Saturday, December 18, 2010

What does it mean to role model?

I read an article in the Washington Post recently about a family that exercises together under the guidance of their grandmother, Margie Weiss, a personal trainer. "You like what you're used to," says the former competitive gymnast. "It's just what we do." Her son Michael Weiss (two-time Olympic champion in figure skating) says the key to getting kids to move is to do it with them. "I never say, 'You go do this.' It's always, 'Let's go do this,'" says Michael.

This struck me as both simple and profound, and applicable to many things you might want children to do. It is an important nugget to keep in mind, whether you are a preschool teacher or parent. Rather than lament, "She refuses to do xyz!" or "I can't get him to do anything!" or "Did you see them take off as soon as I said they needed to....?!," dare to work alongside them. Show them how. Most importantly, show them that it interests you, that it is worth doing.

If you want children to learn to clean, you need to clean alongside them. Telling preschoolers to clean while you stand by and watch strikes me as futile. They will learn best with you modeling how, they will learn best when they have your adult companionship, they will learn best when they realize cleaning is important to you and not simply something that is relegated to them. In my classroom, clean up is a game. I say, "Wow! Look at this room! Do we think we can get it straightened up before the song ends?" Then, we race to clean the room before the end of Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Oh My Goodness, Look at this Mess!" At home, when my boys were young, we often had "60 minutes" of cleaning frenzy on Saturday mornings - we would confer first about what areas of the house most needed cleaning; then we would put on our favorite rock and roll songs and everyone would run around cleaning. When the boys were very young, we would have them work as a pair with my husband or myself. The five of us could get a great deal done in an hour, and, in general, we had a lot of fun doing it.

If you want young children to do their homework (hopefully, this is NOT an issue with preschoolers!!), you should consider setting them up at the dining room table with you, as you work through bills or your own office work. Giving children this studious example is very wise - you are modeling how to focus, how to work quietly. You are available to help them through their frustrations and mental roadblocks. You may convey a real love of learning - how important is that?

If you want children to learn to cook, you need to have them working alongside you when you are in the kitchen. I remember vividly how much my boys enjoyed playing at the sink, washing/rinsing potatoes for me in a sinkful of water, when they were all of 2 years old. Now, my youngest is 15 - and check out these delicious chocolate cookies he decided he just had to make from scratch! Of course, now I'm practicing my own self-regulation skills by avoiding these yummy chocolate treats.

The next couple of weeks will bring lots of family togetherness, with schools closing for winter break and holidays. What a great opportunity to be alongside your children, doing something together that you hope they will find engaging...something that will be so automatic and acceptable to them in later years that they will say, "It's just what we do!"

Friday, December 10, 2010

Moments that linger

I've been blogging for almost a year now, enjoying it very much. As you can probably tell, I try to make at least one blog entry a week. Some weeks I do better than that, some weeks (like this past one) it doesn't even happen. But, as I suspect is true for most of us who work with children, each day is filled with moments that are meaningful and important...regardless of whether they are put into print.

The past many days have been very full indeed and I have been searching for which moment to spotlight here in this blog. And then it dawned on me - why not share several? This is the reality of being with young children - it is a whirlwind of small but powerful moments.

Consider these moments that linger...

- Sitting at a table with several 3 year olds, working on shape puzzles, when several friends wander off to new classroom pursuits and I find myself alone with one young boy who is focused on solving these. He completes another model and then notices that all the shapes on the table are available for him to use. He gathers them into one big pile, much like King Midas, and begins spontaneously to search for each and every circle piece - creating a long line of circle pieces across the table. I, to test him, offer him a diamond piece, and he shakes his head in seriousness and says, "No, just circles," but then he reconsiders, "Hey, let me see that!" And next to his line of circles, he begins to create a new pattern, using nothing but diamond pieces. "Help me," he says, "We must find all these diamonds!" This is why I work with children - I love watching them think, I love being present as the world opens up to them. (Oh, but where is my camera!?)

- Starting my day with a group of 4 year olds, when a little girl comes up to the teacher and laughs, "I whip my hair back and forth!" The teacher laughs in delight and says to her, "Good morning to you, too! Ask Ms. Ingram if she knows this song, you must share it with her." The little girl sings it to me, all the while shaking her hair. She adds, "There is a video!" and I tell her, "This song is new to me. I will look it up on my computer when I get home and I will think of you." That evening, I find this song video by Willow Smith, and I think not only of the 4 year old but of her incredible teacher, embracing this child's connection to home, seeing her sharing as a positive greeting, not dismissing it or ignoring it. I marvel at teachers who embrace children's interests, knowing that these are the foundation for the very best learning.

- In the block corner, I am relaxed and stretched out on the floor, alongside several children working on their masterpieces. A child that I have never met before sees me and an open invitation: quite unexpectedly, he throws himself on top of me, laughing at his surprise attack. "Well! hello!," I say and I give him a quick hug. Children don't hold back, do they? I love how real and "in the moment" children are.

- Two four year old boys, two different classrooms. Both so similarly sad, both with thumb in mouth, tearful; both dragging behind their classmates as they walk down the hall, or as they gather at the carpet. Everything is hard for them today, they don't want to participate, they can't seem to follow the routine. And the two teachers, unknown to one another, miles apart in their schools, both said to me, I am wondering what is up with him; I need to talk to his family about whether this sadness is true at home, too; have they seen this? I wonder if school is feeling too hard right now? And why? I wonder if he needs more tasks to do independently, away from the crowd of classmates? Both of these teachers are so similarly aware of their little ones' behaviors, carefully observing and considering, seeing themselves as the problem-solvers, the child interpreters, that they are. I am filled with hope about our educators.

