The mystery called child.
What I find fascinating when I think about working in the sector for the last 16 years, is the mystery called child. When you are around adults, they will tell you what they need or want and how they feel most of the time. With children though it is different. You have to try and guess what they need and understand why they behave in a certain way. Children cannot speak when they are born but they have the ability to learn. They need “teachers” in their lives. A variety of carers that will teach them how to use the powerful human tool called language in order to express their needs, wants and feelings. Those teachers are the members of their family, their friends, the world around them and us the practitioners.
Children are almost like blank canvases when born, and that is why we should be careful what we write on that canvas since most of the time we are writing with a permanent marker. We write in a variety of ways. We write when we move around them, when we speak to them or to other adults, when we smile, when we cry, when we hug them, when we eat or when we play. Children will observe and will then use what they have learned to communicate with others and to develop their personality.
Being an Early Years practitioner and working with preschoolers is physically and emotionally demanding but the lovely moments and the rewards completely outweigh the hardships. Charles Darwin in his book “The expression of the emotions in man and animals” has written, “We have seen that expression in itself, or the language of the emotions, as it has sometimes been called, is certainly of importance for the welfare of mankind”. Human beings are full of emotions but the difference between adults and children is that most of us have learned to express how we feel. Children do not have the language of emotions that is called “emotional literacy” which is such a major step towards self-regulation; managing to put all those messed up feelings in order, use words to share them with others and give them a sense of meaning to then act in positive ways towards a goal. There were many times as a practitioner that I felt like a shadow next to the children playing. You need to be there to observe, and model the coping strategies to express how they feel and how to deal with their emotions. You need to do it many times in the beginning for children to figure out how it works and develop the much-needed empathy to be able to deal with social situations in their life.
In terms of emotions and self-regulation, what might be easy for us to deal with, might be extremely stressful for a child. I remember one of my key children being stressed when a new practitioner was coming to help. The child would avoid eye contact, start moving around the room, raise their voice and generally give stress signals. There was a need to get familiar with the unfamiliar but the way to do so was too hard for the child to figure out. Using recyclable materials, the child made a robot and said, “This is Jack and he doesn’t like new people”. That was the key to the door of learning how to deal with the overwhelming emotions. I then recognised the robot’s fear, connecting it to my own unsettling feeling when I first meet new people and giving the strategy to the robot to deal with those feelings next time they appear. Watching the child then using the same strategy to approach the next new person in their nursery life, as well as the smile on their face when they succeeded, was an unforgettable gift to my soul.
When the practitioner recognises the child’s emotions and when the child is shown the way to deal with a stressful situation, then the child has more tools to deal with the negative feelings of anxiety and fear and turn it into a positive experience.
As Tamsin Grimmer says in her inspiring book “Developing a loving pedagogy in the Early Years”, “children should be loved”. This should be the starting point for every practitioner. To give children the love and trust needed, to be willing to learn the life skills they will use later on in their lives.
These are the most formative years in the life of a human being and being able to see through the eyes of the child is the best tool we have, to make these years the foundation for a generation of kind, self-regulated adults who love themselves and are also able to love others.
Professional Development and EYFS coordinator BA Psychology, MA Early Childhood Studies