Readiness

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: https://dangartrell.net

“Readiness: Not a state of knowledge but a state of mind”: https://families.naeyc.org/learning-and-development/child-development/readiness-not-state-knowledge-state-mind

Love and Logic: https://www.loveandlogic.com

Tamar Jacobson ”Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive” https://tamarika.typepad.com/tamar_jacobson/

Deb Curtis “Really Seeing Children” https://www.redleafpress.org/Really-Seeing-Children-P1820.aspx

“It’s a Monster!”

Fear of bugs, natural disasters, and fictional creatures as well as nightmares are all common in the early years of children’s development. Between the toddler years up through the teenage years, children are rapidly developing their expression of emotions, personal likes and dislikes, and sense of what is a threat to their safety or not. This often comes with the mental and emotional processing of mental images, stress, worry, and fear. Making the connections between children’s development and how to respond supportively and appropriately is important. 

Accept your child’s feelings as real. When your child or children you work with express big feelings of fear or worry, a quick understanding response is best to support them through it. Denying children of the feelings that they are expressing can reduce their trust in you as well as in themselves. Prepare yourself to respond as though you believe their feelings to be as big as they are – even if you don’t share the same response to an experience or idea. Avoid minimizing or shaming children for their reactions. Acceptance can aid children processing their emotions more quickly and effectively.

Acknowledge and validate how children are feeling. Allow children to express and bail their feelings and be genuine in your acknowledgement. It can be helpful to name their feelings or describe what they are expressing. It is important for children to hear that what they are feeling is common and normal. Reassure them that everyone feels scared or afraid at times.  Part of being a healthy human is feeling and expressing a broad range of emotions. Unless a child asks for some privacy or space. avoid letting children face and process their big emotions alone. 

Understand the blurry developmental line between real and imaginary. Children in the early years are still learning the difference between real and pretend, or concrete and abstract. Whether they are exposed to something in a book or movie, a bug on the playground, or something in their imagination that has sparked uncertainty, it can be hard for children to distinguish between what is a real threat and what is something that can’t or won’t harm them. Our adult instinct may be to tell children that something they are imagining isn’t real – because we have many years and experiences that secure and internalize that understanding. Young children on the other hand aren’t always able to do that quite yet. And in a moment of fear, that gap in development can create stress. 

Make a plan with your child. When a child is outside the moment of feeling fear, encourage discussion about how you can support them when they are feeling afraid. Make a plan for bedtime if they have nightmares, consider a comfort item that can be used in tough moments, and talk about what can be done or said that might be soothing to them. If you child or the children you work with are pre-verbal or non-verbal, be sure to pay close attention to their body language to notice what soothes them and reduces their stress responses. Regardless of verbal skills, it is most important that this plan is made when children aren’t in the emotional state of being afraid. Big emotions can take over our ability to think rationally through something difficult. 

Know your child’s temperament and needs. Most children will benefit from your comfort and reassurance. If a child prefers space or time alone to process their feelings, we should honor that. Additionally, children may respond differently to exposure to things that cause worry or fear. For example, one child who is afraid of bugs may become less afraid by getting some books or watching videos and learning more about them. However, that may not be true for all children. For some children, too much information could give them more to worry about and spending more time on their fear topic could be stress-producing rather than stress-resolving.

Like most challenging phases of childhood, recognize that to a degree, these responses to fears or nightmares are fleeting or temporary. However, the relationship you develop with young children during this difficult phase and the coping strategies they use will last a lifetime and be transferable into other situations when they feel fear. Intentional strategies can help your child develop self-soothing skills and healthy responses when emotions feel big. Most importantly, children will develop self-trust in their reactions and confidence that they can seek support when necessary.

Other resources: 

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Nightmares-and-Night-Terrors.aspx

https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/easing-the-fear-of-childhood-nightmares/

https://parentingscience.com/nighttime-fears/

https://www.parents.com/kids/sleep/issues/nightmares-6-steps-to-stop-scary-dreams/

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nightmares/nightmares-in-children

Why?

Adult: “Please hold my hand as we cross the street.”
Child: “Why?”
Adult: “So I can make sure you’re safe.”
Child: “Why?”
Adult: “Because that’s my job and I love you!”
Child: “Why?”

