How do we encourage very young children to enjoy and, as a consequence of that enjoyment, achieve? This is at the very heart of early years care and education.
The influence of adults on a child during these critical years might be a key factor in whether the young person and subsequent adult makes the most of their opportunities as they go through life, whether at academic level, work prospects, unique opportunities or other aspects of life. I don’t think those of us who work or train others to work with very young children consider often enough the enormity of that responsibility.
All children are born with the motivation to acquire skills and knowledge about themselves, their fellow humans and the world into which they are born. The thing I have always appreciated about babies is their optimistic attitude to life. When they are born, they have no idea what is ahead for them. None of us really knows how each child will develop. The barriers to opportunity and achievement are more often laid down by adults, not the children themselves.
Children are not born equal. Some will face health challenges from birth; others may not be able to walk or stand; others might find speaking a problem. Some may not live a long life; they may not survive beyond childhood. In a way, none of that matters. What does matter more is the attitude and approach of each adult who will come into contact with the child as they go through their life.
I present two scenarios to illustrate my point of view.
Case Study One
The baby girl born into the Fernandez family was a welcome addition in a noisy and somewhat chaotic setting. There were already three children: two boys and a girl. Their parents felt this would even out the numbers and create a more harmonious environment. This baby girl was born after a long and difficult birth. She has already been diagnosed with some potentially problematic conditions caused by the trauma of birth. There is uncertainty about her future. Mum and Dad struggled during their own school years due to learning difficulties. Dad attended a special school for children with learning needs and Mum stayed on in ordinary school but had some extra support.
Their extended families have always been very supportive and affectionate. When children achieve in this family, it is cause for real celebration. One of the older boys won a prize at school for drawing. At the school prize-giving, all of the family cheered so loudly, that proceedings were halted for a few minutes until calm was restored. It must be a bit like living in the middle of the Larkin family from the Darling Buds of May series.
The children are offered security, love, recognition, encouragement, opportunities to try, fail, and try again. All of them have blossomed in this atmosphere. Theirs will never be a high achieving family in terms of academia, but the pleasure and excitement everyone feels and shows when one of their own does well in any way will ensure that they, and especially the new addition to the family, will have the courage to keep on trying until they gain satisfaction for a job well done.
Case Study Two
The baby girl born into the Chambers family was not necessarily welcomed straight away. There were two older children who were born quite close together. After a gap of ten years, along came this unexpected event. The parents worked hard to provide their children with a good standard of living.
The father is a self-employed carpenter who is very skilled and who has produced wonderful original bespoke furniture. The problem is that he didn’t really see how wonderful his creations are and is always dissatisfied with the results. He always takes longer than customers like and their frustration often overshadows their joy in the finished product. Every job is heralded with moans and groans about how difficult this will be and that no one appreciates the time taken.
The mother works part-time as the company administrator and part-time as a clerk in a plumbing company. She really wanted to be the type of parent who stayed at home to raise the children but this had never been encouraged and she never spoke of it out loud, so in fairness, her husband has never realised her wishes. She even considered training for a career in child care but this was discouraged because ‘There was no money in that.’
When the children bring home drawings or small stories they have written, both parents say ‘Well done’ or some other words of praise, but this could just as easily be followed by one or other pointing out a mistake or a suggestion for how the child could improve their picture or writing for next time. The two older children in particular hardly ever hear a compliment without an accompanying criticism. When extended family members come to visit, the same things happen. Whenever mother or father say something positive about the children’s achievements, someone reminds them that ‘too much praise will make your children big-headed.’
Which is the more rewarding and positive family approach?
Which is more likely to encourage and motivate children to persevere?
Even where we need to acknowledge that each child will develop in his or her own way, which family is most likely to celebrate small achievements?
You don’t have to change the world or discover a cure for cancer to be of value in this society.
Adult Role Models and Positive Thought
The most important factors in encouraging children to want to achieve are the adult role models, from family members to leaders in pre-school settings. If we expect children to continue to develop and grow, whatever their disadvantages, they will do so.
Many years ago I was trained to be a Makaton communicator. (www.makaton.org.uk) Makaton is a form of signing and spelling aimed specifically at children and adults with mild to severe learning needs which may be accompanied by communication problems due to hearing or speech difficulties or other conditions.
It was still relatively early in its inception. One of the trainers explained that everyone develops; even those with severe restrictions to their progress. The problem is that the rest of the world demands a certain speed of development and acquisition of skills; otherwise the slower individual is rejected and not included in ‘normal’ circles of learning.
I learned an invaluable lesson during that time: I learned to rein in my determination to evaluate everyone based on a meeting that might have only lasted a few hours. I was reminded that time is only important to those with a train to catch. Individual perceptions vary. If I am in a hurry to catch the train, I might find the ticket office sales person slow. If I have made sure that I allow enough time to stand in the queue, I might find that the service is very speedy and even have time to buy a newspaper.
I have in the past expressed some real anxiety about the continuous testing and re-testing of children from a very early age. One of those anxieties rests within the acknowledgement that for some small individuals, life moves at a different warp speed and they must not be left behind or left out because we didn’t have enough time to allow them to stand awhile. Enjoying and achieving is such a key factor in continuing to gain new and different skills and knowledge.
Recently, we have been helping Olivia’s Mum and Dad by spending time with her whilst her parents rush round doing the things at weekends that are necessary for two working parents in order to keep their household running smoothly during the week. Their loss is spending less time with their amazing daughter.
Olivia is about 27 months now and is emerging as an independent force to be reckoned with. She knows what she likes and what she wants to do. She keeps our dogs in check by telling them “No” in a very strict voice.
Once, when we came inside from playing, she was tired but not inclined to rest. I sat down with my legs crossed and invited her to sit on my foot. I sang the ‘Horsey’* song whilst bouncing my foot up and down as a horse would move. She was thrilled with this new experience and insisted we repeat the performance until my leg ached so the horse had to be stabled for a rest! She then tried out her own singing and bouncing skills on her teddy and then on my daughter who was lying on the floor. That will now be part of her growing repertoire of songs, games and movement that enables her to develop conversational skills and listening ability. I can’t wait for next weekend to see what she brings then.
*The Horsey Song
Horsey, horsey, don’t you stop.
Just let your feet go clippety-clop.
Your tail goes swish and your wheels go round.
Giddy up, we’re homeward-bound.
Chorus We ain’t in a hurry. We ain’t in a flurry.
No need to go tearing down the road.
We ain’t in a hustle. We ain’t in a bustle.
We ain’t got a very heavy load.
So, horsey, horsey on your way.
We’ve done the journey many a day.
Your tail goes swish, and your wheels go round.
Giddy up, we’re homeward-bound.