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Back to basics
Child guidance: Getting inside the child’s world


With appropriate positive guidance, children learn self-regulation, responsibility, cooperation, and problem solving. They—and we—will continue to have occasional missteps that are hurtful, but with increasing maturity and self-control, all of us can identify and take more socially acceptable and emotionally satisfying paths.

Guiding children involves active and consistent responses from adults. Guidance reflects our attitudes and understanding of what children feel and what they are developmentally capable of controlling.

The skill of perspective-taking—being able to consider and respect another’s point of view—typically develops between the ages of 5 and 9. Because young children don’t have the cognitive skill to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings, desires, motivations, intentions, or needs, they must rely on caring, responsive adults to reflect and sometimes interpret actions. Key to supporting a child’s ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” is building a sense of belonging—helping a child believe, “I belong here and I can contribute to how this group works.”


Sense of belonging
Every person wants to feel accepted and appreciated, and most of us have learned that appreciated behaviors cycle into more appreciated behaviors. Positive reinforcement works. For example, we are more likely to help out with a task if we are sincerely and specifically thanked for our work. Alternatively, when our efforts are ignored or acknowledged only in passing, our sense of belonging is minimized. Our goal is to help children learn that they are respected as individuals who are growing into capable independent decision makers as well as socially adept members of the group.

For young children there is a fine line between seeking acceptance and seeking attention. And adults often find it difficult to distinguish between the two and interpret both as behavioral missteps. For example, whining annoys you and 3-year-old Gabby has learned to get adult attention by whining. Gabby is seeking acceptance and doesn’t understand that her attention-seeking behavior (whining) actually alienates and makes acceptance (by the group and you) less likely.

Adults also sometimes confuse a child’s developmental need for autonomy with defiance. “I won’t clean up because I’m not finished,” says 4-year-old Jerrod. He may not be able to articulate his request for autonomy: “I know we need to go outside but I’m really focused on this work. Please give me time to finish it.”


Basic guidelines
Check your expectations. Adult expectations of children’s behaviors are sometimes inappropriate. Make developmental sequence and milestones the base from which you interact with all children. Infants are dependent, toddlers seek autonomy with reassurance, and preschoolers are working toward independent decisions. Meet each child in the group with the appropriate response according to the child’s developmental need.

Recognize personality and temperament. Research tells us that temperament—our characteristic responses to stimuli—are consistent through the lifespan. A child’s temperament and personality are not likely to change. Learn to be flexible and to recognize that, for example, reluctance to join activities may reflect the child’s introversion rather than defiance. Work to encourage participation, but accept that not every child will be a verbal or activity leader.

Work with—not against—parents. Support parents as their child’s first teachers. Avoid blaming family circumstances for children’s behavioral missteps, and instead partner with the family to support their children’s quest for self-reliance and self-regulation. Communicate regularly and reflect the family’s goals, interests, and preferences in your classroom routines and curriculum choices.

Rely on the basics. From infancy, children need only three rules. Stated positively, we keep ourselves safe, we keep each other safe, and we keep our environment safe. Implicit in each is a respect for the individual, recognition of developmental milestones, and both physical and emotional safety. Further, we communicates both individual and shared responsibility—for the good of the whole learning community.