There are somehow more issues than ever facing the early years sector at the moment. The overwhelming whiteness of our speaker/writer/trainer circuit might not feel the most immediately urgent issue, but I do not think there is any hope for the sector of dealing with anything else if “we” (the relatively small amount of people who might read this via edutwitter) can’t get a handle on this issue.
I would also suggest to other white people reading this that many colleagues of colour do not feel safe sharing what they honestly feel about Wanels and otherwise unrepresentative events. this fact alone is a symptom of things much deeper and harmful than we might want to believe.
Laura Henry has laid it out earlier this year and in 2016 as well quite plainly. Read these articles now if you haven’t before, or read them again. Then read this Event Organising Toolkit from the BAMEed Network. Things really can’t be made much plainer or accessible.
It’s long past time for us to just “like” and RT these articles, the very small audience of established white speaker/writers/trainers who might read this can easily help rectify quite a bit of this issue if we just commit to not being on all White panels or training/writing rosters. Look up @nomorewanels on Twitter.
If it feels weird, “we” (white edutwitter people) can do it anyways and learn to deal with it. If the organisation asks for possible “recommendations” we can give them if people we know are up for queries. If we don’t know anyone to recommend we can reflect on why this is, and then get to know people outside of our usual circles so we are in a better situation next time.
If we worry we are being tokenistic, good! We should not be just finding “anyone” who isn’t white so we don’t get “criticised online.” But if we actually recognise the realities of privilege (white, male, class, straight, cisgendered etc) and oppression we can’t keep pretending that our sector is currently telling or listening to the whole story (or that being racialised as white ourselves hasn’t played a role in our professional advancement).
The sector will be better for it – and more equipped to truly serve all children and communities – in the long run.
Truly happy to publically or privately chat with anyone at all about any of this.
The primary, but not sole, intended audience for this blog is other white people in early years, especially those on edutwitter and social media who are part of our campaign-y set. I would consider myself a proud part of this crowd, and I firmly believe we have the power and responsibility to make our field the best it can. While I understand and support the efforts of responding to the latest barrage of the DfE, I do feel we will always be held back as a sector until we take stock and learn to apply an antiracist, intersectional lens to our lives as well as the work we set out to do.
We all must fully understand, foreground and work to undo and stop the daily harm we as a sector have perpetuated and are perpetuating against children of colour and their families, especially Black children of colour and their families. Part and parcel of this will also include reckoning with how we perpetuate and have perpetuated racism within our sector, amongst colleagues and coworkers at all levels.
While I am certainly not suggesting there aren’t countless white children, families and educators who are also being failed by this current system, they are being failed in a different way, and I am absolutely saying that we will never have the sector we dream of, that truly best serves our shared humanity without truly understanding and tackling the specific ways we have racistly failed to properly serve communities of colour in the past and presently. One can’t build anything worthwhile if they have something skewing their vision and I want us to start examining what we claim we don’t notice is in our eyes.
We as a whole have not had these discussions for many reasons, but a primary one, and the focus of this blog, is our unexamined and deeply held sense of racial superiority. I can already feel some brains and hearts starting to disengage, but I hope you stay with me.
The idea that white people have internalised racial superiority is rarely discussed in public, “mainstream” discussions. I imagine for most white people reading this, the term internalised racial superiority brings up images of explicit, hateful white nationalists who publicly and proudly state their racist beliefs for the world to hear that “we” simply have nothing to do with.
Well, I have internalised racial superiority. How could I not? I was born and spent those foundational first 1001 days of my life (and everyday after) in a racist society. While I was born in the USA, do not fall for the trap of thinking that the UK is substantially different. If the phrase ‘racist society’ makes you stop engaging, what else should we call a societies built on genocide and slavery, hundreds of years of legal, explicit white supremacy, current day racial discrimination and disparities in every institution?
Among everything else in my early childhood, the play, the relationships, the family issues, the love and everything else, my earliest synapses were getting wired in this “normal,” everyday racial inequity. Here is Alison Gopnik in 2009 explaining the groundbreaking and relatively recent research in the tremendously powerful and breathtakingly swift learning that all babies are engaged in all of the time:
“Now every month there’s a new study that shows that babies and young children compute conditional probabilities, that they do Bayesian reasoning, that they can take a random sample and understand the relationship between that sample and the population that it’s drawn from. And children don’t just detect statistical patterns, they use them to infer the causal structure of the world.” (emphasis added)
I want us to consider what this means for us, not other white people, but specifically you and me, our own lives and experiences. What does it mean for me as a baby and young child to have detected statistical patterns and inferred causal structures of the world in a society where Black and Brown communities are statistically over-represented in poverty, negative & stereotypical depictions in the media, service jobs and more while under-represented in positions of power, wealth and status? What does this all mean for me and how I view myself, others and how I act in this world? What does this all mean for you?
