As early learning professionals, it is our hope that children who transition out of our programs and into kindergarten will leave with the skills to successfully build healthy relationships. In order for that transition to occur successfully, children must first learn foundational social-emotional skills to help them understand how to relate to and connect with their peers.
Even at a very young age, children can be sensitive and empathetic, and early social emotional skills emerge naturally as children experience relationships with other children. These early experiences can be encouraged and reinforced by educators who are committed to supporting children as they build positive, healthy relationships.
Children learn what healthy relationships look like by watching the adults in their lives interact with each other. One of the best and simplest ways that we can help children is by ensuring that we are using kind, respectful communication with others. Children are keen observers, and are very aware of what is going on around them. They pick up on emotions and tone when adults communicate with one another. We can lead by example and show children what it looks like to be supportive, polite, honest, and helpful.
Modeling can also be incorporated into your conversations with other children in your program. When a child is sad, and you comfort them or use supportive language, both they and the other children who observe the interaction will learn from your example.
Unfortunately, modeling goes both ways. Children do not only learn from positive examples, but will also pick up on negative interactions. If children regularly see adults yelling, they might try the same kind of communication to see if it works for them. This is why it is important to always be thoughtful about what kind of example we are setting for children.
Talking About Feelings
Zero to Three notes that “forming positive, healthy relationships depends on the ability to show feelings appropriately and to recognize the feelings of others.” We can teach children acceptable ways to vent anger, such as running in the yard, drawing an angry picture, or tossing a pillow on the floor.
When children can talk about their feelings, they can communicate in a healthy way. You can help children learn how to express their feelings by helping to connect language with emotion. You might say, “You seem sad that it’s time for a nap, because you weren’t done playing”, or “I can see that you’re feeling angry right now.” Using this type of language will help children identify and be able to talk about their own feelings and those of others.
Embracing Differences and Varying Abilities
An important part of relationship-building is developing a foundation of respect and understanding for others. This comes from learning from a young age to not only accept or tolerate, but to embrace those who are different. When children are young, they are naturally curious about differences. Why does one child have different colored skin? Why does another child have two moms? Why does does he look different from me? Why does she still wear a diaper?
These questions are vital to children’s understanding of their community and how the world works. They are aware of the things that make us the same, as well as the things that make us different. It is important to teach children that we are each unique, and that is okay. Maybe some of us are shy and some of us are scared of the dark. But these are the things that make us special. Children need to know that differences are the beauty of our school community and our world.