Episode 227 – This episode is all about social stress and young children. Allen Croxall, President of Tools For Life, shares how his team has adapted and developed their trauma-informed materials for the early years classroom. Drawing on 9 core concepts, the Tools For Life Early Years Resource, provides parents and educators with a tool that can meet young children where they are in their socio-emotional development.
Resources – Tools For Life Early Years Resource
The child starts to understand they have the power to leave the situation that could get them into some kind of difficulty with their friends and just to go over and sit down in this Calm Down Zone or this Cozy Corner and get relaxed and then come back into the collaboration that’s happening within the playroom itself.
Allan, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you very much!
We’re delighted to have Allen back to the Preschool Podcast. He’s joined us before as a guest and he’s doing so many amazing things with the Tools For Life. He’s the president at Tools For Life, based here in Canada. And we’re delighted to have Allen Croxall on the show to tell us a bit more about what’s been going on at Tools For Life, how they’re servicing the early years sector and how they’ve adapted some of their social-emotional tools and training for the COVID-19 world we’re living in right now. Great to have you back, Allen.
Let’s start off learning a bit more about you. For listeners who maybe weren’t able to join us for the last podcast you were on, perhaps you can tell folks a bit about who you are and why you started Tools For Life.
Very good, certainly. I’m a former educator and university professor and have always been very interested in what is going on in the minds of the children in our classrooms. And I was able to bump into an organization – a nonprofit organization – many years ago in this area, in the Kitchener-Waterloo area [of Ontario, Canada], who had created a resource that could be used inside the classroom to work with social-emotional learning.
And the agency was very focused on child behavior and issues with child behavior. And several years later, their mandate changed. So, we were able to move ahead with Tools For Life and to bring it more into the education sector, which is what we’ve done.
Tools For Life is a phenomenal resource to allow teachers and children in the classroom environment to start to understand what their feelings are about and how they are dealing with their feelings, how they’re recognizing their own feelings and the feelings of others and, as a result of that, learn many, many steps so that they can, using the strategies that we offer and the specific tools that we offer, start building a sense of resilience and increase and improve the relationships they have with themselves, with children around them and even within their family.
So, Tools For Life is an interesting resource because it is based on research – very, very solid research – where we understand that when children get an understanding of what social-emotional learning is about, they actually can start to change their lives and start to survive and to thrive at the same time.
And as a result of the work we’ve been doing, our resources currently run from ages two-and-a-half – which is our early years resource – up to the end of grade eight. And we have products for the home and we have products for parenting workshops that many of our childcare centers are acquiring because they are offering services now to the parents above and beyond what happens with the children in their playrooms.
Very cool. And I understand that more recently you’ve been working more and more with early years programs, whereas, sort of going back to the earlier days of Tools For Life, it was more sort of school-age children. Tell us a little bit more about your approach there and I guess what you’ve learned and your experiences working with more childcare programs over the more recent years of Tools For Life.
Well, it’s a fascinating little story because it’s kind of a story of luck. Because one of the early-childhood education coordinators at Fanshawe College – her name is Janet Foster – contacted us in December 2018 and said she would like to purchase one of our kindergarten kits, the full day kindergarten kits that we had then. And she looked at that, contacted me a couple of days later and she said, “Could we meet on January 3rd,” which is what we did.
So, my colleague Victor and I went into the meeting. And Janet was very positive about what she saw in the resource but she thought it could be better written, I suppose, and created for children who were two-and-a-half years of age to four. And she and her colleague, Jan Blaxall, who is also a former professor of early-childhood education and an author of the ELECT [Early Learning for Every Child Today] document, decided that they would like to rewrite the program so that it would make more sense for childcare.
We were thrilled at that prospect. So, they have become our childcare specialists and they are trainers for us, working with childcare centers, etc. And it’s a very different approach. It’s totally based on the document, How Does Learning Happen? by the Ministry of Education in Ontario. And it emphasizes the four pillars of belonging, of engagement, of expression and of well-being.
And it’s really kind of an interesting approach because what happens is, it is a trauma-informed resource. And it allows the children to start to learn how to, through a series of creative activities, engage so that they can explore their feelings, the feelings of others around them and to learn some sense of control.
It’s a remarkable resource based on this pioneering research document. And it’s built around nine concepts that we offer for these children. And I’ll just list them if that’s okay with you, Ron?
The first one is, “building a culture of belonging”. The second one is, “communication and connection”. The third one is, “self-esteem”. The fourth one is, “all feelings are okay”. Concept five is, “identifying feelings of others”.
