Episode 231 – Story books are amazing tools to build relationships with and teach young children. In this episode, we chat with Rachel Robertson, VP of Education for Bright Horizons Family Solutions, about why story books are ideal for teaching life skills to young children. She shares the inspiration behind her writing and how she incorporates important life skills like growth mindset into her books.
Learn more about Rachel’s books on her author profile at Redleaf Press.
And there will be times when things don’t go just right. We will make some mistakes indeed, try as we might. But mistakes are okay; mistakes help us grow. They help us to learn and to know what we know!
Rachel, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you. Thanks for having me, Ron!
We are delighted to have you, Rachel. And so today on the show, we have Rachel Robertson. She’s the vice president of education and development at Bright Horizons. She’s also the author of children’s books and educator’s resources. So, delighted to have Rachel on the show today to dive into some of the books she’s written and some of those themes that are crossing those books, including her latest book, called Beginners Are Brave.
Rachel, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and why you got involved in early-childhood education and are still at it today.
That is a good question. And I’ll give you the abbreviated version – it’s a long story. Starting off when I was 15 years old, I was looking for a part-time job. And I’d always been a babysitter and loved children but found myself with a part-time job at a place called Hug-a-Bear Daycare in St. Paul, Minnesota. And I would go after school and help get kids up from nap and snack and transition to pick-up time. Who knew at that point that that would turn into a lifelong career?
After that job, I started working at the YMCA with older children and in camping programs. And that’s really where I thought my career was going to take me. I went to school focusing on family studies and early education and kind of a social justice aspect.
But when I had my first daughter, I was looking for more career flexibility and not working weekends and staying overnight at camps. And I thought, “Let me go back to early childhood. I think I could do that,” and looked in the paper for job ads – and that’s how long ago it was – and found a post for a job for a center director. And I thought, “I could probably do that.” And someone was gracious enough to agree with me and think I could do that.
And about a year in, I thought, “This is where I’m staying.” Early childhood is so fascinating and so important. I just didn’t know that. I enjoyed it as an after-school aide. But as soon as I understood that, I really dedicated my career and even my furthering my own education and expertize in this field.
And I’ve had all sorts of jobs. I’ve been actually with a toddler teacher for a while. I did all that school-age work; I was the center director; I supported centers with curriculum and accreditation. I’ve written curriculum; I’ve worked for non-profits, for government, for military.
And I am so grateful for all those experiences because then they allowed me to come to Bright Horizons, which I had my eye on for a while because of the high-quality reputation and the legacy of Jim Freeman and have been here for about nine years leading the early education and teacher-leader development department.
Very cool. And when did you decide that you might start dabbling in writing books and content as well?
Well, that’s a long story, too. But when I was a kid, we actually lived overseas for a year. And we had no television, just some old movies that we watched over and over and one cassette tape to listen to over and over. So, I just read – I read about a hundred books, I think. I was in fourth grade and I decided then that I wanted to be an author. So, I had always set my sights on that.
And I started writing articles. My very first book was when I was in my twenties and I was part of a military family and my husband was deployed. And I was looking around at myself and children around me and seeing that they were really struggling.
And so I thought, “Well, I think a book could help here. I’d like to write. I understand children; I understand developmentally that literature and journaling and books could maybe help children right now and actually help the adults help the children.”
So, I contacted the publisher and again, lucky to that, that it all worked out and I was able to publish the Deployment Journal For Kids. That was my first dabble in using my love of writing and using literature to help adults help children through challenging social-emotional development milestones and life events. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Cool. And I’ve actually even read before that reading to children is so important that it may be arguably the number one most important thing that you can do. And so it sounds like this is something that you’re really passionate about. And just the idea that literature can be a tool to support children’s development and, as you kind of put it, sort of help adults support and help with children’s development. So, tell us a little bit more about just that concept and why you feel so passionate about that.
I think that as a teacher myself, and a parent, I used books and chose books purposefully to help me have conversations with my children using the really powerful methods of reading where you’re asking questions and getting children thinking and predicting and talking about the characters, not just trying to get to the end of the story, although sometimes at bedtime that is the goal, just to get it done.
But really using the story as a as a catalyst for more a bonding connection, understanding what the children are thinking and worried about, helping them process things in a really safe way through characters.
And the concept of social stories is at play here a bit, too, is using story to help children understand through someone else’s eyes or through someone else’s experience how to process something that might be difficult for them and get ideas and really reflect on it safely.
Similar to what children do with dramatic play – they get to play around with sometimes pretty tough life situations and make sense of it through taking on different personas. And that’s what I’m attempting to do through story, as well, and again, have done as a teacher myself and as a parent.
