Ages & Stages: What Makes Children Feel You Care

Helping children feel loved and comfortable in the classroom

By Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., and Ellen Booth Church
  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 0-2

  • During the first two years of life, babies develop a strong sense of whether or not they are loved and accepted.
  • Babies have strong needs and one tool, a strong cry, to make those needs known.
  • Infants differ in coping mechanisms, nursing styles, and skin sensitivities.

Stage by Stage 3-4

  • While growing more independent, preschoolers still look to special adults for guidance.
  • Threes and fours often share ideas and play materials, but their preferences supersede those of others.
  • By age 4, it becomes very important for children to feel like they are accepted and part of a group.

Stage by Stage 5-6

  • Kindergartners think of themselves as big kids, but they still have some little kid emotions.
  • This can be called the "see Me" stage of development, when children need to know you are paying attention.
  • Praise for specific behaviors makes children feel accepted.

0 to 2 "I WANT YOU!" by Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D.

Creeping about the infant room, Edu looked up as Ms. Genia came back from her break. His eyes lit up and he padded quickly over to his teacher. While vocalizing excitedly, he lifted his arms to be picked up. Once in her arms, he relaxed with a sigh and nestled his head onto the shoulder of his teacher.

During the first year or two of life, babies absorb a deep conviction that they are lovable-or not so lovable. What are the special adult ingredients that help form the fundamental difference that determines whether or not babies feel certain of being okay just the way they are?

Tuning In to Needs

Research work on Attachment Theory over the past few decades shows us the powerful impact of the ways in which teachers respond to infants. How well teachers accept babies' bodily functions and meet their distress needs is one of the surest ways to instill a feeling of being accepted and cherished.

A young baby cries with a hungry tummy or a wet diaper. Or a baby fusses because she has been lying in a crib looking up at a pretty boring view of the ceiling for quite a while. Babies have strong needs but only one tool-the strong cry-to make those needs known. A loving adult meets those needs promptly.

Appreciating Differences

Accepting babies' needs requires patience and perceptiveness. Infants differ in how well they can manage to control body temperature, cope with hunger pangs, or calm their thrashing limbs while crying. A very young baby with flailing limbs may feel more secure when swaddled in a receiving blanket.

Nursing needs differ. Some babies need to nurse every two to three hours. Older babies can wait a bit longer between feedings. Some babies feed with ferocious gulps; some are more leisurely. The more adults tune into nursing styles, the more babies will feel "understood" by their teachers.

Babies also differ in skin sensitivity. Some babies have skin that is very sensitive to urine and to bowel movements. They get diaper rash easily. A teacher needs to check diapers often, and change them promptly, so that the babies feel more comfortable.

Remaining Calm

Adults need to be calm and at ease with messy baby earing. While eating strained foods, babies drip food from the corners of their mouths because their lips do not yet make a tight seal. Babies can often be cheerfully messy! Some young babies regurgitate milk quite a bit after a bottle. A teacher needs to be prepared with a cloth for the shoulder when holding baby up for a burp. Otherwise, the sour smell of baby spit-up lingers on adult clothes. Teachers who wear washable shirts or smocks, and who easily accept that babies are moist creatures, provide more relaxed body signals. "That's okay. This is how babies are! No big deal!"

Babies feel the calm breathing and close cuddling as a signal to relax and feel good about themselves. Older babies get cranky while teething. They drool a lot. Their shirts get soaked with spittle. Though they are now mobile, they may need more holding rime.

Toddlers may not cry loudly to signal distress. Sometimes they whine. A tired toddler without much language (but much in need of a nap!) may be whining and careening around the room knocking toys off low tables. Perceptively, his teacher gently scoops him up and prepares him for a snuggly nap.

What You Can Do

Babies feel bodily comfort as you feed, burp, and change them with smooth, gentle, unhurried actions while handling their bodies.

