We need much more than data.

Today I read a thoughtful piece by Jan Dubiel, National Director of Early Excellence.  In it, he argues for the importance of collecting data on children in the Early Years.  Dubiel reassures people who are  weirded out by the word “data” (such as myself) that:

Data is simply another word for information, and the reality of life as an early years’ practitioner is that collecting information is a constant feature of what we do. We’re always picking up information about the child as a learner, their qualities and behaviours, as well as about what they know, understand and can do. This informs the decisions we make and how we support their learning from the first day of the school year to the last.

In short, early years’ practitioners, through the very nature of the job and the continual assessment that is part of that, are constantly collecting information on children and using this to achieve the best results for them.

Those who are against the data collection in early years (often labelling it the “datafication of childhood”) miss the point. Without knowing how we are doing and what progress is being made, how can we possibly teach effectively?

The first two paragraphs are lovely but the question at the end is a bit of a wild leap.  I think there are plenty of solid, relational, “everyday” ways to know how I am doing and what progress my children are making and I am not sure me spending time ticking the right boxes on Tapestry is the only or best way to skin a cat.

It might be worth explaining more about myself.  Right now half of my working week is working as a TA in a 2 year old morning program in a “high-needs” community.  I am contracted for 18 hours a week and if I am lucky, this gives me around 30 minutes at the end of most days to make sure the room is clean, get a few observations done and hopefully make an entry in our daily diary (which we are getting further and further behind in).  At my best I write observations that illustrate the power and deeper meaning of children’s play and observations that help me reflect on what to continue and what to change in my practice.  At my worst I am throwing together one more observation out in five minutes just because “it needs to get done” and that is all the time and energy I have left.

It should be recognised as a law of EY physics that any time spent on paperwork is time not spent with children or setting up the right environment for them  Any emotional reserves spent worrying about how to get the paperwork done are emotional reserves not spent patiently helping children through the trials of being young.  Even at the best of times, when all my two year olds are playing happily and not needing me at all, any time I am spending “efficiently” getting an extra observation done is time I am not being fully present and carefully observant of the children in my care.  Instead these children see me sitting with them with my face in an iPad, clicking away.  What lessons are they learning from my example.
I disagree that “a numerical score is a useful starting point for summarising…”  I can confidently disagree with this because I have seen where these numerical scores come from.  To be very blunt, they come from a field of overworked, underpaid and stressed out women who are doing the best they can every single day.  Many are passionate, brilliant and committed.  Many are burnt out for various reasons – including the increased paperwork – and continue to use developmentally inappropriate practices as well.  Many others of course have also left the field because they couldn’t continue working with professional expectations without professional conditions.

Dubiel argues further for the power of data below:

At an individual level, it allows practitioners to make interventions that have a positive impact. Move the telescope a fraction and you have information about children in a whole class or school, and their skills and capabilities. Zoom out further and we’re able to produce a nationwide dataset for a whole cohort – rich and valuable information for the Department for Education, researchers, advisers, practitioners and many others to comb through, find the evidence for what works and identify where specific developments and approaches make an impact. This allows us to put in place the principles and pedagogy that really will improve the life chances and opportunities for success of the children in our settings.

We should always be open to new research and practice, but we already know “the principles and pedagogy that really will improve the life chances and opportunities for success of the children in our settings.”  We have decades of research showing us what developmentally appropriate practice looks like and how it can be best delivered.

I wholeheartedly share in Dubiel’s goal of wanting “to develop a system that truly delivers for all children.”  I just honestly disagree that an over reliance on data should be our priority at the moment.  We are running the risk of  “confusing the map for the territory.” I know governments like data, but seeing how they are using SATS, should we really trust what they like to do with the data once we deliver it to them?

More than this, I feel there are more immediate problems facing our field.  First and foremost in my mind we need more high quality training on developmentally appropriate practice and respectful discipline techniques.  Of course what we really need is better pay, so there would be no room in the field for people not willing to adopt best practices, but that is too huge a topic that continues to get pushed under the rug.

