Stop The Sucking: Some Unexpected Back-To-School Problem Solving

As I’ve blogged about before, I moved from being a nail biter to being a sucker. My poor lanyard, and sometimes a necklace that I wear, can be permanently implanted in my mouth during stressful times. Recently, as we continue to learn more about the back-to-school routine, and the unexpected but understandable changes that go with it, I noticed that I’ve been sucking on things a lot more frequently. It hit me yesterday, while I was replying to a few emails, that the collar of my shirt was in my mouth.

I do this so often without even realizing it.

This was not the first time that this has happened, especially in the past couple of months. And while I can understand why I might be feeling stressed and why this might help sooth me, I also realize that in the time of COVID, putting items in your mouth is an especially bad idea. Then I began to think about when we go back to school. Now, every day in class, I’ll be wearing a mask and a shield. Sucking on anything will no longer be an option. The same will be true for kids. I know so many of our students that calm themselves by putting their thumb in their mouth. Or biting on their sleeves. I’m not saying that this is the right thing to do, but as a fellow “sucker,” I can empathize with these choices.

As we prepare kids for going back to school — just as we prepare ourselves — do we need to help these “suckers” find something else that calms them. Maybe it’s …

  1. fidgeting with an item on their wrist (e.g., a scrunchie),
  2. doodling in a notebook or on some paper,
  3. or engaging in some independent sensory play (e.g., creating with their own container of playdough).

Maybe it’s something else altogether. For me, I wonder if I need to invest in a few mints to suck on periodically throughout the day. (Choking is the only reason that I wouldn’t suggest this option for kids.)

No matter what the solution might be, I implore all educators, administrators, and parents to see beyond the negative connotations sometimes associated with this type of behaviour, and notice the stress. This sucking could very well be Self-Reg in action. At a time with increased stress, losing the ability to engage in this calming behaviour could be a stressor in itself. Working through solutions together though could make a world of difference for these kids and adults that look to this sensory option as a calming one for them. How might you support the “suckers” in your life? They really need you right now. I get it. I understand. I can relate. This little habit of mine has led to some more problem solving for me to do before we head back to school.


Our “Scaling The Condo Wall” Scenario

When it comes to back-to-school, I have been pretty quiet online. I like to read, think, question (among friends and colleagues), and wait to see what happens. I completely understand why educators, administrators, Board personnel, and parents might be speaking out/speaking up, but I’m sometimes reluctant to share in a public forum — especially when I have a 240 character limit — for fear that my thoughts will be misinterpreted. This changed somewhat on Thursday evening after I saw numerous photographs of socially distant kindergarten classrooms. Then I had to put these thoughts out there.

Wouldn’t you know that sometimes you vocalize ideas, uncertain of what the future holds, and then you find out a little bit more the next day?! This is what happened to me. It’s like I read the future, for I soon learned that assigned seating, desks/tables, physical distancing, and a lack of shared materials are all part of our new kindergarten reality.

I totally understand the safety concerns here, and appreciate how everything possible is being done to keep staff and students safe. But my heart ached for our 3-5 year olds — some of whom are going to be coming to school for the very first time — and what their initial school experience might be like. So what did I do? First, I cried. Then, I tried hard to choke back the desire to vomit. Yes, this was making me feel physically sick. Next, I did some more productive things.

  1. I reached out to my teaching partner, Paula, and we began to talk about what could be possible when considering learning through a child development lens.
  2. I connected with some educators on Twitter. What are others doing/planning to do? How are they working within the restrictions? What might be some safe options?
  3. I re-watched Susan Hopkins’ recent vlog on back-to-school. If you haven’t watched this 21 minute video yet, I would highly suggest that you do. I’ve watched it numerous times now, and I love it more each and every time. I’m not the only one! This vlog has been shared many times on Twitter, and it really gets you to think about possibilities. Paula recently wrote this about Susan’s vlog, and I think her words sum it up perfectly.

In Susan’s video message, she talks about understanding the restrictions and then looking at what can be done within these limits. She encourages educators to write down questions that we can then contemplate, reflect on, and consider what can be done. Susan really emphasizes the importance of how questions, and admits that not all questions will have an answer. Sometimes though, working through the possibilities — including her first example of scaling the three-story condo behind her house — will get us to think about things differently. This blog post then is my writing down of questions, and here is our big one: how might we still honour the importance of the environment as the third teacher and play-based learning while also adhering to current classroom restrictions?

By reaching out to others and reading many suggestions shared by fellow Ontario educators, here are some ideas for this upcoming school year. These don’t even address the outdoor learning component, which might allow for a few more safer social language and responsive environment options.

