Respecting Individuals in Groups

The RIE method, as developed by Magda Gerber, invites respectful, trusting, and reflective practice in caring for infants and toddlers.

“Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.”

What this might look like, with even the smallest of infants, is asking and telling a child about what’s going to happen before, during, and after an interaction. Rather than picking up an infant wordlessly, one should approach where they can see and hear you (it is my personal pet peeve when people come from behind a baby and scoop them up without saying a word — just imagine how YOU would feel if someone did that to you!), ask them if you can pick them up, wait a moment for a response, and then proceed. Even the smallest of infants will hear the questioning tone in your voice and will seek eye contact to communicate. It feels truly miraculous when you take the time to await a response from an infant and you receive their communication. Imagine how this relationship grows and deepens over time! What a rich, beneficial opportunity this is for infants and toddlers to explore and develop language and social-emotional health.

At the same time, what a challenge this practice can be for adults. Busy adults. Harried adults. Adults with their own agendas, trying to keep so many balls in the air! I think this is important to recognize. I can tell you from a place of authenticity, as a caregiver in a classroom with nine infants and toddlers, that it can be a struggle to slow down and tune in enough — both internally and externally — to come close to practicing what Magda Gerber so elegantly modeled. You have only to look into the eyes of an infant, however, to understand deep in your core that every attempt truly matters. We don’t live in a perfect world and we’re not perfect people. We’re going to mess things up. We’re going to make mistakes. Toddlers are the ideal example for us in the way that they race around, they fall down, they get up, they get messy, and they always, always keep on trying. Let’s forgive ourselves and cultivate the same fearlessness and honesty that they show.

My experience with RIE-influenced caregiving has primarily all come in the form of group care. Group care for infants is a sometimes controversial topic. Before I become an infant and toddler educarer myself, I was fairly horrified by the notion of group care for infants. The more I learned about how infants learn and grow and build their amazing brains, the more horrified I was. As a caregiver, it is a daunting task to do it well and do right by the infants and toddlers in your care. I have been fortunate enough to work under a supervisor and director who truly honor children and families and work from a place of respect. Additionally, I work closely with two women who are uniquely talented in connecting with infants and toddlers in completely different ways.

My assistant is a mother of five who is a constant ball of energy. Her instinct, when an infant is fussing, is not to slow down but to speed up! At the same time, she has a gift of seeing the babies in her care for exactly who they are and for allowing them to be just that, unreservedly. She, more than anyone else I have come into contact with in my life, has taught me to sing out loud. My aide is a woman who I believe has always been a caregiver for one or more people in her life, but who came into a formal caregiving setting almost by accident. It was meant to be that she found her way to our program and to my classroom. More than anyone I’ve met, her heart and spirit embody RIE. She has a gift of forging the most trusting and beautiful relationships with young children and their families and she inspires me to be a more authentic version of myself every day.

Both of my teammates are skilled at treating each child and each parent in our program as an individual. They have unique relationships with every single one. I like to think that this is an area in which we’re all 100% in sync.

I have worked on several teaching and caregiving teams over the course of my career. I know what a rare and wonderful thing it is to create and maintain a team that has true balance, in every sense. My current team does, in no small part because of the children and families that we serve. In order to create an environment in which our infants and toddlers are able to flow through their days peacefully, we have to create an environment that allows for caregivers to feel that peace and ease of rhythm as well. One of the first steps in arriving there is to realize that every day is new and unique and you have to go with it. My supervisor once articulated, “Adults have schedules. Children have routines.” I think this is one of the best statements ever made about group care for children and I try to carry these words in a mental pocket to remind myself that children are not slaves to the clock on the wall, but to the rhythms of their bodies. It is within these parameters that adults can and must be flexible. Infants, in particular, are so in tune with their needs that we need only to really listen to and trust them in order to establish what we think of as schedules, with the understanding that they’re never set in stone. (Say your bedtime routine looks like: bath, bottle, story, bed. Your bedtime schedule must be flexible for the night that your baby requires a little extra time to engage with tub toys and then has slightly less attention than usual for a story because their body is ready for bed. Bedtime won’t look like 8:00, but like 8ish.)

Young children (and, I believe, the majority of adults) thrive on clear and consistent routines. Many teachers and caregivers tend to interpret this information as an excuse or call for rigidity. I believe it’s something quite different. My daily schedule dictates that I be at work between specific hours each day. Our daily routines suggest that, for my eight or nine month old infants, breakfast be followed by play to be followed by a diaper change to be followed by nap. Do you see the difference between a kind of flow, in tune with one’s natural rhythms, and a mapped out, written down schedule? Picture schedules can be a valuable tool in some environments, and are reflective of routine (“We eat lunch after we play outside”).

Routines give children a very real sense of time, so we need to be serious and respectful in how we explain them. Last week I spent some time with a toddler who was feeling anxiety over her mommy leaving her at “school”. “Mommy’s at work,” she repeated to herself and those around her, “L. is at school.” After a period of time she asked, “Mommy coming?” I reassured her, “Mommy’s coming. Mommy always comes back. L. is going to play outside and then eat lunch and then what happens?” She thought for a moment, “Sleep on my bed?” “Yes, L. will sleep on her bed and then what happens?” She smiled, “Mommy’s coming.” “That’s right! Mommy comes to get L. after nap time.”

