By Elia Rocha
Most of the children who enroll in our Play House programs live with just one parent, and usually that parent is their mother. While fathers may be involved in their lives, more often than not that involvement is sporadic, unstable, and in many cases, marked by episodes of domestic violence.
Certainly, the families we work with represent the extreme low end of economic, social, and household stability and are not necessarily representative of our larger society. They do, I think, however, show us where the major fault-lines lie which can so often threaten to split families apart.
I won’t argue here that two-parent households are inherently better for children than one-parent households because so much depends on the capacity of mom or dad to provide a safe, nurturing, and consistent environment. Surely, a child is better off with one stable parent, than with two unstable parents. In these cases, one plus one definitely does not equal two.
However, it is sometimes jarring to see the utter lack of any nurturing men involved in these children’s lives. Even within our own programs, having a male teacher is so rare as to seem an aberration. It is true that in the child development field, male caregivers are sadly few and far between. I think this has to do with an outdated but pervasive misconception that caring for young children is still woman’s work. Does this perception extend to father’s themselves? I hope not. I do think that whether or not we hold mothers more accountable for raising children than fathers, we are less surprised and more resigned when fathers are not around. That certainly does a disservice to all the fathers and other male caregivers who are providing for and nurturing children. I fear it also leaves many of the children we serve with the skewed sense that men - a whole segment of our population - are not there to care for them.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
As teachers at Children Today, we understand the need to find the connection with our children. We know that each child that enters our classroom has a story, with trauma being part of that narrative. Forming an attachment with a primary caregiver is the critical first step to laying the foundation that will allow these children to build the courage and confidence to engage and explore their surroundings, as well as form relationships with their peers.
As their teachers, we understand that the children that enter our classrooms come with a variety of needs that must be met before productive learning can begin. Some of these needs are basic. For example, we understand that if a child comes in hungry and tired, this will affect how they function and interact in the classroom. We are also aware that forming an attachment - building a trusting, unconditional and supportive relationship - will determine our effectiveness as caregivers and will translate into the social, emotional and cognitive progress of the children we serve.
For some children, transitions are hard, whether from activity to activity or from caregiver to caregiver. For this reason, consistency, daily routines and verbal communication (talking through what is and will be happening) are important strategies that provide children with a predictable way of viewing their day and make them feel like they are in control of their daily experience. All of these things support the teacher-child relationship and a child’s ability to move through their day with confidence. As we watch the children progress in the toddler classroom, we constantly look for ways to connect. While some children need to be physically close to their primary caregiver to feel safe, other children can maintain their connection through eye contact or simple phrases, like “I see you” or “I’m right here.”
We have a little girl that can be triggered seemingly without notice. One moment she can be cooperatively interacting with another child in an activity and the next she can be pushing, hitting or biting that same child. Some of these triggers can be so subtle, but we have learned them and now we can remove the child from the situation before something explosive happens. We can help her calm down and then quietly talk about the need to “be gentle” or “use her words.” Teachers will quietly sit with the child until she is ready to once again participate in the environment. What we have noticed in recent weeks is that her outbursts have lessened and her ability to safely interact with other children has significantly increased. When she feels overwhelmed or stressed, she has learned to remove herself from the situation by finding the teacher, often taking that teacher by the hand and leading her to a quiet space in the classroom, sitting on the teacher’s lap, sucking her thumb and laying her head on the teacher’s chest. This is her way of soothing herself. When she is ready, she will get up and continue her day.
Attachment is about finding that connection. It’s about understanding and identifying each child’s changing moods and triggers. It’s about knowing what will happen when a child is tired or hungry or soiled or in need of some individualized attention. Each time a teacher is able to respond appropriately to the needs of a child, their relationship is strengthened and a deeper trust is established. It is from this foundation of trust that all things are possible.
By Dora Jacildo
The greatest contribution we can make to the children and families we serve is to provide opportunities for the youngest children to develop healthy attachments to the caregivers and teachers in our programs. We know that many of the children enter our classrooms with great fear, anxiety, and anger. We know that being separated from their parent can be unbearable. We also know that it is our job to respond to children in a supportive, consistent, and nurturing manner in order to begin to satisfy the innate, genetically programmed need to bond with another person.