Concept six is, “body clues – how to understand yours and the body clues of others”. Concept seven is, “how to calm down”. Concept eight is, “friendly words for others”. And finally, “the tools”, which is based on our problem-solving traffic light that we have when we teach the children how to start to identify how they may resolve some of the issues that they’re experiencing.
So, with these children we have found in the playrooms, in particular, their social stress is very high in play-based programs. And you get a bunch of children coming together and many of them are wondering, “Well, who’s going to be included and who’s going to be excluded,” for instance. And they have concerns about that. They need to understand where they fit.
They need to understand who will lead. And, “If someone is leading, am I expected to follow or who do we follow?” Who will control the resources and the toys? Big issue. So, how do we understand how that happens within the playroom?
And finally, the conflicts create a high level of distress because there’s little ability to distance themselves. And because they’re put together with a group of other children, it really is learning how to cope and how to figure out how you’re going to resolve the issues.
So, that’s why we have these nine concepts that are emphasizing how this child can start to understand, in a more enhanced way, how to deal with their emotions.
I think all our early-childhood educators out there that are listening are probably very familiar with the social stress in the classroom, from how many biting incident reports they’ve filled out in their toddler classrooms.
And parents who get to get those reports. So, how do you go about taking these nine concepts and applying them in a classroom?
Well, it’s interesting that we have a bunch of resources that we build into what we call the Tools For Life Early Years Resource, which is a kit. And the kit comes with a manual, first of all, for the educator that is about, I don’t know, 275 pages long. And what we have done at the end of this manual is this How Does Learning Happen? document I spoke about, we have actually included that in the back of this manual so that the resource is there, the research is there to support the educators.
And inside this resource kit also come a whole series of different things. We offer a parachute, for instance, that can be used in the classroom; a series of puppets; there are posters; there’s a beach ball with the “feelings faces”; there are “feelings wheels”. There are a whole pile of resources that are included in the kit that the educators can use.
One of the things about Tools For Life that’s different than most others is that, first of all, we’re not prescriptive. So, you don’t have to start on [concept] one and then go to two and go to three, from a concept point, if you start where the need is.
And if you start where the need is, we ask the educator to review the manual that we have provided and look through the concept and see what’s being offered there. We kind of recommend it’s like a recipe – read it three or four times so that you understand what you’re going to be doing with it. And then take the content from that concept and then apply it to what you normally do in your day.
So, Tools For Life is not there to replace what’s happening. It’s there to augment what’s happening in the classroom. So, it’s there to help that educator realize there may be some other cool ways to do things. And that’s why the resource is built in the structure that it is. And it has all of the different resources.
But one of the things that we have found is the most powerful, from grade kindergarten right through to grade eight and now also in our early years resource, is the thing in early years that we call the Cozy Corner. And the Cozy Corner is a small area in the playroom where the children can go to get comfort, to sit with an educator, to sit with themselves and just look at the resources, maybe do some coloring or blow some bubbles or whatever.
But the Cozy Corner and the Calm Down Zones, as we call it in our school age materials, become a space for the child self identifies, “I’m stressed. I have to get up and walk over there because I need to get away from this for the time being, two or three minutes sort of thing,” so that the child starts to understand they have the power to leave the situation that could get them into some kind of difficulty with their friends and just to go over and sit down in this Calm Down Zone or this Cozy Corner and get relaxed and then come back into the collaboration that’s happening within the playroom itself.
We have found this to be very, very effective. And we find that the teachers… at first, some teachers are a little reticent in doing this. But once they start to see how this happens with the children, it becomes the major thing within the classroom environment that allows the children to calm down and to become more forthright within the organization that they’re involved with, maybe at the sand table or whatever.
So, we also invite the educators to have the children help them create this corner. Some of them have sheer curtains hanging around, special little fairy lights. They would have pillows, cushions, all kinds of things. So, it becomes a very cozy place for the child to go.
And sometimes they would go with a buddy and that’s allowed. And the educator, of course, keeping an eye on what’s going on in the situation. The children calm down and they come back into what it is they were working on. They all have work to do and they want to get back to it.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Probably could apply that for adults, as well, in our houses!
It’s true! In Mississippi, where we have some educators using Tools For Life in one of the schools down there, the principal set up part of the principal’s office as a Calm Down Zone for the educators. And it’s really interesting – they come in and they sit in this little corner and they just have a place where they can just kind of shake their heads and say, “So, what do I do now? And how do I get this moving again?”
And it’s really, really interesting because they just come in on their own when they feel they need the time and they can sit there and start to think about what their next steps can be. It’s marvelous. We all need that.
