ADHD – Looking Past the Label

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a diagnosis that people throw around quite often these days when children seem over-active or have behavioral challenges.  However, ADHD is a real medical condition that we should work to understand to assure children are not mislabeled.  For those children who are appropriately diagnosed, this understanding can help us support children and focus on their strengths.

The three primary characteristics of ADHD include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.   Symptoms often begin to appear between the ages of 3 and 6.  However, it is around the age of 7 that children are most commonly diagnosed.  This makes sense.  At age 7, children are in first grade.  School becomes more structured, requiring children to sit at desks for extended periods of time, complete paper and pencil work and engage in a great deal of active listening.  This change from a world of learning through play can become very difficult for the child with ADHD. 

What we have to remember is that the diagnosis of ADHD only summarizes a small part of understanding the whole child.  It may be the part of a child that we notice most because it can lead to disruption in our classrooms.  Still, children with ADHD are smart, creative, perceptive, sensitive and athletic, just like other children.  It is our role to support a child by focusing on their strengths and not just those characteristics we see as weaknesses. 

My son has ADHD.  Yes, there were many challenging moments while he was growing up.  Yes, I worried about him often.  Yes, we sought professional support for him.  But I am proud to say that today he is an honor roll student in high school, active in theater and chorus, a member of multiple school clubs, working part time and attending college next year as part of their nursing program.  Yes, I would like to think I had something to do with his success, and maybe I did.  Truly though, my son was born a very talented child.  Many people, including himself, saw these talents and believed in him.  Don’t ever judge a book by its cover (or in this case, a child by his/her label)

Want to learn more about ADHD?  Join Nion Early Childhood Education on Wednesday, February 13th from 7-8 pm for a live webinar, ADHD:  Understanding What It Is and How to Support Children with this Diagnosis. 

Misbehaving or Misunderstood?

I hear more and more about children having explosive behaviors in early childhood classrooms.  Tantrums, aggression towards those around them and no impulse control.  Social skills seem to be lacking and interfering with their learning and the classroom running effectively. Their educators are at a loss and their parents are exhausted. As a society we raise an eyebrow and wonder how the adults in their lives let them act this way?

It is easy to make assumptions.  We can easily blame the parents and assumethat the child is angry.  These explosivebehaviors are by no means acceptable; however, they may be the only way a youngchild knows how to respond to a variety of emotions or circumstances.  In fact, anger may not be the emotion that is triggering all of these behaviors.

It is a puzzle for us to solve

Our job as educators is to support learning and developmentof children, both academically, physically and emotionally.  However, supporting children emotionally is difficult, especially because children with challenging behaviors require such individualized support.  The first stepis a puzzle for us to solve.  This step isto determine the true function of behavior.   Jeanine Fitzgerald, author of The Dance of Interaction: A Guide to Managing Children’s Challenging Behaviors (2005), identifies 7 puzzles pieces to explore.  These include medical/physical status, developmental stage, home environment, school environment, temperament, skills and knowledge as well as environmental needs.

Once we determine the function of the behavior, we gain clarity into what would be the most effective type of support to provide to a child.  For example, how we respond to a child whose behavior stems from a medical condition would be quite different than a child with the same behaviors stemming from a lack of skill/knowledge.  When a child is misbehaving and misunderstood,how do we expect them to overcome their challenges?

It takes a village

It is true what they say about taking a village to raise achild.  In terms of a child with challenging behaviors, it really does take the understanding and effort of family, educators and administrators. Everyone needs to be working on the same plan to support a child indealing with the underlying factor and building coping skills. 

Remember – begin by understanding rather than assuming!

Celebrating the Holidays in Your Early Childhood Classroom

It’s hard to believe we are in November already. The stores have their holiday (or should I say Christmas) music playing, decorations up and aisles of holiday treats. How will all of this holiday hoopla play into your classroom?

Holidays are one way that we can share culture and family traditions in our classroom.  It can be a rich experience to expose children to the diversity in their world.  This diversity can be different holidays that people celebrate and different ways people celebrate the same holiday.

