A few weeks ago, I was visiting a classroom of toddlers who ranged in age from nineteen or twenty months old to nearly three. When I walked through the door, the first thing I noticed was one child in distress, who appeared to have been crying for some time. She was pacing. I sat down nearby and began to observe what was happening through a wider lens. Most of the children in the room were engaged in various play activities — some in the play kitchen, some rolling cars and trucks across a carpeted area, and some reading books with a caregiver. The crying child was without an adult nearby, but was seeming to seek another caregiver who was engaged in changing a diaper. She was not entirely without support, however. Hovering nearby was another child, older than her by about six months. Every so often, the older child would put a hand on the crying child’s arm. The crying child shook it off, turning away, but the older child persisted, peering into the crying child’s face. As I watched, the older child tried again to touch the crying child and the crying child again shook her away. I decided to verbalize my observations.
“You saw how upset H was,” I said to the older child. “It looks like you wanted to help her, but I think she was letting you know she didn’t want to be touched right now.”
The crying child paused in her hectic movements and looked at me. I looked back and observed, “You’re really upset, H.” She moved closer to me.
“She’s crying,” the older child stated. “She’s sad.”
“Are you sad?” I asked H. She climbed into my lap. The older child again moved to lay her hand on H’s arm and H turned to her with a sharp, warning look on her face, again vocalizing her distress.
The caregiver who was changing a diaper called out to the older child, “L! Stop it! Keep your hands on you!” She then added, to me, “My friend L is having a hard time keeping her hands to herself.”
I blinked and looked at L as she blinked and looked at me. She wrung her hands silently.
I spoke quietly to L again, “I see that you were trying to help H. You saw that she was sad. Does it help you when someone strokes your arm when you feel sad?” I paused a moment, then stroked her arm gently. From the safety of my lap, H quietly watched, her crying calmed. L nodded and said, “H was crying.”
“She was crying,” I agreed. “Do you think you could ask H if you could help her?” Both children looked at me silently, seeming to contemplate the meaning. I expounded, “We can ask before we touch someone. Can I touch your arm, L?” L looked down at her arm, then held it out to me. I stroked it again and smiled. She smiled back.
The caregiver who had been engaged in a diaper change emerged from behind the changing counter. “L,” she said, “Walk away and find a job.”
L wandered to another part of the room by herself and stood watching some other children play. I sat with H in my lap and simply observed for a period of time. After a little while, H got up from my lap and went to join some other children playing with baby dolls, her upset now behind her. I saw L keeping an eye on her from a distance and I thought I saw something in her face, in the way she watched H, that indicated Future Caregiver.
I did not record this observation in an attempt to indict the caregiver who suggested L set aside her empathetic instincts. My observations were a snapshot, a snippet of the day this caregiver devotes to both L and H. My intention is simply to share an example of how we might interact slightly differently with young children. I believe this caregiver truthfully interpreted L’s hand on H as an issue that needed to be stopped, nipped in the bud, so to speak. The quick fix was to have L “walk away” from H and perhaps then (imagine I had not been there, as would normally be the case) help H to communicate or calm her upset.
I asked the caregiver about H’s upset. I wondered if it seemed to be related to L. It turned out that she had begun crying when her parent had left and had not been able to “calm down” since. I asked about L’s response to H’s distress. I learned that L had been hovering nearby, as I had observed, for some time and that H seemed more distressed each time L moved in close.
“It seems like L has a lot of empathy for H,” I said.
“She likes to be in the middle of things,” the caregiver expressed ruefully.
Caregivers (I include myself) come to their role with preconceptions and emotional baggage that they sometimes don’t recognize the weight of (it’s like those suitcases on wheels — you can just roll along all day without working too hard, but then a wheel begins to wobble and you realize it’s too much to carry). It can cloud their relationships with the children in their care.
I was reminded of a section from Deborah Carlisle Solomon’s book, regarding observation, featuring a quote from RIE Associate Elizabeth Memel.
“Observation is an art form. It’s not something that most people can do easily, but when they’re encouraged to do it, they learn to let go and enjoy it. Parents can begin to relax and see what their child is becoming instead of thinking they need to be the cause of, or catalyst for, their child’s development.”
Observation is one of the most crucial things for early care professionals to develop a knack for. Without it, they are forced to fall back on assumptions, misconceptions, and quick fixes. Observation of children, when undertaken with care, helps to remove the lens of bias and frees the adult to see who children are through what children do.
In the article Wondering With Children: The Importance of Observation in Early Education, George Forman and Ellen Hall write, “As we observe children, we need to consider their goals. What effects are they trying to create? We observe their actions and listen to their comments to determine the strategies they choose to attain those goals. The relation between the strategy and the goal will reveal a possible theory, a theory about how to make the desired effect occur. The theory, correct or incorrect in an objective sense, makes the child’s choice of strategy sensible. The theory comes from us. It is our speculation. It is our attempt to find an entry into the child’s world. All high-level conversations begin with someone speculating about the meaning of the other person’s words or actions.”
Let’s step back again and consider L’s “goals” as she hovered near H. Each time she reached out and touched H and H reacted negatively, L quickly removed her hand. She frequently attempted to study H’s face. She articulated her observation of H’s feelings by saying, “She’s sad.” I theorize this is not a child (L) who needs to be instructed to tamp down her instinct towards empathy, but a child who may need support in learning how to appropriately channel her empathy.
When we reach for the “quick fix” and have children “walk away”, we miss a true learning opportunity for everyone involved.
I want to say again that I’m not writing this down as an indictment of this caregiver. We’ve all used a quick fix before, in many different situations. For example, a few weeks ago I went through a period of intense insomnia. I was crawling through my work days on very few hours of sleep (increasing exponentially my compassion for sleep-deprived new parents!). In the mornings, my jumpstart was coffee. That’s a quick fix. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. It was the best I could do at the time. And if you think this example is something that impacted only myself, understand that I’m responsible for the care of many other human beings throughout the day and I ultimately need to be at my best or we all come out the worse for the wear. I imagine this was only the first of several quick fixes I fell back on during those days.
In one of my university classes, a professor spoke to my class at length regarding Goodness of Fit. Her voice rings on in my head, years later. I understand now, more than ever, why she lingered so on the topic. It’s so important. She emphasized that sometimes there is not that goodness of fit and it is the responsibility of the adult to recognize and adapt for the sake of the child.
Have you ever reflected on this as a caregiver? I think we all should.