What's New in 2017?


I started Leading for Children, a new national non-profit organization, as a movement to infuse the field of early learning with optimism, leadership, and coherence, three attributes vital to ensuring success for all children and their families. 

Please visit www.leadingforchildren.org to learn more about the organization and read our bi-monthly blog posts.

Thoughts on Self-Awareness and Leadership

There's a theme to my blog posts. Paying attention! 

I'm always thinking about balance. How do we find balance between working and not working? Between being busy and having down time? The obvious answer is paying attention and being intentional: using self-awareness to be more effective.

In my webinar this past week about self-awareness and leadership, I asked whether people had the habit of pausing throughout the day to do a self-check in?  To ask yourself, how am I doing right now? The alternative is to suddenly feel so overwhelmed or exhausted that it comes upon you like being hit by a brick! At least for me, the "being hit by a brick" feeling happens with extreme fatigue or extreme overwhelm. I know I'm more productive and effective when I practice intention. Not surprising.

Self-awareness is about paying attention to how you feel, how others experience you, and by honestly acknowledging strengths and weaknesses. It means admitting when you don't have the answer and owning up to mistakes.

Research states that self-awareness is the most critical leadership skill and the strongest predictor of overall success. (Nicol & Sparrow 2010). Developing skills pertaining to self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and relationship management, account for close to 90% of what distinguishes outstanding performers or leaders from others.  The qualities commonly associated with management and leadership – being authoritative, decisive, forceful, perhaps somewhat controlling – if not moderated by a high degree of awareness as to how one comes across and is perceived by others, are also qualities that have the potential to easily alienate those on the receiving end.

When we acknowledge what we have yet to learn, we model that it's okay to admit we don't have all the answers, to make mistakes and most importantly, to ask for help. I believe these must be characteristics of places where learning is the business we do.

Think about the climate of your program. Climate is what it’s like to work in a place – how it feels. EC leaders can shape the environment and interactions within a setting that either encourages people to be productive and successful or not all of which require energy. Without self-awareness, we often deplete energy from the organizational climate without even knowing it.

How you are – your style, your moods, your vision, your philosophy your clarity your communication style – everything about how you are and what you say and do models for others in your setting. And as leader, you shape the program’s climate.

My suggestion to early childhood leaders interested in moving programs for young children towards increased quality is to actively work at self-awareness. One way to do this is to cultivate the habit of pausing to think about how you feel before handling any of the typical challenges of the day. Just a quick pause can make the difference between a reaction that you might regret and a response that can lead to a positive outcome.


Do we really have to be so hard on ourselves?

In her book, Brave, Margie Warrell says: The negative emotions we create by being overly hard on ourselves not only erode our happiness, but change our physiology. Beating up on yourself actually narrows your peripheral vision so that, both metaphorically and literally, you can see less opportunity to address your challenges, fix your mistakes, and create the opportunities you want. 

I'm overly hard on myself. I can't remember a time when the feeling of "it isn't enough" didn't loom in my thoughts. "It's not enough" or "I'm not enough" definitely makes me feel horrible. 

In the years I taught, I arrived in my classroom between 6:30 and 7:00 am and rarely left before 6:00 pm. SHOULD AND NOT ENOUGH TIME FLOATED THROUGH MY THOUGHTS ALL THE TIME. I continually felt like I wasn't doing enough and there wasn't enough time to do all I thought I should do. 

It didn't occur to me to appreciate what I was doing — to take pleasure in what I was accomplishing with the children in my classroom or the ways I was growing as a teacher. In retrospect, perhaps I might have used a little time each day to reflect on my strengths as a teacher; the things children were learning; the successes we were having as a community of learners. Maybe it would have been valuable to consider and appreciate the ways that there was space and time for spontaneity — for children to invent, discover and create. 

I came up with the idea of "the cup of energy" in 1995 to help other educators recognize that even when we wake up earlier and go to bed later we only get eight ounces of energy.  I continue to convey this message with confidence but whether or not I actually practice it, well that's another story. 

Too many of us (especially in early childhood) judge ourselves harshly. As I go into the New Year and in the spirit of a strengths-based perspective, I plan to be more gentle with myself and to spend more time thinking about my effectiveness and less time judging myself harshly. 

I believe that I can reflect on what I might do differently - how I can continue to learn both from things that go well and those that don't. Rather than using alot of time and energy beating up on myself, feeling guilty about things that are over or out of my control, I'll take some time to think about my own moments of effectiveness. Not only does "beating up on myself" use up time and energy, it leaves me feeling crappy and ineffective. I believe that it's vital to set high standards for myself and others, but sometimes they're unrealistically high. A few lessons I'm going to practice are:
•    When is it simply good enough?
•    When it is all I have in me now?
•    Rather than being my worst critic, perhaps I'll treat myself like a food friend would.

As this New Year unfolds, and I think about my personal growth and change I'm giving myself some gentle permission to be a little less hard on myself. I invite others to join me in acknowledging effectiveness. 

