New Journeys, New Blog Home

UWlogoHello Creative Critters and Creative Wranglers alike!  I’ve been extra quiet on this space lately because I have been setting up a brand new blog to document my professional reflections during my graduate school experience (I will shortly begin the Low Incidence Disabilities Special Education program at the University of Washington’s College of Education.)  I’ve written a few posts over there and tethered all my social media; the only task left to do is say a proper good bye to Creative Critters Art.

I kind of fell into early art explorations when there was a need in my classroom.  While evidently I do have some passive Martha-Stewart-gene in my genetic make up, I’ve never really considered myself a creative person.  This year I learned so much about art, early creative expression, how to focus on process, and the importance of child-drive, agency building art exploration!  I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with co-teachers who were able and willing to let me develop this curriculum to the very best of my ability.  While I can’t say where my graduate school adventures will take me, I can promise that I will not be one of those teachers who does not value authentic creative expression opportunities.  Art will always have power in my classroom; I couldn’t have said that before this year and this blog.

AEE Flower Banner

For all my future adventures and learning, you can find me at my new blogging home: An Exceptional Education.  I’m going to join the edu-blogger community on the Blogspot platform to see how I like it (Google has a higher potential for views and reader interactivity.)  Additionally, I will continue to utilize my various social media accounts (and the name Mama Cascio), so feel free to connect with me on Twitter, Pinterest, or on my brand new Instagram!  I can already tell it’s going to be a crazy, whirlwind of a year with practicum placement and intense coursework.  I’m looking forward to the intimate professional learning community I’m about to join (my cohort has a whopping 9 students in it!) and I can’t tell you how excited I am to return to special education classrooms.

And thank you so much for participating in my journey on Creative Critters Art.  Reflective blogging has become so important to my professional development; I can’t wait to see what skills and tricks I will learn in my next blogging venture.


Power of: Retrospective Narratives

A comic from Dan Siegel’s The Whole-Brain Child.

The effective use of retrospective narratives is one of the most powerful tools I’ve acquired and developed as an early educator. Retrospective narration (term borrowed from Peter H. Johnston’s Choice Words) is the act of simply and accurately describing events which just occurred for children who lack the language or experience of make sense of a recent experience. Essentially, retrospective narratives are stories about a child’s experience; this type of story telling helps children reconcile their singular-perception with environmental catalysts.  In other words: narrating a recent jarring, startling, or damaging event can help young children understand and make peace with that event by providing concrete descriptions of what happened, how it happened, who was involved, and how we will all move forward.  This helps the child understand how various interactions with objects, movements, or individuals have causal relationships and emphasizes to the child that their bodies and actions have agency and effect.

While introducing his “Name It to Tame It” strategy in The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel states,

“When a child experiences painful, disappointing, or scary moments, it can be overwhelming, with big emotions and bodily sensations flooding the right brain.  When this happens, we as parents can help bring the left hemisphere into the picture so that the child can begin to understand what’s happening.  One of the best ways to promote this type of integration is to help retell the story of the frightening or painful experience.”

Retrospective narratives promote more than a sense of well being in the classroom environment, they actually promote healthy integration of left and right brain hemispheres.  Retrospective narratives are validating in that they do not dismiss or deny a child’s experience (opposed to, “Don’t cry, you’re ok.”), they make it ok to be upset while simultaneously describing how the child can move from upset to a more integrated state.  Narration builds long lasting emotional and physiological abilities in young children.

I frequently use retrospective narratives to soothe a child who has suddenly fallen.  Toddlers tend to… well, toddle.  There’s a lot of falls, bumps, and bruises on the way to learning how to be an independently mobile human.  And though children experience many falls in their early years, it does not make the experience any less unsettling.  After initially comforting a child who has recently taken a tumble, I will recount what happened: “Oh, you fell down!  You saw the new puzzles and started to walk toward them.  When you took a step you slipped and fell down.  When you fell you caught yourself with your hands, that was great!  Your body is not damaged, but you were startled.  Your hands hurt a bit now, but they will soon feel better.  You fell down while walking, but you are ok.  We can sit together until you are ready to play.”  Simple sentences with familiar words, repetition, describing what will come next (“Your hands hurt but will feel better”), and assurance that the child is undamaged are all important aspects of this narrative.

In early education and special education classrooms, narration is an incredibly important interaction between educator and student.  Whether utilizing first-then narrations, social stories, retrospective narration, or collaborative imagining (visualizing desired goals and out comes) educators need to be fluent story-tellers.  From our various narrations students gain language, practice abstract conceptualizing, improve left brain-right brain integration, try on diverse identities (reader, writer, scientist, mathematician, etc.), and deepen relationships with teachers or care givers.

Betwixt and Between

I know, right?

During the next six weeks my life is in limbo; I am betwixt!  My work for my school has wrapped up nicely: all our paper work is in order, the environment is up to date, and I have passed on all my creative expression materials and plans to a co-teacher.  University orientations, seminars, and networking events are peppered between now and September 30th (my first day of classes.)  All that’s left is the waiting.

Waiting is never really as simple as it sounds.  I am not good at “kicking back” while at work.  My time is valuable to me – both professionally and personally – and every minute of down time in the classroom is a heavy weight.  While the kiddos nap I am left with very little to do since the no-phones policy ensures I will not be blogging, tweeting, emailing, reading, or researching.  I have soaked, scrubbed, and sanitized things which never see the light of day (much to the chagrin of my co-teachers as they will have nothing to do during the upcoming environmental maintenance day, and so they will surely find themselves laboring for our Admins.)

