0 to 2 "I GIVE HER THE BLANKIE!" by Carla Poole
"I'm goooona get you!" croons Jacob's teacher with a lilting refrain that gradually speeds up as her fingers move toward his belly. Jacob is excited, quietly tensing his body until the game peaks with gentle tickles and peals of laughter. After a few tickling episodes, Jacob becomes somber and looks away. His teacher watches him and waits. After a few moments of calm, Jacob once again makes eye contact and beckons his teacher with a shake of his arms. The game begins again, "I'm goooona get you!"
This infant/teacher game illustrates how infancy is a highly social period of life, full of smiles, vocalizations, and eye contact. The teacher learns to read the baby's cues and adapts her style to match the baby's preferences. Respecting the child's unique qualities and feelings helps to build positive spirals of communication. Early loving relationships lay the emotional foundation for compassionate peer interactions. A baby who feels understood becomes a toddler who understands others.
After the first year, babies become more aware of other people's feelings and begin to take social cues from their teacher. Twelve-month-old Kendall, for instance, is toddling toward a section of the play yard that is unfamiliar to her. After a few steps, she stops and looks back at her teacher who offers her encouraging smiles. The toddler then continues on her journey. Kendall used social referencing when she turned to see how her teacher was feeling about her adventure. If her teacher had frowned or seemed worried, Kendall might also feel worried and return to the secure base of her teacher's lap. This ability to share feelings is essential for the later development of compassion.
Joining the Social World
The 18-month-old toddler becomes aware of himself and his relationships with others. His sense of self is more solid. He now knows, for instance, when he looks in a mirror, that he is looking at himself. Other people are no longer just extensions of him but separate beings with their own feelings. Toddlers this age are also developing more long-term memory and can recall past feelings and experiences.
These new thinking skills introduce more explicit feelings of empathy and compassion. When an older toddler sees a friend crying over a dropped juice pop, for example, he might remember how he felt and was comforted the last time he dropped his juice pop. Instead of crying along with his friend, he might try to comfort his friend with a pat on the back.
Feelings of Fairness
Toddlers raised in respectful environments develop a sense of fairness. Appeal to this sense by explaining why you make requests that focus on other people's feelings. Use simple language. "Grabbing Shaniqua's shovel made her sad."
Aiming to Please
The older toddler also feels self-conscious and begins to see herself as others see her. She wants approval from the people she feels close to. A toddler naturally has strong impulses to assert herself, but she cares about how you feel and will adopt thoughtful ways of interacting to please you. It is important to adopt a spirit of give and take where the toddler can feel good about asserting herself and also about meeting the needs of others.
Encouraging Caring Play
Encourage play that involves helping and caring for others. When a child tenderly wraps a baby doll with a blanket, for instance, be sure to comment on how comfortable he made the doll. Include children in the problem-solving process when you are comforting a child. Explain why the child is sad and talk about what might help.
Learning to be compassionate is a gradual process for toddlers. It is up to you to model positive social interactions.
What You Can Do
- Mixed-age grouping facilitates compassionate interactions.
- Cooperative activities promote positive interactions.
- Read books with themes of helpfulness and caring for others.
3 to 4 "I WILL HELP YOU" by Susan A. Miller. Ed.D.
Kemuel is digging vigorously in the sand pit when a large shovel full of sand accidentally flips up in the air and covers him. Observing this funny looking sight, 3-year-old Amber begins to laugh as she points at Kemuel all covered in sand.
However, what this 3-year-old does not observe is the unhappy look on Kemuel's face. He has closed his eyes, afraid of getting sand in them, and frightened by the surprise action, he starts to cry. Amber does not mean to be uncaring or make fun of Kemuel by laughing, but she does not always see things from another person's perspective. And, emotionally, she doesn't feel the same way that Kemuel feels. Until she can do these things, it will be difficult for her to show compassion for Kemuel's distressful situation or try to comfort him. With maturity, more experience interacting with others in stressful situations, and opportunities to observe others' caring behaviors, Amber will begin to overcome her egocentric perspective.
Settling Sharing Issues
Fours often like to tease. Sometimes they don't know when to stop. They frequently do not appear to be very compassionate when they call others' names and exclude them from play. The problem often is not that one child doesn't care about her friend, but that one wants something possessed by the other. Sharing can be difficult for fours, and they are still in the process of learning about turn taking. Nevertheless, fours are beginning to be more sensitive and caring if, for instance, they have hurt their friend's feelings. Now, they are more apt to offer apologies without an adult reminder.
