From before birth, children are gathering information through their senses from their environment. It is this gathering of information that we call learning. Children between the ages of birth and six have amazing abilities to learn in ways that humans can not recreate during any other period of our lives. Dr. Maria Montessori called this the child’s ‘Absorbent Mind.’ 

You’ve most likely heard children referred to as little sponges. It’s so true, children soak up information like a sponge from their environment. 

First, what do I mean when I use the word environment? In the 21st century when we hear this word we think about nature – the polar bears and the melting ice caps, etc. When referring to child development, I am using the word environment much more broadly. A child’s environment is anything and everything that she comes in contact with: the objects and areas in which she lives and (most importantly) the people with whom she lives and interacts. 

The young child’s brain is constantly building connections to help him grow and learn. We are born with our neurons already formed but the connections have not yet been properly built. So nature (our biology) and nurture (our environment) must work cooperatively to help each child work his way to becoming a fully formed human being. 

Let’s think for a minute of all the things children seem to learn effortlessly during their first three years of life. At birth, children are helpless. They cannot hold up their heads, let alone crawl or walk. They are unable to purposefully grasp and manipulate objects.They communicate only through crying. By the age of three years, children can now walk, run and jump. They can eat independently (and even help prepare the meal!). They have learned an entire language…with no formal schooling!

Think about the last time you tried to learn something even slightly complicated. I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve tried several times to learn to knit. I am already a competent seamstress so I do have some background knowledge about how things fit together and my fine motor skills are pretty good. However, the motor skills involved in knitting are different than those involved in hand sewing or quilting (at which I am quite proficient). So, I’ve read books about knitting, watched videos about knitting and practiced knitting. It’s taken me untold hours and lots of ripping out of yarn to barely learn to knit and purl. 

What does this example tell us? Yes, as adults we can still learn skills but it takes much longer and involves much more work to learn new things than it does if we learn them during the first six years of life. We no longer have an absorbent mind.

So why am I talking about all of this? If our children have absorbent minds we should just sit back and let them get on with learning, right? Not quite. Yes, it is true that children will learn from any environment. So it is vital that we help our children by providing the right kind of environment. In order to do that we must first learn about child development. What is my child working to master right now? In child development there are three basic areas or domains: physical, cognitive and social/emotional. 

If you have a one year old, chances are he is working on learning to walk and then refining his large motor abilities. He is just starting to talk (understanding language more than expressing it). He is learning to communicate his feelings (laughing, crying and moments of serious reflection) and absorbing the feelings of others (ever been in a room where one child starts to cry and in a matter of minutes all the children begin to cry?). As parents we want to provide him with an environment in which he will continue to learn and grow in all three domains. 

No matter what stage your child is in there are things you can do to prepare his environment:

