The most important thing a teacher or other adult can teach is the ability to healthfully interacting in relationship with others. Yet, as adults we often find ourselves frustrated with the behavior of young children.
Deb Curtis, one of my most influential educators, describes a common response to why young children act the way they do. She offers that our interpretation of children’s behavior can impede our understanding of what they need from us. “She is just doing it for attention, ” according to Curtis, is a common description, while we should reframe the observation: “She is just doing it for relationship.”
Curtis writes for the professional organization, Exchange Every Day. Her book, Really Seeing Children, is a “show-stopper” for anyone seeking information about how to interact with young children. She encourages us to reflect on these questions:
- “Do our faces show delight or consternation?
- Do our hands soothe or scold?
- Do our voices invite singing together or command silence?
- Do our bodies overwhelm children with our size and power or wrap them up in comfort?”
It’s so compelling to spend our time with young children absorbed in our own efforts and priorities and expect them to conform to our needs. I have found this true for parents and teachers alike, especially as we typically overestimate the capacity of “young children.”
Young children can be extremely adult-like: they can share interesting information, conform to rules, help others, and display all kinds of adult-like behaviors. We often forget that underlying those deceptively mature moments, the child is still a child. We over-estimate their capacities. When young children display the behaviors that frustrate and upset us, they are reminding us that they are young. In those moments they need us most to help them with feelings they cannot even express, much less contain.
As an elementary principal who has worked with preschool through middle school aged children I have found that early childhood educators are often the most sensitive to the realities of working with young children.
As children become kindergarteners, we somehow forget that they are still young. Kindergarten teachers and parents, eager to manage the complex and stressful aspects of their lives, often forget that Curtis speaks for elementary children, too. We often see the optimum function of children in elementary school children, expecting them to rise to each and every occasion with equal maturity. I dare say that would be a high bar for adults as well!
I’m not saying it’s easy to bring the kind of focus and keen self-observation into our relationships with children that Deb Curtis manages. I am saying it’s very helpful to try.