5 Things to Consider

This holiday season (and the rest of the year) consider:

  1. The reason families celebrate holidays
  2. The holidays that family and staff in your schools celebrate
  3. How to incorporate experiences that reflect traditions of your family and staff, versus commercialized views.
  4. The age and abilities of the children in your class
  5. How to use holidays as a way to teach about people versus just a reason to have a party

You may not be familiar with all of the holidays that may be celebrated.  This is OK.  Utilize the families and staff.  The information that they provide will personalize the experiences you incorporate.  You will actually get richer and more authentic experiences happening that families and staff will identify with and feel more integrated into your school.

How do you get families involved?

  1. Have families complete a questionnaire about the holidays they celebrate at the beginning of the year
  2. Invite parents to come into the classroom to share stories, songs or activities
  3. Provide activity sheets that parents and children can fill in together to highlight their own culture as it relates to specific holidays and routines
  4. Host events where families come together and share in each other’s traditions through food and stories


Thanksgiving Activity Sheet


Taking Advantage of Intentional Learning Opportunities

We know that young children learn through play.  We know that open ended experiences allow children to learn based on their own individual interests, abilities and skill levels.  It is quite magical to watch children play with materials and see what they choose to do with them.  The classic example is that of a cardboard box.  If provided a simple cardboard box, one child may remain engaged with it for well over a week!  One day it may be a baby’s crib, another day a car while another day it becomes a house for some favorite stuffed animals.

Taking Advantage of Intentional Learning Opportunities

These moments of play can also be a huge opportunity for educators.  By noticing what children are doing and intentionally layering onto the experience, we can provide new learning adventures that connect to where the child currently is.  Take for instance a moment that I experienced recently in a classroom. Two children were playing with color sorting bugs.  They pretended the butterflies were flying, loaded them in and out of the container and used tweezers to move them around.  This was wonderful play supporting language, imagination and motor skills.

I was curious as to how some additional materials may support some deeper learning.  I took a red, blue, yellow and green piece of paper from art shelf and without saying a word, placed them on the table.  Almost immediately, one child began sorting the bugs onto the paper by color.  The other child began by just placing his bug randomly on the paper.  After watching the first child, he too began to sort them by color.  When they were done sorting the entire bucket of bugs, I said “Wow, look at all of the bugs, I wonder which color group has the most?’.  We began counting each group and writing the number on the corresponding paper.  Then I asked “Which group has the most and which group has the least?”  One of the children was quickly able to identify the answers!

By intentionally providing additional materials to everyday materials, we can still value open ended play  but layer on new opportunities.  The simple act of adding four pieces of colored paper supported sorting, counting, documenting and comparing.  I was able to obtain a glimpse of these two children’s skill levels in these mathematical areas.   How might you intentionally enrich experiences in your classroom?

Experiencing Our Curriculum

Today I enjoyed the morning with a couple of my colleagues at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.  This was my first visit here and it is such a beautiful place.  One of my colleagues has volunteered here for a while now, leading children’s programs.  She took us through just a small portion of the Arboretum and pointed out various types of trees and how they reproduce.  Yes, we have all learned about this process back in 5th grade science.  However, I can say I could not “teach” someone else about it.  Having the opportunity to learn about seeds, flowers, bark and more by exploring and comparing first hand a variety of different trees truly provided clarity.  It reflects the way in which we should teach children!

Collaborating with colleagues

So why did we choose the Arboretum to spend our morning?  As we head into a new school year working with local preschool educators, we wanted to have an experience that provided us new and rich inspiration on how to engage children with nature.   We could have simply met in a conference room and brainstormed a list on the wipe board.  We each have a great deal of experience teaching.   However, we want to model the approach we hope that other educators will use to find ways to approach their curriculum.  First, we wanted to embrace hands on experiences to explore for ourselves the many directions an activity could take us.  Then, we wanted to collaborate with one another on how our own unique perspectives and questions could come together and provide the richest opportunities for children.