  • Keep things safe. Make sure the physical area your child inhabits is free from dangers. Tuck cords out of sight and reach, cover electrical outlets, put away breakable and swallowable objects.
  • Provide proper toys/furniture. If your child is learning to pull up to stand, a low coffee table or soft ottoman can help him work on this skill independently. Children from 0-6 are very concrete learners. Minimize fantasy and toys related to media (tv and movies). There is plenty of time to show your child your favorite Star Wars movie and characters when he is older and can properly understand the fantasy nature of the show. Provide activities related to your child’s skill level. Put away things he is misusing (throwing or scattering about). This usually happens because the activity is too easy or too complicated. Toys (not too many) should have a clear purpose that your child is able to use or is something she is working to master.
  • Be mindful of your words and the words of others. Children are always listening, even the youngest. Provide books and conversation with lots of vocabulary. Call things by their proper names. Converse with your child while you are doing things with, for and to her. Give a running dialogue about the bath or the diaper change. Speak quietly and gently. Keep background noise (television, radio) to a minimum. Save adult conversations about negative news events or emotionally charged arguments for times your children are asleep or out of the house. Children pick up not only the words you use but the emotions behind them and are not often developmentally ready to understand.
  • Engage all the senses. Children learn through their senses. Provide opportunities to listen to many kinds of music and to hear the different sounds that can be made with instruments or just the crunching of leaves under your feet. Talk about the multiple textures of clothing and blankets, the smells of the herb garden or fruits in your lunch box. Show your child things you love visually (different kinds of birds or trucks or quilt patterns).
  • Go outside. Provide your young child with lots of time in nature. Babies can lay on a soft blanket with you and watch the leaves blowing in the trees and can hear the birds singing. Take a walk and let your toddler lead. Don’t be in a hurry. You will be amazed at your young child’s observational skills, physical skills and the amount of focus he can muster.  
  • Respect your child’s feelings. Remember, young children are learning how the world works. Their brains are changing at an amazing rate. Children are learning to be independent while still being very dependent. It can be a difficult time for them. They may be upset at something you think is insignificant. To the young child, what you see as insignificant may be the most important thing in their narrow world. Honor it by naming it. ‘You seem very sad that I had to take away Grandma’s glass bowl.’ ‘I can tell you are angry that we had to leave the park.’ Honoring emotions is not the same as allowing all behaviors. For more information on emotions, click here.
  • Provide order and a schedule. Young children do better when their world makes sense. They like to know what is going to happen. Bath always comes right after dinner. Daddy always reads two books at bedtime. Grandma watches me when Mommy goes to work. No, you don’t have to have dinner every day at 5:30 on the dot. What is important is that your child knows to expect dinner at a certain time of day. It is helpful to have things orderly as well. Toys are kept in certain areas of the house, easily accessible. Things that are special (maybe art supplies for the very young) are kept out of reach but are used together with older brother or when Daddy comes home from work. Having an orderly environment helps the child form an orderly brain. It helps form concentration and attention. Does that mean you have to be a total neat freak? No. Just remember that your child is absorbing everything in her environment. Having things in order (we eat in the kitchen, bowls, utensils and napkins go in this low cabinet, etc.) assist the child as she is learning about her world.
  • Spend time. This is the most important gift you can give to your children. Figure out a way to spend time enjoying each other’s company every single day. Turn off your phone and power down the tv and computer. Give all of your attention to your child. Sing, cook, put together puzzles, coo with your baby, play games as a family, go to the park. Whatever it is that you do, enjoy it and focus entirely on it. There is no email or phone call or Facebook meme that can impact the world in the same way as giving all of your attention for part of your day to your children. 

Today I challenge you to pick one thing to enhance the environment of your child or children. Think about what they are learning and add (or subtract) something to make that learning more meaningful. And, most importantly, spend time and enjoy your child just as she is, today.

We are nearing the end of the school year. Yesterday we celebrated our last birthday of the year. Turning five is a huge milestone in a child’s life. It’s the first big change in their young lives. Turning five means going to kindergarten. Often the children tell me they will be leaving my class and moving up to kindergarten the very next day! They often don’t believe me when I explain the actual way children progress into kindergarten. When this is the case I just let them learn by experience instead of starting an argument. And I generally have a good chuckle to myself. It really is quite endearing.

We celebrate birthdays in a very special way and the children look forward to their day with great anticipation. Our birthday girl was super excited to have her mom come to class for the celebration. Unfortunately, is was very difficult for her when her mother had to leave to go back to work. I fully anticipated this great sorrow and did my best to comfort the sobbing child. 

This experience reminded me that I wanted to share with you what I consider to be a key parenting technique at which I often failed when my children were young. It seems so simple but is often very hard: acknowledging feelings. 

Young children are still learning about their feelings and often feel very strongly about things that we do not think matter very much (like having to wait to play with toy). They also may not understand their emotions (being angry when they are actually jealous, etc.). Often we think that by dismissing our child’s emotion (there’s no reason to fuss, it’s just a little paint on your hands) we are helping them cope. In fact, this often has the opposite effect. Think about how you feel when someone denies your feelings or tries to explain them away.

There’s no reason for you to be angry with your boss for taking away your vacation. After all, you are a new worker. You can go on vacation next year. You’ll be fine.

Of course, we would be furious if someone treated us like this. We don’t want to demean our children or deny their feelings just because we may have different feelings. So what can we do?

