24 Little Pumpkins

Exploring pumpkin 2We explored Pumpkins this week at Bellevue Discovery.

Our long-term project (September through December) is Planet Earth.  During the project we focus on different themes:  Gardens, Rocks, Fossils, Geography, Inside the Earth, Volcanoes and Outer Space.  And of course we have a week of Pumpkins for Halloween.

For most themes we build knowledge during Building Block classes (Math Games, Science Lab, School Skills and Drama Club), then have the children solve a problem in their Project Groups, problems such as:

 “What can I discover when I dissect a dandelion?” or “What is my rock’s story?”

For Pumpkins Week, however, we go arts-and-crafty traditional – because our highly capable preschoolers also enjoy …

Pumpkins 7 Walking to the store to buy pumpkins

Pumpkin craft 1pumpkin crafts

Pumpkins 8 reading Halloween stories

Pumpkin 4 and dressing up for our Halloween party … Mr. Jerry dressed up as Miss Ren.

We still held our Building Blocks classes, which incorporated the pumpkins the children brought back from our field trip.

Pumpkin 5In Math Games the children used non-standard measurement to find out how tall their pumpkins were.  When the children wanted to know how tall they themselves were, Miss Erica grabbed the big bin of Unifix cubes and let them measure away.

Pumpkin 2In Drama Club the children read and acted out the story-song Five Little Pumpkins.  Mr. Jerry added a sixth little pumpkin since our Building Block groups have six children: 

They all heard a noise from somewhere out of sight / And the sixth one said, “It’s getting spooky this night!”

Pumpkin 10In School Skills the children wrote or traced the word “pumpkin” then glued together pumpkin puzzles designed by Miss Kasia.

Pumpkin 1In Science Lab the children explored pumpkins.  They observed with their eyes, ears, noses, mouths and fingers before and after Miss Savita cut open the big pumpkins (not the children’s own pumpkins, of course).

A multi-day Pumpkin craft was to re-create the scene from Five Little Pumpkins, the well-known children’s rhyme which has been published as a brightly illustrated story by Dan Yaccarino.

We had sung, read and acted out the rhyme and now it was time for the children’s interpretation.  The three Project Groups approached the task in different ways.  Miss Kristen’s group focused on the five little pumpkins’ feelings.

Pumpkin mirror face 2Miss Kristen and Miss Michele called out emotions while the children looked in mirrors, making faces to represent the emotions.

Pumpkin mirror faceThe children referred to their own emotional faces while they sketched faces on their paper pumpkins.

The children’s art work showed five little pumpkins feeling differently about running and rolling, the howling wind and being “ready for some fun.”

Pumpkin mirror face 3

Even simple children’s crafts can be taken to a deeper level when a curriculum emphasizes higher level thinking, complexity and solving real problems.  We work with children who love running, painting, play-dough and dressing up, but they also thrive when they are encouraged to think more deeply.

The National Association for Gifted Children Early Childhood Position Statement identifies 15 “core elements” needed for a learning environment to appropriately respond to the needs of young highly capable children.  Among these elements are:

  • challenging and content-rich curriculum that promotes both critical and creative thinking across all academic disciplines including reading, math, science, and the arts
  •  engagement in a variety of stimulating learning experiences (including hands-on opportunities, imaginative play, and problem-solving)

This week I enjoyed watching the Bellevue Discovery teachers take an arts-and-crafty preschool theme about Pumpkins to a higher level of critical and creative thinking.

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The Three-Minute Rule

Dandelion 011When you have a bright child it is hard to step back and let the child learn.

We are so excited to have a child in our class or in our home who makes connections, thinks deeply and remembers things we didn’t know she or he knew.  When this bright child asks a question, we want to answer fully – because we know the child can understand everything we tell them.  We have a tendency to keep talking as their eyes glaze over and their bodies start to slump.

One year, back when I used to follow a planned math curriculum, it was “triangles week” but my highly capable preschoolers already knew their basic shapes.  So I decided to teach three and four year olds to identify isosceles, equilateral and scalene triangles.  I pounded away at the differences, having them sort the pile of triangles I had enthusiastically cut for them … until my co-teacher said, “Let’s just play with the triangles!” – cluing me in to the children’s vacant stares.

