Op-Ed, Early Childhood Education, emotional competence, News, Social and Emotional Learning

A Toddler Teacher's Reflection: By Susan B. Hughes

Elizabeth Wilcox

From the moment you enter the classroom, to the end of the day when you turn out the lights, our begin to…ECSEL teaching approach guides our day. When I enter the classroom to set it up for the morning, I am mindful of making sure that our teaching tools for emotional, cognitive and social development are ready for the day. I have learned how hard the child's brain has to work to try to understand words when they are overwhelmed with an emotion. I have learned to integrate our program tools and techniques to help children overcome the challenges inherent to their development so that they can thrive now and in the long-term.

My aim every day is to get myself on the same page as each child to understand what the child is experiencing through observation, reading their cues, and engaging. All behavior has a reason behind it. If the behavior is inappropriate, I talk to the child using the techniques I’ve learned through our begin to…ECSEL approach around helping the child learn to identify and understand emotion. The aim is to channel the inappropriate behavior (action) into words. I let the child know when the expression of an emotion through behavior is not appropriate. If, for example, the child has hit another child, I guide the child to a more appropriate behavior like hitting a pillow. I help the child regulate and then help the child understand why the expressed behavior was inappropriate and how it made the other child feel. I have learned the importance of opening the door on an appropriate behavior after closing it on an inappropriate one. My goal is not to scold or ever shame a child. I recognize typical toddler behavior and I am here to guide the child. This approach I use throughout the day.

The approach that Dr. Housman has taught me over the past five years is so vital. The practice of accurately identifying, expressing, understanding and ultimately managing emotions teaches the child so much. I see, as the year progresses, children begin to use program tools and techniques on their own. I see children learn that emotions — anger, sadness, fear, and happiness — are natural for them and for others and that what we need to learn is how to manage and express those emotions in appropriate ways. I see these young children become more attuned to their emotions and those of others every day. It amazes me that children so young can accomplish what we adults often struggle to do. I see why this process is so critical for lifelong emotional, cognitive and social success and how vital it is to be practiced each day. And I am grateful for it.

Author and veteran teacher, Susan B. Hughes, works with children aged one and two years at Beginnings School and Child Development Center.


7 Steps to Successful Potty Training

Elizabeth Wilcox

You’ve determined your child is ready for potty-training, what do you do next?

As a parent, you can help your child master this important milestone while making the process empowering for you both.

“Children learn through observation, modeling, guidance,” says Beginnings Founder and clinical psychologist, Dr. Donna Housman. “How we respond is very important,” she says.

To ensure success, Dr. Housman recommends the following steps after you've determined your child is ready for potty-training.

1) Initiate Potty Training at the Right Time

Make certain children are ready physically, that they can communicate to you when they want or need to go, and that they understand and can follow directions. Best not to introduce potty training during times of change, such as birth of a sibling, moves, divorce or holidays.

2) Help Children Understand Why

Explain to children that we go to the potty or toilet to get rid of what is no longer needed in our body and to help make us healthy and strong. Giving children reason also clears up confusion and reduces fear.

3) Get Out Equipment

Learning and comfort involve practice. Ensure the potty is in a place where children can access it easily and get on and off the potty independently. If you use a toilet, ensure the seat is small enough and you've put a stool below it for children's feet to be firmly grounded. Start with urinating then bowel movements. Move to standing for boys when bowel training is complete.

4) Establish Routines

Schedule times after meals or when children show the need through holding self, fidgeting, hiding or other telltale cues you’ve learned to read. Introduce children to the potty briefly at first and then lengthen time, providing a book if convenient. Encourage children to sit regularly, trying every few hours even if they don't need to go.

5) Incentivize through Encouragement and Praise

Use your words. Words of encouragement and praise are far more motivating than candy or toys. Tell children you are proud of them, even if for trying.

6) Celebrate the Transition from Diapers to Underpants

After several weeks of success, move to underpants. This transition is a time to celebrate. Have children participate by allowing them to pick out their own underwear. Remember, you want to encourage independence and a sense of control so clothing needs to be able to be easily removed (no belts, overalls, or tiny buttons!)

