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Be Careful What You Teach…

Power and Influence in the Early Years
Tanya Valentin Professional Early Childhood Education Services

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about an incident that she had witnessed where a teacher had withheld food from a toddler because they were banging their plate on the table. She was horrified with what she had witnessed, but also equally horrified by that the teacher, when called on her practice didn’t see anything wrong with it. The teacher didn’t recognise the power and control that she had in that moment over the child to shape how they see themselves for the rest of their lives – their identity, their inner dialogue and their future relationship with food.

First Do No Harm

As adults and teachers, we often don’t realise the tremendous influence we have in the young lives of the children in our settings. When reflecting on this subject this brings to mind the oath that doctors make to “First do no harm.” I reckon that this is something that teachers who hold tremendous power, but also tremendous responsibility, should aspire to as well.

In order for us to recognise this power and influence we need to put on our glasses of empathy.

Tanya Valentin Professional Early Childhood Education Services.

If we say that we respect children, then this requires empathy. In my opinion respect and empathy go hand in hand.

When you respect another person “accept each person as an individual with rights and freedoms … you are prepared to receive each person without them being who you might want them to be.

Toni Christie

If we show respect for someone it requires us to put ourselves in their shoes and to ask ourselves, “How would I feel if I were that person in this situation?” Empathy requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of the children in our care and ask – How would I feel if….

I was picked up physically without any warning?

I was passed around to people I didn’t know?

Someone made me say I was sorry, when I was not sorry?

I was forced to share a beloved personal item with someone who I didn’t want to share it with?

If I were hungry and I wasn’t allowed to eat, or if I weren’t hungry and I had to eat? How would I like to be made to eat everything on my plate?

I was talked about, in front of me, as if I didn’t exist, or spoken to in a way that was disrespectful, belittled me or made me feel bad about myself?

“Being respectful to children, empathising with them. Listening when they speak and showing kindness is not “coddling,” “spoiling,” or treating them like “special snowflakes.” It is just treating children like human beings.”

Rebecca Eanes

Power and Influence

Children are extremely vulnerable; their brains are still developing. They are at the stage where they are developing their identities and figuring out what it means to be human. Young children are way more susceptible to believing anything we tell them, even if this is untrue. Because they are ‘egocentric” they can only see things from their own point of view and internalise words from others and events to make it mean something about themselves.

Young children have very little control in their lives. In most cases they don’t get to decide where they go, what they will do or when they will do it, what they will eat, when they will eat, when they sleep or where they will sleep. These decisions are primarily made by the adults in their lives.

Our influence over them is so powerful that we even control what is programmed into their internal dialogue.

We all have experiences from our childhood positive or negative that we remember. Those pivotal moments when something was said by a significant person in our lives which caused us to think or believe something about ourselves. These beliefs (true or untrue) can becomes “truths” that we hold onto, to define us as a person. When these beliefs are negative, they can rob us of our self-worth and self-confidence. We have this same power and influence in the lives of children.

“Children have this amazing way of becoming exactly who we tell them they are.

If we tell them they are strong, they become strong. If we tell them that they are kind, they become kind. If we tell them that they are capable, they become capable.

Speak life into your kids, so that they will have what takes to tackle their own life one day.”

Amy Wentherly

“With” and not “To”

I think it is important to remember what Dr Emmi Pikler said about doing things with children and not to them. When we truly respect children, we see them as unique human beings with rights and choices. We view them as capable and competent partners in their own care and learning and trust them and their right to choose.

We prepare children in advance for what is coming next and when change does happen we go slowly at their pace and allow them to be an active partner in the care ritual.

Madgda Gerber, who worked with Emmi Pikler and then later founded Resources for Infant Educators (RIE), based off of Emmi Pikler’s teachings said:

When you approach your baby with an attitude of respect, you let him know that you intend to give him a chance to respond. You assume that he is competent and you involve him in his care and let him, as much as possible, solve his own problems.

The same goes for discipline, it is important to know the distinction between discipline and punishment. Discipline is something we do with the child to support them to manage their behaviour whereas punishment is something we do to the inflict suffering for the past behaviour. To be effective, true discipline should be from a place of love, respect and empathy.

Keeping Everybody Safe

As you can see from the discussion above, as the adults we need to be mindful of our actions, our words the tremendous power that weld. To reflect on our actions and words using the filter of empathy and to be intentional with our thoughts, words and actions.

We need to remember that we are the “adults” and to have control over ourselves especially when we are feeling emotional or triggered.

It is worth mentioning that how we react to behaviours of children or those around us has less to with the behaviour of others and more about how we are feeling in the moment. This requires us to be courageous about figuring out what is triggering us and to beware of how these triggers make us react so that we can self-regulate our emotions.

This might require us to be the courageous advocate of others if we witness undue influence and power-struggle types of behaviour in our settings.

We might need to intervene when we feel that the rights of others are being infringed on.

This could take the form of stepping in and offering to take over when we feel the stress of a team mate and we recognise that in this moment they are triggered and about to lose control in a situation. This should be followed up with a conversation (coming from love for the child, but also from the place of respect and empathy for the teacher) where we address the situation and what could be done in future to avoid similar situations from happening.

This could mean reporting a teacher if the behaviour was abusive. This is never an easy or pleasant thing to do. However, as teachers if we are to “first do no harm” then that applies to us not sitting idly back and by our inactivity allowing the behaviour to occur. Our first responsibility is with the children and their parents who placed their precious children in our care. They trust that we will promote the physical and emotional wellbeing of their child. We should always ask ourselves, “Would that behaviour be okay if the parent was in the room?”

I leave you with the thoughts of Dr Stuart Shanker, a prominent neuroscientist in the field of self-regulation.

We are in the midst of an extraordinary understanding of the importance of a teacher in the early years of a child’s life.  Whereas early years educators were once seen as little more than  substitute caregivers, watching over a child until the process of education proper could begin, they are now being recognised as the guardians of a society’s future wellbeing.  The more we learn about the development of the brain in the early years of life, the better we understand how the teacher plays a critical role in the development of the core neural systems that underpin a child’s mental and physical health throughout their lifespan

Until next time look after each other.

Arohanui

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