Spirituality: Can we find room for it in the classroom? (Guest blogger: Jennifer Mata-McMahon)

I have been working in the field of children’s spirituality since I began my doctoral work back in 2005. Way before I ever read the first article in this field of work I had always been interested in spirituality at a personal level but had not really considered it in my professional work. I believed it to be part of my personal identity, yet not have much of a space in my work with teachers or children.

I had worked as a preschool and kindergarten teacher for some years before pursuing my MA and EdM, and after attaining those degrees I went back to higher education to teach in the Early Childhood undergraduate program in a private university in Caracas, Venezuela, where I am from originally. Yet, neither in my work as a teacher or as a university instructor, did I think that spirituality would fit. It was not until I began my doctoral studies that I serendipitously took a course in the Human Development department, on children’s spirituality, that I knew it was even possible to research and publish in this field and still be taken seriously professionally in academia.

Since then, I have been enamored with the topic. Over the years, I have read every book and published article I have been able to find, and have published a few of my own as well. Along my path, I have come across a few teachers, scholars and fellow researchers interested in the topic. Working as an early childhood teacher educator, I have also encountered students (pre-service teachers) who are also intrigued and fascinated by this phenomenon. It is always good to find fellow travelers on this road.

One commonality I have found in those interested in this topic, particularly teachers, in-service and pre-services ones, is that they consider it important, they think it is part of their responsibility in caring for and educating young children, yet they do not quite know how to do it. The most common question I have encountered is “of course this children’s spirituality is important, but how do I support it?”

Firstly, there is the issue of the separation of church and state, which I promptly help teachers debunk. Because the First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” we immediate steer away from religion or religious talk in public settings such as public schools. Yet, that statement is followed with “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which opens the door to explore spirituality in all its facets, including religious beliefs and practices.

By explaining that separation of church and state prohibits public school teachers (and all others working in the public sector) to proselytize and advocate for one particular religious belief over all others, yet it also forbids any action by government schools to inhibit it, helps us understand where the opportunities lie. When searching for ways in which to support spirituality and spiritual growth and nourishment, it is crucial that we understand schools to be a place in which we should not inhibit the spiritual component of our students, our children, to be expressed. Once this is explained and comprehended, we can then start exploring ways in which teachers can support children holistically, including their spiritual selves in the classroom.


In my book Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education, I explain what these experiences look like for kindergarteners. By observing kindergarteners closely in their school environment I was able to develop profiles for each of the four children I observed, and through those profiles, I found specific ways in which these children experienced and expressed their spirituality. Specifically I found, (1) joy (joyfulness and delight), (2) concern for others, kindness, compassion and caring, (3) relationships (importance and value of friends and family), and (4) imagination (use and exploration in play), where the ways in which these children expressed their spiritual selves.

In a more recent research project I have been working on with my colleagues Michael Haslip and Deborah Schein, we have set out to uncover what in-service early childhood teachers are doing to promote and nourish spirituality in their classrooms, for the children they work with. So far, we have encountered teachers that for the most part deemed spirituality very important for them at a personal level and also for them as teachers working with young children. From our preliminary analysis of their survey responses, we have found that in-service teachers support children spirituality by engaging the children in outdoors activities, interacting with nature, gardening or taking care of a class pet; by allowing children to express delight and joy and enjoying children’s spontaneous discoveries; and by engaging in story-telling, imaginative, creative and make-believe activities and play.

In public schools across Chicagoland, a program entitled the Calm Classroom has also been implemented in the recent years. In this program, children are taught to meditate and use meditation techniques each day for a short period of time. The anecdotal results have been that students are developing self-awareness, are capable of more prolonged focus on tasks, and share they feel a sense of inner calm, which helps them to be better friends and kinder to others. If you have not heard of this program and would like to explore it further, you can go to the Calm Classroom website.

If you would like to continue to reflect on how you are supporting children’s spiritual selves in the classroom, or perhaps learn more on how to do this to better inform teachers you work with, please complete the survey we have designed. You will be helping us collect more data for our study, but more importantly, you will be prompted to reflect upon what you do on a regular basis to support children from a spiritual sense and if you discover that you are not doing so, perhaps learn how you could begin.