Attachment, to us, means that we’re not only providing for their basic needs of food, rest, and safety, but that we are physically, socially and emotionally invested in every child. We understand that our staff’s ability to respond sensitively and appropriately to each child’s needs is what’s most important. We also understand that our ability to develop relationships with the children and their ability to bond with us sets the stage for how future social relationships may unfold.
Every child enrolled in our program is assigned a primary caregiver. This person makes it their top priority to bond with the child by being physically close to her/him and by providing all of the basic care she/he requires throughout the day. It is our goal to have the child see their primary caregiver as the person they can cling to when they are upset and want comforting, and as the person they can count on to help them get their needs met.
There have been countless times when I have walked outside into the playground and found children securely and affectionately being held by their primary caregiver. For some children, it’s the only way they can make it through the day. Attachment is a huge part of our curriculum. It is a foundational component that we address every day. We simply cannot expect children to grow and thrive if we neglect the most fundamental area of human development. Theorists have suggested that “there is a critical period for developing attachment (about 0-5 years). If an attachment has not developed during this period then the child will suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression.”
When we think about the consequences of the disruption of an attachment between a child and his caregiver, we logically make a commitment to ensure that for any child who is enrolled in our programs, there will be someone on our staff who will be crazy about him.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
Infants at Play House West enjoy doing art activities. They like rubbing the paint between their fingers, feeling it's silky texture and seeing what happens when it's applied to paper...or in this case, bubble wrap.
Sensory activities allow infants to show their creativity. However, more than that, exploring new mediums introduces infants to cognitive concepts include science and language.
The best part of any activity is when you can share the experience with someone else. Here, 9 and 11-month old peers have the opportunity to engage socially while creating their sensory masterpiece.
By Elia Rocha
Did you see newly named MVP Kevin Durant’s touching acceptance speech where he honored his mother for her support and sacrifice? He called her the real MVP and tearfully described her tenacity to provide for him and his brothers and move their family ahead. I can picture in my mind’s eye, some twenty years down the line, a young man or woman who was enrolled at Children Today making a similar speech. I imagine they would say thank you for so many things, countless things.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers we've been privileged to know, who embody the tenets of love, strength, and perseverance, and who hold the heart of their family.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
Working with children in need can be extremely challenging and emotional. We have some who arrive so dysregulated that they act out physically and must be individually supported because they are more likely to push, hit or bite. We also have children that act out when teachers set limits by yelling, screaming, rolling on the ground, or taking out their frustration on anything around them. For a teacher who is responsible for the safety and welfare of all the children in the classroom, having to constantly contain one or more child can be stressful and draining, especially if it happens on a regular basis. However, what connects me to these children is the fact that I get it. I feel it. I know the deep sadness, frustration and lack of control they feel. I understand the fear and the anger, because I too experienced trauma as a child.
While some days are exhausting, there are others when the children are calm, easily engaged and happy. I never know what the day will bring, which can be extremely stressful. However, I also know how exhilarating it feels to watch children learn something new about the world or about themselves and how energized you feel to be part of that growth.
This is how I feel about “my children” at Play House West. I approach each day with a very simple goal… to help “my children” find their smile. This is when they are able to engage in activities and interact with peers. This is when they learn skills that help them become more independent and confident in their own abilities. And yes, that takes work, thoughtfulness and planning. It takes preparation and dedication, which can deplete a person over time. However, I believe that part of self-care is finding something that you are passionate about, and for me, working with children (this demographic, in particular) touches my soul in a very powerful way and makes me excited about coming to work each day.
In Dora’s last blog post, Compassion Fatigue and the Importance of Self-Care, she wrote about how the nature of our work can be emotionally and physically draining, which can affect our personal and professional life. She also wrote about the importance of self-care and peer support. I understand how vital it is to be able to disengage from the work we do because it is so emotionally charged.
I believe that self-care is not just about what we do, but more importantly, it requires us to have an understanding of why we do it. I know that the families we work with are dealing with some very traumatic situations. However, I also know that if I allow myself to get caught up in things that I have no control over, “burn out” can be a definite possibility. Over the years, I have learned how to care for myself, to know when I feel over-stressed and what I need to do to help minimize those feelings. Therefore, I approach my work each day focused on the children. I focus on helping them find their smile and showing them how special I think they are. I focus on giving them opportunities to learn about themselves, their abilities, and the world around them.
