Two weeks ago, I sat with a group of child care professionals just entering the profession, and everyone felt overwhelmed. Whether parenting or working as an early care practitioner, the task of accompanying a human being in the first years of life is daunting! And it can seem like if you don’t dedicate an entire facility to child-sized furniture, pursue the latest and greatest in curriculum and materials, or spend every spare moment reviewing current research about proper technique, supporting adequate growth is impossible!
Thankfully, there is incredible power in small changes. Today, I offer four simple changes we can all begin right now that will have lasting impact on our relationship with children over a lifetime.
Simple Change #1: Say “You did it!” instead of “Good job!” Back in my student teaching days, a master teacher observed me with a group of middle school math students. When we sat to review her assessment of my work, she told me that I should use the phrase “you did it” instead of “good job.” I nodded obligingly, and promptly wrote the suggestion off as inconsequential and assessed the difference in phrases to be negligible.
After more than a decade, gobs of professional development hours, and three books by Alfie Kohn (and others), I’ve changed my tune.
Consider the difference: good job is an evaluation. Your good job to my picture of a mountain tells me you approve, and you think it’s worthy of good. It ignores my opinion; after all, whether or not I was pleased with the finished product doesn’t matter with good job. With good job, I learn to value your opinion more than my own and discount my personal feelings about the things I do. Good job keeps me focused on others for their opinions of me.
You did it tells a different story by placing the pride for my work squarely where it belongs: with me. You did it recognizes my effort and grows in me a sense of pride. You did it affirms that I am capable and eliminates unnecessary evaluations. You did it removes the pressure to preform for the evaluation of someone else.
Simple Change #2: Tell a story. Literacy development roots itself in a child’s early years, long before formal schooling begins. Supporting a child’s love for books is something parents and educators do naturally: frequenting libraries, wearing the edges of favorite picture books through repeated readings, and incorporating books into daily routines. But one of the skills that research tells us is foundational to reading is the art of storytelling. Storytelling requires an understanding of the different elements present in a story like characters, plot, conflict, resolution, and setting. Telling a successful story also requires that the narrator establishes enough context to enable the listener to follow along.
Practice storytelling with the children in your lives. Our meal tables often transform into storytelling spaces. As the children eat, I don my storytelling hat and weave language into real and imaginary adventures. Frequently, I solicit character ideas from my table companions, and often, children request repeats from days before. As friends finish eating, they assume the role of storyteller and practice the art for their audience. The most successful stories are told with lots of facial expressions, vocal inflection, and energy – so channel your inner dramatic soul and nurture this key emergent literacy skill.
Simple Change #3: Ask, “How can I help?” Children learn far more from our modeling than our instructions, so one of the surest ways to foster children who are helpful is to show helpfulness. Often our desire to nurture responsibility appears to stand in conflict with our desire to grow helpfulness. Take clean up time, for example. A child who makes a mess should be responsible for cleaning it up, right? After all, it was little Suzie who, in her overly energetic morning rampage, dumped out every basked of toys in the space. If she gets help cleaning it up, she won’t learn to take car of her things, right? After all, I didn’t make the mess. I shouldn’t have to help clean it up. So goes the standard mantra. Our standard mantra is in serious need of an upgrade!
If I resist the urge to saddle the mess-makers with the responsibility, and instead join in the process, I find an immediate response from the whole crew. Helpfulness breeds helpfulness. If I see a child working, I enter alongside and ask, “How can I help?” If I see a child overwhelmed with a large task, I announce, “Help, help! Who can help!” (A line from one of our favorite books, One Duck Stuck.) After all, who likes do manage an overwhelming project alone? Children will remember the feeling of being helped and readily accompany a needy friend in the future.
Simple Change #4: Think inside the box. Open-ended play materials hold the secret to preserving a child’s creativity, imagination, wonder, and love of learning. With no prescribed or “right” way to play, open-ended materials foster cognitive flexibility and persistence. There’s a reason why children would rather play with the box than the toy it came in! Check out fellow educator Denita Dinger for some wonderful open-ended ideas in your work with young children.
Giving your children a box nurtures their development in rich and meaningful ways. Try one or several boxes. Keep your eye out for many different sizes: small ones can be stacked and larger ones function as hiding spaces. Babies and toddlers love to load things into boxes and push them around while older toddlers and preschoolers incorporate boxes into dramatic play. By simply adding a box to your playspace, you open an opportunity for children to grow some of the critical skills they need for lifelong learning.
What small changes do you think are important? I love your thoughts – leave me a note in the comments below!
Curtis, D., & Carter, M. (2008). Learning together with young children: a curriculum framework for reflective teachers. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Eyer, D. E. (2003). Einstein never used flash cards: how our children really learn–and why they need to play more and memorize less. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale.
Whitehurst, G., & Lonigan, C. (1998). Child development and emergent literacy. Child Development, 69(3), 848-872.
If you enjoyed this, you might like…
“One, Two, Three!” Reflections on Learning through Observation
Raising the Stakes