Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“
On episode 39 of the show we talk about emotional development with Linda Augusto, early-education and care lecturer from TAFE Higher Education in Australia. In our conversation we learn about the cycle of security and the importance of a clear and consistent routine for children to learn social skills such as self-regulation and how to make friends. Linda talks about the importance of creating a safe space where children feel noticed and confident, and thus able to build strong, healthy relationships.
If you are a teacher looking for practical advice on how to create a healthy environment for emotional development then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.
Linda, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. It’s so wonderful to have you as a guest.
And have you had any specific cases that you recall of a child you worked with in the early-years who you feel you may have had quite a big impact on, and that resulted in successful outcomes later in life or in school?
Actually, it’s really interesting that you ask that. I remember my first role in a baby’s room. We had what was called primary care group. So we were allocated a group of children to work with and to form attachment relationships with. And this little man was three months old when he came to me. And when he was three years old he they were moving, and I was moving on as well at the same time. But for that significant amount of time we had a really strong bond. He came five days a week. His mom was a doctor; his dad was in I.T. They worked very hard to establish themselves. They were here from Turkey. We had quite a strong emotional bond, and his sister came to the center as well. And when I sneak looks at him on social media now I can see that he has actually attended one of the most prestigious schools in Sydney – they’ve obviously moved back. And for a time following him finishing off and moving to Canberra – which is probably about three hours from Sydney, where I live – they would still write to me and keep contact with me. And he would carry photos of me.
So I think that there was just that connection that we had and started off with, and it certainly influenced not only his academic performance but also his relationships in the future as well. So it’s really nice to know that someone that I worked with has done so well.
Amazing. Do you think that is the most rewarding part of being an early-childhood educator?
Yes and no. Often we don’t know what happens in those later years. Because, really, once they finish in the early-years they head off to school and they go on their merry way and have kind of done our part in life. And you might cross paths if you live in the same area or if you return to the same area. So we don’t often get to find out those things. It’s sometimes by chance.
But I think one of the most rewarding things is the ability to connect with another human being, and so many of them. And it’s funny, all of the children that I’ve worked with – and there’s been so many – have a little special place in my heart. The different relationships that you have feel different. It’s the same being a teacher in early-childhood. When you think of those individual children you get a different individual feeling in relation to them. So I think that’s the most rewarding part, is the privilege of being able to connect with another human being at that point. And that doesn’t change, knowing that that always sits there.
Absolutely. There’s really great research out there by the Center [On] The Developing Child that Harvard [University] has put out. And there’s some really great little clips called Brain Builders, and things like that, that are really great for people to go in and see. If you haven’t had the opportunity to do that you should have a look at those.
But what we know about relational experiences is that they influence all areas of development. So if a child is feeling safe emotionally, and their social skills are being supported, It’s almost like the foundation of a house – they can’t move on to build math skills and science skills and literacy unless that really solid emotional foundational base is there. It makes it much easier for them to learn. And it also determines how well or how poorly a child does in all those other areas. So really, the time and energy that we put in these years should be focused; that area should be a priority. Emotional development should be a priority.
And the relationships that we experience in the early-years will have physiological effects on us and will literally influence how our brains develop. That will then influence later years, the relationships that we have, the learning that we go on to have. There’s been all kinds of long-term studies where they follow a group of children – and even perhaps children who come from more vulnerable communities – where they ensure that that emotional development is supported very young with really high-quality early-childhood development. And they monitor the path [of] these children to see how they go on to be, and if they go on to be successful as opposed to going on and perhaps heading in the path where they were headed, which were in areas where there might be higher crime and higher incarceration rates. And so in these studies it’s actually shown that good-quality early-childhood education will prevent those things from happening down the path, and that’s all due to relationships.
Now I know something that you’re quite passionate about in terms of a more specific topic an early-childhood education, which you talked about quite a bit just now, is emotional development. Can you describe to someone who might not have an education in early-childhood education – what does emotional development mean? What is it?
