Ask a Pre-School Teacher: Helping 2-5 Year-Olds Thrive and Learn
Welcome back, Friends!
As so many shifts in education continue to trend, I thought hitting up some of my best teaching buddies for insights would be super helpful to my readers. So many of us are considering making a change to our child's environment. Knowing how best to do this is often rooted in their developmental stage. With this in mind, I will be breaking this series down into developmental stages: pre-school, early elementary, middle elementary, middle school and high school.
For our inaugural post, please enjoy my interview with my sister-in-love and the wonderful mother of my niece. Jenna is one who takes the best interest of young children very much to heart, and tempers this with common sense, creativity, and concern for character development. She has the early childhood training I lack. Her voice is one I trust, since her 2 .5 year-old daughter is one of the healthiest, happiest kids I have seen in my decades working with children. I hope you enjoy her sage and candid thoughts.
To close, I will share some summary comments of what I learned from my own Mother, who cared for pre-school aged children for nearly 30 years. May their wisdom help you plant loving seeds into the hearts and lives of you little ones!
1. Let’s start with a fun one: You are trapped with a toddler on a deserted island…what 5 items would you want to take to keep them content, engaged, and/or learning? (aside from survival or keeping them alive - LOL :)
A couple books, stickers, a musical instrument they can play, and then probably crayons with paper (that might be more than 5 lol)
2. Before you moved to early childhood education, you had a very different career. What motivated you to seek training in this new area? Where did you study?
I chose to change careers because I no longer felt my job was making a difference in people’s lives anymore. I considered what I had in my life that felt like it was making a difference and that was working in the children’s ministry at church. I had a lot of support around me to look into changing careers, but it was scary being a single person trying to make a living in NYC. It felt very far off for my life at the time. I decided to study at Ball State University because they had a great teacher’s college, and I was able to complete the entire thing online at my own pace. It was the perfect fit for me!
3. What are a few of the most interesting and useful take-aways from your degree?
I found some of the most interesting take-aways to be mainly in child development and
gaining a better understanding of how children grow. It not only helped me realize children are far more capable of what we may think at any given stage, but it also helped me understand what skills would be best to focus on at certain ages.
4. What was your work experience like in preschools?
I found preschools that followed a specific curriculum, were only a couple hours a few times a week, and had two dedicated teachers in the room were the most enjoyable. Both kids and teachers seemed to have better experiences and less burn out.
5. What do you see as the pros and cons of sending a child to daycare and formal preschool (at any age) compared to educating and caring for them at home?
The pros of sending children to an actual formal school setting is mainly the consistent social aspect. The social aspect helps with problem-solving skills, accountability, and learning how to interact within a public place without the presence of relatives. I think any cons would be the increased risk of being subject to inappropriate subject matters and teachers who may not have a child’s best interest at heart.
6. What is your philosophy of preschool education in a nutshell?
Children learn best through play. This means play on their own, play that a teacher engages and play with other children. Play can be very active or very quiet, but all play for children involves learning and is important.
7. Now that you are a parent, what are some early childhood issues that you didn’t see coming? How have you navigated these?
One of the biggest issues I didn’t realize I’d need to adapt to is how to correct behavior. It is different when you are a parent versus a teacher. I’ve learned that I can use a lot of my methods as a teacher, but as a parent there is more impatience I experience being with a child 24/7 instead of a couple of hours a week. That is challenging to overcome, but I am learning how to get through the days with more patience. Reminding myself of my child’s stage in life and how her brain is developing helps me remain more patient…most days!
8. What is the most important thing (or a few) you have learned about teaching preschool?
One of the most important things I’ve learned is how the relationships with the parents can affect your teaching and your relationship with a child, in both good and bad ways. If you have the support of the parents it feels like a team to help a child improve, but when you don’t have that support it can feel like you’re beating your head against a wall and you’re just getting through the day rather than making a difference.
9. What was the most difficult thing about teaching preschool?
One of those most difficult things I’ve learned about teaching preschool is that I have to adapt to the administration's ideas of what is appropriate whether I agree with it or not. That is perhaps why I am focused on continuous work in a church preschool environment. Choosing an environment that suits my beliefs helps with much of that.