Being in-between life phases is tough!  Since I need to keep myself moving, accomplishing, and creating I have jammed as many activities into the next few weeks as possible.  The To-Do list for September grows and grows while I fill all my remaining August weekends with friends, festivals, and anything else I can squeeze in (last weekend we went to the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Fair!)  The result is that my new planner suddenly looks like a five-year-old went to town with a stash of gel pens.  Yikes!

I am planning, and adding miles when I run, and reading, and connecting, and thinking about art, and already missing the kids, and missing my co-teachers, and swallowing pre-grad school jitters, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting….

Three more weeks.  Just three!

Power of: Implied Compliance

Thank you!

Liberal use of the phrase, “Thank you,” can work wonders in a classroom!

Kids are wonderful.  They are open and interested, genuinely curious, and generally lack the sense of cynicism which colors adult perspectives.  Their capacity for kindness is deep, they are natural community builders, and their quick wits allow them to be more perceptive than many adults.  Really, they are the best of us in so many ways.

Simultaneously they can be mischievous little pot-stirrers, antagonists, and master manipulators.  They are distilled humanity, with our most human characteristics magnified and distorted in unpredictable ways.

Socialization (and by that I mean the explicit teaching of appropriate social skills and behaviors) is a huge part of my job.  Helping students understand the expectations in our classroom community, how classroom expectations are similar or different from expectations at home, and what to do when they don’t know what to do should be major learning objectives in any early education setting.  After all, many of my students have never participated in a community outside of their family and we cannot expect them to inherently possess such knowledge.

The trouble I had with this came from my deep distaste for nagging.  I don’t care to repeat myself and it doesn’t take long before I begin to hear my own mother in my nagging reminders (*shudder*).  Repetition is inescapable, but one need not nag!  I have had great luck with “implied compliance.”

Again, this technique was first brought to my attention by Doug Lemov’s influential work Teach Like A Champion.  The premise is that once expectations have been clearly stated, practiced, and integrated into the classroom community, enforcing them should not become an educator’s prime objective.  Chances are that a typically developing child will be aware of transgression and only requires minor guidance to redirect their own behavior.  This guidance is in the form of implied compliance.  For example, instead of repeatedly reminding my students to use walking feet, a simple, “We are inside, please use safe walking feet.  Thank you!” will do the job.

Adding a pointed “Thank you!” to a request implies that you believe they will comply.  I have provided justification for my request with the words “inside,” and “safe,” and restated the explicit expectation by saying “walking feet.”  Then I demonstrated that I believe my students are capable enough to make responsible decisions without any further intervention.  I walk away.

This not only cuts down on my stress level (as I avoid the risk of turning into a shrieking school-marm) but also transfers the cognitive work to my students.  They are left in a position where they are either compelled to comply or discover suitable counterpoints.  Either way the responsibility is on them.

I’m not going to pretend that this works all the time.  Children with disabilities or the very young students in my classroom often do not respond to implication.  They need explicit language and often require teacher intervention to assure safety.  I never let my distaste for nagging create an unsafe situation and frequently I am required to return to the same student some minutes later and re-evaluate my approach.  Though this process is slower than simply enforcing my will, it provides my students with ample opportunity to explore their own agency and responsibility in a safe environment.  And even toddlers will eventually understand that running inside ends in bumps and bruises; experiencing natural consequences helps build responsiveness to this technique.

Implied compliance allows educators to pass of cognitive work while maintaining their distance; their “guide on the side” role in the classroom.  Additionally, it’s a great place to begin a conversation with students about their negative behavior.  Chances are, if they are not living up to your implication, they’ve had time to come up with some really creative reasons why they should be allowed to continue.  Embrace the chance for dialogue and make note of how this technique works for different students throughout the year.

Letting Go

This week begins my last month at with my school.  And I am filled with very big, very complicated emotions.

Working in early education, you learn to let go.  I’m not sure it ever gets easier, but I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice.  Unlike a school-aged classroom, I am not guaranteed a full school year with my students.  Toddlers, two-year-olds, and early preschoolers tend to be shuffled through classrooms according to birthdays rather than school calendars.  Though my current school tries to keep cohorts together as long as possible, we have do have two periods of enrollment/upward transition every year.  This means every 6-9 months I say good bye to many tiny people who have managed to worm their way into all my thoughts and actions.  Only to welcome many more tiny people whom I need to integrate in a similar fashion.

Leaving a school is different.  I won’t be waving hello to “my kids” through windows, in the hallways, or while substitute teaching.  I won’t hear the stories, the triumphs, or the challenges.  I won’t know when Student A finally conquers her verbal delay and begins speaking; when Student B first writes his name; when Student C moves up in his soccer league.  And what’s more, I’m leaving my teaching team whom have supported, challenged, and embraced me all year.

It’s been a big year for me professionally (huge!) and I know I owe much of my growth to my team and my school.  It’s safe.  It’s comfortable.  And – due to the nature of the beast – I will no longer be welcomed as an insider.  I can visit, sure, I may even be called back to substitute on occasion, but it won’t ever again be “home.”


I don’t like good-byes.  I don’t like feeling new.  And I’m about to experience both things in quick succession.

My kiddos from the past year have all moved on, and soon I will do the same.  I really don’t like good-bye but it’s such an exhilarating feeling to be nervous, uncomfortable, and challenged.

3 more weeks.