- It's the end of the day, and a teacher reports to a grandmother that her 4 year old granddaughter had a rather rough day, having many tears. (The teacher had earlier told me that this child's parents are newly separated, getting a divorce.) The grandmother stoops down to the child's level and says, oh so severely, "Don't you EVER let me hear of you crying in school! You have GOT NOTHING to cry about young lady! If you need something to cry about, I have it for you. But you are too big for crying. And don't let me hear about you having to be held by the teacher - you are too big for that. You hear me?" I am stung by her cruel response. I think about the enormous work of teachers - working with young children and their families - the tense, concentrated work one must do, negotiating a minefield of varying beliefs and approaches about children, learning how and when to assert yourself, always advocating for the children.

- It is evening. I am working with new teachers, sharing my engineering curriculum. Using recyclables, they are building houses for the three little pigs, hoping to make one that is strong enough to prevent the wolf from knocking it over. (The wolf is my blow dryer!) I see one of the teachers blow on her house, to test it herself, before calling me over. I laugh with delight - yes, we need teachers like this teaching our young children - able to become thoroughly engaged with the work, to be playful and curious.

- A message from NAEYC in my email inbox, reminding me about the ongoing on-line event for the new release of the Anti-Bias Education by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards. I am moved by their opening quote, "Early childhood teachers want each child in their care to feel powerful and competent. They strive to welcome every child and to show respect to each family as best they know how. However, beyond individual teachers’ hopes, beliefs, and actions is a society that has built advantage and disadvantage into our many institutions and systems. Inequity of resources in society, and the biases we use to justify that inequity, have an enormous impact on children’s lives." The on-line discussion is full of concerned questions and thoughtful responses; I am in awe of the numerous, dedicated educators who are striving to eliminate prejudice and inequity in their classrooms, in our world.

These are the moments that linger for me this week...some sad, many beautiful, all very rich experiences. I am so thrilled to work with both children and their teachers.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What is intentionally planned play?

How to lay the groundwork for a delightful day at preschool? I believe the delight is in the details. Perhaps it seems like a contradiction in terms - you must intentionally plan your open-ended, exploratory fun; you must intentionally plan the learning through play.

Let me showcase a recent classroom I visited. Minutes before the children arrived, I walked around snapping photos of everything the teacher had prepared, realizing I might be able to give great visuals of the thought that necessarily goes into a delightful day.

Children "come as they are" at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5. The teacher spends her day juggling these often varied personalities; the wise teacher provides a welcoming activity for each, appealing to their different learning styles. In this classroom, there are places for all the different personalities to land happily - to be able to enter the room and immediately immerse themselves in something that is very much to their liking.

Let's see...

There is the sensory table, right near the entrance, for immediate gratification. Young children often have mixed feelings separating from their loved ones at the door - immersing one's hands in a sensory activity, such as sand or water, can be just the right fix for these troubled emotions.

You will see in this same photo, above, another table that holds a work in progress - a puzzle that the children started the day before and asked to continue today. This idea of keeping work out - allowing children to add onto their efforts of the day before - demonstrates tremendous respect of children's play.

There is an art project, where the teacher has already ensured that each interested child will have the materials he/she will need. Having materials at the ready helps children to stay focused, to work longer on their creative efforts.

Also prepared is a concentration game, laid out, in position, ready to play. There will be no need to search for something to do. The game is simple, clear, and inviting. And look - it reflects the Thanksgiving theme!

It's important to point out - none of these tables is "static." This is just today's "look." Each day, a new plan - new activities. (In fact, this is just the welcoming/start of day "look." Once the morning is underway, the teacher will clear a couple of these tables for a cooking activity - today, the children will be making pumpkin muffins.)

But I haven't finished telling you about all the activities that have been prepared throughout the classroom for all the different learners. Across the room is a jumping spot for kinesthetic fun. Don't you know a child or two that needs to run and jump lots and lots before they can focus? Wouldn't that child be happy in this classroom!

In a corner of the room, there is a quiet table with a rather academic manipulative that is just the right place for a more introspective sort.

Last, but not least, on one side of the classroom, the teacher has fenced off a large running area and opened up the rabbit cage. The rabbit explored merrily and soon his familiar friends would be here to play with him, under the watchful eye of an adult.

(This rabbit was so happy and quick, I had trouble getting a good photo until a pal arrived....)

Oh, these lucky young naturalists, learning how to care for this dear little animal, showering him with love and attention.

This classroom exemplifies the intentional planning that goes into creating a playful environment for preschoolers. What a wonderful variety of activities! This is going to be a delightful day!

Friday, November 19, 2010

What about photos?

I went to a marvelous teacher training at the National Zoo this past Saturday. One part of the workshop was simply to provide information and insight into all the different educational opportunities for children (and teachers) at the zoo. Additionally, the workshop allowed us to "roll up our shirt sleeves" and explore how you might teach math simply by studying birds. We did a variety of fun activities - exploring different aspects of birds including colors, sizes, shapes, beaks, habitats, nests, and eggs.

At one point, we took a short walk through the bird exhibits....check out these photos I took.

"Bird" - it is not just one thing, is it?

I've always known that animals are a great way to capture children's interests and get them thinking. I believe you could teach them any subject with animals as your starting point - reading, writing, arithmetic, roar! :-)

But photographs themselves are an extraordinary tool to open children's eyes to the world. If they aren't lucky enough to traipse through the zoo with you, give children a slideshow, surround them with photos, discover Tana Hoban and other photographic books, give them visuals, visuals, help them remember.

Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” —Chinese Proverb

Friday, November 12, 2010

What makes a great teacher?

Each Sunday in the business section of the Washington Post there is a section called "On Leadership," where a question is posed and several "leaders" respond...for whatever reason, I ritually glance at this. This past Sunday, the question asked was something to the effect of "What should President Obama's next move be after the backlash of the midterm elections?" As I perused the varied responses, I was struck by the parallels between great teachers and great leaders. Great teachers are inherently great leaders.