It was delightful to have this exchange with L. because it reminded me that the groundwork I’m laying for the infants I care for, fostering routines and predictable sequences (important cognitive skills that contribute to math learning later on), matters. I’ll be honest: when I’m in the midst of nine infants who all neeeeeeeeeed something NOW, it takes work to center myself in a little bit of RIE and see each one as an individual, rather than stepping back to see the overall group as a writhing mass of unmet needs. When our families observe the awesome chaos that often unfolds just before a small group mealtime for our older infants and young toddlers (when three or four have fallen into a rhythm of eating lunch at the same time and are all eagerly anticipating their meal, with clamoring and babbling and sometimes tears), they often ask, “How do you do it? How can you help so many babies at once?” It’s certainly not an exact science and there are many, many caregivers who do it “better” than I do, but here is my best answer:

First, center yourself to be present. This means you’re right there with the babies, both physically — which is instantly comforting — and in providing compassionate support. It might sound like, “Oh, D. I hear you. It’s hard to wait. You’re waiting for your lunch. You’re telling me that you are ready to eat!”

It’s a kind of triage, to determine what needs to happen first. This is where you really see the value in knowing the children in your care, because as caregivers we learn to recognize their cues, read their needs, and we can see who is crying because it is time for their bottle (which has already been warmed because we anticipated they would be getting ready to eat) and who is crying because the other baby is crying and who is crying because their caregiver is preparing to give a bottle to someone else and they just realized that maybe they would like to be held as well. This may sound like, “Would you like to come and sit close to me while C. eats?”

Caring for multiple infants in a mixed-age setting is a dance. We’re all partners in the dance: the infants with both their caregiver and each other; the caregivers with each other; the parents and the caregivers and the infants. It’s complicated and sometimes noisy and sometimes chaotic but always, always amazing to behold.

Janet Lansbury has written a wonderful piece that is reflective of Magda Gerber’s wisdom on waiting.

Instincts may tell us that waiting is uncaring, unhelpful and confidence-shaking — until the results are proven to us. Sitting back patiently and observing often feels counterintuitive, so even if we know and appreciate the magic that can happen when we “wait”, it usually involves a conscious effort. But it’s worth it.

As a society, we’re increasingly programmed for instant-gratification or to be constantly entertained so nothing feels like a wait. The ability to wait with grace would be an outstanding gift for a child to grow into. Please note that I’m not advocating making hungry babies wait hours for food or for children in desperate need of comfort to be ignored. Waiting is hard for children well into elementary age. Assisted, respectful, compassionate waiting, done side-by-side with a caregiver, makes a real difference in preparing infants and toddlers for a wider world.

One of my friends told me that when her passionate son was a baby, she had to train herself to love the sound of his crying (because he cried so often, for so long). I think of this often. Babies cry! Often, babies cry loudly. More than once we have had new staff members rush into our room asking what the emergency is or if we need help or what’s wrong?! Calmly, we explain: “M. is waiting for his bottle. He’s letting us know he’s hungry.” Or, “K. is feeling really tired this morning, but she’s having a hard time getting comfortable.” We explain: It’s not an emergency. Babies need to be heard. Babies need to express themselves. Crying isn’t something that needs to be stopped (as uncomfortable and unsettling as it can be for adults to hear), but something that needs to be understood. More often than not, we learn to understand the source, articulate that back to the baby, and work together with the baby to relax and regroup. There are times when we don’t understand the source, and those times are challenging, but we work as respectful partners with babies to get through it. Out of respect, we don’t demand that babies stop crying or work to distract them from the source of their upset. Would you do that to an upset friend? (Hopefully not!)

I think this article says it well:

I thought by letting my children cry, I would become less sensitized to them, but in fact I’m more sensitive to their needs. We’ve come through a struggle together, and are closer, and have a stronger bond. I learned to listen more closely, and have been rewarded by watching us all grow.

I believe I became a (respectful, high quality) infant group care convert when I saw infants imitating their caregivers, in nurturing one another. When one baby observed another crying and took their own pacifier out of their mouth, extending it to the other child, with a gaze of what can only be described as compassion. When a toddler went and found a baby’s blanket and carried it to them where they lay on the floor. When a toddler picked up a baby doll and began to rock it and sing. I see countless examples of this behavior every day and I think, “This is how I will leave the world a better place.” There is nothing like seeing your own practice reflected back to you by soulful infants and toddlers to make you want to be a “better” caregiver.

One of my all-time favorite experiences with a (sassy) toddler came when I observed her standing in front of the mirror being ME. I had returned to the classroom from my lunch break not long before and was chewing a piece of gum. I stood in the diaper-changing area, preparing things for this toddler’s diaper change. I called to her from there, looking across the changing table to where she stood in front of the mirror, “M! It’s time to change your diaper.” She snapped an imaginary piece of gum in her mouth, jutted her hip to one side, and called her own name in what can only be described as a Valley Girl accent, a huge grin on her face. We both doubled over laughing. Sharing this moment, with a child I had nurtured in my care since she was four months old, was absolutely priceless. There she was, this incredible, strong, unique individual, reflecting all of the love and humor that had been expressed to her over a year and four months. “Come on, M!” I called, “Let’s change your diaper.” She ran joyfully over to the changing table and warmly clasped my hand.

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2 thoughts on “Respecting Individuals in Groups

  1. Jessica says:

    I work in a setting very similar to yours and you explain very articulately what we do on a daily basis and what I strive to maintain in my work. So Thank you!

  2. JG says:

    Thanks, Jessica! Let’s keep striving 🙂

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