Reciprocity of Relationships
Children become themselves in the reciprocity of their encounters with their peers. In each exchange children gradually construct their own view of themselves and their relation to others and expand their loving kindness and compassion for themselves and for others beyond the family into the larger world. They hear themselves say things. They watch themselves do things. They see and feel the responses of others. The importance of this co-construction of identity is almost impossible to grasp. It affects everything.
Schools provide a safe opportunity for children to encounter other children who are different than themselves and bring the challenge of the unexpected. It’s an opportunity to make friends, lose friends, and regain friends. It’s an opportunity for every mistake to happen and to be fixed within a community of care. Children have to live through difficulty — each child in a different way. Children have to live through times of deep emotion — each child finding resilience and courage.
Birth to six is the time when ways of being with others and one’s view of oneself are acquired as a natural part of daily life. Finding personal strength and joy in others is not something that is taught. Sharing, risking, demanding, crying, hurting, and making-up are how we learn to be. If we don’t get these experiences in our early years, we struggle for the rest of our lives. Reciprocal struggle, in pursuit of relationships with others, is the keystone of each arch in building self.
Summary of What Educators Can Do
This is my attempt to list out what I have come to understand as my role as an adult facilitator of a group of young children, say, 32 months of age and older, in order that each and every child I have in my care can have the experience of fully developing rich, vital, and inclusive social relationships.
I have divided these challenges into sections that correspond to contexts. I found it helpful to consider my relationship to the child or the group in terms of my role and my wish to avoid mistakes that come with having power. Mixing up my roles among different contexts was confusing, and if I am confused, then my intentions surely cannot be clear to the children. I want to be consistent in order to convey my trust in them in every word and deed.
- Independent time — free play with others (indoor area play, outdoor free play, workstations time)
- Small group time — adult with three to six children (project work, studio work, small group activities with consistent membership, meal times relating to children nearby)
- Large group time — adult leads a gathering of the entire class (opening time, planning time, community meeting time, rendezvous time, music and dance time, outdoor games times, closing time)
- Individual time — greeting time, one-on-one listening, assertive care, supportive care, parting time
By keeping four contexts distinct, I am better able to model authenticity while attending to the children’s challenging peer relationships. I am violating my rule throughout this site to never tell the reader what to do. This page, because it is intended as a reminder to oneself, is entirely in the imperative voice.
Allow children the freedom to make mistakes in constructing their identity and the identity of others. Independent time is time for the children to be who they are and encounter each other, so problems and mess-ups can happen in a safe, caring space. This is a time to avoid rescuing and waiting to see how the community takes on the care of its members.
Set clear, consistent expectations. The guides for what is appropriate are clear ahead of time and committed to by all adults. These are best stated on the positive side, what you can do, and negative “NOTS” are kept to a minimum. Some schools have community meetings for the children to set the guides; some schools have completely transferred the guidelines to the children themselves. Guidelines are best changed in a community meeting, which changes independent time to group time until the problem is addressed.
Trust that the children are capable and competent and therefore, if allowed, can fix their own mistakes. This means if there are problems, you can offer the problem later to the community to figure out an approach to a solution, which, given experience, may be better than your first thought as a solution. Teacher Tom has a story to tell.
Be a model of how people ought to behave. The way you act you represent the ideal for children to aspire to, therefore you have to take care to always be courteous, calm, loving, gentle, compassionate, and caring in addressing what needs to be addressed for the welfare of yourself, each person, and the community. Your social relationships with everyone are the most powerful force for the children’s peer relationships.
Be present as yourself, the greatest gift you have for children. Talk about yourself. Talk about the social interactions you are seeing. Inform the children of the names, the actions, and the descriptors for whatever they are working on together, using the most complex vocabulary and syntax you can muster.
Respond Warmly to What You Value
Attend to what you value when a social competence first emerges in each child. Sprinkle warmth like fairy dust. Experience helps one see emergence and take joy it. The uneducated see what is wrong or needs correcting. The educated see nascent goodness.
Open the Gap
Avoid stepping in with one’s personal power. Wait before pushing. Put a cork in it. Keep directions in check. Rephrase questions into “I wonder…” Praise (“good job” “I like the way”) offers little incentive for inventiveness for the subject child, may be destructive to the independence and freedom of others, and implies children should seek your approval. Non-verbal positive communication and vocal sounds are often the most effective and generally do not interfere with the children’s independence.
