EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY INTERVIEWS DR. ALICE STERLING HONIG ON: WORKING WITH INFANTS AND TODDLERS
Tia Kaul Disick – ECT Web Editor: The new President of the United States recently discussed his commitment to early childhood education. What would you ideally like to see happen with early child care and education in this country?
Dr. Alice Honig: What I would like to see happen is really strong economic support for training for caregivers – high quality training, the right kind of training. Just having a bachelors’ degree isn’t enough. I’ll give you an example: I used to travel a lot to do consulting for childcare facilities. I went to a beautiful, state-of-the-art center and in the infant room I saw very disconcerting behavior. I saw the teacher changing a diaper and while doing it she didn’t look at the child’s face, didn’t talk to the child, didn’t interact with the child. The other infants in her care were way across the room strapped into infant seats and crying hard. Later, I spoke with the director and told her how troubled I was at seeing this diapering episode. I explained that the teacher needs to have her hands lovingly on the baby’s body, needs to be looking at and talking with the babies.
And the director said, “But Dr. Honig, she’s one of our best teachers because she has a four-year college degree.” So any 4 year college degree is not what I am talking about. I’m talking about the right kind of training with early childhood workshops and early childhood courses. Research shows that specific ECE training accounts for more caregiver positive interactions than length of time in classrooms or teacher education level. If there could be a national commitment in the new administration toward supporting quality training for infant/toddler as well as preschool caregivers, the quality of care would be so enriched in our country. Parents could go to work feeling happy and assured that their children were well cared for during the work day. And for children, teacher training, as well as parent education, will help galvanize that deathless curiosity for learning; that bright- eyed wonder about the world; that deep knowledge that they are so loved and cherished in a personalized way. And the little ones will have been given such a precious gift – the courage to persevere.
Tia Kaul Disick: You have written a book for parents about the importance of talking with their babies. Of course, this is such an important thing for teachers to do, as well. Can you discuss why talking with infants and toddlers is so important for development?
Dr. Honig: Lots of parents say to me, “Why should I talk to them? They can’t talk back to me.” The interesting thing is that babies and toddlers are born with more brain cell connections than we have as adults. And one thing we know about those brain cell connections –it’s use them or lose them. Those brain connections that are so wildly proliferating for infants and toddlers will be pruned away if they don’t get used. And the ones that are well practiced solidly are more likely to stay.
Turn-talking-talk is so enriching. It is important to have long talks even with babies, who will coo back enthusiastically when you talk with them. Questions are special. It is so important to ask children open-ended questions, rather than just give commands, like “sit down” or “eat your peas.” Use dialogue-inspiring questions such as, “What do you think the birdie saw when he flew over that garage roof?” or “How do you think you could make the crying baby feel better?”
Open-ended questions stimulate kids to use early language and to think about might happen, what could have happened, what they should do – these are very important for children’s intellectual development. I once showed a 3 year old a picture from a magazine that showed two guys looking furtively around while pulling a sofa through a dining room window and I said “What do you think could be going on here?” And he said, “Teacher, them be theifers!” I just loved that – yes, they were theifers! I just loved it. When you use Socratic, open-ended questions, they stimulate children to think about things so they can figure out what is going on and that’s so important for brain development.
Tia Kaul Disick: With the current economic situation in our country, is there any advice you can offer to infant and toddler teachers who are dealing with stress, financial or otherwise?
Dr. Honig: My new book is called Reducing Stress in Young Children: Stress-Busting Tips for Early Childhood Teachers (to be published by Brookes Publishers), because I think there is so much stress today, including home foreclosures, job losses, inability to pay for childcare, and interpersonal family stresses.
In my new book I give lots and lots of ideas for dealing with stress. Stress is something that we all have to deal with and we all deal with it in different ways. You need to find techniques that work for each individual child and adult. Adults are important because little ones feel a caregiver’s body tensions and stresses as a worried or tense adult picks up a baby or diapers a wiggly toddler or hurries a child – children do not like to be hurried!
If it’s getting your nails done and you can barely afford the 12 dollars but if it makes you feel good or pretty or less stressed – just do it. For some people a “stress buster” will be listening to their special music. For some people it will be a leisurely stretch in a tub with bubble bath. You can buy a bottle of bubbles for a bath from a dollar store and it will give you a million baths and make you feel like a Roman empress!
When I teach clients, sometimes I teach breathing techniques – they help your shoulders relax, your head relax. While doing chores, such as bringing the garbage barrels down to the curb, still take the time to enjoy the gorgeous outdoors: flowers, leaves waving in the breeze; snow in fluffy heaps!
A bike ride can clear the air for one person; reading a junky, absorbing novel could work for another; doing a helping kindness such as bringing a hot meal to a neighbor who cannot get outdoors may help another person. It can’t be any one thing – it has to be what works for YOU.