Colonel Charles D. Allen, (U.S. Army, Ret.) Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College:

"When plans and strategies appear to falter, the simplest questions are often the ones that are the most overlooked: 'What were we trying to accomplish, and why?"

Such reflection is a daily if not hourly practice in the classroom. Teachers put a lot of effort into their planning and preparation, but when a given lesson or activity falls apart, they reflexively ask themselves, "Whoa, why did that happen? What was the point of this? What was I trying to get at? What did I hope the students would learn?" and, quickly, "So, if that went wrong, how might I accomplish the same objective differently? What else might I do? What's another approach?" (and they eagerly seek advice from colleagues and others on these new techniques). Discernment is a natural part of the job. Humility is a natural part of the job!

Susan Peters, vice president of executive development and the chief learning officer at GE:

"Good leaders seek new answers - and for those answers they might not like, they figure out both why they don't like them and why they are being said."

Teachers must juggle demands and expectations of students, parents, principals/directors, colleagues, and even state or local standards. They get accustomed to hearing other requirements, other goals - and, with a strong sense of self and purpose, they find ways to incorporate these new demands in a manner which reflects their personal values and style. Great teachers know what they bring to the table, they know what they want, they are confident enough to listen to others, let in new ideas, and stick to what is important. I think these teachers are the very best "negotiators" - bridging differences, flexible with a strong core.

Michael Useem, Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania provided an anecdote about a fire crew that

"...gathered every evening to study the day's decision and decide on the next day's action...."

Four questions were asked:

"What had been planned for the day?
What actually happened during the day?
Why did that happen?
What should be done tomorrow?"

These leaders..."recurrently refashioned their strategy," - much like great teachers do, to meet the changing and evolving needs of their students and administrators. Teachers and schools go through periods when there is a lot of turbulence - changes in administration, budget shortfalls, perhaps a local crisis or emergency, or simply a new but difficult class. Great teachers respond to these more trying times much like this fire crew, taking a daily pulse and resetting daily goals. They stay focused and determined, working within the limits of the situation and achieving as much as possible.

Great teachers have the unique talent of being everywhere at once - being attentive to all the varying needs in a room and aware of how individual students learn best. Interestingly, when teachers do have successes (in a preschool classroom, such exciting moments as catching a child "using words" rather than lashing out physically at a classmate, or seeing a child persevere - try, and try again - at a new activity), these successes are never the teacher's personal bragging moment. Great teachers celebrate the student, giving praise and recognition for their new mastery, truly thrilled at their students' achievement. (And then they consider how they might build on this learning, revising their plans yet again!)

Why aren't more politicians former teachers?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Would you like to have your hair done?

Another delightful first meeting with a preschooler.

It was "choice time," which is as close as I get to the "free play" period of my 3s classroom of years past...I was observing a teacher in a PreK classroom, seated at a table near the block corner, taking observation notes on my clipboard. All of a sudden, I feel someone running fingers through my hair, and a little girl asks:

Would you like to have your hair done?

Well, I am having a bad hair day.” (me)

OK, let’s do it. Do you want it straight or curly?”

I’d like it straight, I think. “ (me)

I think you should have it curly,” she insists.

Oh, okay; I trust your opinion since you are the hairdresser.” (me)

She begins to twist my hair, saying, “Once my mom did it curly and it hurt so bad. I moved while she was doing it.”

Oh, my, that must have hurt.” (me)

Yes,” she says, simply, concentrating. She begins to sing and hum while she works, “Sha-sha, sha;” then, “Okay, you have to lean back, it’s hot water, be careful and I’ll dry it.” And I sink down in my chair and throw back my head, pretending along with her. She laughs with delight, and adds, “Okay, it’s finished. Do you have a rubberband?”

I check my pockets, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have one.”

She is amused that I looked in my pockets. “When I keep twisting it, it might stay by itself,” she reassures me. “I want you to show your Mom this and your friends! I’m fixing some straight and some are fat. Straight like a statue. Everybody, look at her hair, it’s so pretty!” She calls out to no one in particular; she is fully immersed in her dramatic role. “Ooopsie, stop moving your head! Okay, I have to do this part now. I want you to stop moving, okay? And it’s going to hurt…it’s not fake hair, it is real hair. Stop moving.”

I’m really trying not to move,” I apologize.

She makes a squirting noise. “It don’t hurt.” (Squirt, again) “It’s grease, it don’t hurt. It smells good. Don’t you think it smells good?”

Oh, yes, I do!,” I play along.

“Do you want to have some potatoes when I’m finished with you here? I’m cooking some.”

Oh, wow, I’d love some.” (me)

How’s it look to ya?” and she jumps in front of me and gives me a big smile. “That’s what I did to make your hair curly!”

Thank you, I know I need to pay you. I’m going to give you a big tip, because you did beautiful work," and I pretend to count out invisible dollars into her hand.

She smiles at me, and goes to play at the playdough table with friends.

About an hour later (I have long since finger-brushed my hair back into its original state), I am on the playground with the class, and she comes up to me, still in her dramatic role, and scolds me: “Why did you mess your hair up? Why did you go outside?!” She shakes her finger at me and runs off.

Really funny!

How fortuitous that I had my clipboard at the ready, to capture her words. How delightful it was to see a child be fully immersed like this, creating an entire story as she played.

I feel so privileged to have been present.

Friday, October 29, 2010

My grandma and your grandma?

I meet many preschoolers these days, seeing some for just a morning, perhaps not crossing paths again. It has surprised me how many delightful connections I am making, even though I may not be spending all that much time with them. I wonder, too, how important are these small interludes, in the life of a child? Let me share a vignette from one recent day, a four year old boy I met for the very first time....

