I work with preschool teachers daily. Often, I am asked to “fix” children who present with behavioral challenges. First of all, children are never broken, therefore, fixing is not the appropriate way to conceptualize childhood challenges. The best way to understand a child, is really the best way to understand anyone, attempt to see the world through their eyes, perspective taking. Once you take their perspective, you can then enter their world and use your adult skills to help support their social-emotional development.
Play with them. Children use play to understand events that have happened to them, to try new objects and explore their functions, to try-on unique roles of identities, and to practice new skills. Play is their rehearsal for life. As adults, we often try to take over children’s play because we want to show them the “right” way to play with a toy, or teach them something special about a concept, or even better, we turn play into a test! Have you ever been with a playing child and then started asking questions, “What color is that?” “What sound does that animal make?” “What is that?” I bet you have and if not, you have likely observed others doing this. Well guess what? For every question you ask a child during play, you steal an opportunity away from them to be creative and to learn on their own. You also miss a vital opportunity to use the play to teach prosocial skills (e.g., turning taking, self-regulation, empathy, etc.).
Let’s make this as vivid as possible. Imagine 20 preschoolers playing outside. There are two teachers supervising their outdoor time. One teacher notices that five children are struggling to take turns on the slide. There’s pushing, crying, and yelling. She yells, “Stop it! You doing too much!” Then, starts making children stand against the wall for five minutes to discipline their bad behaviors. They are released from the wall and go back to playing on the slide. The bad behaviors return. The other teacher goes to intervene. First, she tells a child to wait his turn in a firm but friendly voice. While he waits, she encourages him and the other waiting children to think of funny things they can say as they go down the slide. They all practice what they’re going to say while the teacher laughs with them and practices too. Before he realizes, he has successfully waited! Next, the teacher positively reinforces his behavior (i.e., waiting) by showing excitement and cheering his waiting skills. Some of the children waiting in line also cheer. The teacher repeats this interaction with the next child. Eventually, children notice the pattern of interacting with one another until it’s their turn to slide. They begin to successfully wait without the teacher reminding them.
The second teacher highlighted their need for a boost in social-emotional development. She was effective in changing the children’s behaviors because she took their perspective – waiting is hard and boring; sliding is fun. Then she used a playful intervention to make waiting easier and engaging. Thus, the children increased their capacity for waiting, practiced encouraging others, used prosocial communication skills through sharing ideas, and had fun sliding down the slide! None of those skills would have been learned with the children standing against the wall. Remember, children learn through play, so play with them to increase their ability to self-regulate and to interact with others.
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