Friday, July 4, 2008

Civilizing Preschoolers?

We've decided for several reasons not to put 3-year-old Bella in preschool in the fall. This has encouraged me to be a bit more intentional about helping her learn civilized skills at home, like hanging up her coat and washing her hands on her own before eating. Acquiring these skills is supposed to be one of the great things about preschool--very young kids learn these habits easily in a group setting with kids their own age, under the direction of a teacher rather than a parent. Surely we can achieve this in our household, too!

How have you ordered your home so that your young kids learn these grown-up skills? Examples I'm thinking of are, as I mentioned before, hanging up coats and handwashing. Also, clearing the table after meals, knocking before entering doors, things like that. What would 3 year olds be learning in preschool that I should be replicating at home? What skills are age appropriate for preschoolers, and what can be saved for later? Should I implement them all at once (as in, OK, this is home preschool and here are the ways we're going to start doing things), or one at a time, and how often do we start on a new skill? Do you use charts and rewards or just launch right in and expect them to pick it up?

Thanks for helping me think this through!


Mary Alice said...

As a homeschooler, it has been important for me to remember that in school the children have the tools they need to do many things on their own. If you want her to hang up her coat, there must be a low hook, close to the front door, perhaps with her name on it or something to make it cheery. If you want her to wash her hands, there must be a sturdy step stool, a soap that she can reach and use herself, etc.

Next, you must have some amount of order and consistency. Children learn quickly in school what will be expected of them every single time. Can you say the same in your home? Also, is there time to accomplish the tasks?

I would not give rewards, they wouldn't in school, just a smile. Also, I would not give punishment unless it is for willful disobedience -- throwing the coat and making a face gets a time out, forgetting to hang it up might get a gentle reminder for the first few weeks, at which point it will probably just become a habit. Sometimes there is a natural consequence, e.g. you can't go outside to play with the others because you can't find your shoes.

I would add skills that wouldn't be learned in school including tooth brushing and bathing yourself, as well as hanging up towel, putting clothes in hamper, etc. I would work on one thing at a time, give it a week to 10 days and then introduce a new thing.

In our house, we do training tuesdays during the school year -- every tuesday I teach a skill and from then on your are expected to be able to do that on your own, from hand washing to packing an overnight bag to cracking an egg. I love this because I can't take time/don't have the patience to teach them to do stuff constantly, sometimes I just need to buckle your shoe for you so we can get out the door!

Other good practical life/grace and courtesy skills for a three year old: setting the table, clearing her own plate, asking to be excused, pouring water from a pitcher, slicing a banana, putting away works/toys, dressing, saying please and thank you, spelling her name, responding when called, greeting an adult/introductions. You could make a list of 52 and do one a week for the whole year, even if you do no other school work she will have learned a ton!

We do love the housefairy, who drops a letter now and then pointing out the things that the children are doing that she is proud of them for, mostly related to cleanliness but I also do a lot for attitude -- the housefairy is a friend of the flylady and she is Santa's sister, so she is helping him with the watching part. She leaves glitter around our house from time to time and the children get so excited! PT spontaneously started making his bed, HT gets recognized and praised for being the tidy person that she is naturally, the twins get reinforcement of small progress. Sometimes her letters suggest it is time for a movie night with popcorn or other small treat. (just google housefairy, we are not paying members, I just showed them the free videos and they fell in love)

Sandra Wood Peoples said...

We recently moved from the south to Penn. We have been trying to teach our 2 and 1/2 year old to say "yes/no ma'am" and "yes/no sir" when speaking to adults. We have had a few families in the church tell us that people up here just don't do that. It showed me that the manners and values I have may not be reinforced outside of our home, even at church. I love Mary Alice's idea of teaching a practical skill every week!

Rory said...

This is interesting to me because I am trying to decide whether to send my 3 yo back to preschool next year.

In addition to practical life skills like handwashing, carrying his own backpack, and putting his coat on himself, he also learned some good social negotiation stuff: my turn/your turn; first we'll do this, then we'll do that. He also learned a lot of prayers and a surprising amount of Hebrew (the school was Jewish, as are we, but it's a more conservative denomination).

Those things I could teach him at home (except most of the Hebrew, and I'm willing to let that slide till he's 5 :). The downside was that his teachers also flagged some behaviors which we thought of as quirky/normal but which they felt might not be. His behavior at school was much worse than at home (it's pretty ok at home, though he is my most difficult child) and we discovered that he falls apart in big groups (over stimulated?). My question, and I am so sorry to hijack this thread, is are those things I can work on at home, or would I be better off sending him back to the school, even though he disliked the school and I think his unhappiness and inability to keep up formed a self-perpetuating cycle? I guess I'm asking of you experienced preschool homeschoolers -- for young children who have some social challenges, is homeschooling him at 4 yo going to set him back further or give him time to grow up?