I've always loved the dragonfly. I took a picture of this  red one when I was in China in 2010. Today, I looked up the symbolism of the dragonfly and here's what I found out. The dragonfly, in almost every part of the world symbolizes change from the perspective of self-realization — the kind of change that has its source in mental and emotional maturity and the understanding of the deeper meaning of life. The dragonfly’s scurrying flight across water represents an act of going beyond what’s on the surface and looking into the deeper implications and aspects of life. The dragonfly’s agile flight and its ability to move in all six directions exude a sense of power and poise - something that comes only with age and maturity. The dragonfly can move at an amazing 45 miles an hour, hover like a helicopter, fly backwards like a hummingbird, fly straight up, down and on either side. And, the dragonfly does it with elegance and grace. (http://www.dragonfly-site.com/meaning-symbolize.html)

Workshop Insights About Listening

Today in Camden, NJ 200 we talked about how important it is to listen!

  • One group talked about patience.
  • Another shared that listening to someone and giving them your attention is a gift.
  • Some said that body and facial expressions convey listening.
  • Rather than deciding what the person is going to say next, it helps to really listen and allow yourself to be surprised by what the person says.

The quotes that we used to inspire our discussion included:

Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand. Sue Patton Thoele

The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting. Fran Lebowitz

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.  Thich Nhat Hanh

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them. Ralph Nichols

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Stephen R. Covey

You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time. M. Scott Peck


When and how do I do my best thinking?

After writing my last blog, I decided I would try to take time each week to be intentional about taking time to think.  I pictured myself sitting in my chair by the window in my office.

It is extremely comfortable to sit there. I like having something to sip perched on the small table beside the chair. My sip of choice depends on my mood, the time of day, and the weather. Lately it has been water with sliced cucumbers. Often it is lemon ginger tea. That's in the afternoons. In the morning, it may be strong coffee with milk or English breakfast tea with milk and honey.

I wish a thinking routine were a habit for me. I wish I could say I do it every day, in my chair by the window. But just as my beverage choice isn't the same everyday, perhaps I should pay attention to what that means in my life. I like that I'm not in my office everyday or even in New Jersey. It's my choice that there's very little predictability about when I might sit and think and sip for twenty minutes.  However, what I can make a habit is paying more attention to taking time to think. And, by writing about it I'm more aware of how and when I give myself permission to simply think. I like that.

Diana got me thinking about tools for prompting thought. My chair and just the right beverage definitely help me get in the mood to think. Writing (or typing) does too. The other day Michael had a wonderful pad. Sometimes I love a beautiful pad. But not always moleskin. Or a legal pad. While I enjoy having "the right pen" and just the right way to write down my thoughts, this changes too. Again - based on where I am and my mood. And what I want to think about. So, sometimes my tools are paper and pen. Other times my computer. Sometimes I need to make a list. And I want to type it - as bullets. Other times I need to make a table with columns and rows so that I can sort and organize my ideas. Then there are times I use Google to find stuff: a Ted talk to listen to or someone else's blog to read.  Earlier this week it was my camera. I wanted to think more about a memory that was sparked by something I saw as I walked down the street. By taking some photos I paused to be more observant. Taking the time to observe moved me from simply remembering to associating and then inventing.

Today my place is the living couch rather than my chair. It's Sunday morning... with strong French Roast coffee. And Google. When I began searching to spark my thinking, I looked up tools for thinking and found Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking. Someone referenced him in a blog. Dennett's tools are not physical tools but constructs. One that I appreciated is the importance of valuing making a mistake as a prompt for deep reflection. Rather than feeling embarrassed when making a mistake, we can think of it as an opportunity to say, "Wow - I took a chance. It didn't work. So what can I take away?" Here's a quote from the blogger: Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you and go on to the next big opportunity."

Another interesting find about thinking came from my search of when do we do our best thinking? A study from Mareike Wietha and Rose Zacks found that creative ideas often come at our least optimal times. Strong morning-types were better at solving the more mysterious insight problems in the evening, when they apparently weren’t at their best. Exactly the same pattern, but in reverse, was seen for people who felt that they were at the brightest in the evening: they performed better on the insight task when they were unfocused in the morning. The theory goes that as our minds tire at our suboptimal times then our focus broadens. We are able to see more opportunities and make connections with an open mind. When we are working in our ideal time of day, our mind’s focus is honed to a far greater degree, potentially limiting our creative options.

How, when, with what do you think? Please share your thinking!

Thinking about Thinking

Thinking about Thinking

I fell off the blogging wagon for a while.  I think it is because I neglected to structure time in my week to sit and think about what I'm thinking about and write thoughts on paper. My initial promise to myself when I began blogging in January of 2015 was to make the blog a place to wonder about stuff - ideas generated at workshops, as I write, and as a result of my interactions. I wasn't going to get bogged down by the fear of being smart or making my writing perfect. I enjoyed blogging for the first several months until I missed the first "deadline" - then, I got anxious and stopped taking time to do it.

