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If you’ve ever sat and watched children play, there will come a time when you may witness a potential conflict between two individuals. It could be a discussion about who plays with the scooter next or whose turn it is on the swing, but sure enough, these incidents happen. When they do, you may see:

  • A child who is submissive and gives up on what they really want when confronted
  • A child who is confident and assertive and able to stand up for what they want
  • A child who becomes aggressive and/or bossy who gets what they want through bullying or aggression/violence

Clearly, we strive to encourage our young people to learn to be confident and assertive since these are positive values, whereas being submissive or aggressive are not traits to encourage because they will lead to problems for the child later on. But where is the line between being mindful of other people’s feelings and submission? When does assertiveness tip over into being aggressive? And how do we promote confidence and assertiveness anyway?

Why these things are important?

One of the prime areas of learning in the EYFS is “personal, social and emotional development”. The EYFS states:

“Children’s personal, social and emotional development (PSED) is crucial for children to lead healthy and happy lives, and is fundamental to their cognitive development… Children should be supported to manage emotions, develop a positive sense of self, set themselves simple goals, have confidence in their own abilities, to persist and wait for what they want and direct attention as necessary…. Through supported interaction with other children, they learn how to make good friendships, co-operate and resolve conflicts peaceably. These attributes will provide a secure platform from which children can achieve at school and in later life.”

We want our children to be able to get the things they want in life, mindful of the needs of others, but also understanding the importance of respecting their own wants, needs and desires. It is the path to happiness and can result in children fulfilling their true potential for the benefit of themselves and those around them. The Hungarian Holocaust-survivor, turned psychologist, Dr Edith Eger said:

“To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.” The benefits of being confident and assertive are that children can:

  • Speak up for themselves and their peers
  • Learn to say “no” when needed
  • Treat others with respect
  • Take constructive criticism
  • Deal with bullying instances more effectively

Communication styles

There are a number of communication styles which psychologists have identified, but 3 of the main styles are passive, aggressive and assertive. To understand these, you must first understand that it is not just the words that people use that indicate meaning or status - body language, use of space/proxemics, gesture and eye contact all play a part. The table below shows some of the ways that these three styles play out in practice.

What is needed for confidence and assertiveness?

To develop confidence and assertiveness, children need to be in the right environment. A child living in an unsafe, scary or dangerous environment is much less likely to develop confidence than those who don’t. So, as early years practitioners, we need to ensure that our settings:

  • Make children feel safe and secure
  • Include trusted adults
  • Allow secure relationships to develop
  • Encourage small wins so children can build on past successes
  • Allow safe risk-taking for children to experiment and learn
  • Understand that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process
  • Offer praise and feedback for effort as well as attainment

Using play to build confidence

Confidence comes from knowing you can do something – it is an experiential feeling – you can’t learn it from a book, you have to experience that uplifting feeling of knowing you have achieved something for yourself. In practice, this means allowing the children to try things, do things for themselves, and if they fail at first, explaining that this is part of the process.

The ‘secret’ to succeeding, is to keep trying and make small adjustments along the way. That’s how we all learn to walk after all. We don’t give up the first time we attempt to totter across the room – we fall down numerous times, but we keep getting back up. Eventually our tentative steps become more confident, which is reflected in our emotional understanding of ourselves and our self-esteem and general confidence.

Play is extremely important in promoting these things as it allows children to take risks, explore emotions and learn from the feedback from others. If they are too aggressive in taking the toy from someone, just because they wanted it, they will face the consequences of possibly losing a friend, getting into trouble with the adults, and potentially still not getting what they want.

Ways to encourage confidence- and assertive-building play

  • Practice role-play scenarios and talk about different outcomes
  • Encourage social situations where children can talk about themselves and what they want
  • Let children work through play tasks themselves – don’t be too quick to jump in and complete things for them
  • Encourage children to imagine different situations and be there to give feedback and support but don’t stifle what they want to do
  • Offer “What if?” scenarios, for example, “What if you were Superman/girl, what do you think they would do here?” or “What would happen if you used a different approach to this?” Offer problem-solving play opportunities through puzzles, jigsaws or building things, encouraging and praising effort
  • Avoid comparisons with others

 Encouraging confidence and assertiveness in children is important but so is encouraging these traits in ourselves and the staff in your settings! Click here to watch our free webinar on how to promote a 'learning nursery' to accomplish this. 

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