Skilled EY practitioners definitely collect constant information on every aspect of the children in our care and it is a crucial part of our job.  When my two year olds had their hands in our taps at every possible opportunity I knew I needed to provide another way for them to explore the feeling of running water.  So we did just that by adding some big containers with spouts to our water table.  We’ve talked about this as a team before and after and reflect with each other when we can about how the children’s interest in water play continues.  Really, do things have to be more complicated than that?

There is something sacred and absolutely vital about simply being able to be present with and observant of babies and young children – and knowing when to let them be as well.  It is one of the most important things we can give the children in our care and it’s increasingly scarce in so many settings.  It’s the ability to be make another human feel that they are seen, listened to and respected for who they are.  Babies and young children need this just as much as any adult and the way we are “collecting data” right now is actively making this harder for me to provide on a regular basis.  I am not sure this feeling can be quantified at all.  I feel very defensive of it and I suppose that’s why I just spent my Monday evening writing this rant.

I agree with the importance of documenting children’s learning and progress but there are significant problems with how it is currently carried out.  I write this because I would like to see more EY educators have a real voice in figuring out how it should be done properly.  I hope any other educators reading this feel inspired to share their thoughts on this as well!

More Ugly Concrete Paths!: Space and Emotional Environments

So overall I am getting into a pretty good routine at work.  In the mornings I am with a wonderful group of two year olds for a short AM program and in the afternoon I am a special needs assistant for an eight year old boy.  I’ve been having a lot of thoughts in my head lately I figured I should share them all here for posterity.  Let’s start with something about the environment.

I’m not surprised but I am struck by how often the group of two year olds choose to play in the least resourced area we have: a gated off concrete  pathway outside our playground.  This is the only space where they can run or ride trikes back and forth without obstacles.  Obviously enough a common group activity is running back and forth, chasing each other and screaming.  They don’t play here all day but it is a very popular space and it makes me think about what sort of environments do young children really need?  The proper room itself isn’t that big and stuffed with catalog furniture, shelves and toys.  I think it probably looks good and “educational” to most adults.  This concrete path on the other hand is ugly, especially right now during the winter.  If we were part of a private setting, it would not be a selling point to any adults.

It’s not that they don’t play inside with all the catalog-bought toys, it’s the obvious fact they are often drawn to having more space and freedom to move and follow their natural and important 2 year old urges – and even if that’s in a less than stellar outdoor space it still better than nothing.  They have less adults chatting over their heads, telling them what to do and how to do it when they are outside.  When I am out there on this ugly path I mostly just sit in one spot and enjoy watching them play.  If a child needs help I do my calmly help them figure out what they need.  I am learning more and more the importance of just being present with children and letting them do their thing.

I think it’s easy for adults to focus on the looks and physical objects of an early learning space.   Let’s add wooden materials to attract certain parents.  Let’s put numbers and words all over the walls because it’s educational.  Let’s buy tons of toys from the right catalogs.  The physical environment is absolutely important but I think we need to talk more about what some of have called the emotional (and maybe even cultural) environment of our space.  This environment is shaped by our relationships with the kids, and basically the culture we set by role modeling behavior and what sort of activity we allow or don’t allow.  I think this is the sort of stuff that is hard to sell to adults who don’t understand early childhood development.  The only people who might know it are the adults and children who share this relationship, understanding and culture.

The most dynamic, exciting and joyful interactions I’ve seen the past several weeks have been on this small, drab, gated concrete pathway.   The kids have chased each other, danced, thrown balls, looked for planes and birds in the sky and plenty more.  Just having the space and freedom to do what they like is an amazing thing to watch.

Related to this I have just discovered some of the writings of Claire Caro.  This is the first time I’ve seen somebody spell out in plain, step-by-step terms the sort of early learning ethos I have been finding myself drawn to and excited by.   She describes the role, skills and actions to take as early learning educators who value the importance of child-led learning.  To start off with I recommend “The Adult Role in Child-led Play” and “Five Easy Steps for the Observer.”  Both articles give concrete advice on the how’s and why’s of forming the right emotional and cultural environment.  A lot of it is about the importance of trusting and respecting the children in your care ihere and now.  I can’t recommend them enough!