Dr. Jennifer Mata-McMahon, Ed.D. – Assistant Professor at DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Received an Ed.D. in early childhood education from Teachers College, Columbia University in 2010, and has worked in the field since 1995. She is the coauthor of Ambiente en Accion (Environment in Action) (2006), author of Spiritual Experiences in Early Childhood Education (2015), and coeditor of Spirituality: An Interdisciplinary View (2016), as well as the author and coauthor of several book chapters and journal articles.



Hands-On Is Not Just for Preschoolers

We stress in our courses that young children learn best when they have the opportunity to do hands-on activities that allow them to interact with the world around them and construct their own knowledge. Why should that just be the domain of preschool children?

The traditional method of teaching on the college level has been lecture followed by assessment. Many of us have gotten beyond that but it is still the fall-back mode for many. The problem with this traditional pedagogy is that it assumes students can learn almost by osmosis – just sitting in the room listening to the professor’s words and the information will somehow just sink in. It also focuses strongly on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy – knowledge and understanding. Active learning requires students to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. And is that not what we want our students to be able to do? Just being able to rattle off facts will not help them become quality early childhood educators. Active learning requires learners to be in charge of their learning, a very important life skill beyond the college classroom.

One university who has taken the concept of active learning to heart is the University of Minnesota. They have an entire building that was constructed just to promote such. It is so popular with the students (and the faculty who have stepped outside their comfort zone to become familiar with it) that it is hard to “book” a classroom for courses. UM has taken the concept of active learning to the nth power but utilizing technology to make such learning easier. However, it is not necessary to have the money for all the technology they have to use active learning in your courses (and in Illinois right now we all know there is not any money for such things). Using Post-It note chart paper hung around the room can be a low-tech way of introducing active learning into your courses.

If, however, you want to be tempted to see what can be done when technology is utilized, you can attend the Active Learning format that has been held every-other-year in Minneapolis. It is not particularly expensive. I paid my own way and felt it was well worth it. You can find out more information about this at https://cceevents.umn.edu/international-forum-on-active-learning-classrooms.

In an earlier blog I spoke about a Send-A-Problem activity that I used in my classes. This is low tech but also active learning. In that blog I mentioned the book Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, 2nd ed. (2014) by Barkley, Major, and Cross. I would like to promote it here once more. Most of the ideas in this book are low tech but very much require students to be actively involved in their learning.

What active learning techniques have you use? Share them in the comments section.

Debbie Lee recently retired as an associate professor of early childhood education at Western Illinois University. She has worked in the field of early childhood for more than 44 years, doing everything from running a licensed day care home to teaching on the college level.

Supporting Children and Families in Turbulent Times (Guest blogger: Kate Connor)

As we welcome in 2017, I wanted to share a few words to honor you! I have been working in higher education in Illinois for the last ten years. While I have always loved my fellow early ed colleagues, I have found our team to be uniquely amazing. Your perseverance, care, and passion is second to none. While we enter a climate where funding and support for our field appears shaky, I am only encouraged because I know we will stay focused and energized on our work. And as a huge bonus, we have individuals cheering on and supporting us at the local, state, and national levels!

I wanted to share a document we have been working on at Truman. Post- election, we unfortunately had numerous students experience verbal and/or physical attacks during their commutes to and from school. One particularly painful interaction happened in front of one of our student’s four-year old child. While the school hosted forums and conversations to assist students, we found we were being asked by students, colleagues, and professionals in the field if we had a framework that could help them navigate supporting children and families. Below is our work-in-progress creation that I wanted to share. I hope you find it helpful in some way. It is a collaborative document created my myself, Leslie Layman, and Angela Cotromanes:

  1. Self Care:
  • Children recognize and respond to our emotional state

Children look to adults to understand how to interpret and process the world around them. Children are aware of when you are emotionally overwhelmed and can mirror negative emotions that the adults around them are feeling. This could look like changes in sleep or eating patterns, acting out, or internalizing behaviors such as withdrawing from peers. Demonstrate healthy coping strategies such as rest, communicating, and self regulation when you are experiencing negative emotions so that children can see that negative emotions are normal and how to process them appropriately.

