Sound Advice for Healthy Families

Last night I got to briefly chat with many moms that I know in my community. I was standing at my table promoting our new Music Booster’s Club and had our first bake sale. After about the third interaction, I thought about the Peanut’s character Lucy who would set up a booth and charge her friends for her sage advice.  I didn’t actually use Lucy most famous reply, “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.” Rather, I listened and nodded my head in understanding. Life is busy and so many things are all happening simultaneously that we often feel like we just need to take a moment to check in with a friend.

Image result for peanuts comic advice five cents

So if you are looking for some “sound advice” about parenting and raising healthy kids I narrowed it down to three main thoughts.

  1. Families are busy, but more than anything our children need to know that we are there to listen day or night. Our relationship with our children is built on trust and open communication.
  2. Children need daily unstructured outdoor time in order to thrive. Childhood is short and we should protect their time to be kids. We should turn off our own devices and head outdoors with them to boost our own health! Wellness is achieved by daily healthy habits which can be a simple as a walk in the neighborhood or playing in the backyard!
  3. Eat dinner together as often as possible…I think shared meals is the best way to reconnect with one another. Both positive communication and healthy foods feed our children and ourselves. Take the time to make sit down at the table together!

I don’t think I will build my own booth like Lucy…but I do intend to write my weekly blog posts as a way to help parents and teachers find simple ways to ‘grow a holistic view of childhood’.

Be well,

April

“A growing body of scientific evidence identifies strong correlations between experience in the natural world and children’s ability to learn, along with their physical and emotional health. Stress levels, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive functioning—and more—are positively affected by time spent in nature.” ~Richard Louv

Grieving While Teaching

 

Reflecting on our values and our teaching practices is one of the most powerful ways to deepen our roots and to grow. Sharing those reflections with others is one way that we can mentor or support other teachers experiencing the same thing that we’ve gone through. So I offer my reflection of figuring out my core values while grieving, and how to navigate grieving while teaching….and I hope that it helps in your own journey.

As a lifelong learner, I continue to learn and grow. I believe that my teaching evolves each year, but at the foundation is one core value that I hold as my ‘true north’ ~ “LOVE”. Throughout my career my administrators, co-teachers, assistants, families, and children all remark how my classroom feels warm, nurturing, and safe. It’s a place that oozes with love and positivity. Parents especially appreciate how I create a sense of belonging and the trust that they feel by my approach with their children.

The fact of the matter though as teachers some years are tough because of our personal lives and so I want to share about one of my most difficult years of my life. One week prior to the start of school, my father passed away suddenly from testicular cancer and all I wanted to do was to climb into bed and keep the covers over my head. How on Earth could I manage to pull myself together to be an upbeat, organized, and fully present preschool teacher?

By some sweet miracle the school contacted me and said that preschool would have to be delayed opening by one week because of the odor of the gym floor being replaced. I was so grateful because I needed that week to pull my emotions together after the grief of losing my father. I felt like I needed to spend more time outside in nature alone, and to explore my own roots – who I was, what my values were, where I was going in my life, and figuring out who I was.

Before I knew about the delay in our start for preschool, I was so torn about taking care of my own health and being a fabulous teacher. I rarely take sick days, strive for perfection, and am in over-drive creating the best possible classroom that I can. At that time though I knew I couldn’t “pour from an empty vessel’ and knew I needed to take time for myself, time to grieve, and to process my emotions. So a huge gratitude to the universe for the delay in the gym floor so I could miss a week and still be there to start the school year with my preschoolers.

Creating community is one of my top priorities in teaching, and so I knew that I need to get the school year going on positive note despite my deep sadness. Chester Raccoon from the book “Kissing Hand” became my mascot in my classroom. I bought a raccoon puppet and used the puppet to teach about emotions. I thought a lot about how that kiss left in a palm could travel to the heart at anytime so the love of a parent could be felt, whether or not they were present. Though the book is about separation when a child goes to school, the parallel for grief work was very healing to me.

In many ways as we work through grief we wear a mask. Especially for our students and our own children at home, we want to be able to be present and upbeat so we put on the mask of ‘happiness’. Though I realized that I also needed to take time to grieve and to heal so I had to prioritize my ‘alone time’ when I didn’t have to have the ‘everything is okay mask’. This part of the grief journey means connecting to others who have experienced the same loss and who support your vulnerability.

At this same time my mother was also undergoing ovarian cancer treatment which meant that I was making frequent visits to be with her. My parents had been separated since I was three years old, and so the chances of them both having cancer at the same time was more than symbolic to me. As I visited with my mom we chatted about many things and I felt more comfortable to ask her heartfelt questions than I ever had as a child.

