This week I had the pleasure of hearing one of my favorite early childhood experts/authors, Dan Gartrell, speak at the NAEYC professional learning institute. In this session he emphasized that “readiness is not a state of knowledge but a state of mind”. This is an excellent reminder for parents and teachers that preparing children for preschool or kindergarten or generally, LIFE, isn’t so much about facts, flashcards, or a checklist of skills as much as it is about experiences, relationships, and truly seeing children. Further, it is widely supported by research that responsive relationships are the single most important factor in developing resiliency as well as preventative and restorative strategies for toxic stress and trauma. This should be our biggest priority in teaching and parenting. In this post, I’m highlighting ten ways you can SEE your child (ren) and be in authentic relationship with them.

  1. Consider their perspective. Children experience the world differently than adults do – physically, socially, and cognitively. Their understanding and motivation are different than ours. Intentionally getting on their physical level, paying attention to what they notice, hearing how they describe things, and following their lead can expand your understanding of their viewpoint.
  2. Play the way they play. Be willing to get messy, take risks, explore, and try new things. Playing with and like children can support your relationship with them, develop their self-confidence, and increase your understanding of their interests.
  3. Listen to the small stuff. You know how it goes – if you want children to come to you about the big stuff, you’ve got to be just as attentive to the small stuff. Even if, no, especially if it’s not something that necessarily interests you. Children need to know you are invested in them, not just certain aspects of them or just when it serves you.
  4. Include children in problem solving and decision making. Small children can have big ideas! Inviting them to contribute to brainstorming and choosing solutions can develop their confidence in important life skills. This can start small with choosing what to wear, selecting a snack, or deciding what book to read before bedtime. Remember to balance adult limits with child input, so choosing a sweater or sweatshirt in winter (as opposed to a tank top) or choosing between two healthy options at snack time as opposed to ice cream).
  5. Slow down and pause. Adults have a lot to do, think about, and process. Be sure to invest time in your relationship by slowing down, moving at their pace, and making space for their ideas, thoughts, and actions.
  6. Trust them. Children are capable of a lot, and they have a strong sense of their preferences, abilities, and desires. Avoid discounting what they communicate about hunger, warmth, levels of risk they are willing to take, etc. They also observe and know things that we don’t, we can benefit greatly from letting them take the lead from time to time.
  7. Be consistent yet flexible. Relationships are most secure when people behave dependably and consistently but are also responsive to emerging needs and situations. Children benefit from having predictable schedules, consistent responses from adults, and reliable support. If you find yourself distracted or stressed and responding differently than you typically would, pause, apologize, and try again.
  8. Honor their likes and dislikes. It’s likely you’ve seen a child dip a cookie in ketchup or taste sand – likely things that would make most adults cringe! It’s valuable for children’s sense of self that adults avoid expressing judgement about children’s likes and dislikes. Preferences are best established by exploring them and not being shamed for them.
  9. Validate and make space for their feelings. You don’t have to agree with children’s emotional reactions in order to acknowledge that they are real. Big feelings are best managed when the people that we trust don’t discount them. You can help children express feelings appropriately and reassure them that feeling a broad range of emotions is a normal and healthy part of being human.
  10. Accept them as a separate person from you. While we put great care into developing our little ones, at times it can be hard to accept that they are indeed separate people us. They may have different opinions, ideas, preferences, and intentions than us, and that’s ok!

These elements of developing relationship are essential for securing a sense of self, confidence in navigating new situations, developing executive function skills, and contributing meaningful to social and collaborative situations. When children have a responsive adult to co-regulate with, they are more capable of regulating their feelings and behaviors and therefore more successful in learning environments.

Suggested Reading and Additional Resources:

Dan Gartrell:

“Readiness: Not a state of knowledge but a state of mind”:

Love and Logic:

Tamar Jacobson ”Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive”

Deb Curtis “Really Seeing Children”

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