Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tips for School Tours

Tips for School Tours
It’s always funny to consider that while we are pulling out our boots and long sleeves in anticipation of fall weather, someone out there is shooting the cover of a spring/summer catalogue.  Likewise, when I feel like I’ve just established our family “back to school” routine I begin to see notices for open houses at schools and admission directors begin showing up at PTA meetings to discuss plans for next year.  As a school director, I feel the same wave of early planning begin about this time each year at The Children’s Center as well.  I’ve only just begun our new year when I turn my focus to plans for next year.  Our calendar is booked almost daily with tours for prospective families.  

Providing school tours is one of my favorite things to do, after greeting each child during morning arrival.  The reason tours are so important to me is because they provides an opportunity to share a bit of insight into the “why” and “how” we teach young children.  I find so often that parents feel overwhelmed with school choices and are unsure of the questions to ask or what to look for while walking the halls of prospective schools.  We are so lucky in Dallas to have so many wonderful school choices.  There is no one school that is a perfect fit for each family, or even each child within a family.  Regardless of the differences in cost, location, ages served, or teaching method (play-based, Montessori, classical Christian,…), there are signs that all parents should look for when asking questions and touring.  Here’s a SCHOOL “cheat sheet” of sorts to use as a guide when touring schools.
Safe – Ask about procedures for visitors, safety drills, how food allergies are handled, and illness policy.  There should be a routine in place for drop-off and pick-up. Do a quick scan of the rooms to be sure there are no chemicals, broken toys, uncovered outlets or other signs of an unsafe environment.  Class sizes should allow for safe supervision in addition to providing an optimal learning environment which meets the needs of the group as well as each individual child.  There should be written school policies should be provided and reviewed prior to enrollment.   

Cheerful – Does the environment FEEL warm and welcoming?  Pay attention to the children in each classroom.  They have no reason to put on a “show” for tours.  Are they engaged, joyful, active, and happy?  Quite often parents will refer to a "feeling" they get in each school.  Does it feel free of stress?  Are the rooms clean, well organized and inviting?  Bring your child along for a visit before registration.  Is the school a place they are excited to attend?   

Home/School connection – You are your child’s first teacher.  It is important that you feel welcomed at your child’s school.  Ask about opportunities to help in class, by reading or assisting with cooking projects for example.  Your child should feel there is a connection between home and school. Communication is key to developing the connection for families.  There should be a routine in place for communication from the school as well as the teacher.  Ideally, the school will offer home visits and/or playdates before the first day, parent meetings, family gatherings, and individual conferences . 

Open-ended activities – While touring, look for art and work samples that are child-created and not “cookie cutter”.  The art should embrace the value of the process to create it over the final product.  There should be obvious signs of child-guided play and exploration, with various activities provided throughout the day.  Teachers act as guides, balancing whole group instruction with small group activities.  Remember, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children play is serious learning.  Play is really the work of childhood.” (Fred Rogers) The children should be actively engaged in child-centered activities.  

Outside activities – Children need daily opportunities to play outside.  They should have opportunities to move their bodies, whether outside or through movement and music classes.  They thrive in environments that provide activities which stimulate their large muscles (core strength, balance, spatial awareness in relation to learning), as well as small muscles (holding small objects, eye-hand coordination, strength to hold writing utensils), and that allows for creativity and socialization with their peers.


Licensed and Accredited – ALL early childhood programs must be licensed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.  You can gain familiarity with child care minimum standards (all early childhood programs are considered “child care”) on their website.  Some schools have elected to seek additional accreditation from private organizations, such as NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) and SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools).  Accreditation requires that schools adhere to a higher level of standards than those set by the State.  The NAEYC also provides wonderful resources for parents who would like to seek more information about child development and what to look for in programs for young children.

I hope the SCHOOL acronym helps you as you visit various programs for your child.  Certainly if you'd like, I’d be happy to help field any additional questions that you may have.  This is one of my favorite topics to talk about. 😊

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Happy New Year (in August)!

It’s that time of the year, when I wish I could avoid the signs that summer will soon come to a close.  It’s hard to wrap my mind around Halloween decorations when its 104 degrees outside — while at the same time, these sights remind me of another year of growth for my children, soon to be filled with opportunities for new experiences and friendships.  Each year I feel an equal sense of excitement and anxiety as the days of August slip past. 

For me, the first day of school marks my “new year”, filled with reflections of the year I’ve had and resolutions for the year to come.  Whether it was the first day I handed my ten-week old daughter into the welcoming and confident arms of her caregiver, or as I prepare this year to send our girls off to their last year of elementary and middle school — the first day is faced with mixed emotions.  I want my girls to soar.  I want them to have every opportunity to grow to love learning, establish a strong sense of confidence in their abilities, and to be prepared for that final day of school when they go out into the big, wide world.  I guess, honestly, I need to be prepared for that big day too.

