Every day some children arrive at their program with feelings and problems that originate in the home. A child is awakened earlier than usual and must hurry to get ready. Maybe there was a conflict between her parents, siblings or one involving her. Perhaps there is abuse or addiction in the family. Distressing changes, such as divorce, the birth of a sibling, the death of a relative, someone moving into or out of the house, or a visit from grandparents, contribute to a child’s emotional state. Such problems can cause a child to cling to her parents, cry easily, throw tantrums, and start fights with other children.
There are also problems that have to do with children’s need to control and master their bodies and world. Control issues often stem from physical functions, such as eating, sleeping, toileting and injuries. Kids become frustrated by their lack of skills needed to dress and undress, ride a trike, catch a ball, or finish a puzzle.
A physical need we must not overlook is the need for closeness to another person. Holding, patting, stroking, and hugging are the real physical needs of young children. When children fail to get those need met, they may behave in negative ways that we call "looking for attention." The need for attention is a basic human need. We adults have learned socially acceptable ways to get attention but children are only beginning to learn that some attention-getting behaviors are unacceptable. When we give children the attention they need freely and willingly, they don’t have to resort to negative attention-getting.
This is where active listening come in. It’s a tool that enables us to identify with the child’s feelings, interpret them, and demonstrate acceptance and trust. When children feel accepted and trusted, they learn to accept and trust other people. Self-acceptance and trust are the building blocks of healthy, loving relationships and provide kids with a foundation of high self-esteem. The small act of listening with your heart can contribute lifelong benefits to even they youngest child.
Active Listening Works Wonders
Active listening is based on empathy, which is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place. Every child has the strength he needs to solve his problems and doesn’t need to be rescued from his own emotions. Instead he needs someone to be on his side, to know how he feels, and to believe in him. When we use active listening, we reflect back the child’s feelings but we don’t try to fix things for him. Our demonstration of trust gives him the courage to look for solutions to his own problem.
Teachers who use active listening report that very often, active listening alone works wonders. The simple act of identifying and validating a child’s emotions can diffuse anger, clarify needs, and open the child up to possible solutions. Here are some examples:
Devon: (whining) I can’t do this puzzle.
Teacher: It’s hard for you, isn’t it?
Devon: (whining more) Do it for me.
Teacher: You’d like someone else to do it.
Devon: It’s too hard. I just can’t do it!
(Devon tries to force a piece into the wrong place.)
Teacher: It’s frustrating when something is so hard. Keep trying and I’ll be back. If you still can’t do it, you can ask for help.
(The teacher returns to find that Devon has added one more piece.
Teacher: Wow! It’s a hard puzzle but you’re doing it. Good for you.
(If Devon tries and still asks for help, the teacher gives him some clues to help him work the puzzle by himself.)
Nita: (wearing dress-up clothes) I’m the prettiest.
Jill: I’m pretty, too.
Nita: No you’re not. You’re ugly.
Jill: (to the teacher) Nita says I’m ugly.
(Jill begins to cry.)
Teacher: sounds like Nita hurt your feelings.
Nita O.K. I guess you can be pretty too.
(The girls go off and play together)
Active listening is not a "quick fix", but you may be amazed that just getting your attention allows a child to behave cooperatively. He may even change his direction without resorting to angry behavior. Try active listening; it really does work wonders!
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.