It’s late in the afternoon. Naptime is over. A little boy is feeling angry because his friend took his favorite toy. His face reddens and twists. As he begins to whimper, his teacher takes him aside.
She kneels so she’s at eye-level with him. She holds out an imaginary candle and asks him to take a deep breath and blow it out.
The boy’s cheeks puff out like two apples. He huffs and puffs and blows out the imaginary candle. The teacher asks him to do it again. He deep-breathes, then blows the candle out, again. They repeat this exercise a few times. She asks him if he’d like to go back and join his friends. He says yes. And he does.
This candle-blowing technique is only one Rooted in Relationships’ practice to enhance kids’ mindfulness. Aside from this technique, there’s a multitude of other strategies that instructors like Stephanie Allen, the director of The Teaching Tree in Grand Island, Nebraska, and her teachers use to promote good behavior and well-being.
These strategies are part of Rooted in Relationships, (also known as Rooted), a larger statewide initiative which builds on Nebraska Children’s early childhood well-being work. Rooted recognizes that the relationships children form, particularly from birth-8, with caregivers, family, providers, and teachers are crucial to their future success.
An even more important factor, however, is how educators and caregivers respond to the child’s needs. Rooted builds on existing systems and teams up with communities to use evidence-based practices that support children’s social-emotional development.
One part of Rooted supports communities in leveraging the Pyramid Model, a framework of evidence-based strategies that further enhance a child’s social-emotional development.
Stephanie and her staff work with Rooted coaches regularly to add to the tools in their toolbox. Stephanie and her fellow teachers have found that the strategies and goals that they set with the coaches continue to work wonders.
From the get-go, Stephanie wasn’t just a woman with a wish, but a vision. “I’ve always wanted a full-day preschool, and for my 3 to 5-year-olds to experience a structured program,” said Stephanie.
Stephanie said that in the past she’d witnessed and been amazed by how children excelled when they received a high-quality early education.
From there, Stephanie’s wish solidified, and she blew out her candle. And there was nothing imaginary about her wish.
“The Teaching Tree is not just a safe center, but a preschool program,” said Stephanie. “I told the teachers, ‘This is what I want to see.’”
Stephanie said that her work with her Rooted coaches has made a world of difference. “This does work, this IS great,” said Stephanie regarding to the Rooted program.
Another successful strategy she’s implemented from her coaching includes the Calm Down Area.
This room offers an antithesis to the traditional Time-Out. To help kids regulate their emotions, any time they’re feeling angry, stressed, or overwhelmed, there’s always the option of the Calm Down Area.
This little space in the classroom has pillows and stress-relief toys. Unlike Time-Out, children aren’t “sent” to this area as punishment. Rather, if the child should want, he or she has the choice to go to the space to calm down, reflect, and recalibrate.
“We’ll say, ‘I see you’re upset. Do you want to go to the Calm Down Area? Do you want to blow out candles?’”
The Calm-Down Area also contains several “fidget toys” that are highly tactile. “It’s a positive place,” said Stephanie.
Stephanie said that on very rare occasion, if a child is exceptionally angry or violent, then she and her teachers take a different approach.
Stephanie explained that when a child’s emotions are running high, a teacher will take a walk with him and ask open-ended questions. “Telling a child, ‘We don’t hit,’ after she hits her friend solves nothing,” said Stephanie.
“What we’ll do is ask the child, ‘What else can we do so we don’t hit our friends?’ We’ll tell the friend to say, ‘Please stop. I don’t like that.’ Children need to be taught these skills.”
Stephanie said that candles aren’t the only option to de-stress kids, that her teachers also have the children blow out bubbles and dandelions, too.
She went on to explain that toddlers’ behaviors such as biting and hitting can take the place of standard communication because young children aren’t yet equipped with that ability.
Stephanie said that even her teachers regularly model the practice of going to the Calm-Down Area.
“Sometimes, Miss Emily will go sit in the Calm Down Area,” said Stephanie. “From the beginning, we teach the children how to do it.”
One of Stephanie’s other takeaways from Rooted is that the she and program are adaptable to children’s different needs.
“We had a little guy with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” said Stephanie. “He struggled with routine and needed a certain chair. So, we adapted everyone! Everyone got his or her own chair.”
Stephanie said that whereas she encourages her young students to choose, she and her Rooted coach recognized that in certain instances, tweaking aspects of her class made everything run smoother.
The Teaching Tree team recognizes that given the pandemic, they must continue to be agile and sensitive to children’s needs.
“The kids keep seeing people maxed out everywhere,” said Stephanie. “We try to keep things [here at the center] as normal as possible and include more mindfulness techniques.”
Meditation and visualization exercises are among those rituals that Stephanie and her teachers have incorporated.
“We’ll have a teacher tell a story in the morning,” said Stephanie. “We’ll say, ‘Pretend to be a butterfly on a purple flower. Can you see the flower? Can you smell it?’”
Stephanie said that throughout these changes, the Rooted coaches have remained every bit as adaptive. Although the coaches’ visits have migrated to Zoom, the level of enthusiasm hasn’t gone down a bit.
“The coaches support the teachers, they say, ‘You’re doing a great job!’ The teachers set goals with them, [our coach] is almost like an extra cheerleader,” said Stephanie. “As a new director myself, Rooted has done GREAT with me.”
Stephanie said the coaches help the teachers with everything from reconfiguring their classrooms to resolving behavioral issues to setting up planning boards with materials.
Stephanie said ironically, one recent win occurred when a little boy realized he didn’t have to win all the time.
“He initially always had to be the line-leader,” said Stephanie. “Now, the teachers are saying to him, ‘We’re not always a winner; today, we’re a helper.’”
Stephanie then saw a wish come true. “Today, he said, ‘Guess what, Miss Steph? I’m NOT line-leader!’ And he’s standing in the middle of the line, and life is great!”