10. What is the best decision you have ever made as a teacher/parent?
One of the best decisions I’ve made as a parent was deciding to stay at home with my daughter for the first year of her life. It wasn’t always a choice, but I think there were great benefits to the attachment relationship.
11. What is the worst decision you have made and what did you learn from it?
Not that I am anywhere near perfect, but I cannot think of anything at the moment!
12. When you face a setback or challenge with teaching or parenting at this age, what do you do? What would you advise others to do?
I usually try to reach out to a few friends to collect ideas on how to do something better. I choose friends I feel are successful with parenting or teaching and genuinely take their advice under consideration. I’m always open to try new methods of things, because you never know.
13. What do you wish you’d known before you started teaching?
I wish I had a better idea of how to establish relationships with parents. I learned through the process, but I think it would have served me better in certain situations in the beginning.
14. What do you think the wisest step a parent should take who wants to homeschool their preschoolers or early elementary school aged children?
I think the wisest step is probably to first talk to parents who have experience in homeschooling. Ask questions and find out if it truly is right for your family.
15. You are sending your child to preschool next year, even though you are a trained preschool teacher. How did you make this decision?
There is only so much I can offer my child at the age of 2 as a teacher at home. The consistent social and emotional skills learned in an environment she is not used to is crucial to her development. I’m happy to place her in a safe environment that allows her some freedom to experience new things and learn how to take direction from someone who is not her parent or relative.
16. If a family must send their child to daycare or preschool, what is your best advice on choosing one?
My best advice is to find a daycare or preschool that focuses mostly on play and learning through experience. I don’t necessarily agree that children this age should sit down and stare at a paper for long periods of time. It wouldn’t work well anyway I think. Many preschools focus on preparing children to read, which in many cases is a little premature for that age.
17. What tips do you have for a parent who wants to school young children at home, but doesnt feel confident about doing it?
I would suggest joining a co-op that rallies around homeschool families. They usually offer different classes and allow the children to experience some normal public school things such as sports and general social experiences. I think it’s a great way for parents to find support in these groups.
To close, I'd like to chime in on Jenna's professional input with some anecdotal observation I gleaned growing up amid my Mom's home pre-school:
Routines are comforting to children. They also aide language development in that kids anticipate what is happening next in a familiar sequence. There is still room to be creative within a regular schedule. Build wake-up, afternoon, mealtime, and bedtime rituals into their day between bursts of playtime. These are natural "hooks" to hang learning upon (see Deuteronomy 11:18-21).
Age-appropriate boundaries and freedoms are necessary. While much space to explore is a great way to learn, children do not have the life experience or brain development to assess danger or problems. It is okay to block off certain spaces and activities until a young child is mature enough to handle it. A five year-old should be allowed to do some things that a two year-old is not permitted. That is not unfair - it is love and logic.
Books! Have so many books available. The library is free. Read to you children - even if they don't seem to pay attention. They are paying more attention than you might realize. Try for 5+ short picture books everyday. Kids learn skills by osmosis at this age: directionality, turning pages, reading cadence, intonation, and sentence structure. While you don't need to force anything or expect them to read independently at this age, the pre-literacy skills they observe with reading at home are invaluable to preparing them for later learning. They may see books as just another toy, but you can show them how to use and care for books and honor their significance.
Teach empathy. Young children are very self-centric. They often do not conceptualize how their behaviors are affecting others. It is perfectly rationale for a young child to struggle in regulating their behaviors and emotions -this is the business of growing up. At the same time, kids need guidance about how and why some choices are negative. "It is okay to cry for awhile, but being very loud hurts our ears," is an example of how to break down empathy to a little kid. Otherwise, how will they know the reason why their choices are unwelcome to others?
Play shows glimmers of talents and the temperaments of children. One child's play may not be fun for another. Some like gross-motor activities of running and jumping, while others may prefer to color or draw quietly. Some of very social and others want to be, "mommy's helper." Allow your child to play in their own way. You will begin to see patterns in what they prefer and return to without prompting. These are clues to their natural talents and interests. It is fine to expose them to new experiences, but give them room to do what they enjoy- not what you think they should enjoy.