I'm on his playground, standing, watching.
"Hey, you and I will play together. You will be my friend. You go behind that tree, steal something, and I will come get you."
"You want me to do what?" I ask incredulously, confused.
"Find something - you know, pretend!" he explains, somewhat amused at my ignorance.
"Oh, like this?" I ask, picking up a small twig.
"Yes, now, run and hide!"
And I take off, somewhat gingerly, towards the tree. He is delighted, and follows me, and we are playing some sort of cat and mouse game that I don't fully understand. A moment or two later, the children are lining up to go back inside, and the game ends without explanation.

Inside, it is meeting time, and I sit down on the carpet with the children. Much to my surprise I am sitting next to this new friend. I say something light and humorous to the teacher in response to something she has said; my new friend, as if on cue, gives me an affectionate punch on the arm and laughs along with me. It is such an unexpectedly "grown-up playful" interaction, kinda jokey, kinda goofy, much like my friend Dale was want to do in college. I look at him surprised, smiling.

Three interactions are the charm -

He later decides to play with K'nex. I guess he doesn't have the fine-motor skills for connecting these things, because he comes and finds me in the classroom, takes me by the hand, and says,
"You are going to make me a monster truck."
"I am?," I laughed, surprised, and quickly add, "I'm happy to help you make one."
I sit near him, sorting wheels and "axles." I soon see that my new friend isn't building, but just sitting alongside me. He takes two Knex rods and begins beating the side of the bin and singing an old folksong, in perfect rhythm with his drum beats,

"My grandma and your grandma, sittin' by a fire; my grandma and your grandma, sittin' by the fire..."

I am intrigued by this little fellow.

No fear or concerns about strangers. Comfortable with adults. Self-confident and sure of himself. Imaginative, playful, and creative. Showing me what friendship looks like in its purest state.

I dream of a world where all children can trust that adults will treat them with kindness...where children can expect adults to play joyfully with them...where even little moments together are valued....

Want to hear the song?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

You teach engineering to preschoolers?

Feeling upbeat and energized from teacher training...I presented my workshop on "Engineering with Recyclables" to an appreciative, engaged group of preschool teachers. We were kindred spirits about providing children open-ended, exploratory experiences - opportunities to work on something that had no pre-ordained solution. Just looking, just thinking, just seeing, just exploring. It doesn't get more affordable than recyclables and discards!

Monday, October 11, 2010

One exploratory morning...

This year, I visit different early childhood classrooms almost every day. This past Friday, I had the thrill of being present as a group of 3-5 year olds explored "birds," and I thought I should share it with you. It exemplifies my favorite kind of teaching, wherein the teacher intentionally sets up some exploratory fun and then steps back and watches the children work with it.

The teacher set up three different activities on individual tables...but it's this one here that I love:

A tray had a variety of bird-like foods - birdseed, water, popcorn, raisins. There were several tools to imagine as styles of "beaks" - drinking straw, tongs, tweezers, clothespin, and spoon. The children were asked to think about what it is like to have a beak, to use that beak to gather food. There was even a timer on the table, for the children to imagine what it must be like to have to move quickly to get one's food, before a predator came on the scene.

As the children worked, the teacher asked them thinking questions, which beak works best for our foods here? Why might beaks be different shapes? What kinds of things do birds eat? Do all birds eat the same thing? She pointed out that different shape beaks allow birds to catch different types of foods - worms, bugs, seeds, other. The children learned this by doing.

The children worked diligently, exploring all the different beaks, calling out additional questions to the teacher and one another, "thinking" out loud. Many minutes went by, some 45 total; one little girl never left this table center. It was time for snack and she said to me, "But, but! I never went over there!" (and pointed to another table activity).

This is the power of hands-on exploration. This is what engaged learning looks like.

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.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Overheard in the block corner

Fall visits to classrooms, full of 3 year olds and 4 year olds.

Outside, on the playground, we see a bulldozer/backhoe, working diligently, moving dirt, alongside a road. Preschoolers gather at the playground fence, in awe.

"See it push the dirt!"

"It is scooping the dirt! Like this!" and she digs her hand into the mulch, "See it has a scoop. Scoop!"
Several friends see how right she is, and bend down to scoop the mulch.

"Why is it scooping dirt?" I ask.

Many voices at once,
"It scoops the dirt!"
"To build a house!"
"To make a road!"
"To make a garden!"
"To scoop the dirt!"

We can't leave the fence. We are immersed in the construction work, entranced. The children look away only to bend down into the mulch and scoop, like the backhoe scoops the dirt.

Back inside, in the construction zone, many voices, many friends, working together:

"We have the trucks! It scoops the dirt!" and the preschoolers work to line up all the vehicles.

"I am building a house. You can build a house. Are you building a house?"
"No, a boat. See, this boat is carrying food down the river."
"There are firefighters and police nearby."
"Oh, I have a tall house! A tall house with slides and jumping places."
"Here, at my house, see - sisters, boys, Moms and Dads. We are visiting Grandma, with cake."

(One preschooler makes a siren sound, over and over) -
"What is that noise?," I ask, with a smile, "What's coming?"

"Birthday cake delivery, Ms. Maureen! Today is your birthday! Happy birthday to you!", and they begin singing the song.
"No, to me!" cries another,
"Okay, Happy birthday to you! Gotta go, birthday cakes going down the road."

Suburban preschools. City preschools. Anywhere USA.
Construction outside, construction inside. Building hopes and dreams.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What do we expect of teachers?

I'm missing my former classroom this morning. I was out for a jog and saw a friend from last year's class, in his carseat, in his Mom's minivan. He waved!

I'm on to new things now. I'm mentoring new teachers in DC schools. I am working closely with several teachers, visiting them in their classrooms, observing them in action, being both a support and an energizer.

This exciting, challenging, fabulous new work of mine has made me think about something I haven't really thought about in a long, long time:

What is it like to be a new preschool teacher?

