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Why Pets Matters

A Blog Post by Youth Contributor, Jasmine F., 21 October 2021

grey kitten on couch
Photo Courtesy of Jasmine F.: Our Cat Rocky Bleu
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In January 2021 we were all going crazy from quarantine, so my family and I adopted a cat.  We got Rocky from a local foster pet organization.  At first my mother didn’t want a cat, but I like to believe she warmed up to him.   I think my mother was afraid that my brother and I wouldn’t properly take care of Rocky, and she would be left to clean up the poop.  Rocky is the most lovable, friendly, and effortlessly funny cat I know.   My cat has taught me so much; now I have a whole other life to take care of rather than my own.  And that comes with a lot of responsibility.


I believe that pets matter, particularly to encourage skills that kids will use in the future.  My brother and I have had to practice communication.  We fairly divide up who plays with Rocky on which days, who feeds him, and cleans the litter box.  It isn’t always easy; who really wants to clean up a litter box?


We have also learned to problem solve.  Rocky began scratching up the carpet to get our attention, so we researched and found out that cats don’t enjoy the smell of vinegar.  We spray frequently on the areas of the carpet he scratches and he immediately backs away.


We have also learned to interpret Rocky’s emotions.  It can be challenging because he’s a cat that doesn’t meow or show facial expressions much.  We have to imagine and learn what our cat likes, dislikes, and needs in a non-verbal way.  For instance, he might walk over to the food bowl if he is hungry, or just wants attention.  Lastly, we learn empathy.  If you want to raise empathetic children, get them a pet!


The benefits of having a pet are well documented.  Beyond teaching empathy, pets positively impact mental health by helping to reduce stress, anxiety and depression.  If you want your kids to learn all of these skills (and more) at a young age, consider getting them a pet!  Plus, pets are just so much fun!

Pets Matter.

Why Resilience Matters

Blog Post by Eboni N. Walker, 27 September 2021

Photo Credit: Will Crooks
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It’s been nearly three weeks since Hurricane Ida hit Southeast Louisiana.  Ida arrived on August 29, the exact anniversary date of Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago.  Needless to say it felt like déjà vu when we evacuated east towards Alabama.  Only this time, we were more prepared.  We had planned.  We had refreshed the materials in our evacuation tub, packed all of the essential documents, and I had even brought my child’s baby photo album (yes, real pictures in a photo book).  In my mind I was prepared to drive away and start over if need be.


Instead we lived like nomads for a couple of weeks until the power was restored to our home, hopping from a hotel and then to an Airbnb before heading back to our home.  Our neighborhood greeted us with debris lined streets and growing trash piles that have not been picked up since the storm hit.  And while New Orleans is not as gray as it was after Katrina, it stinks- like rotten meat – a dream deferred.


Yet with big easy spirits we are continually fed words of encouragement, “The people of New Orleans have been here before.  We will get through this together.  Our city is resilient.”


Why do we have to be resilient?


Once again, this place feels like the city that care forgot. The sentiments of Chief Thomas DarDar of the United Houma Nation at the 10 Year Anniversary of Katrina still echo today in 2021.  He said, “Resiliency is just another word they throw on something when they have no idea what it really takes to live in a community.”


Is anyone else out there feeling just plain sick and tired, like me?


Is resilience overrated?


In the sphere of early childhood education, resilience is a skill that can be developed over time rather than something a child possesses or not.  Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child defines resilience as one’s ability to overcome severe hardship.  The ability for some children to become more resilient than others depends upon their interactions with their environment, primarily secure relationships.  “The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.” 


For my 8 year-old son, that person is me.  I serve as a model for how to manage emotions, deal with setbacks, plan ahead, and share gratitude in the midst of struggle.  Research suggests that resources such as supportive adult-child relationships and engaging sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions can help children learn how to optimize resilience. These factors aid children building a sense of self-efficacy and strengthening adaptive skills as well as self-regulatory capacities.


Now more than ever, children need adults in their lives to teach them healthy ways to cope with, adapt to, and plan for the adversities in life.  Hurricane Ida was yet another lesson for me on resiliency, and one I hope my son will remember for the trials he will face.

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Why Friendship Matters

Blog Post by Eboni N. Walker, 21 August 2021

Photo: https://www.additudemag.com
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Think back to your very first childhood friend.  Who were they?  Where did you meet them?  One of my very first childhood friends was a girl I met in kindergarten, Angela.  We were both animated, talkative, and full of lively ideas.  We became fast friends and even saw each other outside of school for movie nights and sleepovers.  Some of my favorite memories of elementary school included our friendship.