With no real discussions about the realities of race and racism during the formative years of my life, I can only conclude that I have developed (flawed, wrong) racist explanations of why the world is the way it is. You must have too. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.
While I do know better now, and am committing to continue learning, unlearning and acting with others to tackle these issues – we all know how powerful our early years are. Our sector knows more than most how powerful our childhoods are, and the lifelong impacts they can have.
Though I obviously can’t remember anything from 0-3, my brain was clearly taking in and building itself with the evidence of the world around me. This is where my (and your) internalised racial superiority was bred.
While it was bred in early childhood, it’s been nurtured for many years since then. The cincher to this delusional pact of whiteness that we all hold ourselves in that for the entirety of my childhood I was never encouraged to think of myself as being part of a race. Race was just something the adults in my life at least did not talk about. I’ve always been able to consider myself as “normal.” In this short clip, Akala brilliantly explains how the actions of Jimmy Saville for one example, are never used to tarnish all middle-aged white men (while the actions of Asian or Black people somehow carry weight for everyone in their communities.)
While “race” has no scientific basis, whether we like it or not, we live in a world that has been shaped by centuries of very powerful people and institutions insisting otherwise to justify colonialism, slavery, genocide, discrimination and oppression (and as a consolation prize of sorts for non-ruling class whites). That we might have been born in a time where the idea of talking about race might be “impolite” in “mainstream” circles, and oh let’s just all be nice to each other, it is absurd to pretend this history (along with documented current day discrimination and racist policies) does not have an impact on our current day.
When I talk about internalised racial superiority, this is part of what I am talking about. That at a very deep level that inequality in general, and racial inequality specifically feels “normal.” That it might be a shame things are like this, but my personal situation has nothing to do with others. That all I need to do is be “nice” to others and I can go about my life as a “good person.”
I don’t remember much of my preschool years, but I do remember elementary school. As I got older, just like anyone else white, I saw people who look like me represented in all facets of life and in every possible medium. If I saw any non-white characters, in television shows or books, especially in the 80s and 90s, they were almost always “sidekicks” or minor characters and they were usually completely one dimensional.
In class I remember being taught Christopher Columbus was a genius who “knew the world was round” and I remember a teacher having us do some nonsense with a paper boat and basketball to demonstrate something about horizons. I remember celebrating Thanksgiving by making “Pilgrim” and “Indian hats” out of paper. I was taught the United States was the greatest country on earth, and one single man named Martin Luther King Jr gave a wonderful speech and helped us make it even better.
I also remember learning racist jokes, seeing Black classmates treated wildly different (though I did not realise this at the time), and I also remember that there were no adults in my life to help me make sense of any of this until much later.
But let’s bring this back to us as adults in early years.
It is my internalised racial superiority that makes it so tempting to think there are “normal,” “standard” ways of doing things whether in our communities or in our early years settings.
It is my internalised racial superiority that has made it so tempting to think I somehow know how to best serve, care for and educate “all children” without having to know anything about their backgrounds, family and community history or individual experiences.
It is my internalised racial superiority that makes it so tempting to think I am here to “save” “these” children. What of course is rarely stated is that they are being “saved” from their families and communities, and not this system and government that clearly could care less about them.
It is my internalised racial superiority that if I were working in an all white or majority white setting that would make it so tempting to think “yeah this all might be true, but it’s so complicated… and we’re all white here anyways so I don’t actually have to engage or bother with this stuff!”
It is my internalised racial superiority that makes it so tempting to think that it’s actually the right move to not talk about such horrible issues with young children as they are so innocent without considering the possibility that Black families and other families of colour have no choice but to have talks about race and racism with their children.
It is my internalised racial superiority that has made it so tempting to think all white early years panels and conferences are acceptable, as if the only experts in our field are practically all white.
It is my internalised racial superiority that makes it so tempting to believe that that being born and socialised in a racist society somehow doesn’t have an impact on my pedagogy.
It is my internalised racial superiority that has for far too long put avoidance of uncomfortable or awkward feelings and discussions over doing what’s necessary to work across race to make this sector what it could be.
It is our internalised racial superiority that illuminates the hard but obvious fact that as a white person I, writing about stuff such as this, am much more likely to be heard by other white people than any person of colour, especially black people.
If it’s not clear I think most, if not all of the above applies to anyone white reading this as well. I couldn’t decide if I should write the above as I, your, or our. Part of me being white is that we rarely ever have to seriously consider ourselves as part of a racialised community, and none of us have much experience talking about these things publicly.