Emotional development is looking at the relationships that we form with other human beings. For example, one of the things that I’ve been very fortunate to do a lot of research and work with is – and you guys would know about this in the U.S., I imagine, or you should, probably – is the Circle of Security. And so the Circle of Security is a really simple way of describing what that emotional development looks like. It’s having one person who is a safe base. Children when they feel safe, when they have a trusting relationship with an adult who they know has things in hand, they can then feel safe to go off to explore, but return back in comfort for checking in, for making sure things are good, with that person when they need to. It’s just knowing that they are supported by someone who is in charge and has a really strong presence, and not in a forceful way, not in a bossy way.
You know those people yourself when you when you walk into a room and you feel connected to them and you feel really calm that everything’s going to be OK. It’s kind of, when you had that bad day you have a list of people you would go to, but the first person on your list might be a partner that you’ll call if you’ve had a bad day just to check in because you just need to have a chat with someone and make sure things are good. And if you can’t get hold of that person there might be the next person on your list.
It’s the same with children. Children have a list that parents are often, always are those people at the top of those lists as long as their experience is a good one. And then it might be that early-childhood teacher in the center. There might be one early-childhood teacher that they go to the most. If that person isn’t in the room, it might be the next person on the list. In our families we do the same thing: it might be our parents, but then if they’re not available it might be grandma. If they’re not available it might be an auntie or a grandfather. We have a go-to list of people that help us to feel safe and secure and supported.
And I suppose that’s the easiest way that I can talk about emotional development. It’s those people who support our feelings, to ensure that we feel safe, that we feel sane, that we feel noticed and that somebody knows what our needs are and can meet them.
So now that we have some better understanding of what emotional development is, if I am an early-childhood educator what can I do in my classroom when working with children to enable more opportunities for emotional development?
There’s a few things, but very simple things, that can be done. In the works that I’ve done with a range of different centers and a range of different children and families, what I’ve noticed is that there’s almost a formula that you can implement to ensure that these things are done to meet the security needs of children. Actually there’s lots of them, but the most important thing that I would say would be to ensure that the children know what to expect through their day so that they have a really clear, consistent routine that is sequential, that is predictable. “When I go into my space, this is what it’s going to look like and this is what’s going to happen next.” And when I say “routine” I don’t mean “bound by times”. I mean just the flow of the day, the path of the day needs to be this time so children know what to expect. If lunch is expected to happen every day and it doesn’t happen till 12:30, children don’t know that. But what matters is that whatever happens before lunch, then lunch happens after that, so that it is in the same order.
If we start to… if your morning doesn’t go as planned – you’ve got a picture in your head and these are the things that normally happen for you – if that doesn’t happen, that’s when we tend to get a little bit stressed and that funny feeling in our tummy happens. It’s the same thing for children. If their day doesn’t look the same then they start to feel like it’s a little bit unpredictable and they don’t feel safe. So that’s one of the first things.
One of the second things is that I would only ever be working with small groups of children. In one of the classrooms that I recently worked in I had 20 children with two staff. And for as much of the day as we could we broke those children into two small groups of ten. And it meant that when we were outside, I was outside with my small group of ten children and that was the same. So we had primary care groups: I was the teacher of children, and we did things together. It was our little family, I suppose, that did things together. We did our story time, we did our indoor learning; we did our outdoor learning. We had meals together, which was my favorite time of the day, for lunchtime.
We also often progressive opportunities for the children to mix at other times of the day. But again as long as that routine was predictable, and as long as we worked in those small groups throughout the day, it means that we’re more easily able to notice children and see them. If you’ve got a room full of 20 children, you can’t connect with each child in that space. But when you’ve got 10 children, you break that in half, you can absolutely connect with every person in that space, know what they’re doing and what it is that they need.