I am not going to pretend that everything is perfect, but I’ve managed to move beyond the tears. Paula and I have found some positives and possibilities. We found a new challenge. Together, and thanks to the amazing support and ideas shared by others, we went from, “This is impossible,” to “I wonder if this might work.” How are you making things work? What are some of your questions and suggestions? We might need to stay physically distant, but thanks to the Internet, we don’t need to work alone. If there was ever a time to connect, now could be it!


Is A Book Always A Good Idea?

As we get closer to the start of school, I keep seeing Instagram posts full of children’s books on the Coronavirus. This week, a fellow educator shared with me a list of some of these books. She noticed that many of them are free to read through Kindle Unlimited, and she knows that I utilize this service. One afternoon, I decided to download a handful of these books (one that I paid for) to read and think about. This is the Instagram post that I shared after my reading.

As you can see in this post, I have some concerns with children’s books on the Coronavirus.

  1. How much are we informing students versus stressing them out?
  2. When the message in the book talks about the importance of “staying at home” and “not going to school,” how will kids feel when they are reading and discussing this book AT school?
  3. While a superhero connection might intrigue the many children that love superheroes, is this an interest that we want to extend? How do we address the dysregulating connections with this interest (i.e., the running, screaming, fighting, and fake flying that always seems to follow a superhero discussion), especially when children might now, more than ever before, need to stay in a more contained area?

I know that books can be incredibly informative. I also know that there are many books that mimic reality, and detailed pictures and simple text, can support children that are learning new things. This may include, learning how to respond to the Coronavirus and keeping safe.

Then this morning, I saw an Instagram story from Mads.Reading: a book account that I follow. I asked her if I could share this story here.

Look at the number of adults that are not interested in reading COVID books. Now think about our kids: do we know for sure that learning more about the Coronavirus is what they want?

I’m not suggesting that we ignore our COVID-19 reality and don’t use books to maybe help address some new health protocols, such as handwashing. Some of our students might even need or want more information than this. I keep coming back to my reply on the children’s book Instagram post.’

In class, we regularly observe and respond to what students want/need. We try to personalize whenever possible. One child, or even a group of children, might benefit from another story on the Coronavirus, and others might not. We also try to connect with parents. What has been discussed at home, and what do they think might be beneficial for their child(ren)?

There’s no one right answer here, which is maybe why I wanted to blog so much on this topic. My hope is that Coronavirus inquiries don’t become standard fair in every classroom around the world. Kids will talk. COVID-19 is part of their reality. Just look at this student work as an example of that.

But maybe for many children, returning to school also means a chance to think about, inquire, and discuss topics beyond COVID-19. Let’s not assume what’s best for kids. Our assumptions and their reality might not be the same. What do you think? How are you planning on addressing the Coronavirus with your students? How much might be too much? No matter what your final decision may be, there are certainly lots of books available for us to use, and having access to resources when needed, can always be beneficial.


How Are You Finding Control?

As many of my blog readers know, my teaching partner, Paula, and I are passionate about play. Child-directed, child-led free play. Yes, we connect this play with Kindergarten Program expectations, and try to ask questions to promote and extend deeper thinking, but we attempt to always start with the child. In education, “play” is often seen as a bad word. Even though we have a wonderful Program Document that speaks to the value of play, embracing and facilitating this play continues to be a struggle in many educational circles. Why? There are probably numerous reasons, but as Paula and I have discussed in the past, giving up control is certainly one of them. As educators, we like to have control: from colour-coded systems to confined blocks of time for everything from art and music to language and math. Over the years, Paula’s taught me many things, and reducing my need for teacher control is one of them. Recently though, I’ve started to wonder, do we all seek some control?

In two weeks, many Ontario educators will be going back into schools to get things ready for the upcoming school year. I’m about to begin my 20th year of teaching, and I’ve probably not felt this unprepared since my first year. I’m not alone. As Boards look at how to safely open schools, and the Ministry continues to share new daily updates on plans, everyone is living in a constant state of stress and uncertainty. This is not a “blame game.” This is just the reality. My struggle this year is that never before have Paula and I spent more time thinking and talking about school over the break than we did this summer, and yet, I feel as though we’ve gotten nowhere.

This week, parents in our Board will be indicating if they plan to send their children back to school. This could lead to re-organization before the end of August, updated class lists, and school/Board plans. We all have far more questions than answers, and while in previous years, I might have sent my principal an email trying to find out more, I know and understand that, “Not sure,” will likely be his two-word response right now. All of these uncertainties, have me thinking more about control.

While Paula and I might never have spent our summers planning specific learning experiences for children or organizing a list of materials to purchase before school starts, we would start to consider,

  • our environment,
  • our background knowledge about students and interests,
  • our general routine for each day,
  • our prep schedule, and what this might look like in terms of small group and large group support,
  • and our communication with parents, including reflections on approaches used in the past.