None of this is to say I am am deliberately, consciously trying to be racist each day. Rather, I am trying to tell some of the truth about how growing up racialised as white in this world has impacted me on a deep level. I can, have and continue to try to learn and do better – but it requires honesty and a willingness to deal with reality. It also honest relationship and communication with people across racial lines. I know first hand that a well-intentioned white person by themselves will go right back into the Matrix.
I imagine many people reading this feel quite uncomfortable and might be feeling I am implying we are all inherently and hopelessly “bad” people. Nothing could be further from the truth and quite honestly the idea of people being simply “good” or “bad” is useless and honestly immature.
While I write this from a place of love and respect, I am learning that this discomfort is necessary. Not only will it not destroy us, if we can learn to sit and reflect on it, we can wake up parts of ourselves we might not have known were asleep.
Obviously, no one is inherently or hopelessly “bad” either. We have been born into a sick culture though, and it’s on us to take personal responsibility to reckon with how both it’s impacted us and how we we have kept it going through our actions and inactions. I think if we are honest and committed we can manage this conditioning and have a healthier connection to others, to say nothing of ourselves.
If this article (or previous resources from others recently) has resonated with you at all, I know first hand how deep you will feel an urge to READ EVERYTHING and DO EVERYTHING NOW.
I more than empathise, but I would strongly encourage you to give yourself both some grace as well as some humility. Wanting to take action is one one hand admirable and humane, but speaking from personal experience and observations from others, at least some part of this initial motivation will be driven by white exceptionalism. Or in other words, when we start to learn the enormity of these issues, we, perhaps quite understandably, feel a psychic urge to do anything possible to consider ourselves as “off the hook” or somehow not implicated in this sick system. While we all probably feel this urge, if we don’t find a way past it, we are guaranteed to eventually put our personal feelings of “yeah yeah but I am the one different white person on earth because XYZ” over the real goals of a truly top notch, antiracist early years sector and collective liberation in general.
A lifetime of living in this society mostly built for us might also give us the false impression that we will have a quick handle on how to “fix all this.” White supremacy is real, it is immense, it is centuries in the making and if world history is any evidence, if I or you have any hope of doing even the smallest thing about it, we are going to have to settle in for a long haul. The other truth is that we are complete novices at tackling, much less talking about racism – and it can’t be said enough we have a life time of listening and learning ahead of us. The fact that it took footage of another cold-blooded murder of another Black man, and the subsequent uprisings in the US to make this space for many of us to consider these issues for perhaps the first time just underscores how sick this culture we’ve been born into is.
One last small lesson learned from experience, we do not need to run to any Black or Brown people in our lives to share how much our minds might be blown, or how bad we feel, or honestly anything we might be learning or processing. It won’t be news to them, and honestly reason we haven’t been having these conversations across race earlier is they have had to navigate dealing with white peoples emotions for a lifetime. I think true friendships and/or working relationships across race are important and very possible, but I don’t think unintentionally blaring “I AM WOKE NOW” is a good entry point into any new relationship, especially at this time.
If you don’t have any white people you can talk with about this at this moment, contact me! (and also think about why you don’t have any white people to talk with, and remedy that!)
We can always choose what sort of lives we want to live. We can choose to take personal responsibility for learning, unlearning and dealing with the reality we might be beginning to peek into. It is uncomfortable and there is no way around it. We are going to have let go of parts of our ego and self-image that’s tied up in a superficial understanding of what racism is. We are going to have to deal with accepting the fact we are going to “do things wrong” even now, be able to learn from these mistakes and keep trying anyways. There is no “face to save” before we decide to take this seriously.
But through this experience I am convinced we can gain a healthier understanding of ourselves, others and humanity in general. To paraphrase James Baldwin, through this process we can lessen the distances between ourselves and our deepest hopes and fears and desires.
True meaning, purpose and belonging in life is a rare commodity for anyone these days. While it materially benefits many, this system trivialises and diminishes all life and has conditioned us all to have a ghastly, butchered view of human nature which plays out for us all at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, nationality and more. It is tempting, especially for privileged groups, to say this is all an inevitable part of human nature but anything worthwhile in this world has been created and fought for by people who have refused to go down this slippery slope.
What it will take to transform our early years sector into something that truly reflects all of our deepest hopes and ideals, that heals and supports all of our shared humanity will take a level of work and dedication that perhaps none of us can truly imagine at this moment but I have no choice but to think it’s worth finding out.
If you want to talk to me in the comments below or via DMs on twitter or instagram, please reach out. If any people of colour want to call me in on any of the above I will gratefully listen to and receive the feedback. If any white people have any honest questions, comments or good faith arguments I will happily take those as well.
This is by no no definitive statement on anything, and I do not want to come off as I don’t have a lifetime of learning and unlearning ahead of me, this is just a small attempt at keeping some momentum going. I am indebted to so many people for teaching and helping me learn. In terms of recent relationships and conversations, Liz Pemberton, Jamel Campbell, Joss Cambridge-Simmons, Kate Moxley, Kerry Payne, Joe Benge and Elaine Bennett have been invaluable people in my life.
