My Favourite Early Literacy Message

Alternate Title: A Love Letter to the Center on the Developing Child.

If I could only say one thing to caregivers about early literacy it would be about serve and return interactions. Sometimes it feels like all the research comes back to this foundation:

“Responsive interactions between children and the adults in their lives — from caregivers to educators to extended family members — help shape brain architecture and the foundations of lifelong health and well-being.”

This quotation is from one of my favourite newsletters by the Center on the Developing Child. They define serve and return as thus:

A serve and return interaction is when an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug. This responsive interaction builds and strengthens neural connections in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills, as well as lifelong learning, health, and well-being.

Anyone working with small children should give a thorough read through of their Serve and Return guide. In particular I like this short video which demonstrates the 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return.

I print a copy of their PDF guide with the 5 steps listed and keep it with my storytime plans. It helps to refresh my memory before I jump into singing and dancing with a group. It also reminds me of ways I can model these interactions with little ones before, during, and after storytime.

Do you have a favourite early literacy message? What’s the thing you find yourself saying again and again? For more of my favourites check the blog posts listed under “Early Literacy.”

13 thoughts on “My Favourite Early Literacy Message

  1. What I find myself saying again and again is “It’s the process, not the product!”, which applies to lots of things. Mostly I’m trying to remind them not to take over crafts or other activities, or focus on the child doing things “right”. Also to let the kids do things themselves! One thing I’ve really noticed is that with only a couple of exceptions, the adults will NOT let the kids use the scissors (and they are scissors made for kids, and some do have rounded tips). So as much as I don’t like the idea of worksheets, I have started putting out the sheets with straight, wavy, and zig-zag lines to cut. I’ve also done a few torn-paper crafts, saying what a good activity tearing paper is for building fine motor skills, and most of the adults still insist on doing it for them.

    1. Yes! I said ” it’s the process not the product” today in a family craft progam. I am finding that younger parents (as opposed to grandparents/older caregivers in the room) aren’t as comfortable with “out of the box” or free-reign crafts. They want specific instructions and specific outcomes. I try to model for the adults to try new things and encourage creativity as much as I am modeling for the kids. I also often say “meet your child’s interests/expectations and leave your own expectations at the door” which I guess is my own version of serve & return.

      1. Following the child’s interest is definitely part of serve and return. For babies it’s noticing what they are noticing and using that as a springboard for conversations and interactions. As kids grow older it’s important for caregivers to follow their child’s lead while also exposing them to new and different experiences that help them grow.

    2. Oh interesting. Maybe it’s because my library system doesn’t do crafts after storytime (or for any early years program, really) that I haven’t used this as an early literacy message. It’s definitely something I say to kids at school-age programs and something I try to intentionally build into the design of the program so that we are doing activities that allow for their creativity and problem solving to shine.

  2. What Jennifer said! And thank you so much for sharing this, Lindsey. You do fabulous research and you always get to the heart of early literacy ideals. Then you share it far and wide! It’s just so incredibly helpful!

    1. Thanks, Kelly! This is good to hear because I put too much pressure on myself to analyze the research when I think there is also value in simply pointing to it and letting people form their own thoughts.

  3. 1000% agree. I have never heard it broken down this way though – thank you for sharing! What a great reminder for the grownups in the room. I always look forward to your insights and how you get to the heart of what’s really important.

    1. The Center on the Developing Child does an amazing job at breaking complex topics into clear steps. Also, anyone reading this should go check out Alyssa’s new blog! It’s so good.

  4. As a new mom with PPD I once left a storytime and burst into tears because the librarian had enthusiastically extolled the important of talking with your baby, and I was terrified that I wasn’t doing “enough”, and was thus damaging my precious baby. As new parents we’re bombarded with information (much of it unsolicited), and constantly reminded how important the first few years of our child’s life are – which unfortunately coincides with the period in our lives when we’re often the most overwhelmed, sleep-deprived and exhausted! This is especially true for caregivers who don’t have a village or social network to support them, or who face additional challenges like housing or financial insecurity or mental health challenges.

    When sharing early education “sprinkles”, I keep my fragile, lonely, guilt-ridden new mom self clearly in mind. I want to share practical, doable tips that even the most exhausted new caregivers can manage (don’t just say *what* caregivers should do, model *how* they might do it), while also reassuring caregivers that they are *enough* and that they’re doing *enough*. I don’t want them to feel like I’m piling more on them or judging them as parents or caregivers, I want them to leave feeling reassured, empowered, supported, hopefully even inspired. It’s a tall order, and it’s something I’m constantly working on and refining, but hopefully I can be the virtual cheerleaders I needed at that stage in my life.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear you had that experience, Jane. It’s a good reminder that we never know the head space caregivers are in just based on appearance. I wonder if there would have been a way for the librarian to share that message without it making you feel bad about yourself? I’m with you in your approach – keep it simple, encouraging, and friendly. Be the cheerleader, not the preacher. Hey, maybe that’s a future blog post…

    2. This is such great feedback, Jane! Sometimes youth library staff can also get bombarded with all the early literacy buzz words and tips with reminders that we should be sharing these at every storytime, and some of us feel a bit inadequate to the job. Your feedback helps me know that while I don’t always (okay – seldom!) thoroughly articulate the numerous correlations between what I am sharing and the early literacy points I’m incorporating, I am absolutely incorporating them and sharing them! Does that make sense, lol? Your feedback shows me that constantly spelling them out can feel a bit overbearing to caregivers when they are just trying to enjoy the storytime space and sharing loving times with their young families in that space.

      1. No, that absolutely makes sense! Just by the way we interact with families and share songs and stories in our story times we’re modelling ways to support early literacy. There’s great power in that!

    3. At storytimes with the infant parents, when sharing Early Literacy tips, I start by saying the practices we focus on are things they are already doing! I think it’s a bit of a stress reliever to hear that they very likely are using these early literacy skills, whether they were aware of it or not. I then list a couple of the skills in a more casual way as I model reading a board book to their infants. As you said, Jane, new parents are stressed and managing so much so you don’t want to feel like you’re giving them “homework.” It’s supposed to be fun after all!

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