7) Provide Ongoing Support

Talk with your child about their questions, feelings, concerns, worries or excitement. Reading books are a great way to share information, spur questions, and provide answers!

Recommended Books:

Flush the Potty

By Ken Wilson-Max

Potty Superhero: Get ready for big boy pants!

By Parragon Books

Even Firefighters Go to the Potty: A Potty Training Lift-the-Flap Story

By Wendy Wax, Naomi Wax

Big Girl Panties

By Fran Manushkin

Big Boy Underpants

By Fran Manushkin


By Leslie Patricelli

It Hurts When I Poop! A Story for Children Who are Scared to Use the Potty

By Howard J. Bennett, M.D.

The Potty Chronicles: A Story to Help Children Adjust to Toilet Training

By Annie Reiner

You Can Go to the Potty

By William Sears, Martha Sears, Christie Watts Kelly

My Big Girl Potty

By Joanna Cole

My Big Boy Potty

By Joanna Cole

The Potty Book: For Boys

By Alyssa Satin Capucilli

Potty Time

By Caroline Jayne Church

Diapers Are Not Forever

By Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen

Parenting, Early Childhood Education, News

Prepare Your Kids for Daylight Savings

Dr. Donna Housman

With the approach of daylight savings, I always have a few parents reach out to me as to how best to handle the daylight shift. In my experience, I have found children’s adjustment often varies by age. The disruption to the young baby’s sleep schedule is worse than the disruption to older children’s who are sleeping through the night.

This article by Anisa Arsenault on the provides some sage advice. Arsenault draws from the expertise of Kim West, a sleep expert, clinical social worker and author of Good Night, Sleep Tight. "With younger babies, you want to gradually make adjustments to their schedules, starting four or five days before daylight saving," says West, “Move meals, naps and bedtimes a little later; 15 to 20 minutes each day."

West goes on to point out that an hour's difference may be manageable for older children who already sleep through the night, but for toddlers at risk of waking too early, pushing bedtime later 30 minutes on Friday and another 30 minutes on Saturday can help. She goes on to suggest a few tools that can ease the transition, such as light bulbs in the nursery that don’t emit blue wavelengths and room darkening shades.

Consistent follow through remains important in making the transition smooth. Stick to your goodnight plan, even if your child resists. If your child wakes early, don’t break your routine. Attend to the child as you normally would in the middle of the night and then return to your bed. As I often repeat, knowing how to set limits with your child is an invaluable tool in parenting which is one of the most important yet difficult jobs you’ll ever do!


Tempering Tantrums and Limit Setting for Young Children

Elizabeth Wilcox

To help our children develop autonomy and self-control, we need to set limits.

How to set those limits and work with your child when emotions run hot were among the topics addressed in Dr. Donna Housman’s opening 2017 parent lecture at Beginnings School in Weston, MA.

The lecture, sponsored by the Newton-based Housman Institute, was attended by parents and teachers from Beginnings School, a school and child development center for children aged 3 months to 6 years that focuses on promoting the building blocks of emotional intelligence.

Beginnings School founder and Housman Institute CEO, Dr. Housman spoke of the challenges of dealing with temper tantrums, providing a step-by-step approach on how to respond when your child exhibits inappropriate behavior in response to heightened emotions. Underscoring this approach was the importance of supporting development of autonomy and self-control, particularly through limit setting.

First, Dr. Housman stressed the significance of listening, accepting, and identifying feelings. Elaborating, she emphasized the direct connection between children’s feelings and behaviors. Dr. Housman reiterated the importance of accepting negative feelings, clarifying that accepting those feelings is not the same as accepting behavior.

Subsequently, she encouraged adults to help children label and express their distraught feelings, thereby clarifying the emotion. Finally, Dr. Housman advised resolving the conflict and following through. These steps, she assured listeners, would help children to learn how to better understand, regulate, and cope with emotions, thereby leading to emotional intelligence.

Dr. Housman pointed out that research shows that by helping our children learn and accept limits and manage their emotions in the process, they also learn to develop self-control and self-regulation. These skills, along with other facets of emotional intelligence—such as emotional competence, empathy and other prosocial skills—are foundational to lifelong success.