It’s back to school time.  And while the primary concern for many is focused on academics, there is value in taking the time to prepare the classroom environment, and making it a warm and welcoming place to support childrens’ social development.  Why?  Because learning happens in the context of relationships.


Before the cognitive wheels get churning, warm and friendly interactions with others prepare the brain for learning.


Learning is a social and emotional activity, and in school settings this certainly  includes friends.  Children tend to have better attitudes about school and learning when they have friends there, and these relationships (or the lack thereof) even affect children’s school performance.


HighScope suggests that “being able to communicate easily and effectively with others is a primary channel for acquiring knowledge and skills. This not only applies to what children learn from adults, but also what they learn from peers.”


Friendships help children develop emotionally and morally.  In interacting with friends, children learn many social skills, such as how to communicate, cooperate, and solve problems.  They practice recognizing and expressing their emotions while responding to the emotions of others.  Kids develop the ability to think through and negotiate different situations that arise in their relationships.


As it turns out, children who are socially successful are predisposed to academic success as well.


Friendships are very important for preschool and school-aged children. They help a child grow and develop the self-confidence and social skills needed as an adult.


In short, children benefit greatly from having friends – friendship matters.

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Why Outdoor Learning Matters

Post by Kristen Craig, 15 July 2021

Photo courtesy of Kristen Craig
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As a teenager, babysitting was one of my first jobs. Almost every time I babysat, at some point, a kid would ask me, “Hey, can we go outside?” and I almost always said “Yes!”


Even though I had no early education training at the time, I knew that time outside was an easy way to have fun and entertain young children. While outside, I usually let their imaginations take over and I was just present to follow their leads.


Years later, I worked at a nonprofit organization focused on early care and education. One of the first things I learned from an early learning coach was that children learned through play. The years of babysitting and children wanting to go outside finally started to make sense! The children I watched were unknowingly learning colors, counting, shapes, and so much more from spending time outdoors.


In my experience, most conversations about early education are focused on instructional learning due to standardized testing. With such a narrow focus, the benefits of outdoor learning are often overlooked and undervalued. I believe outdoor learning should be incorporated into early learning curricula as a way to solidify concepts learned indoors, and researchers do too.


Going outdoors provides young children with the chance to breathe and learn deeply, encouraging them to connect with the wonders of nature. From taking pictures of creatures, creating drawings of them, asking questions, or seeking to find out more — the great outdoors offers new pathways for learning through inquiry.


The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has a great testimonial from a teacher about how going outside changed her classroom and provided weeks of content for the children’s learning.


PBS Kids also has a fun and educational activity for parents to spend time outside with their children. In the future, I hope to see more emphasis placed on outdoor learning in our early childhood education community. If you need support developing opportunities for outdoor play in your setting, reach out to Learning Matters today!


About the Contributor: Kristen Craig is the Nonprofit Leadership and Effectiveness Associate at the Greater New Orleans Foundation. She helps coordinate the Foundation’s learning opportunities and GiveNOLA Day.

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Why STEM Matters

Post by Eboni N. Walker, 5 June 2021

Photo: Julia Bezvershenko
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I have a seven-year-old son who is obsessed with aeronautics. His pretend play includes any variation on aviation, engineering, and things that go really fast. At first I thought it was a phase when his code name became Southwest, but his love affair with flying has really taken off. 


While my father, who worked many years for Lockheed Martin, tried his best to get me excited about the external tank he was helping to build for NASA, it was my son who encouraged me to reach for the stars. I keep wondering “Why does STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) matter so much to him?” 


Well, for starters, STEM is simply a conduit for systems thinking. The world we live in is complex and requires people to imagine and create solutions for our problems. Systems thinkers generate designs to approach theories, test assumptions, and connect the dots in our structures. Design thinking has taken humankind to the moon, and will take us to Mars within a few years. 


So I have chosen to get on board. I allow my son to tinker with old parts, use real tools, save boxes, construct command centers, and tape or hot glue together whatever he can think up. 


As an early childhood practitioner, I realize that he is exploring. Our home, here in southeast Louisiana, is full of STEM-based opportunities to engage young children in explorative learning and play. 


As his mother, I’ve had to learn about things I have never taken an interest in — airplanes, rovers, mach speed, and really bad space puns. Over these few years I’ve come to share his curiosity for uncovering the darkness that stretches beyond our reach. And though I find myself addicted to space jokes, someday I may over-comet!