Make clean up and restoration a group goal. (1) If skills are necessary for cleaning (like how to sweep, wash a table, or clean a glue bottle) show everyone at large group time, not at independent time. (2) Cue the start of restoration with a signal (like a bell, not words). (2) Attend to the 80% children who take initiative (rather than the 20% who are not engaged). (3) Stay informative (talk about what is remaining or where things go). (4) Celebrate accomplishment at the very end when everything is fully restored and ready for the next encounter (Hip, Hip, Hooray!) Post a document like one of these to remind all adults to inform and attend to The Goals for Clean-up Time.
Build a creative, industrious, and inventive classroom. Activities have to be engaging, offering provocations exactly in the Zone of Proximal Development. Subscribe to Teacher Tom’s Blog, do the work necessary to learn The Project Approach, and, internationally, contribute to Reconceptualizing ECE
Offer many forms of representation in art, writing, and drama, etc., to first re-think it and then present it to others. Offer time and materials for drawing the blocks you just built, scribing your thoughts from the dramatic play that just occurred, or dancing the bubbles that you played with in the tub or air. Offer ways to record experience in another language or re-presenting one language with another. Then take that into beneficence by offering opportunities for sharing with peers.
Provide unique, open-ended materials for unstructured exploration and look carefully to the odd things the children find intriguing when they are working together.
Demonstrate in large group time the steps in making useful, predetermined products that require tool use. The children watch as a group then do as they wish in free time. Show everyone how to sew pasta wheels on a paper, how to glue wooden scraps so they stick, make a helicopter out of paper, or how to cut out a mask. Then let them go at it freely and help each other figure it out — without adult help. Later review what happened. See Step-chart Activities.
Spend the time capturing what happens and compile it (usually on your unpaid time) into a form that communicates to others. Recordings and notes guide one’s growth and offer the children a shared understanding of what they do, what others do, and what the community does together.
- Can you trust your play environment to do most of the teaching while you watch and document?
- Can you let the children test and try out how to construct their relationships in their own ways?
- Can you really give them the time to work out most of their problems with each other?
Small Group Time
Routine Small Group Activities
Offer routine group activities to build friendships and communication abilities. Picture storybooks, natural progression activity, transformation, walkabout, or project work. See Small Group Activities. I have had children who had a hard time establishing any relationship with any child. When I assigned this child and his or her most likely partner to the same small group and they shared together these many activities, it worked. It’s the best thing I know to do.
Create consistent, community-building, relaxed mealtime protocols. Determine the ideal setting for sharing food, the arrangement of the tables to maximize pleasure and aesthetics, the tradition for opening the experience, the routines that focus attention on sharing food with courtesy and politeness, the content of what is most desirable to talk about together appropriately, a closing routine, and how the cleanup work is done when in community.
A formal dinner party can be a shared vision. The hostess plans where people are seated expecting people to talk to the person to the left, to the right, and across the table. The table is exquisite, of course, and the lights are low. Something is said at the beginning; something is said or done at the end. Conversations are about what the other person was doing in their life. Courtesies to others are strictly adhered to.
Pati Meyer at Pike Market Child Care had a noon meal that lasted 30 minutes or more. The overhead lights were off. Tablecloth. Battery candles. Flowers. The children got it ready for the food delivery cart from the kitchen. Food presented in bowls family style passed around the table to the left. When all were ready, she said a gentle poem about the importance of this community and the time. All children stayed until all were finished, not because they had to, but because the table with others was the most fun place to be. She of course was a model of delightful conversation, full of interesting self-disclosures and true tales.
All present join hands in a circle around the table, and are silent for half a minute or so as they collect their thoughts, meditate or pray. Then one person gently squeezes the hands of the people seated adjacent; this signal is quickly passed around the table and people then begin to eat and talk.
Quote Introduction: Shakespeare:
Good company, good food, good welcome, can make good people.
We are grateful for this food. It restores our strength. It heals our bodies. It fuels our brains.
We are grateful for this time, to renew our spirit, to share our trials, to find new strength.
Yo. Ho. Ho.
itadakimasu (いただきます）grateful awareness of the receiving
- Can you envision a community of young children participating together in a shared excitement of being together communicating with others in comfort and belonging?
- Can you find a way to get routine small group time included in the children’s day?