Dr. Housman’s talk was one of a series of lectures for Beginnings parents and teachers funded by the Housman Institute, a training and research organization for early childhood education. Successive talks throughout the academic year will continue to educate parents and teachers.

Early Childhood Education, News

Early Childhood Teacher Training at Beginnings

Dr. Donna Housman

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. And again. Training is critical for our early childhood educators. A professionalized, well-trained workforce will help ensure that we, as a nation and as a state, provide our children the level of excellence that effective early childhood education demands.

But what kind of training do our early childhood educators need? Traditionally, teachers are taught to focus on developing cognitive skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics, but for young children, learning focused on emotional and social development is of primary importance. Emotional and social development provides the foundation for the development of academic skills. Persistence, maintaining focus during periods of frustration, patience, and perseverance are all essential to learning.

That is why children need the most effective instructors to teach them not only facts and figures, but also to help construct the building blocks of emotional competence. Teachers need training on how to help young children develop the emotional and social competencies central to academic and social success. They also must develop their own emotionality—awareness, expressiveness, and regulation skills—in order to model their behavior and reactions for younger learners.

At Beginnings School and Child Development Center, we not only begin our year with a week of training, but we continue to train our teachers weekly on these principles. We also provide professional development opportunities for our staff outside the classroom. Why?

Training is critical for our early childhood educators.

Parenting, emotion knowledge, emotion regulation, emotional competence, News

It's Okay to Tell Your Children You're Angry

Dr. Donna Housman

As a psychologist and founder of a child development center, I work with young children on building emotional competence. Emotional competence, research shows, is a critical foundation in achieving lifelong academic and social success, as well as overall wellbeing.

Emotional competence is comprised of emotion knowledge and emotion regulation. Advances in neuroscience show that by three years of age, 90% of a child’s brain has been developed and that during this time, the maturation of the brain is intricately connected to the ability to manage and control thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. As the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child noted in 2004, “When feelings are not managed or well regulated well, thinking can be impaired; when the brain is dealing with unregulated emotion, it cannot learn.”

In order to teach children emotional competence, we as adults also need emotional competence. As our childrens’ primary socializers, we need to know how to permit and promote appropriate expressions of behavior so that they can learn through the observation, imitation, modeling, guidance, and responsive reaction that emerge out of our close relationships with them.

But the reality is that permitting and promoting appropriate expressions of behavior in ourselves can sometimes be difficult, particularly when it comes to expressive language. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard adults mislabel emotions, especially when it comes to anger. While Ryan hitting his sister might make Mommy angry, Mommy, perhaps for fear of being too harsh, tells Ryan instead his actions made her sad.

Granularity of language matters, especially when it comes to emotion. A recent article in The New York Times by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, points to studies that show that emotional granularity allows people to be more agile at regulating their emotions.

“People who achieve it are also likely to have longer, healthier lives,” she writes. “They go to the doctor and use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. Cancer patients, for example, have lower levels of harmful inflammation when they more frequently categorize, label, and understand their emotions.”

Feldman Barrett also points out, as we know so well at Beginnings, that schoolchildren who learn more emotion concepts have improved social behavior and academic performance.

Recognition and identification, expression, understanding and regulation are all important parts of emotional competence. To develop it in our children, we need those same skills ourselves. So the next time you are mad at your child for bonking the dog on the head or pulling a sibling’s hair or dumping that lasagna you just burned on the floor, please don’t say you’re sad, if in fact you are angry.

Your child will be better off for it.

Parenting, News

10 Ways Creative Play Helps Kids

Dr. Donna Housman

As adults, when we typically think of play, we embrace the thought of escaping from work, relishing the fantasies of just being able to have fun. Unfortunately for us, we tend to believe that play and work are mutually exclusive. To children, however, play is their "work," and they take it very seriously. As a result, play enables children to acquire some critical developmental skills that can serve them for the rest of their lives.

There are many definitions of play, but play here refers to creative, imaginative recreation created and directed by children (such as make-believe play, block play, etc.). Allowing children to self-direct their play gives them creative control and ownership of their domain, allowing them to express themselves in an uninhibited manner. In turn, their curiosity is fed, stretching their minds and promoting further learning.

