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Courageous Conversations

Early childhood teachers and administrators are often be the first people to recognize a pattern of atypical development in a child. This can be challenging because the child’s parents are often unaware that there might be concern, and they might not be open to discussing a teacher’s concerns.

I have found myself in this situation several times over the course of my career—once, when I was new to the field. I was an undergraduate student working as an assistant in a toddler classroom, where I was charged with closing the room at the end of the day. This meant that the head teacher often left shortly after I arrived for the day.  

Working in a toddler room for the last three hours of a young child’s long day frequently meant that I got the worst of each child’s mood, behavior and anxiety, which surfaced as they observed their friends get picked up while they remained behind.

I remember trying to tell my lead teacher about my challenging evening the following day, during our one hour or so of overlapped shifts. She was always halfway out the door once I arrived and barely heard what I said. As a team, we decided a better communication strategy would be to have each shift write in a spiral notebook a daily summary, including any notable information about each child.

I embraced this idea with unabashed enthusiasm. I wrote about each child and their day in way-too-specific detail. My co-workers read my notes. And because the notebook was left on the counter, one of the parents did too.

This parent was a mom who we’d spent the year trying to help see her son’s developmental challenges. She always dismissed our observations with an overarching statement: “He is just a little boy who needs time to mature.” Reading my notes, which was a daily chronicle of his challenging behavior was a very unfortunate way for her to finally understand our concerns.

I wish I could say that I was wrong about this little guy. I truly wish that my lack of experience and unchecked enthusiasm for being a great early childhood teacher was the problem, and that he did mature, without developmental issues, into adulthood.

I met this little guy’s father about a year ago. He said that his son, who is now in his late twenties, struggled academically and socially throughout his whole life, and is now living in a group home in Portland.

I did not know (and still do not know) a word to label the behavior I witnessed when this child was 18 months old. And yet, I knew that something did not feel quite right. He was my first “raised-eyebrow student,” a term I have coined to describe children whom a watchful teacher will  recognize as needing extra support of some sort. After working with this raised-eyebrow student, I am clear that it is every early childhood providers’ responsibility to share with parents what she observes. She does not need to know the label for the behavior, because describing the behavior is enough to start this important conversation.

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