Preschool Podcast Kristie Pretti-Frontczak

Blended Programs For Inclusion In Early Years

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Episode 139 – Belonging and inclusion is a huge aspect of creating a successful preschool classroom. In this episode, we talk to Dr. Pretti-Frontczack, a speaker, researcher and play advocate with a mission to reimagine the way we’re approaching early education. She speaks to the implementation of blended programs that draw on different philosophies to create a practice that works. We also talk about the importance of developing emotional intelligence as teachers in order to support children in the classroom.

Resources mentioned:

Episode Transcript

Kristie PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

We’re actually trying to support one another’s emotional intelligence. So it becomes a culture, and then we start to spread that to the families that we serve, related service personnel, our whole community, and thereby we raise everyone’s emotional intelligence, and then of course children’s’.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG:

Kristie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Hi, Ron. Thanks so much for having me.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So today on the show we have Dr. Pretti-Frontczak. She is a speaker, researcher and impassioned play advocate serving early-childhood educators. So great to have you on the show, Kristie. Tell us a little bit more about your background and how you got into coaching in early-childhood education.

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Yeah, so I’ll try to give you the short story because I’ve been doing it for a long time. But I started off thinking… I was a middle child, so I thought I had to do something completely different than anything that my sisters would do or anybody I knew. And I knew I wanted to change the world. And I started working in what we call “early intervention”. So I actually started working with infants and toddlers and fell in love with that, went on to get my doctorate in early intervention. And then I was faculty for 16 years at Kent State and just continuing with this work around early care and education.

And then I realized that my true vocation was the adults who then were serving children and their families. So six years ago I left the university and I’ve been on this mission to revolutionize eraly care and education. But it’s all through addressing the heart, the mind, the wholeness, if you will, of early educators. So it’s kind of this long, longer story, but the short story is I found my way. And my true passion is to support and serve the adult professionals who work with young children and their families.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Awesome. [Such] important work, as we all know. And a word that you use quite often in your work is “inclusion”. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that? Let’s start there.

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Okay, so inclusion is kind of like, for any people that might be listening who are a little bit older, the show called Cheers. When Norm would come into the bar and everybody would be, like, “Norm!” It’s this sense of belonging. It’s when you know that you’re seen and that you’re heard; it’s when you know that you matter.

My colleague, Tererai Trent from Zimbabwe, in her language there’s this word called “Ubuntu”, and it’s our shared humanity. So it’s this little tiny thing in terms of, like, “I belong here.” And then it’s this is really big thing that, like, “Oh, I’m part of this thing that we call being a human.” And so when I think of inclusion I don’t think of it as a policy. I don’t think of it as a goal. I don’t even think of it as sort of a rule. I think of it as a human right, and that when you feel that, when you feel like someone’s, like, “Hey Ron!”, that sense of belonging, that is what it means to be included.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Okay, cool. I’m glad I asked. And I really like the way you kind of said it’s not a policy or a goal or a rule, per se. It’s the human side of it, which is an important clarification, and really the key essence of why I’m sure you talk about it. So why do you focus so much of your work on inclusiveness? And why is that an important aspect in early-childhood education?

Preschool Podcast
Preschool Podcast

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Well, all humans are born or wired to connect, and that’s how we learn. From the very moment that we are born, our brains are looking for ways to connect to other humans. And through those connections and those interactions and that co-regulation we get those neurons to fire together, and if they fire together, as a neuroscientist say, they wire together.

And so we need those connections; we need that sense of belonging. All too often we think about, “Oh, inclusion, this is for children that have diverse learning needs and we need to do something special or different to allow them to feel included or to ensure that they are included,” or what some call “mainstream” or “integrated”. But that has tons of baggage, and we in the United States, at least, have struggled terribly to move the needle on more inclusive practices. We sort of have this very archaic approach to education, and then we go “Hmm, this doesn’t work for a bunch of people. What can we do to adapt or modify it?”

