Separation Anxiety: Tips, Tricks, and Comforting Words

Drop off can be a difficult time for both caregivers and infants. As our school looks forward to reopening after our closure due to COVID, we reflected that while transitions to school can be tricky, there are strategies to help ease anxiety. Amanda Rhine, Brandi Gordon, Lida Barthol, and Julia Plant (pictured above respectively), educators in SEEC’s infant classes, shared their tips and tricks for both families and students transitioning back into the classroom. 

What advice would you give to parents to navigate drop off?  

BG: I would say, make the child a part of the conversation. Even if they are young you can communicate with them about where you’re going to go, who you’re going to see, and what you see as you go. Make it a part of the daily adventure so it’s not a scary quiet walk into the school building, especially at the beginning. You, as the grown up, can even talk about your own anxieties by saying “I am nervous to drop you off, it’s our first day. I’m going to miss you, but I’m going to come back.”  

LB: I agree with you, Brandi 

AR: I think also being gentle with yourself as the adult in this situation. Yeah, you might be anxious, and that’s an okay thing to feel and that’s to be expected. Especially with everyone being home for so long with COVID-19, to hand your child off to someone else is a very scary thing and it’s okay to feel that. It’s okay to give yourself grace with that moment and say, “We’ve been through a lot this year, there’s just a lot of emotions happening,” and that’s an okay thing to feel. 

LB: Yeah, I agree. And don’t feel like you should feel one way or another. Maybe on the flip side, you’re thinking, “Thank God someone is taking my child” and you feel guilty for feeling that way but that’s okay! Just have some loving compassion for yourself.  

JP: And related to that, having compassion for your child. They might feel totally different from you, they might feel different one day and to remember that this is a process so they might suddenly hit a stage when a couple weeks in they feel really sad to leave you. It might finally hit them, which is totally normal and we’re here to work through that with them and provide reassurance.  

LB: Having a definitive goodbye routine can also be helpful.  

JP: Yes. Once you have a routine, it’s important to keep it up. Although it might be difficult, it could actually be easier for your child if you don’t pick them back up from the teacher once you’ve said goodbye, even if in the moment you might want to do that to comfort them.  

LB: Absolutely, I realize that intuitively, it might seem easier if you could walk them into school and stay for a while but creating a set routine makes that transition easier in the long run. That’s not to say we’re all “Rip the Band-Aid Off” kinds of people. 

BG: Whatever type of goodbye that the families want/where goodbyes happen, we’re here to facilitate that. I think the key thing is consistency. However that goodbye happens for that particular family, is great as long as it happens that way every time. And to remember that your family’s goodbye might not look like another family’s goodbye and that’s okay! We’re not going to judge your goodbye routine. 

AR: I think that’s a great point Brandi. Goodbyes aren’t going to look the same for everyone. What your kid needs is what your kid needs. We’re here to meet your child where they are and to meet you where you are as a family.  

What else do you want parents to know about the transition back to school? 

JP: It can be helpful for even the youngest of children to have some information about the upcoming transition. Given this, we’ve discussed sending our pictures home to families so they can get to know our faces before returning to school. We’ve also discussed sending a schedule of a typical day. Being able to say to the child “We’ve seen Miss Brandi and Miss Amanda’s pictures and we’re going to meet them today. I’m really excited to meet them, too! First you’re going to have snack and then you’ll do this, etc.” It’s really reassuring to the caregiver but also to the child once they get into that routine. Knowing that they do this, this and this, and then their family comes back.  

LB: We definitely want to give the families some context for what happens after they are dropped off with us. Like, we take them inside, wash their hands, handle their feelings, and then the rest of the day looks like this. We also have a Shutterfly page going, which we update periodically, so families can see what their child does during the day.  

AR: Talking about that routine and schedule with your child is a great way to work through some of that anxiety.  

LB: Yes! Even with the little tiny babies, talking about the schedule and the routine is so important. I don’t think people realize that they can and should talk to their infant about everything that’s happening. They might not understand the words, but they do understand it on some level. 

JP: You definitely notice that babies pick up on their schedules. In the past, if a caregiver was running later than normal, we’ve all seen one of the babies notice and look around like “Why am I still here? I always leave before we transfer to afternoon snack time.” They know their schedule once they get into that routine.  

AR: Part of narrating the day, whether it’s getting ready to leave the house or whatever, is so important to their development and their understanding how of the world functions. And Lida, you’re right, they might not understand every word, but they do have some understanding of what is happening and what order it’s happening it. It’s exactly what we do in our classroom. Every time we change a diaper, or do anything, we narrate that experience. “Okay, we’re going to put you on the changing table. We’re going to take off your pants or onesie. We’re going to put you in this clean diaper.” Everything we do, we’re narrating all the time. It gives the child a sense of control and understanding because at some point they begin to understand the words and can begin to clearly voice their opinions.  