Yeah, I was actually just recently watching a documentary about early-childhood development. And one of the studies on there, which was quite fascinating, was that they had children consume information through three different medias. The first was just audio, pure audio; the second was audio with pictures, like a picture book; and then third was full video and audio – like a show, basically.
And what they found was that that middle one was the optimal one because the audio just wasn’t enough to engage them. So, they kind of disconnected a bit. And then the video was just too much – like, they didn’t have to think at all. Whereas the middle one was just right in terms of giving them enough information that they could see where it was going, but also still have that creativity.
And the reason I bring that up is because you really focused on those words like “catalyst” and “thinking” and “asking questions”. And I think that, what in a lot of forms of media that children consume today, is missing, that literature is so strong with.
Yeah, I think that it’s such an important point – that’s an interesting study – that when children are just passive consumers of something, they’re not really learning; they’re not thinking. I like the phrase, “Whoever is doing the thinking is doing the learning.” So, if you’re just consuming, your brain does not have to work at all. We know that as adults –we do that kind of relaxed consumption media. So, putting kids in front of something like that isn’t helpful.
When we use story, the story and the book is just the beginning. We can make that so much more. The questions you can ask and help children see themselves or see others or learn about the world, learn about what’s similar to them, their own communities or learning about others. And again, the books that I’ve written purposely to help them process a life event that may or may not be challenging or a social-emotional concept or milestone that’s probably a little challenging.
For example, like starting school, transitioning. We know that that can be kind of hard for kids and parents, too. So, I have a book called A Teacher’s Promise to help adults and children get through that process and allow children to look at other kids going through that and think about that experience and ask questions when they’re not in the middle of it themselves.
So, that is so important to me; that’s what I’ve chosen to write children’s literature about, for that purpose. But like you’re saying, too, literature can teach so many things that’s so critical. It is such an important thing for adults to be doing with children. So, I also think of it as a time to build relationships between adults and children, to have, especially now, that all-important routine and ritual that can help children feel really safe and secure.
And I put what I call “juicy words” – and I’ve stolen that phrase from some other author authors – but juicy words in all of my books because I want children to learn new things, new vocabulary, to have a conversation about a word, as well, in the book. So, there’s big words that normally aren’t in children’s literature that I purposely have put in all my books for another added benefit, a little bonus.
That’s a great idea and I like that phrase. And so you’ve talked about this idea of having your books focus on a certain concept that might be related to a life event that’s happening or something of the like. Tell us a little bit about your latest book, Beginners Are Brave and what concept you’re really focusing on with this latest book.
So, Beginners Are Brave really started from the ideas around growth mindset. And as educators, this happens to us all the time where we know about a concept. We probably, many of us, have read Dr. Carol Dweck’s work around mindset and been fascinated by it for years. But in the most recent years, it’s become pretty popular. Schools are talking about it. More and more parents are hearing that term. So, it’s getting kind of into our popular vernacular or more commonplace.
But we still have a lot of practices with children that don’t promote it being safe to be a beginner, that make it feel scary to make mistakes and to really just want to be good at something and achieve something and get that recognition. And that feels good – “Let’s just let’s stay there. I don’t want to try anything new because I might fail.” And that doesn’t feel safe; that doesn’t feel comfortable in our society right now where were really focused on achievement for children.
I see a little bit of that changing, actually, right now, while in this situation we’re in. Social-emotional learning and connections are a huge priority, understandably, which is great because that should be a huge priority all the time. But as I see – and I see this happening with adults, too – is people don’t want to try new things or are really anxious about making mistakes.
So, it felt like a good topic. People were comfortable with it, understanding it, hearing about mindset, hearing about growth mindset and kind of getting the importance but still afraid to have a growth mindset and feel safe being a beginner. So, that prompted this topic.
And I also… so, the example in the book is that the main character’s name is Tommy, who is named after my dad, Tom, who is great at supporting growth mindset. And he learns to play the tuba or he tries – he wants to, but he’s scared to try. And I got that idea from a friend of mine whose son was trying to play the tuba and it was way too big for him. And so he was laying on the floor trying to play it; he was doing whatever it took to try to do it because this was his goal.
And that is why I took that concept because it doesn’t matter if it’s really an achievable goal. It’s just to go for it – try, give it a try. And I saw such a sweet example of growth mindset in my friend’s son that I wanted to use that example in the book, as well.
I love it. I can definitely think about a lot of translatable experiences with my own children, for sure, there. So, what’s next for you? You’ve been authoring some books; you’ve been involved in the classroom. Do you envision yourself continuing to author books and be quite involved in creating new literature? Or where are you thinking?