It became clear in January that her diagnosis was terminal and I tried my best to come to terms with losing both parents in less than a year. It was simply unfair and unjust. I went through a phase of anger, but I knew that I needed to find “BALANCE” in my life to not be swallowed up by grief. This journey helped me become much more intentional about how I spend my time and how I prioritize my own personal health and the time that I have for my own family. At first it felt selfish but I realized that I taking care of ourselves, including taking sick days and bereavement days, is how we can continue to be our best selves.
On Easter Sunday, I sat by my mother’s bedside and held her hand as she took her last breaths. The words to the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” were playing in my mind as I sat there taking in the fact that this was the last time I would be with her. My lifelong champion, confidant, and closest friend would no longer be a phone call away. How could I live in a world without my mother? My ‘true north’ felt completely pushed off course and I knew that reorienting the sails would take work and effort. That night as I laid in the guest room bed, my mind was spinning, and I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I felt something renewed in me a deep sense of purpose.

With the loss of my mother, I decided to take two full weeks off before going back into my classroom. I knew that my assistant teacher would do a great job, and that the children would be just fine without me. Letting go of perfection or thinking that I needed to put on a superhero cape was a HUGE shift in me. During those two weeks, I let myself truly grieve.  I reflected on what I needed to do to be able to survive the last couple of weeks of school. Some days it felt like a survival situation and ‘just keep swimming’ was my mantra. The end of year tasks weren’t completed with perfection but it good enough really was enough. This was the first time in my career that I understood the vital importance of life / work balance, and when we reorient our priorities to care for ourselves we feel like we matter.

Five years have now passed since my father’s death and through reflection and inner work I can offer these thoughts:

– By striving to be a nurturing mother to my own children I honor the memory of both of my parents.

-By letting go of perfection and being a ‘flawesome’ teacher, parent, or spouse, I am happier and more content with my life. Owning our flaws is the best way to stop perfection from gnawing at us. My new mantra is “Purpose over perfection”

– By living with intention, I re-prioritize my life so that the precious time that I have here is lived fully, in alignment with my values, and with JOY. Before I commit to something, I check in to see if it fits with may values and life goals.

-By connecting with others I can create a new sense of “BELONGING” and though I felt like I had lost my ‘true north’ my memories always connect me to my parents, and other family and friends who have passed away. Connecting in real life to a small circle of friends who support and cheer each other on is vital to our health and happiness.

-Gentle self awareness and daily self-care makes the grief journey easier. Taking time to pause, breathe, and to remember that kiss in Chester’s palm is way that I can reset.

-I believe that when we are clear on our core values our decisions and path is easier to see. For me, my core values of love, balance, and belonging help me keep my life steered in the right direction.

 

Grieving while teaching can be very challenging and if you find yourself in that journey…my advice is to be gentle with yourself. Take time when you need it and communicate with your school team & home team when you need support. I believe that when we let go of ‘perfection’, we give ourselves some breathing room.  As I think of the two people who had a profound impact on who I am, my parents, I know that their best qualities are deeply rooted in me and that keeps me grounded. Taking the time to grieve, to rediscover our roots, and to connect to others is essential.

P.O.W.E.R. ~ Path of Wellness, Empowerment & Relationships

One of the best parts of leading professional development training is the deep conversation and connections that I get to make with other early care providers and educators.

On Monday of this week I led a training called “Leading with Empathy” and we dove deep into topics of emotional vocabulary, fostering inclusion and belonging in our programs, building strong relationships with the families in our programs, defining empathy & considering how to build those skills with children, and developing self care action plans.

This was the first time leading this training, but I knew that this was helping me to synthesize and apply much of the research and work that I have been exploring this year. Helping others to make deeper connections, act with compassion, gain more confidence in their work, and build up our reserves so we can be care givers without depleting ourselves, and to turn our vulnerabilities into strengths.

Whoa…this is important work for all of us no matter our field!

Driving home I was reflecting on the presentation and the conversations. The word “POWER” kept coming to mind, and my wish to be able to pass on confidence and power to all the women that I work with. Many child care providers and moms that I know need a POWER boost, and often I find myself giving PEP talks to other women who feel stripped of their power.

Community of Practice model ~ working together with others in order to improve ourselves and to foster growth within our team or community is the way to change our views. When we connect with a small group of others in this way, all working toward the same goal, we create a synergy! Being part of a community who are all committed to the same goal makes us feel like we belong, and we feel supported to grow and change.

Women’s Gatherings ~ for most of my life I have been part of a small tribe of other women who are working on the same life goals. As a teen being invited into drumming circles, as a young adult leading Wise Women’s retreats, leading yoga classes and adult wellness programs when I ran a Holistic Health Center. Later once I began working in early childhood education, leading parenting groups, play groups, Mommy Coffee Hour, and professional development. All of these tribes and circles have supported me and helped me become who I am.

So developing my own framework for growing into our P.O.W.E.R. is one of the big projects in store for June 2019!

