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You Asked, We Answered: Early Literacy, Managing Challenging Behavior, & Social-Emotional Learning

Are you looking to give your early literacy activities a spring refresh?  

Ready to hop into new ways of managing challenging behaviors? 

Do you want your program’s social-emotional learning to flourish?  

Just as we have implemented the new, “You Asked, We Answered,” section in our monthly Family Engagement Newsletter, we are offering this new periodic version of “You Asked, We Answered” as a Family Engagement tip – to provide more in-depth responses to your requests! 

This month we focus on answering three provider-requested topics: 1) activities to promote early literacy, 2) managing challenging behaviors, and 3) encouraging empathy through social-emotional learning.  

“You Asked, We Answered” Survey: Are you looking for support in another area? 

Please share your request in this 1-question survey! 

Cultivating Early Literacy Skills

It’s been a year since our Family Engagement Tip and Webinar on “Enhancing Early Literacy Through Family Engagement”. Here is a refresher on a few key mindsets and practices that we, as providers, can use and share with families to help cultivate young children’s early literacy skills.   

Key Practices/Mindsets:

  • All children learn and develop differently. One child in an early learning program may pick up letters and sounds more quickly than another. On the same note, two siblings within the same family may differ in what age they pick up sounds, how they engage with read-alouds, and more. Rather than using our experience with one child to guide our expectations, we can instead appreciate the learning and developmental journey of each child.  
    • With language development, young children experience different phases such as a silent period or confusing grammar rules. These behaviors are normal and temporary, reflecting how a child’s brain is processing new knowledge and skills. Note: These periods may occur at different times or for extended periods for dual language learners are they are learning more than one language at once. 
  • Early literacy does not mean early reading. As we work alongside families, it’s crucial to make clear to families that 1) early literacy skills are the building blocks for reading and 2) reading isn’t developmentally appropriate for younger children up to age 5.  
    • Children learn many skills that lead to reading in the future, including recognizing and forming sounds and letters.  Other early literacy behaviors include physically handling books, looking at and recognizing images in a book, understanding story comprehension, repeating common phrases in a story, and engaging in verbal/physical story interactions like imitating reading and running their fingers along the words.   
    • Pushing younger children who are not developmentally ready to read into reading and writing words is counter-productive and potentially harmful to children, as they may develop a negative association of reading and books if their first interactions feel like failures. 
    • One of the best practices families can make at this age is to foster a love and appreciation of reading from birth Families can accomplish this by listening to stories together, reading or watching read-alouds together, making reading part of their bedtime or daily routine, and visiting the library together.  
  • Keep it simple with Sing, Talk, Read, Write, Play. These 5 pivotal activities bolster a child’s development from birth to five years of age (and onward!). All families (particularly those who manage full schedules) can benefit from this key touchstone, making sure to always come back to the core basics of “sing, talk, read, write, play” in a way that adapts to the rhythms of their family life.
  • Model and create opportunities for families to engage in early literacy activities with their children.  
    • Host a virtual or in-person family event focused on age-appropriate early literacy activities. This can include serve return for infants/toddlers, sound scavenger hunts for preschoolers, singing songs, telling stories, and the importance of reading aloud for 15 minutes every day. Need more ideas? Survey families for their input! What would they like to see, learn, and share?  
    • Invite families to participate in read-aloud activities and/or storytelling with puppets or role-playing. This is a great way to be inclusive with families with varying literacy levels as well to include families’ cultural identities if they share stories from their upbringing or culture!  
  • Share accessible resources and events with families – both physically and digitally! These can include:  
    • Virtual story-times and activities from local libraries.  
    • E-mailing or texting links to age-appropriate read-alouds that families can enjoy together.  
    • Send home a flyer or newsletter with family literacy activities or read-aloud tips. 
    • Print out a story for families to take home along with a craft to accompany the story (i.e., a short book and a puppet cutout or related craft).  

Resources: Early Literacy

You often ask for resources and activity ideas, here we deliver!  

  • LA County Public Libraryoffers virtual and in-person story times, parent-child workshops, and a rich variety of virtual resources through Tumblebook Library! 
  • Reading Rocket’s Preschool page has great informational resources for reading and writing reading readiness including articles, developmentally-appropriate activities, booklists, developmental milestones, and more – great for both early educators and families seeking understanding and guidance! 
  • Looking for a read aloud videos? Check out Storytime with Ryan & Craig and ONSCR. 
Grandfather and granddaughter reading on the lawn

Encouraging Positive Behaviors to Manage Challenging Behaviors

Helping young children learn how to regulate their emotions is a common challenge most providers and families struggle with.  Research shows that traditional discipline (I.e. spanking, punitive punishments, time outs, etc.) can cause more harm than good. Many families and early learning programs have transitioned to more positive styles of behavior management like “gentle parenting”, Conscious Discipline, guidance, etc.  

Easier said than done, we know. Here we provide valuable mindsets and resources for your early learning programs and your families to assist with principles and practices of encouraging positive behavior in your young children.  

