“I want my mommy,” Guiding children at nap time
by Ramona Freeman and Courtney Wright
It’s 1:30 p.m., and the 4-year-olds are lying on their cots. In this well-respected child care center, the room is quiet, soft music is playing, and the teacher is adjusting the window shades. Suddenly Justin begins to whimper.
“You need to stop crying,” the teacher says. “Your friends are trying to sleep.” Justin continues to cry.
After a brief pause, the teacher says: “Justin, what is your problem?”
“I want my mommy.”
Lifting the child, the teacher warns: “If you don’t be quiet, I’m going to take you to the baby room and give you a bottle. Now you need to stop crying.” She rocks him like a baby, and Justin’s cries grow louder.
Velma, the teacher’s aide, has heard his cries and enters the room.
“Look, everyone, Justin is a baby,” the teacher says. “He’s crying like a baby! Shhhhh, Baby. It’s OK. Let’s go get you a bottle.” The other children begin to laugh.
“Now stop crying or I will take you over there, and I mean it.”?
Velma takes Justin from the teacher, puts him back on his cot, and covers him with a blanket. She softly talks with him about his mother coming later in the day, and he gradually calms himself.
We can easily see the errors in this teacher’s behavior—what not to do. But it’s more difficult to cultivate habits guiding what we should do. Clearly, adults must create a safe and welcoming environment in sensitive and effective ways, and this involves meeting children’s needs as well as teaching them skills for coping.
What’s the purpose?
Kohn (2005) argues that when adults banish a child for the sake of the rest (so that they can concentrate on a lesson or fall asleep), their judgment is based on compliance, which “…creates an uneasy, uncertain, and ultimately unsafe climate.” Although the teacher justifies the demand for quiet—so that other children can sleep—this purpose seems to be control. The irony here is that the adult rallies other children to join in the taunting! But stirring their interest in the matter surely does not maintain the quiet atmosphere they need to settle down.
Fields, Perry, and Fields (2010) note that discipline approaches must be individualized, which includes understanding each child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and communication level. In Justin’s case, the teacher relies on ultimatums to get the desired behavioral outcome: She uses the fear of punishment to motivate a child to stop crying. In the process, Justin learns that it doesn’t matter what he’s feeling inside, as long he stops crying. The use of extrinsic motivation also ignores a problem’s context, and in our story, the teacher does not consider the source of Justin’s being upset. He may have calmed down at some point, but his problem could be better resolved by openly, and gently, addressing it.
Respecting feelings through active listening
A more responsive approach to help Justin is based on the classic works of psychologist Thomas Gordon (1974; 2003). Gordon’s active listening is an effective way to acknowledge and reassure children when they’re upset. According to Gordon, when adults use active listening, children understand that their thoughts and feelings are respected, understood, and accepted. Active listening helps identify underlying problems, brings the teacher and child into a relationship of trust, and helps children learn to solve their own problems (Gordon 2003). Attending to Justin’s needs by listening, and encouraging him to share his thoughts, would have been beneficial in several ways.
First, active listening is not judgmental, which is particularly important in Justin’s case because he should not be blamed for behavior based upon honest feelings. Those emotions came about from circumstances over which he has no control. Also, the adult would learn more about the specifics of Justin’s missing his mother and could take into account underlying concerns the child might have.
The adult could then offer reassurance and tailor remarks to help Justin work through dealing with his mother’s absence: “I know you miss your mom. I bet it’s hard to be here without her.” Simple, comforting words that validate a young child’s real concerns are powerful antidotes for children of Justin’s age. The process of active listening also builds trust, which could help him gradually become more comfortable in a setting away from his mother.
Finally, active listening is a technique by which children can learn to problem solve with someone more experienced. Justin’s teacher could have helped him address his anxiety from the outset of this episode with a back rub, a tissue, or a drink of water. Sometimes just giving children permission to decide what they need is empowering enough to help calm them. In the process, Justin could have learned that adults can be depended upon for help.
Teachers can also use I-messages (Gordon 2003) with children. I-messages let the child know what specific behavior is troubling an adult and how it makes the adult feel. I-messages are necessary when an adult’s objectives are paramount, but children can be included in the reasoning behind rules and expectations.
Justin’s teacher could have said: “When the room isn’t quiet, other kids can’t sleep. I need you to rest on your cot, but I will sit here with you until your mom comes.” Or she could have said: “I can imagine how sad you must be feeling right now, but I need you to take a deep breath so you can tell me what you’re thinking. Then I can help you feel better. Some of your friends are almost asleep, so I really need everyone to be very quiet.”
I-messages avoid blame, are coupled with empathy, and identify any concrete, undesirable influences on others (Gordon 2003).
Adopting a caring attitude and genuine interest in Justin as someone who has hopes and fears would be doubly helpful. While he may respond positively at the moment, he may also begin to understand this caregiving place and these people, and learn to rely on others.