It’s interesting because it’s kind of like a structure that encourages you to calm down, think, reflect on your thoughts and what you’re feeling. So, it’s kind of like you’re applying mindfulness, which normally maybe you wouldn’t if you didn’t have that readily available to you. So, I kind of say it jokingly but it totally makes sense that that you would do that for an educator, as well. I mean, everybody’s got stress, especially in 2020.
Speaking of which, what have you had to do differently at Tools For Life to adapt to the global pandemic? I know you traditionally do quite a bit of your training in person, for example. So, what have you been seeing and doing differently this year?
Well, the virus has really forced us to rethink our methodology. We have a very active training model that we use that involves… it’s not sort of preaching at the front of people. It really is involved in doing things. So, it’s really training that’s received by activity.
And we have learned how to, with Zoom [online video conferencing], do that still. And so we’re very, very pleased that we can offer our training now online using Zoom technology. And it’s been fascinating because we have clients who are really excited about that because they thought that they wouldn’t be able to move ahead with Tools For Life because we couldn’t offer the live training, etc.
And that makes me feel better because the training gang that we have, I’m not interested in sending them into situations, as you could imagine, where they’re going to find themselves in difficulty. So, it’s a terrific opportunity for us.
So, we now do this: So, when are childcare centers purchase one of our resource kits through our web page, they can go to that web page and they can also purchase a bundle which will give them a two hour introductory training session. So, it’s really important for people to know how to use Tools For Life, otherwise it just sits on a shelf somewhere. And that’s not what we want – we want to ensure that the children are getting the benefit of this resource, as well as the educators because they find a lot of solace in it.
The manual has an introduction that is just really, really beautiful. And when you read the thing through… it’s about 50 pages long but it is just a wonderful introduction, not only to the resource but to what social-emotional learning is and how that can be further enhanced by what you’re doing in your classroom environment.
So, we now do our training online. We just finished training about 180 educators in the city of Hamilton. The city of Hamilton in Ontario has chosen Tools For Life as the social-emotional learning resource for its childcare centers. So, we’ve been training educators, started last September and then in January. And we were supposed to do it in April of this year but the virus got in the way. So, we completed that this past week.
So, the city of Hamilton is doing some really interesting things, supported by an organization there called ASCY – Affiliated Services for Children and Youth – who go into the centers and help with the professional learning with the educators who are in the classrooms and help them along using Tools For Life as the resource.
And in particular with the virus time that’s going in, this is just absolutely essential right now because these children are really traumatized. It’s just a frightening experience, I think, for a lot of the children. And so this provides an interesting opportunity. So, online has proven to be very, very successful for us and we’re very pleased.
That’s great. And before we wrap up, any words of encouragement to the early-childhood educators out there who might be feeling like they need a calming zone right now, amidst all of this?
Well, the way we look at it, these people are heroes. The childhood educators are phenomenal folks who have risen to a challenge in a very, very difficult time. And they have been doing this all along.
And these childcare workers really need to know that they just have to be there to show the children that the children are cared for. These children really need to see anchors in their lives. They may not have these at home because of the virus. There may be all kinds of stressors that are making the family dysfunctional or whatever.
So, the educators in our mind are really heroes. And we are so grateful that these folks will go in and do what they’re doing with children. And I think what we want to say to all of these people is that if you use Tools For Life, it’ll help make your day even better.
And if you’re working with the children that you’re working with, you know that you love them, that you care for them. You wouldn’t be in this profession if you didn’t. And if you are in this profession, you are there because you want to make a difference. And any resource that’s going to help you do that is something you need to be looking at. And so we wish our childhood educators the very best and we truly honor them for what they are contributing.
Yeah, some great words there. Thank you, Allen. We certainly do see them as heroes and that’s what they are indeed. Allen, this has been wonderful. I appreciate everything you’re doing. If our listeners would like to learn more about Tools For Life or get in touch with you or someone on the team there, where can they go to get more information?
The Web page is very simple: it’s www.ToolsForLifeResources.com. And at the bottom of the all the pages you will notice our Facebook and our Twitter where you can join communities of learners who are doing all kinds of fun things. And the web page has a whole blog section which has terrific ideas and opportunities from professional storytellers and lots of great stuff to look at to help get you motivated. So, please visit the web page.
Awesome, thanks for sharing that, Allen. And I can say from knowing Allen for a long time and the work they do at Tools For Life, their concepts and what they offer to childcare and school programs is the real deal. And I love how it’s proactive in addressing a lot of the challenges we might face in the classroom. So, thanks again for joining us, Allen, on the Preschool Podcast. Always great having you as a guest!
Thank you very much, Ron, we appreciate that. Have a great day!