Now for round two of blog commitment: commit to sitting quietly - at least a few times each week - to think and write. To begin, I decided to write about thinking! Here's why... In a recent workshop, some participants expressed the challenges of finding time to reflect. Others said that reflection was an uncomfortable practice. And still others said that without reflection, they couldn't do their work. So this week I spent time writing about reflection. And of course, thinking about it. I was all over the map. I've decided to make this blog the first in a series about reflection - or thinking. 

Over the course of the week I explored the definition of thinking and simply let myself think about that. I noticed how much nuance there is in the words we use to describe thinking. 

Thinking means to direct one's mind toward someone or something and to use one's mind actively to form connected ideas. 

I know that most of the time my mind is active but I'm not sure that's thinking. So, based on the dictionary definition, I'm thinking: Busy brain or static-y thinking is different from quiet thinking or intentional thinking. 

When I take time to think with intention I'm looking back at the actions I've taken or those I'm about to take. I consider options - the pros and cons of this or that; the 'what ifs'? Why did this not work so well? Or how come this worked extremely well? I look backward and forward - predict outcomes or potential consequences?

I decided to make a list of words that I use to mean 'think' are:
remember    review        recall        contemplate        wonder
           consider        imagine    conjecture        reason
ponder        reflect        deliberate        meditate    ruminate
    cogitate    mull over    chew over         muse         brood
speculate     question    analyze        figure out      puzzle over

Although these "other words" for thinking pop up when you look for synonyms, they are not simply other words for thinking. Each suggests nuanced actions. And then there's different levels or types of thinking.
•    When I recall something, I'm simply going over the big picture
•    If I begin to describe, I'm adding details. 
•    When I do evaluative thinking, I'm judging and infusing my opinions.
•    If I analyze, I'm questioning why things happened or what could have happened if...
•    Sometimes I weigh one idea against another and compare.
•    If I reflect, I'm reviewing what happened and trying to make sense of it
•    When I question, is it the same as analyzing? 
•    When I'm solving a problem or figuring something out, I'm also thinking.

So my thoughts about thinking this week have been with the depth of the concept to thinking. There's also productive versus unproductive thinking: thinking to learn as compared with going over something endlessly and obsessing which for me is certainly not a good use of time. 

Over the next few weeks I'm planning to give myself permission to pause and think - for a few minutes each day. And over the next few months, my blog will focus on different aspects of thinking and how it relates to the work of teaching and learning. Please let me know your thoughts on thinking! 

The mind is everything. What you think you become. Buddha

Thoughts about interactions -

I've been busy interacting during the past month - many workshops, visits to schools, highly diverse groups of people. My head is spinning with ideas and choosing one topic to write about feels impossible this week. So instead, here's a collection of insights from a recent workshop on Powerful Interactions in Tucson. We talked about intentionality during interactions with children  and considered the question: As you pause to prepare to be with a child (step 1 Be Present in a Powerful Interaction), what do you think about? I offered the following ideas:

Can you quiet your own static? How do you need to adjust to fit this child? What do you know about this child and how can you use that knowledge to support the interaction? Where is the child working and what is the learning that is possible? For example, in the block area, children may be exploring height, symmetry, balance, or how to represent a specific structure they've seen. At the water table, as they fill things up and empty them out, they may be doing it fast or slow, letting things overflow, fill to the brim. By thinking for a moment about the learning that might be happening, we consider the vocabulary to use and the concepts that may be possible to extend.

Here are some insights from the group:

We can try to read the person we are with as a way to show we are invested in making the interaction work. However, there are so many ways to misinterpret another person's cues. While "reading" is a way to be sensitive, asking questions for clarification is better than jumping to conclusions. For example: Person A may show excitement by lighting up immediately. Person B may need time to process. Person A could easily misread B's quiet response as not being interested or enthusiastic about an idea when in fact B is simply thinking.

When we take the time to observe a child before joining him/her, we have the opportunity to be respectful. For example, pausing to observe before entering the dramatic play area, the teacher can take a moment to observe the children's play. Is there a scenario in action? Who has taken on a role? What props are they using? This brief pause to observe allows you to enter the play in a role, making a comment that extends the scenario. Oh - I see there is something cooking on the stove. It smells divine. What time will you be eating and may I join you? In response to this, a few teachers commented that this was a big aha. They often join children's play and ask - so what's going on? One teacher said - children often say to her, "Can't you tell?"

If we pause to think before we interact with children, we can fit our goals to the child's agenda. I'm wondering if that is true between adults as well. 

One administrator had the insight that she often bristles when she sees a teacher simply watching children or sitting quietly beside them. She never realized that perhaps they are observing in order to make an intentional decision about what to say or do.

