As an educator, I have the privilege of visiting child cares and preschools around my city. They all fall into a category of sorts to define their program and they all think they’re doing the best they can for young children. Whether they’re play based or curriculum focused, nature vs. nurture, or Waldorf vs Montessori, the key ingredient to a successful early childhood program is…
I visited a school recently that really focuses on teaching independence. They have a few guidelines for their staff including not picking the children up, not doing things FOR them, and allowing them to explore “free range”. In fact, there’s an entire movement encouraging free play called “free range kids”. This school hits the mark on that. One thing I observed though is a lack of empathy. Empathy is the foundation for learning. By ignoring it, we may subsequently teach the opposite of our intent.
For example, I saw a child trip and fall over a step. No one rushed to the childs aid, which may rub some adults wrong; however, the child wasn’t hurt and is capable of picking oneself up. The child laid there for a moment processing what had occurred and looking around confused. Then she got up and went to the table to eat.
What did the child learn? Likely nothing other than when you fall, get up. That’s not a bad message, but it can be enhanced further by an adult guide. Something like, “I noticed you fell and you felt surprised. I saw you catch yourself with your elbows. You’re able to care for yourself”. With that statement I empathized, identified her feeling, and told her she’s strong and capable. Another helpful approach could be, “This time you fell, but you’ll have other chances to succeed”. That sends the message that failure is not the end and provides opportunities for learning.
Another moment I observed was a child wanting to be held who missed his parent. Having just come back after a vacation, he’s likely having trouble adjusting to being independent again and was seeking love. The best way to feel love is to give love. His teacher wasn’t picking him up and even stated that he was being clingy and needy, which isn’t like him. He was an age he could understand these words, even though he was too young to say them, so I intervened and modeled for her a more effective approach. I used an empathic statement, “When I want to be held, I find something to hold. Let’s go together and find something to love”. Then, I took the child’s hand and led him towards some toys in the sand and encouraged him to find something to nurture and love.
Empathy is also vital when setting limits. The ACT Limt Setting method starts with A for “Acknowledge” the feeling. Rather than shout an order at a young children or simply state a rule, start with empathy so that learning is enhanced and the info will be absorbed. When a child is rushing out to eat their lunch, nearly knocking over friends, it’s in our nature to shout, “No, it’s not time. Slow down!” However, a much more powerful approach is ACT limit setting.
Acknowledge the feeling: “I know you’re hungry and anxious to eat’.
Communcate the limit: “But it’s not time to eat yet”.
Target alternatives: “You may wait here patiently or you can be held”.
The choices are strategic and key as well. Having the child wait patiently is of course the goal, but if he doesn’t, the second choice of being held is a great option because it’s the adult’s nature to grab the child if he’s about to knock other chidren over. Then, a powr struggle may begin because chilren don’t like to be controlled. If the child said he chooses to be held it’s a win win.
Whether you are a parent, an educator, program director, or therapist, EMPATHY is crucial to building relationships with young children and guiding them towards their highest potential. Children need to feel understood, valued, respected, and acknowledged. Free play will backfire if the children don’t feel seen, just like structured content won’t be absorbed if they child can’t relate to the material. In play therapy, we practice the mantra, “I hear you, I see you, I understand, I care”. When one of these four is missing, the work being done with that child is pointless.
Empathy is the foundation of successful work with young children.