What does separation anxiety look like for children?  

LB: Young children, specifically infants, are going through object permanence. They are learning that when you leave and you’re gone for a few hours, you can return, and you still exist. I had a mentor once who’s thing was neurobiology and attachment theory. She was like, “Separating from your caregiver that first time is technically a little bit of a relational trauma. But because it’s trauma that’s why we have to be therapeutic.” And that’s why it’s our job to be a warm, welcoming, consistent caregiver, to be therapeutic for the baby.  

BG: It’s good to note that we understand what this does and that we’re here to support and be there for your child.  

LB: With every kind of rupture, there is repair. It is a stress, there is not denying that it is a stressful event for the baby, but they are fully capable of moving through it and being resilient. It’s not going to do permanent damage.  

AR: It’s also worth mentioning that children pick up on stress from others. How other children are feeling around them, how adults are feeling around them. We’ve all seen it in the classroom. If you as the adult are feeling as calm as you can and emanating energy that the new faces your child is encountering are warm, safe people then your child is going to pick up on that as well. There might be some initial tears but there will be a quick turnaround of, “Okay, I’m safe here. I know that these people are taking care of me. I can feel that it is calm and cozy so I am okay.”  

LB: Exactly! Babies need co-regulators for their emotions during their early stages, so our emotions are so important to their emotional wellbeing. But as we mentioned earlier, your child’s emotions and anxiety might vary day to day and that’s totally normal!  

Will it affect them developmentally? 

AR:  No! Separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate, and it won’t affect your child in the long run.  We realize that this year especially, separation anxiety might look a little different with our youngest students because their immediate caregivers might be the only people they’ve had any long-term exposure to. It’s now been one year with just primary caregivers and so separation anxiety might be heightened and that’s to be expected, but it does not mean that it will be detrimental to their long-term development. Building bonds with new people does take time, but SEEC educators move at the pace of the child and meet them where they are emotionally. 

How do you handle separation anxiety as teachers? 

LB: We’ve talked about it a little bit already, but really being a therapeutic, calming center for the child. 

BG: Being that calming sound board for the child to have whatever feelings they want to have.  

LB: Yes, I’m never going to tell a child that their emotions are wrong. I would never tell a child to stop crying, instead I would say “I know it’s really sad when your grown-up has to leave. It’s really hard to leave your favorite person.”  

AR: We all firmly believe as infant teachers that your child’s feelings and emotions are valid. It’s our job to help them navigate this first year of school and all the changes that come with it. We’re also here to help families navigate how they’re feeling. We’re here for all emotions, adult and child! 

How to Prepare Young Children for the Cicadas

It’s hard to believe it’s been 17 years since the Brood X cicadas last emerged and took over the DMV!  Many adults now might remember the last time they emerged, or if you are new to the area this might be your first brush with these noisy neighbors. Some might enjoy the cicadas but there are plenty who are less than enthused about the upcoming emergence. The sudden onslaught of many large insects can be very strange or unnerving for young children, particularly if they do not already have a comfort with insects and bugs. Here are some tips for how to help your child prepare for and even enjoy this rare occurrence, as well as build positive memories for the next time!  

Describe What Will Happen  

For children who are old enough (around three and up) try talking very simply about what will happen when the cicadas emerge. Try these phrases: “There will be lots of insects called cicadas. They will be large, and they will fly. They will make a very loud sound and we will hear them during the day and at night. They cannot hurt you. Sometimes they might fly near you or land on you. If that happens you can stand still until they fly off.”  Ask your child what questions they have about cicadas and try to find out the answers together.  For all children, even babies and toddlers, use images and videos of cicadas to get them used to what they will look and sound like.

Safely Handling Cicadas  

There are actually a lot of reasons that the cicadas are great examples to use to teach children about insects. First, cicadas are completely harmless, they cannot sting or bite, and they are not poisonous. Because they use their vast numbers to overwhelm predators and don’t try to hide or flee, they are quite docile and easy to catch, and in fact have a rather low sense of self preservation. They are also very large and easy for small hands to handle. Just remember cicadas are not pets and should be allowed to remain free. For a child who might be uncomfortable handling a live cicada they can try touching the exoskeletons shed by the larvae when they metamorphose into adults. You’ll be able to find these crunchy hollow shells everywhere when the larvae start to emerge.   

Become Citizen Scientists  

Even if your child does not want to handle or interact with the cicadas themselves, there are still lots of ways to learn from the emergence. For example:

  • Try using this Learning Lab collection of renditions of cicadas in artwork to compare and contrast with live cicadas.
  • Create your own drawings and art based on cicadas. You could even write a cicada haiku and submit it to this contest
  • Check out the website Friend to Cicadas which has lots of kid appropriate videos and information that you can share with your child and help them learn more.  
  • Put your observational skills to the test and help scientists track where the cicadas are emerging using the Cicada Safari app.  