Other people on twitter I respect and have learned so much from: @Muna_Abdi_Phd, @IjumaaJ, @BLoveSoulPower, @IamLauraHenry, @Valerie_JKD, @trussleadership, @Penny_Ten and many more.
White Supremacy and Early Years Resources
EDIT 28 July 2020: I would now write this blog significantly differently. I wouldn’t use the word BAME, I would have worried less about “social justice discourse,” and I would have focussed more on myself than a line manager. My line manager actually read this, and it lead to some awkwardness but a good opening conversation about these things and she quite rightly asked me why I didn’t bring it up to her directly. Posting and blogging is easy, bringing this to our settings is the real work!
Anyways I am keeping the blog as it is in the spirit of honesty and openness and hopefully to model that we are all on a journey.
Maybe two years ago I was in my morning program for 2 year olds at a primary school in a practically all BAME community in Leeds. I had an British-Asian boy on my lap and we were enjoying some book about farm animals. It was clear to me as well as a line manager casually observing things that while this boy was engaged, he didn’t know that a “cow goes moo” or that he was unwilling, uninterested or possibly unable to repeat different farm animal sounds.
After the book my line manager said as much, with a very “what a shame” tone to her voice. This moment has stuck with me. Truly not to call her out to make myself look better online, but it really encapsulates the complex problems of racism in education, and specifically Early Years.
The truth is the children in our school do not perform exceptionally well under the current DfE testing regime. While they make “accelerated progress,” our “GLD” percentage is quite low and working through the National Curriculum in higher year groups seems tough for teachers and children alike. I think all, but especially us white, educators need to be on constant guard on internalising “deficit views” of children and families from backgrounds other than our own. I think it is more common than we like to admit, for both understandable and absolutely illegitimate reasons.
Yes this one boy did not know farm animal sounds, or have the vocabulary or communication skills of the “average two year old”, but he was and still is an intelligent, self-motivated learner. He was fascinated with keys and absolutely determined to figure out how to use them for himself. He was an exceptional assistant when I was tidying up or doing other things around the children’s centre, who for his age demonstrated a keen sense of observation and understanding what I was doing.
The various DfE testing regime measuring sticks we hold up to our children can get in the way of seeing their true intelligence and humanity. While I will happily blame the DfE for everything in the world, this is one issue that is bigger than them.
This is not to say a 2 year olds communication skills and vocabulary aren’t crucial, or that even I as a white man don’t have valuable information on early childhood development to share with families from a variety of backgrounds but a major, if not main trap for early years educators here is a lack of curiousity or empathy about what the realities for other families are like.
I grew up in the US as a middle-class white guy. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up and then immigrate to the UK from Romania, Somalia, Bangladesh or Ghana. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up Black or Asian and British. Though yes we are all humans, we do have very different experiences that inform so much of our daily behaviour and lives.
I feel I am getting dangerously close to some social justice internet discourse that I honestly do not like or find useful. I think there is a lot of truth in otherwise BS criticisms of online social justice discourse where people who are privileged end up wallowing in our feelings and spending more time policing language online than looking to effect any change in our immediate communities.
While we need to be honest with whatever feelings come up as we begin to or continue to learn about some basic facts about world history, wallowing in these feelings obviously simply isn’t worth anything to anyone! We do require space and support to truly come to terms with things we might be new to learning, but the real truth is this won’t be even the beginning of our journey – if anything it is the pre-pre-preparations!
Back to the issues in EYs, no one wants, much less listens to advice from someone they don’t have a relationship with. While I will happily explain to anyone, from any background at all why water play is important for any child – I would be an idiot to think anyone I haven’t built a relationship with would or should listen to me for a second.
This cuts across race, and I can think of BAME colleagues in the past who do this as well, but there are specific and damaging ways that white people fail to see the realities that many different BAME communities live in. We have been socialised and honestly miseducated on basic facts of history that make it very hard to see things right in front of our eyes.
The fact that the vast majority of us can live our lives choosing whether to think about the ways race and racism effect us is a huge privilege. We get to pretend we are “normal” when in reality we are products of the same world history as BAME people. There are very specific reasons why we are even called “white people” in the first place (that yes, we need to learn so click the link!)
I am going to end this blog going in a very blunt direction.
Historical and current day racism mean BAME communities are under-represented in positions of wealth, power, and status and over-represented in low-wage work, poverty, prison and more.
When people are being honest with themselves, there are only two logical conclusions to be made from this clear reality:
- Things are like this because Black and other BAME people are either genetically or culturally inferior.