These suggestions come from the book How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber & Julie King. If you can only read one parenting book I highly recommend you read this one. Here’s what the authors suggest:

  • Acknowledge feelings with words. Name your child’s emotion and put it in a sentence. ‘Oh my, you are so sad that Sally said she isn’t your best friend today.’ ‘I see you are angry because you want to eat your Halloween candy for breakfast and we are having eggs.’ ‘It looks like you are feeling jealous because your sister got to sleep over at Grandma’s house and you have to stay home because you are sick.’ An important thing to remember when your child is dealing with negative feelings is that we want to help her learn to identify and express these feelings in acceptable ways. We must remember to acknowledge all feelings but to limit unacceptable behaviorsSo we can help our child know ‘I see you are very angry that Bobby took your ball. You may not hit him to get it back (while you are removing your son from Bobby)’ Sometimes the idea that acknowledging your child’s feelings will help her get on with her day seems unbelievable. I have to say, that I’ve seen it work time and time again.
  • Acknowledge feelings with writing. Remember my birthday girl? She sobbed at recess (and I continued to acknowledge her feelings. ‘I can see how much you miss your mom. It makes you sad that she had to go back to work.’) and then through our book during circle time and as she was getting ready for lunch. So I decided to try another tactic – writing. First I want you to understand that this is a child who does not know how to read. It doesn’t matter. What did I do? I grabbed my handy pack of post-it notes. I told her, ‘we are going to write a note.’ She (and several of her friends) were intrigued. As I wrote I told her what I was writing. I really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY MISS MY MOM!!!!! I tore off the note and told her it was just for her. She put it to her chest and went to get in line. I don’t go down to lunch with the students but saw her after lunch when she happily skipped up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Bitts, I put my note in my lunch box!’ We can also use notes in other ways. If you have a child who has a hard time at the store because he wants you to buy him something, start a list. ‘We are at the grocery store for food but I can see you really would like me to buy that toy. Let’s start a list so grandma knows what you want for Christmas. We can keep it on the refrigerator at home.’ 
  • Acknowledge feelings with art. This is similar to putting feelings into writing. You can chose to draw a picture of how your child feels or let your child draw out her feelings. My eldest son is diagnosed with autism. School was often very difficult for him, especially when he was young. When I would notice he was in a bad place after school, we would get out the paper and markers and he would start drawing. He knew how to draw shapes and he gave them faces – happy, sad, angry, etc. After spending time drawing he would again be in a calm mood and we could have a positive evening at home. We didn’t necessarily have to talk about what was upsetting him. He didn’t always know, just that school was hard and gave him a lot of anxiety. Drawing helped him lose the negativity of school and remember that home was a happy, safe place.
  • Give in fantasy what you cannot give in reality. This can be a fun one! I have to admit I don’t always remember to use it though. One day one of my students wanted to play with our Light Brite but another child was busy using it. The child became very angry that he couldn’t play with it right away (this child has a lot of anger issues related to some early trauma). I acknowledged his feelings and then said, ‘Do you know what I wish? I wish I had enough Light Brite’s for the whole class to use at once.’ Well, he got a new look in his eye and ran with it. He responded, ‘I wish we had enough to fill up this whole classroom!’ We continued our wishes back and forth and got quite silly. After our conversation he went about finding something to do instead of flinging himself on the ground or physically acting out.
  • Acknowledge feelings with (almost) silent attention. Sometimes children just want you to listen to them without saying much. Oh? Hmmm. I see. All of these little words let your child know you are listening attentively to her. You aren’t trying to solve her problem or to ask a lot of questions to find out more. You can do that later when she is calm. Just listening is often enough to get a child through the difficult emotion.

The last think I want you to remember is that none of this is a magic pill that will keep your child from negative feelings. We all have negative feelings. What we hope to achieve are young people who understand their feelings and learn productive ways to handle them. As parents it is so horrible to see our children suffering. We all want to make it better. By trying to solve our children’s problems or by denying their negative feelings we are stealing valuable learning from them! When children are able to work through their feelings and ultimately their problems we are providing them with tools that will help them be successful throughout their lives, not just in the moment. 

As a teacher of the very young, it is the first moments the children arrive at school that are always my favorite moments of the day. One of the things that the children like to bring to my attention is their attire. It may be that they want to show me a new necklace their mom let them wear to school or the fact that they are wearing a raincoat because it was raining. The children (all preschoolers) all have a definite style. I love to see how their style works with their personalities. We are a no judgement zone about clothing. When a child talks to me about his or her clothing I always respond enthusiastically with description instead of saying that I like or dislike something. This is because I want each child to take pride in his or her own choices, not in my likes or dislikes.

