Infants and Toddlers Learn to Help Others, with Guidance from Teachers
Recent research shows babies are born with empathy, and one-year-olds have an impulse to help. But infants and toddlers also “are really into themselves,” says Mayra Moreno, a Riverside County family child care provider—which can make it harder for them to learn pro-social behavior like helpfulness and cooperation.
“We lay the foundations,” says Monique Paige, who teaches infant/toddler development at Saddleback College in Orange County. “If a baby is crying, [a toddler] may give her a hug, a toy. You can reinforce that: ‘Look how happy you made her feel.’”
Prosocial skills are “the number one gift you can give a child,” adds Shawn Norman, who teaches 18-month-olds at Orange Coast College Children’s Center. Other skills are “not going to do you [as] much good if you can’t relate to other people.”
It starts with the caregiver
For babies, says Norman, “the caregiver is the curriculum.”
A baby “learns to interact positively with others…[and] form positive relationships with peers,” from early interactions with consistent caregivers who are nurturing, says Jean Barbre of the Orange County Office of Education.
In Moreno’s family child care home, “there are lots of pillows, lots of touching and hugging,” she says. On a recent rainy day, the children “had breakfast on the couch under a blanket.” Then they talk about what they will do that day. “It reduces anxiety,” she adds.
“Be aware of your expectation level” about how children learn pro-social skills, cautions Paige. “If you show them how to pet the cat nicely, tomorrow you’ll have to show them again. Eventually they will internalize it.”
Build sharing into the routine
In Norman’s toddler classroom, “our routines are very social,” she says. Children help at family-style meals: “I see Tiffany is here—let’s give Tiffany a plate.”
Toys encourage cooperation, including “trikes two kids can ride and games like matching cards or playing ball,” Norman adds. Teachers also watch closely and prompt: “‘When you’re done with that, Alicia would like a turn. Please let Alicia know when you’re finished.’ They remember and hand it to her,” she adds.
Children even work together on art pieces. “Someone is doing a painting and someone else paints a big green stripe on it. I’ll say, ‘Hey, you guys are working together!’” If the first child objected, Norman adds, she would protect the painting, “but at this age that hasn’t happened.”
Model empathy and cooperation
If a child is crying because his block structure was knocked down, “I say ‘I understand you’re upset. Maybe I can be your friend and help build it up again. Who wants to help?’” says Moreno. When a child building a house for animals declared, “‘I really need the zebra,’ we all helped look for the zebra,” she says.
When children bite, adds Norman, “we sit really close and say, ‘Look at Brian’s face. He looks so sad.’ You can see wheels turning in their head. I hug Brian, and say, ‘I’m really sorry you’re hurt.’ We do lots of theatrics. [Children] are intently looking at our reactions. It’s im-portant for us to be really calm.”
Reprinted with the permission of the Action Alliance for Children.
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