Obviously, I once was one. But, think back about it? Remember and reflect? I think I blocked it out. I think it’s like childbirth, not something anyone seeks to relive, over and over, no matter how beautiful the result.

During those first few weeks of school, the new preschool teacher learns to do many things all at once, including:

- How to create something out of nothing because your school's furniture order is delayed; how to set up in a much smaller classroom than you had planned; how to re-design the classroom overnight because it never dawned on you that the children might paint the wooden blocks, or that they might dump all the manipulatives and puzzles together while sitting at the table…yes, clearly, you need to rearrange the room RIGHT NOW!

- How to lead vibrant, rich, differentiated learning experiences. You will read, write, count, sing, dance, move as the children learn everything! Better yet, you will do this while 1, 2, 3, maybe even 4 children are having total meltdowns in your room. They don’t want to be there! They miss their mommy! They don’t like that book! They don’t like loud stuff! They don’t like!

- How to juggle 15-20 different personalities with varying needs and learning differences. How are they best comforted? You must learn this in a snap of your fingers; you have to know and understand them quickly or else, when they fall apart (and they always fall apart), you will have no idea how to help them. You will find yourself really excited when you manage to get all these little ones to line up together to go to the bathroom, but the thrill will be gone when you realize they need to queue up half a dozen times each day. And, if you are lucky enough to work in a full-day program, you will learn how to get them all to sleep at the same time! Extraordinary!

- How to establish rules in your classroom and translate them into children's language. You can’t simply type up a list of rules/expectations and say “Here, read this, get back to me if you have any questions.” No, it is far more complicated than this. You need to set up your classroom so that children can see what they should be doing; you need to model and role play how they put things away, how they listen to the teacher, how they ask for help, how they need to treat their friends, how they share toys, on and on. No, unfortunately, you can’t simply hand them a list of your rules. But it is essential that you get these social rules across during the first weeks of school - and that you repeat, repeat, repeat them, all year long.

- How to talk to the parents and caregivers. Oh, my, who knew this would be so difficult? It turns out that you have been given responsibility for their most important possession. You must quickly learn how not to be defensive, how to be open to their critiques and questions, how to provide them feedback that makes them feel good about their child, how to encourage them to work with their child, and how to approach them delicately when you are challenged by their child.

- How to team with your assistant. You must learn how to work well together, how to anticipate and support one another, as if you’ve been happily married for 20 years. As you find out on Day One, it is really difficult to get 15-20 preschoolers to attend to what you are saying - and it is exponentially more difficult if your assistant is off in an entirely different direction than you. You learn to be incredibly trusting and considerate with someone you've just met. You depend on each other.

- How to go it alone but give credit and thanks to everyone. That team of colleagues you thought you had doesn’t have time to help you – they are too busy in their classrooms, with their problems. But, your classroom needs to look like theirs, needs to follow the same routines, have the same "buzz." You must quickly assimilate to the culture and routines of your school, make your classroom look like you've been teaching there for a dozen years, and learn how to impress your principal and others in charge, all on your own (and virtually overnight).

Lastly, there's the surprise at realizing - usually mid-way home, hours after your school day has ended - that you have gone the entire day without eating, or using the bathroom.

Thankfully, by your second year of teaching, many needed skills are in place: you know how to set up the room and how to create grouping and other organizational systems so that children behave more appropriately; you feel more confident in how you communicate with children, parents, colleagues, and administrators, offsetting many potential problems; and you know the importance of taking care of yourself, everyday, day in, day out.

These are just a few of the things I've seen new preschool teachers learn, all at once, in the first few weeks of school. New teachers deserve big, big hugs from one and all! We are so lucky that they take on the challenge!

What is developmental discipline?

I just finished reading an inspirational book about one elementary school teacher's attempt to change the way she disciplined her students: Learning to Trust: Transforming Difficult Elementary Classrooms Through Developmental Discipline by Marilyn Watson, in collaboration with Laura Ecken. This book is basically a case-study, detailing enormous work by the teacher to create a more collaborative learning environment. I will not attempt to write a synopsis or review of the book, though here is an excellent one from the Harvard Educational Review.

Let me simply offer you Marilyn Watson's own words, in the book's Epilogue, for your reflection:

Teaching conditions vary greatly across the country and even across a single district. Each person's solution to eliminating or ameliorating any systemic barriers to building nurturing relationships with students will differ. However you manage to do it, increasing your time with your students, leveling with them, and enlisting their support will be keys to your success. In addition, it will be crucial to find supportive colleagues wherever you can, whether in the principal, other teachers, parents, community members, or nearby university faculty.

Remember that beliefs about children and their motivations run deep and are often unexamined. We have incorporated deep within us such conflicting messages as "Children are innocent and loving" and "If you give them an inch they'll take a mile."

Likewise, many of our emotional and behavioral responses to children are not reasoned but automatic; we become angry or hurt when children violate our trust, and we want to punish them when they defy us or persistently disobey. We are not accustomed to thinking of children as biologically designed to seek adult guidance and care or as having their own particular working models of adults, relationships, and the world. Nor are we accustomed to teaching our students to trust, to regulate their emotions, or to guide their behavior by reflection and self-talk.

Adopting a developmental approach to teaching and discipline often involves changing how we think and feel about children, how we interact with them, and what we are trying to teach them. Such profound changes happen slowly, and as they are happening they lead to a good deal of uncertainty, requiring reflection and patience. Allow yourself mistakes; be confident in your goodwill and competence, your ability to reflect on your practice, and your openness to learning from your mistakes. Give yourself time, and be sure to keep your eye on the many successes, both large and small, that happen along the way. As you struggle with the inevitable problems, uncertainties, and setbacks, these successes will provide the most sustaining support of all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why is exploratory play educational?