Over the next week, what do you think about as you prepare to join children? How about adults? What helps us to be intentional in our interactions? Share your comments.


Beginning to Think About Optimism

I appreciate this quote by Mary Beth Hewitt: We need to assume an optimistic view in order for us to feel like we can make a difference in the lives of children. Furthermore, if we want our children to be resilient and optimistic, we need to model it. 

I'm reminded of one of my difficult conversations among teachers that happened more than fifteen years ago. A small group of primary grade teachers were preparing for mid-year parent-teacher conferences. I was guiding them in the process. Having spent years preparing for conferences and writing narrative reports on more than twenty-five children at a time, I know how hard it is to stay fresh and open-minded throughout the process.

I offered a strategy that had helped me to think "big picture" about all children and to frame my thinking in a hopeful, optimistic light. I suggested they list the names of each child in their class and then, next to each name, record something they knew that child did well, was interested in, or/and made the child laugh or smile (perhaps a book or an activity).

A veteran teacher in the group was stymied and got annoyed with me. She had a few things written next to a four or five names but mostly she had blanks. She thought the activity was pointless since conferences were short and she had to report the "truth" - not fluff. Most of her children had "weaknesses" that she was responsible to tell families. Others in the group engaged her in conversation but she was set in her thinking.

One boy in particular she insisted had no strengths - never smiled, enjoyed nothing about school (at the age of 6). Listening to her was painful. I asked her if she had seen him smile - even once. She responded with certainty that there was nothing he did right and she hadn't ever seen him smile.

Quieting my own anger (I was ready to punch her and tell her to get a different job), I continued to enlist the other teachers to brainstorm times he might laugh or smile. Perhaps outside playing with friends, while having snack, when listening to a funny story she read aloud. She remained skeptical, negative, and pessimistic.

We challenged her to return to the classroom and catch him smiling and maybe even to share a laugh with him. One teacher got a very funny book (Skinnybones by Barbara Park) for her to read to the class at the end of the day. I showed up during read aloud and observed the story time. She read the book gritting her teeth but to my delight, Derrick laughed throughout the two chapters she read. Afterwards the teacher was still doubtful and even a bit cynical, but she acknowledged that he she had seen him laugh. I asked her to begin the parent conference with his family by sharing the anecdote about how Derrick laughed when she read the book to the class. He comprehended the story. He responded to the text in appropriate ways. Oh... and by the way, that is a strength of Derrick's!

As educators, we must hold on to optimism and stay vigilant that we create optimistic atmospheres in our schools, programs, centers, and family child care homes.  Our educational system continues to make tests that highlight deficits - of children, of programs, of teachers. A deficit perspective leaves us defeated. And deflated by the things we do wrong. An optimistic view allows us to learn from our mistakes rather than feeling defeated by them.

Optimism doesn't just make us feel happier. Optimism helps us believe in our ability to bring about a solution. When we focus on what we can do, we acknowledge success and in turn, feel more optimistic.

I invited comments about optimism in advance of posting and was inspired by each one.

Karen said: Having the opportunity to work in several different schools, we observe the influence leaders and educators have on those around them. Like negativity, optimism is contagious, uplifting, energizing and effective. No matter what our role we should take the time to notice and foster optimism in others and point out how their optimism positively affects those around them. Conversely it's important not to become discouraged or take personally moments that are less than optimistic. We possess the capability to highlight the positive and effective moments for those who may be stuck. Being there for those who are down may be just what they need to be picked back up. Never underestimate the power of one moment... the power of you.

Lisa said: I try to be confident for future success, no matter how challenging things look today. This helps me to feel hopeful knowing that tomorrow I can start fresh again.

Jenna said: I was part of an educational PD where the message was that "educators are merchants of hope". I've held on to that ever since. Hope for children, families, and staff...

What are your thoughts about optimism? Would you agree that an optimistic view affects the culture of a school and for learning?

Ever wonder if you talk too much?

"Your words make us tired." During a break in a workshop about fifteen years ago, an assistant teacher on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico said this to me. I know I'm a talker. I love conversation and I use words - spoken words — to help me think. I know there are times I talk too much.

It's easier to notice "too much talk" in others than it is to see it myself. I decided to write about it because too much talk is a challenge in our field of early childhood education. In classrooms we want to encourage children to use language. It is the foundation of literacy. We want young children to express their ideas and think critically. Yet, research shows that teachers typically dominate classroom talk and that too much of it is procedural.  

When I observe teachers with children I want to say, please pause. During group time, invite children to take some time to think. Have them talk with a partner. Ask only one question at a time — one that invites lots of answers and then encourage many to respond. When working one-on-one with a child, share a simple observation. In a recent workshop, one teacher said: "My morning circle time always goes too long because I just love to talk."

Ironically - the pattern of too much talk continues when I when I observe coaches. They do the talking and teachers are quiet. I often suggest to coaches that they pause and talk less. What happens? The teachers talk more.