No matter your or your child’s comfort level with creepy crawlies, there are ways to engage and learn from this cicada emergence. Teaching the children in your life to respect and appreciate nature is critical to making them feel connected to world around them and helping them become good stewards of the planet for generations to come.   

SEEC at Home: Environment

For many families engaging in virtual learning the delineation between home and school has all but disappeared. Our preschool teachers thought it be helpful to share a few things about how we set up and implement different strategies in our SEEC classrooms. The tools we use at school may also be helpful for establishing routines and daily schedules at home and most strategies are easy to adapt! Today we’ll share some specific techniques about how we set up our school environment to help young children gain independence and success.

Five pillows sit on top of blankets in an alcove.

Cozy Corner/Safe Space

Cozy corners provide a safe space for children to go and are needed now more than ever. They help children to regulate their emotions by taking space and time to process. At SEEC, different classrooms set up their cozy corners differently, but they all serve the same purpose. Here is a list of items that might be in a cozy corner: 

  •  Pillows
  •  A soft rug or something to sit on
  •  Lovies
  • Sensory items like a stress ball, liquid timer, or sensory bag 
  • Calming pictures, like photos family or a favorite place
A child puts up the label "backpack" on a cubby in a classroom. Two labels are seen below: "clothes" and "Teacher Cubby".

Labels 

Labels have a several benefits. First, they help make clean up quicker! When shelves, containers, and or cabinets are labeled, children can figure out where things go on their own. Labels also help children develop their pre-literacy skills; they reinforce the idea that words have meaning. They can be handwritten or printed, as long as your child knows what they are. If you can use images of the actual object, that can be helpful. In the classroom, we label as much as we can including the following: 

  • Containers for toys and the shelves they go on 
  •  Sink, soap dispenser
  •  Art materials
A child washes their hands at a sink with photo instructions displayed on the wall above the sink.

Photo Instructions  

We try to use photo instructions whenever possible. While children can’t read written instructions, they can follow photo instructions. Photo instructions are step by step instructions using images to cue the children.  

Using photo instructions: Go over them with your child first. Say the steps as you point to the images. Over time, remind your child to follow the pictures when they need help. Eventually, they will feel confident using the image all on their own. Photo instructions are helpful in the bathroom, for getting dressed, for getting ready to go outside, and more! 

Making your own: For these, we try to use real images of the children doing the actions in the instructions, but you can use clip art images, hand drawn images, or whatever you have on hand. Just make sure that you go over them with your child before implementing them.  

A child uses a small towel to wipe a door.

Tools for Children at Their Level  

Young children are learning to establish their independence and providing them with opportunities to exercise that independence is important. In order to facilitate those opportunities, we place the tools they need in spots where children can access them. By providing them with that space and those tools you are showing them that this is a job meant for them! 

For example, later in the year we will have friends help set up for lunch. This means putting out the placemats, utensils, plates, cups and napkins. We make sure these are in a low place so they can access so they can have the independence to take on the job themselves. Children also start to help clean up after themselves by stacking chairs and cleaning spills. 

Take Your Time

This is a very trying time for families with young children. While we offer these ideas to help with structure in your home, finding time to implement them can be hard. Try doing one strategy a month, or whatever timeframe works for you. Caregivers are doing the impossible right now – you’re doing great!


Interested in what else the classrooms and the full-time school look like? Check out the dates for our virtual open houses for the 2021 – 2022 school year.

Trey & Freddie Gray

This blog is authored by SEEC educator Dana Brightful.


One of the hardest things I’ve had to do was talk to my 4year-old about racism and what that looks like in the world. I didn’t think I would have to have this conversation at such a young age. Our family had always talked about physical features and celebrated my son’s beautiful brown skin, big brown eyes and curly brown hair. We made it a point to also let him know how loved he was by not just his immediate family but his SEEC family as well. His love for silly dance moves, jokes that didn’t quite make sense yet, learning, and all things Thomas made him one unique and special little human to his community. So when he looked up at me with sad brown eyes and said, “Why can’t we go to Baltimore to see Thomas again?” you can imagine that it broke my heart. How was I going to explain to my 4-year-old what had happened in Baltimore and the long history that preceded these events?

This question came during the riots in Baltimore after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. Citizens were outraged about the ongoing injustices African Americans face by the hands of the police and judicial system. How was I going to explain something so complex to my young child? As an educator I had approached these sort of difficult topics with my students before, but as a mom it was breaking my heart. I was not just sad for my child, but for the lives of the young men and women who have died as a result of these injustices. What was even more difficult was that I knew that this was the first of many conversations to come. Though it would look different over the years, the underlying theme would remain the same: some people do not value your body because of the color of your skin. But I took a moment to breathe and give myself pause so I could carefully consider how I introduced this concept to my 4-year-old.