For years as an early childhood teacher, and now as a director, I’ve had the opportunity to be on the other side of the fence, so to speak.  Developmentally, children need time to prepare for changes, especially ones as big as the transition to school.  I’ve found that a few simple reflections and adjustments to home routines can go a long way to benefit your child once school starts.  In turn, these will help you as you launch a great new year for your family.

First of all, consider your child’s new schedule and ease them into the schedule you’ll need to follow once school begins.  Before the first day of school, begin to adjust morning routines like dressing, eating and getting out of bed on time (this is coming from a mom of pre-teens).   Eating a good breakfast before school is critical for all ages, so be sure they are up and about early enough to have time for this important meal.  At the other end of the age spectrum are the little ones who wake early and then take a morning nap (in other words, mom or dad’s window to shower or check emails - one or the other, you don’t get both!).  I’m sorry to have to say this, but if the school program you’ve selected for your child does not include a morning nap, now is the time to begin to help them adjust their internal clocks.  The time you commit to their routines now will go a LONG way to encourage your child to have a smooth transition to a busy school schedule.

From the moment our children are born we are told that we are to help prepare them to leave us one day.  It’s so hard to believe that this day will come, but it surely will — and we’ll want them to be successful in their independence and ability to care for themselves.  Your child’s preschool is usually the first place they’ll experience authentic opportunities to put those self-care skills to practice.  While teachers understand that the development of self-care skills is a part of being a preschool teacher, it is important that parents begin to introduce and encourage these skills at home.  Skills such a blowing noses, putting jackets on, and all the bathroom tasks (pulling pants off/on, wiping, flushing, and washing hands) are important.  Practicing these skills in a familiar environment with you before school starts will help your child feel comfortable with new experiences and confident when facing challenges ahead.

When purchasing those cute outfits for your child, consider three things to help your child be successful.  First help your child dress for independence and mobility.  I’ve seen a few more overalls this season than in the past few years.  Outfits such as these require a lot of dexterity, especially for a three-year old who has waited until the last minute to run to the bathroom.  For girls, dresses can get in the way of a climbing child’s feet and drawstrings can be a hazard on the playground.  The shoes you select for your child should provide a good grip and be closed-toe.  Secondly, consider your child’s outfits as his “work clothes”.  A child’s work is play and play can (and should) be messy at times.  Understand that even with the best painting smock there will be paint, snacks, dirt, and many other things that will test your use of stain removers.  So save the special outfits for special occasions and send them off in “work clothes”.  Finally, please label everything.  I’ve heard crickets in my classroom when holding up hats, a mitten, sweaters, jackets, lunch boxes, you name it.  So either grab a sharpie or order some cute waterproof/iron on labels.

Now for getting YOU ready.  Whether you’ll be looking for a BooHoo Breakfast or a Mimosa Morning on the first day, the transition to school is a big one for parents as well.  Here are a few things that have stuck with me year after year.  As I prepare my children for the new schedule, I begin around August 1st to prepare myself, organizing items I need to pack lunches and fix breakfast more efficient.  I go ahead and plan a few easy or slow cooker meals for the first week knowing my children may need a bit more mommy time and/or a last minute list of needs for the classroom.  This is also a wonderful time to start traditions that will be kept for years to come.  For our family, this includes taking a photo of the girls by the same tree on the first day of school.  We also add a charm to their bracelets and present it to them to wear on the first day.  The charm usually signifies something special we did together over the summer.  There are endless ideas and whatever becomes your tradition, by intent or accident, will be treasured as the years pass by.  Finally, I have found that I need more tissues for the parents on the first day than for the children.  Creating to a to-do list and tackling those errands that
are easier to do without hungry, tired “helpers” in the back seat is a great way to pass the time.  

There are so many other ways we can make this transition smooth for the whole family, but these are just a few.  Just find what works for you and your family.  Let’s embrace this time and kick off the new year with a great start!

Christy Tornelli lives in Dallas' Hollywood/Santa Monica neighborhood with her husband, Carlos, and two daughters, Isabella (13) & Alessandra (10).  She serves the children of her community as the Director at The Children’s Center

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Family Fire Drill

The beginning of each school year comes with reminders of past lessons learned.  One lesson that most school children can give explicit details on is the procedure to follow during a fire drill.  They all know to stay calm, use walking feet, and go with the class to a safe location.  This drill should serve as a reminder to families that fires can occur just as easily at home.  So, when your child tells you about the fire drill at school, have a drill at home.  Follow the same guidelines: stay calm, use walking feet, and meet at a safe location.  You can also add additional important points such as do not go back inside for special belongings, don't look for the dog or cat, and meet at your chosen safe location.   Take a minute to hold a fire drill with your family.  Hopefully you'll never have a true emergency, but you may rest a little easier knowing that your children will know what to do just in case!

Here's a link to more information about creating a family plan:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Story Extensions

The importance of reading with children has been established time and time again.  Shared reading time between you and your child becomes even more enriched when it is followed by a related activity.  With most children's books there is a cooking project, nature walk, creative play, or art project that can extend the story's theme.  