In Learning to Trust (2006), educator Marilyn Watson describes the powerful benefits of teacher Laura Ecken’s conversations with primary school children to connect with them on personal levels. Rather than look for ways to establish control, she looked for the meaning underlying children’s behaviors to find ways to meet their needs. In the process, strong bonds were formed that influenced other dimensions of her classroom.
These same principles can be used for younger children in child care settings where children are often experiencing their first extended time apart from the security of home and family. Consistently building this kind of trust can then become the foundation for further growth to take place in all developmental domains.
Directors and program managers frequently have opportunities to support teachers—and children’s parents—in nap time dilemmas. Administrators set the overall tone and communicate program expectations—to teachers, children, and the children’s parents. Routine, consistency, and clarity make all activities easier—especially transition activities like nap time. Experienced directors use the following guidelines to set and maintain program policy, making nap time less challenging for everyone.
Read the literature on responsive and respectful caregiving.
Clarify specific policies for nap time for teachers and staff.
Address nap time procedures with parents up front.
Include emotional development, separation, and attachment in teacher trainings.
Keep your finger on the pulse of daily matters.
Imagine yourself in the child’s dilemma.
And how can teachers and caregivers help children like Justin to feel better? We might sit beside Justin on the floor to pat his back until he’s calm. If that’s not successful, we could invite him to come with us to an adjacent room or hallway, especially if the other children are asleep. That would give us the chance to talk to him alone and find out whether his being upset is due to more than just missing his mother.
We could offer him a drink of water and talk about his mother’s upcoming arrival. We might ask if he would like to stay with an adult in the front office so he could watch for his mother by the door. If Justin’s mother were available by phone, he could talk to her briefly for reassurance.
It would be easy to have a frank discussion with the whole group of children, who might also miss their parents at a time when children are typically being tucked down for a nap at home. Even the youngest children are resourceful in finding self-calming techniques: “I just close my eyes and ‘sing my mother to me’ in my head” (a reference to the movie Australia). These extra measures are not unreasonable. They may help Justin come to terms with missing his mother, and ease the time it takes for him to adjust and learn to rest with the other children.
In addition to helping Justin feel better, it’s important to help children learn to control their own feelings. An eventual goal for them is the ability to use tools and techniques of self-regulation for intellectual, social, and emotional development. The best opportunities for this learning occur in the moment when these strategies can ease a real and immediate fear.
Children can be taught self-talk so that they can give themselves comforting reminders. For example, parents can be encouraged to compose something personal to recite when they are apart, such as: “Gonna fly around the moon, gonna sing a silly tune, gonna be together soon!” Or they can learn to create detailed mental images and plots with loved ones, such as how Dad, Mom, or Grandpa is getting ready to drive to the center to pick them up. Practicing this with their teachers can be imaginative! Five-year-olds may no longer appreciate security blankets, but teachers can still allow children to keep some special memento as an effective way to ease anxiety.
To recap, use these helpful strategies for helping children rest—and even to sleep.
Use active listening techniques.
Affirm the child’s thoughts and feelings.
Practice genuine understanding.
Problem solve together to meet the child’s needs.
Give the child a voice in the solution.
Focus on the child’s needs rather than adult control.
Be consistent to build trust.
Never give the child the impression that having fears is wrong.
Consider the child’s age (a 5-year-old won’t buy into simple redirection).
Imagine yourself in the child’s dilemma.
A spirit of caring
When teachers are dealing with a child who has any issue, one principle is clear: we must understand children and meet their needs. If teachers use only rewards and punishments to control behavior, it’s for their convenience. Teachers may be satisfied, but little has been done for the child.
On the other hand, if teachers, in the spirit of caring, listen to children and take the time to thoroughly understand their thoughts and behaviors, both will benefit from the start of a trusting relationship.
Fields, Marjorie, Nancy Perry, and Debby Fields. 2010. Constructive Guidance and Discipline: Preschool and Primary Education, 5th Ed. Boston: Merrill.
Gordon, Thomas. 2003. Teacher Effectiveness Training: The Program Proven to Help Teachers Bring Out the Best in Students of All Ages. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Gordon, Thomas. 1974. T.E.T.: Teacher Effectiveness Training. New York: Peter H. Wyden.
Kohn, Alfie. 2005. Unconditional teaching. Educational Leadership 63 (1).
Marion, Marian. 2010. Introduction to Early Childhood Education: A Developmental Approach. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson.
Watson, Marilyn. 2003. Learning to Trust: Transforming Difficult Elementary Classrooms Through Developmental Discipline. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
About the authors
Ramona Freeman is an assistant professor at Kent State University, Salem, Ohio. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Akron. Her research interests include appropriate early childhood curriculum, Reggio Emilia, and family child care. Her recent initiatives examine family child care internationally. She teaches courses in child development, art and social studies, home-school-community partnerships, and child guidance.
Courtney Wright completed her bachelor of science in early childhood education at Kent State University, Salem. She is an early childhood educator in Lisbon, Ohio, currently working with toddlers. She continues to focus on appropriate socio-emotional growth as well as intellectual development of the young children with whom she works.