Our teachers often start an activity time on the rug, with the children circled around.

  • Dandelion 007Miss Annette might read a story
  • Mr. Jerry might have the children act out an idea
  • Miss Savita might demonstrate a science concept that the kids can’t explore themselves (ex., anything with heat)
  • Miss Kasia might model part of an art activity (ex., how to turn the glue stick up “just a little bit”)
  • Miss Erica might show them how to play a new math game
  • Miss Kristen might get the children up and dancing

If the preschoolers are engaged, those teacher-led rug times might take ten minutes, but our guideline is:

When kids start rolling around on the rug, it’s time to move on

Dandelion 008We have a “Three-Minute Rule” for content delivery at Bellevue Discovery.  When a teacher has pre-determined that certain content is important to share, we get three minutes to be the sage on the stage.  If kids are excited and ask questions, the three minutes can expand to five or seven … but only if the children are driving the conversation.

Here’s a good guideline for answering young children’s questions:

Answer in one or two sentences, then stop 

Dandelion 023Wait for a question or comment from the child.  If the child doesn’t engage you can ask if he or she wants to know more.  If you get a dreary, “OK,” the child is being polite but isn’t really open to learning more … so stop.  If the child is engaged, you’ll know – you’ll feel like a rock star as the little one gazes at you with excitement, and wiggles his or her little body while peppering you with questions.

Sometimes young children are just done with passive learning.  They can’t take any more.  So stop.

The Three-Minute Rule helps us stay in the zone of engagement.  We work with kids who love to learn, but like all of us, they prefer to learn things for themselves.  So the teacher-determined content ends and the time for discovery begins.

This week our preschoolers’ problem to solve was:

“What can I discover when I dissect a dandelion?”

Dandelion 015They arrived at the problem having already walked through the Pea Patch and role played planting a garden.  They had planted lima beans, made terrariums with their families on Family Thursday, and read books about flowers, gardens, seeds and plants.  They acted like bugs and pretended to sip nectar with straws.  They collected pollen (pom poms) on their contact paper bracelets.  Our focus literature was the lovely book Dandelions:  Stars in the Grass by Mia Posada.

At our curriculum planning meeting our teachers previewed what dandelion dissections might look like:

  • Some children would quickly pull apart their weed and be “done” – they would need a nudge to look again
  • Some children would compare their dandelion precisely with the poster drawn by our Art Studio teacher, Miss Kristen
  • Some children would point to flower parts and name them, fluidly using new vocabulary introduced during the “Three Minutes of Content”
  • Some children would only be interested in the yellow petals, or the dirty roots, or the bug they found crawling on their flower
  • Some children would focus on the texture of the leaves, or the sound the taproot makes when they snap it in two

If the children asked questions the teachers would answer them, but it would be a time for child discovery, not teacher-given content.  The children were responsible for discovering something new.

A parent who transferred her child to Bellevue Discovery told us about her son’s previous traditional academic preschool:

Dandelion 020“My child wanted to learn, but the school wanted to teach.”

Children learn by taking all their knowledge – what they hear, read, see and feel – and making sense of it on their own.  They need to determine for themselves what information is valuable or their minds won’t retain the knowledge in a way they can use in the future.

There is a time to focus on content with young children, and it is active, hands-on, joyful and brief.

It’s hard to step back, clamp our mouths shut, and not point out that one more thing we desperately want them to know.  We are still learning how to let the children lead their own learning at Bellevue Discovery.

Dandelion 018Here is some of what the preschoolers discovered while dissecting their dandelions:

“The flowers are slippery inside.”

“I think I see silver and golden purple.”

“It’s a closed flower.”

“Inside the root is white.”

“Pretend your hand is a magnifying glass to look at it.”

“These yellow petals … like cat’s fur.”

“It looks like a carrot.”

“I’m pulling apart the sepal.”

“Come look what I found under my magnifying glass – wow!”Dandelion 002

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The Joy of Math

Dice - CameronA parent asked me to look at a computer math game for preschoolers advertised in a recent Huffington Post article.  It looks like a high quality product, but educational technology should be used in small doses with young children – if at all.  Despite the game designer’s suggestion that this computer game will single-handedly transform American education, young children learn best through human relationships and real experiences.  As the authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards write,

Play is the best way for our children to learn.