Preschoolers notice and are quite aware of differences in others. Ever curious, they are apt to comment on their observations in ways that may appear to be inappropriate or uncaring. As a teacher, it is important for you to be available to help preschoolers talk about and understand their cognitive and emotional concerns so they can learn to be caring and compassionate.
What You Can Do
- Provide a caring, friendly environment. Offer cuddly animals or a soft quilt to wrap up in when children are feeling out of sorts. Provide a comfy couch or a soft lap to read favorite comfort stories together or talk about what is bothering a child. Share a story such as Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (HarperTrophy, 1996; $5.99), where a sensitive, caring teacher finds a way to help out when a child is teased about her name.
- Make children aware when others need help. Point out others' facial expressions or actions to help children learn to understand how others might be feeling. Say, "Look at Juan's face. He looks sad. He has tears in his eyes. Let's see if we can find out what is wrong and offer to help."
- Demonstrate how to be compassionate. For example, when a child has an accident, such as wetting his pants, explain calmly that you know accidents happen sometimes. Give him a hug if he needs consoling. Then, tell him you will go together to get dry clothes to change into to make him feel better.
5 to 6 "WHY DOES HE WALK THAT WAY?" by Ellen Booth Church
Why does she look like that?
What's that tube in her nose for?
Why does he look so different from his mommy?
Five- and 6-year-olds are filled with questions. They are at a stage of development when their increased interest and awareness of others, in addition to their growing language skills, allows them to notice differences in others and to voice their observations clearly (and sometimes even loudly)! They are curious and not afraid to ask questions. Their reasoning skills have matured to the point where you can engage them in a conversation about their observations as well as the etiquette of voicing them!
It's important to let children know that you will answer their questions at a time when it is polite to discuss sensitive topics. Often, in kindergarten, these kinds of conversations can start one-on-one, and lead to small- and even large-group conversations and activities. The key is not to avoid or allow children to feel uneasy about asking these questions, but to take the conversation deeper so they can gain some understanding about both the differences and similarities all people share.
Support Empathic Behaviors
As you know, friendships are a big issue for kindergartners. They are at a stage where they are looking for common bonds with others. Unfortunately, sometimes this translates into excluding others who do not share those bonds. Five- and 6-year-olds need to learn that they can have a close group of friends without hurting and rejecting others. One way to help them do this is to encourage empathetic behavior. When children won't accept others, ask them how they think the other child feels. Invite them to remember a time that they felt left out and ask them what might make the other child feel better. At this stage of development, children are beginning to be able to understand their own feelings and apply these to others.
Stage by Stage
- By the time they reach kindergarten, children are able to apply their understanding of acceptance and compassion to those around them.
- Providing time to reflect helps children recognize their own feelings, as well as the feelings of others.
- Modeling behaviors that show compassion and acceptance has a strong impact on fives and sixes, who are keen observers and want to please respected adults.
Model Accepting Attitudes
Children first learn the "feeling" of acceptance and compassion from the way they are cared for and loved by the significant adults in their lives. They know and recognize the connection and the warmth of caring they are receiving. From that strong base of first experiences, young children learn to "apply" this understanding to their world and to others.
Kindergarten can be a real test of these important social and emotional skills because there are so many other children to deal with. Some 5- and 6-year-old children may need to revisit these skills once again and learn to reapply them to this setting. A normal response to a larger group of children is to become more insular and even defensive. Of course, when children are feeling these feelings of uncertainty and caution, they are not ready to apply the skills of acceptance and compassion. Once again, as it was when children were babies, it is the adult's role to model acceptance and compassion.
Introduce "Wait Time"
It's also important to help children learn to take a breath before they react to something. Stopping before reacting allows children the opportunity to feel before they act. To observe before they react. You can model this, too. Demonstrate your ability to stop and watch a situation unfolding in the classroom. Then, take the time to discuss what everyone observed.
What You Can Do
- Encourage children to notice differences and similarities among children in the class. Compare physical characteristics such as hair and eye color, but also interests such as favorite games, songs, and foods.
- Read books that discuss similarities and differences, such as We are All Alike, We Are All Different* (Scholastic Inc.; $5.99).
- Provide a place for reflection. A quiet place in the room with a fish tank to watch, or a pretty flower to gaze upon, can give children the "time-in" they need to think about their feelings and the feelings of others.