I encourage adults who are faced with this challenge to pause and reflect and say to your child, “I need a moment to take some deep breaths before we talk about your question.” It does two things: it allows you to reflect on your emotions and think about how to proceed and it shows your child you are taking them seriously. I pulled him next to me and asked him to sit near me. He immediately climbed into my lap, which grounded me emotionally. I began with the facts: the people in Baltimore were upset and had been protesting so the Mayor shut everything down to minimize the amount of damage done to the city and to ensure that people remained safe. He remembered what protesting was (either from SEEC or talks at home) and asked why the people were doing it. I very simply stated, “Because they feel as if many young men and women aren’t being treated fairly based on the color of their skin.” I added, “ Sometimes people will not like you, or me, or daddy because our skin has more melanin making it appear browner in tone. Some people will not treat us kindly or fairly, which isn’t okay.” He then asked, “If all the people protesting were brown like us.” I told him, “No, which is a good thing. It’s important for the people who don’t like us to see that not everyone thinks like them. They need to understand that no matter what your skin color is, we all deserve to be treated like humans.” He then asked, “Were there people who died?” I was unsure exactly what he was referring to, so before answering I asked him for clarification, which is always a good thing to do so you are not assuming what your child is talking about. Often times children have ideas or thoughts in their head that we are not aware of unless we ask for clarification. He said, “Were there people who died and was that why the protesters were upset.” I immediately began to cry. It’s okay to cry and feel emotions in front of your child. It humanizes you and lets them know how you are feeling. Through tears I let him know that, “Yes people died and that these deaths were unnecessary.” Finally, I let him know that he shouldn’t feel afraid. I told him that part of my job as his mom was to protect him as much as possible and to always fight for him.

We ended this particular conversation with hugs. I made certain to reassure him that even if people don’t like him because of his skin, that his village (the people who love him and care for him) will fight for him because I didn’t want him feeling overwhelmed by the idea of people not liking him. I needed him to understand that while there may be people in the world who do not like him because of his skin color, that he shouldn’t worry because their are people who love him for the human being his is and that surpasses any dislike in the world. This talk happened nearly 5 years ago and we continue to discuss racial injustice and inequality. That conversation laid an important foundation for my son. It encouraged him to use his voice to be an advocate for himself and others. It also gave him the ability to recognize allies for our people. It’s a talk that will continue in our household and now includes my youngest son as well. While you may never have the same experience as me or my children, I hope that you understand that our feelings are the same as yours. We are sad, upset and, hurting but most of all, we are in awe of not just our city’s outpouring of love and advocacy, but the world’s. My sincere hope is that you read this and are able to take something away from it to help in your discussions with your own child. This is an ongoing journey for us all and one that will prove for be rewarding down the line.

Careful Looking: A Window into a Child’s Mind

This blog is authored by infant teacher Lida Barthol.


At SEEC, we often talk about “careful looking” as a strategy for helping children engage with objects. But careful looking is not only a tool we employ during lessons, it is woven into every aspect of our work as teachers. Back in 2016, I trained with the Resources for Infant Educarers, an organization devoted to promoting respectful care for infants and toddlers. Part of that training involved observing infants at play for long stretches of time, noticing the tiny details in their movements and facial expressions. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what we were expected to gain through this observation. This year, though, I have finally started to process it — in large part thanks to a book I recently read, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. Odell writes:

Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves. Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding — seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions — and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known. (p. 104)

It turns out, observing babies and young children is a bit like watching the ocean or the night sky: sometimes you just need to sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence. Beyond that, observation serves many practical functions in the classroom. It enables us to plan lessons; negotiate classroom dynamics; and notice not only the milestones, but the hundreds of in-between steps of each child’s development. And for parents who are now simultaneously negotiating working from home and home-schooling their kids, it can be an equally powerful tool.

 Back in March, many people waved goodbye to the last vestiges of a work-life/home-life balance. One particularly popular meme that surfaced in the spring depicted Dolly Parton, with the overlaid text, “When you’re working from home but you’re also a parent: working 9-9:10, 9:45-10, 10:20-10:35, 12:30-2:00, 2:15-2:16…” In other words, attention is in short supply. In fact, having the time and space to simply observe is a privilege. In other childcare jobs I’ve held, low ratios and unsupportive administration meant the day was about putting out fires (figuratively — except for once), sticking to a strict schedule, and rushing the kids around enough that they’ll nap well. If any of that sounds like a day in your home, I understand. Attention is a luxury, but it’s one that pays dividends. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, says, “That kind of deep attention that we pay as children is something that I cherish, that I think we all can cherish and reclaim, because attention is that doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, the doorway to reciprocity.” In the context of both teaching and parenting, giving yourself just a second to deeply see and appreciate that tiny, wise person in your life might be just the self-care you need. 