One of the other things is, at arrival times what people don’t realize is it only takes seven seconds for someone to need a connection. And if you work outside of those seven seconds it means that people feel like you haven’t seen them or notice them. So a simple look when somebody arrives in a room, or wink or a nod. If you’re engaged in conversation, just an acknowledgement. But it must happen in the first seven seconds of a child and an adult walking into a space, because if it hasn’t then the anxiety kicks in and people start to feel like they haven’t been noticed.
At the moment I’m working with adults. I work with a class of students. When each student walks into my space I do the same thing. As an adult in a workplace, if you walk into your office and nobody acknowledges you it’s not a nice feeling. So within seven seconds we should be acknowledging everyone walks into whatever space that we’re in.
And one of the other things is, mealtime is one of the most important times of the day, to be able to sit around a table and develop those connections, have those conversations. Some of the most amazing learning that happened with the children I worked with was at mealtimes. We talked about circulatory systems, and, “Where does the food go? How does it get to our blood?” And to have the opportunity and the time to just sit and talk through those things and grab the iPad and look up some of those things on YouTube and see what that looks like, it’s really valuable.
And lastly, I think – and this kind of feels counterproductive is just be still. So much of the work we do, we tend to feel like we need to be busy and cleaning or helping children or being up and about. Sit. Just sit and be still and be available for children to connect with you. If you have a room where there’s noise and you’ve got a couple of behaviors happening, you might have children that are a bit unsettled or crying… if you stop exactly what you’re doing and sit down, you’ll notice such a difference because that means you’re available for children. And that’s what I mean when I talk about mealtimes as well. Teachers needs to sit at a place at the table. Be still, stop moving, don’t clean, don’t pack up lunch boxes. Just stop what you’re doing and sit down and be available for children. It makes all the difference. And it doesn’t mean you’re lazy. It means that you’re sitting and having connections and conversations, and more valuable learning will happen then than it does if you’re wiping the bench or cleaning the table or packing away the plates.
And how do you balance that, though? I know it must be quite a bit of work to both provide those individual conversations and connections with the children, but then also there is an aspect of sort of the management of your classroom, so to speak, in terms of getting things ready and cleaning things up.
So I think in relation to that it’s having really good systems and processes in place. So in the center that I recently worked, we had everything available and accessible that we needed. It was all there, it was all ready to go. It was permanently set up or on a shelf nearby where it could be accessed, and could be accessed by children. So involving children in supporting: “Can you grab that puzzle from over there so that we can bring in over and work on that together?” Having little things or parts of your day which children are involved in – the washing of the table or the putting the chairs under the table, or whatever it is that you’re doing – that children are part of that, because then the conversations are happening along with you. It shouldn’t be an adult doing it separate to children. It should be children and adults doing those things together.
And what strikes me is that when you bring up the term “emotional development” and explain what it is, it sounds something that’s very ambiguous and hard to explain, hard to deal with. Yet a lot of your recommendations about how to provide more opportunities for emotional development are actually very formulaic and it’s all about having sort of like proactive and thoughtful processes in place in advance, to give you that opportunity. Is that fair to say?
Absolutely. And I think, Ron, for me understanding emotional development more now than I did in my early career means that I’m being very intentional and thoughtful about it, and I can articulate it with real clarity. But early on in my career, while I still had those relationships with the children, I perhaps didn’t think about the intent behind all those little things that I do in my day, and realize the value in those things. So now being able to write it on my educational program, to show that all of those things are intentionally thought through… When we send children to wash their hands and choose someone for them to go with that’s a good friend of theirs, we’re building their emotional development and we’re building their social skills. Going down to being that intentional about what it is what you do and being able to articulate that is really important, but it is incredibly simple.
And this is interesting too because this sort of topic of conversation came up in another podcast recently. And I kind of always relate it back to the idea of, like, if I didn’t know anything about early-childhood educators and what they do and I walked into an early-years program and I saw an early-childhood educator working with a room of 10 or 20 children and sort of maintaining a non-chaotic, peaceful environment where children are learning and growing, I would think to myself, “Wow, this educator is really good with children.” As if it was just sort of a natural thing they were born with. But actually I think “intentional” is kind of like a really key word to explain the fact that that early-childhood educator is actually implementing a lot of very thought-through systems and processes in order to be successful in what they’re doing.
