help to sound out words. I still have to hold a space for her when she reads. These children are being raised by the same two people in one environment and yet they differ greatly. How can any agency expect to have a group of 5 year old children that are developmentally exact? Instead this money should be spent on training teachers to meet children where they are developmentally and to lead them to thrive. Now the goal should not be to level the playing field because that would mean that children that are developmentally advance would not be encouraged to continue to thrive until others caught up. Isn't that in a nutshell our public education system? No child left behind? Actually all children are getting left behind.

Frankly I'm getting a little fed up with agencies and many school districts blaming parents for all of their children's short-comings. It creates a toxic culture and it is that culture that our children are supposed to learn and thrive in. I agree that parents are their child's first teacher, but child develop differently all across the spectrum. Most children enter school at age 5 or 6 and to the dismay of the district they are already "behind." Some can't count to 100, some can't add, some can't sit still. Of course the parents are to blame, what have they been teaching their kids anyway? While in school our children are offered the lowest quality food imaginable (that is slow changing, thank goodness). Physical education classes are being cut as is recess because the kids are lagging "behind" academically, then when there is a rise in obesity or childhood diabetes, it is again the parents who are blamed. It's all those McDonald runs for dinner or video games the kids play. Seriously? The school districts play no part in our children's failures?

I believe they do play a huge role in our children's failure to learn, to thrive, to be healthy. I believe it is programs like these that send a message that at five years of age, a child who cannot sit still will FAIL! While I find it a ridiculous suggestion, it will be eaten up hook, line and sinker by most people who do not stop to think that perhaps all these agencies have everything on the line except our children's health and welfare. I give thanks everyday that we have made the sometimes difficult choice of keeping our children out of this system. I still struggle with the thought of some many people not having any choice at all. I struggle with that fact that these highly educated individuals running all these government agencies seem to have no concept of how a child develops or what is appropriate for them during their development.

The good news is I do see change in the horizon. That will be the subject of an upcoming post. I would love to hear your thoughts about this program. Leave a comment or send me an e-mail.



Thursday, May 19, 2011

Holding the Space

When you are the mother of young children it's very easy to get into the mode where you are just counting the days when your kids can do things on their own. I remember taking my then two year old to the park and being baffled because he wanted to play with me. Seriously? The park was my place to chill out and relax. My goal was to NOT do the baby/child thing. Then I read an article that talked about "holding a space" for children. As children get older they start to do more and more things independently. However it takes a while before they become proficient at it and during that time we adults sometimes need to hold a space for them. Basically this means we have to be physically present even if we are not actively participating. For example, your two or three year old is learning to dress themselves, but they are not at the point where you can walk away and have them do it on their own. You need to be in the room with them while they are dressing. This can be frustrating because a parent may feel like they are wasting time. You are not helping them, in fact, they may adamantly refuse your help with cries of, " I can do it!" You may begin to notice all the other things you can be doing during this time like load the dishwasher, sort the laundry etc.

I urge you to take a deep breath and remember where your priorities lie. Teaching your child life skills ranks among the most important things your child will learn. Holding a space is not a waste of time, it's an important step in the journey your child is making towards independence. You should hold a space whenever your child is mastering a skill. Especially for very young children, showing them once is not enough for them to do it on their own. Think of holding a space as a cheer-leading activity.

To start off you need to show your child what you want done. Remember to be specific. If you just say, "Clean your room" the task becomes overwhelming to a child. Instead ask him to sweep the floor. Show them how to sweep the floor, then let them try. Be patient. Show them again if needed. Stay in the room and offer encouragement and direction. As your child becomes more proficient, offer less direction and encouragement, but stay in the room. The more proficient they become, the less involved you need to be, but you should still be in the room. How long must you hold the space? As long as needed. It will depends on the task, your child's maturity level, his attention span and his physical capabilities.

Some children can do very simple tasks by age four or five. More complicated chores may require your presence until 7 or 8. Keep in mind that even as an adult, it's nice to have someone hold a space for us sometimes. It offers a wonderful sense of support and security.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Sound of Silence

I've been reading Rudolf Steiner and Charlotte Mason for the past few days. I find it fascinating that their writing is over 100 years old and yet so much of it, in fact most of it, still applies today. Their pedagogy have many similarities. The most striking for me is the idea of talking to children less or actually explaining less. We parents have been taught that if we want our child to have a rich vocabulary we should talk with them and read to them as often as possible. While I agree with this, I think, as with many things in education, we've gone overboard. Think of the Mozart Effect, so many parents buying Mozart CD's, in the hopes of giving thier child every possible advantage. While, again, this maybe help to wire connections in the brain, it's only a piece of the puzzle.

We are now coming full circle and coming back to's not that talking is over-rated, but rather that silence is under-rated. How often throughout your day do you have moments of silence? Is their constant chatter going on in your life and/or mind. Are you constantly verbalizing every thought that crosses your mind? How is this affecting your child?

So, where do we begin? How do we choose what we share with our children and what we keep silent about? I read a blog post sometime ago at The Parenting Passageway where she states that "words should be used like pearls." Like everything else, your words should be a conscious manifestation of your thoughts. They should be kind and used for the improvement of your surroundings. Wow! What would happen if we all used our words in this manner? This is pretty powerful stuff!

I'm not suggesting you stop talking with your child. What I am suggesting is that you give thought to your words before they leave your lips. For instance, it's fine to engage your baby while changing their diaper, or during mealtimes. Often times, I found myself talking to my baby simply because there was no one else in the house to talk to! Those moments need to be tempered with moments of silence, like during nursing. I've never met a mother who speaks to her baby during nursing. I don't know if it's instinct kicking in, or just the sheer awe of the moment that keeps us quiet. As your child grow older, he learns to speak by listening to you and those around him. Wawa becomes water. Baba become bottle. As they grow older still your child becomes a chatterbox. This is his job....but it is no longer yours.

As your child's vocabulary becomes richer, you need to make sure your are not tuning him out with constant chatter or explanation about everything under the sun. Children learn and come to knowledge through their experiences, not through yours. It's fine to offer simply explanations when asked, but it's most important to remain silent and let the child observe. They are soaking up the knowledge of life and the world around them, whether it's a bird looking for twigs to build a nest or listening to the sounds coming from the MP3 player, they are observing and absorbing everything around them. Do not rush your young children, learning is a process.

Few words are essential when you are disciplining your child regardless of age. This has been a difficult lesson for me, especially during the teenage and early adult years of my two oldest. The sound of my voice dishing out advice, how to's and reprimands seemed to be my favorite sound in the world. (Sorry, S and J) What I've learned is the less I say, the more they listen. I make it easier for them to not have to sift through all the chatter and get to the essence of my message. I give it to them straight and forward. When my younger ones feel the need to negotiate something that is not negotiable, I simply state that this is not negotiable and go on about my day, singing to myself and ignoring any further requests. Oh, but ignoring a child is just cruel! I'm not ignoring the child. I am simply ignoring a question that I have already answered. I'm teaching my child that you do not need to engage in a power struggle. I'm teaching him that time and words are precious and I don't want to waste them. Again, the child will learn this through observation. We teach as much by what we leave out as by what we share.

This has been a learning process not just for me, but for those around me. Often lately, my husband will ask me if everything is okay because I'm so quiet. I have noticed to that he is speaking less also, but when we do share our thoughts, they are heartfelt and interesting and we are better listeners now that we don't have that need to fill in the silence. There are many things our children must learn in order to have fulfilling and successful lives. I think that being comfortable in silence is one of the most important.