When I became a stay-at-home mom 4 years ago, it was the first time I didn’t have bells telling me where to be for the first time since I was 5. And I was terrified.
How was I supposed to structure my time wisely without anyone checking off my attendance?
How was I supposed to feel productive without someone to report my work to?
How was I supposed to find routines that worked my (then) 2 very small students as well as myself?
I can now say with confidence that I was right to have all these fears. They are exactly what makes being an at-home parent so difficult. They are some of the things I miss about being in the classroom even now.
But having navigated them for the last 4 years, I can say that I am grateful to have experienced them. They give me more insight on why it’s so important to honor student agency and teach them to be masters of their own time and learning before they leave the structure of the bells.
They have also given me a lens to how messy real life is — and to accept and even celebrate it. Reality is…
….some days, we feel like we’re on our A-game, and other days, we just don’t.
…some days, we feel inspired and energized, and other days, we have trouble even remembering that we were once capable of energy.
…some days, the very small students in our lives are agreeable and engaged, and other days, they are cranky and irrational (this one tends to change by the hour or even minute at times).
All of this is not only ok, it’s what makes life rich.
I continue to take my current role as an at-home parent one day at a time. I still look forward to classroom teaching again in a few years. But I now know that each day of this messy, bell-less life is a blessing for me now, and will be for years to come.
Is it bad that as I attended a training meeting for an online preschool, I was:
1) reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray, and,
2) internally rolling my eyes while the trainer extolled promises of kindergarten readiness and motivation tips for consistent use from our 4 year-olds?
I probably didn’t earn any gold stars at any rate.
But I’m not in it for performance anyway. I’m in it because my son has started to exhibit interest in letters, and I wanted to see whether this program might further his interest. It is not to replace or even complete with our story time, library trips, or casual chats related to literacy.
If he’s not motivated, it’s not because I need to do more to motivate him — it’s because he’s not developmentally ready for it.
If he’s not “performing” on later tests, it’s not because I didn’t do enough to drill ABC’s with him in PreK — it’s because standardized tests are an inherently poor measure of authentic learning.
These are truths whether we face, as Kristine Mraz put it so eloquently, lowercase “s” struggles (ordinary variation of learning pace) or uppercase “S” STRUGGLES (systemic barriers that disproportionately impact families and students of color).
However, when we look again at this program with the lens of STRUGGLE, it becomes clearer why we might hope it will aid in closing socioeconomic achievement gaps. After all, it’s free, home-based, and equipped with personal consultants for each family to support their children.
But even so, I would caution all users against being overly dazzled by promises of future academic performance. I would probably be more enthusiastic if the introductory folder (full of opt-in sheets for motivational texts and tips for establishing user routines) also included information on the local library and tips for establishing meaningful literary routines. (I’d like to be clear, I am grateful for the resource to be able to help my son investigate his growing curiosity about letters in a new way; I just don’t attach the same weight to it all that the program seems to expect).
No matter our background, and no matter our kids’ ages, books > programs. Connecting with a good book is much more likely to produce readers than drilling skills.
For other parents worried about kindergarten readiness, here are some other posts you might enjoy based on our experiences with my now 3rd grader:
Despite my commitment to follow my kids’ lead when it comes to their natural developmental learning pace, I still find myself worrying at times. What if they never indicate readiness? What if I miss the signs? What if I wait too long before possible interventions might be needed?
Once again, it has proven to be unnecessary worry. Over the last few months, my 4 year-old has started to indicate interest in identifying letters. This began with, “A is for Captain America!” He began identifying “A’s” everywhere, connecting both to the shape of the letter and its sound.
When he started to add others, like “B is for Black Widow,” I decided to turn to our environment help build this growing interest. We put some vinyl sticker letters to use, reinforcing both superheros and household objects that begin with each letter. How many can you name?
While this was a simple exercise, we’re already seeing him make even more connections beyond the home environment. It stands as a reminder to me that building early literacy does not need to be very complicated. Following the child’s lead is more powerful than we might think.
But as another typical day progressed with my 3 small students, I kept thinking of Edna’s post. I realized I could definitely benefit from inventorying my culture of agency at home, not least because of how I’ve learned that more agency leads to less classroom management — and we could really use less “classroom management” in our home right now!
The questions in bold below are her overarching questions, to which she also attached sub-questions for more in-depth reflection (be sure to check out her post to read those)!
“What sort of language will you use?”
