Whether you are a new practitioner, or managing a setting of 200 children, looking after children can be tough. No two children are the same, nor are any two days with them it would seem, and they certainly don’t come with personalised user guides. Despite this, well-intentioned advice will be coming at you from every angle, and it can be difficult to know who to turn to for trusted guidance, as you make decisions for the children in your care.  

While no two children are the same, the fundamental processes of growth and development that guide them are. But how do you begin to understand what children need?  

With the revised EYFS and supplementary guides, to anecdotal advice shared during a coffee break, there is no end of information coming your way. And let us not get started on any one of a hundred sites you may land on when looking to the internet for advice. But with the content of training being as changeable as the children, where can you go to for advice you can trust?

While you may be surrounded by these influences, the truth is that in that moment when you make a decision, or engage with a child, it is your opinions, beliefs and actions that are what really count. And these will be informed by a mix of all these things, and more.  

When you have the knowledge and understanding of how children are developing, how their brain and body is maturing and the complex processes that are occurring, you can begin to trust in your own instincts. You can observe your children’s actions and behaviours, even in those difficult moments, and rely on your own science as you develop techniques that work for you and your setting. Regardless of what you may have read, or those recommendations that do not quite sit comfortably, you can begin to distinguish the techniques and practices you do want to follow.

Children at every age and stage of development are facing a boggling world of depth and texture, sounds and emotions, relationships and expectations.  Sometimes that can feel overwhelming for the best of us, however, in bodies that they are still learning how to manage, and that are changing daily, this can be a stressful ordeal. Especially for children who have not yet learnt to manage stress effectively.  

These skills are being learnt through every experience; within loving environments where stress levels are carefully managed, and appropriate responses are being demonstrated. Before this time, your children will have emotionally charged reactions whenever an experience becomes too stressful for them to manage effectively. This can be something as simple as a loud bang for a baby, raised voices for a toddler, or a disagreement over who will be ‘Mummy’ in the pre-school. Whatever their age, this kind of reaction is a clear indication that the situation is simply more than they can handle.  

We must then look to manage the environment and the situation before things become too much – and it always helps to have a well-considered plan for when emotions do tip beyond the point of no return. 

Children need to feel a sense of love and security. They need to be sheltered from excessively negative experiences within a calm environment, that is at the same time steeped in sensory-rich experiences. Once these things are in place, children begin to develop an emotional stability. They learn to experience their emotions without becoming afraid of them or developing negative behaviours as a reaction to them.  Children also need lots of opportunities to try different experiences, to engage for as long as they are interested and to be rewarded for their efforts. They need environments that are rich in language, surrounded by people who talk to them.  They need to have conversations and really engage, using a wide range of words from the time they are born. 

And lots of opportunities for social interactions – with different ages in different situations.  If you can provide these opportunities, and help your families to do the same, many of the difficulties experienced will resolve themselves.  

There is a limit however! Luckily, children at any age are particularly good at letting us know when they have had enough. When an experience becomes overwhelming, it begins to generate a negative level of stress within the body, causing them to employ any technique they can to get away from it. While you may experience this as the negative behaviours you or your parents are desperately seeking a quick solution to, the easy fix of the naughty step, time outs or raised voices do little to address the underlying issue. And all that happens is behavioural patterns are laid down, ready to be remembered next time.

Negative experiences within any environment are enough to shut down the thinking part of a child’s brain – the cerebral cortex. When this happens, activity in this region of the brain decreases, leaving them functioning from the more emotionally reactive lower brain, where their primitive functions reside – this may sound familiar.  And if you combine this with a situation that is demanding a particular response – such as getting them ready to go outside – or expectations that they are not mature enough to handle – such as sharing a favoured toy – you can see why emotional fallout can be expected. Unfortunately, this experience can be all too familiar when stressful demands are placed on children during their first experiences of, say, the school classroom. Just when they need their cerebral cortex the most.

Children are hard-wired to develop in mind and body through every experience. It is only when something gets in the way of these natural instincts that we begin to experience problems.  

During the early years, children are growing and learning more rapidly than at any other time of their lives. But they are also laying down the expectations and responses towards every future learning experience. To do this effectively, they need adults around them who understand the importance of their early years, as well as their need for emotional stability. And it is only once a child is secure in their environment and their relationships, that their attentions can turn to other things. This is especially important at this time when all our emotions and sense of security have been hugely disrupted. So, enjoy time with your children, manage your expectations and take every opportunity to connect.

Understanding Children is the first session in the new Nurturing Childhoods suite of talks and materials available for your parents to purchase. For your chance of winning a free Nurturing Childhoods module for one of your parents, check out this great new website and complete the questionnaire. Together we can really begin developing the potential of all children in their early years.

About the author:

As Founder of Nurturing Childhoods, Dr Kathryn Peckham is a passionate advocate for children’s access to rich and meaningful experiences throughout their foundational early years. Delivering online courses, training and seminars, she works with families and settings to identify and celebrate the impact of effective childhood experiences as preparation for all of life’s learning. An active campaigner for children, she consults on projects, conducts research for government bodies and contributes to papers launched in parliament. Through her consultancy and research she guides local councils, practitioners, teachers and parents all over the world in enhancing children’s experiences through the experiences they offer. A highly acclaimed author and member of parliamentary groups, Kathryn also teaches a Masters at the Centre for Research in Early Years. 

Get in contact with Kathryn by emailing info@kathrynpeckham.co.uk

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