It can be hard to master the type of open awareness that Kimmerer describes, especially when so many demands are being made on our attention. Instead, I find it more helpful to keep some concrete questions in my mind while observing children at play. Here are just a few places to start:

Observing Movement — What is this child doing with their body? How are they doing it? How might they feel in their body? 

Developmental milestones can be an area of stress for new parents. It is important to remember that every baby reaches each milestone in their own time, in their own way. Paying attention not only to the milestones your child is working on, but to their own unique strategies for accomplishing those milestones, can give you a more robust sense of their motor development. 

Observing Perspective — What is this child noticing? What knowledge are they using right now? What might they feel about themselves in this moment? 

One of the things I find most rewarding about teaching is seeing how children express their unique perspectives from the very beginning. For every play activity we offer at school, there will never be two completely identical reactions — some children swim in paint, some use a brush, and some won’t touch it at all for weeks. When we pay attention to how our children authentically respond to the world, we get new information about who they are as learners and as people.

Observing Relationships — What social skills are at play here? What is being practiced? If there is conflict, how can I support each child with as little intervention as possible? How can we navigate this conflict in a way that honors the perspective of each child?

Once, as a teacher in the toddler room, my co-teacher Brandi and I pointed a projector at the wall and encouraged the kids to stand in the light and find their shadows. Two of our little guys (let’s call them G and J) marched back and forth with their arms in the air, watching as their shadows did the same. J tripped over his own feet and fell, but before I could offer help, G — who was about half his size — reached down, offered his little hands, and helped him up. Once they were both standing, G helped J brush himself off. For the next couple weeks, the kids would often playfully “fall down” and help each other up. We are often taught that young children are extremely self-centered, but when we know how to look for it, we see that they are also capable of deep levels of compassion and empathy. 

Observing Yourself — What is happening in my body? If there is stress, where is it coming from?

Even on the best possible day in the classroom, there will always be moments when it feels like everything might just fall apart. Sometimes it takes us too long to get back from a museum visit and suddenly the whole class is crying for a nap at once, or we come back from a summer day splashing in the sprinkler and find we need to change 8 wiggly babies out of soaking wet diapers and swimsuits in time to eat lunch. The best way that I have found to keep my cool in these moments is by paying attention to my own body and breath. Often, I realize that it’s not the crying babies that cause me stress, but rather, my adult expectations about how something is supposed to be — How can drinking one bottle take this long? It shouldn’t be this hard to get baby shoes on! Why aren’t you already asleep? Observing when these thoughts start to creep in helps me to deepen my patience and respond with compassion, even under pressure.

These are just a few examples for how we use observation as a tool in our teaching, but practicing awareness is a lifelong project. For those who are interested in learning more about the type of observation I practiced during my training with RIE, author and podcast host Janet Lansbury has shared an example on her blog. Tom Hobson, better known as Teacher Tom, has also written at length on his blog about his observations as a teacher in a cooperative school. For educators who are interested in going deeper, I highly recommend the book, The Art of Awareness: How Observation Can Transform Your Teaching by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter. 

Virtual Holiday

This blog is authored by SEEC educator, Dana Brightful.


When my Kindergartener asked about the upcoming holiday season, I was thrown for a loop. I hadn’t thought about what that would look like since many of our family members fall into high risk categories. It never crossed my mind that we would be here, mid-October still having not seen many of our relatives. Some families have adjusted to what seems to be the new normal for now, while others like mine, are taking slow steps to get to a place of feeling safe in public spaces and with extended family. 

A drawing with red, orange, yellow and black crayon.
Alex’s drawing of suggested foods for our cooking & video dinner, October 11, 2020

So, to acknowledge how my child was feeling, we sat down and talked about some of the things they would miss about not having our “normal” holiday visits. I allowed Alex to stear the conversation to give him control. At a time like this, it’s important that children feel a sense of control when so many rules surrounding social distancing can make them feel like they cannot control anything. After verbally sharing his ideas, I asked him to write (or draw) the things that we usually would need for our family holiday visits. As he drew, he named things like foods we typically eat, games we play, activities we do and people we see during the holidays. Next, we talked about how we could make some of these things happen virtually. Alex was definitely sad about not seeing some of his family but I reminded him how it’s important we do our best to continue to social distance from our family members whose preconditions put them at a higher risk at the moment. While Zoom, FaceTime and Google Calls cannot replace the hugs from relatives, together we thought of these three ways to make the holidays a little more like pre-Covid days. 

1.) Send a themed care package: Alex thought of some of the things his great grandparents like that we usually bring during the holidays. We plan to pick up certain items they cannot get in their state and ship it to them with a special message for the season. 

An adult and two children rinse rice in a bowl in a sink.

2.) Send & exchange recipes with friends: While we won’t see many of our friends this season, having a piece of something special to share with his friends was equally as important to Alex. We are going to print out and decorate some the recipes we use during the holidays (i.e. sugar cookies) and ask that our friends share a favorite recipe of theirs in return. 