Play is open-ended and directed by the child.  Play does not have learning outcomes that are pre-determined by parents, teachers or game designers.

When I evaluate our preschool’s math curriculum, usually during the summer when I have time to delve, I look at how young children learn, how gifted children learn, how mathematically talented children learn, and what eminent mathematicians have to say about teaching math.

Here is my favorite article:  A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart.  It is 25 pages long, so brew a cup of tea and settle in for a good read.

There are as many philosophies about teaching math as about teaching reading – with as much antipathy between the believers.  I believe in a constructivist approach, but you can find plenty of research that supports a traditional skills-based approach to teaching math.

We work with highly capable children at my preschool, the vast majority of whom will enter gifted programs and many of whom in addition to being bright little whippersnappers have a special affinity for math.  These kids light up at the idea of infinity.  They create complicated patterns:  last year a girl designed one that was 13 objects long, alternating colors, materials and angles of the objects.  These kids beg their parents to “do math” with them at home.

I remember Kiddo in her pre-K year demanding that I write “big math” for her.   I’d unroll 20 feet of adding machine tape down our hallway, write two rows of numbers all the way across, add a plus sign and let her have at it.  I forgot to teach her how to regroup when the digits added up to 10 or more, but she figured it out.  (Kiddo refused to do the worksheets in her pre-K class:  adding zeroes, ones and twos.  The teacher kept Kiddo in from recess saying she knew Kiddo could do it.  Kiddo told her if she knew it, why did Kiddo have to do the worksheets over and over again?  Mama got called in for a meeting with the teacher …)

Math activities at Bellevue Discovery have evolved since we opened in 2007.  For several years I adapted Mathematics Their Way, a well-thought out, hands-on curriculum that has been used in primary gifted classrooms and moves topic by topic through the year.  One year I conducted lengthy math assessments of each child in September and divided the small groups by math ability (tracking in preschool!).  Yet even groups of four don’t allow sufficient differentiation when math activities aren’t open-ended.

I did a major overhaul of our math program a few summers ago, looking again at best practices for working with young gifted learners and concluding we needed to focus on math games.

From A Mathematician’s Lament

Then what should we do with young children in math class?  Play games!  Teach them Chess and Go, Hex and Backgammon, Sprouts and Nim, whatever.  Make up a game.  Do puzzles … help them to become active and creative mathematical thinkers.

Our current Math Games teacher, Miss Erica, uses a checklist based on the NCTM’s math strands and general skills for pre-K through first grade.  We’ve moved away from going topic by topic through the year:  number, geometry, measurement, data analysis, algebra (patterns).  Instead, Erica chooses math games based on her relationship with the children:  what will thrill them?  Our kids like variety and challenge.  They love learning new things.  They are still learning gamesmanship:  sharing, waiting turns, playing by the rules and healthy competition.  They are at different places in their mathematical thinking and if they are actively engaged we can trust that they are learning at their individual level.

WedgitsWe use real objects, especially when we can tie the math game to our ongoing class project.  We use store-bought and teacher-made manipulatives (little objects kids can hold and move to explore ideas).  We use card games, puzzles, and old favorites like Set, Mastermind, Mousetrap and Chutes & Ladders.  We’ve tried teaching chess, but find it needs an adult for every preschooler to be effective.  Sometimes Miss Erica creates a game based on the children’s literature we are reading that week.  We use math tools like rulers (we make our own with only the inch marks), abaci, dice, spinners and tally sheets.  Our math materials are similar to a typical kindergarten or first grade classroom.  It’s what we do with them that is different.

We don’t focus on simple content during Math Games.  We have a different math time, in the middle of our morning Sing-Along, when we talk about the number of the day and build a model of the number with popsicle sticks.  This simple visual counting practice, which takes a few minutes each day, builds over the year so that by the spring the kids are counting by tens, talking about hundreds, and growing in number awareness … not just counting to 100 by rote.  They also write one number a day, which is all it takes for most preschoolers to be able to write their numbers by the end of the school year.