I ended the summer by going to see the Smithsonian Museum of American History's exhibit Inventions at Play with my friend Marla. This was my second time visiting this fun, on-going exhibit - and it is chock full of wisdom and ideas about how to educate children.

The exhibit asks what inspires people to become inventors? Across the board, these creative geniuses noted their creative play when they were young. They learned to invent through hands-on exploring, daring, making messes, testing cause and effect, trying and failing and trying again. Their childhoods were filled with a variety of rich innovative experiences. Many recalled time outside in nature; others mentioned classic toys like Legos and Erector Sets; all noted the value of open-ended, exploratory play.

Consider these terrific quotes:

"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation." - Plato

"I don't draw a line between play and work." - Newman Darby, sailboard inventor.

"Always listen to children. They might have ideas we've never thought of." - Alexander Graham Bell

Inventions at Play excites me about my own teaching - children need exploratory experiences and I love trying to provide them!

As noted in the exhibit:

This ability to see non-obvious connections and relationships often leads inventors to the key insight that is the basis for their inventions.

Isn't it important for children to discover what we do not already know? We have to find a way to make some part of children's learning not about specific answers and data, but instead provide them time and materials to explore non-obvious connections. I think children should have plenty of time engaging in play that has no specific answers, but that allows children to develop skills that are more intangible - such as curiosity, perseverance, extrapolation, reflection, rethinking, scaffolding, and, even, teamwork.

Child-development specialists see a strong connection between children's level of pretend play and their ability to think creatively.

The exhibit included several hands-on "play" activities for all ages, including one called "Marbles and Motion." Here, a table is raised at one end, so that the surface is slanted. There are a variety of kitchen utensils (classic "toys" from the housekeeping corner of any preschool class) that you use to set up an obstacle course that will help guide the marble to its corner goal. If at first you don't succeed, rearrange the items, position them differently, eliminate some, add until it works. Folks of all ages were participating in this open-ended activity, laughing and talking together - it's not just for preschoolers, though we teachers can recreate it in a moment! (See my attempt in the photo!) This play example illustrates how simple it can be to set up an educational exploratory activity for children.

Lastly, I found myself thinking about how we often tamp down on the more creative spirits in our classrooms - trying to get them to be the same as the others. Consider this quote from James McLurkin, robotics inventor: "I was always getting into things. I hoarded broken bits, made messes, build things, burnt up bathrooms."

I'll close with something for you to think about...
Is there a James McLurkin in your class this year? How will you channel his genius?

New teacher challenges

It's the beginning of a new school year! Another year of hopes, dreams, exploration, and learning....

I have a thrilling new job; I am working as a mentor to several first-year preschool teachers in D.C. These new teachers are filled with ideas and excitement; they have been working tirelessly in their rooms, rearranging and organizing, surrounded by newness - new bins, library books, laminated signs and posters, curriculum books and ideas. They are excited to be a part of a dedicated and energetic staff of educators, working to provide a vibrant and rigorous education to D.C. children. They are ready and imagining what the next week will be like - welcoming and connecting with the children, helping them transition into school, channeling their behavior, encouraging their learning, observing, and reflecting. There is so much to understand so quickly!

It's the beginning of a new school year! Another year of hopes, dreams, exploration, and learning....

I visit one new teacher at a school only about 15 miles from the preschool where I have taught for the past many years.

We are standing in her new classroom, helping her to ready the room. Her room is on the main floor of a building, adjacent to a parking lot. There is lots of construction outside her windows. She is having trouble raising and lowering her blinds, they seem a little faulty, askew; she suggests,

"I'm thinking of just leaving them up, to let in all this light. This light is so great. I would love to have it in the classroom. Do you think the children will be distracted by the construction?"

"I love the light, too. I think it would be interesting to see if the children are distracted," I start to say.

But a matter-of-fact voice speaks up - a respected, experienced staff person at the school, who has also been helping the new teacher set up her room. She says:

"Oh, it's not about the construction. You have to have the blinds two-thirds down at all times. See, across the parking lot - just next to you? - that housing? S.W.A.T. teams come there regularly. This is about drugs. When they come, you have to close the blinds, to avert the children's attention. Of course, many of the children come from that housing, but they are often numb to these emergencies. You can keep the blinds open most of the time, but you must be ready to close them when a situation happens."

The new teacher and I look at each other, with our eyes wide open.

It's the beginning of a new school year! Another year of hopes, dreams, exploration, and learning....

Friday, August 27, 2010

What a book!

I just read the most fantastic book: Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine.

Paul Tough spent five years shadowing Geoffrey Canada, creator and visionary of the Harlem Children's Zone. The book details Mr. Canada's extraordinary efforts to stop the cycle of poverty.

Geoffrey Canada truly tries to do "whatever it takes" to break the cycle of poverty for all the children, all the families in Harlem. He draws from exhaustive research into theories and practices about poverty, education, and professional success. He consults a variety of sources - academics, child psychologists, social services, neurologists, and corporate executives. He is determined to find out:

...what specific resources did middle-class children have that allowed them to succeed at such higher rates than poor children? What skills did poor children need to help them compete? And, most important, what kind of intervention in their lives or in their parents' lives could help them acquire those skills? (p. 39)

Here's one example of what Mr. Canada found as he looked into the differences between middle-class and poor families:

Regarding research by Betty Hart and Todd R. Riley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, studying the intellectual development of young children:

"By comparing the children's vocabulary scores with their own observations of each child's home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child's vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child....

...some 481 "utterances" an hour in professional homes and some 178 in welfare homes...