Adult: “Let’s get some bananas when we stop at the grocery store”
Child: “why?”
Adult: “So we have them as an option for breakfast or snacks”
Child: “why?”
Adult: “Because they’re your favorite and I want to have options you like”
Child: “why?”

Sound familiar?

Children are naturally curious – about the world around them, relationships, the power of their own voice and so on. A common phase that young children go through is the relentless “why” response. As adults it can be hard to continually respond to that thread of dialogue. Here are a few relevant ideas about children’s development as it relates to the “why” stage as well as some tips to get through it!

Child Development 

Acquiring new information – young children are in the midst of making a massive amount of brain connections and have a natural sense of curiosity. The repetitive asking of “why” indicates an understanding that there is even more information to acquire and an understanding of the mechanism for gathering such knowledge. 

Enjoying and extending relationships – while it is very possible children are asking “why” to gather new information, it is equally likely that they are enjoying their interaction with you. They have observed the conversational patterns people use to engage in dialogue with one another and want to extend that experience with you. They are still developing all the social nuances of engaging others in meaningful discussion so may be reliant on mechanisms that keep the interaction going – that is, a prompt that requires you to keep responding. 

Developing autonomy and power – another key component of children’s learning at this stage is recognizing their own power, control, and ability to affect a situation. By asking you “why” and eliciting a response from you, their sense of social contribution and power is reinforced. 

Challenging limits and boundaries – there are a number of ways that children learn social limits and boundaries. By asking “why” repeatedly, while it may feel like they are testing the boundary of your patience, they are learning the limits of investigating information in one context – both their curiosity and available knowledge. 

Tips and Strategies

Answer the questions – I know, I know, it gets tiresome. But continually responding to young children’s inquiries satisfies each of the developmental components listed above. 

Encourage children to express their ideas – you don’t have to be the only person in the conversation who has the answers! Turn the conversation around and ask children what they think, what they already know, or what their prediction is. This will give you a break but also develop the sense that their ideas are important and valuable. 

Stall – you don’t have to answer every question immediately. You can buy time and a small break from the repetition by simply saying, “that’s a good question, I’m not sure. Let me think for a minute.” And then resume the conversation with a relevant response or related way to think about the child’s interest. 

Look information up – no need to bear the pressure of having all the answers. You can change the script of the dialogue and take a break from coming up with ideas by relying on other resources – books, internet search, and so on. 

Keep it playful and light – even when you feel frustrated, try and keep it silly. Smiling, laughing, and pointing out your child’s ability to ask interesting and engaging questions can keep the relationship dynamic positive and relaxed. Simple phrases that focus on character strengths can serve many of the same developmental benefits listed above. You can try saying things like “You are so curious!” “I enjoy hearing what you’re wondering about.” or “Sometimes you ask questions that are tricky for me to answer!”

Tag out – of course there are many times you are going to be alone with your child and not have access to other support. When you can, engage another person to respond to your child’s queries. That might be another person nearby or calling/video chatting a loved one that would enjoy the time connecting. 

Final thoughts…

Most importantly, remember that, like all childhood phases, this phase is temporary too. As exhausting as this phase may be, it won’t last forever. But the development that you support during this time will. Keeping your energy focused on the relationship, autonomy and curiosity you are supporting can help you persevere and simultaneously support your child’s growth and learning.

Naughty or Nice?!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And in many child environments, home or school, it’s also the time when behavior is managed with the heavy hand of Santa Claus or The Elf on the Shelf. While these characters can be a fun and playful element of the holiday season, they can also be highly problematic for children’s development when they are used as bribery and manipulation. 

Intent

There are a number of reasons adults use characters to coax children into behaving well. Here are just a few: 

  • Tradition – it’s how our parents raised us. It’s what we know. 
  • Stress – adults create and experience a lot of stress around the holidays. When we’re stressed, children get stressed. When children are stressed, behavior often unravels too. 
  • Fun – it seems silly and harmless and the kids seem to like it. 
  • Social pressure – Santa Claus is a pretty pervasive part of American Christmas and has been for years. But social media took the social pressure of Elf on a Shelf to a new level.
  • Desperation – parenting is hard! It makes sense to try anything that might work. 