Yeah, I feel really fortunate to be an author. I write a lot of articles; I write resources for educators; I write in my work at Bright Horizons and I write for the field of early education and for families.
I’m actually working on another book right now about how people learn. There’s a lot of information and knowledge about the science of learning and we don’t always use it, as educators. So, I wanted to bring that information to the field of early education. And doing lots of support for families right now.
I absolutely plan on additional children’s books, but I’m kind of – and I think most authors are like this – just a stealer of ideas we see out there in the world. So, every book I’ve written so far, I was out somewhere doing something – just normal life – and thought, “That’s a book. There’s a book right there.” Like my son’s friend playing the tuba on the floor. So, I just wait till the idea strikes and then go for it from there.
Yeah, very cool. And so we’ve talked about growth mindset and helping adults to support their children’s development through literature. One of the other concepts that you’ve talked about in some of your own writing is around perseverance and agency. Can you tell us a little bit more about those?
And I think it’s interesting because a lot of the conversation we’re having is, like, we’re taking concepts that apply for adults and really trying to apply that in early-childhood education. And it’s funny because there’s so many of these things that we think about and maybe read about as adults. But then we go in the classroom and maybe do things differently. It’s kind of an interesting conversation.
Yeah, the adults need it sometimes as much as the children. So, I do have little notes in the back of all of my children’s books for the adults about what the value [is], what we’re trying to teach here and maybe some little pointers for them, as well.
And I see it in myself, I see my friends or family or, again, myself struggling with being a beginner, trying something new or feeling a little foolish and that I think, “Wait, the title of my book is Beginners Are Brave. It’s not Begin, Everything Is Easy. It’s not You’re Going To Be Good At It Just Because You Like It. It’s Beginners Are Brave. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, it just means you’re willing to do it. You’re going to be brave; you’re going to try it anyway.
So, that idea of perseverance and redefining bravery… bravery, we often see kind of this heroic event and that feels brave. But to get there, to get to this place of being willing to do that, that’s the real bravery.
And this concept actually comes up in my other children’s books: When You Just Have To Roar! is about helping children with self-regulation and learning and not always getting it right. And when you do have to roar like a lion, you can. But to regulate that, so that’s why it has that title.
And then in my book A Teacher’s Promise, I’m going to read my favorite part of it to you because this is where I start really talking about the idea of a growth mindset and perseverance. So, I say, “And there will be times when things don’t go just right. We will make some mistakes, indeed try as we might. But mistakes are okay; mistakes help us grow. They help us to learn and to know what we know.”
So, I use that phrase a lot, too, in my work, to myself, to my peers, to my friends, to adults and to children because I think we all need that reminder so much. So, that’s really about perseverance. And then personal agency is tied in there, learner agency. And that’s another phrase that we’re hearing more and more about.
I was a contributing author to a report called The Science of Early Learning. We did explore personal agency in that report. Just this idea that you have power, you can decide to do something and try to do it, that you have all the skills it takes to do that, that life isn’t happening to you, that you’re an active participant. Again, another lesson we all need and something that is so important for children to develop so they can be lifelong learners and the future leaders and citizens and stewards of this world that we need them to be.
Awesome. Some very powerful and fundamental messages in you feel like such a simple form in a children’s book but it’s so powerful; it’s awesome. And I love the idea of putting those notes in there for the parents. I’ve never seen that before. But I’m interested in checking these out myself. If our listeners would like to find one of your books, where can they go to do that?
All of the books I publish for children are through the imprint read Redleaf Lane, which is through Redleaf Press. Most early educators are familiar with Redleaf Press. If you just go to their website, all the books are there. Of course they’re on Amazon. And then if you look me up as the author Rachel Robertson and Redleaf Press you’ll also see the educator resources I’ve written, if you’re interested in those.
Wonderful. Any parting words for our listeners, in particular in 2020 that’s been quite a challenging year for lots of folks?
Me too – we’re all in this together. I think being good to ourselves is a professional priority, if not a requirement. We have to take care of ourselves so we can keep giving and contributing to the children that need us. And I said this earlier, but I am appreciating the focus on social-emotional competencies and the real understanding of how critical those are.
And for all of us to keep our focus there, for the adults and for the children, even beyond the pandemic and know that we will get through this and we will have learned a lot of things through it, although we feel like a bunch of beginners constantly because we’ve never done this before. So, we’re making tons of mistakes and we’re learning from them every day, me included. We all are, together.
Yep, great points. And it certainly puts a bow on the conversation today on growth mindset. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you, it was a pleasure!