Treat babies with respect If you need to leave the room to get supplies, tell your little ones you will be back right away. Use eye contact to reassure babies you are there for them. Suppose a mobile baby suddenly looks around and needs to know that you are there for him. Nod reassuringly to remind baby that yes, indeed, you are right there in the room and emotionally available.

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3 to 4 "I'LL HELP YOU" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Aaron, a 4-year-old, stands on top of the jungle gym. He looks back and forth between his best buddy, Luke, his teacher, and the firefighter's pole in front of him. Aaron wants so badly to be able to slide down the pole like the other boys in his class, but he's afraid to try. His teacher calmly tells him where to place his hands and legs. She tries to reassure him by saying "I will be right here to catch you." Luke encourages him with: "Go for it, Aaron. You can do it!" Hesitantly, Aaron wraps his legs around the pole and cautiously slides down. His teacher gives him a big smile and a hug. Aaron breaks into a smile, too, when Luke rushes over to celebrate with a "high five" and loudly declaring, "Way to go!"

When preschoolers, like Aaron, experience such positive and self-affirming relationships with their teachers, parents, and peers, they feel accepted and valued. Aaron wants very much to be able to do certain things to be just like his classmates. By age 4, it starts to be very important for children to feel accepted and a part of the group. It lets them know how special they are and enhances their self-esteem.

Offer Guidance

Even though 4-year-olds are becoming more self-confident, they continue to seek assistance, encouragement, and support from the adults in their lives. They expect their parents and teachers to protect them from strange, worrisome, or dangerous situations. And they look to the significant adults in their lives to provide guidance.

When 3-year-old Aida's teacher tells her, "That was very kind of you to help Cora pick up the doll's clothes," her words convey an acceptance of the way Aida is interacting with her friend. This makes Aida feel good about what she's done and, also, builds up her self-esteem.

To ensure that preschoolers feel cared for and safe, adult guidance should be supportive of every child. When Tiffany and Rebecca have an argument over a sand pail, their teacher quickly interjects, "Rebecca, hitting hurts. I won't let Tiffany hit you, but you may not hit Tiffany, either." To help these rather egocentric 3-year-olds try to understand each other's point of view, the teacher asks, "Tiffany, how do you think Rebecca is feeling right now?" "Rebecca, what might we find for Tiffany to play with?" Rather than blaming or punishing the preschoolers for their behavior, the teacher encourages them to talk about and accept each other's feelings as they solve the problem together.

Provide Play Opportunities

Egocentrism in 4-year-olds is characterized by the belief that others are experiencing the world the same way they are. This makes it somewhat difficult for them to accept different ideas or opinions. Dramatic play involves lots of pretending and promotes perspective taking. During play, preschoolers have numerous opportunities to adjust to the wishes of others. They may take on nurturing and caring roles of a mom or a nurse. Or, they may imagine what it might be like to be hurt or in a wheelchair and learn to accept differences in people. This may elicit empathie feelings towards another's distress.

Friendships for 3-year-olds are rather transient, but are more durable for 4-yearolds. Early on, friendships seem to depend more on who is sitting close by. They also relate to shared toys, which means that a child might say, "Heather is my play dough friend." Three-year-olds seem quite happy and accepting of these friendship arrangements, even if they are momentary. By 4 years old, preschoolers frequently have a special best friend. These buddies are usually quite accepting of each other's actions. However, if they have a disagreement, feelings can be hurt until the tight pair are back playing together.

Encourage Group Play

Threes and fours are frequently involved in a type of "associative play" where they share materials and chat about them. However, their own play preferences supersede those of others. Acceptance of others' ideas and incorporation of them into their own play usually comes about at age 4. This is when preschoolers become engaged in "cooperative play." Belonging to this kind of playgroup allows preschoolers to experience the wishes and interests of others as they plan, share, and organize play scenarios around themes or common goals. For instance, as several 4-year-olds play "hospital," they assign and accept their roles as ambulance driver, patient, doctor, and nurse. There is a wonderful excitement of belonging as children work together to rush the patient to the hospital and negotiate the details of the trip along the way.

