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Friday, December 31, 2010

Inclusion of special needs children in mainstream care: ideal, or idiocy?

After many years of failing to include children with special needs in mainstream care and schooling, we now attempt to include every child, regardless of the scale of their particular difficulties. We are living in an age of political correctness, and it's an absolute taboo to suggest that inclusion of all special needs children is anything but fair, beneficial and right. I want to have a closer look at inclusion and tell you about the unintended side effects of some inclusions that I've witnessed.

An Aboriginal inclusion story and activities for NAIDOC week

In Australia we're moving towards a very inclusive education syllabus which aims to give all children in our care a sense of belonging. I wrote the following child-friendly version of the story of Sorry Day because there really wasn't anything at all to help Early Childhood teachers deal with Australia's rather dark history of race relations in an honest (but not too scary) way.  And in the absence of anything to help teachers with this tricky topic, there was a lot of well-meaning misinformation going out.  For example, I watched at one school's group time while a very good teacher told her kids that all aborigines have 'really, really dark skin and live in the desert'; the little honey-brown indigenous girl who was sitting right there in front of her must have found it rather confusing.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Prejudice in preschoolers: talking about different types of families

Children can be very cruel.  Even at 4 years of age, children notice and comment on differences- sometimes innocently but occasionally with intent to bruise. Whether it's a man on the street who 'walks funny' or a peer with a different family structure, children who are seeking a position at the top of the kids' pecking order will often see this 'oddity' as an opportunity for misguided sport.

It's particularly difficult to explain sexual preferences to a young child.  One year I had contact with a preschool group which contained two children with alternate family structures- one with lesbian parents and one with a transsexual parent- and the same group was rich with alpha male children who decided to use these children's differences for target practice.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Talking to kids about death

We all hope we won't have to explain death to our children.  But as John Lennon so memorably said, 'Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans'- and if talking to your kids about death isn't in your plan, then when it becomes necessary it can be hard to think of how to explain it.  You may be grieving too.  Your kids will be picking up the distress even if you try to shield them. That's NOT the best time to approach a tricky topic.

So why not take the initiative, and talk about it at the first opportunity? The death of a distant relative, a pet, someone else's pet or relative, someone famous in the news- all these events can be the starting point for preparing your children for dealing with death without fear.

Not feeling the love: when we can't connect with a child

One of the unwritten rules of both teaching and parenthood is that we mustn't have favourites. Now, that's what I call idealism! In every other relationship of our life, we think it quite normal to prefer some human beings over others- we have best friends, a favourite aunt, a husband or wife for whom we might promise to 'forsake all others'- yet when it comes to children, whether our own offspring or our pupils, we are expected to miraculously feel the same about all of them.

What nonsense! Let's stop pretending right now, and deal with the fact that we often DON'T feel the same about all our kids.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The challenge of gifted children in preschool settings

(This is an article I wrote for an online childcare site to help preschool teachers- but it has much in it to help you identify and cope with a gifted child too. Let me know in the comments if you'd like a copy with the footnotes and references. -Aunt Annie)

Gifted children, those who have advanced intellectual development beyond their years, generally 'draw the short straw' in our schools. There is plenty of information around about the integration of special needs children into our early childhood classrooms, but when I talk to early childhood teachers (and for that matter, to many parents) about catering for gifted and talented children, I find that most people question the need for any special program- and I am sometimes met with open hostility. Gifted children, I'm told, will be okay; they don't need help from us. They'll manage because they're clever. We should focus funding and attention on those who can't keep up.

Perhaps you agree. But gifted children have special needs of their own, and if those needs are ignored, they (and everyone associated with them) will have a hard time.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Help! My child is being bullied!