What’s more important, nice bulletin boards and all the right natural toys or children truly knowing they are consistently trusted, respected and loved?  Especially when they are in the middle of a conflict or dealing with difficult emotions?

I’m not saying that my two year olds like this space because it’s ugly.  I am saying they like it because they have the room to move freely and I do my best to provide a suitable emotional environment for them to be in.  Positive emotional environments can’t be bought out of catalogs and they might not be able to be quantified much at all, but they are vital for children’s growth and well-being.

Rounding the Annoying Zealot corner… maybe

There is probably a better term for this but I think there is a human tendency to turn into an annoying zealot when somebody newly discovers something profound or exciting in their life.  I mean they are also passionate, dedicated, dynamic and full of a sense of purpose but they can also be plain annoying to others.  Maybe the newer they are to something the tendency to be annoying is higher?  People who delve head first into far left politics and activism.  People who become born again Christians.  Hardcore Atheists.  People who do Crossfit.  People who are vegan.  People who aren’t vegan.   Apparently also people, such as myself, who discover the world of pro-play, child-led, developmentally appropriate early learning practice.  I’ve worked in this field since 2007 but it’s honestly only been the last year or so where I have discovered an entirely new love and interest in this work.

To cut to the chase, I started getting into these topics right when I started a new job in Leeds, where I have recently moved.  Like most nurseries and childcare  it is full of educators who care deeply and work hard at their jobs.  These same educators also simply have too much to do each day and are overworked and stretched thin.  And like more settings, there was all sorts of practice that left a lot to be desired.  Having my mind blown left and right by the likes of Peter Gray or the Child Care Bar and Grill podcast, I simply did not have the patience or presence of mind to see the situation in a realistic light.   Actually a bigger factor was how overworked we all were.  There was nowhere enough time to get to know each other, reflect on the day or to discuss practice and how to work as a team.

I wrote most of them off in my head and ended up leaving.  It was the right decision.  It was 24 2-3 year olds in a full day, over scheduled program that did not have free access to a play area.  There were also staff who simply did not have proper knowledge or expectations of children that age.  They were probably better than many settings in terms of appreciating play but the schedule still ruled mercilessly supreme over the day.   And probably most important, it wasn’t the right place to be in as I was unlearning and rethinking so much.

I’ve learned to look at children with new eyes.  I am realizing I need to learn to look at adults with new eyes as well and this is much harder.  There is no way around the fact that we only know what we know.  We can’t hold people’s lack of knowledge or experience against them.  This is easier said than done though when adults lack of knowledge or experience translates into developmentally inappropriate practice and poor experiences for the children in our care.  This is legitimately hard to watch.  We have a duty to advocate for what we know is right, but I can’t be quickly writing other adults off anymore.  At this old setting I found myself being too “go with the flow” about most things and then chose random hills to die on when I got too frustrated with the situation.  As I was still thinking through lots of new ideas, I wasn’t confident enough to simply “use my words” and tell my coworkers where I was coming from.

I simply can’t expect my coworkers from different walks of life and experiences to be immediately on the same page as me.  I can’t be a jerk about things either but it is also larger than me.  Early years educators need to be given more time to build trusting and secure relationships with each other.  It’s much easier to bring up differences of opinion when it is with people who know, trust and respect where you are coming from.   I think managers and directors need to realize that this takes actual scheduled time and actual support.  It’s not going to happen properly in random five minute sessions or after work drinks.

To take responsibility for my here and now though I am thinking about my new job.  Part of it is working in small 2 year old program.  Overall it’s going very well but obviously the four of us are coming at the job from our different angles and perspectives.  A solid team takes time to build.  For my part I am going to work on assuming the best from my coworkers and even though it is awkward and uncomfortable, practice respectfully bringing things up when I have an issue.