This week I listened to a podcast from the Baan Dek school in South Dakota about clothing and children. It’s certainly a hot topic with families who struggle with their children’s strong preferences surrounding clothing. You can listen to the podcast yourself below or continue reading for a quick synopsis.

Clothing choice is very personal. When we believe we look good, we feel good. Of course what we think looks good is very subjective which is why parent and children often have a lot of conflict over clothing choices. So what can we do to set up our children for success?

A little preparation can make things go a lot smoother.

We have to remember that children are very sensitive. Clothing made from soft fabrics are best. Tags, buttons, zippers and snaps are often bothersome for very young children. They also impede independence in young children who often wait until the last minute to go to the bathroom.

As adults we have everyday clothing and once-in-a-while clothing. We save the scratchy, uncomfortable, squeeze our toes clothes for those special occasions when we want to look really dazzling (and don’t mind being uncomfortable to achieve it). Children don’t have the same decision making skills. They see something they love and want to wear it. No matter that the tulle is scratchy, the heels are going to make them fall at recess or that the button pants are hard to undo. Better to put those fancy clothes out of sight during the every day clothing choice.

As parents one of the first things to think about are your own non-negotiable feelings surrounding your child’s clothing. Do you think your child has to match every day? Do you mind if she wears the same shirt several times a week? Do you think girls need to wear skirts? These choices are very individual and should be determined before you begin buying clothes for your children and giving them choices. Make the choices you give your child conform to your desires. If you need your child to match, buy only tops and bottoms that will all go together. If you want your child to express his personality, allow your child to pick freely from his clothing. By predetermining your must have’s you will eliminate a lot of pain and suffering from the equation. 

Remember these three principles when dealing with clothing issues:

  1. Children have a different sense of logic around attire than do parents. They don’t think like we do.
  2. Children aren’t concerned with style in the same way as adults. They love to mix horizontal stripes with vertical ones and add a tutu for good measure.
  3. Adults are more worried about what other people think then is generally true. We preschool teachers delight in the crazy clothing combinations and love to see the joy that children have in sharing their style.

Enjoy your child’s style and worry a little less about her looking the way you think is necessary. Give a few choices, stick with your non-negotiables and you all will have a little more happiness every morning before school!

I’ve often wondered how my husband and I created two children (both boys), born within 20 months of each other, who are so incredibly different. One is neat, the other messy, one loves to joke around, the other is quite serious. Even their art was divergent. They were only one grade apart in school and often came home after the same art lesson with two very different versions of the same project. I always had a chuckle about how their artwork reflected their personalities. 

The reality is that children are born with very set temperaments or personalities. Some are easier to parent than others. Many times children have the same temperament as their parent or parents and many times they do not. Understanding your child’s temperament will help you (and your nerves) as you work to parent your child.

There are lots of different theories about personality and temperament. I’m going to outline the nine characteristics that were studied by Drs. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas. Hopefully by looking a little closer at these characteristics will help you understand your child a little better. This new consciousness about your child can help you be a little more intentional as you do the very difficult job of being a parent!

