Contributed by Nettie Becker
Early childhood educators are encouraged as never before. Political leaders are beginning to pay attention to the problem these educators have been talking about for years. In New York City, pre-school programs have enrolled over 75,000 children in its second year of operation. The President has called for a national program of pre-school education. More and more, we are coming to realize that a fundamental reason so many children fall behind in school is that they do not start school with the same advantages as more privileged children – an atmosphere at home that is emotionally nurturing as it stimulates learning.
The big danger, as early child care specialists see it, is that many of these programs will simply push formal academic learning upon children at an earlier age when they are simply not prepared for it. They have long warned that the primary task of early child caregivers and educators is to create an environment for one of the first things very young children need, the emotional attachment with a caregiver throughout the day. Such an environment is necessary to foster healthy and creative relationships among the children and between children and adults, and from there to creatively build communication skills among children and prepare them for school.
A high quality child care center must always remember that this is its primary mission. How to establish this emotional connection between the caregiver and each child must be first on the list of every child care professional.
In order to accomplish this, we have outlined below four basic principles he or she may follow to establish this emotional adult-child connection:
- Make the classroom an extension of home. At one high-quality child care center I observed, the teacher was there before the parents arrived. When they did, she greeted each one, exchanging friendly words at the door. Since these were only toddlers, separation from parents could have been a problem.But these children went to their coat hooks to hang their coats and did not hesitate to sit on her lap, look out the window, and talk about trees a few minutes later. It was an established routine they knew well, and judging from the ease of the children, it was not something that was imposed by fear but by mutual love and respect, making separation from parents for the day become easier and routine. The parents also felt welcome right from the beginning as they exchanged greetings and spoke with the teacher for a few minutes. While some child care centers insist that the parent leave immediately after dropping off the child, this one made a policy of allowing the parent to stay in the room as long as necessary until the child felt secure enough in his new environment just to be with the teacher and the other children without a parent. In each class, pictures of the children’s homes, among other things, hung on the walls. Children were encouraged to talk about things that were familiar to them, their holidays, the food that they ate, etc. The school thus became an extension of their homes.
- Learn to read the cues of children when they cannot communicate them verbally. At the same school, another teacher of older pre-schoolers, after greeting the children, observed some of them yawning after being dropped off at about 8:00 am. She reacted with animated expressions of sympathy. “Oh I know how you feel. It’s Monday morning and you’re still tired. Let’s just relax for a while.” She sat down on the floor with them and began to play a game that was familiar to them. It told them that she was on their side and it was OK to feel the way they did. When a child’s attention at an activity was waning, the teacher spotted it from the beginning and asked, “Do you want me to play with you?” Responsible caregivers are alert to signs of stress in each child and know when to follow the initiative of the child and when to let the child follow his own lead.
- Encourage children to communicate thoughts. In the first section of the video linked to below the teacher of a toddler group is interacting with the children and encouraging them to express themselves as she reads a story to them. The story is about a child who is getting a new bed. She stops and asks one child, “Do you sleep in a bed or a crib?” The child answers, “A bed” and she reacts, “That’s because you’re big.” When the story describes the color of the sheets, she asks, “What color are your sheets.” At lunch, she engages the children, asking, “Friends, what did we see on our walk today?” When children reply that they saw a frog, she asks, “What sound does a frog make?” and they respond with noises. Later in the video, a teacher at another child care center reads the story of The Gingerbread Man and encourages the children to react. All of this develops the children’s ability to communicate with others, starting at a very young age which lays the foundation for the development of language skills.
- Each child is different and provision must be made for these differences, The teacher must understand the temperament of each child in the class. Which child can handle conflict without becoming too upset. Which one had a temper that could flare up easily and needed more nurturing and understanding. Which child is not developmentally ready to handle a particular situation. Which children are better at playing together and which ones prefer one activity over another. The child care classroom that has a multitude of activities that interest children can go a long way toward providing for different interests among the children.
There are many other important things an early child care center can do to prepare children for school, but building that trusting and supportive relationship is the first task. This and all the others must be learned through play, for play is the work of the child. Early learning must be done as a natural process, through fun and games rather than formal academic learning. In the course of their play, under the careful supervision of a trained professional, children learn to cooperate, share, take turns, talk to each other, solve disagreements, and do it while they are having fun.
As an aid to understanding the way a few of these principles may be applied, we have filmed a video of early child care teachers at two quality child care centers. From them, you can see some very positive applications and perhaps some you might criticize. If you click on the link below, we hope you will find this video instructive.
The new interest in early child care is a milestone. If implemented correctly, the wider implementation of pre-school programs can make a major contribution to the improvement of education in our country.
Nettie Becker has devoted her entire professional life to working with young people, first as a teacher and counselor of high school students, and for the past 25 years in the field of infant and early child care. She has designed, set up, and implemented a movement program of adaptive physical education at a school for special children and has worked as a child development consultant for day care programs in New York City. She has also introduced a community program for the parents of infants to help them engage with their babies through motor, sensory, and emotional stimulation in their first year of life. She is a fellow emeritus in early childhood group therapy at the Child Development Center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and was part of the program’s continuing education committee that served as a consulting group for child care professionals. She is co-author of Developing Quality Care for Young Children: How to Turn Early Care Settings into Magical Places (Corwin Press). www.careforyoungchildren.com