Overall, we have good metacognitive dialogue happening, including naming learning skills (“Wow, you are making an interesting connection right there!”) and referring to my students as authors, scientists, etc.
Two questions that stood out to me most as opportunities for growth were, “Do you talk about learning, rather than tasks and work” and “Do you ask the learners’ opinions and really listen to what they say?”
It’s so easy to get swept away by all the tasks that must be accomplished each day, and it becomes a temptation for me to focus on the work, as well as to multi-task everything. But I have noticed that when I do make time for undivided attention, it goes a long way in the culture of agency at home.
“How is the environment organised to foster agency?”
This one is always a work in progress, but overall, I feel like we’re moving in the right direction for agency.
As I reflect on opportunities for my two- & four-year olds, my thoughts turn to games, blocks, Lego’s, play dough, and other creative experiences we could engage in together with more regularity. I think that especially as my daughter starts school again, I could renew the self-selected magnet schedule below for my 4 year-old to consider the possibilities for his time.
“How is time managed?
Self management of time has often been encouraged, and our approach is constantly shifting (especially to make sure my kids aren’t wasting their time “waiting for the teacher”). In addition to the magnet schedule above, we have tried…
…the week wheel:
…general week/month planning:
…planning hours to scale (½ inch = 1 hour)
…digitally shared to-do lists:
“What dispositions do you model?”
All three sub-questions Edna asks here regarding openness and vulnerability fluctuate with my emotional state. I notice that when I’m feeling stressed and behind-schedule, I am less likely to discuss my process with my kids.
However, my kids are merciful; when I share how I’m feeling, they tend to be patient. All the same, I would like to do more to explain my strategies for getting back on track so they better comprehend self-regulation.
“What routines are in place to encourage agency?”
I actually just recently added a visual prompt for our morning and bedtime routines. Secured to the bathroom mirror with packaging tape, these little pictures help my kids get on with their daily routines independently.
“What kind of expectations are clearly set?”
We’re always having conversations about the importance of intrinsic motivation. But there’s definitely still a major learning curve for initiative over compliance. Part of this may be that initiative still looks pretty destructive for my 2- and 4 year old boys. But I am working to adjust my expectations and our environment to meet their needs.
Here’s a recent example: from time to time, we check out what’s called a “Discovery Kit” at the library, a themed box including new toys, books, puzzles, etc. We love playing with them, but it’s difficult for me to keep track of everything, and the fines for missing pieces/late dues add up fast.
One day I was telling my 4 year-old that I didn’t know if we could get another discovery kit because he had misplaced one of the pieces. Later, I expressed my concerns to my husband, and he thoughtfully said, “Well, he is 4. Maybe it’s just that the discovery kits require us to supervise them.”
Another option would be to stop borrowing the kits for now, but I see now that I would want to make sure my 4 year-old knew that it wouldn’t be his fault.
We have high expectations for responsibility, but developmental readiness must factor into those expectations.
“How do interactions foster agency?
I really like the question, “Can they tell that you trust them to learn?” It’s clear through his expression that even my 2 year-old can tell a lot about what I’m feeling about him and his choices. When I work to reassure him, especially when he’s trying new things, he grows in his confidence to act independently.
“What small action will you take to shift the culture in your class?”
Processing my thoughts through this inventory has been a great step for me today. As parents and teachers, we need to be honest but kind with ourselves in this process. Working with kids is messy, but as we work toward a stronger culture of agency, they will astonish us with what they are capable of!
I decided to sign up to help with our local school’s PTA this year as secretary. Especially because I only have a few years left before I return to the classroom, I am excited to dig deeper into the parent side of school.
I’m hoping that because it’s an entirely new board, my continual question-asking will be seen as constructive rather than just annoying. But even as I have started to consider my role, I felt that writing a post might help me synthesize my thinking, as well as to share ideas for others.
What makes your school unique? What challenges does the community face, and what are some advantages it possesses? How can you find out more first-hand?
What are ways the school already fosters relationships between teachers, parents, and students? What are ways the PTA can facilitate even stronger connections?
How might inventorying past and potential events/programs benefit your school?
What are the ways parents prefer communication? How might you find out?
In what ways can you convey to parents that all their voices matter, even if they can’t attend meetings?
In what ways might you be responsive to the needs of parents, teachers, admin, and students as a PTA?
How might the PTA collaborate with the administration?
