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.