In a college student’s observation of toddler child care, a teacher is described as making toddlers sit still on mats. The fifteen-month old little boy in the circle keeps taking his mat out from under his bottom and playing with it. His teacher insists he use his mat appropriately, saying, “No, no, no. We put the mat on the ground (sic) to sit on it.” He sees a sippy cup in the hand of another child. He points. The teacher again says “No” to the boy. The only thing he truly enjoys is singing. His face “lights up.” In my student’s notes, there are many “no’s”, and numerous references to “grabbing.” Young children do grab, and teachers usually discourage the behavior, suggesting behavioral alternatives. Here, the teacher “grabs” the sippy cup to keep it from distracting others. A student teacher “grabs” the mat when they can’t make the boy stop throwing it. I imagine these adults are trying to control the crowd to conform. Conform to what? To their center’s image of a calm, happy preschool circle, regardless of age. Development isn’t taken into consideration.
In my early years of teaching fours in preschool, I held circle time in the same way. We tried to get through a set of tasks that the children needed to do, such as calendar, weather report, and counting the class. Soon, we noticed that mats or carpet squares were a distraction. We scrapped them and put masking tape with their names on the rug. This change provided the opportunity for name recognition, and gave each child their own personal space in the group. If you are going to have a long circle, at least give the prisoners their own bunk! We switched the calendar person’s job to just before circle. This cut time from the circle that children spent waiting for their friend to do their job. “Don’t waste children’s time” became our mantra. But those were Pre-K children. When a teacher attempts to make fifteen-month old toddlers conform to Pre-K/Kindergarten behavioral expectations, she is committing malpractice. When a child hears “no” over and over, has things rudely grabbed from him, he learns nothing except how to stay out of trouble, or how to say no and grab. While I was working with children going to kindergarten the next year, this teacher is working with people who are still putting things in their mouths.
What are we to do? Young teachers often think what their directors and child care corporations teach them to think. They are instructed to do what is developmentally inappropriate by their employers, and harmful for children who don’t conform. Many childcare teachers do not take college courses in child development. While teacher/director education is part of the solution, it is clear that the top-down model of child care management needs changing. Teachers aren’t totally invested in best practice if their employers ask them to do the opposite. If they have no say in how they work, what they teach, or if they aren’t encouraged to work together, breaking the top-down ladder, how can they take ownership of their teaching? They become passive enactors of policy.
Directors need to spend some time learning about child development. There are many fine directors out there. If one knows that a young toddler can’t sit for even ten minutes without doing something self-centered (they are still babies, after all) they won’t expect children to keep their hands to themselves every minute (even though their teachers may be modeling grabbing), or to speak out of turn. They will socialize children over time, but they won’t expect children to toe the line. Directors will allow teachers to go with the flow, having a circle, but making it non-compulsory. Or they will tell teachers to do group activities as they come up organically. If a teacher reads a book to one child, you can be certain that there will be many more children participating before the story is over. For both teachers and directors, learning about child development, before looking at Pinterest ideas, will help their students thrive.
Create a team approach. Teachers can meet regularly to discuss individual children and routines. What’s not working? Have the team problem solve. Which children need intervention? Director and teaching team can meet to talk. The director is the head, but to paraphrase a popular movie quote, the team is the heart.
Looking forward, if directors and teachers work towards respecting young children’s individual development, will parents follow? Usually, parents notice children’s joy first, when they tour. If you have built a program that is respectful of children, parents will see that their child will be happy attending. Seeing this, they will come.