We know that the best conversations are a give and take - a back and forth balance between talk and listening — a genuine exchange. And when it happens it's incredibly satisfying.  Yet the tendency to talk too much is prevalent. Here are some causes of talking too much.

Habit: For many, talking too much is simply a habit resulting from a lack of awareness. Deciding to listen more is a first step to changing the habit.

 Anxiety: People often talk too much when they are nervous. Of course the opposite happens too. But when you're anxious about whether you are making sense, or you want to impress, or you feel nervous to fill the silence, you talk and talk and talk.

Anger or frustration: Some people become silent when they are mad. Others, talk more. The need to punish with words or continue to elaborate on the issue makes talkers go on and on.

Insensitivity: There are those who are so caught up in what they have to say that they forget the listener, failing to see the cues of the other person may give. The talker misses signals that the listener wants a turn to respond or ask a question. The talker's interest in her own ideas obstructs the ability to notice the body language, facial expressions or even sounds that the other person is antsy or ready for the conversation to end.

I have to pay attention to listening more and talking less. In some situations and with some people I'm better at it. Some tips that help me are:

Practice self-awareness. To use Powerful Interactions language, Be Present. Pause to prepare! Anticipate the situation. Who is your conversation partner(s)? Is she quieter than you? More talkative? What is the setting? A small or large group? An individual? Are you face to face or on the phone? How will you listen for cues?

Slow down. Sometimes people simply get excited and have so many details to share it leads to a monologue. But no one can listen and absorb so many details at once. Take a deep breath. Talk a little more slowly.

 Allow for pauses and silence. Notice whether you are quick to fill a silence. Try allowing for pauses and silence and see what happens. When I'm with children in a classroom or if I'm coaching an adult, I'll write my observations or thoughts to help me remain quiet.

Be sensitive to cues.  When speaking, listen and watch for cues that the other person wants to speak or move on. Watch and check in for interest and understanding.

As I was thinking about this topic, I read many other blogs about talking too much. Two that I found interesting are:



What do you think about talking too much? Do you do it? Or, do you notice it in others? Please share your comments.

Giving Yourself Permission to Be Curious

My interest in observing and interacting has enriched my work in early childhood for more than thirty years. Remarkably, I keep learning more about what it means to observe and interact and how complex it is to do well. We have busy minds – we make meaning of everything we see. We are always filled with our own agendas. But to truly observe another person – to try to understand what she is thinking and feeling – what is interesting for her in this moment, requires mindfulness – a willingness to suspend one’s own agenda to learn about the other person.

I’ve used the phrase “stance of persistent curiosity” recently in webinars, workshops, and presentations about interactions and assessment. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be curious when approaching a child for an interaction. For me, it means letting go of my agenda and watching and listening to figure out the child’s agenda. It requires a degree of holding back, watching and/or listening to the child before saying or doing anything. Margo Dichtelmiller, my friend and colleague used this phrase “stance of persistent curiosity” in her book, The Power of Assessment. I think it is an important idea because it reminds us that observing children requires an open, curious mind.

I believe that this stance of persistent curiosity is essential for all our interactions with children. We have to watch and listen to learn about what they know and can do and what they are interested in. That’s how we support them as learners and engage their interest. When we push our agendas on them, they usually don’t respond very well.

Simply pausing for a moment to observe helps you assume the stance of curiosity. In the photo, Maggie joins Sherelle in the block area, taking a moment to observe before speaking. She sees that the child is constructing ramps and has placed them at two different inclines.


Last month I visited a program and experimented with “the stance of persistent curiosity” as I interacted with several children. Turns out it’s really hard! As I joined three-year-old, Kayla, rolling playdough, my first thought was: I wonder what she can do with this material. I tried to use “mirror talk” (simply saying what I saw her doing). As I was about to say, “Kayla, I see you’re rolling the playdough” she pulled a small piece off and dropped it on the floor. Before I could say anything about the small piece, she picked it up. Then she quickly handed me the small piece. My mind was racing as I worried about what to say rather than simply letting myself watch and wonder about her exploration. I realized that I actually didn’t allow myself to learn because I was so busy thinking about what to do.

As I approached the next child, I concentrated on quieting my static about what to say and allowed myself to simply be curious. This time, as I joined the child, I noticed that he was stacking blocks. I said hello and asked if I could sit with him. He nodded yes. I resisted the urge to say anything other than “thanks”. Then I watched. It didn’t seem like he was choosing which blocks to add but rather trying to make his tower tall.

I said, “I see you’re adding more blocks to the top of your structure.”

He replied, “Uh huh. I want it tall.”

I reminded myself to simply observe, take in what he was doing. He was seated and using a lot of effort to reach the top.

I said, “I can tell that you’re working hard to reach the top of your tower to add blocks.”

Smiling broadly, he replied, “It’s getting higher.”

Then I knew what made sense to say next. If I was going to help him achieve his goals, I could offer him a strategy that would allow him to build a taller tower.