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Why Teachers Matters

Post by Derrick Toups, 3 May 2021

Photo courtesy of Derrick Toups
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This school year has been extremely challenging for teachers, whether they have been teaching virtually or in-person. Many parents that I know are grateful for their childrens’ teachers and are wanting to find heartfelt ways to share a gesture of thanks. On social media last week, the parent of a former student of mine asked for teacher gift suggestions. Many people responded with ideas: gift cards, fruit baskets, lunch, coffee, personalized cards. I even contributed my own suggestion: a gift certificate for a massage!


With Teacher Appreciation Week upon us, I have been wondering — what if we showed teachers we appreciated them not just with gifts but by advocating for them?


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual compensation for childcare workers in 2020 was $25,460 — around $12.24 per hour — which falls just below the federal poverty line for a family of four. We know the importance of quality care in the first five years of life, so why are the people teaching our youngest children among the most underpaid workers in the country, with nearly half of them receiving public income support?


Teachers matter, and on April 28, President Joe Biden showed his support for them as he released details of the American Families Plan, the proposed third phase of his “once-in-a-generation investment” in the children, families, and economic future of the United States.


To support children and families, the American Families Plan aims to provide “universal, quality-preschool to all three- and four- year-olds”, and to increase the minimum wage for early childhood educators to $15 an hour. This is a promising investment in the early childhood profession and the movement to make it a more sustainable and attractive career route.


For Teacher Appreciation Week this year, I encourage you to show your support for early childhood educators by adding your voice to the movement to increase their compensation and benefits. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has a great guide to build your advocacy skills that can help you advocate for our country’s early childhood workforce.


About the Contributor: Derrick Toups, M.Ed. is currently a four-year-old classroom teacher and faculty member of two community college Care and Development of Young Children programs. He is a board member of the Louisiana Early Childhood Association. Twitter: @derricktoups

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Why Poetry Matters

Post by Kyley Pulphus, 2 April 2021

Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate PHOTO: @GINATHOMPSON8888
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On January 20th at the presidential inauguration, Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman set the world ablaze with her poem “The Hill We Climb.” People were amazed that a poem with such depth and power had been penned by someone who was only twenty-three. Though very young, Amanda had been perfecting her craft for years, having started writing, according to her website,  “at only a few years of age.”


It is amazing what young people can do when given the space and support to shine.


Amanda showed us the power of poetry, how stringing words together in compelling ways can make a long and lasting impact on the world. She also proved that poetry can (and should) be read and written by the very young. This includes our littlest learners in preschool.


Poetry is an effective means to strengthen literacy skills. Alliterative poetry helps emphasize beginning sounds. Rhyming supports the discrimination of sounds, and understanding word families. Poetry stresses rhythm, repetition, and patterns. Through poetry, little learners have fun playing with words.


There are a number of resources and activities to support the reading and writing of poetry with young children. Traditional nursery rhymes are a constant presence in homes and preschool classrooms. Grownups can refresh the old tales by having little poets substitute different words. Instead of an old lady in a shoe, maybe there was a little goldfish in a hat!  There are many other contemporary resources, including great rhyming books like I Like MyselfWhoever You Are.


With support, little poets can also utilize simple poetry structures to create sweet poems. A list poem can be written by making an inventory of special people, places, and things that can be grouped together. For instance a list of “Things That Make Me Happy” or “In My House” can be quite poetic. They can also celebrate themselves by coming up with traits that describe them using every letter of their name in an acrostic poem.


April is National Poetry Month, and the perfect time to support the next Amanda Gorman.


About the Contributor: Kyley Pulphus is the program director of 826 New Orleans, a youth writing nonprofit that supports young people, ages 6-18, in becoming published authors. She will begin her doctoral studies in Literacy Education in fall 2021.

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Why Stress Matters

Post by Derrick Toups, 7 March 2021

Photo courtesy of Derrick Toups
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A young child’s brain is like an exciting and vibrant fireworks show. Born with around 100 billion brain cells, babies instantly begin processing the world outside of their mother’s womb. Through a process called firing, neurons in their brains receive, process, and transport new information and stimuli and begin to wire the child’s brain for connection and learning.


Repeated firings along the same neural pathways yield stronger connections, which build brain density as children practice and gain efficiency in certain skills like hand-eye coordination and communication. Just as we can stimulate a child’s brain development through high-quality experiences and interactions, we can also damage a child’s brain development by exposing them to repeated stress.