Key Practices/Mindsets:

  • All behavior is communication.  
    • Behavior occurs because of two reasons: 1) We either want something OR 2) We are avoiding something.  
    • Are the child’s basic needs met? (Food, water, rest, safety, movement, attention, care & affection). If a child is having a meltdown or difficult emotional time, considering these questions before responding to the child’s behavior is a good place to start. 
  • Your mood and behavior are important, too.  
    • Your energy is contagious and sets a tone for the children (and adults) around you. 
    • Regulating your emotions first (emotionally and beyond) helps you better manage difficult behaviors and provides a calmer support system for the children in your care.   
  • Children need to feel safety and connection before moving into problem-solving.  
    • Children experiencing strong emotions can feel a lack of safety and security depending on the situation at hand.
      • How can you tell? Physical reactions like crying, arms and legs flailing, ragged breathing, not responding to verbal coaxing.
      • How can you help? Use strategies that help calm the child, like 1) S.T.A.R. from Conscious Discipline where S stands for Smile, Take a deep breath, And Relax; taking 3 deep breaths can help a child get out of a “freeze/fight/flight” response. 2) If appropriate, offering the child a hug can lend your body’s calm emotional state to the child as a model/guide. 3) Verbally communicate that you are there to support the child, they can count on you, remind them they are safe and will get through this.
    • Children need to know that they are cared for and heard in order to feel safe.
      • What are some signs? Verbal reactions like blaming others, being rude, making demands, complaining & non-verbal communication like closing themselves off.
      • How can you help? Consider using rituals that help foster connection. 1) These can look like morning greetings that incorporate eye contact, touch, presence, and playfulness. 2) During a tough moment, reassuring children by saying “We will get through this together. You can handle this.” is also powerful and encouraging. 3) Offering children options is a great way to empower them while encouraging cooperation; “Would you like to do X or Y now?”, “Do you want some water or a short stretch outside?”. 
  • Instead of punishment, use guidance. Check out this 5-step approach and these key insights offered by NAEYC for managing challenging behaviors and supporting positive ones 
  1. Describe the scene.  
  2. Calm who needs calming.  
  3. Lead each child to describe the issue or conflict, often starting with the younger child.  
  4. Solve the problem with the children – not for them.  
  5. Follow up with the child or children by having a guidance talk. 

*Guidance is worth the time and effort because:  

  • The provider/adult moves away from the “bully-victim” pattern, and ensures both children feel worthy, capable of solving their problems, and able to learn from mistakes. 
  • The provider/adult works with children who show strong challenging behaviors, in turn supporting them to develop their emotional, social, and leadership skills.  
  • Using guidance offers impactful lessons in language arts and social studies, by using non-hurtful words and overcoming differences to come together.  
  • Overall, each time a child sees guidance being used, children learn that everyone is worthy, belongs, and can participate in solving problems.  
  • Conscious Discipline offers a wide variety of free resources – including categories like Shubert’s School (with a step-by-step breakdown of Conscience Discipline practices in each area of the school + resources!), Shubert’s Home (with practice, hands-on examples of how families can use Conscious Discipline), free webinars, podcasts, discipline tips, video gallery, etc. 
  • Conscious Discipline is also offering two upcoming trainings through QSLA Connect –  
  • Help Us Have a Good Day! Positive Strategies for Families (English and Spanish) 
  • Help Us Calm Down: Strategies for Children (English andSpanish) 

Fostering Social-Emotional Learning

Providers, many of you have asked for support in building empathy with children. The ideas and practices in this section will foster empathy and emotional intelligence in your early learning program! 

Key Practices/Mindsets:

  • All behavior is learned. This is our foundation; once we understand this, we can better understand and support children and families. We have two strategies available here: 1) We can show children positive, healthy emotional behaviors AND 2) We can partner with families to understand what’s going on in their family’s world and child’s life. From there, we can team up with families to support positive behaviors at home and in our program.  
  • Children need to learn to recognize emotions first, THEN we can teach them how to manage them through: 
    • Modeling healthy, appropriate behaviors like 
      • Verbally expressing emotions with simple prompts like, “I feel _____ when _____ happened.”  
      • Apologizing in a clear manner that recognizes you are responsible for a specific behavior, commit to not repeating that behavior, and make the effort to repair your relationship with the person affected.  
  • Offer and consistently practice emotional regulation spaces and behaviors.
    • Calm Zone – This is a designated space or kit that your program can offer to children to self-regulate, where they select a way to help themselves calm down. As Childline UK shares, children can choose from breathing exercises, yoga stretches, stress sock, a sense drawer, and a calm aid kit.  
    • Balloon BreathingAs Zero to Three explains, this is a hands-on mindfulness practice for families to try.  
    • Hugs or other forms of comforting touch (when allowable/safe/comfortable for those involved). This can include high-fives, fist bumps, and handshakes!  
  • Always emphasize that we have the right to feel and express our emotions BUT it is not right to cause harm to ourselves, others, or our environment when we are feeling strong emotions (ex. Sadness, anger, confusion, disappointment) 
  • As adults, we are responsible to hold space for children to express emotions. Without dismissing their feelings, telling them they’ll get over it, nor trying to convince them that they are fine. Children’s emotions matter and how they are encouraged (or discouraged) to recognize and express their emotions in the early years affects their self-perception, confidence, decision-making ability, independent thinking/voice, social skills, and more.  

As always, your feedback drives our family engagement content! If you have other questions, ideas, or requests for our “You Asked, We Answered” content, please share your thoughts in this 1 question survey. If you found this article and its related resources to be useful, we encourage you to forward them with a colleague!  

Cristina Espinoza
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles

Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 7 years, including having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as a youth development promoter in Costa Rica. In conjunction with Quality Start Los Angeles, Cristina is passionate about supporting families to feel empowered in the changing landscape of their surroundings with their children’s wellbeing at the forefront.  She is a champion of strengths-based systems and services that build resilient families and youth.