  • Know your triggers and your limits

Know the things and people in your environment that trigger you to become overly upset. If you are overwhelmed, limit your time in situations in which you know you may be triggered. If you cannot avoid your triggers, find a way to take breaks such as taking a walk or calling a friend.

  • Seek out positive relationships

Children need relationships to support emotional well being, and so do adults. Make sure to contact people that care about you, spend extra time with supportive friends and family, and ask for help when you need it.

2. Safety:

  • Addressing and acknowledging your own and children’s fears

Ignoring or minimizing things that are frightening does not support children’s coping. Identify and label fear, times that you or your child are afraid, and what things are frightening. Emotions can be described as “Looks like, feels like, I can” activities, such as, “When I am afraid my eyes look big, my body feels frozen, and I can ask an adult for help.” Identifying and labeling your own fear and modeling appropriate coping supports children to have an appropriate response when they are afraid.

  • Coping from the Child’s Perspective:

How Adults Can Help:

  • Limit children’s exposure to media and adult screen time

Children pick up information from media even when it seems that they are not paying attention. Children experience a lot of “passive exposure” to media that is not always child appropriate through the screens that are around them in stores, on public transportation, etc. Ensure that the media you can control is appropriate for the child’s age and individual needs. Negative media interactions can be difficult to disengage from. Limit your own media use during stressful situations to increase your coping and time with your child.

  • Increase sleep and promote nutrition

Just like adults, children feel better when they are well rested and eating well. In times of stress increase naps or nighttime sleep hours and ensure that children have access to healthy food. Mealtimes can be important times to come together as a family and share feelings.

  • Model appropriate coping and self regulation

Children take cues from adults about coping. Reacting to stress by overeating, drinking, smoking, or lashing out at others sends a message to children about how to cope. Instead show them that activities such as exercise, art, helping others, or spending time with loved ones can reduce stress.

  • Answering the questions children are asking

Sometimes adults project their ideas or worries onto children when children’s questions are much more simple and direct. Know that it is okay to tell children that you do not know the answer to something. If children ask a difficult question, remember that you only need to answer the question that they are asking and answer it at their level of understanding, you do not need to explain the concept the way you would to an adult.

  • Engaging in play their way

Children need time to process information in their own way, and unstructured play is the best way for them to do this. Give them plenty of time to free play, and if you join in attempt to join what they are doing and play at their level instead of guiding the play.

  • Allow alternatives to verbal communication

Children express themselves through actions, play, art, book choices, sleep and eating changes, and variety of other non verbal ways. Make sure that you give multiple means for communication and that you are “listening” to their non-verbal ways of telling you what they need.

  • Support rituals and routines

Rituals and routines support children to keep their body and their emotions regulated. Keeping things such as bed and meal time as consistent as possible supports children in times of stress and reassures them that the world is predictable and safe. Continue rituals such as goodbyes, bedtime stories, and bath time the way you did before the stressor occurred.

  • Let children take back power:

Children do not have a lot of choice or power throughout the day and stressful situations can reduce the power that they do have. Actively introduce activities that give power back to children. This might be increasing choice, allowing them to feed pets, and giving them control over routines such as getting dressed.

  1. Resilience:

  1. Empathy:
  • Family activities that communication and support your family’s values

In times of stress it can be meaningful for families to review their underlying values and what is important to them. Spend time with your children discussing your values. These might be spiritual values, guidance about the treatment of others, or beliefs about the nature of the world.

  • Incorporating empathy into classrooms
  1. Responding to Harassment and Specific Fears:
  • Teach your child to identify safe adults in times of need.
  • If you and/or your child’s immediate safety are threatened, and you can safely leave the area, leave.
  • Teach your child to contact you in a variety of ways in a variety of situations. Teach them how to contact another adult if they cannot reach you.
  • Deesecalation & Intervention for bystanders of harassment & violence
  • Resources for Witness or Targets of Hate Crimes