Imagine a preschool classroom filled with energetic three- to five-year-old children happily playing in four to five learning centers. A preschooler gets upset because one of her peers does not want her to play at the water table. The preschooler yells at her peer and splashes water at the child while yelling “you’re not my friend.” The teacher runs quickly to the scene and asks the preschooler to say sorry. The preschooler tells the teacher “no” and throws a water play toy across the room. The teacher calls the preschooler’s name and instructs her to go to the calm down area by herself. The teacher says, “you can come back when you are ready to play nice.”
This scene may be familiar to early childhood professionals as they relocate children to a location in the classroom that represents an area where a child can cool off, calm down, and chill. Yet, how well are we utilizing these areas to provide young children with meaningful experiences that provide opportunities to truly support their behavioral needs? Early childhood educators should be mindful that even though we avoid using the term “time out” in our classrooms, there are moments when our methods of addressing a young child’s behavioral challenge look and feel exactly like a scene out of the time out book.
Young children experience big emotions when they are unable to self-regulate. It is imperative early childhood educators create a classroom community that supports young children as they recover from challenging behavior. This includes going beyond creating a space for a child to regroup from a big emotion.
Many early childhood educators do an excellent job at creating spaces (calm down zone, peace corner, take a break spot) that are filled with toys and other material for a child to interact with during their separation from the classroom community. This includes items such as books, writing and drawing tools, soft toys, and other sensory items. These tools provide the child with an opportunity to refocus their thoughts and energies. Yet, it is important to remember that placing a young child in an area to interact with toys with no adult support or interaction will not provide the type of results the teacher is hoping to get from the child’s short sabbatical from classroom activities.
We can all agree that the main ingredient to a child’s successful transition back to the classroom community is a nurturing and responsive adult. High-quality adult interactions during this time are a driving force in providing young children with the tools they need to support self-regulation and discover solutions for peer-to-peer conflicts.
The main ingredient to a child's successful transition back to the classroom community is a nurturing and responsive adult.
The first step in this process is to connect with the child’s emotional state. This includes addressing the state of the brain’s limbic system. In the article How to Support Self-Regulation in Children, the author describes it as the downstairs part of the brain. It is where we find strong emotions brewing that can cause a child to react without thinking. The teacher’s mission is to connect with the child’s limbic system in order to get the child to a calmer state of being.
Effective strategies to utilize during this time include teaching the child breathing techniques, supporting the child’s effort to label their emotions, describing how they feel, and imitating the child’s body language or facial expression. This allows the teacher to authentically connect with the feelings of the child and supports the soothing of their limbic system.
Once the teacher has made a connection and has calmed down the rough seas in the child’s limbic system, redirection is the key to the child’s successful transition back to the classroom community. Yet, we are going to put a spin on the redirection process that includes a little more than just pointing out an activity the child can transition to.
Effective redirection includes teachers seizing the opportunity to remind the child of classroom rules and expectations when interacting with their peers and the environment. It also includes designing solutions and providing the child with tools that can be helpful with future big emotions and conflicts. Teachers that do not expand on what the redirection process looks and feels like, miss the unique opportunity to provide the child with useful strategies that can be used when the next big emotion comes into their life.
Providing children with authentic connections during those big emotions is what is most important during a child’s inappropriate behavior or interaction. Providing a safe space for the child to relocate to is just half of the equation. Early childhood educators should be actively involved in the process that takes place to reconnect a young child back to the joys of play and learning. A process that includes connecting emotionally to the child and then providing tools that enables them to have future appropriate interactions.
- Jerry Graham, SBVP Virginia Quality Specialist