Childhood is the time for children to learn how to get along with others. As caregivers, we play a crucial role in helping young children understand social behavior and form satisfying relationships. As caregivers, we play an important role in developing a child's personality and character. Our challenge is to learn how to help each child begin to develop into a socially-competent person who can express his own feelings, empathize with others' feelings, and be cooperative, generous and kind.
(see "Daily Routines")
As adults, we often forget how important imitation is to children. Try to model the behavior you wish to encourage rather than just talking about it. Every time we say "please" to a child or every time we lend a helping hand, we are teaching children how we'd like them to act. Pay more attention to behaviors you like and less attention to behaviors you don't like. Look for the things the children are doing right and find opportunities to comment on those.
When and how we respond to a child's behavior is part of something we call active teaching. Active teaching means giving attention and praise to children in ways that enhance their sense of satisfaction from within - communicating favorably on specific things they do well. Active teaching also means providing good examples and role models for children.
Never underestimate the power of play when it comes to teaching youngsters how to get along with each other. Children learn from other children so we need to give them plenty of opportunities for play and interaction among themselves. Play is one of the most important ways children learn about and explore how to behave with other people.
It takes a lot of patience on our part to help children develop the ability to control their feelings and consider the rights of others. Conflict resolution defuses the problem and allows all the participants a chance to express their feelings. For example, if a child is having a hard time waiting for a turn on the swing, we can talk about it with her rather than simply repeating the rule, "You have to wait until Rosie is done." It is so reassuring to a child when an adult says something like, "I know you've been waiting a long time and you're dying for a turn, but you'll need to wait until Rosie is done. Maybe you can ride the trike while you're waiting."
Sharing is always a big issue with youngsters. But "taking turns" is very different from really sharing from the heart. Often teachers establish policies to regulate turn-taking, but what do you think that really teaches children? Our goal is for children to be able to get along and resolve their problems among themselves - not to rely on adults to constantly make decisions for them.
Sharing From the Heart
Our challenge is to create a climate of kindness and generosity so that children can work together and take responsibility for each other. But where do we begin to teach such young children how to "share from the heart" and not share because we want them to? First of all, we can talk with children about being generous with each other. Point out that it makes the other person feel happy and makes you feel good, too. We can encourage acts of generosity throughout the day. We can be generous ourselves in providing enough satisfying experiences and materials for the children, then perhaps we can allow the children to make their own decisions about the use and sharing of equipment. Learning to "share from the heart" internalizes a child's generous feelings.
We can't even begin to talk about kindness and generosity without introducing the concept of empathy - the ability to sense or feel what another person is feeling. A little empathy can go a long way in teaching children to share from the heart. Here are several practical techniques we can use with young children to help them develop empathy:
Helping children feel good about themselves and others is our primary goal in teaching social competency. We can accelerate the process by incorporating the value of helping and being kind to others into our daily curriculum. Start by asking for and accepting a child's offer to help other children and ourselves. There are endless possible ways in which we can ask children to provide support and assistance, thereby creating a climate where kindness and generosity is noted, discussed and highly valued.
- Encourage children to assume different roles in their pretend play.
- Help them express their own feelings and encourage them to listen to other people's feelings.
- Try to link one child's feelings to another child's by reminding them of their own past experiences in similar situations.
Responding to the needs of children in our group who have disabilities provides excellent opportunities for children to share from the heart. Of course, kindness and thoughtful attention is always welcome, but keep in mind that sometimes the kindest thing children can do is to simply include others in their play.
Like adults, children will have their bad days, their off-moments. Letting off a little steam is fine as long as the child doesn't physically hurt himself or others. But children can hurt each other in non-physical ways, too. Youngsters know from their own experiences that words can hurt, and that name-calling, teasing or excluding another affects how other people feel. Teachers should discourage these kinds of hurtfulness, too.
All children want to be treated fairly but they don't always understand how to treat others the same way. One way to teach fairness is to explain what a particular rule is to a child and how it applies to him as well as to others, emphasizing that his rights will be respected, too. For example, rather than simply saying "There's no hitting," we can explain, "I won't let anyone hurt you and I won't let you hurt anyone, either."
We can also help children learn to respect other's personal privacy by insisting that children and teachers have the child's permission before handling a personal possession. Children have the right to have their feelings and choices respected, and we have ample opportunities to model this throughout the day. As teachers, we should always acknowledge and respect a child's feelings, never insisting that he stop crying or say he's sorry when he isn't. A child is never too young to learn how to respect themselves and others.
Cooperation vs. Competition
It's important to focus your teaching on substituting cooperation for competition. When children compete, only one person or one team wins and everyone else loses. Children will have plenty of opportunities to express their competitive spirit later on. They'll have fewer chances for learning to care for and get along with each other.
A teacher can model cooperation. If the room needs cleaning up, the teacher's attitude and her behavior can communicate, "Here, I'll help - let's do this together. This is my room too. Let's share the responsibility for getting it cleaned up so we can move on to the next activity." Children especially love it when an adult has a problem and everyone is encouraged to pitch in with their ideas and cooperate solving it.
We can also teach children some useful, non-violent ways of getting what they want by practicing the art of compromise. Help them bargain with each other, make a trade or use something together. "I'll pull you in the wagon while you sit in it," or "I'll trade you my purple pen for that red one." Learning to negotiate is a valuable part of becoming socially competent.