New Year…New…?

Mother and son laughing

We’re looking forward to this new year…one in which we’ve at least somewhat mastered to requirements and differences of COVID teaching. As we look forward to this new year—new children to nurture and teach—new ways to use the skills and knowledge we acquired last spring and during this summer–this new opportunity to push ourselves beyond what we thought—last year—was our best? The start of school won’t be like last September when kids came rolling off of buses, cars, and out of their parent’s arms.

We will still have students who are learning from us by looking at a computer screen and we’re pondering how we will forge relationships with each one and build community with the group. Some we will have had last year so they will have had experience with the ‘over the internet’ learning. But others, the new ones, will need to be nurtured into this way of learning. Their parents will need to be perhaps more engaged in their child’s learning than they intended since the learning will be happening at home. Here are a few ‘starting up’ thoughts…

Make time, communicate!

Perhaps your first one or two sessions focus on the family members who will be working with the children. What do families expect from their child’s experience in school? What goals have you set together?  What can you tell parents that will help them to support and coach their children and maintain and extend learning at home? Parents want to know when their children are doing well, what it is they’re doing, and how they can reinforce learning. They also want to know when things aren’t going well and what they can do to help. Do you need information? Do you need parents to reinforce a behavior? Do you need them to work on skills with their child at home? How can you nurture, challenge, and coach a parent to be their best self—what support can you provide? Stephen Bavolek, in his work with the Nurturing Parenting Program, shows us that there is a parallel process that works among human beings—when I consciously nurture and care about you, I can create a fundamental difference in your behavior toward those who need your nurturance. We tend to behave in ways that others behave toward us. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.” That is the most significant way we can help others change and become their best selves.

Recognize and celebrate differences!

Each one of the children in our care is a different individual. No matter what their diagnosis, learning style, cultural background, or color—they are unique.  While it may be easy sometimes to think about ‘my kids who have autism’ or my ‘kids who are African American’ we need to make sure that while we recognize the uniqueness of the group that child belongs to they are unique within that group as well. Sometimes we talk about being ‘color blind’ meaning, in a well-intentioned way, that we see all of our children as children first.  Perhaps it’s a step away from that to think of ourselves as ‘color conscious’—consciously aware of differences so that we can use those differences, celebrate them, and use them to point out individual differences and, at the same time, look at what is the same—what brings us all together in a shared experience.  According to Delpit in Other People’s Children (1995), recognizing, learning about, and celebrating cultural richness and differences are critical elements in constructing a supportive home-school relationship among teachers and parents.

See the wealth! 

The most challenging children and families bring with them resources, skills, and talents that we can use and build on to create a richness in our programs and in our lives. We can also use those resources to help families grow and learn. Sometimes a family seems to have little to offer—their finances are small, they may have some mental health issue standing in the way of success. When we begin to see their possibilities instead of their liabilities we become much more able to support them in moving ahead—getting the assistance they need, seeing us as, perhaps, a role model or a relationship that can sustain them as they move ahead. As James Comer has said, “No significant learning happens without a significant relationship.”  We have that to offer.

Set goals together early. 

You’ve seen some things from your assessment of the child that may be obvious things to focus on and your teammates have likely suggested to areas they’ll want to see included. What are the things that the family is saying are important…what would they like to be working on this year? What’s important to them that their child be able to accomplish this year? Family buy-in to their child’s goals will make it much more likely that goals will be worked on and reinforced at home, especially if you take concrete steps to show parents what to do to work on things for their children. Goals that are functional…that enable a child to do the things that are part of the family’s routine such as eat meals, play independently, toilet, bathe, and communicate her needs…are often more significant to the family because they make lives easier when a child conquers these routines of daily living. Consider functional goals along with any academic things you may think are important.

Have great expectations!

Your beliefs and families’ beliefs in their children’s ability to learn and grow are a predictor of child success. As DeWitt Jones is fond of saying, “When we believe it we’ll see it.”  We need children and families to see that we see them as capable of doing what we expect them to do, to learn what we expect them to learn, and to behave in ways that we expect of them. We create a challenge for children and then make certain that we’ve given them the skills—the tools—to succeed in that challenge. We nurture and support them in ‘getting it’ and finding it in themselves to master a skill. We’re the cheerleaders who are always certain that our team will win! We can also have the same beliefs and expectations about the families we see—when we nurture and support their ability to be parents who support their children, we can see families meet our challenge and become what their children need.

Forge relationships with the others who are working with the child and family. 

If you’re working with children who have IEPs and a whole team of therapists working with them, these are your best friends. Once that initial or annual IEP meeting is over, make certain to stay in contact with written, phone, or ZOOM meetings. Especially since families are now involved as part of the teaching process, it’s important that visits as well as activities are coordinated and reinforced. Your lesson plans can reflect what the speech, occupational, and physical therapist are focusing on and reinforce the child’s learning. Working together extends the learning for the child and family and, if you team well, lowers the number of visits the family needs to respond to. It may be possible even to use a primary provider model in which one member of the team takes the lead for providing the bulk of the meetings and interventions with input from the rest of the team.  ECTA has some resources on this model.

Have a terrific year!

This article was contributed by Mary Perkins for the Early Childhood Express newsletter.