I am hopeful that we can find opportunities to strengthen connections among parents, teachers, and students!
Sure, they may be building independence, problem-solving, time-management, confidence, physical health, risk-taking, and more. But the neighbors don’t see any of that. What they see & think is, “Where’s the mom?”
Never mind that when we were kids, such unsupervised play with a pack of neighbor kids was the norm.
Never mind that outdoor play actually addresses dramatically more threatening issues our kids face today, such as anxiety and diabetes.
When a someone recently told me that “Where’s the mom?” is the question asked when they see my kids play, it led me to revisit the way unstructured, unsupervised play has declined since when we were kids (sidebar: what about “Where’s the dad?” If we’re going to be judged, at least let it be equal opportunity judgement!). I have started to wonder whether this is less about protecting kids and more about protecting ourselves from judgement (offline & online) from other adults.
Ultimately, we need to find the courage to set aside those fears and focus on kids’ needs. We have been told, “You can’t be too careful when it comes to kids’ safety.” But the truth is that “an obsession with safety carries its own risks,” not least of which include a child’s diminished sense of autonomy. (see “Child Safety Up, Child Anxiety Up. Hmmm.“).
As a teacher, this seems to have direct parallels in the classroom as well. Both teachers and parents are pressured to make all the decisions in the name of safety or future success. Both are put under such an intense microscope, challenging the status quo is risky business. Both face an ever-present risk of severe judgement.
As a result, child autonomy is suffering, but we have the power to change that. We can:
Let them walk/bike to school (join LetGrow if you’re interested in finding other families near you to walk/bike with).
Actively discuss with kids the nature of autonomy and how we can work toward that goal.
And of course, it always helps when we find our tribe! There are many Facebook groups (one example here) and Twitter hashtags (#StudentAgency & #studentchoice) where you can find supportive teachers and parents who are similarly working toward childhood independence.
I’ve often mentioned the importance of creating a rich environment to help invite learning (rather than relying on more contrived programs and flashcards that put learning on the adult’s timetable all the time). But like everything else, this has been a bit of a journey for me.
Weird fact about me: I have subscribed to the magazine Better Homes & Gardens since I was 13 years old. (A major influence on my continued loyalty was when they replaced a copy that my very helpful then-2-year-old had “put in the bathroom.” ie, watery toilet grave. I still hope that email with my pitiful story and request for a new copy is pinned to some break-room somewhere).
So while I’m nothing even close to an expert on interior design, by the time kids came along, I had some difficulty consolidating my notions of home decorating with kid-friendly-play.
So for today, I thought I’d share today a little of what that learning environment currently looks like in our home. Some of the learning environment elements include…
At first, I restricted access to all sensory play (like the box of beans below and play dough) so that they would need to ask each time they wanted to play, because who wants to spend days constantly cleaning this up?? But then I learned how wearisome this can be for all parties involved, which ultimately inhibits play.
I ended up replacing the box with one on wheels, storing it under a daybed where the kids can slide it out to play as desired; play dough storage became similarly accessible. As for picking up stray beans, it turns out the dog really likes them, so that helps with the mess factor. But most importantly, sensory play has become a more readily-available choice in our home.
I mingle the toys with the books, and try to provide a cozy spot nearby (like the sheepskin rug pictured below) so that reading is always a convenient option. I’m also always shifting the way our books are organized and displayed (more on that in last week’s post).
I try to provide “toys” that have open-ended possibilities. Our loose parts toys (photo below) are one of my favorite ways to watch my kids’ imaginations fly, but another factor has been simply arranging toys together. Safari LTD animals near a school bus near wooden trays.
…occasionally setting up invitations to play
Leaving shelves open so that we can find new ways to invite play on their level has been helpful here. This little “dining area” has been set up for a while so my kids have largely forgotten about it by now, but it’s often the first thing visiting kids notice when they come over to play.
…Design for togetherness
This has been perhaps the most influential element of creating a rich learning environment at home. I used to think that I needed to keep toys and books corralled in a corner so that the grown-ups could enjoy grown-up space. Now I know that when I integrate play into the design, I can cultivate more comfortable spaces in which everyone feels they belong, which in turn invites more shared play.
For us, this looks like no separate play room, plenty of seating for everyone use the space, and shared bookcases arranged so everyone has what they need on their level. But of course, the possibilities are endless and should be based on your family’s needs.
What about you? What are ways you provide that “third teacher” at home?