Here is a top 10 list of the benefits of play for young children.

  1. Dramatic play develops self-control and self-regulation. While play is often associated with freedom, dramatic play is actually self-regulated. Take the example of children playing firemen: if a child begins crying, another child will point out that firemen don't cry and self-control must be exercised if the child is continue to play that role.
  2. Role-playing increases a child's concentration and attention span. Research shows that a child's ability to control their impulses is stronger when imaging a dramatic scene rather than a non-play situation. When asked to stand still for as long as possible, four-year-old children typically did not make it past one minute. But when asked to imagine themselves as castle guards, the children stood still for as long as four minutes.
  3. Play is one of the vital signs and contributors of health in children. Many health professionals see a direct link between the decline of active outdoor play and the increasingly alarming rise in childhood obesity.
  4. Engaging in active and creative play gives children a place to vent their stress and pent-up energy. Many experts feel that the rise in childhood anxiety and aggression can be linked to the increased focus on kindergarten curriculum on standardized testing and the corresponding decrease in indoor and outdoor creative playtime.
  5. Different types of play cultivate different fundamental developmental skills. "Large-motor" play, more commonly known as playground romping (sliding, climbing, swinging, etc.) develops coordination, balance, and a sense of self-awareness and of the space around oneself. Small-motor play, such as puzzle-making and stringing beads, develops fine-motor control, as well as dexterity. Rules-based play requires children to exercise self-control, as well as perform the social negotiation skills needed to adapt rules to changing scenarios.
  6. Role-playing promotes observation skills and increases verbal expression. Creating and filling out a fully-fashioned character requires children to drawn on their observations of the world around them. To communicate these observations, they further expand their vocabulary, connecting rules of effective communication with social interactions.
  7. Through play, children form hypotheses and play the processes to test them. Initiating special projects such as the production of a play or construction of a pillow fort provides invaluable venues for learning at many levels - learning that involves math, literacy, and even the basis of scientific method.
  8. Play teaches children the importance of pursuing their own ideas to a successful conclusion. Play allows children to internalize critical concepts and act out real life in an enjoyable, flexible manner that focuses on the process of learning, not the product.
  9. Play is linked to academic success. Research directly correlates play to children's ability to master such academic content as literacy and numeracy, problem-solving strategies, and group participation.
  10. Play fosters a child's social and emotional development. Play develops a child's executive center, which controls the higher brain functions associated with social and emotional abilities.

As a whole, research proves that creative play helps to develop, strengthen, and heighten children's creative, cognitive, emotional, physical, and social skills. It further promotes and enhances concentration, self-control, and regulation--all critical in achieving academic, social, and personal success throughout life.

Early Childhood Education, News

It's Not Just About Grit

Dr. Donna Housman

Grit is important. Perseverance, effort, the ability to get back up after you’ve been knocked down—these traits matter. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” “No one ever scored a goal without taking a shot.” “Success is dependent on effort.” Pick your adage, the message remains the same: effort brings reward.

Grit, as popularized by Angela Duckworth in her recent work, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, is in effect the ability to put forth continued effort despite seemingly insurmountable challenges. What really drives success is not genius, she suggests, but that combination of passion and long-term perseverance.

The reality, however, is that the primary ingredients for lifelong success are more expansive and begin within the first several years of life. In his recent New Yorker article, “The Limits of Grit”, David Denby skillfully explains why beliefs like Duckworth’s are misleading because they overlook this critical reality.

Denby does give credit where it’s due. As Denby notes, Duckworth and others do acknowledge the now widely accepted role that non-cognitive skills play in the academic and social success of a child. These include not just grit, but also self-control, zest, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity. But missing in that list of non-cognitive skills is emotional competence. Emotional competence is the ability to be aware of, constructively express, and effectively manage and deal with one’s own emotions and those of others. These skills are fundamental in the development of empathy and self-regulation (the ability to manage and control thoughts, emotions, and behaviors—all critical in learning).

So why is it so important to start to develop emotional competence in the earliest of years? Emotion is our first language and 90 percent of the brain is developed during the first three years of a child’s life. Research shows that this phase of “neuroplasticity” is when a child’s brain is most conducive to being shaped and rewired by daily experiences, interactions, and social environment. This development is informed by the interrelatedness of the brain’s emotional and cognitive circuitry. The more we strengthen emotional skills, the stronger the cognitive skills become.