This year though, with not knowing how many children will be coming back, what the updated information is around class sizes, and what impact reorganization might have on our classroom, we’ve reached an impasse in our planning. The small bit of control that I like and need, I can’t have right now, and I’m feeling the stress. What would I usually do when this is the case? I would start to work on our class blog. It’s something that I can control. But as we’re waiting to hear more about Media Consent Forms and getting new Teams up and running in MS Teams, there’s little that I can do here either.

The other day, as I tried so hard not to let stress overtake me, I could feel myself quickly getting overwhelmed. I was speaking with a fellow educator about the upcoming school year, but as the questions piled up, the answers varied, and the solutions seemed to bring along with them their own problems, I had to leave the discussion. I couldn’t do it anymore! Later that day, I said to my parents, “There’s absolutely nothing here that I can control! I need to do something to feel better.” My step-dad left me with a great idea: “why don’t you do some professional reading?” This led to a little book ordering and reading this morning.

There’s still a lot that I can’t do. That I don’t know. And that I have limited control over. For those educators that struggle with play because of a lack of control, I understand your worries better now. This is not a nice feeling. Maybe though, we need to find something that is within our control, and start there. Reading gave me a more positive outlook and a little less tight stomach stress. What about you? How are you finding some control in the midst of such uncertainty? Whether an educator, administrator, parent, or child, I wonder if this is something that we all might need.


Teacher Privilege: Whose Voices Are Missing?

Yesterday, my teaching partner, Paula, shared a brave, but important, post about her experiences as an Early Childhood Educator and about the divide that still sometimes exists between teachers and DECEs (Designated Early Childhood Educators). Her post, and the conversations that we’ve had around it, have inspired me to write a follow-up post of my own.

My post is one of stories. The first story takes me back many years ago now, when I was starting at a new school in a grade other than kindergarten. It was an interesting year to move schools, as we didn’t end the year with a PA Day, so I never had a chance to officially meet the staff before my arrival. I remember coming in and connecting with a few teachers in the staffroom. I’m not the best at small talk, and going through introductions is a challenge for me. The interesting thing though is that as a teacher, I never really had to do this. Everyone just kind of knew me as the “new teacher.” I quickly gained a voice in that staffroom if I wanted to have one, and was invited into conversations just by the fact that I was there.

As someone who embraces change, I’ve moved schools a couple of different times since then. I also had my first opportunity to teach with Paula. I’m finding that the older that I get, the more that I crave quiet during my nutrition break. I could probably count on one hand — maybe two — the number of times that I went into the staffroom at the last couple of schools where I taught. This wasn’t because the room wasn’t welcoming, but more because I was looking for a silent space to spend a few minutes of time. I do love hallway nooks, and often locate at least one for my working pleasure.

What’s had me really reflecting recently is that even though I rarely made it into the staffroom, everyone still knew me. When I did go, I was invited into conversations and asked questions. I felt as though I could speak up and that my voice was heard.

  • Did people know me because I was a “teacher?”
  • Did people know me because of connections through social media before we ever started working at the same school?
  • Or did people know me because it’s hard to ignore that person who’s sitting alone in the hallway at lunchtime? πŸ™‚

I’m not sure of the reason and/or combination of reasons. Thinking back about my teaching experiences at eight different schools, I have to wonder if there was ever a full-time teacher at any one of those schools who didn’t feel like part of the school community. Now what if instead, I have this same wonder about …

  • Early Childhood Educators?
  • Educational Assistants?
  • Supply teachers?
  • Secretaries?
  • Caretakers?
  • Support staff?
  • Parents?
  • Volunteers?
  • Principals and Vice Principals?

Is this natural feeling of inclusion the same for all of these individuals?

As another one of my stories, I remember a while ago now, when I was sitting in the staffroom at the end of my prep. The caretaker came by, and he saw me there. He sat down for a minute, and shared with me a conversation that he had with one of our students when he went in to empty the garbage in our classroom. The conversation told me a lot about the child’s social interactions, but also uncovered an interest that we could build on with him. When the caretaker left, another staff member who was there at the time was surprised by our interaction. This has me thinking about some “caring adult” conversations over the past couple of years.

Caring adults can be so many different people in the building. The connections that different adults can have with kids, and the insights that they can share about kids, are so incredibly valuable. Hearing about Paula’s experiences of the past, but also hearing the stories of different Early Childhood Educators on Twitter, I’m coming to wonder if teacher privilege exists. Are my opinions valued more by co-workers because I’m a teacher? Should they always hold as much value as they do? Today, I’m returning to this blog post comment by Kristi Keery-Bishop.

How might we amplify those voices that are not being heard? What new learning might there be as a result? I don’t always think that actions are intentional, but I do think that improvement is possible regardless. Know more. Do better. I’m committed to this. Who’s with me?