When preschoolers observe warm and nurturing models, they generally become more nurturing themselves. For example, Jason sees Mrs. Kelly invite Fjtra to join her little storytelling group and offer him one of her soft pillows to snuggle. He then moves over to share his pillow when Bryan wants to hear the story. He smiles when Mrs. Kelly thanks him for his thoughtful and caring gesture. By age 4, children learn that kind behavior is that which helps others. They frequently seek approval or acceptance by "being nice." This eventually leads to an understanding of reciprocity, whereby if "he does something nice for someone, she will in turn do something nice for him."

What You Can Do

Offer materials (such as housekeeping props and toy vehicles) that promote role-play so preschoolers can experience how others feel.

Offer blocks or a large mound of clay so a small group can build or sculpt together.

Open-ended materials allow preschoolers with differing abilities to play together and learn to accept each others' differences.

Create an accepting environment so preschoolers feel valued and a part of the school community. Display photos of children playing in the classroom. ECT

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5 to 6 "LOOKATME!" by Ellen Booth Church

A gaggle of kindergartners are enjoying a joyful climb all over the monkey bars. Each one is doing something fun and a bit challenging. Shouts of "Teacher look at me!" "Watch what I can do! " and "Did you see what I just did? " fill the air.

While kindergartners like to think of themselves as "big kids," they are still a delightful mix of big and little kid emotions. They're at a stage of development where they want to have more independence and responsibility, while at the same time know that the adults in their life are always there for them. This is a transition period into having an increased sense of confidence and accomplishment. However, like all human beings, children this age still need to know that they are cared for and about. Sometimes this age can be called the "see me!" stage of development. At 5 and 6, children need to know that you not only accept and care for them, but that you are also paying attention!

Show Your Trust

Interestingly, showing trust and belief in children is one of the main ways 5- and 6-year-olds feel accepted and cared for. Your willingness to allow children to make decisions and choices, as well as take control of some aspects of class governance, says that you accept them as capable individuals. Allowing children to do things on their own demonstrates your conscious and compassionate belief in their individual and collective abilities. The more opportunities you provide kindergartners to show their skills, the more they will rise to the occasion. Also, the more they feel accepted in this way, the more accepting they are of each other. This is the beginning stage of empathy.

Use "A Pound of Praise"

At this age, children are incredibly sensitive to criticism. A simple reminder or a playful tease can sometimes be devastating. Five- and 6-year-olds thrive on praise. They will try things they never did before if you offer praise. Be sure to be specific. Instead of telling a child that he is being "good," tell him that you like the way he helps you put the toys away so carefully. Whenever you praise a specific behavior, you help the child feel accepted for what he is doing.

Be Sensitive to Styles

Before even considering what makes kindergartners feel accepted and cared for, it's important to note that there's no "one size fits all" approach. It's important to be sensitive to individual children's coping styles. Take eye contact, for example. In general, we believe that eye contact is a good way to give your full attention to a child. However, some children feel that their "personal space" is invaded if you get too close or look directly at them. This can be due to individual coping or cultural styles. Instead of feeling cared about and accepted, they feel put on the spot and anxious. Watch children carefully. You can politely and enthusiastically "champion" a child without making him feel uncomfortable.

Create Personal Time

This is a time of development when a child can actually discuss thoughts and feelings. Try to find time when children are arriving, during free play, on the playground, or at the end of the day to make yourself available to them. You don't even have to do anything. Often just being silent together can be just as powerful as a deep conversation. It's your clear attention and appreciation without an agenda that says, "I care about you."

What You Can Do

Show children that whatever they're doing matters to you.

Offer praise and limit criticism.

Be sensitive to individual styles. ECT

http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3373

  • Subjects:
    Child and Infant Care, Child Development and Behavior
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