In his article, Denby acknowledges the work of Jack Shonkoff, the director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, who stresses that children “who do not grow up in an environment of responsive relationships that has buffered them from excessive stress activation” are more likely to lack the foundation necessary for grit and motivation. Denby also points to the work of Paul Tough and others who note that early childhood programs in which adults are responsive to children’s emotional and physical needs can go a long way in helping children (particularly underserved ones) overcome hardship so that they can ultimately learn and succeed. These include programs with home visits by trained professionals who help parents engage meaningfully with their infants and pre-K centers in which babies are treated with affectionate warmth and enfolded.

But it is not enough to talk in vague or abstract terms about early childhood programs that are described as responsive or as treating very young children with warmth. We need to be much more specific about how early childhood programs can provide children critical emotional skills. We must implement evidence-based programs that specifically teach emotional competencies—the building blocks for what common parlance now calls emotional intelligence. We must train our teachers to provide our young children opportunities and experiences to learn how to become aware of, constructively express, and effectively manage and deal with their own emotions and those of others. These experiences are critical for building the emotional foundations for learning and for developing a strong, secure and successful sense of self. Grit is helpful, yes. But grit means nothing if children lack the emotional competence that is the basis on which their long-term health, wellbeing, and success is built.


NYT David Brooks Stresses Teaching Emotional Competence in Early Childhood Education

Dr. Donna Housman

I was delighted last week to read “The Building Blocks of Learning” by New York Times OpEd columnist David Brooks in which he noted that the most important education environment is the one that surrounds children in the first five years, “when the emotional foundations are being engraved,” and that the best programs are responsive, empathetic, and “guide them back to calmness.”

We are so thrilled that national discourse is at last recognizing not only the importance of early childhood education but also the importance of learning emotional competence at this phase of children’s development—long our primary focus here at Beginnings School.

To create a healthy society in which children become confident and successful contributors, we need to teach them at an early age how to identify, constructively express, manage, and effectively deal with their own emotions and those of others. These skills are critical in the development of self-regulation and should be taught from birth within the context of relationship in a nurturing, sensitive, and responsive environment. These emotional competencies are also pivotal in fostering empathy, kindness, and compassion—traits that today’s society sorely needs.

I commend Mr. Brooks for his perceptive observations and for bringing attention to this issue at a time when this country is finally willing to discuss the vital role of early education and its long-term impact on our children’s wellbeing and lifelong success.


The Need for Early Childhood Teacher Training

Dr. Donna Housman

I had the honor of running a workshop last week for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) at their annual professional development conference on the topic of training educators to teach self-regulation and the building blocks of emotional intelligence. The workshop underscored both how timely and how critical qualified, well-trained educators are in ensuring that our early childhood education programs succeed both at a local and national level.

Teaching children emotion regulation and self-regulation from birth helps develop the neural circuits for emotional intelligence, which are highly associated with executive function. Understanding the teacher’s role as socializer, addressing emotion in real time, and using age-appropriate tools are essential in teaching the emotional competencies necessary for developing emotional intelligence.

Some 120 educators and administrators attended my workshop and what most struck me was the number of attendees who approached me afterward to ask if I could provide similar training in their state. Their overwhelming interest in the ECSEL (Emotional Cognitive Social Emotional Learning) approach we employ at Beginnings School and in how we train our educators to deliver ECSEL was indicative of the growing recognition at both a state and national level of our need to put in place the requisite support to effectively provide the quality early childhood education that our country so needs.

As the first state to create a department of early education in 2005, Massachusetts is now expressing a similar interest. About ten days ago, the Boston Globe ran a story about House Speaker Bob DeLeo’s efforts around early childhood education. Speaker DeLeo is currently meeting with business leaders to develop a plan on how the state can not only increase access to early education but also improve its quality. A professionalized, well- trained workforce is key to ensuring that we, as a nation and as a state, provide our children the level of excellence that effective early childhood education demands, a need that at last is being given the recognition it deserves.

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