I said: “I wonder if it would help if you stood up so that you can more easily reach the top to add more blocks.”

Up he stood and continued working.

“Oh look at that,” I said. “By standing, you are taller so you can reach up higher to add blocks.”

He replied, “I got taller when I stood up.”

“Yes you did,” I said.

As I prepared to write this blog, I invited several teachers to think about how they use observation as part of interactions. I posed the question: When you join a child, what do you see? What does it lead you to do? And what happens?

About integrating observing and interacting, one teacher said: By working observations into my one-on-one interactions with children, I actually get an authentic picture of the child. I can use what I observe to decide how to scaffold the child’s learning. She went on to say that actually observing to learn gave her information she could actually use in a meaningful way.  Staying present and quiet and actually letting herself observe the child was really hard but worthwhile.

Crystal has been working on trying to document her observations while interacting. Here’s her insight: As I continue to feel more comfortable with the documentation process and powerful interactions, I have been trying to apply all that we have learned within my classroom. However, sometimes I have an agenda, while the child has an agenda all of his own. I have to be careful to listen for the child’s agenda and not railroad mine!

Michelle, a preschool teacher said: As teachers we are often so sure of ourselves with children but we shouldn't be because all children are different and we need to be mindful of that. She is experimenting with a stance of curiosity simply by asking permission to join a child before entering an interaction. She said: Sometimes they don’t want us to be a part of that moment. We need to know that that's ok too. She shared a story from a family math night of how she is practicing this approach.

A parent and her child from another class were exploring the balance/scale in my room. They were experimenting with the feathers and mini-bricks. I observed them interacting and smiled and said hello and introduced myself. I continued to listen and watch. The little girl began to dump materials somewhat aggressively into one side of the scale and her mom said "Whoa Whoa." I waited a moment or two and then interjected: "Can I ask you a question?" The little girl stopped what she was doing, smiled at me and replied, "Mmhm." I asked, "What if you put one mini-brick in the bucket on one side and then… (using an inquisitive voice) put a lot of feathers in the other bucket — what do you think would happen?" Her mom smiled and she looked at her mom and replied "I don't know!" and began filling. They carried out the idea and found the mini-brick weighed more and we needed "Soooo many more feathers" to make it balance. I think that by slowing down and watching and listening, I was able to suggest a strategy that built on her interest rather than simply getting her stop doing her “negative” actions. By asking permission, the child was more willing to experiment with my suggestion.

Jessica, also a preschool teacher, described the challenge of staying present and curious when there are so many needs of all the children and the other adults who come into her room during the day. To make it work for her, she said: I’ve made a commitment to being present by simply not engaging in a distraction, not looking away, and making a purposeful effort to stay committed to the interaction.

 Jenny’s response was: I love this topic! She went on to say: We as teachers are trained to follow structured agendas each day. Taking time to be present with a child is an escape from the confinements of our agenda. It allows us to lay down our own ideas, listen to the thoughts and ideas of a young child, and allow their thoughts to become ours for the moment.

Haley said: If I am able to quiet my mind I can be a guide or a detour instead of a roadblock to the child's agenda. As adults know, roadblocks can cause unwelcome frustration in one’s day!

Think about a time you allowed yourself, or perhaps wished you had allowed yourself to simply be curious as you observed a child. Perhaps you let go of your agenda and quieted your mind enough to be open to the child’s agenda. Or – experiment with a stance of persistent curiosity and share what happened! Please use the comments box for stories and responses. We can all keep learning together.

Thoughts on Listening

I grew up in a family were interrupting was standard operating procedure. I thought of this recently when I was in Hawaii, where when talking in groups they “talk story,” and the flow of conversation is about building upon one another’s ideas. In my family, conversation was about grabbing the microphone. As the youngest of four children, I rarely got the microphone and when I did I was interrupted, not listened to, sometimes lectured and corrected.  So, I chose not to join conversations at home, and was shy about speaking at school.

In college I took some risks and began speaking up but I hadn’t really come to understand the other side of talking: listening. I interrupted, finished other people’s sentences, thinking that I was showing my interest, that I was listening, that I felt connected. In my early thirties I met Andy (later my husband) who once said to me that if I wanted to hear his point of view I should wait until he finished. A very attentive listener, it was from Andy’s example that I learned to appreciate the power of listening.

Obviously, listening is key to positive relationships and effective communication, in our personal lives and in the work we do as educators. Communication means how we experience, process, organize, store, and retrieve information. Effective communication refers to the quality of the connection between the senders and receivers of information, ideas, thoughts and feelings. Central to effective communication is listening. But… what does it take to listen?

Fran Lebowitz once said: The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.

Listening, above all, takes patience. I practice listening by quieting my mind and my voice long enough to absorb someone’s message. For me, listening takes a lot of practice and patience. I have to concentrate. I have to focus on a speaker's words, body language, intended message and even unintended message. Hardest of all is that I try to practice listening without judging what I hear. Assumptions or judgments are huge roadblocks to listening — to children and to adults. Assumptions are the lens through which we see.

