Saturday, 20 October 2012

What did you learn at nursery today?

In this blog I reflect on four incidents in the life of Jack, aged 2 years and 4-6 months and raise important issues about how we engage with small children.

Incident 1: Jack aged 2 years and 4 months comes home from nursery.

Hi Jack, how are you?
I sad. 
Why are you sad Jack?
No see Janey no more.

Janey has been Jack’s key worker at the Sure Start Nursery he has attended two-three days a week since he was six months. Local authority provision of childcare for babies and small children is no longer statutory, and the local authority in question decided to close the nursery.  The quality of provision had been outstanding. Jack loved Janey, his key worker, and now he couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t see her anymore. 

Jack had brought home a book which recorded highlights from his experience in nursery.  He sat with his mummy and looked through the book.  She didn’t want to make light of his sadness, she explained that the nursery was closing and Janey had a new job to go to.  Jack would be starting a new nursery and it was OK to feel sad.

Incident 2:  Jack, aged 2 years 6 months seems to be settling well into his new nursery, which is based on the site where his daddy and mummy work. He particularly enjoys putting on his helmet and cycling to and from nursery each day with daddy.  He’s stopped talking about Janey and his old nursery.

One day when he was dropped off at nursery he burst into tears as his daddy left.  “Don’t cry Jack”, said a nursery worker, “if you don’t cry, I’ll give you a sticker.”  Jack’s parents were very unhappy about this and let the nursery know they didn’t want this kind of response to his distress, they didn’t mind if he cried, they knew he would soon settle as he became distracted by the activities on offer, but in that moment of tears they wanted his feelings validated. 

Incident 3: The next day Jack’s daddy was getting him dressed for nursery and Jack said, “Go to Janey nursery today, daddy.” His daddy told him that Janey’s nursery was closed and so he couldn’t go there, he would be going to his new nursery.  “No” said Jack.

That day Jack’s mummy took him to nursery in the car. On the way he was chatting happily, then just before they arrived his voice reduced almost to a whisper, it was impossible to hear what he was saying.  “You’ll have to speak up Jack, we can’t hear you when you whisper.”  He carried on whispering. Finally on being asked again to “speak up”, he said, “Not cry at nursery Mummy.”  His mummy reassured him, “I don’t mind if you cry Jack, it’s fine to cry if you feel sad. I cry if I feel sad.”  They arrived at nursery and Jack ran to look at the guinea-pigs and then outside. He began to climb up a small A-frame climbing wall showing dexterity and confidence.  It was something he had done a number of times before and he clearly enjoyed doing it.  The nursery worker came over and alternatively commented, “be careful Jack,” and “brave boy, Jack”.  Why did she say this? He was not in any danger, he clearly didn’t feel scared and he certainly wasn’t being brave. 

Jack got off the climbing frame and the nursery worker smiled at him.  He didn’t smile back.  “Oh come on Jack, you promised me you’d smile today.” Jack burst into tears.  She scooped him up and took him over to another play area to distract him and his mummy said goodbye and left. 

She both felt very unhappy with what had happened and in telling me about it, I wondered what Jack was learning from the nursery’s response to him:

1)    If you are sad you mustn’t cry.
2)    If you don’t cry you will be rewarded with a sticker.  
3)    If you do something that demonstrates your physical agility you will be praised for being ‘brave’, even though you were clearly not afraid.  
4)    Mummy says it’s OK to be sad, but nursery workers don’t agree – they want you to pretend to be happy when you are feeling sad.

What does a parent who wants her small boy to be able to express his feelings and have them validated do when faced with this situation?  I told another mother with a two year old and she didn’t understand why I was upset.  She said parents don’t want their children to cry when they leave nursery and want the workers to have strategies to stop this. She also thought that her own daughter copied other children who cried and pretended to cry when she left because she thought she was meant to cry, she was only pretending to be sad. This led me to reflect on the situation over the next few days. 

What provision do we want for our youngest children?
We know that a child’s experience in their early years is fundamentally important for their flourishing, so in providing care for small children we expect much more than provision of a service so that parents can go to work. The central focus of a nursery is to meet the needs of the children through offering appropriate activities and ensuring a safe, caring environment. The relationship between a small child and the adults at nursery is central. In providing care the attitudes shown towards children will influence the building of relationships for their whole life and it is ethically important what the quality of those relationships are like.

Caring for small children is a moral activity and moral issues will be constantly raised in the practice of childcare – we have a right to expect sensitivity, trust and mutual concern.  Caring should therefore involve close attention to the feelings and needs of Jack and his parents. Validating a child’s feelings is vital for the relationship between the child and the adult caring for them – it is hard to trust someone who doesn’t validate our feelings and trust is fundamental if a child is to feel cared for.

The last thing any parent wants is hostility between them and those who care for their children.  We expect the nursery to see and to hear children’s needs and make sure they are met, the parents have their preferred ways of responding to their child – it is therefore essential there is dialogue between home and nursery.  Should they raise the issue with the nursery?

This raises some questions:
·      If they raise the issue with the nursery what should they say?
·      If, to get the kind of behaviour they want, the nursery uses rewards in the form of stickers isn’t this encouraging deception?
·      What if this induces fear in the child who knows he can't comply – the small voice Jack used in the car was in my view an expression of fear, or perhaps shame that he wouldn’t be able to comply – ‘big boys don’t cry’.
·      What kind of world are we preparing children for when adults tell them how to feel and how to behave?