But if we would step back and say, “This is all about, do our youngest citizens feel like they’re part of something? Do we have adults who attend to their wholeness?” Then they will learn; then those neurons will fire. And so it’s just re-shifting and reimagining how we approach early care and education. So the inclusion becomes secondary – it’s just a natural part of what would be considered quality care and education.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. And how do we ensure that we have childcare programs where children feel like they belong and they’re included?

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

So it starts with so many things. Like, people think, “Oh, what does the environment look like?” Or, “What do the adults have by way of training?” Or, “Who’s the leader?” And all of that matters. But I always say it starts within. So those adult professionals, they have to have the right mindset. They have to believe – I say, “Peter Pan believe” – that relationships are the active ingredient and that they spend their time forging and fostering and repairing those relationships.

And so until we have a mindset that that’s what adults should be doing all day, every day with young children we won’t get that needle towards inclusion to even move. So it’s really mindset before methods and it starts with looking within about our own mindset. And do we “Peter Pan believe” in the importance of those relationships?

SPREEUWENBERG:

I like your definition of “Peter Pan believe”. It really brings it to life.

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

I just imagine, like… yeah, because if you “Peter Pan” believe it, you’ll fly, right? These things that we think are unimaginable or unobtainable or there’s so many systems level barriers, but then when you “Peter Pan” believe it you don’t let all that fear or that, “How will I look?” or “Will people think that I’m doing the right thing?” You don’t worry about that. You believe it so strongly that it just happens all day.

Well, you know, it’s kind of like magic, right? This whole human connectedness and our natural desire for connectedness. Like, who knows why we have that? But it’s an innate thing that we have. So it’s pretty interesting.

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Yeah, and we just sort of forget that sometimes and go, “Oh, the curriculum matters more,” or the length of the day, or the size of the group, or whatever. And that stuff, it’s important, but only by way of relationships.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Totally, yeah. That’s a good point. And another term that you use in some of your work is “blended programs”. Is that related to inclusiveness? Or is that something different?

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Yeah, whenever you’re in academia you have to come up with your own words to get published and get tenure. And so sometimes it’s synonymous with inclusion. But my colleagues Jennifer Grisham-Brown and Mary Louise hamster and I really started using the word “blended”, oh, my goodness, a lot longer ago than I want to admit. But it was our effort to say, “Let’s get rid of some of that baggage that inclusion or mainstreaming or integration had.” And we want to remove silos; we want to remove labels. We want to remove… this is, “I’m a constructivist”, or “I’m a Reggio”, or “I’m behaviorist”, or “I’m a speech pathologist”, or “I’m an occupational therapist” or “I’m Gen Ed and Special Ed”, all of these artificial silos.

And we said, “How about we just do what works and not worry about which camp or silo or tradition it comes from?” So the blending was this sort of, if you would imagine, finger paint. It’s this sort of thing where you just get all your fingers and every colour of paint all at once. Those of us who are kind of, like, “Don’t mix the paint or the Play-doh, that’s sort of a hard image. But some people are, like, “Yeah, let’s get all-in, every colour mushed together.”

And so “blended” can be sort of synonymous with “inclusion”, but it’s really bigger, as well. This blended practice is where we mush what works and then we don’t worry about our boundaries and our traditions.

Preschool Podcast
Preschool Podcast

SPREEUWENBERG:

I really like that, actually, sort of not putting a name to what works or what doesn’t work, necessarily. Like, let’s just focus on what matters. And it’s funny because I was actually just talking to my wife about that because my mom had asked me what Montessori is and was talking about it. And I was kind of, like… you know what? Like, my son, he’s a year-and-a-half, he goes to a childcare program. And actually I was, like, the way that they do things at this program, you could call it Montessori if you wanted to – it follows a lot of the elements of that. But it doesn’t really matter what we call it as long as he’s getting the learning and development experience that he needs, which he certainly is.

