Get. Out.

This week’s news has had two terrible stories about child care in my city. The first, a dead baby. The second, a beaten baby. I know these are not isolated incidents and that breaks my heart. And so, I have some advice for our field.

If you are watching children in your home because you think it’s easy money, because you think it’s a low skill, low effort way to work from home….GET. OUT.

If you are working with children because you think they are cute but have no tolerance for the ones that challenge you or don’t fit your mold…GET. OUT.

If you are in the field because of how children’s hugs and funny stories make you feel but have no interest in going deeper into how they learn, grow and develop and how we should respond…GET. OUT.

If you can’t afford to provide high quality child care, if you can’t afford to provide any sort of care without shoving kids in closets and basements to hide them from licensing visits…GET. OUT.

If you are not willing to step up and put in the hard work, the physical effort, the emotional stability, the commitment to above all, do no harm–NO harm…..GET. OUT.

If you have a job working with children but think it is THEIR job to fit YOUR mold and provide for YOUR convenience….GET. OUT.

If any of the above advice offends you or seems unfair, you need to do some reflecting. Why does it bother you? Which part do you disagree with? What do you think children deserve?

Children deserve the very best. Children deserve our recognition that they are fully human. Children are not commodities for adults to barter with or profit off of.

A Hallelujah Kind of Childhood

After hearing of Bev Bos’s passing in February, I spent a couple of days reviewing and reflecting on her writing. A 1995 article called JOY in Early Childhood Programs particularly spoke to me, as it has so often in the last 20 years. Bev wrote that sadly, joy is not often a consideration for people who are talking about and planning programs and experiences for young children. She reminded us that “because learning always involves feelings, we must protect the right of all children to have a hallelujah kind of childhood.” 

I’ll say it again, because the words thrill me to my very soul: WE MUST PROTECT THE RIGHT OF ALL CHILDREN TO HAVE A HALLELUJAH KIND OF CHILDHOOD.

That means we must be active, intentional, self aware and reflective. Protecting children’s rights does not happen accidentally.

That means we do this for the child whose mom drives you crazy, the child who hits and kicks when you are trying to get him to settled down for rest time, the child whose nose is constantly oozing and who slobbers on her chin. All children means ALL children.

That means that we can’t settle for children being “fine” in our programs. It can’t be enough that they are still in the building with us and still breathing when dad comes to pick up. We must protect the right of all children to have a hallelujah kind of childhood.

Hallelujah childhoods don’t come from structure, rules or cute Pinterest crafts. They come from relationships. Protecting the right to a hallelujah kind of childhood demands that we go further than the “liking kids” that got our foot in the door. We have to know, trust and accept every single child in our care. And they need to know it.

What can you learn about the child whose mother drives you crazy that will help you connect with him? What makes the child who hits and kicks at you laugh? What story will bring the little girl with the oozing nose to your lap? How can you create a connection that feels like a hallelujah?

Bev said it best, “because the heart has a long memory for pain, we must take care, when we are making plans for programs…that the element of joy exists…we must protect the right of all children to have a hallelujah kind of childhood.”

Using Our Words….in Ways That Help

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately, primarily about the kind of “teacher shorthand,” as Carol Garhart Mooney calls it, that I hear being used so often in child care settings. 

Things like saying, “cross cross applesauce” instead of “please sit with your legs crossed like mine” (Why do we need to even sit that way? That’s another blog….)  or “inside voices now” instead of saying, “we’re inside now, and your voice is too loud.”

I think we use these terms to sound “teachery” and because they are culturally learned and absorbed. But I also think they can be very unclear for children. We assume they know what we are talking about, because it seems perfectly clear to us. We forget that children process language and ideas very differently than we do. 

Have you seen the video that made the rounds on Facebook a few weeks ago, showing a baby in a high chair, cracking up laughing each time his mom sliced a banana? That was a good example for me as I thought about this teacher shorthand. It makes no sense to me, as an adult, that a simple action like slicing a piece of banana would be that funny. It made perfect sense to the baby, because we think very differently. 

I think it’s the same when we think our “teacherese” is making a concept or instruction clearer than simply saying what we want to see happen. 

“But, Heather,” said a classmate of mine, “it sounds ‘teachery’ because we ARE teachers. It’s our job to sound teachery.” No. It’s our job to teach. And if our shorthand is not working for the child, we need to let it go.

I thought about all of this again today as I told a 4 year old he needed to get control of his body before leaving the bathroom to go to his cot. I thought it sounded nice and teachery and gentle and helpful. In reality, it was unfair. I sent him off with vague instructions….and a wish to do right and please me. 

I can do better. We can do better. And then our children will do better.

A Guidance Matching Game

Discipline. Behavior management. Guidance. Whatever you call it, there is no topic that early childhood teachers want to talk about more, in my experience as a trainer and mentor, than what to do when children “won’t listen.”