This is a long post, but it's an important subject, so bear with me!
Bullying isn't just about dreadful tabloid news reports of teenagers doing themselves harm.  It occurs at all levels of our society, from day care to the office.  It's a fact of life.  Stopping it from ever happening is impossible.  The best we can do is to arm ourselves and our children with a strong sense of self and good information on what to do if it happens to them.
Believe me, I feel your pain. I suffered at the hands of bullies at three different stages of my schooling, for no other reason than that I was a quiet, pretty, talented child who was a constant 'teacher's pet' without even trying. And my son was tormented and finally physically attacked in primary school by a child who seemed to take his advanced vocabulary as a personal affront. I wish I'd known then what I'm telling you now, but back then I was much younger, much busier and much less experienced. 
My son and I both survived, mostly because we both have a very strong sense of self-worth. You can build that strength into your child, too.

Sick kids: fun ways to teach your small child about hygiene

Hands up everyone who likes having a sick child?
Mmm, that's what I thought... it's one of the most trying parts of being a parent.  Quite apart from the anxiety associated with your beloved baby being ill, there's the huge stress of deciding how sick they are, and whether to try to send him or her to school or daycare if you have to go to work yourself- with the risk they'll be sent home anyway, and you'll cop the reproachful look or lecture from the teacher on top of your other worries. Better to try to avoid illness in the first place.  So, how can we optimise a small child's health?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Talking to babies and young children: why I don't use baby talk

There are two ends of communication with very young children. There's what you say to them, and what they try to say to you. How you deal with both these faces of communication may determine your child's ability to understand and make themselves understood at an age-appropriate level later on.

Helping with homework, or letting your child fail?

In my very first year of teaching music to teenagers, I set an assignment for my Year 7s which required them to make a very simple musical instrument, based on what they'd learnt in class.

On the due date all sorts of wonderful and complex creations appeared on my desk, the vast majority obviously made by parents. Children are generally very honest and at that age have little clue about the true purpose of homework, only really understanding that they'll be in trouble if they don't do it. Most confessed straight up that it wasn't their own work.

I wonder if some parents just thought the project looked like fun and let their vanity take over. (Sorry, but your child's teacher is NOT interested in how well you can do the work. Butt out.) No doubt a few were actively trying to boost their child's grades or give me a false impression of their child's ability. But I'm quite sure that most were trying to be helpful.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The long wet summer holidays

The best advice I ever got from any of my son's teachers was when he was in primary school, and the headmaster sent home the last newsletter of the year.  The gist of his Christmas message was as follows:

'If your child complains that he's bored during these holidays, my one request to you is that you do NOT take him to the shops to buy ANYTHING.  Saying he's bored indicates that he is not yet bored enough.  When he's bored enough, he'll find something to do.'

Wise advice indeed!! In this age of quick-fix technology and double-income mortgages, it's so easy to just give in and buy the latest toy or gadget, or let the kids play with your iPhone, for a moment's peace. Believe me, the moment you set one of these precedents you're making a stick for your own back. It really is worth listening to the whining for a few hours, a few times, until the kids register that you're not going to jump... and go find something to entertain themselves. If you keep giving in to the quick fix, you're effectively denying them the opportunity to discover their own creativity, to use their imaginations, to explore the world around them.

BUT, you say, what about La Nina? It's supposed to rain all holidays!

So what's this thing called parenthood, anyway?

Before you start reading my advice and comments on how to deal with your kids, you really need to know a bit about my philosophy of parenthood, because that's crucial to the way I think. You'll need to wear the same hat to get the same results.

To me, parenthood is a gradual process of letting go. It's also a fascinating observational and interactive experience, much more hypnotic than any computer game. Watching a child's personality unfold in a safe (but not TOO safe) environment, and giving a gentle nudge in another direction when the train threatens to leave the rails, is hugely interesting to me. Placing the STOP signs in a way that will ensure they're noticed and not resented too much is also a great challenge. The greatest challenge of all is dealing with the fact that they're not you- they're themselves. They won't think exactly the same, or behave exactly the same, or necessarily want the same things from life. LET GO! and watch, and wonder... and see if you can work out how to help them become who they are.