Meet Rommel Mendez, a toddler teacher with over a decade of experience. In this episode of Teaching with CLASS®, Rommel shares his valuable insights and practical strategies for fostering trust, sensitivity, and emotional security in the classroom. 

His approach emphasizes meeting children where they are, understanding their unique needs, and equipping them with tools for self-regulation. The conversation also touches on adapting activities to cater to individual needs and interests, fostering relationships with parents, and handling challenges in the classroom including sensory overload.

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Monica: Hello and welcome to the Teaching with CLASS® podcast, the podcast that gives you quick, actionable tips to easily implement in your classrooms. I'm your host, Monica Pujol-Nasif, super happy to be with you today. 

In today's episode, we'll be discussing educator sensitivity, and how important it is to be in tune with the students in your classroom. We are joined by Rommel Mendez. He is a toddler teacher at Chicanos Por La Causa Early Head Start in Phoenix, Arizona. He has been working for CPLC as a toddler teacher for over 10 years. 

Welcome, Rommel. We are so grateful that you're taking the time to share with us some expertise. Tell us a little bit about you, please.

Rommel: Thank you for having me today. I'm very honored to share my experience about early childhood. Little background about me. I started with CPLC around 2010 as a teacher assistant for migrant and seasonal on Head Start. It was really good. I enjoyed it from the first time I started. 

First of all, I love kids. Kids are like, teaching them, being around them, playing with them. To me, it's a joy that I don't get anywhere else. So I already love the feeling. Since then, I've always been working with children. I also have done other things related to working with kids.

First of all, I love kids. Kids are like, teaching them, being around them, playing with them. To me, it's a joy that I don't get anywhere else.

I was a care provider for Arizona Care Providers for about a year-and-a-half. I worked in after school programs. I also worked for the Phoenix Union School District as a lead teacher. And I also worked as an emergency substitute teacher for the Levine School District. 

My favorite age group has always been the little ones, ages two to three, or four and five as well. Preschool age is my favorite age group. I just enjoy them a lot. They’re like a sponge. I just love being around them and teaching them new things every day.

Monica: Thank you so much for sharing that. So inspirational. You've been around and working with children in many places. You are right now in the age group that you love the most. What would you say about how can teachers build trust with the toddlers they work with?

Rommel: One of the things that I usually try to understand when working with children is that I meet them where they are. I also embrace their own individuality, who they are, and I build on that. I try to be as caring. I give them affection. I sympathize with them. 

I think that's very important in building relationships, because they can trust you and they can come to you. They can sit next to you. They can sometimes cry next to you, laugh next to you. And that's huge. Sometimes they just gravitate to me without even me saying a word. I think it's just the energy that you've given to them, they give it back to you.

So when you smile at them without even saying a word or when you ask them for high fives or hugs, because I'm a very touchy guy. I love giving high fives. I love giving hugs. I love to tickle them and stuff like that. If I see that they like it too, they want to, yes. I'm all for that. Especially the little ones, they love closeness, and I like it as well.

I think it's very important to meet them where they are and embrace who they are, and everything else will fall into place. They will start seeing that, oh, he's someone that I can trust, come and talk to, and sit next to.

Monica: I hear you said building those relationships, those connections, and also how genuine you are about this. It's something that you feel, and they feel that. That chemistry is mutual. How do you think being a sensitive teacher, building these bonds, and having the children trust you, is impacting the behaviors of toddlers?

Rommel: I think when you are mindful of how they feel and you’re in tune with their feelings, they're able to regulate their own emotions better. When you sit next to them and you tell them, I understand you’re feeling happy or you feeling sad, or they hurt themselves, or like right now I'm working with the little, little ones. They’re one-and-a-half. Well, the oldest actually turns two today, the oldest kid in my class, so they’re little. Whenever they cry or whenever I try to pick on those cues, I'm like, oh, I see that you might be hungry. Okay, I'll give them a little snack. 

When you are mindful of how they feel and you’re in tune with their feelings, they're able to regulate their own emotions better.