Mary Alice said...


Wow, happy to comment, though this is a very big decision that of course needs time and prayer for you together with your husband, so take what I have to say into consideration, but not too seriously!

My son had one good year in preschool, then a tough time the first half of his second year, then the teacher broke her hip and was replaced by someone who just did a better job of bringing him out. Then, we moved, and we did a year of preschool at home, then he went to kindergarten at school. He was really struggling, and a very wise teacher who is our friend sat down with me and explained, some children need to work hard to learn the 3 R's, PT needs to work hard to learn CONFORMITY AND SELF CONTROL. At first I bristled -- I don't think of conformity as something to be so valued, but then I realized that you do need some of it, as well as an ability to gauge what is socially appropriate. The catch was, it became clear to me that my son was not improving in those areas at school, and in the meantime the stress of it was making some things worse, including the academic side where we were starting to see resistance.

We made the decision to homeschool for first grade, and I have to say that it went really well. Now, after a big move, he is having a bit of a hard time in big groups and he does wind up in tears at the end of a playdate, but I am confident that with gentle support I can help him get over this hump. Since these things are so stressful for him, it is helpful that other things, like reading level, don't have to be stressful at home, since we can work at his pace.

So, what is my advice? With support, your son will learn these skills over time. Do you feel that the school is doing a good job in helping him to learn, even if you aren't seeing the results yet? A red flag for me was that my son had similar problems at camp and the teachers there did such a better job of giving him strategies and also of communicating with me what she was working on and how I could re-inforce at home. This was just not happening at his regular school, some schools are better then others at different things. I was really lucky because I went to an elementary school that really nurtured and then I was pretty well prepared when my parents switched me to another school that was a dog-eat-dog atmosphere but an academic power house. My son, like me, needs the nurturing first. Some kids need a school with lots of sports, some need small group academics, you have to weigh pros and cons of what is available in your community.

As far as whether it will be a set back, from doing one year at home and then kindergarten, if you are planning to send him out for K then I think I would just push through next year at home. My son did struggle with some of the school skills that had lagged, like opening a juice box by himself, and as trivial as that sounds I think that added to the pressure of the situation. Preschools are set up to teach you these skills, in kindergarten they expect you to have them. My son, who struggles with fine motor (like many boys) was not allowed out to recess because he could not button up his own coat -- having been humiliated and also deprived of the chance to blow off steam, how do you think his afternoons went that week? The teacher's advice, which I followed, was to buy a zipper coat!

I am very wary of schools trying to label boys. My mother taught special ed, and I have a tremendous respect for the fact that learning differences do exist and that early diagnosis and great teaching can be a huge help, but I think that classrooms today are not the best environment for many boys and that teachers are quick to call in a psychologist rather than look at the reality -- does this child need more sleep, more personal space and unstructured play, more time to work with his large muscles? I think most boys do.

If he is going to camp this summer, I would use that as an opportunity to observe how he does in a different group setting. Also, if you know and trust you pediatrician, I might talk to him about it, ours was very helpful and gave advice that was then confirmed by several costly meetings with specialists.

Lastly, there are these really great books by Giselle, they are sort of the chestnuts of child psychology, called Your One Year Old, Your Two Year Old, etc. These books are always a relief to me as they seem to perfectly, uncannily, describe what I observe in my children. The same author also has a somewhat dated book about school readiness. They tend to be encouraging you to hold back a bit, but I think that might be a good thing in many cases, and depending on your sons birthday, maybe you could do a year off, then a year of preschool and then kindergarten, so he has more time to develop?

Sandra: You will find that society, even in church, will fail to re-inforce, and at times even undermine, even those aspects of courtesy which are not regional. Behavior expectations vary so widely from family to family. We don't expect our children to use sir and maam, but we do expect them to apologize when they have wronged someone, others expect kids to look an adult in the eye when being introduced and shake hands from a young age.

Rest assured that your influence is stronger than that of the world if you make it a priority and that your child will be well served by the respect for others that you are imparting. Do not be offended if, at a certain time, she drops the sir and maam when she realizes that it is socially awkward for many Northern adults and children. I have learned recently that it is key to teach my children the reasons for what we do -- to show kindness and respect. Even though I am comfortable calling adults by a title and last name, when a woman tells me that it makes her feel old to be called Mrs. so and so by my children and gives the name she prefers, I defer to her, it would be rude to continue calling her by a name that is uncomfortable to her. I don't think that we have to totally let go of things, but I do think that a certain amount of "when in Rome" applies, we don't want our children to be stilted or unnatural in their manners.