When children feel threatened, their bodies respond physiologically by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. While supportive relationships can help mitigate some of the negative effects of stress, children who experience extreme and long-lasting stress — known as toxic stress — and who do not have consistent nurturing relationships experience disruptions in their development.


In her TED Talk on childhood trauma, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris shares that repeated stresses, such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence, can lead to the underdevelopment of executive function skills (those needed for impulse control, planning, and focus) and have been correlated to poorer health outcomes later in life, including heart disease, obesity, and depression.


As we work with children, either as parents, teachers, or education leaders, it is important for us to remember the power of  supportive, responsive relationships to buffer the negative effects of toxic stress for our youngest humans. We can start by supporting those in our sphere of influence to create more consistent and supportive environments for children at home and in schools. When we engage babies in give-and-take conversations and follow their facial and physical cues, for example, we not only help them build connection to others and a sense of trust in the world, but we are also priming their brains to learn any number of concepts later in life.


What can you do in your role to ignite the dazzling fireworks of a child’s brain?


About the Contributor: Derrick Toups, M.Ed. is currently a four-year-old classroom teacher and faculty member of two community college Care and Development of Young Children programs. He is a board member of the Louisiana Early Childhood Association.
Twitter: @derricktoups

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Why Color Matters

Post by Eboni N. Walker, 19 February 2021

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As an early childhood educator I participate in professional learning opportunities exploring race, implicit bias, and child development. During one such experience, a colleague vulnerably shared how she became aware of her privilege as a white woman at her baby shower. She recounted how she had specifically requested books for the baby’s library and revealed to our group how embarrassed she was upon realizing that none of the books she received reflected children of color.

I will never forget how struck I was by her sharing that story. It never occurred to me that white people would not have books reflecting faces of color in their children’s library. So then I wondered “why would a white person feel the need to buy a book featuring people with brown skin for a white child? Do they know that color matters?”

Infants as young as six months old recognize race-based differences in people. How would you respond to a young child’s inquiry about why someone has brown skin?

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, former President of Spelman College, and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race responds to this in her Ted Talk entitled “Is My Skin Brown Because I Drank Chocolate Milk?

Somewhere in the not-so-distant future, I envision young children talking freely about their differences with curiosity and wonder without feeling guilt or shame. Having a background in psychology and education, I know the importance of helping young children build a positive self image of themselves and their peers.

As we engage together in a more race-conscious society, each of us can be a bearer of diversity and inclusivity for our youngest readers. It is essential that children not only see one another but also celebrate each other’s uniqueness in the world. Take the opportunity this Black History Month to share with infants and toddlers these board books featuring black children and families. Enjoy this month-long calendar of books celebrating African American history any day of the year. Consider buying one of them for your home, a family member or friend, or even a classroom library.

Seeing color in early childhood matters – if you need support developing diversity in your program reach out to Learning Matters today!

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Why Leadership in Early Childhood Matters

Post by Eboni N. Walker, 20 January 2021

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On many trips to and from errands or while waiting in carpool lines, I actively engage my mind in learning. I mostly listen to audio books, news, and podcasts. One of my favorite podcasts is The Preschool Podcast, hosted by HiMama, which features conversations with early childhood leaders across North America. It is refreshing to listen to educators in the early childhood space who understand the complexities of this important work. Learning from shared insights what pressing issues are faced by those in the field: the most problematic of which is teacher turnover.


In the post “Why Employee Engagement Matters in Early Childhood”, Ron Spreeuwenberg investigates the common assumption that low compensation is the main driver of turnover in early learning settings. Research reveals we may need to  “think again…financial resources are not the root cause of employee turnover and general dissatisfaction in child care organizations. It is an issue of leadership and culture.”


The post goes on to suggest that while, “Leadership and culture aren’t things that you can change overnight, however, they are absolutely critical to the long-term success of any organization. On the plus side, leadership and culture are 100% under the control of management and can be improved over time with focused and proactive efforts.”


This is where leadership development comes in — before a leader supports staff or directs program initiatives, they must look within themselves and do the internal work practicing self-awareness, building up emotional intelligence, and challenging their own mindsets. Early childhood leaders need opportunities to develop themselves, and the administrative and pedagogical skills necessary to cultivate supportive environments for their teachers, children, and parents.


Leadership in early childhood matters – if you need support developing areas in your leadership reach out to Learning Matters today!

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