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Connectedness in Early Childhood a 3 Part Series

Part 2. Connection to Ourselves

As early childhood teachers we have an incredible opportunity to make a meaningful difference for children through the power of connection. This article explores connection from the angle of connection to self. We will discuss the power of mindfulness as a tool for our own emotional regulation and wellbeing.

For us to truly connect with the children in our care we need to be connected to our own emotional state. We need to have our emotions regulated in order to be emotionally available. We can use the Circle of Security Model to explore this further. As teachers, we are the safe hands for the children. Our aim is to enable children to flourish in the early learning environment, to grow healthy brain connections, and to develop executive functioning skills. For this to occur, children must feel confident that they are in the hands of a safe and trusted teacher. Teachers must be available to share in the children’s exploration, to delight in them, to help them when needed, and to be a safe haven to come into when children need us to organise their emotions and comfort them when necessary. https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/, accessed 24/2/2020

Research tells us that children need to feel safe and secure before they can access their executive functioning skills. When a child feels unsafe, anxious, worried or scared they function from the lower part of their brain. This area of the brain, the brain stem, is responsible for our fight or flight response. When a young child experiences the feeling of being disconnected, stressed and unsafe, these experiences activate pathways in the brain and shape brain architecture. There is a saying, “cells that fire together wire together” coined by Donald Hebb the father of neuropsychology. https://can-acn.org/donald-olding-hebb/ accessed 26/2/20. We are born with a genetic blue print, but it is the combination of our life experiences and relationships that determine how the genes are expressed.

A key point in this model is that we must be emotionally available, safe and predictable in our responses. If we are dysregulated, or emotionally unavailable we may not be able to successfully meet the needs of the child. If the child is met with unpredictable responses from the teacher, they have the potential to learn mistrust of adults and may miscue their needs. This can have a significant impact on the child’s stress hormones and may have a detrimental impact on the child’s learning and development potential.

Practicing mindfulness is an effective and practical way in which we can begin to connect with our emotional wellbeing. Research has shown us that mindfulness can help reduce stress, boost creativity, strengthen relationships and improve attention, working-memory and concentration. When teachers learn mindfulness, they not only reap personal benefits, but their schools do as well. In randomised controlled trials, teachers who learned mindfulness reported greater efficacy in doing their jobs, had more emotionally supportive classrooms and better classroom organisation. https://www.headspace.com/science/meditation-benefits, accessed 24/2/2020.

In this article we have explored the importance of self-regulation when building relationships with children, the power of meaningful connection, and using mindfulness as a tool to support teacher wellbeing and resilience in the workplace and for the development of social and emotional wellbeing in young children.

Starting School from a Social and Emotional Perspective

Starting school

Starting school is a huge milestone, laced with excitement, anxiety and fear and that is just how the parent can feel. There is so much build up to starting school, all the expectations associated with meeting this milestone.

The child may have heard words like “when you are a big boy or girl you will go to school”, or you are a big boy/girl now that you are going to school”. If they have older siblings this may be something that they have looked forward to for years and they are finally able to join their siblings in the ranks of the big kids!

For children that have not had any experience of what school is they may have a lot more questions, anxiety and worries about what it all means. What does it mean to be a big boy or girl? They may conjure up all sorts of worries and expectations of themselves, like, am I allowed to cry? Will I get into trouble? What will happen if I need my family?

How can we help?

“If a child is recharged, has their emotional cup filled and feels as if they can manage their own emotions, then they will be more likely to feel comfortable going out into exploration

So, what can we do to help get our children emotionally ready to start school? The Circle of Security parenting model talks about children needing a secure and safe base to explore from. This is a person that meets their needs for emotional support, comfort, re-charges and helps to regulate their emotions. If a child is recharged, has their emotional cup filled and feels as if they can manage their own emotions, then they will be more likely to feel comfortable going out into exploration for example starting school.

To enable this, we need to regulate our own emotions and keep them in check making sure that we try to avoid sharing our anxiety about starting school with our children. Children will feed off our emotions and they are very good at picking up our non-verbal communication.

We need to make ourselves emotionally available to our children, so that they can feel connected and safe. If our children have developed a trusting and secure relationship with us, they are more likely to be able to develop trusting and secure relationships with their teacher and will have more success in making friends with their peers.

Talking about emotions

Other ways that you can help children is to talk about their feelings and how it might feel to be nervous. Give them a name for the butterflies they might be feeling. Share examples of when you have felt the same. Help them learn that this is normal and give them some ways that they can help calm themselves down if they are feeling like this.

Practical tips

There are lots of practical strategies that support children to get ready for school too such as transition visits, connecting with other families in the area that will be attending the same school. You might like to arrange a play date so that your child can build friendships before they start. Try to talk about school in a positive way, but without putting pressure on them to be big and grown up. You can read books about starting school if they are interested, but try not to push this on them as they may already be feeling overwhelmed and uninterested.

Using mindfulness

A great way is to teach children about their breathing and when to recognise that they are breathing fast and shallow. Teach them to tune into their breathing and slow it down by taking nice deep slow breaths into their tummy. You can practice this at home by placing a teddy on their tummy and asking the child to breath in until the teddy goes up high and then to breath out slowly watching the teddy go down without falling off. You could try this together and it can be a fun and nice way to connect and teach practical skills to calm down. Other ways of connecting to breath is using bubble blowing and blowing windmills.

Sleep

Getting enough rest is essential, especially in the lead up to school. Try to implement a predictable bedtime routine that sets them up for success. It is a huge step starting school and some children may have only recently dropped their afternoon naps. One of my children fell asleep on the way home from school every day in his first few months and we only lived a 5-minute drive away! We know how being tired can affect our mood, our ability to function and can significantly add to the sense of overwhelm.

Supporting distress

If your child gets distress or anxious about starting school the best thing that you can do in this situation is to comfort them and let them know that you are there for them. Stay with them and allow them to let out their emotions and acknowledge them by validating whatever it is that they are feeling. By doing this they will feel heard and their feelings will be validated. By staying present and maintaining that connection with your child you are building on your relationship which will be even more important as they grow up.

In summary

Starting school can be an exciting and emotional time for everyone. It is a great opportunity to build your child’s confidence and skills in regulating their own emotions.  A secure loving relationship with your child is the most valuable gift that you can give them and this will support them to build relationships and develop their social and emotional wellbeing for school and life.