Cloud patternFor our real math we play games.  We talk.  We laugh.  The children ask questions.  They answer each other’s questions.  They use their hands to move objects around.  They debate ideas.  At some point the quietest child speaks up.  The teacher does not have a lesson plan that says the children will learn these three things.  We don’t know what the children will learn, but we know that if they are engaged, reasoning, creating patterns, using numbers for a reason, and asking questions about the game, their level of learning will be high.

At the end of the week Erica checks off the math topics the children experienced through their games – which may not be the ones she thought a particular game would present.  If a math strand hasn’t had much exposure she looks for games and activities to fill in the gap.  We conduct quick math assessments to ensure our children are gaining the math skills and knowledge they will need for advanced kindergarten classes.  In the spring, when we know where our children will move on to kindergarten (different schools want different levels of worksheet mastery) Erica moves the pre-K kids into school-readiness math:  using symbols, learning how to complete a worksheet, copying a simple math problem from the whiteboard, etc.

The Bellevue Discovery philosophy for teaching math might be different if we weren’t working with children who are exceptionally bright, and who come from homes where education is highly valued.  Every year a few parents ask us if we could send home worksheets for homework, or use a particular math curriculum, workbook or software.  Every year prospective parents who tour our preschool ask “traditional math” questions, like, “When do you teach fractions?”

Nathan C with blocksWe hold the line.

We believe young children learn best by building their own understanding of our world, and our world includes the beautiful realm of mathematics.  There will be a time for memorizing math facts, but preschool is not that time.  Preschool is the time to build a rich foundation of mathematical awareness and joy.

Play games.  Play with numbers.  Play with patterns.  Ask questions.  Imagine.  Know that there is not one right way to get to one right answer.

About the article that kicked off this blog, Preschool Math:  Education’s Secret Weapon: the e-game sounds fine as a limited part of a child’s math experience.  Kids love the bells and whistles of educational software, and I like it that the program accelerates the children through the concepts when they demonstrate understanding.  No e-game, however, will transform preschool math learning.  “Virtual manipulatives” (the game designers’ phrase) is an oxymoron.  Young children need real objects that they can hold and turn around in their hands, physically move, and explore with all their senses (except taste … one day I heard myself tell a preschooler, “We don’t do math with our tongues.”)  It sounds like a fun computer game and it can probably teach some skills and concepts, but a great rule of thumb is that if something “educational for preschoolers” costs money, you can probably do a better job teaching it while playing with your child.

Books and articles I recommend on this topic:

Einstein Never Used Flashcards:  How Our Children Really Learn – and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Diane Eyer

Math Links on Hoagies’ Gifted Page

Mathematically Gifted on Hoagies’ Gifted Page

A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart

Teaching Mathematics to Non-Sequential Learners  by Linda Silverman

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What Reading is Not

First Week signOur Child Study meetings run long during the first weeks of preschool as we reacquaint ourselves with our returning students and get to know our new ones.  One thing stood out right away this year:  we have a bunch of fluent readers.

Wonderfully average children learn to read between the ages of four and nine; most gifted children learn to read between the ages of two and seven.  While some gifted preschoolers are fluent readers, about half of all children who enter gifted programs do not begin reading until after they start kindergarten.

Learning to read is not a race.

We are used to children walking in the door at Bellevue Discovery at a variety of reading levels, so we ask parents to complete a Family Reading Assessment before preschool begins to give our teachers a jumpstart with each child.  Before we started using a rubric parents sometimes told us their children could read, but we discovered those words meant something different if a family (or previous preschool) relied on phonics to teach reading.

Phonics is breaking words up into letters and sounding out the letters.  At Bellevue Discovery we refer to this as “letter calling.”  Every year we have children enter our program who “read” like this:

“Buh-a-tuh … buh-a-tuh”  [looking anxiously at the listening adult, then back at the letters]  “Buh-a-tuh”  [faster and faster, trying to figure it out, and eventually ...]  “Bat?”  [looking to the adult for confirmation, then grinning big with pride and relief]

Phonics is not reading.

Phonics is to reading as checking your rear view mirror is to driving:  it can give you some important information but it doesn’t help the car move forward. 

Reading is creating meaning from text.  Among many processes it includes decoding the letters on the page – although not necessarily all of the letters.

Read this:

Raed wtih yuor clihd.  Raed trhuogh the day.  Raed wtih epxerisson.  Keep bkoos in erevy room of yuor hmoe.

