I recently read 'The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read' by Philippa Perry. I don't have children but having chosen a career in early childhood and being an advocate of psychodynamic theory, I wondered if there were elements of the book that could be transferred into early education.
I thought I would highlight some of the many things I have learned or been reminded of in reading this book and how we might continue to think of ways to apply this theory to the role of the early years educator.
Making children's feelings bearable through containment
It is well established in the early year's sector that all feelings have a place and children in the most part are given time and space to learn about emotional regulation. That doesn't mean to say that having twenty toddlers "finding themselves" through tantrums and biting is easy.
Philippa talks about the parent being a "container" for a child's emotions, and this is something that educators also do. It can, however, be difficult when there are lots of emotions and not enough containers. I believe the remedy to this is a consistent and "good enough" key person system with adequate training in the theory of attachment, but this is an ongoing need and a matter of important advocacy.
Often educators will look at me wide-eyed asking for a specific strategy to stop an emotion but simply sitting alongside a child at that moment is extremely powerful. Language and presence are the strongest of all strategies in these situations. I remember sitting with a little girl who was overwhelmed with feelings and saying to her 'All that sadness looks very heavy, can I help you to carry it?' and we sat with each other carrying the invisible sadness until she felt able to talk it through.
If a child know's that we accept all of them, they will feel more at ease to come to us for help! Philippa suggests a "felt with rather than dealt with" approach to cultivate more meaningful connections with our children.
Are you in the regulator or the facilitator tribe?
Philippa talks about a study by Joan Raphael-Leff in which she describes two types of parenting that can be easily applied to educators. The regulators tend to be more adult-centric and routine-led, whereas facilitators are more child-centric and tend to go more with the flow (Pg. 93). Think of the teacher who is embracing the children who are painting their whole selves, while the other teacher is aware that lunch needs to be served in ten minutes and is on the verge of a bloody breakdown.
It could be easy to judge the regulators in this description especially in line with early years pedagogy, but there is room for both tribes. And some of us adopt a mix & match approach. By identifying which tribe you may lean towards, you are then able to identify your strengths but also the elements of pedagogy which don't sit right with you.
These tribes if understood can compliment each other and bring a team together. It can also be what drives a team apart, so it is something to be aware of in your practice.
Flash Points - defining boundaries for yourself, not the child
I once got called into a nursery to support a teacher who had reached her absolute limit with a child's behaviour. When I met him, he was mischevious, energetic and he liked to push, shove and snatch. I observed the practice, and upon snatching a toy from a friend, the teacher chased him around the nursery for around ten minutes, adamant that he needed to face the consequences. He found this amusing and seemed to enjoy the absurdity of the situation.
During the observation, I noticed other children had similar behaviours which went unaddressed by the teacher. But it was this child and this behaviour that drove her to distraction.
When we discussed her reaction, she shared a personal story about her child who had been "victim" to having his toys snatched from a young relative. It was only as she was speaking that she made the connection that this was her own "flash point".
I am always saddened that educators seem ashamed to admit that some behaviours personally annoy them. There is such pressure to be "on form'' that negative feelings can become disallowed. It is as important to allow educators to feel and deal as it is children.
By knowing our own boundaries and flashpoints and encouraging educators to speak about these, we can make more informed decisions in our practice and work through those behaviours that drive us crackers.
'Good/Bad labels are not helpful because they are about extremes'
The early year's sector is rife with labeling. Everyone is guilty of it and everyone is a victim to it.
How we view ourselves and our capacity to educate children has a huge impact on how we engage, interact and professionally love the children in our care. Yet the judgments made against us (good/bad teacher) can dominate and follow us around. We often think about labeling in relation to children, but as adults, we can be just as restricted by a label. Phillipa asks 'why judge someone as anything?' when we can instead observe, describe and try to understand the reasons behind what we see?
Practice within early education is indeed very varied and examining ways to improve this is important, but judgment can interfere with this process. I once openly shared my annoyance at a "bad nursery" and my manager at the time gave me some sound advice;
We have been given a platform to empower and advocate the early years. If we use that platform to share unhelpful judgements, that isn't advocacy, that is destruction.
This was a turning point in my career because I realised that as a sector, we have to look after each other! If we have each other's best interests at heart, then our work with children and families will have a greater capacity to make a difference.