Inside this issue:
Social development in the Preschool
by Margie Schnyder, MSW, Parent Educator
The Observor Child
by Peg Swarzman, teacher, Woodland Park 3-5's
One Child's Adjustment to Kindergarten
by Kate Marks, co-op parent
“The human infant is a “social organism” as soon as he is born.”
One of the most exciting aspects of working with preschoolers is watching their social development. Preschool cooperatives and childcare programs provide wonderful opportunities to watch our children interact with their peers, with the support of caring adults around them. Parents often tell me that they really enjoy watching their child play and make friends. But social interactions are also the source of many, many questions. Do babies play together? Why is my child so kind, then so aggressive? Will they ever learn manners? The following overview of social development highlights some important themes and hopefully answers a few questions along the way.
One model of social development is Erik Erikson's Eight Stages of Man. In this model, each stage has a major task that is closely linked to social interactions. Erikson felt that the main task of infancy is building trust: You will meet my needs and take care of me. When adults respond positively to an infant's actions, trust is reinforced. Another important task of infancy is the development of intentionality. “Your baby realizes that his actions can elicit a response from you, that what he feels and does makes a difference. What a step forward that is!” In addition to building trust, this process is the first step towards a positive self-concept, since the baby experiences himself as a valued and capable person.
Toddlers, Erickson believes, are working on becoming autonomous: I am separate from others. This includes not only being physically separate, but also having separate ideas, likes and dislikes, and property. This influences toddler behavior in numerous ways -- their strong “no's,” their desire to “do it myself” and their limited willingness to share with peers. As child psychologist Lawrence Kutner says: “Having just mastered the concept of ownership, [toddlers] see little reason to relinquish anything.”
Then, as preschoolers, children are working on taking initiative: I can try things and am a capable person. Preschoolers are generally enthusiastic learners, but they also are increasingly aware of their limitations and that other children may do things as well, or better, than they can. During this period, parents and other caregivers should help children recognize their uniqueness and cope with disappointments, so children maintain self-confidence.
Social development is closely interwoven with cognitive, language, motor and physical development. A powerful early example of this is an infant's rapidly increasing ability to remember. “As memory becomes more powerful, babies begin to associate special routines and possibilities with specific people, building up a shared history.”4 This is very noticeable at times, as when babies prefer to play with known adults over strangers and even have strong stranger anxiety around six months.
The increasing independence of toddlers is strongly tied to their new motor skills and language. They can move away from their caregivers. They can tell you what they want and don't want. They can get the toys they want from the shelf -- and even throw a rejected toy across the room -- all without adult help!
Finally, preschoolers' ability to develop lasting friendships highlights two major cognitive developments. The ability to see perspectives other than their own and a greater understanding of cause and effect make it possible for preschool children to better understand and cooperate with their peers. “This ability for self-reflection allows your four- to five-year-old to do what he couldn't do at age three, show more advanced forms of empathy.” (You might also notice that your preschooler now faces their pictures towards you, not towards themselves -- which makes for much better show and tell!)
Like all areas of development, social development is a highly individual process, built on both natural abilities and on experience. Children vary greatly in their temperament, which strongly impacts how they experience social situations. Some children are naturally outgoing, like change, and are upbeat, while others may be very quiet, thoughtful, and slow to act. Opportunities to practice socially may also differ greatly from one child to another. The importance of experience has become clear in recent research on child development: “Not long ago, toddlers were thought capable of only playing with other toddlers side-by-side or in “parallel” play… Now it is well established that toddlers can enjoy the company of their peers through interactive play… [but] interactive play does not occur until a group of children gets to know each other.” Each child's family and culture impacts their social development, too. Children clearly benefit from social experiences and support from adults that is thoughtfully based on that child's needs.
Preschool cooperatives and childcare programs are ideal places for young children to develop socially. Children practice what they need to, how they need to, supported by familiar and caring adults. Watching and helping children develop lasting friendships is a rewarding experience which is happening everyday in our preschool cooperatives and childcare programs.
Two other interesting resources for adults are Connecting: Friendship
in the Lives of Young Children and Their Teachers and “Why Babies Need
Friends” in Parenting, Dec./Jan. 2000. There is a wonderful selection of
children's books about social interactions and developing friendships.
The George and Martha series and the Frog and Toad books are particularly
nice at showing a range of different situations that preschoolers may experience.
Many parents working in the classroom have had a child who watches classroom activity from the sidelines. If you are a parent of such a child you may worry about the child watching. You may worry that this child is left out of the play. Or you might think the child is not engaged in the classroom activities. This is probably not the case.
Young children observe other children for many reasons. The observer children often are the three-year-olds in a mixed three- to five-year-old classroom. They are trying to figure out the social nature of the classroom. It is a developmental stage for them. Or the child may be temperamentally more cautious and observant. According to Ellen Galinsky and Judy David in their book, The Preschool Years, the more cautious, observant style in childhood has been associated with intellectual pursuits later in life. Also the classroom may initially feel overwhelming to a young child or one new to the school. This is not a negative thing. New situations cause all of us unsettled moments and observing the situation is the best way to learn about it.
We still may worry about how to engage the child in activities or small group discussions. Often our direct adult approaches to the child who is watching or who plays quietly near busy classroom activity merely results in the observer withdrawing or dissolving in frightened tears. So what can we do?