- Things are like this because of historical and current day racism.
Unfortunately the vast majority of white society opts for cop-out of:
3: This makes me uncomfortable so lets just start saying racism is all about interpersonal prejudice and bigotry and no, let’s not look too closely into world history.
(EDIT: I hope it is abundantly clear that option 1 is not an acceptable choice, but it is one people drift to secretly if these issues aren’t properly and publically addressed.)
Young children of all colours come into this world, observe what is around them, and have no choice but to internalise the world as it is “normal.” It is sad to say but there is no way that any of us can escape this. It gets many white peoples backs up but I strongly believe we all inevitably internalise a sense of racial superiority, no matter how much we want to deny it. I think for most of us it is VERY subconscious. I hope I am being clear that I am not “calling out” anyone else as an explicit, overt white supremacist. To be quite honest this can be summed up in as “oh he doesn’t know the farm animal sounds” as if that is somehow the best measure of a 2 year old’s intelligence of his family’s “home learning environment”
“Loving all children” is and will forever remain essential, but it has never been enough.
EDIT 28 July 2020: Considering what I have been learnign recently, I would now not use the term BAME in the way I have below. I would now say I work in a predominantly Asian and diverse immigrant community. I am leaving the rest of the post as is below because it is an honest record of my views and thinking.
I am so excited about a book I am self-publishing. It will be out by June of this year, if not sooner.
Working in education in Harehills (in Leeds) I am surrounded everwhere by a “deficit” view of children and their families. I am proud that my book will matter of factly showcase the clear intelligence and self-motivation to learn of a young Asian boy from Harehills.
Umar is about a young boy who loves keys and locks. It shows him observing the adults in his life use them, how he is determined to get opportunities to use them, how he works hard to figure the intricacies of them out, how he copes with frustration and challenge of it all and finally the satisfaction of meeting his own goals.
It’s a simple story about a boy interested in something very mundane but I know it will appeal to young children. The illustrations definitely help! They were done by Molly Pukes, a brilliant artist out of Leeds. Here is a preliminary sketch!
Working in a practically all BAME (Black, Asian & minority ethnic) nursery I am well aware of how few children’s books reflect anything of our children’s lives, their families, or their communities. Ridiculously, only 1% of children’s books published in the UK last year featured a BAME main character. (Publishers like Tiny Owl and Alanna Max publish great books and deserve everyone’s support though!).
Anyone who knows me is well aware I am huge nerd about young children, play and how they grow, learn and develop in all aspects of their lives. I’ve cared for and taught them since 2007 in the US, Australia and currently the UK. These topics really are “passion” for me (what a cliche!) and I strongly believe all adults need to learn more about early childhood development. To that end, the book has an accessible introduction to how our brains grow in the first 3 years of life and important concepts like self-regulation and executive function. I worked hard to make this section easy to understand and relatable to a wide audience.
While it’s not about him exactly, Umar is inspired by a real 2 year old boy who was in my Leeds-based nursery in 2018 who was indeed obsessed with keys, locks and doors. He was so determined to use mine at every. single. opportunity. He really wore me down at times! As the months went on though he demonstrated to me what a capable and self-motivated learner he was. By the time he left my nursery he was semi-officially “in charge” of letting other his Amu and Abu (mum and dad) and other families in and out. He also figured out the locks to our toy cupboard and other rooms and I let him lock and unlock them for me almost every time. Young children can learn to do so much if we give them time, space and support to follow their interests.
I am including the introduction to some early childhood development basics not because I want to join the chorus of people telling parents exactly what to do, rather this information has helped me so much in my own job. Honestly, wIthout it, I would have never been able to see Umar’s fascination with keys as anything more than a nuisance. Understanding how young children grow and develop has helped me immensely in my professional and personal lives. As it has helped me I feel strongly it can help other adults as well.
I wanted to write a book that showcased Umar’s intelligence and determination to learn about the world around him. I know children will enjoy it but I also hope it helps adults begin to look at the young children in their lives a bit differently. Thank you for reading this!
Thank you for reading!
UPDATE 22 February 2019: Order first copies via kickstarter right here!
The crass truth that rarely gets spoken on edutwitter is that some children in early years settings are just “easier” for us adults, and some are… not. I am not saying they are “better” or “brighter,” I am only saying they are easier for us adults. A crasser truth is that in the heat of some moments it’s easier to let our assumptions colour our view of these children. To admit this is not to excuse it, especially for us who are paid to care for and educate every young child in our settings. I feel I am taking a risk sharing this but honesty is a necessary part of reflective practice.
I work in a morning nursery program for “disadvantaged” 2 year old children and their families. Since it is based in a Children’s Centre, and other groups use our room in the afternoon, we have to pack away a lot of our stuff by the end of the session.