Rory said...

Mary Alice, thank you so much for such detailed and thoughtful advice. I found so much in your story which resonated and mirrored my own experience with my son. He definitely needs to learn to control his impulsivity and conform, and while the idea of pushing conformity is depressing in theory, I know what you're saying: he often doesn't want to take part in an activity the group is doing and when pressed for a reason, just says he doesn't want to. This happens a lot and drives me nuts, particularly when it's an activity he enjoys. I have begun to wish he were more susceptible to peer pressure. He's not someone who "goes along to get along" but sometimes you just have to.

I have to make a decision soon, and I have been talking and worrying and praying about it, and I actually stayed awake till 3 a.m. one night stressing about it, and if you knew how tired I am you'd know that is truly crazy. My husband just isn't the type to take this as hard (although at this point he's worried about me). But anyway, your thoughts brought me some peace, which makes facing the prospect of giving up my preschool spot less heart-stopping.

Yes, he is a late summer birthday so we potentially have two more years before kindergarten, and yes, he is in camp and that is part of what has brought me to this point. He is doing much better at camp than he did at school, and I think he'd benefit from a different environment and approach next year, but I'm not sure where I could get him in at this point. It's interesting your son also did better at camp. In my son's case camp may be a better fit for him: more outdoor time and free play and learning about bugs (he loves to watch bugs). I wish they had year-round camp.

Your anecdote about your son and his coat almost made me cry. It's so awful and it's so easy to imagine my own son in his place. I am so sorry.

By the way, on the topic of labels, my son's school suggested he be evaluated for "something," possibly sensory integration issues. I am pursuing an evaluation half-heartedly but from my reading am not convinced. It's not that I don't think it's real, but it seems to afflict a lot of 3 yo boys who I don't think would've been considered problems if they had lived fifty years ago on a farm.

Ultimately I look at my husband, who has a very different personality from me, but is a loving, productive, successful, moral adult, and I see someone tempermentally similar to our son. This gives me some hope, and it makes me feel a little warmer toward my MIL.

Anonymous said...

Rory, I just wanted to comment quickly about the "Sensory Integration issues" idea for your son. My third daughter was diagnosed with this, and it was actually the starting point for understanding her medical issues. I think before her, if you'd told me about sensory dysfunction, I would have thought that was just another part of our overly-diagnostic society, and I still believe it is true in many cases, but the literature on sensory integration is very helpful for any parent. We all have sensory profiles. I remember craving swinging and trampolining as a child, and reading about sensory integration made me realize why. So, even if you don't think the diagnosis matches your son, you might find some of the literature, like "The Out-of-Synch Child" helpful.

Juris Mater said...

Let me ask a related question... have any of you home-preschoolers found that adding one or two structured weekly classes/activities outside the home (eg: gymnastics, ballet, t-ball, swim) helps with control and confirmity? Bella just had her first trial-run ballet class last week, and I noticed that she seriously needed practice going with the program... she was twirling and prancing around the room doing what she thought was ballet, while the other girls were sitting on their "circles" clapping in unison. So, I'm wondering if a little of this type of training might go a long way toward practicing conformity and following instructions, or if these classes for preschoolers are just a waste of money opportunity for parents to take pictures and blow cash on 3T leotards.

Right Said Red said...

Juris Mater,

Yes, adding outside activities does help. I have found gymnastics to be a nice way to introduce Gianna to conformity and a group setting. I think one or two activities at Bella's age would be appropriate. Try not to overcommit as that can be exhausting for both you and Bella!

One of the things I have loved about not sending Gianna to pre-school this year is that we were able to work on basic life skills. We had time each morning for her to really learn to get herself dressed! She was not allowed to come downstairs and eat breakfast until she was fully dressed and if we had to run off to preschool in the morning this would not have been possible.

What has worked well for our family is to teach the kids basic life skills and manners that can be used and practiced frequently during the course of their day. I try to pick one thing to work on at a time, and then add that into the routine of what is expected. For example, put your coat and shoes away when we arrive home, clear your plate, wash your hands before eating, say please and thank you during meals, fill your water cup up when you are thirsty, get yourself dressed in the morning, etc. All of these skills are more difficult to teach when life is rushed due to a daily school schedule for a 3 year old.