- Can you make at least one meal a day as formal as a dinner party with a prescribed protocol?
Large Group Time
Stories of Altruism
Read or tell Community Books that create the power of myth, envisioning through story the importance of an ethic of interdependence and care. Stories have characters who are inclusive and make contributions to each other or to the group; characters cooperate, negotiate, or act altruistically. The characters aid or support each other in pursuit of a common purpose. Voluntary, generous consideration of others which is of a helpful nature; problems are solved by characters coming to terms through discussions in which a generous consideration of others prevails, as well as acceptance of each person as a valued member of the whole.
Stories of Deep Emotions
Emotion Books re-create experiences of emotion to discuss and process together. These books provide a direct experience of feeling an emotion or reliving an experience that is shared by most of the children in a classroom. The story is presented from a child’s perspective, not detached, adult-filtered, or moralizing. Vocabulary of emotions is essential. With words one can process emotional experiences with others. See Emotion Vocabulary page and wall chart. Vocabulary can also be introduced with How Are You Peeling?, a humorous illustrations using fruits and vegetables.
Enact stories fairy tales, such as Three Billy Goats Gruff, where traumatic events are encountered. Teacher Tom writes about The Three Little Pigs.
Enacting Children’s Own Stories
Read and enact the children’s own stories as Vivian Paley has so clearly demonstrated.
Problem Solving Discussions
Lead social problem-solving discussions. Re-enact problem situations that have occurred in the group, elicit children’s suggestions, and let the children decide what to do or, if nothing, then come back to the problem later. One way to open discussions of social problems is The Green Circle, developed by Kate Ratliff in her Spring Hollow School.
Small photographic representations of all the children are displayed with a large green circle. When anyone doesn’t feel included in the community, they may move their image outside of the circle, which informs the group of an issue that needs addressing.
Co-active Songs and dances
Music, song, and dance provide a unique opportunity for connection that is qualitatively different. Some children explode with confidence and presence for the very first time in this environment. Activities involve partner and small group work and include the creative, spontaneous contributions of children, creative movement as well as folk dances, singing, and musical games.
Whenever something newly important emerges, the community acknowledges it.
- Can you acquire a library of the essential literature of a democratic learning community?
- Can you gather the emotional literature that presents the emotional dark side of life?
- Can you make music and dance stimulate and celebrate spontaneous, joyous group participation?
Inform children of alternatives. After a time is allowed for the child to use the strategies that come to mind offer alternatives, the more options the better: “you could say…, or you could do…” “another idea is to…” I challenge myself to think of 6 options, which takes a long time sometimes. Usually the children think of something I have not thought of.
Actively listen in times of strong emotion. Emotions are an opportunity for closeness: describe what you see, without using emotion words, paraphrase the message you hear the child say, without using emotion words, offer names for feelings, without using the words angry, mad or sad, and finally review the situation. See Leadership and Care.
Assertively step in to offer an agenda for negotiating disputes. Two choices are available: the first is to remove the item until the children on their own agree on how to proceed; the second is to offer a discussion agenda for problem solving:  children identify the problem,  children offer ideas,  children decide what to try,  children carry it out. If it does not work, the agenda is repeated.
Offering the incoming child what they most need right away, a hug, food, linkup with another child, time together.
Offering the outgoing child eye contact, unconditional positive regard, a comment about a topic of interest to the child, the family member, and oneself when all are together.
- Can you restrain yourself from jumping in too soon and offer the time for the children to fix it themselves?
- Can you “be with” children at times of deep emotion, listening without judgment, and valuing emotion as an essential aspect of our humanity without discounting or denying what they feel?
- Can you trust children to fix their own problems by helping each other find an agreeable way?
- Can you imagine what your life would be like if you had had these opportunities when you were young?
Integrated Structure of Openness for Children’s Enhanced Relationships in Four Bullet Points
- Offer truly free independent play time — for extended, unhurried time — without much adult interference or coaching. A time to make mistakes and fix them in concert with others. A time when peers can empathize and help rather than adults. A time for adults to document emergence and reflect on what could extend relationship opportunities.
- Make large group times joyous and compassionate. If you want to influence the community, this is the time.
- Provide mediated relationship opportunities in regular small group meetings where interdependence, participation, reciprocity, and belonging are valued.
- Be a facilitator, listener, or guide, as necessary, at key times, eye-to-eye, with unconditional love, trust, and authenticity.