  1. Activity Level – the level of motor activity in each individual. If you have a child with a high activity level you know it! These are the kiddos who don’t sit still very well, who love to run (everywhere), jump, roll, and generally cavort most of the time. They love to be outside and have a difficult time sitting for books or group lessons. Low activity children generally love to sit for stories or art projects and often don’t enjoy the great outdoors.
  2. Rhythmicity – the predictability of biological functions (hunger, thirst, sleep, bowel movements). Children with unpredictable rhythmicity will benefit from regular routines.
  3. Initial  Response – the way a child responds to a novel situation or stimulus (new people, new school, new food, etc.) Learning to recognize your child’s unique cues (facial expressions, speech, crying, etc.) will help you respond in nurturing ways. Some children will need more support when faced with new situations while others won’t give you a second thought while they run off with a new friend.
  4. Adaptability – reaction to new situations over time, the ability to adjust and change. Some children need a lot of time before they adjust to a new food or new teacher. For others they happily adjust after one or two tastes of something new.
  5. Sensory Threshold – the level of sensitivity to sensory input. Waking at the slightest noise, sleeping through a thunderstorm; being bothered by a tag, refusing to play with play doh or to paint, loving to get messy, only liking room temperature foods. These are all different ways children can be more or less sensitive to sensory input.
  6. Quality of Mood – the way we react to life – a sunny disposition or finding fault with everything and everybody. If you have a child who tends toward the dark side of mood remember that this isn’t because of anything you did! Honor your child’s negative feelings and model ways of looking on the bright side.
  7. Intensity of Reaction – the way a child responds to situations around them. The school bell is right outside my classroom. When it rings (which it has done every day for 8 months) some students shout and throw themselves to the ground while others just continue working on their current activity. At this point in the year I don’t even respond, we just accept that each child needs to react in his or her own way and we get on with our day.
  8. Distractibility – the way an outside stimulus interferes with present behavior and willingness to be diverted. For some children distractions, whether large or small (hunger, a new person entering the classroom, the phone ringing) will divert their attention from the task at hand and they will not be able to get back to work easily or at all.
  9. Persistence and Attention Span – persistence is the willingness to continue working on an activity in the face of difficulty and attention span refers to the length of time one is able to focus on an activity.These two traits often go hand in hand. Children who have difficulty with these may need additional help and care to learn to build these traits.

We can all look at the above list and pick and choose the traits we would find more convenient to parent. It is important to understand that none of the above is good vs. bad. What is important is to recognize the type of temperament your child exhibits (and to think about your own, as well!) so you can pick and choose the best parenting tools that will work with the child you’ve got. It’s also important to remember that as parents we are working on improvement, not perfection. Using kindness and firmness with children of all temperaments will serve you and your child well. Kindness respects the child for who she is and firmness respects the needs of the situation. In this way you will help your child become a capable, confident, contented person. 

But I didn’t say it would be easy!

Today I’m going to talk about the fourth need of children: social and life skills. The other needs I’ve talked about are a sense of belonging and significance, perceptions of capability and personal power and autonomy. I find this fourth need goes hand in hand with the second need – feeling capable. Social and life skills are so important for children in every level of their development and are necessary beyond the school years and into adulthood. So much of what we need to do as parents is to teach our children these skills. In fact, our children’s self esteem comes from their skills not from being loved, praised or showered with gifts.

The great thing about this need is that children under age six want to learn these skills often before we think they are able to learn. We have all experienced the two year old who refuses to allow the adult to help but instead says emphatically, “Me do it!” Toddlers and preschoolers are watching all the time. They want to imitate what they see. What do they see? They observe the everyday activities of the adults around them.

Four year old Sebastian is a high energy boy who is often seen zooming through the classroom. He also has some issues with anger management when things don’t go his way. One day he observed me cleaning the classroom easel which gets very dirty. “Can I help?” he asked. I showed him how to put water in the bucket, use the sponge and wet cloths to scrub off the paint and then the dry towel to finish up. He went to work with a vengeance. I watched him for a while and then when I saw his level of concentration, walked away to help some other students. After quite a long time Sebastian called me over to the easel. “Look, Mrs. Bitts! I cleaned it all!” He was beaming from ear to ear. We noticed together how all the paint was removed and he had cleaned the glass bowls and paint brushes until everything looked brand new. He had wiped the water off the floor and put away the bucket and dirty cloths. He had so much pride in himself and his accomplishment.

There are so many ways that we can help young children begin to accumulate skills. As they are learning to do things for themselves and to get along with their peers they are also gaining in self confidence. The book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk  describes six things we can do for our children to encourage autonomy.

