The social-emotional growth of early childhood students should be a top priority for every early childhood educator. On my campus, we believe that social-emotional learning trumps academic learning any day of the week for our early childhood students. And this goes double for a child facing adversity! Self regulation skills are not something that a child naturally develops without intentional shaping and guidance from the influential adults in their lives, and gone are the days when schools are responsible for only teaching academic subjects. Early childhood educators have a unique responsibility to teach the vital skills associated with self regulation.
In the specific context of children facing adversity, social emotional learning is their lifeline of hope for a healthy emotional future. A child coming from an at-risk setting cannot only be seen as at-risk for academic failure. They are at-risk for difficulties far beyond not “passing the test”. These are students who can display erratic and unsafe behavior, tantrum for seemingly no reason, display extreme self regulation deficits, hurt the very people trying to help them, lack empathy, and withdraw from the world. Any or all of these behaviors are possible for a child facing adversity. I’m reminded of the truth that a hurting child, and in need of love, will often ask for it in the most unloving of ways.
What are teachers of our youngest and most vulnerable students to do when working with students facing adversity? I would like to suggest a few critical ideas for building the educator’s tool box.
The educator must first and foremost cultivate a relationship with a child facing adversity. The teacher has to learn the student’s likes and dislikes, their triggers, their needs, and their nuances. The teacher does this by spending time with the child, giving them one-on-one attention, and noticing changes in their lives.
Next, the educator should directly teach a wide variety of social-emotional skills. I strongly believe one of the most powerful things a teacher can do is to equip an at-risk child with social-emotional skills in the face of the stresses and struggles of their lives. This could look like role playing, using social stories, group lessons, playing purposeful games, using puppets, sharing songs, and other social-emotional learning experiences. Consider implementing a curriculum such as Second Steps because it serves as a comprehensive, solid Tier 1 resource for social-emotional learning in a classroom setting.
Thirdly, I suggest tapping into the team of responsive adults that surrounds the at-risk student. Bring together those who can collaborate to find solutions to the unique problems that a child facing adversity can face. Together, the team has access to resources, pulls on experiences, and can support the both the child, the family, and the classroom teacher.
Last of all, as educators, we must cultivate a growth mindset. This looks like continuing to learn about the needs of traumatized or at-risk students. Read articles, attend conferences, participate in (free) webinars via edWeb.net or Early Childhood Investigations Webinars (ECE Webinars has a free webinar coming up on December 16, 2015 specifically about SEL and facilitating resilience and inclusive culture), connect with experts, listen to podcasts (check out the podcast that inspired this post: Teaching Students Who Face Adversity Beyond Your Experience), and learn from any opportunity that comes your way. A book I would highly suggest reading is The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz. This insightful book chronicles real stories of children raised in the most traumatizing situations imaginable and how they transformed despite their dire circumstances. Bridging the Relationship Gap:Connecting with Children Facing Adversity by Dr. Sara E. Langworthy “provides caregivers tools and encouragement to be the strong, positive, and nurturing adult these children need in order to thrive” (Amazon summary). Dr. Ruby Payne’s renowned book A Framework for Understanding Poverty is, in my opinion, an essential read for any educator working with student’s specifically dealing with the adverse effects of poverty in their lives.
The truth is, children facing adversity come to us having experienced things no grown adult should have to endure, and our obligation is to love them, reach them, and tech them. We bridge relationships by responding to their needs instead of reacting, teaching them replacement behaviors and skills instead of punishing, and meeting their needs from a heart of compassion instead of making assumptions. Their current reality may be dire, but their future is not yet determined. Who will join me in my commitment to love, reach, and teach?
Serving together, Heidi Veal