What's more the kind of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of "discouragements" a child heard - prohibitions and words of disapproval - compared to the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average professional child would hear about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare child, the ratio was the reverse - 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

Geoffrey Canada decided - let's teach poor families to talk to their children. Let's teach them HOW to talk. Let's teach them about positive discipline. Let's give young parents good information, support, and guidance. Geoffrey Canada recognized that the best programs never stop - they take a child from birth to college, ensuring success. He recognized the limits of so many social welfare efforts that end up being only a brief stop in a child's journey - when the program ends, the child regresses back into the negative situation he/she was once striving to leave. Mr. Canada envisioned an all-encompassing support system, and, at the time of the book's publication, he had already created:

- a "Baby College," for new and expecting parents to learn the basics of healthy parenting and discipline,
- a "Three Year Old Journey" program, for parents of young children, that builds on this;
- The Promise Academy, a rigorous preschool, elementary, and middle school for students; and
- after-school and weekend programs (creative arts, sports, enrichment, and intensive academic support) for students.

The book was published in 2008; it is highly possible that Geoffrey Canada now has the high school to college portion of his vision in place. I need to look into this! Each of these Harlem Children's Zone efforts is provided free to participants. Geoffrey Canada is a remarkable spokesperson for his vision - his nonprofit has support from a variety of philanthropists and public donations. The cost of the programs is considerable; however, the cost of not doing them seems exponential.

I am profoundly sad at how many barriers stand in the way of many of our children. Paul Tough provides many painful and honest anecdotes of the challenges poor families endure. As an example, early in the book, there is a lottery system for spots in the new school being created by the Harlem Children's Zone, and you can't help but feel uncomfortable at the realization that many needy families will not get one of the coveted slots. It is painfully clear - we need a systemic approach, for one and all. It can't be just for certain ages, or just hit or miss, luck of the draw - you get to succeed, but I don't. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone is remarkable in its all-inclusive approach to helping children live successful lives.

This is a truly inspirational book.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What is a classroom family album?

I think it's important for preschool classrooms to feel like "a family." It's important that we help children connect to a whole new community that loves and supports them. One way for this to happen more smoothly is to bring the child's own family into the classroom as much as possible - at least, figuratively! If you show honest interest and affection for the child's home life, you will begin to gain the child's trust and the family's support. With very young children, both of these - child's trust and the family's support - are important elements in establishing your new classroom community.

Every August, before the school year begins, I send families two special scrapbook/album pages to complete and create alongside their child. I complete them, too, about myself! When the child comes to school on that first day, we place these unique pages into a special binder - creating a classroom family album. I keep this special book out and available, in our book corner - at "the ready" for children to pour through. I got the idea of this book from Deb Curtis and Margie Carter, in their book "The Art of Awareness." The questions include:

What makes me happy?
What makes me sad?
What does my family like to do together?
What do I love to do?
What is something I want to learn to do?
Who is someone my family admires?

See, here are my two album pages, one about my family and one about me:

I love seeing children just happen upon it - and squeal with delight when they see their own family photos or those of a classmate! It is a fabulous tool for the child who is having a rough day - to be able to see who loves him, to read aloud his special memories.

Through the years, this book has become an intrinsic part of my teaching. These family pages help me choose some of the books and materials I use during the school year. At circle and snack times, I read aloud a special page or two - everything but the name of the child - to see if children can guess who I am talking about. It becomes a tool for getting to know each other better, for connecting us as one special classroom family.

As the year goes on, we have done math with the responses - setting up charts and venn diagrams, using the information written on the pages. For example, how many children have the same number of people in their family? How many pets do we have? Who has the most? The same? Which books, stories, and toys are their favorites? I've even used these family pages to begin or extend some of my storytelling at circle time, or to further a discussion about a special book - "Who in this class has a special dog cuddly toy, just like the boy in Dogger?". All these activities are very educational, and, simultaneously, help us to be more of a community! Yes, we are thinking and analyzing...but we are also becoming connected. A classroom family!

How to start the year with parents?

I'm thinking about all those preschool teachers who are very, very busy (and excited!) as they get ready for the new school year. Today's blog: It is really important to lay a strong foundation for good communication with parents and caregivers.

It's important to discuss issues as they come up and keep them “small," rather than ignoring things and letting something grow bigger. Open communication between parent and teacher is essential! I repeat these words over and over to families - at spring Orientations, fall Back to School nights, and in my monthly newsletters. But, how do you create an open relationship with parents and caregivers? How do you build the foundation for this kind of open communication?

My top five practices for building a strong foundation with families:

ONE - greet family and caregivers by their names! Learn these names. For many of us, this is the hardest part of our job - learning these. But it is ESSENTIAL. People need to be recognized. The first several days - ask them their names, repeat them aloud. When family members sign their child in, read those sign-ins and repeat them out loud again. Make up a rhyming jingle - some special hint that helps you remember. Whatever helps you learn these names, please do!

TWO - take photos of the child and loved ones on the very first day or visit to school. Post these photos throughout your room! If you have a classroom website or parents' email addresses, share the photos. (Make sure you have your school's and parents' permission, plus signed waivers.)

THREE - tell your parents something positive, right off the bat, those first few days of school. If possible, speak to them personally - as they are doing drop off or pick up, or give them a personal phonecall. Catch them while the child is being oh so good! Build a little trust. Yes, there may come a time when you have to say something uncomfortable or difficult - how much better to have a positive foundation in place.

FOUR - day one or end of first week - send out a glowing email to the whole class of families of what a delightful start you have had to the school year. Name special things that you have seen. No need to name individual students here - again, we want to avoid comparisons (singling children out for certain things invariably makes someone feel "lesser than"). Just summarize your happy start and how enthusiastic you feel about the upcoming year.

FIVE - Welcome and encourage families to share their own special interests and talents with your class – cooking, sharing a favorite song or musical instrument, helping create a special project, or simply dropping by the classroom and participating in part of the day. The preschool years are a wonderful time for families to be involved in their child's class! Children benefit from seeing their parents in the classroom. I have no doubt that it encourages a true love of learning, to have their parents participate in their school.