  1. Let children make choices. By allowing our children to make limited choices when they are young we are helping them practice for more advanced choices they will be faced with as they grow older. Think about your child’s developmental stage and temperament when giving them choices – Do you want to take your bath before supper or after? Would you like to cut the bananas or wash the lettuce for dinner? 
  2. Show respect for a child’s struggle. Just because something seems easy for us doesn’t mean it is for the child. It can also be difficult to watch our children struggle. We often want to jump in and fix the problem right away. Instead, tell them what you see – It can be hard to zip up your jacket. I find if you fold the fabric back before you try to put the zipper together it can help. You weren’t sure you wanted to jump in the water at your swim lesson today but then you found the courage.
  3. Don’t ask too many questions. No one likes to be pestered. Instead, let your child know you want to hear about his experience or problem when he is ready to share – I’d love to hear about your day with grandma when you want to tell me. 
  4. Don’t rush to answer questions. Allow children to explore the answers for themselves, first – What an interesting question. Why do you think the moon looks so big tonight? I think we have a book about moons, why don’t you get it and we can look through it. 
  5. Encourage children to use resources outside the home. This one may be better for older children but it is important to help children understand that the world is full of information – Let’s ask the dentist how often you should brush your teeth. This also helps keep you from being the heavy all the time!
  6. Don’t take away hope. Young children are full of ideas about what they can do and will do. Let them dream – I want a horse! So you wish you could have a horse. Tell me about it. Of course this doesn’t mean you are going to buy a horse but allowing your child to expound upon his love of horses and dream about what he would do with one allows him to take pleasure in dreaming, anticipating and planning. 

What I want you to take from these posts about the four needs of children is awareness and intention. Be aware of the needs of your children. They are the needs you have as well! Think about a few things you can do to help your children with these needs. None of us is perfect and we will all fall short as parents (usually at least once a day!) but by taking the time to think about these needs you are on the path to giving your child a better head start in school and in life.

I’ve been talking about the needs of children. Today I want to discuss the third (and in many parent’s eyes the most annoying) need – personal power and autonomy. Yes, power. If you think children can’t possibly have power, just watch a young child at a grocery store, toy store or restaurant get what he wants. Better yet, think about the last time you had a really important phone call and your child would not go play by herself for 10 minutes (which she is very capable of doing). How is this power? 

Children are very savvy at getting what they want: attention, entertainment or avoiding things like cleaning up. Part of our job as parents is to help our children learn how to channel their power for the positive. To learn how to help solve problems, learn life skills and to respect and cooperate with others. Children quickly grow to develop autonomy (the second they start crawling away from you as a baby) and initiative (I can do it myself!). These are some of the first developmental tasks nature sets for them. With these tasks come the power struggles.

When we are faced with a such a power struggle it is tempting to use our own power and greater strength (we are bigger than they are, right?) to quickly squash the issue. We can just ‘make’ our children conform to our will, can’t we? Well, not really. In the short term, this type of authoritarian discipline may work depending on your child’s temperament. We want to think long term, however.

It is important to remember what kind of person we want our child to become. Of course we want our child to be happy but better still we all probably want him to also be competent, to be able to cooperate, solve problems, take initiative, help others, etc. Believe it or not, by learning some strategies early on, we will be helping our children to become more confident adults. 

Screaming, yelling and lecturing children is simply ineffective. Children don’t listen when they are feeling scared, hurt or angry. Punishment may get immediate results for the parent (but often it does not) but it simply stops the learning process in it’s tracks. What we want is to invite cooperation from our children. We want to avoid making them feel powerless. Powerlessness manifests itself differently in different children. In some, it makes them like limp rags – ‘I can’t do anything anyway so why try.’ Other children expend all their energy in negative ways to make sure they are powerful. These children are often the bullies we hear so much about. 

So does this mean we need to let our children have all the power, to do as they like? No. Permissive discipline is just as damaging as authoritarian discipline. We want a moderate approach. Montessori philosophy talks about freedom with limits. If we give our children the tools to be independent but also give them some limits to go along with their age and developmental level we will find them to (usually) be more cooperative and happy. 

Get children involved. Allow them to help cook dinner, separate the laundry, wash the car. Not only do these things help children feel confident and competent, they get extra time with you which is the best gift we can give.

Establish routines. Young children need order. By following basic routines whenever possible children can make better sense of their lives. No, you don’t have to live by a strict timetable. Keep a general routine. After waking up we eat breakfast, get dressed, pack our bags and drive to daycare. When children know what to expect they tend to be better at cooperating.