Cleaning up the room is one of our few transition times during the session. Not all, but a lot of our adult attention turns to this. Another crass truth is most of the children many times benefit from a little of this benign neglect. Us adults are busier, but we are very nearby and feel secure enough to get into some great self-directed play, either by themselves or with others. Obviously, our focus on warm interactions for the majority of the sessions plays a major role in this.
Other times of course if some of the children are feeling tired or unsettled for whatever reason, this transition towards the end of the session is not helpful for them. Most of the time we make sure one adult is available to “be on the floor” with the children, but I have to admit sometimes things get too busy.
Here’s the crassest truth yet. During this time one of our children last week started to whinge. Whinging is not very endearing, nor is it “easy” for me or any adult to want to connect with a child who is whinging. “They’re just doing that for attention” is an all too common statement in any sort of childrearing. In “Don’t Get So Upset” Tamar Jacobson rightly asks what exactly is wrong with a young child wanting attention?
We are deeply social creatures who physically and mentally need attention, connection and relationships with others. Children are no different, they just have a lot less experience and power for getting these human needs met. Whinging and acting out are very effective ways of children getting at least some sort of attention from adults. It might not be positive attention, but something is better than nothing!
Thankfully, in this moment, I had the presence of mind at the time to sit down with her and give her some genuine attention. As she sat on my lap I said “Hey, are you tired of nursery for today? I can look after you until your mum comes back. What shall we do while we wait? Do you want to read a book?”
She nodded yes and grabbed our “Outside Book” that is a file folder collection of photos of interesting things we’ve taken outside. She sat back on my lap we looked at the pictures a little but quickly became more fascinated in the plastic latch on the outside of the file folder.
She tried hard to close it and I just quietly observed, enjoying her concentration and effort (and yes, lack of whinging). After a while I said “that’s tricky to close huh? Can I show you how to do it?” She handed it to me and I opened and closed it a few times while she observed. I handed it back and said “it’s tricky but I think you can learn to do it. Here try again.”
She then figured it out fairly quickly, opening and closing it repeatedly, stopping each time to give me a big smile. I said “you’re opening and closing it now” and she would reply “yeah!”
This later flowed into her being interested in my lanyard and we shared a very similar experience with the clasp on it. After that she made similar efforts with my key to the toy cupboard.
To any non-early years people who are somehow reading this, these seemingly simple tasks this girl was engaged in are excellent examples of self-directed playful learning (with an attentive adult modeling and facilitating). Young children develop self-regulation emotionally co-regulated by a trusted adult (i.e. cuddles and warm attention). Young children develop executive function by setting goals, trying to achieve them and persisting with difficulties in the process (i.e. trying to open and close clasps, latches and locks or any other thing that might seem mundane to us). I mention these two academic buzzwords because they are some of the most important and time-sensitive developmental tasks of young children. As such they need to be a main focus for early years practitioners.
It was not this young child’s responsibility to “keep it together” during our clean-up time. Her whinging was not endearing but it was the best tool she had in the moment for getting what she needed. If I want her to develop the skills to “keep it together” in future situations, it is literally my job to help her co-regulate in these moments. Because in that moment I made the decision to prioritise my relationship with her, we both had a genuinely good time and we both learned quite a bit.
Things are always easier typed on twitter than practiced with the actual young children in front of us moment to moment. As an early years practitioner this experience was a much needed reminder for me that people, and young children included, are always bigger, varied and more interesting than our moment-to-moment assumptions about them.
Developing self-regulation and executive function are two of the most important and time sensitive developmental tasks for young children. These are terms that are not understood enough in education, politics and wider society but luckily The Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard University offers this nice plain language introduction to these concepts on their excellent website (which is definitely worth a visit).
“Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses”
Mature and successful adults mostly know how to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses. I will assume these skills are valued by all parts of adult society (including edutwitter) and what we wish everyone in our education system will leave with. The main argument for this blog is that child-directed play (which is always somehow a controversial topic in the world of UK education), is, among many other things, how young children are genetically hardwired to learn how to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses. Their play, and our caring and meaningful interactions with them, are essential ingredients in their self-regulation and executive function
I work in a 2 year old funded nursery program for “disadvantaged” children. While I am under no illusion that any amount of early childhood education can erase the fukk effects of systemic poverty and racism, I take my job seriously. I work hard and constantly reflect to make sure they feel safe and secure, provide them with an enabling environment to explore and interact in way that encourage their learning and development. I think most people walk by and see “cute” kids “just” playing (and getting upset over small things, and not obeying adults and being supposedly “terrible twos” in general). They are missing a lot, but it is not their fault. We have centuries of cultural and ideological baggage that judges young children as not much more than empty-headed “adults-to-be” but that is maybe a different blog post.