First we must work on our adult attitudes and expectations. Our thoughts carry judgements and assumptions. We see a child on the sidelines and we tend to assume that this is a negative thing. So first let's take a different perspective. Let's take the child's perspective. Let's become observers ourselves. Step back and look at what is happening near the child. What are the other children using in materials? What are they doing? What are they saying? What thoughts or associations do you have connected with the play? Can you describe what the child is seeing? Can you interpret the words and actions of the other children? Can you share your thoughts about the play or questions about why they are doing what they are doing?
This may evoke a response from the observer child or it may not. The main thing is to take their observer role onto ourselves and give them words and vocabulary for what we both are observing. We've stood beside the child as a neutral and supportive presence. Often the direct approach is seen as an aggressive one for the child. The indirect approach is less threatening.
Similarly avoid situations that require children to perform or show off. During circle time if the teacher asks who is wearing red, the quiet child may point to themselves or just look at their clothes. The child will probably not speak up. Usually the teacher will be focusing on the children who are speaking up. Remind yourself that it is all right to be an observer and to respond in one's own way and one's own time.
But, you may be thinking, how do we build social skills
for the observer?
In small group, activities that have each child take a turn structure the interactions.
Try doing relaxation exercises to lessen the shy child's tension. “The floppy game”: have the children stand or lie down. Slowly and in a soothing voice say: “Your whole body is loose and free; you feel calm and quiet.” Repeat it several times. “Your arms and legs are just floppy - just like a rag doll. Your face and neck, floppy. Even your tummy, all are floppy too. You feel good.”
In the classroom, teeter-totters, wagons, and rocking
boats require cooperation for their operation. If a child is alone
on the rocking boat, invite other children to come join in. You may
want to rock the boat at first then step back. To keep the play going
longer, sing a song or chant to the rocking. Or suggest an activity
to play act such as going fishing.
In area play, give the observer child specific words to say to the other children. “That looks fun. Where can I put this block?”, “I've got a tiger. Where can it go?”
Move the child closer to the materials and interactions
the child is observing. Acknowledge their interest by saying, “You
see the children______. Come with me; we'll just go and look.” Show him
what can be done. Work near the other children. Don't push the child to
participate. Another day, he may overcome his fears and join in the activity.
Support any play ideas a child who rarely interacts may have. Make sure the other children hear the idea and help them connect to it with the play.
Something all of us as parents have already encountered or will encounter very soon is watching our child head off to kindergarten. I recently endured a crash course of “How to Survive the First Weeks of Kindergarten When Your Child Is Reluctant to Go”, and learned many things along the way.
Actually, the first partial week of kindergarten was fine. I think my son thought, perhaps, it was a camp that was fun, but would end soon enough. The second week was the real eye-opener. The realization set in with my exhausted five-year-old that the days of kindergarten were here to stay. During the second week, I saw my son's brain grinding away on the hand that was dealt him and, trying with all of his might to negotiate a better hand. “Mommy, how about I go to kindergarten every other day?” he offered. Questions regarding the longevity of kindergarten were persistent. “How many times does the hour hand need to go around until you come to pick me up?” or “How many days do I go to school before the weekend comes?” he asked imploringly. During that second week, many people asked him what was his favorite thing about kindergarten. He replied matter-of-factly, “Leaving!”
Through it all I remained positive. I reassured him what a great school he was going to and how neat his teachers were. Fortunately, even though his talk was negative with me, I could see he liked his teachers and they reassured me that he was adjusting just fine. It helped to hear this, but it did not take away my anxiety as to why didn't my son enjoy kindergarten? I thought back on what my husband and I had done to prepare him. I perused the list recommended by the American School Counselors Association to help alleviate first day jitters and realized that we had done many of those things. The list includes: review the route to school with your child; visit the teacher/classroom with your child before the start of school; provide the school-recommended supplies; make the clothes kid-friendly; adjust your child's clock before school starts; set the scene - practice expected routines or behaviors; have a rehearsal lunch; check-in with yourself - don't allow your child to sense your anxiety; celebrate the new school year with an annual special dinner or party.
We had done many of the items on the list, but our son needed something more. Fortunately, I consulted with numerous people for additional tips and shared common experiences. Our own (Wedgewood) parent educator, Sandi Dexter, recommended that I give him something small to put in his pocket so when he felt sad, he could pull it out and feel close to home. The next day I sent him to school with a miniature stuffed red heart for his pocket. He liked it a lot. My sister pointed out that when her daughter was hesitant last year in those first few weeks of kindergarten, she got a carpool together. A couple of days later, I did the same and arranged for him to be taken to school for the next week and I would do the pickups. It took the separation out of the classroom and made his morning transition to school much smoother.
We had made it over the hump! I continued to: talk positively, make sure he got plenty of sleep, talk positively, remind him of things to look forward to after the school day, talk positively, reassure him of what time I would pick him up, and talk positively. I am now happy to say that after his third week of school, he has forged friendships, has become accustomed to the new routine, has bonded with his teachers, has left the little red heart at home, and talks enthusiastically about what he did in school. I told him that he should be so proud of himself, because he did it - he was able to adjust to kindergarten all by himself. He smiled with pride at this. What a huge learning experience it has been for him.
Looking back, it made it easier for me to remember that
his sensitive and thoughtful temperament was why he was so concerned with
his new environment (not anything I had done or not done). There
was so much to absorb at once! Knowing this and my daughter's temperament,
I am not at all anxious at the prospect of her entry into kindergarten.
Already so independent at the tender age of three, I expect she will barely
look back to see if I am waving good-bye. I am thankful for these
rich experiences that we have through our children. Although some
experiences are harder for us than others, each should be celebrated.