Monday, October 4, 2010

Should I worry about routines?

At the beginning of each school year, preschool teachers spend a lot of time teaching children basic rules and routines. By and large, children fall in step, readily learning to follow the procedures and often anticipating and enjoying all the different parts of a school day. However, it's never 100% that way! Usually, there are one or two children who stand out, who distinguish themselves by reacting in unexpected ways to your routines - perhaps they shriek when you ring a chime, perhaps they refuse to stop playing with their toys and join the class at transition times, perhaps they seem to completely ignore you during certain lessons - laughing and carrying on conversations with others (or even talking to themselves!), hanging out on another side of the room, doing other things (often other LOUD things!). Ahhh! The hidden pleasures of teaching at the preschool level!

Yes, this, too, you must juggle.

This is a great example of why it is essential that you have great communication with parents and caregivers. You need to talk up the importance of expecting children to follow routines at home. Honestly, there are so many reasons why children may not have regular schedules and routines at home - very few of which have to do with "negligent parenting." Each family is unique.

Your little "rule-breaker" :-) may be a first-born, with parents who simply don't know about the value of limits and routines. Perhaps he/she is the youngest child in a busy, harried home. For other families, it doesn't dawn on them to expect their young ones to follow routines, why is this necessary at age 2, 3, 4 - I mean, these are "pre" school years, right? Can't that wait until real school? (In fact, routines are great for all ages - newborns on up, and are a real advantage in later academic success.) Remember, too, that preschoolers are very egocentric - it has never been about you and your routines, it is all about me! Developmentally, your renegade may be simply lost in himself.

Believe it or not, you are probably already teaching children that have basically no schedule, routine, or limits at home - but these children come to your class and bask in the routine, they are comforted and nourished by this, they see how it makes them feel safe.

The child who demands your attention is the one who isn't automatically comforted or nourished - he/she will need your help. This child just can’t "get it" or comprehend it...the child is almost oblivious to it because it is so foreign.

So, you must personalize your teaching. You must hone in on the different learner and fine-tune your teaching to meet these needs. Consider first if you are teaching clear routines:

Do you have visuals of your routines? (Clear signs designating the day's schedule, the various centers of your room, markings on the floor for where you line up, labels on your bins so that the child knows how to put things away.)
Do you have a variety of auditory cues? (Special music used day in, day out to signify welcome greeting, circle/meeting time, clean up, lunchtime, nap time, goodbye; chimes, bells, drums, chants to prompt "listening ears.")
Are you following the same pattern each day, so that children can predict what comes next?

To engage the family on this mission - and to open up avenues for communication - you might even give small homework assignments about routines, for example - what are the last 3 things to you do before bedtime? what are the first 3 things you do in the morning?

There are times when something "more" seems to be going on. This, too, is an important part of your job as preschool teacher - to distinguish between something being not just new and unlearned by a child, but extremely difficult to learn. As preschool teacher, you wear many hats - and one of these is the "observer-detective," watching the way children behave and trying to figure out whether there are any patterns in this behavior. Once, after a difficult but assertive conversation with a family, I gave the parents several cardboard STOP signs and asked them to find things in their house that merited a stop sign: i.e., something that the child was not allowed to touch/open/go into – refrigerator; door of parent’s bedroom. This family, who had up until then just taken their little one's challenges in stride (he was so easy-going and pleasant as a personality!), ended up being very surprised that he would not/could not "follow the rules" even in this playful way. It ended up being a huge indicator that some other processing issues were going on.

As a preschool teacher, it is never your job to diagnose a child, but you do have the very important position of being an objective voice of concern and insight. Unlike families, you have the experience of observing many, many children and their behaviors - you can offer perspective.

And that brings us to another great book: Is it a Big Problem or a Little Problem? by Amy Egan, Amy Freedman, Judi Greenberg, and Sharon Anderson from the Ivymount School, a private school for students with disabilities. As the book asks, "Differences in children's learning styles, temperaments, and personalities are a given, but when should those differences raise a red flag?" This is an excellent book to share with families, as they share their worries with you.