-Give limited choices. Make sure you are ok with the choices. Do you want to wear your green shirt or your blue shirt? Would you like vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Do you want to put your stuffed animal in your backpack on on the seat in the car? When your child refuses to comply with these choices but tries to negotiate others be firm. “You can wear your green shirt or your blue shirt. If you can’t choose I will choose for you.” Believe me, every child will try to find out if you mean what you say. Make sure you do!

In my next post I’ll talk about the fourth need of children and give you some more strategies to help make parenting a little easier and help your child become more confident and cooperative. For now, give these ideas a test run. Let me know how you fare!

-Information for this post was taken from the book ‘Positive Discipline for Preschoolers’ by Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin and Roslyn Ann Duffy.

 

My last blog post listed the four needs of children and expounded upon the first – belonging and significance. Today we look at the second need, perceptions of capability. The information I am sharing with you is from the book ‘Positive Discipline for Preschoolers’ and is very compatible with the Montessori philosophy. The title of this post is actually a quote from Dr. Montessori herself as she was describing young children. They want you to ‘help me do it myself.’

If you have a two to four year old in your life you have seen their need for independence. Children at this age are learning they are different human beings from mom and dad, sister and brother and exert this independence in sometimes quite inconvenient ways. They insist on doing everything independently, even when they can’t quite do everything themselves. This can be a harrowing time for parents who are in a hurry. 

So why is it so important for young children to feel they are competent? I think we all want our children to learn to make decisions, learn new skills and trust in their abilities. However, if we never give them the time to practice these skills they won’t learn them. Words (‘Great job!) are not enough to instill a sense of confidence in children. Such constant praise only puts children on the path of trying to get more adult attention. Children need to learn through experience that they are capable people. Feeling capable comes from developing solid skills (pouring a drink, cleaning up a spill, changing own clothes, helping make dinner, cleaning up toys, etc.) 

One of the first things my students (ages 3-6) are thrilled with in the classroom is pouring their own drink of water any time they want. For many of them it is the first time they have been given this freedom and responsibility. We have a small glass pitcher and each child has her own cup. They pour their own water any time during the day and drink as much as they want. If something spills, they are responsible to clean it up (after being shown the towels provided for this task and how to do it). Another added benefit of this activity is that at the beginning of the year the students drink so much water that they also get a lot of practice in using the bathroom! 

We can see that something so basic – pouring her own drink whenever she wants it – builds up the child’s confidence. For a lot of the year children tell me when another student spills something. My response is always the same: “I know that (insert name here) knows how to clean up his spill. I don’t need to worry about it.” And guess what? The child always clean up. He has been given the tools and trust to be confident. No ‘good job’ comment can instill that kind of confidence and responsibility. As adults, we need to find more and more ways to give our children the chances to practice being capable. In doing so, they will become capable and confident.

There is a huge difference between our children’s wants and needs. Their needs should absolutely be met. When we give in too often to their wants we are creating difficult problems for our children and for ourselves. So first let us ask ourselves, what are their true needs?

  • a sense of belonging and significance
  • perceptions of capability
  • personal power and autonomy
  • social and life skills

If we can help our children with these four needs they will be well on their way to becoming competent, resourceful adults. Chances are they’ll be happy, too.

Today, let’s look at the first need a little closer.

A sense of belonging and significance. This need seems pretty cut and dried. Of course our children need to feel they belong. And of course we know they belong. The question then becomes….do our children know that they belong? Just because we love our children does not mean that we help them to understand they belong. Belonging means to be unconditionally accepted for who we are, no matter our behavior. When children do not feel this sense of belonging and acceptance they become discouraged and often act out on these negative feelings. Here’s what I often see in the classroom:

John didn’t speak in full sentences when he first began in his new preschool at age 4 despite the fact that he was fully capable of doing so. He did not handle transitions well and needed a great deal of attention from the adults around him. During group activities he often had unusual behavior including refusing to follow directions, shouting out nonsense words, refusing to stay in his seat and generally being disruptive. John’s dad was a long distance truck driver whom he only saw a few times a month. John’s mom was responsible for the day to day activities of both her children as well as working long hours. John and his sister attended the before and after school programs – which means they were at school from 7:30a.m. until 5:30 p.m. most days. 