Or if they start looking around, I’ll hold their hands and show them their family pictures. Or I try to find things that will help them calm themselves, that they’re familiar with. Little things like that. We start looking around what I can help them with to regulate their emotions because they don't know how to, and it's up to us to help them over the hump.

When we start picking up little things that they might need, and also going back to embracing who they are and meeting them where they are. In building that relationship, I kind of okay, I understand. 

John sometimes gets upset after mom leaves, so let me go and spend a little more time with him, or let me go read him a book, or let's go to the comfort area. Let me give him a little stuffed animal. Things like that goes a long way. We help them regulate their own emotions and their behaviors in school.

Monica: Excellent, absolutely. It's through that sensitivity, being aware, and responding in an individualized way that you mentioned in the beginning is guiding their behavior because you're validating their emotion and giving them the tools to calm down. As you said, learn to self-regulate. Thank you so much. 

Let's make a little emphasis on that individualization. We may have children with different abilities within the same environment. Some children might have a sensory overload talking about lighting or smells or noises. How can you help students who struggle with that?

Rommel: Having empathy and understanding. We were talking about individuality. Every child is different. Some children sometimes get affected by lighting or too much stimulation in the classroom. We are mindful about that, too, especially in every class that I've been to that will not over-stimulate in their minds too much to the point that it's distracting from their learning or they're having a hard time. 

We try not to put too much artwork in the classroom. We try not to have bright colors, like red can be a very vivid color for some kids. The lighting too. We don't have a really bright class. We are aware of those things and we are mindful of those things, especially working with so many different children that come out different, with so many different stages in their lives that we try to be sensitive to that. 

That's a big thing for us, and I'm aware of that. Every time I see a child, I try to pick on those cues, how they’re feeling, or is it too much. There might be too many toys in one area and they can't clean up. So let me take just a little bit out and introduce different things like that. I'm looking into the classroom to make it more comfortable and not too overstimulating for them.

Monica: I love how you said you're aware and I'm assuming for what you were saying, you're observing them and getting to know them. You're absolutely right. Sometimes they need a little less. They do want to clean up. You want them to learn. It's too many blocks. So how about you take some and they do the rest? I love that.

Rommel: Not only that. My expectation for them is not to always clean everything up because it can be too much, too. I model for them a lot. Obviously, everything here is labeled because they need visuals. Visuals are very important for us. 

We have everything labeled with a picture, and I modeled for them on top of that. Like this is where the blocks go. This is where the puzzles go. And I hold their hand because these kids, this age group, are really small and they need as much support as we can give them. 

The expectation is not for them to do everything. If they can help putting one book away, they take five books away and they put one away, that's okay. Even if they don't want to do it right away, I will hold the book and I will go with them to show them where they go, so the next time they will do it. 

Being patient and understanding that sometimes they might not do it right away, they might not want to do it right there and then, it's okay. Having those expectations that things sometimes are not going to go the way you want it to, is okay, too. 

Especially working with the age group that we work with because we had to be very flexible with them and patient. Which is really hard sometimes, but me, personally, that's one of the things that I always say I pride myself on saying that. I wasn't mad, I wasn't angry. Not that I get angry, but I was like, we did it. I did it. They were so calm, I was calm. Even though we might be late to go outside, like five minutes, we’re okay.

Monica: You spoke about something that is key in this age group, just guiding them, and you spoke a lot about modeling those behaviors. And it's okay. You are not giving up. You are doing it with them. And yes, tomorrow he or she might do it.

You just also said you surprise yourself every day when you practice your own self-regulation. Because it's okay. Five minutes. How is that going to change anything?

All this is so important in the development of social and emotional skills. How can we translate this being sensitive, being aware, and being responsive in that individualized way? How can we translate that to learning? How you being sensitive is promoting growth and development with your young children?

Rommel: I believe that by me being sensitive to their needs and sensitive to their emotions, I feel like learning facilitates learning. It makes them able to grasp everything they’re learning, whether we're talking about something as simple as farm animals. 

If I'm able to teach the lesson with a calm demeanor and a calm voice, and sometimes even being a little animated because we have to be for kids to enjoy the lesson or like it. If you make it just plain and simple, they just look at you. But if you do a little animated dance and make it a little fun for them, they will enjoy it.