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Yeah, and too often we get worried about, like, well, is this what Montessori should look like? Or, is this Montessori really for real? Like, are you a true Directress or do you just call it Montessori? Well, again, it doesn’t… it matters to study those traditions and matters to study those philosophies and theories and certainly to look at research. But when it comes down to it, is your son thriving? Is your son’s neurons all in their wiring? Then it doesn’t matter what we call it. Sometimes we just call it things to short-change and quicken our conversation. But it does that: it just quickens and short-changes the depths of what’s really happening behind the scenes.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Totally. And so you focus your work, as you mentioned, a lot on the adults working with children, which is where a lot of this starts in terms of children’s learning and development. And part of that is “EQ” for professionals in early-childhood education. Can you talk to us a little bit more about what is EQ and why you put some emphasis on that in your coaching?

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Yeah, so when people… again, all of these words, everybody has a different definition and sort of depending on where you learned or where you kind of intersect psychology… emotional intelligence, or EQ – and the reason I like “EQ” instead of “EI” is because people are, like, “Well, Emotional Intelligence, why wouldn’t it be EI?” And some people do use “EI”. But again, in our field of working with young children, “early intervention” is what we often – particularly in the United States, call the whole field. It’s written into our laws, right? So people get confused if I say “EI”.

So I tend to use “EQ”, and it also sits next to this idea of our IQ. And so when I really started looking at and studying getting to a change in practice and adult learning or andragogy [adult learning theory], it was really showing that we have to look at their wholeness. So, there’s this whole parallel track: just like we need to look at the wholeness of children, we need to look at the wholeness of adults. Just like we need to transform or revolutionize early education, we need to transform and revolutionize professional development and learning.

And so part of what we often do with our PD or professional development is we get more content. And that’s if we’ve evolved away from compliance. Usually [at] our staff meetings our professional development is all about, “Did you complete the right form in the right way by the right date?” Then if you get away from that you’re just bogged down into content, what are the practices, what it should look like when you’re working with an infant, a toddler, a preschooler. But to really revolutionize we need to look more holistically at that adult and we need to see them as a whole. So, how are we supporting their emotional intelligence?

And so that’s sort of the simplest way. If you can respond to something that bothers you instead of [reacting] badly or in a way that you might regret, you have strong EQ. That’s, like, the biggest oversimplification of EQ. But if you can respond in a reflective way instead of reacting in a regrettable way, you probably have strong emotional intelligence. And so my argument is that we don’t get to change in practice. We can’t blend our practice. We won’t move that needle on inclusion until we address the emotional intelligence of adult professionals.

Preschool Podcast
Preschool Podcast

SPREEUWENBERG:

And if I’m an early-childhood educator listening to this Podcast, how can I advance my own emotional intelligence?

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Yeah, so the good news is we can. So that’s, like, super good, even if we’re old and our brains aren’t as they once were. So we have a website that you guys will share in the show notes. But it’s www.PreKTeachAndPlay.com/preschool-podcast-resources. And because the answer to that question is so big, I’ve got tons and tons of resources to share with people of strategies about how they can raise EQ. But it starts with knowing where your strengths are in terms of emotional intelligence.

So breaking emotional intelligence into pieces and parts, everybody kind of does it differently. I have five skills: self-awareness, self-regulation, situational awareness, social awareness and spirituality. And so you can take a quiz. I always tell people it’s a lot more like Cosmo [magazine] than it is Myers-Briggs [personality test]. It’s not very fancy. It’s not all those scientific research [exams] but it’s more like a Facebook quiz. Like, which star are you most like?” It’s kind of like that, but it’s kind of fun to see, where are you in your emotional intelligence? How high is it and then in those five areas?

And then I give you strategies about how to support it. So let’s say you decide that self-awareness could use a little bit of jumpstart. One of the ways that we jumpstart our self-awareness is actually looking to, what are our strengths? We spend so much time with people telling us that we’re not enough; we’re not very good; we didn’t do it right. Or you get “Pinterest envy” and you look at all these beautiful classrooms on Pinterest, and you’re, like, “They must never sleep!”

So how do you go, “I am enough, I am doing the right thing for the children and families I serve. What am I?” And we call these strengths “superpowers”. And so we have a whole way that you can look at and nurture and foster your superpowers so that you can then put into place the practices that you “Peter Pan” believe.