P.O.W.E.R. = Path of Wellness, Environment, & Relationships ~ weaving together much of the research, reading, and inner work that I have been doing in order to offer an in-person women’s coaching group. I am also going to offer it as an online e-course as well so I can send my positive message to a wider audience. Eventually, I will have a framework or blueprint ready to share with other women who want to lead their own groups!

If you would like to be part of my FREE online BETA-test group or live local and want to be part of my summer group, email me at aprilzajko@gmail.com 

 

 

Thank you to the “Starting Points Child Care Network” in Randolph, Vermont for inspiring me this week! I hope you each took away some tools that you will use in your work! Our training this week really me inspired me! I am so eager to dive into developing this larger training program!

With gratitude,

April

Sprouting in a Jar

I grew up with a mom who loved plants, and who always had small businesses that involved plants. In fact, I helped my mom build a greenhouse at three different properties she owned. Growing plants is one way that I feel connected to my mom and to my childhood roots.

1980’s Childhood with my two older brothers! ~Willow Grove, Delaware ~

So naturally, as a teacher and parent, I prioritize teaching children about their food and think it’s empowering for children to learn how to grow their own food.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to grow sprouts in jars. It takes very little time, space, or effort….and kids LOVE to watch the changes that occur from day to day. Children also are more likely to eat food that they’ve helped to grow!

“How to Grow Your Own Sprouts”

Read the package of your Sprouting Seeds for more specific guidelines, but there really are only a few steps.

Step 1 – Wash a couple mason jars, add 1-2 Tablespoons of seeds, fill with water and allow to sit over night (or about 8 hours). Drain and rinse, lie jar on its side.

Step 2 – Every morning and night, rinse the seeds, drain, shake to distribute them around the jar, and lie jar on its side. (Singing to the seeds is completely optional but my inner preschool teacher knows singing grows happier sprouts.)

Step 3 – In about five days your sprouts will be ready to eat. Just give them a final rinse and eat! I like to serve our fresh sprouts on a platter with raw veggies. This winter I have taken to making veggie art and posting it on Instagram….because I think we all need friendly reminders to ‘eat the rainbow’!

Stop on over to Instagram and follow Aprils_Teaching_Tree for your sprout/veggie man updates!

And…I’ve finally gotten over my fear of posting videos of myself. {Drum roll please…} Here is my first ever video explaining the process of sprouting. Click on the link for my YouTube tutorial and subscribe if you’d like updates when my weekly videos are published!

 

Playgroup as a Life Line

Just before my son’s first birthday my husband and I decided to up and move to Northern Vermont, where we knew no one….literally no one. We had just sold our thirty acre family farm in Virginia, and my brother headed to California, my mom headed to more modern house in a city near the farm, and I headed 800 miles away with my husband and son. The first couple of months were mild weather and the excitement of unpacking the new house was keeping me busy, but then November arrived. The days were drab, the pretty leaves of fall were long gone, and the snow had yet to fall. I decided to make wellness appointments for myself and my son to meet our new primary care providers, and at my first appointment my nurse practitioner told me something shocking.

Essentially she said she doubted that I would thrive here, yes, maybe I could survive but likely not more than three years. She talked to me about Post-partum depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and social isolation. She gave me handouts to read and her gloomy outlook left me confused and little bit ticked off. I explained to her that I did not have any of those three issues (and I wanted to say, what right do you have to put that crap into my head?). I promptly went home and fumed about it with my husband, and then did the logical thing and searched the internet: “how to avoid social isolation when you live far from your support network and your PCP sucks”.

From my research I determined that step one was to meet real life friends who had similar aged children for at least once a week meet ups. I was delighted to find that there was a community playgroup less than a mile away from my house, and so twice a week, I had a reason to get up and out of the house by 9 a.m. to interact with other moms, and oh yeah, for my son to interact with other kids. This routine was a God-send because cabin-fever was setting in fast, and meeting new people in winter was hard. Through my other errands I would force myself to talk to other moms in the grocery store, or sign up for free events through the recreation department, but nothing worked its’ charm like the weekly playgroup. The young staff members had less early childhood education than me, but their kind words, enthusiastic energy, and parenting tips were just what I needed as I found my way in being the best mom I could be for my son.

I jokingly say that I went to that playgroup for three years straight, and they must have been exhausted seeing me. Playgroup though was a lifeline in figuring out how live in a new town, be a new mom, and it forced me to meet new mom-friends. The nurse practitioner was right in bringing my awareness to things that were not yet a problem, and I know her preventive approach helped me be a better mom. Though I would like to add that I have been here for twelve years, most of which have been days that I thrive, and just a handful of days that I felt I was just “surviving”.

If you are a new mom, find at least one mom friend who you can meet weekly. Maybe for a weekly cup of coffee…or stroller walk.

If you know a new mom encourage her to try playgroup. And if one doesn’t exist in your town, start one, because moms from all walks of life feel socially isolated or lonely. You too deserve the support you need in order to thrive!