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis conveys that a box isn't just a box through the creative eyes of a child, or in this case a rabbit.  Using either a box or other recycled material, your child can use his/her own imagination to repurpose them into something new, pretend or real.  Offer support to make their vision a reality.  Another simple way to extend this story and allow for creative thinking is to draw a simple line or shape on a piece of paper.  Have your child add on to the line/shape, creating something new.  Have him/her tell you about the drawing.  For example a "<" may become the open mouth of a shark with sharp teeth!

Waiting for Wings by Lois Ehlert will excite your child about the wonderful process of butterfly metamorphosis.  If you live in a climate that supports caterpillars and butterflies there is nothing more magical than a butterfly garden.  By simply adding a few host plants (for the caterpillars) and nectar plants (for the butterflies) to your flower beds or pots your child will certainly have his/her own opportunity to wait for wings!  Information can easily be found online to help you create a butterfly garden.  In Dallas, we only needed to add a parsley plant and marigolds.

Waiting for Wings

Hats, Hats, Hats (Around the World Series) by Ann Morris is one of several books that use authentic photographs to bring us images from around the world.  In this book she provides photographs of different hats and their many uses.  These books will begin a discussion of other things around you and their similarities and differences.  Make a list, play a game in the car, or if you have access to a digital camera help your child make a photo collection of his/her own.  For example: various chairs and their purpose, animals with tails, things that are red, things that have wheels.  These simple activities will help to develop your child's critical thinking.

Hats, Hats, Hats (Around the World Series)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Collection Kits

Kids everywhere love to collect things.  Even as adults we find collections that we have too.  It's easy to turn a collection of similar items into a wonderful exploration of math concepts.  The first strategy to make this activity a success is to have an engaging collection.  Children will always learn more and stay focused longer if their attention is held.  The collection my be temporary, the new bag of colored candy.  The collection may be a favorite item, my daughter has a small horse collection.  I know I have an accidental collection of buttons that I'll never use.  In my classroom I have a collection of keys that the hardware store gave me for free.

So now that you are thinking of all the little collections around your house, here are some ideas of how to put them to use...

1.   Explore - It's very important that children are given time to explore something new on their own.  Observe how your child explores the items.  Does he/she count them, line them up, sort them, or study them closely.  This will give you an indication of how to support his/her learning.

2.  Counting - Simple yet important.  Demonstrate one-to-one by pointing and counting out loud.  This can be challenging for some young children.

3.  Sort - Talk about the different attributes of the item (size, color, shape).

4.  Simple Graph - Make a graph using the sorting stacks.

5.  Patterns - At an early age children can grasp the concept of simple patterns such as ABABAB (red, blue, red, blue or big, little, big, little,).

6.  More Free Play/Exploration - You'll be surprised what your child will come up with next!

IMPORTANT - Be aware of choking hazards with young children!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Shaving Cream Canvas

Inside or outside...
Tub or table...
Shaving cream has many benefits other than the obvious.  It offers a wonderful sensory experience that encourages a variety of skills to be practiced.  The younger child can explore lines and shapes.  Letter formation can be introduced and practiced before adding the use of a writing instrument.  Older children can practice cursive and spelling words.  While most children enjoy the sensory experience along with the fine motor skill practice, for me there is an added benefit.  Every now and then I'll come across a child who is very aware of making their picture/writing look "just right".  There is a permanence that comes with crayons, markers, paints,... etc.  For some children this lessens the risk they are willing to take to do something new.  Shaving cream allows for a quick change of all or part of their work.  This encourages more risk and builds confidence.  Not to mention its fun and relaxing.

Apply a small amount of shaving cream to a baking sheet or the side of the bathtub.  If desired, add a few drops of food coloring.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dough for more than "playing"

Most of us take a quick trip back to our childhood as soon as we sink our fingers into a new batch of play dough.  The scent, texture and perfect color is appreciated by adults and children alike.  But there is more "learning" to be found behind the "play" in the dough.  In my house and classroom homemade dough ranks above the store bought variety.

I won't go into the benefits of preparing the dough with your children (measuring, sequence of events, recipe reading,...) but trust me it's worthwhile!  Here's all that you need to do:

Mix -
2 cups flour
2 cups water
1 cup salt
4 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 Tablespoons oil
food coloring (I prefer the gel type in the small pots for baking)

Combine in a large, cool pot.  This allows the little ones to help without fear of getting burned.

Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat once the dough has formed into a large ball and easily pulls away from the side of the pan and spoon.  Turn dough onto waxed paper and knead.

Instead of cookie cutters, which do almost nothing to support fine motor development, give them rolling pins and child sized scissors.  Demonstrate how to roll "snakes".  Encourage them to use their fingers to roll small balls for added fine motor development.  This is also a beneficial activity to pull out if your child needs a little calming and "time away".  It's a great stress reliever!

The dough stores well in a sealed container or bag.  Don't be surprised if you catch yourself enjoying the therapeutic benefits of play dough too!