Did you figure out what it says?  A translation is at the end of this post.

It turns out the first and last letters in a word are the most essential; you can switch the order of some of the other letters without affecting your ability to read the word.  You are able to read the word because your brain seeks meaning.  And that’s good news because only about half of English words have purely phonetic spelling.

Children don’t learn to read by learning the sounds that go with each letter.  It is absolutely true that if you have a reasonably compliant three year old (and if you do, I’m jealous), you can teach the child to identify letters and memorize one sound for each letter.  It is also true that children who are taught to read primarily with phonics take longer to become fluent readers:  they do not read for meaning, they view reading as a painstaking puzzle to solve, and they must read out loud – which slows down their reading and makes comprehension difficult.

Reading TogetherThese are the children who sit silently and hunched over during their first reading check-in times at our preschool, and whose parents say, “I know she can read, but she refuses to.”  Our teachers turn those reading check-ins into story times – bringing back the joy of reading before asking for the child’s participation.

The “phonics first” belief system has a big foothold in American education (with book and software publishers raking in the bucks) so I understand parents’ confusion about teaching reading.  We want our children to be good readers – won’t teaching the sub-skills of reading give our kids a head start?

Lenny Sanchez, who teaches reading methodology at Indiana University, contends,

“There’s a misconception that children learn to read and then read to learn … Reading is always about making meaning.”

(See The Best Ways to Teach Kids to Read)

Parents of the fluent readers we see at Bellevue Discovery say things like, “We never taught him how to read – he just started reading.”  Of course, those families read many, many stories to their young children before they “magically” begin to read.  The point is, early fluent readers don’t learn to read by being taught to sound out words.  As Mem Fox, Australian literacy specialist and author of Reading Magic, writes,

“Fluent readers use phonics only after we have learnt to read, when we meet difficult, multi-syllabic words that we can’t make sense of by the usual logical means.”

It is common for young gifted readers to read fluently before they know their letter-sounds, or even all their letters.  I remember tiny Kiddo looking up from reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to tell me,

“Mama, you know what I learned in kindergarten today?  TH spells thhhhhhhh!”

I am not anti-phonics – I use phonics every day.  We talk about phonics at preschool, while reading favorite stories or writing down our children’s words.  I just wish the effort parents and early childhood teachers put into having young children memorize letter sounds went instead into more cuddle-time reading:  joyful shared reading of favorite books, accompanied by talking and laughing together about the words, pictures and ideas.

Translation of gobbledy-gook:

Read with your child.   Read through the day.  Read with expression.  Keep books in every room of your home.

(From Reading with Highly Capable Preschoolers)

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Shout Out to our Teachers

Funny staff photoOur teachers met last week to put the final touches on our preschool for the new school year.  Staff members volunteered between a few hours and more than 100 hours this summer, and it feels great to move into this year with every bin organized, classrooms in shape, a new website, and all those little things we didn’t have time to do during the school year done.

We have a curriculum framework at Bellevue Discovery, but the teachers are responsible for filling it in with their passion, initiative, creativity and personal quirks.  They are responsible for building relationships with each child, knowing when to nudge and when to cuddle, and setting aside their fantasies about how the day will play out.

One morning last week I came out of a meeting and wandered through the four rooms:  Imagination, Art Studio, Pumpkins and Sweet Peas.  Six teachers sat around a table in the Pumpkins room (on little preschool chairs) brainstorming ideas for our Planet Earth project.  They are all moving into brand new or slightly new positions of leadership this year and I could hear them feeling each other out:  who loves to generate ideas?  who enjoys taking others’ ideas and running with them?  who sees the big picture?  who is happy to be in a support role?

We don’t have a traditional staff structure of lead and assistant teachers:  all of our teachers are expected to move fluidly between leading, following and participating.  We all clean up messes.  We all cover for each other when life gets in the way of us being the teachers we want to be.

One morning last year I was talking with the preschoolers about their daily graph and I saw several teachers move into position at the back of the group.  I wondered why, then recognized that my voice had become fake-y sweet.  I had other parts of my life occupying my mind and knew I didn’t have the energy to lead, but it was the role I usually took with daily graph.  My teachers were hovering, so I trusted their judgment, caught one’s eye and said, “Can you take over?”