I am still very passionate about everything I have been learning, and there is no doubt that A LOT needs to change in our field and the wider culture, but I’d like to think I am coming around to a more reasonable, long term view of how I can be a part of that.

Link Round-Up 25.08.16

Oh yeah I have a blog.  Here’s some stuff looking at race and class in early learning.

If anybody reading this knows of preschoolers getting suspended, would you be willing to share more information in the comments about how and why this happens?  I can’t believe this is even a topic to discuss.

I’ll actually write some stuff later too!

Our misguided effort to close the achievement gap is creating a new inequality: The ‘play’ gap by Nancy Carlsson-Paige

What we now call the “school to prison pipeline” — the pathway that leads many young people from school into the criminal justice system — is embedded in the context of racial and economic injustice that has always shaped our nation’s schools. And now, in a misguided effort to close the achievement gap, we are creating a new kind of inequality. In the current education climate, now focused on academics and rigor even in pre-K and kindergarten, economically advantaged children have many more opportunities to play in school than do kids from low-income communities. We are planting the seeds of disengagement for the young children we want to see succeed and stay in school.

A Toxic Brew of Poverty, Race, and Preschool Suspension by Susan Ochshorn

With the academic pushdown that has accompanied the adoption of the Common Core, this phenomenon is rearing its ugly head earlier and earlier.  Last spring, the U.S. Department of Education’s survey of America’s public schools found “troubling racial disparities” among them access to preschool and the high rate of suspension of boys of color, who represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 42 percent of students suspended once.

Some of the above has to do with classroom practice terribly unsuited to little kids, the casualties of Common Core Standards that don’t support the whole child. Boys are especially vulnerable, as their development, including self-regulation, proceeds on a different timeline than that of girls. More rigid, prescribed kindergarten curricula and the absence of play or recess affect them even more deeply.

The Marcon Study by Susan Black

In a compelling study of early-childhood programs in the District of Columbia Public Schools, Rebecca Marcon, a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Jacksonville, found that educators cannot assume that “just any preschool curriculum will achieve positive results.” As Marcon discovered when she was called in to investigate high rates of retention in the district’s first grades, many youngsters weren’t getting smarter with each year they spent in school. In fact, Marcon soon determined, many kids were failing even though they’d been enrolled in readiness programs such as Head Start, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.


Two Plastic Buckets

I am in a 2-3 year old room.  Like most settings we have a sand and water table and naturally enough I’ve seen sand and water constantly and deliberate get dumped on the floor.  Any early learning person knows what I am talking about.  No amount of asking a young child to keep it in the floor is going to do any good.  They need more space to really explore the properties of the sand and water and our little sensory tables just won’t cut it.   I finally bought some fairly large rubber buckets to put near our sand and water tables so they could have a place to properly dump the sand or water.  I see this as a compromise between their perfectly natural and appropriate exploratory urges and my apparent need for the room to not be a total mess at the end of the day.  If we don’t want sand or water on the floor, it’s on us to give them a decent place to put it.  Lisa Murphy’s mantra of “control the environment, not the children” is in my head every day.  This is supposed to be “their” space after all and their need to learn through play should not be trumped by our wanting less of a mess to clean up.  If there are age-appropriate behaviours – dumping sand, throwing toys, running, climbing, pushing things over etc – we can’t deal with, it’s on us to give them environments and outlets for them to do so in a way we can accept.  It’s also on us to learn what is age appropriate behaviour and to work on being able to Get Over It!  This of course is a process for most of us.

I suppose most people don’t see the depth of investigation and learning happening when one girl is carefully scooping and pouring water from the table into the bucket and then enjoying running her hands through the water.  I know I am supposed to work in this field because it’s made me happy and proud to see how she and others have played with these two buckets this past week.  Happy to see the many ways they play with them and proud that I finally got around to taking another baby step towards embracing more child-led learning in my work.