I spent several years trying to come up with new and more insightful ways to talk to teachers about guiding children’s behavior. I’ve talked about changing the language we use from “punishment” to “discipline” in an attempt to change the adults’ focus. I’ve tried talking about how teachers can use “helping behaviors” when children’s behavior is challenging to them. I talk about “discipline” meaning “to teach” and not “to punish.” I see nods of agreement, I see note taking….and then I see a struggle to change when they are back in a classroom.

About a year ago, I had an epiphany. I developed a matching game to use with a group of teachers who were about to go through a four session series on guiding behavior with me. At the beginning of the first session, I gave each teacher a copy of this matching game handout and asked them to read both columns, then draw a line from the behavior in the left hand column to the appropriate response in the right hand column. It looks like this:



Then I sat back and watched. Most began the work eagerly, grateful to have something other than a lecture in this mandatory training. I watched as the pencils dropped slowly, as the participants stole glances at other’s pages to see if they were drawing any lines. I waited. Finally, a pair of brave souls said, “What if none of them are right?” and “What if only one is right?”

And then we were off. We talked about how the behaviors in the left hand column illustrated mistakes children make in cognitive, language and physical development. We all agreed it would be ridiculous to respond with any of the punitive choices in the right hand column. We took each of the behaviors from the first column and brainstormed ways we could teach the child the skills he needed to do better and how to offer experiences and practice in those skill areas.

And then I asked them: if it makes sense and we all agree that the appropriate response to mistakes in children’s cognitive, language and physical development is to teach and provide more practice….why is it so hard to believe that to be true for mistakes in social and emotional development? If we all agree that it would be outrageous for an adult to take away outside time or to put a child in time out for looking at a book from back to front or for being too short to drink from the water fountain….why is it so difficult to accept that those responses would not be effective for a child who has bitten another child or knocked down another child’s block tower?

Let’s give our children what they need to do better. We will love our jobs more. We will have better relationships with children. We will be better teachers.



“But They Need to Learn To…”

“Heather, I think this is the first time that I’ve encountered a center that doesn’t request children to ‘sit’ when in group. I understand the philosophy, but children also need to learn that by sitting while in a large group, others are given a better ability to see what is going on. I’ll have to ponder on this one a bit.”

This is feedback I received after singing the praises of a PreK teacher (4 and 5 year olds) who allowed children who were not engaged in group time to leave the group and work on their own. This is not the first time I have heard the argument that if children are allowed to choose not to participate in group time in their child care setting or preschool, they will never be able to sit when an elementary school teacher expects it of them.

I wonder how this person would have responded if I had said that I appreciated that infants who are not yet ready to walk are allowed to sit, crawl, creep and cruise instead. 

Of course, that seems perfectly rational. But couldn’t an argument be made that we want children to be able to walk when they go to kindergarten? Aren’t we cheating them by not forcing that walking?

Two of the core considerations of developmentally appropriate practice explain why we allow infants to sit, crawl, creep and cruise before walking. First, we base our expectation on what is known about child development and the skills and experiences a typical infant needs to have before she can be expected to walk. Second, we observe the development of that specific infant to learn where she is in that developmental continuum, knowing that developmental variation is the norm. So why do we so often abandon that process when children are 4 and 5 years old?

I’ve got some news for you, folks. There’s plenty of time for sitting still and lots of experiences children need to have before we can expect it of them. And too often our attempts to force this “readiness” backfire. How? I’m glad you asked….

One way forced participation in group time (and punishment for pushing back) can backfire is by sending a message to young children that learning is not fun and doesn’t work for them. More and more attention is being given to desirable “approaches to learning” that contribute to school readiness. We need to pay closer attention to children’s FEELINGS ABOUT learning than we do to whether they are sitting cross cross applesauce with their hands in their laps, waiting to be given permission to express a thought or emotion.

A second way that we actually work against readiness is to force children who aren’t developmentally ready for group time  to develop escape behaviors. A child who is bored, scared or has learned that he cannot be successful in meeting the teacher’s expectations will find ways to get away from the group. She will learn that if she wiggles enough, talks when she shouldn’t or touches her neighbor too much, she will be sent away from group time. This is a behavior that her kindergarten teacher is going to have to spend a lot of time “unteaching,” further proving the child’s view of herself as someone who doesn’t fit and can’t succeed.

Let’s spend some time really reflecting on what children really need to learn. It’s just possible that unquestioning obedience is not the first thing on the list.

That Early Childhood Nerd? What?

Welcome to the That Early Childhood Nerd blog! What in the world is an early childhood nerd? I’m glad you asked….

My name is Heather Wenig. I have been working with young children, their families and their teachers in the field of Early Care and Education for over 25 years. I’m ridiculously passionate about it.

I want to share that passion and ECE nerdiness with you. I want to engage in conversations with you on this blog about the work we do, the value of our efforts and the ideas (new and old) that I keep stumbling across in my work.

I’m glad we’ve found each other. Now let’s get nerdy.