Danish Toddlers And Their Parents Don’t Get Sick That Much —— Said no Dane Ever

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I knew it the second my precious and I entered the room on baby’s first day at preschool. I knew that there was going to be trouble. In the little cozy preschool room, 80 pct. of baby’s future little friends had runny noses that needed to be wiped off. I even wiped off a few, while I was thinking that these kids needed to stay home and not pass over their germs to others. On day two of our short 30 minute visit, the kids with the runny noses were still there, happily trolling around, and I felt a pang of positivity. Maybe they weren’t sick, maybe they were the kind of kids that have runny noses throughout their childhood, not entailing any contagious diseases? Or maybe Danish kids just have runny noses through fall and winter, not entailing any need for sick days? I was optimistic. On day four of another short visit to baby’s preschool, I suddenly felt extremely cold on the way home. So cold that I bought wool socks for the whole family and wool pants and slippers for baby. I was shivering outside, I was shivering inside our apartment. I was almost panicking: If this was how the cold felt in early October, how would December feel? The cold that I felt was a warning. On the night of day four, baby had a fever and a runny nose, whereas I started throwing up, which continued all night even when I didn’t have anything left in my body to throw up. I felt I time travelled back to the nights where baby’s siblings were the same age, as I alternated nursing with handing my feverish baby over to his dad, while I ran outside the bedroom to throw up in a plastic bag.

When I called the preschool the next day to let them know, we weren’t going to make it that day, they let us know that those two viruses were indeed going around the house. Is this how fall and winter time are going to play out for us, again? Well, if that’s the case, I guess I’m going to have to look for daycare programs with only one or two other kids to minimize our exposure to germs instead of the otherwise perfect preschool we managed to find. Sigh.

Our Search For The Right Preschool – Part Four

Our Reggio Emilio Preschool Experience

After out Montessori experience I felt shell-shocked. Was it me? Was it the American culture? The parents that I had crossed in the mornings at the Montessori preschool had seemed friendly (welcoming us at the school) and content, when they dropped off their child at the door. They weren’t allowed to go into the classroom. So did they know or understand the dynamics that took place in the classroom? I don’t think so; rereading the raving parent reviews on the preschool, I noticed that parents mostly focused on the skills that their child acquired during the program.

I stopped relying on advice from parents, I put aside my concern about being too sensitive, and I followed a Danish belief: “If you like the teachers, the atmosphere, and if you can picture yourself spending a whole day there, then it’s the right preschool.”

My search led me to a Reggio Emilio based preschool. My husband and I went there,  without our daughter, and talked to teachers and observed the classroom. We wanted to make sure that it was a fit before we introduced her to a new preschool. Because from our daughter’s point of view, preschool in San Francisco was NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

Her new preschool was full of life, child laughter, hugging teachers, and bright airy rooms with tons of toys. Despite the environment, mu daughter’s transition was agonizing. Her short Montessori experience had damaged her.

At this preschool the teachers encouraged parents to visit and participate in the classroom. And to my relief they even asked me to stay with my daughter because of her fear and distress. So I stayed with her — at an arm’s length — for a full month (!) in the classroom watching how she studied the other children, focused on following their example, and strived at not attracting attention from either teachers or children. She avoided physical contact — even eye contact — despite the fun and loving environment.

I trusted the teachers 100 % (having watched them for a month!). So despite her unhappiness, I didn’t give up and started leaving her alone in the classroom for short period of times. Daily, her preschool would send parents pictures by email taken throughout the day. When I started leaving my daughter alone in the classroom, the pictures showed her red-eyed on the couch with a blanket, while the other children were playing. Then the pictures started showing her playing while smiling.

For more than three months our once bouncy, outgoing, and laughing daughter cried mornings, afternoons, and nights because she “didn’t want to go to preschool,” she was “scared of English,” and “she didn’t want to live in the US.” For more than 90 days her eyes seemed constantly red from crying, and It took all my strengths to get through that period of time.

… My daughter just finished 15 months of preschool. Because of her teachers’ loving support and later friendships with other children, she eventually turned back into her fun and self-independent self. She’s a happy child today. But she still — until her last day at preschool — insisted that she “didn’t want to go to preschool,” and she cried every morning at goodbye. I think it was a reminiscent of her hard transition. The teachers helped her say goodbye and hugged her, which made her (and me) feel safe. During her day she mostly had a great time, and if not her teachers (and she) would let me know. The teachers were her rock as much as mine.

Our Search For The Right Preschool — Part Three

Our Montessori Experience Continued

After negotiations with the Preschool Director, we tried another classroom on our fourth day with — it seemed — more communicative activities such as circle time with singing, more interaction between children and teachers, and more teachers. I was now permitted to walk around in the classroom, and my daughter started to explore her surroundings. She made a painting in her favorite colors pink and purple. But she wasn’t allowed to bring it home because a teacher decided weekly which “works” were ready to be taken home.

I started noticing that the noiseless children always seemed passive, in control: when they concentrated on their work, when they ate, when they stood orderly in line waiting to wash hands at the one bathroom sink, when they waited for food, and when they waited to put their plate in a sink after lunch. They displayed no outbursts, no signs of joy, not even during music time where the children had to sit still on chairs. The teachers had rules — it seemed to us — for every activity, every body movement, and other children excelled at correcting my daughter when she stood out of line, sat improperly on a chair, or forgot to clean up her “project.” The other children acted like policemen.

A serious facial expression and a nervous stare replaced my daughter’s beautiful smile, sparkling eyes, and joyful personality. She constantly endeavored to figure out the right way of doing things by observing and following the example of the other children.