Tia Kaul Disick: For infants and toddlers who are coming to the classroom from homes where parents are feeling stressed, what kinds of activities can teachers do that are soothing and comforting and will help make them feel secure?
Dr. Honig: Massage can help. Try learning some baby massage techniques and using them daily for 5 to 10 minutes, Make sure to use non-allergenic oils and warm the oil in your hands before starting slow soothing massage strokes on baby’s back first and then on tummies and limbs. Gentle facial massages can even ease sinus congestions in babies.
Use soothing voice tones. When you’re waking them up, use eyes that shine and gentle slow words that let them know they are beautiful and you love them. Your affirmations will make them feel secure.
I like using soothing music, like lullabies. And also, give little ones admiring words. There were a lot of articles written recently that say we shouldn’t over-praise young children and I’m totally against that. We must always praise tiny children. But use specific praise. “You sure are working hard to build that tower.” “You are stretching on your tummy to reach the red ball on the floor.” “You are turning the pages of your book so carefully. You sure love that book with pictures of puppies.” “You moved over so your friend could sit next to you and color too. You are a good friend!” Positive attributes are powerful ingredients that soothe the soul!
Make sure little ones receive your admiring glances from across a room. Make sure they get lots of soothing touches, and make sure you use voice tones that tell a child, “You are a wonderful, beautiful, amazing little creature.”
What will make tiny infants feel secure is to hold them a lot. When they are very tiny, you can use a pouch that nestles on your body. This is known as “kangaroo care.” But all little children love to nestle on a lap, lean against your thighs as your read a story, get carried in arms as you walk to a window to show them something interesting out in the street. Cuddles are comforting! As you give tender, personalized care to the babies, you will feel so proud of the quality of care you are providing and at the same time, the babies in your care will be feeling so secure and well cherished!
Tia Kaul Disick: You’ve always been a strong proponent of singing and using music with infants and toddlers. Can you tell us a little bit about why?
Dr. Honig: There’s not one culture in the world that doesn’t have singing. Singing allows us to express things inside. If you have a child who has colic – if you’re walking back and forth and patting their back and they are still screaming, if you use low musical sounds, sometimes it will soothe them. They need the movement also, but sometimes as soon as they hear their name in a melody they will stop crying. And then of course there is the lullaby. Lullabies have been used by people for centuries to soothe babies into rest. And often, as parents and teachers, we are not such good judges of when children are overtired. If you use a monotonous musical voice and sing “I guess it’s time for your nap now, I’m going to snuggle you under your blankies, we’re going to go sleepy time now,” it’s incredibly soothing and calming for children. Music has the power to soothe the savage soul – that was said somewhat the same by Shakespeare. Use music and lullabies and use only two tones if you’re shy about your voice capabilities – you will find the child will relax more and cry less. And it will help you, as the caregiver, feel that you’ve been successful in soothing this upset little creature.
Tia Kaul Disick: What ways can infant and toddler teachers best involve parents in their child care centers and classrooms?
Dr. Honig: One thing we did in our center was write a daily memo for each parent on a piece of paper, with a copy for our files: “Harry tasted a piece of broccoli today” or “Teresa played with Kara on the floor with a ball and they were giggling together,” or just something positive, a positive message to send home. I’ll never forget that one mom called us in the evening to find out if what we wrote was true, because she couldn’t believe her child had done such an amazing thing! These little positive messages for parents help them feel so good. It helps them become better observers of their own babies.
At pick up time, you can say positive things to a parent: “Did you notice that when he looks up at the toys hanging from his crib mobile now, he bats and swipes at them? He couldn’t do that before!” You can help parents notice these little things about their babies and help them rejoice in their babies’ new skills. And help them feel proud about their active role in promoting early language and loving interactions.
Dr. Alice Sterling Honig attended Cornell University, received her BA degree from Barnard College, her MS degree in Experimental Psychology from Columbia University, and her PhD from Syracuse University in Developmental Psychology. For over 40 years, Dr. Honig has taught courses in child development, parenting, cross-cultural study of children and families, language and cognitive development, quality caregiving with infants and toddlers, theories of child development, research issues and problems in child development, observation and measurement techniques with children, prosocial and moral development, Erikson seminar, models and exemplary programs for enriching children's lives. She has authored or edited more than a dozen books and more than 500 articles and chapters. Among her books are: “Playtime learning games for young children” (SU Press); Talking with your baby: Family as the first school” (with H. Brophy) (SU Press); Risk factors in infancy” (Gordon & Breach Press);” Behavior guidance for infants and toddlers” (SECA Press), Infant caregiving: A design for training ( with J.R> Lally) and “Secure relationships: Nurturing infant/toddler attachment in childcare settings” (NAEYC Publications).