3.) Cooking & Video dinner: Alex has celebrated his birthday virtually and thought it might be nice to have dinner virtually as well. We are planning to work with one of our family members to create a menu together, take photos while we cook and finally eat together virtually. Later, we plan to exchange the cooking photos and collage together. 

While getting closer to pre-Covid days seems to be on the horizon, my family and I recognize we are still a way out. We are doing our best to adjust and be mindful of the people at risk. We are all in this together looking for a little light to help us feel a little bit better. Hopefully these ideas will help make everyone’s winter season feel like home. 

Distance Learning Discoveries: Making the Virtual Tactile

Digital learning provides significant opportunities to learn and connect while physically apart, however it also comes with great challenges, especially when working with the youngest of children. Over the last seven months our school has been engaging children through virtual means, and we have found some successful techniques that we’d like to share in the event it helps other educators. One strategy that remains consistent with our in-person approach is the use of objects. This blog is authored by Juliana Venegas and Sarah Huffman, one of our preschool teaching teams, and shares their experience using objects with their class in a virtual format. 


Why objects? 

SEEC uses an object-based learning approach because both museum objects and everyday objects are a powerful learning tool as they tell stories, are tangible, real, and spark wonder. When we moved to virtual lessons, we wanted to keep true to the object-based approach we use in the classroom by sharing museum objects digitally and encouraging children to bring related objects to our online lessons. While some aspects of a museum object are lost when sharing digitally, we found that the addition of children bringing their own objects was a benefit we didn’t have when in the classrooms or museums. Having each child hold an object gives them a tangible way to connect lesson content to their immediate lives as the objects were coming from their own homes.

Children’s Response 

The children responded very well when bringing objects with them to virtual lessons. They could not wait to share what they brought and enjoyed seeing what their peers brought as well. They also seemed to have a sense of pride in the objects they had to share, which may have increased their overall engagement in lessons. They were quick to make comparisons between each other’s objects and the objects and images we shared in our PowerPoint presentations. Often, the children would recognize another item that we were showing but had not asked them to bring; then they would excitedly go find it in their home to point to or show us. We did not ask them to do this, but we supported these opportunities when they occurred. 

Objects Support Anti-Bias Education  

Having students bring their own objects to our virtual lessons supports the Anti-Bias Educational approach really well. Children were able to closely examine the objects they brought and compare them to the museum objects on the screen or to those of their peers. As teachers, we facilitated this by giving each student an opportunity to describe their item. Then we would go to each of the other students to ask if their object had something similar or if it looked different. It seemed that it may have been easier to have their own object than to share an object like we would do in the classroom because the children could continuously examine their objects throughout the lesson (they didn’t have to remember what they looked at before). After everyone shared, we, as teachers, would ask if all the objects did the same job and if they were all tools. This reiterated the idea that while some tools for mixing, for example, looked different, they all did the same thing. We would often connect that idea back to previous lessons: all our kitchens look different, but they are all places where we cook and spend time with loved ones. We all look different, but we are all chefs and help in the kitchen. 

a child sitting in front of an open kitchen cabinet, pulling out kitchen tools such as bowls, measuring cup, and cupcake pan.

Recommendations  

Having children bring an object to a virtual lesson is a great way to ensure you are reaching all different types of learners. Some children are perfectly fine sitting in front of a computer screen and listening to their peers and teachers, while others need to have a tangible object in their hands to help focus. 

Also make sure to think outside the box and provide options. We were very aware that families may not be comfortable or able to go out to purchase materials. When we asked families to send their child to our lessons with an object, we made sure to provide options. For example, during our unit on cooking, when learning about mixers, we asked our class to bring something they use to stir – some brought spoons, some brought whisks, and some brought hand mixers. Being general about what we asked for allowed families to use what was accessible to them and provided an opportunity for children to engage by sharing what they brought. Sharing objects in this way also allows children to see the variation and nuances of a theme or concept, expanding their view of the world. 

Lastly, be prepared in case a child does not bring an object. Families had a lot going on, so we didn’t want to make any family or child feel bad if they forgot to bring an item or didn’t have time to look for a particular item. In this case, one of the teachers may not show their object, instead opting to ‘not have an object’ as well. The teacher leading the lesson would reassure the students that it was okay to not have an item and would facilitate careful looking of others’ objects and the images on the screens. Even without an object, there were still ways for every child to participate. 

Distance Learning Discoveries: Creating a Character

While digital learning provides significant opportunities to learn and connect while physically apart, it comes with great challenges, especially when working with the youngest of children. This summer our school has been engaging our students through virtual means, and we have found some successful techniques that we’d like to share in the event it helps other educators. One such strategy is to create a character. This blog is authored by pre-k 4 educator Krystiana Kaminski, the creator of Penny Featherbottom.