To be quite honest, my “growing edge” is letting the 2 and 3 year olds in my room “cross-pollinate” the toys around the room.  Take the home area toys to the book area, take the books to the home area and so on and so on.  I know it’s the right thing to do but my old school ways kick in constantly throughout the day.  I’ve gotten so much better about it, and let them take most things anywhere but the last hold out in my brain is the truly messy stuff – sand and play dough.   I am working on it and I will get there.  It’s something I need to talk to my room coworkers more about as I truly think some would hate the idea.  Of course we are never given time to discuss or reflect as a team on our practice, it’s all we can do to get through the basic stuff each day.

It does make me wonder though how much time and energy we could possibly conserve if we were willing to give up more control over the room and the children’s play.  Instead of being nursery cops we could focus on just being present with them and all the important work that goes along with that.

I know one real fear, that I completely and entirely share, about letting children transport toys, sand, play dough and more where ever they like is that there will be just too much to clean up at the end of the day.  I can’t help but think that the children would be much more willing to understand the need for some parts of the room to be “closed” to be tidied up in the final part of the day if they had the time, freedom and power to truly control their play and learning the other 90% of the day.  There are other logistical problems and ideas I am thinking of in my setting but I need to get to sleep!

Any other early learning people, especially teachers of 2-3 year olds, further along the road than me reading this?  What ideas or advice would you have for a child-led learning newbie like me?


Extra Credit:  Typically awesome episode of the Child Care Bar and Grill Podcast titled “Keep the Sand in the Sandbox!”

“Everything I’m not made me everything I am”

I am a rare and seldom seen creature, I am a man who works in early learning.  Here is my obligatory “man working in childcare post!”

In terms of the vast array of problems facing early learning, I honestly consider increasing the amount of men in the field to be a very low priority.  I barely consider it to be on the list at all really.  Personally I am not even that concerned about being made to feel especially welcomed either.  Of course I’ve heard the stories of men not being allowed to change diapers or be suspected as pedophiles and creeps.  I’ve had a few parents treat me as such and probably more think it but not say anything.  These views are ignorant and they piss me off.  I also have seen being a man absolutely work in my advantage.  Forward looking nurseries and childcare centres actively want to hire men.  I was lucky enough to be hired at an excellent centre in Melbourne.  I had five years experience and a strong letter of reference from my Seattle manager but I know for a fact being a man was icing on the cake in their eyes.  It looks good to have decent men on staff who aren’t complete idiots.  I don’t want to discount the ignorant treatment other men have experienced in other settings but I really do think think there are much bigger problems facing early learning at the moment.

Preschools are being turned into boot camps for elementary and primary school. Academics are being pushed at earlier and earlier ages even though it is simply proven to be harmful and incredibly developmentally inappropriate, much less benefit children at all.

The pay and respect for this field is disgustingly low.  Wages won’t magically raise with the addition of men into the field.   Wages will rise when educators and families and decent people come together and force the government to provide adequate support for this work.  I can’t do the topic justice but I can’t get over the contradiction between mountains of research that show the tremendous importance of our first five years of life and on the other hand the centuries of sexism and complete ignorance of childhood development.  Our brains grow and develop in the most important ways in the first five years of our life.  Properly taking this into account, we could advance society and individual’s lives in countless ways.  We don’t do this though because as a whole we still operate as if babies and children are empty minded beasts who can’t be understood and the women who choose to care for them each day as a profession just do it because “babies are cute.”  Why should we be paid a decent wage anyways?

Sad to say, but writing the above made me realize that plenty of early learning educators – of any gender – continue to basically operate from the “Kids as Empty Minded Beasts” and “Babies Are Cute” principles.  I know I started in the field simply because “I liked kids” and I know I had no working understanding of childhood development.  I am not as good an educator as I would like to be, but I am amazed I’ve progressed as far as I have.  The awful truth is when the field is as lowly regarded at is, centres and nurseries cannot be terribly picky about who they hire.

On a different and more personal topic, the title of this post is from a Kanye West song.  The song is about him of course and how he sees himself as a rapper and star.  One morning while walking to work this line from the chorus really spoke to me.

“Everything I’m not made me everything I am.”

