Teaching Children to Cope with Feelings (page 2)
Developing Self-Calming Skills
One of the greatest skills an adult working or living with young children can have is the ability to calm an upset child. Of course, the optimum is for children to learn to calm themselves, and for that reason adults should respect their attempts to do so. For example, when the crying infant finds a soothing thumb and pops it in, the adult should rejoice and not try to distract or substitute something else. The thumb is an example of a very effective self-soothing device.
If infants are to learn self-calming techniques, the adult must not jump up and respond to each little whimper or tiny demand. Timing is important; it takes skill to create a response gap that is just long enough to allow children to discover ways to meet their own needs. If the adult waits too long, children feel neglected; they may go beyond the place where they can calm themselves. Once the child gets overly excited and chaos sets in, the adult needs to be on hand to stop the momentum and help the child get reorganized. Sometimes this is merely a matter of being present and allowing the child to pick up your calm rhythms. Some adults have the natural instinct of tuning into the child’s rhythms, flowing with them until the two are in tune, then slowing the combined rhythm until the child is once more relaxed and calm. Thoman and Browder (1987) give specifics about how this can be done with a baby. They start by advising the adult to find a quiet, softly lit room and relax completely while holding the baby: “Breathe deeply. Feel all your muscles unwind.... Now tune in to your baby. Listen to his breathing. Feel his breathing against your chest. At first, try to match your breathing to your baby’s breathing, so you’re inhaling and exhaling in unison. Then slowly make your breathing deeper” (pp. 181–182). They say that as the adult changes his or her breathing, the baby’s breathing will change to match it.
This approach can be used with some children who are no longer babies. Some children are able to use the adult closeness to bring down their energy level and become calm. Something similar can even be used with a group of children. Some infant-care teachers and early educators know how to go with the flow of energy and then bring it down to a less chaotic level. There’s usually an ideal time to intervene. Determining this ideal time is a skill adults who live and work with young children can acquire through experience.
Coping by Playing Pretend
Playing pretend is a way that children experience feelings in a way that they can control. In a sense, they practice emotions through playing. They’re in charge of the environment and of themselves, which puts them in a very powerful position—often the opposite of their position when they are overcome by a feeling in real life.
Adults who understand how important pretend play is to emotional development encourage children to engage in it. They give them props to get them started. (That’s what the “housekeeping corner” and all the “dress-up clothes” are about in a child care center.) When children don’t automatically show interest in playing pretend, adults can get them started by playing with them. Adults who see the value of time spent pretending provide opportunities, space, and materials to stimulate imagination. They also provide encouragement.
Two early childhood experts, Susan Isaacs and Vivian Paley, working 50 years apart, have important ideas about the use of what is called dramatic play. Isaacs (Smith, 1985) says that through what she calls “imaginative play, children symbolize and externalize their inner drama and conflicts and work through them to gain relief from pressures.” She explains that through creating make-believe situations, children practice predicting or hypothesizing what might happen and play it out. Children free themselves from the here and now of the concrete world by acting as if something were true. They not only revisit the past but project into the future through playing pretend.
Paley (1988) talks about the kind of pretend play she sees daily in her classroom of preschoolers. She says, “Whatever else is going on in this network of melodrama, the themes are vast and wondrous. Images of good and evil, birth and death, parent and child, move in and out of the real and the pretend. There is no small talk. The listener is submerged in philosophical position papers, a virtual recapitulation of life’s enigmas” (p. 6).
As children create their own worlds through pretend play, they gain a sense of power. They transform reality and practice mastery over it. No wonder pretend play is appealing. In addition to personal power, children also gain communication skills. Through play with, for example, small figures, they deal with several levels of communication as the figures themselves interact, and the players who control them also interact. Children engaged in this type of play practice negotiation and cooperation in real life and on a pretend level. They can get very sophisticated at expressing feelings through this medium.
As an early educator you should thoroughly acquaint yourself with the benefits of play so you can help families appreciate it. It takes some skill to observe with a parent and point out the benefits without talking down or lecturing the parent. You don’t want to flaunt your knowledge, but you do want to expand the families’ view of play. Of course, not all families devalue play as an important activity in children’s lives; many, however, have gotten the message that the early years are learning years, and they may not see play as a worthy way of learning.
© ______ 2009, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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