The character of Penny Featherbottom came about after hearing that our stay-at-home order was being extended and I was feeling frustrated and upset by the news. I needed some cheering up and I thought my families might as well. 

A sock puppet with red button eyes, a yarn mustache and open mouth.

A few weeks before, we had finished our unit on Natural Phenomenon. Before moving on to a new unit, we did a week of Just for Fun which was light on academics and had more humorous stories and activities. The children seemed to like it, so we decided to continue it on Fridays. That week we were using one of our favorite Sesame Street songs, “Mahna Mahna”, and we thought that creating sock puppets could be a fun activity. After a few attempts, (my first one was very scary looking), Penny Featherbottom was created along with their glorious mustache. I began to make videos with Penny that explored our current topic. The funny thing was when I was filming, the mustache came off accidentally and I just went with it. It later became a huge part of the narrative as Penny tries to get it back through magic and then science.

A sock puppet looking at a computer with science notes and drawings on it.

The children seemed to really enjoy Penny Featherbottom and would sometimes ask for more videos. We didn’t use them much in our Simple Machine unit but when we did our unit Potions and Fantastical Notions unit Penny took on a more starring role. Penny decided to learn magic to grow back their glorious mustache. Once they accomplished that, Penny started messing with my dog (making her turn herself into a dragon) and us teachers (they turned us into vampires). We had a fun Zoom call where my co-teacher, Sara, and I showed up as vampires and the children had to turn us back to humans using that week’s lessons on potions and incantations. Penny was then asked to no longer use magic and they made an apology video for the children. We wanted to build on what we have been learning all year about making amends. People sometimes make mistakes and it is important to recognize and own that and then figure out how to best make amends. Penny’s final video/PowerPoint was about turning to science as their new interest which led to them wanting to further their education at Sock Puppet Academy. 

An educator holding up and interacting with a sock puppet.

I had a lot of fun making the videos but did encounter quite a few challenges as I’m not very technologically adept. I found most of the video editing sites wanted you to pay for monthly membership and the one on my computer was very slow. Sometimes I would use photographs of Penny instead of a video and added those to the PowerPoints I used during lessons. We’ve been adding audio to our PowerPoints and that has made some of our files very large which led to lots of other tech challenges. There were also times when I had promised the children a video but did not have it in me due to these stressful times. Our families were very understanding when that happened. I went into this wanting to create something that brought joy so I tried to make sure I was feeling joyful when making the videos. 

My main advice to anyone wanting to create something similar is to have fun with it. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and I found that the more absurd I got with it, the more fun it was. Penny Featherbottom became part of our online class community, and even infiltrated some children’s home life. For example, one child started blaming everything that went wrong at home on Penny’s magic. Another created their own sock puppet characters, Pip and Pop, and made a delightful video with some impressive voice work!

Distance Learning Discoveries

Similarly to most schools in the world, SEEC was thrown a huge curveball in March when we closed the doors to our centers and embarked on a virtual journey with the youngest of children. Faculty and families alike worked to find best practices for our children to maintain relationships and engagement while connecting through a screen. Much of our philosophy focuses on experiencing the world in person with strong social interactions, so we wrestled with how this would translate to a whole new platform. Like many others dealing with this new normal, we have been actively trying out new strategies and assessing their success as we go. We wanted to share our successes, failures, and reflections from the past five months through a blog series. Below are some of the themes we will expand on in the coming weeks.

Create a Routine

Children thrive when they have a routine. Knowing what is coming next gives children a sense of control and comfort especially in the midst of a sudden, major, lifestyle change. So it’s not surprising that our faculty found it helpful to outline the plan of the day at the start of each lesson. In addition, our teachers often began each session in the same way, for example, singing a hello song, or doing some deep breathing, and ended in the same way. These subtle cues helped children adjust to adapt to the new “classroom”

A young child sits on a chair looking at a computer in which a photo is displayed of a man playing a trumpet.

Community Connections

While we may all be physically apart from each other, we still need to connect with our community through authentic interactions. We’ve had other school community members join video calls to share their expertise in a topic that the class is learning about. For example, one of our preschool classes was learning about gardening and produce. One of our toddler educators is a gardener and was able to join them from her home and share some of her plants and tools with them. Other ways to connect to the community include sharing related videos and images of community members and safe, nearby, locations that families could visit.

Make it Silly

Life is challenging right now, for parents, teachers, kids, everyone. Our faculty wanted to lighten the mood, so they kept the silliness and fun flowing even while virtual. Some silly strategies they employ are creating characters who appear on the video calls, playing music and having a virtual dance party, and having a week of theme days such as crazy hair day or dress like your favorite book character day.

In addition to needing to keep the silliness, our faculty also quickly recognized the children’s need for plain, simple, social interaction. Some of our preschool classes began having virtual snack time where children signed on and ate their snack and chatted together like they would at school. This has become very popular among the children and it often lasts far longer than the teachers anticipate!