For me, self-care is also about finding that something that makes you smile all over. It could be walking on the beach, hand-in-hand with your daughter, shooting baskets with your son on a Saturday afternoon, or waking up at 3:00 in the morning to enjoy the silence and solitude of the coming day. It’s not about quantity, but quality. It’s about intention and purpose. While most people would not make it a habit to wake up at 3:00 a.m., for me, it is in those early morning moments that I clearly see what is important to me and to my life. And in those moments… life is good.
Self-care is about finding what gives you balance and strength in your daily life. For some, it might be traveling or spending time with friends. For others, a massage or regular exercise might do the trick. For me, an annual family vacation gives me something to look forward to throughout the year and my 3:00 a.m. ritual allows me to decompress and re-energize before starting my day. I believe that if you can start each day with a smile on your face, then you must be doing something right.
By Dora Jacildo
According to certified mental health counselor Francoise Mathieu, “compassion fatigue is characterized by deep emotional and physical exhaustion and by a shift in a caregiver’s sense of hope and optimism about the future and the value of their work.” This can occur when staff are working with families who have been deeply traumatized and are constantly in crisis. If not properly addressed, compassion fatigue can affect an individual’s personal and professional life.
April was a challenging month, to say the least. It seemed as if every day we were dealing with a crisis and the problems families were sharing were taking a toll on the staff. Within a two week period we had an infant on life support, a parent brutally attacked, a parent with suicidal symptoms, a parent with a life-threatening disease, and a family begging for our help in keeping Child Protective Services from taking their children.
We know that working with children experiencing homelessness entails making a commitment to help beyond the classroom and beyond what would be expected of a typical child development center. And, at the same time, we must make a commitment to take care of ourselves, knowing that without doing so we run the risk of burn-out and vicarious trauma (negative emotional or psychological effects of the experience of helping people impacted by trauma).
The culture of Children Today is grounded in empathy, not just for the children and families we care for, but for each other. Staff are encouraged to look to each other for support, to share their feelings, and to ask for help when they are overwhelmed or overwrought. Knowing that it’s okay to step away from a situation that is particularly troubling and that someone else will be there to take over for a while provides tremendous relief. Fortunately for us, working with children can be such a joy that they themselves contribute so much to the satisfaction we get out of helping others.
All that being said, the only way to truly protect your health, your relationships, and your clients, is to make a commitment to implement self-care strategies into your life. They can be simple things like exercising, or delegating, or learning to say no more often. The important thing is to pay attention to your own needs and make time for yourself.
Today, I’ll pick up my son from daycare and I’ll take him to the park to play dinosaurs before it gets dark. This will be the one thing I do today to nourish my spirit so that I can be fully present tomorrow.
By Elia Rocha
I don’t mean to state the obvious, but we’re all egocentric. That’s not a judgment. I think that by and large, we’re all hard-wired to filter information and external stimuli through the prism of our needs and experiences. This leads me to another possibly obvious point, which is that having empathy is a skill which takes practice to hone.
More than most professions, I believe that being in the child development field requires an uncommonly high level of deliberation in thought and deed. Teachers are constantly and critically reassessing their understanding of children’s behavior, as well as their own motivations. In other words, they are practicing empathy, putting themselves in the shoes of the children they care for and teach, to see beyond their behavior to the need they are trying to communicate.
There is a little girl in the preschool classroom at Play House West. She is like a constantly revving engine, ready to react to any and all circumstances in a heightened manner. Waiting a turn, or sitting still during story time can be especially hard. Her primary caregiver is attuned to her cues and when it looks like her anxiety is escalating and her impulse control is diminishing, she knows its time to help this little girl calm her body down. What she, or another teacher will do, is take her for a walk and give her bubbles to blow. The walk removes her from the fraught environment, and the bubbles regulate her breathing, allowing her the time to calm down and rejoin her classmates.
This approach takes the need the child is trying to communicate (I need help calming down) as paramount, instead of merely assessing the behavior as disruptive, and trying to control it. The fact is that by taking this little girl for a walk and giving her bubbles to blow, they are showing her how she can regain control when she is feeling stress. She now tells her teachers when she needs her bubbles.