Find their interests. I like to see what they like to do, where they gravitate to, which interest areas they go the most, go there and try to, like either switch out some of the toys and make it a little more challenging. If I see that they’re already done with those, like they know how to put the puzzle that has three pieces, after a little while I'm like, you know? He’s done it. Let me go find one that has five. Let me go find another one that has six, depending on how they’re doing it.

And that's good because you’re still challenging them. If they get frustrated, you’re there to support them and understand that, oh, maybe I thought he was ready for this. I'm going to just keep it the same way I had before.

We always modify the lesson plan and our lessons, and the way we interact with each child, because every day it could be different, depending on how they're feeling, how they come. 

One of the things that I also love doing is asking parents how he slept. Is he having a good time at home? I just try to give them that open door for them to tell me anything that might help me prepare myself on how I'm going to teach them or how I'm going to talk to them. 

If I need to be extra sensitive, I will be extra sensitive that day. If I had to change some of the stuff that I was going to do, I would change it just because I wanted to make sure that the child’s feelings or needs are being met where he's at. 

Sometimes with the activities that we do, I noticed that some kids don't like getting their hands dirty with paint, which is okay. We do finger painting. Some of them don't like that. I will do, okay, maybe he might like water, so I will pour water. Or I will do other sensory activity that they might like that doesn't have to do with something that they find messy. 

Most kids, I find, like messy activities, but a couple, like I said, are unique. They might not like painting. They might not like playing with mud or certain textures. For those kids, we had to be understandable and we had to find something else that they might like.

Monica: Rommel, you spoke about almost every dimension of CLASS in the toddler age group. You're talking about regard for child perspectives when you say, me being observing and being aware, I recognize what they like to do, and they use that so that they can participate in activities to learn and to grow. 

Obviously, you're talking about facilitation of learning and development domain. When you say, also being aware of, hmm, it seems like this child is bored. Let me add a little bit of a challenge. You're doing those adaptations so that they get that cognitive challenge and their physical challenge. Then you even say, well, it was too hard, so you adapt again. I hear that you've been sensitive. 

You're in constant observation and adaptation to what they need, so that they're happy and that they learn. I am fascinated with your words.

Rommel: Some of them go hand in hand as well. You've been sensitive, but you also have to be able to adapt to other stuff, so it goes hand in hand. 

I feel like sensitivity is one of my top strengths, but I'm also able to exhibit those other strengths, those other qualities that I have. But sensitivity is just one of the things that I want my environment to be great for the child. I want them to feel safe. I want them to feel comfortable. 

Even with the parents when they come in, I want them to feel welcome. I want them to feel acknowledged. I want them to know that when they leave their child in our care, they're in the best hands. And we're going to do everything possible to take care of them, to teach them, to guide them, and give them everything they need for them to continue with their education.

Monica: That's beautiful. To close, based on all you said, what you just said at the end, can you give our listeners two or three strategies that they can implement immediately in the classrooms, to increase their awareness. or their responsiveness, or how to adapt activities?

Rommel: One of the tips that I would give them is to get to know your child. That could be as easy as just spending every day that you're with them, trying to find something that they enjoy doing, and build on that. 

Another thing is try to stay away from labeling and judging a child because we don't know. Especially since these kids are so little, we have to give them the space to be who they are, embrace who they are, and love them. They will come to you and you'll be surprised. 

Give them the space to be who they are, embrace who they are, and love them.

They teach me every day. Like I was saying, I was surprised at myself. I didn’t know I could be that patient, like walking with them at the pace they walk. Like we were a little late to come back inside from outdoors, but that's okay because they were enjoying themselves. Things like that. 

I don't try not to beat myself up with little things like that. As long as I know they’re safe, they’re learning, and they’re enjoying themselves, I'm okay with that.

Monica: Thank you, Rommel. Thank you so much for sharing your stories, your expertise. 

You can find today's episode and transcript on our website at Thank you, architects of the mind, for sharing your love and wisdom with the children of the world, and for being here to add to your box of wonders. I'll see you next time. Bye-bye.

Rommel: Bye-bye.