Let’s consider the incident from Jack’s perspective.  That morning he had asked his daddy if he could go to his old nursery – why did he do that?  I think he had noticed differences between the way his old nursery interacted with him and the new one. The Sure Start nursery had had extensive training in emotional literacy, they often discussed Jack’s emotional reactions to his day and reference to his developing emotional literacy was frequently the subject of comment in his daily diary that was passed between home and school.  Parents were encouraged to write in the diary and let the nursery know what feelings the child had been expressing at home.  Their policy was to acknowledge and welcome children’s feelings, to believe the child’s expression of emotion was genuine and to respond with empathy and encourage each child to talk about their feelings. 

Jack’s parents made an appointment to see the manager at the new, private nursery to discuss their concerns and to raise questions about policy with regard to responding to the children’s feelings.  They had a very productive meeting, however they found out that the staff had not had any training in emotional literacy and had no strategies for promoting it.  Their focus was the parents – they were told that parents don’t want their children crying when they drop them off in the morning and so the nursery did their best to make sure this didn’t happen. It would seem that the parents’ needs, not the children’s are being prioritized – she who pays the piper calls the tune.   

Let’s consider it from the nursery worker’s point of view.  She (and sometimes he) is trying to maintain social order in the nursery where it has been decided that happiness, not sadness should be shown by children when they enter the nursery. Children who smile are given stickers – children who cry are promised stickers if they don’t cry.  This raises the issue of what kind of society will be created when children are told to pretend about their feelings in this way.

Why was Jack afraid he wouldn’t be able to stop himself crying? I don’t think it was because he wanted a reward in the form of a sticker.  I think it was because he didn't want to upset the nursery nurse.  To a small child having the approval of your care worker withdrawn because you don't smile is devastating and of course he was worried. If children are given stickers if they don't cry this will shape their emotional development. Surely using rewards to regulate behaviour when it requires a child to deny their feelings is indefensible.

What kind of environment is being created if Jack gets a sticker for not crying? The sticker represents ‘praise’ for not crying and is therefore a moral judgement: those who don’t cry are the ‘good’ children. Young children's moral learning arises from the sum total of the responses of others to what they do – this is not an appropriate response to a child’s sadness. Through her use of language, the nursery worker is imposing on Jack the identity of the ‘good child’ who is rewarded when he doesn’t cry and doesn’t show his negative emotions, so through her expectations and his need to please her, he is being encouraged to inhabit a false self.

The climbing wall incident is another example of an inappropriate response. Jack is given language to describe his actions, a very important part of language development for a two year old – but in this case the language used does not match what is happening. To be able to ensure children’s safety and yet not over-control is an important requirement for a nursery worker – taking care of a small child so that he does not hurt himself yet is not unduly fearful is a skillful job; in the incident on the climbing wall this was not achieved.  He is told he is ‘brave’ and at the same time he is admonished to be cautious – such mixed messages are not helpful to the young child and labeling his actions as ‘brave’ when he was without fear and admonishing him to ‘be careful’ when he was clearly competent, is linguistically and emotionally confusing and says more about the nursery’s priorities that the child’s.

Incident 4: The evening after this event Jack asked for a bedtime ‘knight’ story – he loves ‘Mike the Knight’, a character on the Cbeebies children’s channel.  His Mum told him the story of Rupunzel – substituting the prince for a knight. For those unfamiliar with the story it involves a prince (knight) falling in love with Rupunzel who has been locked in a tower by a witch. On finding out about the knight the witch takes Rupunzel far away and, pretending to be Rupunzel, tricks the knight into the tower. She pushes the knight out of the window and he falls into thorn bushes and is blinded.  The knight wanders the forest for some years until he is found by some children, who take the knight to their mother, who is no other than Rapunzel. She throws her arms around the knight and weeps with joy to have found him and as her tears touch his eyes he is able to see again.

A complex story for a two year old you may think. The next morning Jack asked for the story again and then made some comments.  “Don’t like knight thrown out of tower, Mummy” and then, “like it he not blind now, Mummy”.  In showing his understanding that it is bad to throw the knight out of the tower and good that his sight is restored, Jack demonstrates a deeper understanding of moral issues than most people would think a 2 year old capable of. This raises an important question: if he can understand the moral issues in Rapunzel, what is he to make of being asked to lie about his feelings?

I believe that small children like Jack are able to understand abstract concepts such as good and bad, sad and happy and can engage in exploration and reasoning about them.  After all traditional fairy tales from all cultures across the world are full of such concepts – rich and poor, brave and cowardly, ugly and beautiful, strong and weak – happy and sad.  We frequently and wrongly assume that small children can’t reflect on such ideas – so it’s OK to impose how we want them to feel, rather than help them explore how they do feel.  It follows that when a small child expresses their feelings they should not only be respected and validated, but they should have the opportunity to talk about them as well.  A child’s feelings should be treated with respect as well as kindness.  How we respond to small children will shape their understanding of themselves and their world – it is a huge moral responsibility and there should be no place for manipulation.  Manipulation is the manifestation of childism[1] and childist attitudes.

[1] Childism is when the adults’ needs are prioritized over the child’s, when adults make assumptions they know how a child should feel at any time and take steps to manipulate children’s emotion to comply with adult expectations.