I read a passage way back during my undergrad that has stuck with me all these years. It’s premise was this, “If you first teach a child that you love him, you can then teach him anything else.” I really think this is true. Whether you’re teaching proper behavior or names of shapes, any child (any person for that matter) is more receptive to direction and correction when it comes from a person with whom they have a positive relationship.
Think of it this way, if you’re playing a sport of some kind, and the referee keeps making calls against you and never in your favor, are you inclined to think of this referee as a fair judge anymore? Do you continue to think of this person as an expert with a valid opinion, or simply someone who is biased and has a grudge against you.
Similarly, I have observed some preschool teachers who approach their jobs as referees. They lean against the wall as the children play and step in and interact with individual children most often as a means of correcting them. This correction is more likely to be received negatively when it is not within the context of a secure, positive, loving relationship. Here are a few suggestions for building positive relationships with young children.
Use Your Words. I once asked my three year old how he knows that I love him. His answer was simple. ” ‘Cause you tell me all the time.” We need to let the children know that they are loved with our words. You can say “I love you” in many ways. I’m glad you’re here! I’m so happy to see you! I really love the time we get to have together! I’m so lucky to be with you today! Greet and acknowledge each child as they enter your care. Whether that means teachers saying hello as they arrive at school, or parents hugging and cheerfully greeting them as they wake up in the morning, noticing them the first thing each day sends a message to them that they are noticed, wanted, and important to you.
Really Look. Getting down to a child’s level and looking her in the eye really goes a long way to communicate that you really are listening and value what she has to say. It is such a simple thing, really, but can be quite a challenge. As a teacher or as a parent in this age of multitasking, we have so many things pulling us in so many different directions. Too often I find myself calling over my shoulder, talking to a child as I whip past to tend to three other things at once. When we slow down, get on their level, look them in the eyes, and are really present as we talk and listen, we build a stronger relationship.
I find that I’m really good at getting down to eye level and focusing on only the child when I really want the child to hear what I’m saying (correcting behavior, for example), but I need to do a better job of getting down and listening when the child really wants me to hear what he’s saying! One of my favorite mentors would often say, “Working with children is great exercise, because you have to be willing to do a lot of deep knee bends.”
Make Contact. Give high-fives, hugs, snuggle for a story, put your arm around a child as you talk, hold hands. Appropriate human touch is amazing in its power to connect people.
Use Your Voice. Monitor the way you use your voice to communicate caring. I recently read a training article that shared the story of a lion and a rabbit who had a wager as to who could get a child to sit by them first. The lion roared and yelled but the frightened child only ran away. The rabbit spoke softly and the child came closer to hear and then to sit. Surprised that the rabbit would win the wager, the lion asked the child why he hadn’t sat down by him when he had asked. The child said, “I couldn’t hear your words through all the noise.” This tale shows the importance of using a soft tone to speak to children. It’s been shown in studies that a lowered voice actually is more effective in getting children’s attention than a raised voice. Children will listen when they feel safe.
As I’ve mentioned before, my dad is a judge, and I’ve been told many times that he is known for calmly and serenely making judgements and doling out sentences. I’ve been told by his staff that many offenders would prefer to appear before the judge who was more notorious for yelling and becoming quite animated in court. It sounds less pleasant, but it was actually preferred. You see, when an authority figure becomes overly emotional and even offensive in tone and words, it is easy to stop listening to the words and feel only the offensive emotion being conveyed. It becomes easier to take personal offense (He’s so mean! He doesn’t like me!) rather than to take personal responsibility. Use a matter-of-fact, calm, lowered voice when dealing with behavior issues. When dealing with children generally, an enthusiastic, cheerful voice conveys your interest in them.
Be Dependable. Build trust by being consistent. Consistent in your routines, consistent in your reactions, consistent in keeping your promises. This doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible or spontaneous, but you should be consistent enough that children can feel secure in knowing there is some element of predictability and that they can rely on you.
See the Best in Them. Catch them being good. Make comments about what they do well, especially when you know it came with great effort, but also to notice those talents that come naturally. It’s easier to be corrected once if that has already been off-set by 3-5 commendations.
See Them for Who They Are. It’s important to catch children being good, but it’s also important to just catch them being. Join them as they play and talk about what they’re doing. Just asking them to tell you about it shows that you care enough to know what they think. Talk to them about their day – what was great, what was hard, what was interesting. Join them where they are and ask them to show you around “their world”.
Make a mental note of the things they like, and make a point of including those interests when you can. Pointing out that you were thinking of them communicates your love and interest in them. (I think you’re really going to like snack today because you like blueberries so much. I thought you might like this train book because I noticed you playing with the train set a lot last week.) You can’t provide every child’s favorite things everyday, but doing it when you can communicates to the child that she is noticed, heard, and cared for.
Have a Laugh. Humor is great for increasing positive interactions. Be silly now and then. Tell corny knock-knock jokes. Laugh at yourself! Laughter eases tension and creates a happy shared experience. (Read more about the importance of humor here.)
Having a positive relationship allows moments of correction to simply be incidents related to behavior, rather than the defining feature of the relationship itself. When children are secure in the relationship, they are less likely to feel that your correction reflects your overall opinions and feelings about them, because you have made those positive feelings known in other ways. This makes it easier for you to disapprove of behavior while still communicating that you are accepting of the child. Likewise, a child who feels he already has a positive relationship with you, based on who he is, feels safer taking a risk and learning new skills. He knows that failures that come with learning will not dictate your approval of him as a person.
Select one or two things you can work on this week to create more positive interactions with the children you love and teach!
Positive guidance posts start here!
Positive Guidance Toolbox can be found here!
Top photo by hotblack.