So it’s kind of a multi-step process. You’ve got to take maybe the quiz or in some way reflect on what are your emotional intelligence skills. And then in each of those I have specific ways that, as adults, we can raise our emotional and tell in that area. So, like, I always struggle with self-regulations, no matter what. That’s the ability to stop, think and act. I just sort of jump to act. So I have lots and lots of ways to try to promote my self-regulation so that I can then, when I’m working with children, support theirs.

SPREEUWENBERG:

I really like the idea of taking a survey to get some information about yourself first before moving forward with sort of the learning part because then it’s going to be more individualized, which… I think is something missing sometimes in training is if you treat everybody the same, everybody is not the same, right? So there’s certainly benefit in that.

Yeah, so if you in charge of providing professional development or you’re coaching other adult professionals, this helps you understand what their triggers are. We call it “shark music”, and then everybody thinks I’m going to start singing about baby sharks, But no, it’s older, from the movie Jaws, and it’s this idea that there’s impending doom and so it’s that, “Dun dun… dun dun dun dun” [tense musical theme]. You’re just, like, waiting to scream to get out of water – that’s the trigger.

So whatever I can learn about my adult colleagues… maybe I’m a co-teacher, so we’re co teaching in a preschool classroom. If I can understand my co-teacher’s shark music I can better help her or him stay self-regulated. And so it becomes this wonderful thing that we start recognizing each other’s superpowers, but we also understand each other’s shark music. And then in our professional development, in our coaching and in our interactions we’re actually trying to support one another’s emotional intelligence. So it becomes a culture, and then we start to spread that to the families that we serve, related service personnel, our whole community, and thereby we raise everyone’s emotional intelligence, and then of course children’s.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Awesome. And so you’ve spent quite a number of years in a field of early-childhood education. If you were giving advice to someone just starting out their career in early-childhood education, what advice would you provide to them?

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

So I would say to them, start to carve out a really diligent practice of strong reflection. Whether that’s self-reflection or reflection with a mentor, even if that’s someone that’s assigned to you or someone you’ve chosen. But you need to constantly reflect on your practices. And part of that is reflecting on your emotional intelligence because you need to be in touch with your core values, otherwise you’re going to just get in there and you’re going to do whatever somebody tells you to do, whatever was leftover from last year, whatever the classroom next door is doing, whatever the ministry or the policy makers are saying is important. You start kind of getting drug around by someone else’s agenda.

And so the only way that you can really stay the course and stay with that notion of creating relationships that matter in terms of really moving the needle towards inclusion, you’ve got to be clear on what you value. You’ve got to be clear on what matters so that you can always tie your decision-making back to that.

So self-reflection is key. And you can get so caught up in the work, in making the bulletin boards and preparing the classrooms, the lesson planning, the data collection, that that introspection can get lost. So that’s a long way to say, carve out some time to sit with your own values and then put those into action and the decisions you make so that that mindset is before methods.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Great advice, and I think we can all relate to getting caught up in the details of our day-to-day and forgetting to reflect. So it’s a good, good reminder and good advice. Last question: resources. You mentioned a website where people could go to get more information, www.PreKTeachAndPlay.com/preschool-podcast-resources. So that’s on your website where folks can go to get more information about EQ, about inclusive programs. And how does that work, do they just fill out a form?

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Yeah, they can just enter their name and email. And then what I’m going to do, since now we’ve talked about things, and I know I talked about reflection, I’ll put together tons of links to free resources like a reflection guide, or the EQ quiz, or, “How do I figure out what my superpowers are?” Or, “Let’s say I’m low in social awareness, what can I do about it?” So I’ll have together a whole little package of easy links that people can go to depending on what they’re most interested in, from inclusion to where we ended with reflection. But yes, they just go to www.PreKTeachAndPlay.com/preschool-podcast-resources and then I’ll take care of the rest.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Awesome, thanks for doing that for us, Kristie!

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Yeah, thank you, I appreciate it.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Thank you for coming on the Preschool Podcast. Awesome having you as a guest, some great, great wisdom advice from Kristie on inclusive programs and how we can improve our EQ to ultimately improve learning and development of the children in our programs. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

PRETTI-FRONTCZAK:

Thanks, Ron.

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