When we see or hear something we form an impression – that impression is based on an assumption – “Oh I know what she means.” Or “I’ve heard that before.” While making assumptions is a fact of human nature, it’s important to recognize that they influence our every interaction. We take it for granted that when we speak, others know exactly what we mean. Or - we assume that they don’t and we keep saying the same thing over and over again.

I practice being an effective listener by practicing self-awareness.

  • I pay attention to the cues that I’ve stopped listening. My mind is wandering. I’m waiting for my turn..
  • I try to stay present in conversations, keeping my static as quiet as possible.
  • I try to stay open-minded and ask questions for clarification or elaboration.
  • I work at avoiding interrupting.

Being a good listener makes for closer more engaged relationships. I find that when I really listen, I learn more. From children and from adults.  What about you? What are your experiences with listening? What do you find difficult? What tips have you found helpful?






Communication: How’s Your Tone?

As educators, interactions are a central element of our work. How we communicate determines the quality of our interactions and the climate in early childhood settings. At its best, communication engages our intellect, appeals to our emotions, stimulates our senses, and sometimes, embraces our spirits. Communication is about how we transmit messages and how they are received. Some communications we have create resonance and others, dissonance. Some leave us energized, some leave us depleted. Communication is something we do reflexively -- like breathing. We talk to or with our colleagues, spouses, children and friends without giving much thought to how we're doing it. It might seem easy, but interacting effectively is achieved by developing trust, knowing what your goals are, and, most important, by how we communicate — by our tone. 

I think a lot about this important aspect of communication—how we deliver our messages and notice that it is central to how we are heard. For most of us, we are often unaware of our tone, of how we sound to others.  For example, I’ve realized that when I am nervous, defensive, or disappointed, my tone is sharp. This sharpness of tone comes from feeling vulnerable — sometimes insecure. However, what I’ve been told is that others hear it as aggressive and angry.

Understanding the importance of tone helps. But it doesn’t fix it. Like any habit, mostly we don’t even know it is there. When I’m nervous, defensive, or disappointed, I’m at my least self-aware state and so my tone is most likely to come out automatically without intention. The ripple effects of my tone cause actions and reactions in others. “Oh no – there are those ripples again!” I have to work on tone every day. And doing so, makes a huge difference in how I feel and how effective I am in my personal and professional life.

Delivery might actually be more important than our message. Ask anybody who listens to you. Based on how we say something -- our inflection or emphasis on certain words and our body language and facial expressions—our tone conveys our attitude, whether we send a message of humor, anger, sarcasm, jealousy or sincerity.

Tone is, very simply, the tone of your voice, ranging from cold to warm, from critical to supportive, or from authoritarian to collaborative—from any emotion that stimulates resonance and connection as opposed to dissonance and alienation.

What's critical to understand about tone, is that it's one of the most important components of interpersonal communication. Tone comes across in emails and phone calls just as it comes through in face to face interactions.

We can choose the words and ideas we use to engage someone else, but our message can be completely negated and wiped out by the cold or critical tone in our voice. Tone has an emotional impact on others. Tone can shut someone down, turn off motivation, and close possibilities.

We can make a difference in our interactions by paying attention to how we communicate and specifically how we deliver messages. Here are a few tips that are working for me:

1.    Pause before speaking. I try to give myself at least 10 seconds before I respond, especially if I feel unsettled. Josh Billings has this wonderful quote: The best time to hold your tongue is the time you feel you must say something or bust.  I make an effort to think about the words I use, the expression on my face, and the tone in my voice, trying hard to take out any edge.

2.    Phrase things in a positive manner. I apologize if this idea makes your skin crawl. Listen to the difference in the following: 
•    “This won’t work.”
•    “This is interesting. I’m wondering how we can make this work. Let’s talk through the possibilities together.”

A positive approach to delivery requires a strengths-based stance. One way to practice is to use reframing. Ask solution-focused questions such as, What are some ways we can find 15 minutes to talk about this? Instead of, I just don’t have time.
What's reframing? What I just did in the example above.

3. Think about your listener and how he or she will hear you. Perspective taking helps. Different people listen to you differently and need you to allow them to respond in different ways.

My delivery is something I practice all the time and I find it does make a difference in the quality of my interactions. I'm not always successful but I'm trying. I invite you to think about how you sound when you communicate and also how you respond to the tone and delivery style of others.  Let me know what you are thinking! Your insights will help us all get better at tone!

What happens when we’re not at our best in interactions? The ripple effects of our “not such positive behavior”…

During a conversation with colleagues in Brooklyn, NY and then again with other colleagues in Arizona, we had discussion about the ripple effects of interactions that are negative. Focusing specifically on professional settings, we brainstormed situations where interactions among adults do not have desirable outcomes. Examples included staff meetings, professional development workshops, supervisory or coaching conversations, conversations with families, and interactions between staff members (e.g., teacher and teaching assistant, grade level team meetings).