All the ways we may engage children

As we came to the end of our walk, our discussion really took off.  Beyond our gaining an understanding of tree reproduction, we began to consider all the various way we may be able to engage children during a walk outside.  We talked about color, all the shades of green that we saw and other colors that we noticed.  We thought about connections to shapes while we observed some leaves that looked like hearts and others like stars.  Observation and numeracy skills were highlighted as we counted the points on various maple trees.  Did you know that some have 5 points, while others have 7, 9 or 11 points?  We ended on the idea of what trees give to us.  Our list included food, shade, wood and homes for animals.  This summary only scratches the surface of what we could do with children!

I encourage all educators to take time to slow down and experience the curriculum you will be implementing first.  Doing it with colleagues deepens the whole experience (while also making it more fun).  Where does your experience take you?  How do conversations with colleagues inspire you?  How might your curriculum deepen?

Silk Tree in bloom at the Arnold Arboretum.

Validating Teachers – Supporting Growth Through Individual Strengths

I have spent the last year working with a group of preschool teachers as their coach on a project focusing on science curriculum.  They are a wonderful and diverse set of educators.  I am honored to be working with them.  As we wrapped up year one, one of the resounding comments across all of the teams within the project was their feeling of validation.  They appreciated the recognition that was given to them regarding all of the science they had already been doing.  As a coach, I worked with each teacher individually to recognize the science in their curriculum and begin to help them label it.  I then work with the teacher to grow their understanding and skills to enhance it.

Coaching Your Educators

Judy Jablon, author of Coaching with Powerful Interactions, calls these moments “slivers”.  A “sliver” may look very different from one teacher to another.   What they all have in common is that they focus on a positive aspect of the teacher.  “Slivers” become a point in which you can build off of to support them in growing professionally.  As a coach, it is important to work with a teacher beginning from where they are currently within their experience and skill set, which may be a different point for each.  It is not about getting all of the teachers you work with to the same exact destination, but to support them in moving forward towards that destination.  By identifying slivers to teachers, you are constantly recognizing areas of success.  This then reinforces confidence within the teacher to know that he/she can be successful.  Playing to a person’s strengths  and validating them is very empowering.

As supervisors, our role is to lead and make sure that the entire team is meeting certain regulations, policies and expectations.  This can feel like a daunting job, when the reality is the variety of skills and experience that your team has can vary widely.  Therefor, we can sometimes streamline the process by laying out the expectation and then expecting all teachers to work out a way to achieve them.  If they don’t, it is our jobs to then provide “consequences”.   But is this really the best approach?  Is this how we would lead a classroom?  Set strict rules, expect all of the children to adhere to them and punish those who don’t?  Please understand, by no means am I saying we need to treat adults like children.  My point is that the philosophy of building on strengths transcends all ages.

photo: Judy Jablon and Powerful Interactions

Treating Educators as Individuals

As the new school years begin, I encourage supervisors to take a moment to consider each individual teacher.  Make note of their strengths or “slivers”.  Keep these in mind as you engage in conversations and professional development with them.  Consider where their understanding and ability of a specific job aspect is. What is the appropriate next step to support their growth and success?  Remember, their success will be your success!

Building Your Team at the Start of a New School Year

I am a member of several early childhood Facebook pages.  During the last few weeks, I have seen many educators sharing pictures of their classroom setup for the new school year and asking for feedback and ideas.  I love how so many educators are getting excited for their upcoming school year!  You can see the passion for their jobs with these shares.  They are looking at so many details to make their classroom environment just the right place for all of the children about to walk through their door.

As ECE administrators, this is EXACTLY the enthusiasm we want from every educator in our schools!  We want a team who puts the children first, who will seek feedback and share their own skills and experience.  It can’t get much better than this!  That is why, as ECE administrators, it is our responsibility to keep this enthusiasm going.  With that said, it is important to realize that with all of this excitement also comes some unknowns that can lead to anxiety and staff moral concerns.  Think about it, a new school year brings new children, new parents, new coworkers.  Educators need to navigate relationships and routines all over again.  This is a lot of work!  This is the time when administrators, more than ever, should stay in touch with each individual educator and exploring ways to build up your team’s connectedness.  How will you check in with each educator? What experiences will you provide that allows staff to bond?  How will you support challenges before they become a real issue?  How will you build your team?  This time is invaluable to a wonderful school year for everyone!