Science behind self-regulation

“There is solid scientific evidence that executive function skills can be improved through practice, producing well-documented changes not only to children’s behavior but to their brains as well.”

It’s 10:45am, VOCEL children are deeply immersed in play in various areas of the classroom. Four children snap magnatiles together building castles and houses. Two children explore the concept of volume as they transfer water from small circular containers to larger bottles. Three children create marble paintings in the art center. VOCEL’s 18 children are scattered in areas of the room not just engaging in play, but building their executive function skills at every turn. Teachers encourage persistence and critical thinking as well as self-regulatory skills that will ensure children thrive as they transition to formal schooling. Since VOCEL’s inception, developing children’s executive function skills has been a top priority.

As more and more research comes out about the importance of the earliest years, many scholars in the early childhood space are discussing executive function skills. This Huffington Post blog speaks to the critical importance of honing executive function skills in young children. What do you do to help children practice and hone their executive functions?


Children develop their ability to focus, attention to detail, creativity and problem solving when they experiment with open-ended building toys.


After singing the “Bear Hunt” and working as a class to create a map of locations visited, children kept track as they re-enacted it in the gym. Experiences like this help children develop essential executive functioning skills like focus, critical thinking and the ability to make connections.

The Power of Sharing

There seems to be more and more buzz around children’s social and emotional development. Recently a new study was released about the power of the soft skills VOCEL develops in it’s children daily.

Each day our children navigate the social constructs of the world within the walls of VOCEL’s classroom.  Decisions must be made about where to play, whom to play with and how to share materials and supplies. At VOCEL, every interaction — large or small — is thought of as a chance for children to develop the soft skills they’ll need to be successful in the short and long run.

Last week, a new study from Pennsylvania State University researcher Damon E. Jones was released in the American Journal of Public Health.  The study found statistically significant associations between prosocial behaviors developed in the early years and future life outcomes in education, employment and more.

This Washington Post write-up summarizes the results of the study and left us at VOCEL doing Dr. Jean’s roller coaster cheer for the priority we place on developing our children’s social and emotional competencies.

Social emotional web

During morning meeting, teachers plan for activities that build a culture of trust, communication and teamwork among children. Last week, children worked together to pass a ball of yarn to each friend in the classroom, navigating various challenges and ultimately, creating a web that connected us all.


When summer rainstorms prevent children from going outdoors, teachers create opportunities for exercise and gross motor development in the classroom. Recently, the children played Twister navigating the challenges of sharing space, supporting one another and playing various roles including child-determined titles, “the spinner” and “the stomper.”

Learning from each other: VOCEL’s first student teacher

One of VOCEL’s four core values is Learning & Growing. We believe every member of our school community including teachers, children and their family members, is continuously growing and developing.

That growth requires feedback from one another and ample opportunities to practice new skill sets, as well as an environment where taking risks and making mistakes are embraced. It’s one of the ways we learn best. This commitment to Learning & Growing extends beyond the walls of VOCEL, so when Ms. Vanessa, who is currently working towards her early childhood teaching certification at National Louis University reached out to VOCEL with a desire to complete her student teaching with us, we jumped at the chance.

Over the past few months, Ms. Vanessa supported children’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development. She planned lessons that taught children about caterpillars and their life cycle concluding with a gift to our classroom of a butterfly garden complete with live caterpillars.


Small group

For all of us at VOCEL, Ms. Vanessa’s experience at VOCEL was a highlight of the spring, and the feeling was mutual. Ms. Vanessa shared with us recently, “Working with the children of VOCEL was a wonderful experience. The days were filled with rich conversation, learning through play, and teamwork. I learned as much from the students as they learned from me. Thank you for inviting me to your classroom, VOCEL!”

Children and teachers alike were grateful for Ms. Vanessa’s commitment to VOCEL. We practiced showing our appreciation with a parting gift of flowers and handmade cards on Ms. Vanessa’s last day. This fall, Vanessa will be working as an early childhood teacher at Newberry Math & Science Academy in Chicago. We wish her the very best!



Meeting Baby Nicodemus!

These days, the VOCEL classroom is filled with babies, and no, we’re not talking about our students! Our class study of babies started in April, and we’re reading about babies, taste testing baby food, washing baby dolls in the water table and sorting baby clothing in the dramatic play center. But the favorite activity of late, hands down, was meeting one student’s baby brother in the classroom.

After creating a concept web together to record information the children already knew about babies, we generated a list of questions or things they wanted to find out. And what better way to answer our questions than to go straight to the source? So we invited families with infants to join us in the classroom. Nehemiah’s dad agreed and shortly thereafter, 5-month-old Nicodemus visited VOCEL.