Much of what many adults don’t like or understand in children is their lack of these skills in question. One small American study illustrated a large “Expectation Gap” between adult ideas of when children develop “self-control” versus what the last few decades of brain science tell us. I’d bet my next pay check it is not very different here in the UK. It might not feel like it at times but the truth is that young children are not deliberately out to do our heads in.
While of course I still think they are cute, I have come along enough in my understanding of early childhood development to see them as as fully human in the here and now and I look at their play and interests very differently than I used to.
One of my key children is obsessed with doors and locks, let’s call him… uh, Door Master. When anyone wants to leave or enter one of the electronically operated doors he insists on using my badge to let them in or out. When we are are outside he loves practicing opening and closing one of the gate doors and trying to lock it with my key. Throughout the session I need to balance his interests and developmental needs with my need to get my work done while keeping my patience!
Door Master is a professional on the gate door knob but he is still working on using the key and I give him lots of time to practice with it. Sometimes I model and narrate how I do it a few times. Other times if he gets frustrated I will offer a few words of empathy or just let him deal with the frustration himself. Inevitably at one point he will get into a battle of wills with another child innocently trying to get to the other outside area. I then come by to tell the other child “say ‘let me out please’” or tell the Door Master myself. Sometimes they work it out entirely without me, sometimes my coaching helps them work it out and sometimes I have to open the door against Door Master’s wishes.
I am utterly bored of detailing the learning and development inherent in these sort of scenarios but it is my responsibility in a system that doesn’t seem able to see or respect young children so here it goes:
How Door Master is developing Executive Function
Setting goals: He is fascinated with doors and keys and he is insatiable in his self-chosen goal of learning how to use my key successfully.
Filtering distractions: Our nursery is much busier than his home and as he practices with my key his brain is filtering out other distractions while he attends to his task at hand.
Achieving goals: He does not yet have the strength or coordination to consistently unlock or lock the door but he is gaining it with all of his practice (and other physical play).
How Door Master is developing Self-Regulation.
Controlling impulses: When he comes into conflict with children trying to get by he is slowly but surely hitting them in frustration less and even at times increasingly opening the door for them when they or I ask him too. Everything else I could say about this is summed up by Daniel Hodgins, “don’t make moral issues out of developmental ones.” (But this is probably another blog post.)
Tolerating stress: We all know young children want to do more than they are immediately capable of. In a Nursery setting it’s our job to give them time and space to practice, practice practice. Door Master seems to loves the challenge overall but he does get frustrated at times. This is actually a form of stress that is actually quite good for him as coping with challenges is a part of life.
I’m not bothering to link to all the research behind this stuff but the point is pretty simple: if we want children to grow up able to filter distractions, prioritise tasks, set and achieve goals and control impulses we need to give them some time, space, freedom and support to actually get on with practicing it all. It doesn’t appear out of thin air and there are a few decades of research into early childhood development and neuroscience that give us some clues on how to best support it. I know it’s inconvenient for the current crop of ghouls in the Department for Education but a lot of this does involves play. If it makes them happier we can start calling it “self-regulation and executive function practice” maybe?
E is almost three. Today was by far the most I have heard him talk. Us adults can never know for sure but I think a big factor in this milestone was that a number of louder kids weren’t in for various reasons.
Most days with us he does not say a word. The one exception has been “no!” if someone is taking one of his toys. That said, he does communicate fairly well with facial expressions, eyes and fingers. Anyways, today he was fiddling with some pegs and fit three together. He tapped me on the shoulder to show off his handiwork and raise his eyebrows as if to say “check this out.” I responded “you put those three white pegs together… that’s pretty cool E.” Wondering what he would do with more pegs, I then went to the shed to get a lot more and offered them to him.
He said “wow!” and then proceeded to fiddle and experiment with them until he made this.
I sat down next to him and he told me.
“It’s a truck. It’s smashing! It’s fast”
As he moved it up and down he explained “It goes up and down.”
If it fell apart he would exclaim “woah! uh oh!” and then work on putting the pegs back together. He spent a good deal of the session playing with these pegs in a variety of ways.
I am bored of unpacking the learning and development inherent in this play but I am beginning to realise it’s part of my responsibility as an Early Years person in a country where early childhood is little understood or respected.
- gross motor – pinching pegs for the amount of time he was is strengthening his fingers, hands and arms for future writing. (Just writing this feels like I have to justify his play as some sort of down payment on future school).
- oracy – a young “EAL” boy feeling confident enough to communicate his observations and interests in a setting away from his parents is significant, to say the least. In the weeks and months prior to today I could see how much he wanted to communicate in his facial expressions and eyes. Vocabulary gap, disadvantaged two year olds, blah blah blah. (Would he have communicated this to a speech and language therapist who he doesn’t see 5 times a week? Can’t say for sure of course, and it is absolutely different for every kid but it is my personal opinion his speaking today would not have come without the months of relationship-building we have been doing).