Day five came to be our last day. No teacher had attempted to forge bonds with my daughter. According to the Montessori philosophy children are highly competent, and her teachers awaited her to approach them, when she was ready. Why did I stay one more day? Why didn’t I just quit after our second day?? I wanted to. But my husband reminded me that I’m extremely sensitive when it comes to starting my children at daycare and preschool. Which is true. Plus we stood to loose a large amount of money. And I actually liked the School Director, who continued to be very understanding.

On our last day, instead of being 100 pct. focused on engaging my daughter in activities (because the teachers didn’t), I started to really look around and observe the other noiseless children.

During music I observed a young boy, who was crying. He was asked to leave the circle and stand in the corner, because he was “disturbing” music time. No teacher attempted to hug him. He cried inconsolably and then stopped by himself.

Also, I had been scrutinizing a little girl for the two days we had stayed in our last classroom. At all times she had been wearing — inside and outside the classroom — a beige winter jacket and a snoopy bag pack. And she had been sucking on a pacifier (even though she was app. four) except at snack time and at lunch where she placed her pacifier next to her plate. No teacher had made an attempt to make her take her warm coat or back pack off. The Preschool Director caught me looking at the girl and said proudly: ”This is Sophie; she is French; she has been with us for three months; we communicate with her through hand signs.” Defying the silence rule, I walked over to her and told her in French: ”You are French, that’s so nice, I speak French too.” She took her pacifier of her mouth, smiled, and nodded vigorously. This was the first time in the two days that I had been observing her that I saw her show emotions and communicate. I got a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, and when I left with my daughter shortly after, I knew that we would NEVER return.

Afterwards, I blamed myself for making such a mistake, such an error of judgment. I blamed myself for not trusting my guts. Thinking about the little French girl as one of the preschool’s perceived “successes” at integrating children with English as a second language enraged me. And scared me.

… To be continued.

Our Search For The Right Preschool – Part Two

Our Montessori Preschool Experience  

At the time of our relocation, having just turned four, my daughter had been thriving at her Danish preschool for a year. Like all Danish preschools, her preschool had focused on free play, either inside or outside on a playground.

In Denmark, roaring children identify — a mile away — the presence of a preschool. The supervising adults comfort and help sort out conflicts between the children and maintain discipline only at lunch and snack time. My husband and I subscribe to the Danish belief that acquiring academic skills at preschool is unnecessary. On the other hand we believe that fostering a cheerful, individualistic, perceptive, and self-confident approach to life as well as acquiring social skills will prepare them to handle school and later adulthood.

When I opted for a Montessori preschool, I chose the school based on recommendations, but wasn’t as such interested in the Montessori part. I thought that I had done my homework: parents praised the preschool on several websites; our landlord’s daughter had attended the school several years ago and our landlord kept hearing good reviews. The Preschool Director assured me that the teachers had experience in bilingual children and that they adhered to free play. I read up on the Montessori philosophy and I checked out the preschool website — but I didn’t get it.

For instance, I never perceived that the preschool rule “we always use our quiet voice in the classroom” entailed that all talking had to be done by whispering and that children were not allowed to interact, to PLAY, inside the classroom.

On my daughter’s first day, she bounced her way to preschool in anticipation of meeting new friends. Instead, when we got into the classroom, we were seated uncomfortably in a corner, on the floor, close to the door, where we sat whispering by ourselves: the classroom teacher requested that I didn’t move around in the classroom because this would “disturb the children.” This intimidated my daughter who then didn’t feel like exploring the classroom on her own. My daughter was asked to choose three activities — using Montessori playthings — before lunch, which focused on writing letters, practicing the alphabet, or painting. She only exercised shaping letters because other activities — including painting that she thought looked fun — were not reachable from our spot. The classroom had no dolls, no costumes — no toys. Children had to focus on their chosen project and were discouraged from interacting during this class-time — even when using their “quiet voice.”

On the second day, the teacher asked me to leave and expressed that I disturbed the classroom (sitting in the corner) and that my departure would facilitate my daughter’s transition. My daughter panicked when I introduced the idea of leaving her alone in the classroom, so I didn’t, and I had a heated argument with the teacher who let me stay (because the preschool Director had promised me, I could stay for a longer period of time).

On my daughter’s third day, her father left her alone in the classroom BRIEFLY, for less than ten minutes, while he took over our car, and I took over in the classroom. When I showed up, my daughter sat in her teacher’s lap on the floor crying so hard that she could hardly breathe. From this moment until three months later, it was as if a stranger took over my happy daughter. 

… To be continued

Our Search For The Right Preschool – Part One

Expectations

”They’ll speak English within a month,” ”kids adjust easily,” “kids are flexible” people reassured me about my children’s move from Denmark to San Francisco: It’s a common belief that children adjust quickly and painlessly to a new country and a new language.

I knew different having spent four traumatizing years in a French Elementary School. I knew that parental support and school choice would devise not only their transition, but also their happiness. Based on my experiences, I believed that by picking the right schools and standing by my children’s side I could spare them from an agonizing transition. It turned out that I couldn’t. And that identifying a preschool in San Francisco matching my Danish approach to early childhood education was a task, where I failed.

I based my quest for the right preschool pretty much the same way I searched for the right elementary school: online reviews, conversations, and correspondence with parents and schools. And when there was a match, together with my husband, we toured the schools asking the following questions: “What was their experience with children with English as a second language;” “how strongly did they feel about discipline and academics; “what were their thoughts about how we could help our children through the transition;” “how did they feel about me staying for a longer period of time in the classroom”. Speaking English fluently, having watched tons of American shows and movies as well as having read articles on the American educational system, I thought that I had an idea of what to expect.

… It turned out that I didn’t.