Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Teaching Tools: Child Development Resources for Families

- by Wheeler DeAngelis, Constanza Henderson, Myra O'Neal, and Mahoussie Pierre, Toddler 1 South Teachers

Dear Families,
With several more weeks at home stretching before us, we are choosing to see this time as an opportunity - an opportunity to offer you a peek behind the curtain of our work that most years we don’t have the time or venue to share. As child development experts, we have a wide range of knowledge that we draw upon in our work with and understanding of your children. We would like to share some of these with you. In this post, you will find information on the following topics:
  • Roles
  • Sensitive Observation
  • Scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development
  • Being an "Oppositional Partner"
  • Infant Directed Speech
  • Bloom's Taxonomy

We hope that these concepts, theories, and tips will help you to feel like you have more tools in the toolbox for optimizing this time together with your children. And as always questions and further discussion are highly encouraged.


Roles are really important to children. They help children to understand what they can expect of specific people. For your children, who have been attending childcare since before they can remember, there has always been a difference between parents and teachers. From the child's perspective, teachers spend the day with them and offer tests and provocations. When children are at school, it is their version of going to “work.” When children are at home, you engage in a less structured way  with  your child while still providing boundaries and limits.  

We want to acknowledge that the condensation of these two roles is really hard on everybody. And some of us may find it impossible. That is OK! Children are built to learn, regardless of circumstance. Whatever you are doing to be present for your child is enough for them. Don’t bend over backwards to try to fill a role you’re not comfortable being in. 

For those who feel like you can be more intentional in the materials and activities you provide in this new combined “parent-teacher” role, we encourage you to lean into it a little. Simply acknowledging to yourself what role your child is asking you to play can be a big stress reliever and can guide you and your child toward better outcomes.

Taking on the "parent-teacher" role can be scary and since it is a new role for some of you we wanted to put together a quick little guide to some "teacher skills" that might help you in your interactions. 

First and foremost always remember that teaching is as much art as it is science. A well laid plan can mitigate a lot of the natural chaos that comes with toddlerhood but never all of it. That is when intention, flexibility, and engagement come into play. Just because something isn’t going as planned doesn’t mean that the learning has stopped. It is great to have expectations for how activities will play out, but if your child has other safe and reasonable ideas for how they want to play, go with it! This is sometimes how provocations unfold even in the classroom. Sure a cooking project teaches a lot about math and chemistry, but hitting the side of the mixing bowl with a spoon teaches about acoustics and physics. And if that’s what your toddler wants to learn today, then steer into it! And always involve them in cleaning up their own messes afterwards!

Sensitive Observation

What is it?
Sensitive observation is the process of stepping back and observing, not engaging with a child who is focused on some activity. Taking careful note of the contexts in which your observation is taking place, and how those contexts are affecting the child.

Why does it matter at home?
If you can find the time, even just a few minutes of sensitive observation can make a huge difference in how you understand your child's world. The goal of any good observation is to synthesize what we see and create more clear questions for ourselves to answer. 

Is your child getting cranky around the same time everyday even though they’re fed and rested and clean? Well that’s where sensitive observation comes in. Is there something happening that your child can hear but not see? Are they anticipating something frightening that will happen soon or reacting late to something that happened earlier in the day?

Through observing a child in their environment we can begin discern the reasoning behind a child’s behavior rather than reacting to the behaviors themselves.

"Do less; observe more; enjoy most." - Magda Gerber


Scaffolding and Zone of Proximal Development 
What is it?
These two concepts are at the core of most of our work with your children. Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), is a part of a theoretical framework that separates all potential activities into three categories:

1. Things a child can do on their own.
2. Things a child can't do. 
3. Things that they can do with help.
In this image the staircase and the adult illustrate the concept of scaffolding.

This third category is the child's ZPD. Scaffolding is simply a term for all the help offered by an adult to move an activity out of their "can't do" and into their Zone of Proximal Development.

Why does it matter at home?
An understanding of which category your child keeps each activity in, will help greatly with your activity selection. 

- Activities from their "things I can't do" category will lead to the shortest and most frustrated play sessions. 

- Offering your child an activity in their “things I can do” category, like a familiar book or puzzle, will lead to longer more focused play times. 

- Activities from their ZPD will lead to the longest play and highly meaningful interactions  but will  some require adult facilitation.

Being an “oppositional partner” 

What is it?
Occasionally when you play with your child, create your own play plan and stick to it. If your child asks you for the materials you are using, tell them that you are using them and make a plan for when they can have a turn.

Why does it matter at home?
Children learn a lot from playing with a partner. The give and take of these interactions are crucial for positive socio-emotional development but they are hard to replicate at home without another toddler. It is more than the practice of turn-taking, it also teaches patience and respect for the play needs of others. Creating a play plan of your own and sticking to it can help to replicate some of these interactions.

Infant Directed Speech
What is it?
Infant Directed Speech (IDS), is the way that adults alter their voice to speak to children. Basically it is a system of slowing and simplifying your speech patterns in order to give children more time to process what they are hearing. IDS is characterized by higher pitched voices and increased repetition. It's a reflexive process and you all do it everyday. It should not be confused with "Baby talk" which is the removal of informative words from a sentence and replacing them with gibberish. Baby talk does not provide the same developmental benefits of IDS.

Why does it matter at home?
Toddlerhood is a critical period for language development. In normal times, children develop their understanding of prosody, grammar and vocabulary by hearing how people around them speak and using what they hear to create a linguistic baseline. 

In quarantine times, children are exposed to fewer of these "in the wild" language encounters, so the linguistic model that you are providing for them takes on added weight. A good rule of thumb is that you should talk to children in the way that you hope they will, one day, be able to talk to you.

Bloom’s Taxonomy  

What is it?'s Taxonomy is a hierarchical model that classified learning objectives/outcomes from least complicated to most complicated.

Why does it matter at home?
Bloom's Taxonomy is a great way to evaluate communication between yourself and a child. When adults play with children they tend to ask a lot of questions. This tendency is a common, and developmentally critical, piece of  IDS. 

Asking questions helps children reflect on their own actions but it also increases how much of their brain they are using during that interaction. And for this reason, the type of question we ask matters tremendously. 

For instance, answering the question "Is that a tiger?" requires less thought processing than answering the question "What is that?" Asking "where is it going?" or "how does it move?" require even further engagement. By steadily increasing the complexity of the types of questions you are asking (moving from the base of the pyramid up) you will increase the depth of your child’s engagement with the subject material. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions that are “too complicated.” Toddler’s have a built-in failsafe for this scenario. If you ask them a question that they don’t have the underlying knowledge to answer, they will either not answer you at all or answer a completely different question instead. 


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