- Executive Function – Since it’s “just” play and it’s “just” fun, it’s also suitably low-stakes. As his pegs repeatedly fell off and he had to put them back on he was in a state of mind where he had a (flexible) plan, experienced set-backs, persisted and enjoyed the process. It is absolutely just fiddling with pegs but it is also absolute sustenance for developing executive function.
- Well-being, involvement and brain development – these are all terms that I think some non-EYs people here as Charlie Brown’s teachers (“WAH WAH WAH WAH”) but they need to get with the program. After feeling safe and secure, young children’s brains need concete multisensory experiences to make neuronal connections. Simply put they need to be loved and they need to be able to get into stuff, touch and fiddle with things. EYs (which is birth until 7) is about this and much more. In the plainest language possible: Kids who feel safe and have the time and space to get into a wide variety of things have better brain and physical development than those who don’t. Education cannot plaster over severe class inequality, but people who want to talk about social mobility would do well to start taking this stuff seriously.
Related: This week I’ve been singing nursery rhymes with a number of the kids, hitting those plastic “boom sticks” together in a simple rhythm. A lot of kids have enjoyed this and joined in. Today E did and sang his ABCS for the first time (while dancing) in our setting as far as I know. My adult brain realised this and called for a coworker to come to try to take a video. Again I can’t know for sure but I believe my sudden break in this shared moment stopped his singing. As I imagine many other EYs people know, by the time someone comes to “document” something, the moment is over or the simple fact of the ipad coming out fundamentally changes the moment. E continued to hit out a rhythm and dance but to me it appeared he realised he was singing out loud and was getting attention for it and got quiet again
This was not an entirely ruined moment but it was another example that has had me realise how my quest to document and assess things (and get pictures!) can get in the way of the actual good stuff. I have been taking a lot less pictures recently. Young kids feed on our genuine interests in their activities and the ipads can ruin the moments at times.
I don’t know for sure all the reasons that led to E’s relative avalanche of talking today but I hear from lots of academics and experts that oracy is important in education. Laminated pictures and structured circle times might genuinely work for some people but they would not work for me. I hope people can respect that wacky “save childhood brigade” approaches can be done with skill, experience and to great results when given the space and trust to do so. People in education and early years especially should be open to looking at what we do that actually gets kids talking and what we do that might get in the way at times.
Thanks for reading!
I helped write the letter in the Guardian this week.
While I personally do think the report should be withdrawn – as purposefully or not – it leaves out whole swathes of important Early Years pedagogy and approaches, I recognise that we do not have the political power to make this happen. What’s much more important to me moving forward is finding ways for Reception teachers, and really all educators in all phases, to be free to work to the best of their ability and professional knowledge.
I am a little more than a year into edutwitter and it still confounds me. At first I jumped in ready to argue with any and everybody, but I am getting very tired of it. I can read extremely disagreeable and even hateful things online with a detached sense of curiousity about how others might think these ways. To be entirely honest I have found the one corner of the internet where I can get “mad online.” I imagine this is because like all of us in education, no matter our views or interests, we all put so much of myself into my work.
Adults arguing on twitter really should not be the point of all of this, but I fear we are all getting stuck here. Education social media arguments and debates are just plain weird. Many times we don’t know each other, and the format of twitter lends itself to discussion becoming a battle of quips, citing studies we like and silly one-upsmanship. We then find “our people” with who we can have some good discussions with and fortify our views. I am as guilty of this as anybody and I am interested in moving beyond this.
At the moment I honestly don’t have much hope any real discussion across views can happen, on Reception or anything else. I still tweet at some people because I can’t help it, but it never goes anywhere. If any Bold Beginnings fans are reading this, and interested in trying to have a real discussion, where we both genuinely assume the other side is not out to set children up for failure, please send me a tweet.
So the rest of this is going to be aimed at my fellow Early Years people. The main message of this is do not get stuck on social media. Twitter is not real life.
If you want to see changes in our education system, and culture in general, this is not going to happen overnight. Before we solve the big problems, we are going to have to learn to come together, where we are, and solve our smaller problems in our schools, settings, towns and settings. There are teachers who have managed to make changes towards quality play based approaches, dealing with skeptical Heads and SLTs. There are others who have slowly brought along coworkers to improving their interactions with children and their observation skils. We could learn so much from blogs like these people.
What problems are you facing as educators or parents in your daily life? What do you want to improve in your practice? What is stopping you? What can you, and the people around you, do about it? What do you need help with? Leave a comment or send me a DM. If this stupid site is going to be worth anything, it should help us figure out ways to improve our jobs and skills offline.