In situations like these the behavior of John and other students I’ve had in class show me that the student does not feel a sense of belonging. They act out to determine if they are really accepted. They often are sure they do not belong and try to ‘prove’ it before someone else lets them know. These children need additional attention, time and teaching. In most situations, the parents are doing their best and they know their child belongs but the child does not believe they belong. It could also be that the birth of baby into the family throws the child’s sense of significance into question. When this occurs (for simple to complex reasons) the child’s belief is often manifested through her behavior. 

In future posts I’ll talk more about what we can do to help but for now we can do the following:

  • Create and follow daily routines. Especially when a change occurs (like a new job or a new baby) children need to feel stability, that their lives have not changed. Routines help young children understand where they belong in the larger scheme of their family.
  • Let your child help. By allowing your child to help with the everyday activities of home you are instilling in her a sense of belonging (I help my dad!) and also providing her with a sense of competence. It is also a great way to spend time with your child. 
  • Spend time. Give each child just a little of your time without strings attached. No matter their behavior during the day, spend just a little one on one time with each child. This can be one story before bed, a cuddle after dinner or a walk around the block. Time is one of the most valuable commodities you can provide for your children. A little goes a long way. 

We all want to belong and feel significant to someone. It is a basic need of all people. Take a little time today to think about your children, your spouse or significant other and yourself. How do feel significant? What have you done today to help others feel they belong? What changes can you make for tomorrow?

~Information for this blog post was gleaned from Positive Discipline for Preschoolers by Nelsen, Erwin and Duffy.

A good friend just tagged this article to me on Facebook: Sweet Photo Series Reveals What’s in a Preschooler’s Pocket.To be honest, it made me laugh. I think a companion article should be ‘Sweet Photo Series Reveals What’s in a Preschool TEACHER’S Pocket.’

 

I have to admit that children are my passion. I live for them and live to understand them and to help them grow and develop. If you meet me at a party be prepared for me to bore you out of your mind with stories about children and how amazing they are. 

So, after seeing the above article, you may be thinking, young children steal lots of things from school? Well…yes…if you are thinking like an adult.

But really…no…if you can try to think like a young child. 

To think like a child you must understand her development. Preschool children are very literal and very self centered. They can not yet understand another person’s point of view. In psychological mumbo jumbo this is referred to as ‘Theory of Mind’. They are still learning that they can’t have everything they want when they want it.

So…in the classroom, when a child sees something he finds interesting he wants to take it home. He wants to show his brother or his dad or his mother. He doesn’t have the ability to think about the fact that what he is taking belongs to another person or to another environment (school). 

I have had several instances where parents of young children were horrified when they found objects from school in their child’s pockets or backpack. I’ve even had parents return to school the same day to return items!

Children in the preschool years are in the sensitive period for small things and order. Thus, it makes perfect sense that they are obsessed with those tiny objects they find at school. To be honest, if something small is lost, the best way to find it is to let the children know we are looking for it. They always find it. I never do.

So…back to the preschooler’s pocket treasures. I like to sit back and observe what the child has in his or her pocket. It tells me a lot about the child. It tells me where her interests lie, how I can use those interests to engage the child in learning and, perhaps, where we need more social learning.

If you are the parent of a child with a pocket full of contraband, take a moment to contemplate the items. What do they tell you about your child? How can you use this information to further your child’s education by honing in on his interests? Ask your child some open ended questions about these items. (Where did you find this? Tell me about this rock. What is this? Why do you think this (rock, sparkle, etc.) is interesting? ) Think on the level of your preschooler…’Hey, this thing is cool. I want to keep it.’ rather than, ‘I’m going to sneak this away from my class. Mrs. Bitts won’t miss it.’ 

Remember, preschoolers aren’t socially aware enough to be so deceptive. They are still acting on their immediate desires. We can talk to them about their feelings (I can tell you really liked this shiny star and wanted to keep it forever) and then gently talk to them about the social and moral issues (The rule at school is that we have to keep things that belong to the school at school. You would be sad if you didn’t have the ____ at school to play with. Why don’t you take it back to school tomorrow so someone else can enjoy it and you can share it with your friends.)

When we look through the lens of childhood and understand the developmental stages of our children, these seemingly large issues are put into perspective and make everyone just a little more understanding.