Maintain Relationships

Strong relationships are essential to meaningful learning experiences in early childhood. While more difficult to foster through screens, it is possible! Besides one-on-one video calls between teachers and students, our faculty incorporates photos of the children in their lesson presentation. The children love to see themselves in the presented topic, and are able to reflect on past learning. Each of our classes also has a shared photo album where families can upload photos from the week. This allows children to see each others’ learning and feel a connection with their peers.

A young child sits in front of an open cabinet, pulling out bowls, measuring cup, and pans.

Incorporate Objects

A cornerstone of our practice is the use of objects to teach children. We often venture into the museums to observe and learn about artifacts or artworks related to our curriculum, but we also frequently use everyday objects and find that they’re also a powerful tool. While we’re away from the museum, teachers have asked children to bring their own easily accessible objects to the class, which has served several purposes. First, children became more invested in the session because they had something to share to the experience. Having an object also allows for tactile learning that is so important in early childhood when a teacher cannot physically facilitate that from a screen. Sharing objects also allows children to see the variation and nuances of a theme or concept, expanding their view of the world.


We’re taking everything we’ve learned and incorporating it into Virtual Family Workshops this fall. To learn more and register, check our Family Workshops page. Also, be sure to check back for more blogs expanding on the above themes.

Honoring My Child’s Interests

This post was written by Maureen Leary, Director of Toddler and Kindergarten Programs

Value of Virtual

When the Smithsonian closure due to Coronavirus health concerns was announced in mid-March, none of us had a clear sense of how long it would last. Once it became obvious that it was going to be more than a few weeks, SEEC faculty immediately transitioned to conducting distance learning through online platforms. Teaching young children this way is neither ideal nor intuitive, but we knew we needed to quickly develop these skills to better support our families. At SEEC we believe it’s important for us to offer virtual interactions for a number of reasons. It provides personal connections during a time when we can’t experience them directly; it offers an anchor point for themes and topics that families can explore in their own way and on their own time; it inserts some amount of structure into the days and weeks that have been completely upended; it allows children to retain a level of comfort and familiarity with peers and educators during what has turned into an extended closure with no definitive end.

The Challenges of Virtual

Many families are craving the connections and routines that suddenly disappeared from our lives, and appreciate the opportunity to see each other virtually. That said, we also know that consistently participating in these interactions can sometimes be a challenge. Maybe your child is tired, hungry, grumpy, or just uninterested. It could be that you have a work conflict and you can’t prioritize your child’s meeting over your own. Perhaps you’re feeling overstretched and just don’t want to add one more thing to your day. Skipping your child’s scheduled activity might cause feelings of guilt and worry, and cause you to wonder if it’s ok to be missing these online interactions.  At SEEC our answer is always an emphatic yes. We encourage families to follow their children’s leads on what helps the day go smoothly for them. It might be that they’d rather go outside during a virtual circle time, or that they just have no interest in it at all. Maybe they refuse to talk or get frustrated with how the conversation goes. All of this is developmentally appropriate and totally ok. Enrichment can be found in so many ways, in moments small and large, and doesn’t always have to be carefully orchestrated. What’s really important right now is that all of us, children and adults, feel cared for and supported.

Tips for Virtual

If you do choose to participate in an online “circle” here are some helpful hints compiled from conversations we have been having with our SEEC community. 

  • Some children are camera-shy. Don’t insist that they talk or even appear on the screen. Giving them repeated exposure to the format and letting them develop comfort with it at their own pace is likely to increase their participation. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok, too!
  • If your child is reluctant to talk but does want to be included, suggest they give a virtual high-five or a thumbs up as a way to connect with others.
  • Check with your child’s teachers about scheduling some one-on-one screen time. Even just 10 minutes of individual attention this way can pay big dividends. 
  • Some families have found it’s easiest to pair distance learning with snack time, so the child is staying in one place and not becoming distracted by other surroundings.
  • Alternatively, if the weather’s nice and it’s hard to be inside, try bringing your screen outside and participating that way. We’ve seen toddlers actively engage in circle time while also riding a tricycle down the street!

Screen Time

One final, related note: a recurring concern with the current environment is that young children are getting more screen time than is recommended. This is an issue we are always thinking about, and while we agree it’s best to limit screen time for young children, we do believe that distance learning offers important benefits, especially as we practice social distancing. At SEEC, we generally advocate for the limited use of screens when they are a single element of a larger, interactive experience. Of course, there may be families who opt out entirely of distance learning for the screen time concern alone, and that is also a decision we respect. We always want families to do what feels right for their own well-being, and it certainly won’t be the same for everyone. We encourage you to trust your instincts, be responsive to the needs of your child, and reach out to your child’s educators if you have any questions or concerns.