May 22, 2014

Are You Playing the Popularity Game?

Chickens have what’s known as a “pecking order.” There’s a top hen, who picks on the next hen, who picks on the next-most-powerful hen, and so on all the way down the line to the poor hen at the bottom of the ranking, which is picked on – and pecked on – by all the hens of higher rank. Quite often, this lowest hen is pecked unmercifully, even to death. It’s not a good scene and is one of the problems those who keep flocks of chickens worry about.

Chickens and children are not the same. Yet those who keep track of children notice that there’s a pecking order among them too. The “top” child becomes the “most popular” child and all the other children fall into line depending on the favor bestowed upon them by this most popular kid.

There are winners and losers here. But the losers aren’t chickens. They are your children.

Naturally, this is not a good scene. No one wants her son or daughter to be unpopular or left out. But this is where we parents lose our good sense and make things worse. If we buy into this popularity thing, being happy when the “most popular” child invites our own kid over to play and otherwise worrying about our child’s social status, we add to the problem. We become accomplices in what is a dangerous game.

There can only be one winner in the popularity sweepstakes. If – for now, anyway – your own child is the most popular one, she is anxious about keeping her standing. She is likely to become nasty and manipulative of others – threatening to drop friends who don’t do as she says or encouraging others to join her in verbal bullying of other kids. The queen of the heap only stays queen if she can control her subjects. In supporting your most-popular child, you are helping to create a social monster.

There’s only one winner but many losers in the popularity game, and it’s likely your child is one of these. If she’s near the top of the friendship rankings, she may be plotting a coup by spreading rumors about children more popular than she. If your child is nearer the bottom of the friendship rankings, she may be depressed, unhappy, and even unwilling to go to school or play with other kids. Either way, your child is in danger, of becoming mean and nasty or of becoming isolated and discouraged.

To a certain extent, this jockeying for position happens naturally among groups of kids and is fluid enough to be of only passing concern for parents. But when moms and dads actively participate in the popularity game, by keeping track of the social standing of their child and their child’s friends, then there will be trouble ahead. 
  1. No matter how much your own popularity mattered to you in school, don’t project your anxiety onto your son or daughter. Don’t live through them or try to fix your own life by manipulating theirs.
  2. As much as possible, let your children figure out their own social relationships and settle their own social problems. How will they learn to handle conflict and negotiate solutions if you’re always interfering? Their friends are their business, not yours.
  3. Accentuate the positive. Say only nice things about other children and avoid comparing one child’s clothes/toys/vacations/ pets to other children’s. These are kids. Why are you obsessed with them and their stuff?
  4. Reject bullying behavior wherever it happens. It’s bullying to call people names, lie about them, uninvite them to your birthday party and threaten rejection just as much as it’s bullying to steal lunch money and hit people. Don’t look the other way when your own child is a verbal bully and support your child when he’s the victim of verbal bullying.
  5. Most of all, don’t play into the hands of those who want to rank children by popularity (or intelligence or athletic ability or anything else). Refuse to participate in these conversations. Imagine that others talked about your own rank on the prettiness scale. You wouldn’t like it one bit! 
High school taught a lot of us that popularity matters. Most adults outgrow this delusion. Remember that who is the most popular doesn’t translate in any way to life success. What does translate is feeling supported and appreciated.

That’s what every child needs.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders

May 13, 2014

How Can You Tell If Your Child Care Is Good Enough?

According to Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, a majority of low-income four-year-olds are enrolled in preschools and child care centers that are of poor quality. These children already have two strikes against them and mediocre child care may be the final blow. 

Even though it’s “only preschool,” what happens before kindergarten matters. So how can you tell if your child’s preschool or child care center is good enough? What should you look for?

Your child may not have the disadvantages in life that low-income children often have. But quality child care matters for your kids too.

The first thing to look for is that a child is enrolled. According to Barnett, even poor preschool  is better than no preschool. Children who get no preschool start kindergarten already a year behind. This is because what matters in kindergarten is not so much academic ability – things parents may think they’re providing at home –but habits of mind necessary for school. Children who come to school knowing how to work in a group, how to follow complicated directions, how to do school work, and how to pay attention in the midst of distractions, these children are ready to learn. And these are the skills that even the most inadequate preschool develops.

The second thing to look for is a teaching staff that knows how to work with children and enjoys teaching them. A good child care or preschool teacher should know how to develop children’s skills in pre-math and pre-reading. She should know how to guide children’s behavior without squelching their curiosity. She should be respectful of children’s ideas and she’s got to be nice. She has high standards but she knows her job is to help children reach them.

In a preschool run by a school district, teachers should all have a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate. They will be well-paid and will have access to lots of professional development. If your school district doesn’t offer a preschool program or if your child is ineligible for your district’s program (some are limited to children with low-income and other risk factors), then find the very best preschool or child care center you can with the very best support of its teachers. 
  • Ask about a teacher’s preparation. At least some college is better than none.
  • Ask if the school closes for professional development days (even though this is an inconvenience for you, it’s something you want). 
  • Ask about the number of children per teacher. 
  • Ask how long teachers typically stay and how quickly they leave.  
  • If you can, watch teachers in action. 

You are looking for the same professionalism that teachers display at your local elementary school. Are teachers proud of what they do or are they always on the lookout for a better job?

Third, find a place where play is center-stage. Play is the medium by which children learn. The Tulsa, Oklahoma public preschool program, showcased as a national model, devotes two hours of unstructured “free” play every day for every child. Sit-down instruction, with children filling in worksheets and memorizing facts, is not a positive thing. It’s just plain inappropriate for young children. In a good preschool or child care center, children are moving around, doing interesting things together, as their teachers observe, guide and ask questions.

Noticing a quality preschool or child care center isn’t difficult – the signs are obvious or can be discovered by asking a few questions. Finding a quality preschool or center may be more difficult. But the results are worth the search.

Your child’s school success is determined in large part by what happens at age three and four. Choose quality for your child.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.