In both discussions, we agreed that these interactions were most often negative when the behaviors of some adults were negative or “challenging”.  We acknowledged that we were all capable of these challenging behaviors that resulted in negative ripples. I’m defining a challenging behavior by an adult as one that interferes with achieving desired goals and/or that doesn’t support a group in either connecting or extending learning.

Our next step was to independently list instances when we demonstrate behavior that might describe as “our challenging behavior.” For each self-described negative behavior on our list, we tried to identify the trigger — the cause that sets us off.

One item on my list was “check out” and after some reflection I decided that my trigger is when I get bored or irritated by discussions that go on too long or become repetitive without resolution — a frequent occurrence at meetings. Not surprisingly, many others in the group had something similar on their lists and we came to see that the ripple effect of checking out or not speaking up often means not turning the meeting into something potentially productive. It also results in everyone leaving the meeting with feelings of frustration.

What, then does it mean to become mindful of one’s challenging behaviors and to cultivate the capacity to actively change from negativity to something more proactive and strengths-based that will help to move a group or situation ahead. I’ve been exploring ways to catch myself “behaving badly” because of the actions of someone else or when a situation is not ideal.

For adults, the causes of “negative behaviors” that were listed included frustration, boredom, inconsistent or unclear expectations, long, unfocused meetings, and unpredictable schedules. Not surprisingly, we noted that our “challenging behaviors” were sometimes to withdraw and other times to act out in more noticeable ways – talking too much, losing our tempers, or saying something we wish we hadn’t said. Here again is an example of the ripples of interactions — in this case, the ripples that lead to negative feelings and behaviors. We saw many parallels between adult challenging behavior and children’s challenging behaviors.

Here’s what I’m wondering… What are some ways to influence a negative situation by quieting the static of frustration and irritation and using a strengths-based stance to help move a group ahead? Perhaps if we can learn to respond rather than react to challenging behaviors in adults (ourselves included), and in children, in  positive ways, we can create a positive ripple effect rather than a negative one and move a situation to a more optimistic (productive?) place. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment.

Interactions – The Ripple Effects

   Coaching with Powerful Interactions. Jablon, Dombro, & Johnsen. 2014. NAEYC. Available from iBook.


Coaching with Powerful Interactions. Jablon, Dombro, & Johnsen. 2014. NAEYC. Available from iBook.

Amy, Shaun and I have finished our newest book Coaching with Powerful Interactions now available through iBooks. The cover of the book shows ripples in water because we believe that interactions both positive and negative cause ripples — in actions, moods, relationships, and learning.

My first realization about the ripple effect - how adult interactions influence interactions with children – happened a few years back when I was working in a school in Connecticut. At the end of the day I talked with program directors about ways they could help their teachers to sustain the Powerful Interactions conversation. I suggested that they think about interacting with teachers in the same way we/they want teachers to interact with children. I said, “If it’s desirable for teachers to focus on children’s strengths, then we also have to focus on the strengths of teachers.”

Mary, a director in the group, raised her hand and said: “As you are talking, I realize I’m feeling ashamed. I never thought about how I talk with teachers. If I heard a teacher talking to a child the way I sometimes talk with teachers, I would fire that teacher immediately.”

Of course we empathized with her remarks and simultaneously encouraged her to see her insight as an accomplishment. Now she had a new awareness and could use this mindfulness to affect how she interacted with teachers in the future. I suggested she begin to adjust her way of communicating with teachers to offer feedback about moments of effectiveness, highlighting the impact these moments have on children.

For example, Mary, the director, might say to one of her teachers: Ms. Thompson, I see that you have displayed children’s work so that they can share what they have done with the topic of families. By including their dictation and hanging the display at children’s eye level, you help children to feel validated about their efforts while building bridges between home and school.

Several weeks later I got an email from Mary. She reported that since our meeting she was making efforts to make one validating observation each week to each teacher, either face to face or via email. She said that the mood and tone among staff had become much lighter and that teachers were coming to her to resolve problems in a much more collaborative way.

Giving strengths-based feedback to anyone can result in positive ripples. Not only does the person feel seen and validated, s/he is likely to repeat the action with greater intentionality. For example, with a child you might say, “I see you added many details to your drawing. The colors and details really capture my interest and make me want to study it more carefully.” To a teacher you might say, “I noticed you added photographs of buildings to the block area. That helps children get ideas for their structures.”

Whether you are a teacher, parent, coach, or supervisor, think of a time your actions and words as you interacted with someone else caused ripple effects. Were they positive? Negative? What happened? Perhaps you might want to try offering someone feedback in which you simply state a moment of their effectiveness and the impact it had. I look forward to hearing how it is going. That way we can all learn more about this!