Jennifer Dickson

Jennifer Dickson is an advocate for early childhood education and early intervention. With more than 20 years of experience in public school education, she currently serves as the director of early childhood for Duncanville ISD in Texas.

You Are Loved, and We Are So Happy You Are Here!

We know COVID-19 and the global pandemic changed things for everyone in education. But for our youngest learners, who often come to preK with deficits in language and socialization, the pandemic added even more challenges. If you think about it, our current three- and four-year-old children were either infants or toddlers when everything shut down in the spring of 2020. During the stage when most babies are normally building language, potty training, and playing outside, many children were instead in car seats while their families waited in long lines for food and assistance. Due to food insecurity and job loss, families around the country were placed in stressful situations while trying to make sure their basic needs were being met.

As children are becoming preK eligible, educators are seeing even larger gaps in oral language development, personal care skills, and socialization. Students would rather be on their iPads than interact with each other. Many children are dealing with trauma they aren’t really old enough to process. We know even small children can recognize stressful situations and emotions coming from the adults around them, and there was stress everywhere during the spring of 2020 and beyond. Students need their classrooms to be that safe place where they can feel loved and cared for each day. As educators, we have the opportunity to pour positive words and experiences into young learners. We can make sure that our educational environments are stress reducing and positively affirming for all students.

As adults, don’t we like to hear positive things about ourselves from those around us? We don’t necessarily need it constantly in order to thrive, but it certainly helps. When others point out negative things about us, does it always help us grow? Certainly not. Often, if not framed correctly, it can bring up feelings of shame in adults. The same must be true for children. 

We received a new student from another campus in preK one day. We knew ahead of time that he was experiencing some challenges at home that were affecting his behavior at school. He was a master negotiator with a disturbing vocabulary of filthy words for a four-year-old. His first few days were indeed a challenge. The counselor, who has never met a child she didn’t say wonderful things about, tells an amazing story of going in to sit with him on a particularly difficult day. He would not do his work and was refusing to leave the dramatic play area; instead, he was throwing things and making a mess. The counselor picked up a plastic phone, put it to her ear, and pretended she was speaking with his mother. Instead of tattling on him, as he expected, she began to agree with the person on the imaginary line, saying reaffirming things about the child like, “Yes, I agree with you, Mom, he IS a wonderful boy who is just choosing not to clean up.” And the boy perked up. He stopped throwing things and listened intently. The counselor continued with positive statements about the boy while pretending to speak with his mother. “Oh, I know. He can be so kind and friendly when he chooses to be. The kids in class want to be his friend when he is not throwing things.” He started cleaning up. She hung up the phone. When they moved to his seat and he needed to do work, he refused. He asked the counselor, “Will you call my mom and say more nice things? Then I’ll do my work.” The counselor was surprised and even checked with him: “You want me to call her on the pretend phone?” That is indeed what he was requesting. So, she didn’t waste a minute. She went to the dramatic play center, found the plastic phone, and began to “call” his mom back and say positive affirmations about the child. “Oh yes, Mom, I know you love him so much and we love having him at school too!” And he listened and began to complete his work. He needed to hear positive things about himself so badly—even from a fake phone! And the counselor was happy to comply. This experience didn’t solve all of the challenges, of course. But it did establish something so important for such a young learner: he needed to hear positive affirmations about himself. The counselor and the classroom teacher work intentionally each day to make sure they are pointing out the positive things he is doing and making sure he knows he is valued, while also continuing to work through daily challenges.

How can you incorporate this into your collaborative teams in a PLC? Consider bringing some examples of challenging behavior to your collaborative team. Reflect on the specific child as a team, and gather insight on how to positively pour into that child. You could even invite the counselor to this meeting. Collaborating on the social-emotional elements during your collaborative team meeting will help improve other areas of learning. Use this time to gather new ideas and take them back to your classroom.

We often find that children who struggle with behavior do not hear positive things about themselves. Instead, the adults around them tend to focus on the behavior and the negative aspects. “You’re not being a good friend.” “You aren’t supposed to use words like that.” “I wish you would make better choices.” Do you think that child thinks he or she is wanted in school? I often wonder. But what if, instead, the adults around this child started pouring affirmations on him or her? “You are such a special child with a big heart. I know you want to be a good friend. Let me show you how to be kind . . .” Or “Wow. I can see you are frustrated and things are hard, but I also know that you are this amazing child who can do great things, like . . .” Or “You aren’t a mean child, you are nice! I know you can change your words to say nicer things.” Or “We love having you here at school and you are so important to us.” It may not have an immediate effect on behavior, but I believe that pouring positive words into a child builds up over time. Whether we realize it or not, young children are internalizing what they hear about themselves from those around them. We can help them develop a more positive frame of mind so that in times of frustration, they can learn to breathe and use their words to properly express their frustration. Or they can put themselves in the classroom “quiet place” so they can work through their feelings and come back to contribute positively to the class.

We don’t want children to define themselves by the negative things they hear about themselves. As educators, we can’t control what they are hearing at home, but we certainly control what they hear at school. So, let’s make it positive and affirming! Adults don’t thrive in any kind of environment where they are constantly reminded of their faults, so children certainly won’t either. Next time we encounter a challenging behavior from a young child, let’s try to focus on the truly wonderful kid standing in front of us, just doing the best they can at the moment. We as adults are doing the best we can each day, and we need to remember that children are doing their best, too. And they are still learning. Then, as we let them hear that they are wanted and loved over time, we don’t just hope that positive changes will happen—we know they will.

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