We started with Ms. Ruth asking Nehemiah’s dad to describe Nicodemus and asking him some of the questions our class had posed. Because we recently read Ooonga Boonga, a great story about an infant who can only be comforted by silly words by her older brother, Ms. Ruth asked, “How do you comfort Nicodemus when he’s upset?” Dad’s response: “Moving. He likes to dance so he wants to be held and walked around. He doesn’t like to sit still.” This led to an impromptu dance party. Children took out musical instruments and we sang Wheels on the Bus, watching with joy as Nicodemus danced from Dad’s knee.

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Later, children asked whether babies can give high fives. So we tested it out and ended the visit with each child taking a turn to give Nicodemus a high five. He was calm and happy, despite 17 three-year-olds crowding around him!

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Many thanks to Nehemiah and the whole family for sharing Nicodemus with us for an afternoon!

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Jazzing with the “big boys”

Being housed within Chicago Jesuit Academy (CJA), a tuition-free college prep middle school affords VOCEL many great opportunities for learning from the work and studies of the older students. As an added bonus, the young gentlemen’s work ethic and commitment to learning serve as great examples for our preschool children.

The most recent opportunity came about when a child told us that his older brother (one of the school’s 8th graders) had recently started playing the trombone. After reading several books including This Jazz Man and Jazz Baby, Mr. Carroll, CJA’s Music and Jazz Band Director invited VOCEL to a recent practice session.

The afternoon started with several musicians in the beginning jazz ensemble introducing themselves and their instruments. After two quick songs, Mr. Carroll taught our little ones about the piano’s pedals and how they work to extend and shorten notes the musician plays.

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From there, we headed to the musc room next door and met members of the more experienced jazz ensemble who were rehearsing for the Action for the Arts Recital coming up this week at the House of Blues. Several children loved the music so much they couldn’t help but get up on their feet and start grooving.

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The learning that started with these budding jazz musicians continued back in the VOCEL classroom with a shared writing activity. We worked together to remember the various instruments we had seen and wrote the sounds we heard in each instrument’s name. The day ended with the impromptu formation of our own class marching band. Many thanks to CJA’s students, teachers and staff who continually welcome VOCEL and support our children’s learning.

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30 million, 4.8 billion: Early Childhood by the Numbers

At VOCEL we are always excited to see large publications, especially those not in the education field, promoting high-quality early childhood education. Read our reflections on a recently released article from Forbes Magazine.

A few months ago, I asked a crowd of 400 the following question: what is the value of 30 million words?  I went on to share that what research tell us is that a child growing up in poverty hears 30 million fewer words than his or her more affluent peers by the time that child is 3 years old.  As you can imagine, that 30 million word gap manifests itself in many ways.  We also know the power of giving young children language and communications skills sets them up for a lifetime of success and opportunities.  Now my question is different; what is the value of $4.8 billion dollars? How does it impact families? Society?

Just last week, Forbes featured an article highlighting the power of high-quality early childhood education.  Stating ‘the sooner the better,’ the authors shed light on the economic and societal benefits of early childhood education.  Most striking was this quote from authors Thomas Ehrlich and Ernestine Fu: “High-quality early childhood education is not a magic bullet to ensure that those participating will be destined to be successful in and out of school for the rest of their lives. Lots of other factors have real impact. But the evidence is overwhelming that the social and economic benefits of high-quality early education for children are both substantial and lasting. And they benefit not just the children who participate, but also our society as a whole.”

Read the entire article here and keep the conversation going on Twitter and Facebook.  Follow VOCEL on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

5 Things Friday: Beautiful Junk

One thing that constantly amazes VOCEL’s team is the creativity and imagination our 3- and 4-year-olds bring to the classroom each day. So it was a joyous occasion for all when the teachers introduced “beautiful junk” and a brand new art cart in the classroom last week.

Paper towel rolls, buttons, fabric scraps, egg cartons, pipe cleaners. All these items might be found in your kitchen junk drawer or recycle bin, but to our VOCEL kids, these are the makings of treasures. Last week the teachers introduced “beautiful junk” and a new art cart full of materials, ready to be used for innovative creations.



Research says that giving children open-ended materials and free reign to do with them what they will is much more beneficial for children’s development than crafts with step-by-step directions and parameters set by teachers. In the early education world, this is also often discussed as the difference between process art (focused on the process of creating, the experimention and exploration, and the frustration and joy that process brings) and product art (focused on a specific outcome and requires that children create in a predetermined way). At VOCEL, we love process art and are committed to fostering children’s creativity and artistic abilities through as many open-ended opportunities as we can provide. 

Curious what our kids gravitated towards in their first week with the new art cart? Here are the current top five favorite beautiful junk items:

1.  Popsicle Sticks- Our bulk supply of wooden popsicle sticks has been put to good use as children have tried their hand at creating snowflakes, covered with glitter and Mod Podge, and fashioning various letters of the alphabet, including their favorite letters – the first in each of their names.