On the manners front, I have realized that I have much higher expectations for my children's behavior than others. I continue to emphasize manners even though those around me don't always follow suit. We work on these manners at home, and then I expect them to behave in public. I think it is important to work on these things at home, as you cannot expect your children to learn well when on a playdate!

Finally, I must say that I think our society is ready to diagnose every child with some sort of learning disability, behavioral problem etc. I think that almost 50% of the children in our town have some sort of "special needs." Unfortunately, it is almost every boy we know!

I'm not trying to say that there are not children with behavioral/learning issues, but rather that many of the "problems" are just boys being boys. Boys need plenty of time to run and play and that is why many, many, boys do so much better at camp than at school! School these days is really set up for little girls, and most of them thrive!

Rory said...

Anonymous, thanks for sharing your experience with a sensory-integration diagnosis. I have read the Out-of-Synch Child, and I do appreciate your reminder that our sensory inputs affect the way all of us act: I have noticed that sandbox time (and playing with rice and playdough) has a calming effect on my son, for example. On the other hand, some of his behaviors don't line up well with S.I. symptoms, and I don't want to rely too heavily on the idea that it's all sensory so that I let other "fixable" stuff slide. I don't mean to imply these issues aren't real, just that in this case it's hard to untangle what's causing what.

Juris Mater, I'm sorry if I've sidetracked your thread. Have you talked to Bella about your expectations for listening to the teacher and doing what the class does? Forgive me if it's too obvious, but it was somehow not obvious to one of my children that that was the goal, and he just needed it pointed out. I do think these classes can be good for little kids if they're developmentally appropriate and the teacher is good. At the very least they can alert you to issues with following directions and being part of a group that you might not be aware of otherwise.

Juris Mater said...

Rory, thanks!! I actually haven't talked with Bella about listening to the teacher... funny how we overlook the obvious!

And PLEASE never apologize for "sidetracking" a thread. You certainly didn't, and this blog should be a forum for discussing anything on all of our hearts and minds anyway.

Anonymous said...

does anyone have good advise on what "chores" a 2.5-3 yr old could do at home? How much can I expect? and how much can I expect in the picking up your toys area...everything away neatly in the right bin? help with one or two tasks and mom does the rest?

Jennifer J in MN said...

As a mom to 6 children, none of which attended preschool (we did do one school year of daycare for the oldest 2, because I had to work at that point), I would suggest you let 3 year olds be 3 year olds! Certainly teach manners, hygiene and such, but really, preschool is not needed--you are the primary teacher. There are so many years of formal education, why do we feel the need to start the process with our toddlers and preschoolers? Maybe I'm just weird, but I prefered to be the main influence on my children and skip the expensive and unnecessary step of formal preschool....

Mary Alice said...

We had training tuesday today and I taught my 3.5 year old twins to put away their own laundry. The laundry was sorted into a basket and stacked by type of clothes/drawer, so I could say, what are those? Underwear, okay, put all the underwear in your underwear drawer. They did it, so now I will expect them to do it everytime, although I will have to stay with them to encourage and, most importantly, keep them on task. John is easily distracted or gets silly, underwear on head is hysterical in his world, as are mismatched pjs, which he picked for himself tonight.

Your little one can be taught to fold napkins and dishcloths while you fold the rest of the laundry, this will take forever and keep her occupied while you are folding. They can carry Daddy's pile of laundry to his room for him to put away when he gets home -- for us this is a delivery truck with fork lift, they hold arms out flat and have so much fun.

They can put away the silverware from the dishwasher, learn to set the table, serve plates at meals and clear their own plate. Dressing, washing self and hair, our dentist told us that it is important to practice spitting since the non-floride toothpastes that you can swallow don't do much for the teeth, so we have worked on and finally mastered that lovely skill.

As far as clean up, I think they can clean up everything, and if you can try to get it to be a habit it will be so much better in the long run. Sorting is an important skill, so getting things into the right bin is actually doing early math! I usually help them, and make games like asking them to count each peice of track that goes into the bin, having a race, putting on music or singing a clean up song.

In our new home, we have found that having fewer toys available makes clean up go much more smoothly.

texas mommy said...

Usually spitting means you lose dessert at our house, so maybe we need to fine tune this skill to toothbrushing.

I know this is an older topic, but can anyone with slightly older kids confirm that teaching some of these skills/behaviors gets easier when there are older kids to model the action? Isn't this part of the beauty of homeschooling over a variety of ages and why Maria Montessori combined 3-6 year olds together?