First Baptist Preschool has been a steady presence in the Charlottesville early childhood scene for decades. Their early childhood educators have an average of ten years of experience working with children. They were one of the first preschools to join the Virginia Quality Initiative in 2008, when it was a pilot program. Still, every fall, before their students come back to school, they set up a training with the Growing Minds program at ReadyKids.
“I think if you don’t have trainings you get a little stale,” said Ann Easton, Director of First Baptist.
But this time, Easton put out a challenge to the Growing Minds trainer, Stephanie Massie. Prior to her role at ReadyKids, Massie had been both a childcare center director and a preschool teacher. Easton felt confident she could handle a challenge.
“I don’t want it to be boring,” Easton said. “I want shock value. I want wow factor.”
Massie thought about that for a while. How do you add shock value and wow factor to a training on developmentally appropriate curriculum? It seemed an impossible task.
Then, she remembered something she had heard from Eddie Harris, the Fatherhood Specialist at REAL Dads, another ReadyKids program.
"Stop being a resource. The answers are in the room already."
Instead of lecturing on child development, Massie decided to capitalize on the strengths of these already experienced teachers. She started her session with two questions.
The first, “What do you want to see from the kids you teach?”
And the second, “What do you NOT want to see from the kids you teach?”
The answers were predictable. The teachers wanted to see listening, engagement and wonder. They didn’t want to see toy dumping, tattling or defiance.
Kids Do Well if They Can
Massie handed them the “Milestones of Child Development” book, a standardized tool for Virginia early childhood educators to help align a child’s developmental needs with what they’re being taught in preschool. After they looked over the book, Massie showed a video by Ross Greene, a child psychologist, who says, “Kids do well if they can.”
“’Kids do well if they can’ is only a life shattering philosophy if you consider the more prevalent philosophy, ‘Kids do well if they wanna,’” said Ross Greene. “But consider this, ‘Why would a kid not want to do well?’”
Massie turned to the two-year-old teachers, a notoriously difficult age to teach, and said, “So, what can a two-year-old child do well right now?”
The teachers turned to the section for physical development of children 18-months to 36-months and found this sentence, “fill a container with small objects and dump them out repeatedly.”
The teachers looked up a bit sheepishly. Dumping toys, a behavior they didn’t want to see in kids, was exactly what two-year-olds can do well.
“We found that’s something that child must need,” said Easton. “Just think about all the feedback [a child] gets if he dumps a box of Legos on a tile floor.”
Massie then stood up in front of the group, lifted a big container of balls above her head and flipped it over – dumping the balls and sending them bouncing around the classroom.
“You could see the discomfort immediately,” said Massie. “I invited them to try dumping things themselves.”
Each teacher practiced dumping their own bucket of toys and reflecting on what the satisfaction was – hearing the sounds the toys made when they hit the ground, the physical input of going from heavy to light, and the feeling of success after persistence. Then, as a group, they talked about what annoyed them about dumping toys as adults, and how to remedy the situation.
“If the noise is what bothers you,” said Easton, “let’s think of ways you can give [a child] a way to dump without the noise.”
Focusing on Strengths
After that, Massie felt like the teachers gave their own training. They began looking up each of the “bad” behaviors in the Child Development book. Tattling. Preschoolers are learning to “demonstrate progress in expressing needs and opinions by using words and asking for help when needed.” Defiance. Preschoolers are learning to “demonstrate the ability to initiate activities.”
“I could physically see the dots connecting above their heads,” said Massie. “I was in a zone with stars in my eyes. It was in that moment I realized that I got the wow factor.”
Massie had been giving trainings for years, trying to emphasize that usually ‘bad’ behaviors are ‘developmental’ behaviors. But the wisdom to stop being a resource and let the people in the room find the answers themselves changed the conversation.
“Allowing us to come up with different ways of handling things in the classroom always makes an impact,” said Easton. “We just love working with ReadyKids.”