I mostly accept my role as a man doing what is seen as “women’s work.”  I mostly accept that some will think it’s weird or don’t understand why I would be here in the first place.  I mostly accept that I am in a job where I will likely never make much money.  I mostly accept that people, including some friends and family secretly look down on or pity my decision to stay in this field to some degree.  I mostly accept that I will never make as much money as my wife or friends or cousins who are in more professional jobs.

Then there is still a sad, insecure part of me who feels like I am not measuring up to what a man from a college-educated background should do with his life.  I’m not particularly ambitious about much.  I’m not willing to work an office job I hate to make more money.  I’m not into typically “man” stuff either.  I’m not handy.  I’m not into sports.  I’m not much of what men are supposed to be.

“Everything I’m not made me everything I am.”

I am not much of what a man is supposed to be.  I can’t fully escape comparing myself to the stupid standards of others.  I suppose none of us can.  While walking to work and listening to this song though I realized I am a lot of other things.  I am someone who is caring and strives to be a decent person.  I am somebody who has learned through trial and error how to be decent at caring for and building important relationships with other people’s children.  I am somebody who gives others peace of mind knowing their children are being well cared for and loved while they are at work.  I am somebody who has learned to be mostly comfortable doing something not typically done by men.  I am somebody who is driven to get better at this sort of work that is physically but even more so emotionally demanding.  I am somebody who is ambitious about doing my small part to improve childcare and early learning.

This also means that I am  an educator who is learning to trust babies and young children to take ownership of their own learning.  I am an educator that is giving up my supposed power and control in the room and letting the children in my care do more for themselves.  I am an educator that is confident in letting children “just” play.  I am an educator who is trying to better my practice and maybe help push the field forward in a small way as well.

Our work is not valued, respected or understood much as a whole by others.  To any other women, men or people of any gender working hard in early learning, let Kanye’s confidence and DJ Premier’s piano loops give you a boost of love and pride in the important work you do!

Boxes and Masking Tape

I should really go to bed but I wanted to jot this down quickly as I think it illustrates the path I am on as somebody who is talking a lot of good game about PLAY and CHILD CENTERED everything but still has a lot to unlearn.  Lisa Murphy asks, “Do we view education as the filling of a bucket or the lighting of a fire?”  To be honest, I strive to operate each day as if I am lighting a fire, but I constantly catch myself in a bucket-filling mindset at different times throughout the day.

Today I brought in a lot of boxes I had at home and some masking tape.  Without even realizing it I came in with the bucket filling mindset.  I thought the children would have so much fun if I made them a huge house or a tunnel or something else.  Naturally I assumed I would need to basically build it so it would be sturdy enough to play with for a while.  Since I like to think of myself as thoughtful though I would show them where to put the tape.

About 90 seconds into doing this I realized I was being completely stupid.   My 2 and 3 year olds simply wanted to put tape anywhere on the the box and thought this alone was a great activity.  I am happy that I had the presence of mind to catch myself and not get in the way of this!  None of them could tear the tape themselves so I ended up ripping a small notch and letting them tear off the rest.  They would then use both hands to apply it somewhere on the box.  Some declared they were building a castle and at another point two other kids said it was a rocketship and a house.  One girl brought over some coloured pencils and started decorating it and others followed suit.

Pulling at the semi-torn tape seemed to be a good challenge for their strength.  Most had to pull quite a bit.  Putting the tape on was good practice for using their fingers with intention.  Most importantly, they enjoyed it!  I could be projecting but a few of them were so excited that I let them use as much tape as they wanted.  We kept the boxes out for most of the day and they did all the things we know kids do with boxes: sit in them, hide things in them, make forts and plenty I wasn’t around to witness.

If I stayed in the bucket mindset could have easily made them watch as I built an expertly constructed cardboard fort.  They would have enjoyed my product but it would simply not have been the same experience and it would not have been their process.  Kids need hand-on experiences to explore how things in the world work for themselves.  I need to learn to trust them to explore things in the manner they choose and are able to!

We will leave the boxes and tape out tomorrow and see what happens!