2. Egg Cartons-  Children immediately took to the cartons with scissors, slicing them in half along the hinge of the cartons. From there, the creativity took them in different directions with some children making them into guitars with rubberbands and other string, while others turned the carton halves upside down to create long, narrow hats.

3. Buttons- The most popular use of the buttons has been in conjunction with pipe cleaners as children have strung buttons on the pipe cleaners and then bent them to create bracelets or jewelry for themselves or their friends.



4. Rubber Bands- Children have been fascinated by the abundance of multi-colored rubber bands in the cart and especially their varying sizes. The largest rubber bands have become strings of egg carton guitars while the smallest have been used to fasten popsicle sticks. 

5. Fabric Scraps- This week, fabric has been used primarily to create musical intstruments. Children found that they could toss beads into a alumnium can, cover it with a scrap of fabric, fasten the fabric and shake away. Bonus: using scissors effectively is challenging in the preschool years and cutting fabric is a fun way for children to hone these fine motor skills.



What beautiful junk is hiding in your house? Think of all the ways it can be repurposed by young children you know. If you don’t have any use for some of your beautiful junk, feel free to stop by VOCEL and add it to our art center. We can’t wait to see how VOCEL’s children use the art cart items next week. 

Child chefs: making & breaking bread

Over the past several weeks, we’ve learned that VOCEL’s children not only enjoy pretending to cook in the dramatic play center, they love becoming real chefs, as they participate in classroom cooking experiences.

Recently, we took advantage of children’s interest in the classic storybook, The Little Red Hen and decided to take conversations about how to make bread to the next level by trying our hands at it ourselves. One of VOCEL’s teachers, Ms. Ruth introduced all of the ingredients that would be added to her breadmaker and the magic began.

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Each child had a different responsibility, from measuring the cream of tartar, to adding the yeast, to pressing the start button on the breadmaker.

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One of the children’s favorite parts of the story, The Little Red Hen, is pretending to smell an aroma of bread baking in the oven. So, after adding all of the ingredients, each child watched that breadmaker like a hawk, waiting patiently for the bread to rise. And the timing couldn’t have been better, as children noticed the delicious aroma of our very own bread filling the classroom, just as they were falling asleep for naptime. As they woke up, many children rushed directly to the breadmaker to see the finished product.

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In addition to the great learning that takes place as children measure ingredients, follow directions from a recipe, take turns and demonstrate patience as they wait for the final product, their favorite part is tasting their creations. And to be honest, that might be our teachers’ favorite part too! 

Partners & Pennies

Our VOCEL kids are always in awe of the middle schoolers at CJA, our partner school; so imagine how excited they were to contribute to CJA’s Penny Wars.

In anticipation of Pi Day (March 14th), Chicago Jesuit Academy (CJA), the middle school incubating VOCEL, had Penny Wars between the four grade levels.  Each penny was a positive point while all other coins and bills subtracted from the total.  Since the 7th and 8th grade young men share their corridor with VOCEL, we thought it would be a kind gesture to collect pennies in our classroom and gift them to the middle schoolers.  Not only did our kids get to count pennies and consider topics like estimation and quantity, they also discussed what it means to show compassion and do something kind for others.

Last Friday, three CJA 8th graders came to visit VOCEL and receive the collected pennies.  Our children were ecstatic to gift the pennies and the 8th graders were gracious and appreciative of the gesture.

Penny Wars

We’re fortunate to have role models for our young children right down the hallway. Now we are just waiting to see who wins the Penny Wars!


Namaste: Yoga at VOCEL

Just before Chicago was hit with this most recent snowstorm, VOCEL’s children found some zen with our first yoga session. Yoga Kids Instructor Ms. Marti visited VOCEL’s classroom last week, and while most children had not tried yoga previously, they had a great time and are still talking all about it.

Ms. Marti began with all children seated in a circle to discuss the things we’re each thankful for. As children’s comments ranged from “my mom and dad and brothers and sisters” to “happy faces” to “animals and food,” Ms. Marti encouraged every child reminding them that there is always something we can find to be thankful for.



Then Ms. Marti jumped right into yoga poses that grabbed children’s interests with each of them named after an animal. VOCEL’s children loved making animal noises while they moved their bodies in new ways. Class favorites were the butterfly, giraffe and the tiger.






After practicing the new poses a few times, Ms. Marti took out her beautiful bell and gave all children the opportunity to ring the bell using a wooden stick. The kids marveled at the incredible sounds they were able to produce.



VOCEL’s teachers and children alike had a great time with Ms. Marti. We hope to have her back to visit again soon! You can find more information about how to set up yoga for your children or classroom here.



Our blog is a gathering place for all things VOCEL. It's a window into our classroom, a resource for early education news, and a place to discover stories that showcase our teachers, our children and our families.