“Yep,” she said, stepping over kids quickly and sliding into my place.  I could walk away knowing my co-teachers had it.

The teacher makes the classroom.  In our case, the teaching team makes the preschool.  Parents may choose to apply because of our educational philosophy (constructivist) or focus (early childhood gifted education).  They may like our focus on creativity or … I won’t go down the list; you can read about us on our website.  But the reason families love our preschool is because of our teachers.

I want to give a shout out at the start of another school year:  thank you to our devoted, nurturing, creative, funny, hard working teachers.  I love working with you!

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Bloom’s Taxonomy for Preschoolers

Bike repairWe’re working on a new website at Bellevue Discovery and the all-volunteer website team asked me to write up some of our children’s projects from the past year.  I’ve been meaning to document our Machines Project – I have a pile of photos, teachers’ reflections and work samples on my desk at home, waiting for me to feel creative.

I was thinking about Bloom’s Taxonomy, that hierarchy of learning that moves from simple to complex.  It’s usually illustrated with examples from high school curriculum.  Here’s my version:

Lemon wedgeBloom’s Taxonomy for Preschoolers, inspired by the Machines Project at Bellevue Discovery

Level 1, Knowledge:  Name a machine you have at home.  G’s response:  “It cleans floors.”

Level 2, Comprehension:  Is a dog a machine?  H‘s response:  “Of course not.  It’s alive.  Machines can’t be alive except in pretend.”

Level 3, Application:  Use treasures from our recycling bin to build a pretend machine.  D‘s description of his machine:  “My machine throws water at the volcano so the lava doesn’t come out.”

LightbulbLevel 4, Analysis:  Why doesn’t your pretend machine actually work?  R:  “It doesn’t have electricity.”  K:  “And the tape isn’t sticking all the way.”  A:  “The pink tape does the best I think.”  R:  “And there’s nothing inside it to make it work!”

Level 5, Synthesis:  What machine could you invent to help your parents at home?  B’s response:  “An umbilical cord for watering the plants.”

Level 6, Evaluation:  If your parent-helping machine were real, what would be good and what would be bad about having it in your home?  C’s evaluation of her Garbage Machine:  “The garbage goes down the inclined plane and drops into the garbage can.  But I’ll have to use it in my bedroom because the Garbage Machine’s really messy.”

Leah's machineWe tend to think of young children as concrete thinkers, not yet able to use symbols in place of real objects.  Theoretically children don’t move into symbolic thinking, or past the application level in Bloom’s Taxonomy, until age 10.  But I work with preschoolers who mix synthesis with their dinosaur play.  They might not analyze or evaluate on cue – they might be busy growling like dinosaurs - but over the course of a project like Machines I get to see children build relationships between ideas, think deeply, and create something new.

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Children Grow

We’re on summer break at the preschool, which gives our staff a chance to work on our facility, organize materials, plan projects for next year, research education issues, and spend time with our families.

TobyAt my house we got a new dog.  Toby is officially Kiddo’s dog, but she left for a week of camp the day after we picked him up from the shelter so I got to enjoy his sweet dogginess on my own for a while (along with the fabulous Mr. Fuller).

Toby didn’t start off sweet.  Like many shelter dogs he was not a trusting soul.  He hunched into the corner of his crate although the door was wide open.  He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t pee, wouldn’t look at us.  Our vet said to give Toby lots of TLC, but warned us that some shelter dogs never bond with their families.

At Bellevue Discovery we have two guidelines for working with young children:

Surround ‘em with love      &     Trust in their development

We repeat those words to each other at our daily Child Study meetings; we encourage the children’s parents:  trust in their development.  Because we know whatever the concerns are today, children will grow.

I kept Toby in the same room with me when I was home, but didn’t force him to interact.  After half a week he lay down on the floor instead of in his crate.  After a while I sat down next to him, first doing my own thing (curriculum planning on my laptop) then talking to him and giving him little love pats.  After a few days of gentle voice and touch Toby looked me in the eye.

Little steps.

It helps that I have decades of experience waiting kids out.  Trusting in their development isn’t wishful thinking for me.  I trust because, in my experience, children grow.

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.  (Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory)

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