There are many other strategies that teachers use to help the children in their care feel safe and successful. What works for this child may not work for another. And, that’s the point. The deep, and thoughtful empathy the teachers practice means that every child is seen, approached, and cared for as an individual.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
Teachers work diligently each and every day to create an environment that is conducive to learning for all children. However, more than just choosing what materials to put on the shelves or which pictures to hang on the walls, teachers understand that in order for them to create the “right” classroom environment, they must first form a relationship with the children.
Relationships are based on understanding, trust and predictability. It is about knowing each child, knowing what interests them, what triggers them and what brings them back to their center. It’s about knowing that what they do is directly correlated to how they are feeling inside.
Children respond to what they experience. They imitate what they see. They repeat the things they hear. And they do things that seem interesting regardless of the consequences. The relationships that we form with children are built in part on how we respond to their actions. If we support children from a place of learning, children will grow. However, if we try to control what children do, teacher-child conflict is inevitable. It is the teacher that sets the pace and tone in the classroom. It is our response to the children and to situations that creates the dynamic that exists between the children and the teacher.
Children want to be independent. They want to do things for themselves. What I have found is that children get frustrated when they constantly have to wait for teachers to help them. By creating more self-help opportunities in the classroom environment, children learn to problem-solve on their own. When children are able to find their own solutions, conflicts lessen and harmony is maintained.
Teachers learn what children are interested in through careful observation. Using what they learn, teachers can create a physical environment that is responsive to the interests and developmental needs of the children. Pictures are powerful. By capturing teachable moments, the other children in the classroom can and often do learn by visual example.
A teacher’s primary goal is to create the “right” environment for children. A safe environment. A learning environment that allows children to express their feelings and work through emotions in a positive and constructive way. Doing that takes work and patience. It takes lots and lots and lots of examples. It takes supporting a child that struggles and encouraging a child who is capable of being more independent. It means providing materials that challenge children without frustrating them, and acknowledging their efforts. Success comes in the form of peace in the classroom, harmony among the children and a whole lot of learning going on.
By Dora Jacildo
In the field of early childhood education there are many assessment tools that demonstrate what a high-quality environment for children 0-5 years old looks like. Rating scales and checklists give program administrators and teachers a very clear sense of how the environment should be set up and what materials should be included for each age grouping. The primary focus is on providing a safe, supportive and engaging experience for the children, families, and teachers at the facility.
Zero to Three (January 2009) published a list of the characteristics of high-quality environments, which included:
At Children Today, we realize that for children experiencing homelessness, the environment plays a significant role in their ability to develop roots. This, for many children, becomes the most predictable and consistent environment in what may be a very chaotic life. The teachers specifically design environments that reflect the children’s culture and community in order to emphasize the importance of being culturally relevant and surround the children with things that are familiar to them. We make sure that the children’s primary language is spoken to them throughout the day and that they see images of people like them in our books, posters, and toys. Our environments serve to help children feel less isolated by reminding them that there are others like them and that their feelings about their experiences are worth exploring in the classroom and in the curriculum.
There is great emphasis placed in creating private spaces for children in the classrooms. We recognize that being homeless is a very public experience and living in a shelter means sharing communal spaces all the time. Every child needs time to be alone, to have privacy, and to succeed at an activity without being interrupted or having to negotiate with other children.
We also know that given the traumatic nature of homelessness, many children have difficulty self-regulating and need an environment that is soothing and secure. With this in mind, we pay close attention to the children’s senses. This means that the colors we chose to decorate the classroom, the lighting we chose to use to enhance the space, the odors that we use to clean or deodorize a space and the sounds we expose the children to are intentional and designed to help children feel safe and relaxed.
Many years ago we enrolled a little boy into our preschool program. He had recently been placed in his father’s custody after his mother had gone to prison on a drug related charge. The little boy was getting to know his father, adjusting to living in a shelter, and attending day care for the first time in his life all at the same time. After a couple of months enrolled in the program, the family secured housing. One day, the little boy walked into his classroom and kicked off his shoes…they flew into the air! Dad smiled and told the teachers that he knew his child felt at home with us because he did the same thing at their new house.
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.