So, ask and encourage parents: Would you like to share your occupation/special interests/skills/talents with our class or the school?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What should we ask our families?

I love my work at cooperative preschools. Here, parents take turns assisting the teacher in the classroom. I thoroughly enjoy the dynamic nature of parents, teachers, and children learning together; each day is different, each year brings new rewards.

Before the year begins, it is important that I get to know the families. Some schools have the delightful ritual of home visits - wherein the teacher actually spends time with each family at their residence, learning about the child. I send a questionnaire to the families, asking specifically about parents' names, occupations, special interests, talents, and skills. I also ask about siblings and any relatives or friends living in their home or who are a big part of the children's lives. These basic pieces of information help "anchor" many a conversation that I will have with the children during the school year - I hear about parents going on travel, fights with siblings, big family parties, and so on. How nice to have a grasp of everyone's names!

I think it is also important to know if there any special holidays or traditions that a family celebrates, and, conversely, is there any holiday, event, or subject that they would be uncomfortable with their child learning about or participating in? We are a secular school program - but many families have strong religious or cultural traditions. Rightly so, children know and cherish their own family's traditions, and will chat and share about these openly, so it becomes important for me to be aware of these as well.

The more information I have about the child at the outset of the year, the better. Preschool children usually do not enter school systems with "records" - parents are the best reservoir of all information. I have tremendous respect for all they can share with me about their little one. Several things I would love to know about the child before that first day of school are:

1) What are your child's favorite interests?. This answer actually builds my September "welcome to school" books and toys - if a little one loves Thomas the Tank Engine, I make sure there is a book on the shelf. If a little one is obsessed with princesses, I make sure there are royal gown dressups in the dramatic play area. This is how you build trust in a new relationship - hearing and respecting!

2) What are your hopes for your child this year? Sending a child off to his/her very first preschool is often fraught with much better to consider the positive - what do you hope for? I love reading these responses. And they guide me. I revisit this answer at the parent-teacher conferences later in the year.

3) What is the best way to comfort your child? This is so essential - some children freak out at a hug from others, many feel comforted by nestling in someone's lap. It's important to know how to approach the little one, since those first days are fraught with confused feelings and tears.

It bears repeating - parents are the first and best teachers for a child. Let's work together!

Friday, August 13, 2010

What to do about competitiveness?

Wow, it is mid-August. I remember summers when my children were little...summers were a time of much family togetherness. I would greet the summer jubilantly in June, as the school year drew to a close, with all sorts of activities planned and the promise of fun times. But, by August, my energy had waned, the children were getting on my and each other's nerves, and I was desperately seeking the return of a regular schedule. I suspect many young families are feeling this same tension now. A friend, with two small children "underfoot," recently asked me, how do you handle competitiveness, both competition for your attention and that negative exchange between two children, the "I am faster, better, bigger...."

Preschool teachers hear the same brazen words in the classroom. Sometimes it occurs between children that don't play much at all with each other, but most often it happens with children that are very close friends. It is perfectly natural behavior - but one that grates on our adult nerves. I have a variety of responses to this, depending on my mood and/or the situation:

1. IGNORE - To some extent, take the carping with a grain of salt - it pays to be able to ignore some level of the interaction. I remember one parenting class where we were encouraged to wear an ipod/earphones as we moved throughout the house, daring to ignore a large part of the banter. In my classroom, I work hard to make sure there are several engaging, exploratory activities for the children that will whet their appetite and allow them to interact with one another more or less independently. I am often a "fly on the wall" to their conversations, listening but not interrupting. Honestly, we don't have to tamp down on our children's every word, movement. Take it in stride, if you can. Remind yourself that the children are learning to play together and it takes time to become skilled at this.

2. REDIRECT - When the level of discourse begins to get out of hand, my favorite technique is to interrupt calmly and model a new way to do the activity or to suggest another activity - for one or both of the children. It I have the time and patience, I will often suggest an activity for me to do with both of the children, because it is great for children to have an adult happily playing alongside them. (And, if I feel one child is being particularly put upon, I often suggest an activity that happens to be one of this child's favorite things to do - his/her favorite story, for example). I believe this models how children can enjoy being together without struggling over who is better, faster, bigger. You simply changed the scene.

3. REFRAME - When it is brazen, "Mommy, I can do art better than Jane can't I?", it is a good idea to respond in a positive, unfrustrated voice, complimenting the specific achievement "You are proud of painting an elephant, aren't you?!" Often the child is simply feeling proud and wants to be acknowledged for it. Help your child learn to shine without denigrating others. It is good teaching to also add a positive word about the other child (if she/he is listening) - "And look - Jane likes to use blue in her painting...."

4. LIMIT - At some point, it can go too far. Perhaps you see it in one child's eyes - or hear it in their acrimonious voices. Time to be very clear: "In this classroom (in this family), we are kind to one another. See how hurt Jane is? You need to use kind words with one another. Are you able to use kind words?" and, if it continues, "I see this is hard for you to be together right now. I want you to play in the xyz area now." I recently heard from one mom a parallel idea that one could use at home (my children are teenagers/young adults, so, unfortunately, I can't really use this at my house!). When her preschoolers/young elementary children were caught up in fussing with one another, she would hand both children a dust rag and point them in the right direction, exclaiming "Time to clean the baseboards and give yourself some thinking time!" I really like that no nonsense approach. It is kind, but clear - we have limits on how we speak to one another.

Perhaps the best resources on how to deal with these hurtful, competitive interactions between children - and how and when to "draw the line" - are the numerous books by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, particularly: Siblings Without Rivalry. I particularly like Chapter 3 "The Perils of Comparisons," which warns how adults can fuel issues between children (often innocently, without malice of forethought) simply by comparing one child to the other. It is a really easy read that could help you find a new voice, a better response in dealing with competitiveness between children.