The problem

While it may seem silly and playful to incorporate Santa and the Elf into your behavior management plan, here’s why it’s problematic for children’s development: 

  • It’s temporary – it’s only for 1 month. What motivates children to behave the other 11 months of the year? 
  • Undermines your authority – when Santa and the Elf are in charge, you are not. 
  • It’s a lie – while pretend play is a valuable part of childhood, when adults orchestrate a lie, it can breed mistrust, in a relationship that should be built on trust. 
  • Promotes sneakiness – if children only have to behave when they are being watched, they learn sneakiness rather than integrity and accountability. 
  • It adds to your stress – it’s one more thing you have to keep up with and manage, taxing your energy that could otherwise be put into using one of the strategies below. 
  • No one is naughty or nice – we’re people, we make mistakes. The dichotomous categorizing of naughty or nice isn’t realistic. 

What to do instead

There are many ways to approach the holidays and addressing challenging behavior with children do that do not include bribes or manipulation. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Be consistent year round – having the same expectations at any time of year will make it easier for children to complain. When the stakes are high (behaving to get presents) they will likely feel more stressed and less capable of regulating their behavior. 
  • Talk about individual and community impact of behavior – the goal of behaving in socially -acceptable ways isn’t to get presents or to be considered “nice”. Long term, we want children to be respectful, considerate, and kind citizens and partners. Talk to children about how their actions impact themselves and others. 
  • Consider appropriate consequences – logical and natural consequences are most likely to be the most effective. Punishment and shame tend to breed feelings of anger, resentment, and mistrust. 
  • Coordinate other holiday traditions – create fun ways to honor the holidays that aren’t centered around children’s behavior. Putting up a tree together, baking family recipes, driving around to look at holiday lights, watching holiday movies, and so on. 
  • Focus gifts on relationships not behavior – at the holidays we give gifts to people we love, that’s not dependent on the mistakes they’ve made in the year. 
  • Minimize sugar – I know, I know, this one is really hard. But if your child’s behavior gets harder around the holidays, try reducing sugar. 

If you love Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf, you should keep them! I definitely love the joy on my son’s face when he sees a santa and I giggle every time he says “ho, ho, ho!” Keep it light, keep it playful, and don’t fall into the trap of traditions you love becoming a behavior management system.

“You’re Fine!”

When my grandpa passed away, I cried a lot. The last thing I wanted to hear was “you’re fine!”

When I fell and hurt my leg, the last thing I wanted to hear was “you’re ok!”

When my son was ill and had to go to the hospital the last thing I wanted to hear was “you’re fine!”

In our saddest, scariest, and most painful moments as an adult, it is easy for us, and often other adults, to recognize the magnitude of emotions we are feeling. We know our feelings are big, and real, and appropriately overwhelming. And if someone tried to tell us we were fine, it would seem like utter nonsense. Of course we are not fine!

Despite this, when children cry or express big feelings, adults often have an inclination to say things like “you’re fine”, “it’s ok”, or “calm down”. Often times, we don’t share the emotional reaction children are experiencing, causing us to minimize or discount the realness of children’s feelings.

It is essential to recognize that in these moments, children want exactly what we’d want: to be heard, for our feelings to be acknowledged, and for someone we trust to simply be with us in a moment of difficulty or uncertainty.

Whan children have big feelings, we can support them by saying things like:
“You’re really upset right now.”
“Sometimes big feelings can be overwhelming.”
“It’s disappointing when things don’t go the way we want them to.”
“It’s ok to feel mad.”

We can also support children by doing things like:
Getting on their level.
Being quiet.
Waiting for the big feeling to pass.
Giving space when it’s needed.
Being available to support recovery from big feelings.

Most importantly we can avoid shaming children for having feelings or forcing them to process them without support. Managing feelings is a necessary life skill and develops best with acknowledgement in trusting relationships.

Here’s my favorite children’s book for helping them understand and work through big feelings: http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/booknook/bn_bombaloo.pdf

For more resources:

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/help_young_children_identify_and_express_emotions

https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/mental-health/article/fostering-emotional-literacy-young-children-labeling-emotions

https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/mar2017/teaching-emotional-intelligence