I heard a story recently of an elementary school gym teacher responding to a child with asthma’s performance in class that, “Oh, that’s good for a kid with asthma. Usually they don’t do that well.” What if that child had overheard his teacher? What would he think? While the teacher may intend to be positive, the child may assume that because they have asthma there’s no point in trying their hardest. Our words have a powerful impact on children. While children with asthma may not perform like children who do not have asthma, words can set a child up for success or failure. A teacher might say, “We are going to run laps to the best of our ability. Everyone try your hardest!” Seems to me like that would have a totally different impact.
There is a guide in the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment (DECA) called “For Now and Forever” that addresses the importance of the social and emotional development of young children. It explores how early development and interactions affects each child’s future. For example, if a child says goodbye without getting upset when dropped off at a program, then in the future she may enjoy and value the time she spends on her own. This speaks to the secure, positive attachment she has with the adults in her life. She trusts that mom or dad will be back for her at the end of the day, and that her primary caregiver in the classroom will be there for her throughout the day.
But there’s an opposite scenario. Without a secure attachment, a child may have a difficult time getting out of the car, or may already be crying before he gets to the door. When he gets to his classroom, his parent tells him everything will be okay and then leaves before he is calm. What may this interaction be telling the child? “You aren’t important enough right now.” “Even though you are crying, I’m telling you that you are okay because you’re feelings aren’t valid.” The words parents and caregivers use are extremely important in this case and many others.
So, what can we do to help the children in our care develop socially and emotionally? I firmly believe one of the most important things we can do is take time. Get down on the child’s level and acknowledge their feelings. Validate that he is feeling an emotion, and help him work through it using words and modeling. Children aren’t born knowing how to regulate their emotions! They only develop these skills with our help. The interactions we have with children now give them the tools they need for the future.