So we’re starting to run short on time. And you’ve given us a lot of really great, practical things that we can do in the classroom in terms of you know having routine, working in smaller groups for individual connections, and creating those opportunities for individual connections by being still, sitting down at meal time, for example. If you had to give early-childhood educators who are maybe very early in their career, or students that are still studying, what would your advice be to them early on in their careers that are getting started in this field?
To never stop learning and finding out information about why we do what we do. Also, I think in early-childhood education many of us start when we’re very young, including myself. We tend to feel like, in our early twenties, that we’re invincible and we know so much about the world and we know everything there is to possibly know. But for myself the most valuable learning that I’ve done is in the last five years of my career, and not in those early years. I think in those early years it was all exciting and new, and I was exceptionally energetic and still very committed.
But I feel, like… just find out as much as you can and learn as much as you can, in particular about this topic, about emotional development and the impact that it has on all areas. There’s a saying that I say with adults that I work with now. And that is that if a child is showing or is displaying behavior, they communicating a need. Behavior isn’t about what the child is doing to you. Often we go, “Ugh, why is this child…? What’s happening for them? I can’t believe that they’re behaving this way.” And we blame external forces. But if a child is behaving differently in your classroom or doing something that is providing challenge for you, then it generally means something’s not working and that space, and it’s our job to try and work out what that is.
Recently I had to go a little person whose family didn’t set that child a lot of limits. And he was an only child. And so he wasn’t used to having to follow routines and rules and didn’t have social skills. So it was up to me to be able to explain to him when another child smiled at him, he didn’t need to yell back or be cranky about that. He was just trying to make friends. And so I needed to help this little person to know how to make friends and what those social cues were. I also had to be incredibly consistent with the limits that I was setting for this little one, so that he knew that every day this was the expectation for what we would do. And by the time our year was up he ended up being this little man who was a very, very well-functioning member of our classroom.
The same thought: we had another little one who he cried every time he had to put a toy down. So it’s almost the separation anxiety that he had with everything that he was doing. If he had to move away from a space or he had put a toy down for us to move to another space, for him that was a challenge. And it turned out that if I looked at where he was in his emotional development he really struggled to know that he had a safe pair of hands that would be waiting there for him when he came back, or a safe place that would be waiting for him. So we had to play very simple, little games where his primary care would be there. And we would walk away and say, “Look, she’s still there, I can see her, she’s still watching you. She’s ready for you to go back to.” And so we would go off and do something and then go back to her so that he learned it was OK to separate from something, because it would still be there when he came back.
But I wouldn’t have known to look for that when I was early on in my career. Just reading and finding out more and more, and looking at what I need to do differently to make things OK for these little people to being in a space to learn. So my advice would be always, always find out more. Do what wider reading. Go to any opportunities that you’ve got to learn. But also don’t lose sight of your own professional identity – know what it is that you believe in. Because often you know early-childhood there’s all these wonderful ideas that are great and are very credible, but there’s also some crazy ones. So know what it is and know the difference between the two, and work out what your professional identity is and what you feel strongly about and to see that.
Yes. Wonderful advice. If people want to continue this conversation with you, Linda, what’s the best way for them to go about find you online?
I’m only venturing into the online platform at the moment. I haven’t been brave enough yet to do too much. But I am on Twitter, and I am on LinkedIn: Linda Augusto on LinkedIn, and @Linda_Augusto_ on Twitter. And so I’m hoping to be brave enough to do some writing and publish and blogs and things that might be more helpful.
That would be excellent. I would look forward to seeing those, and I think some more folks in our audience would be, too, because these are very important topics that we’re talking with here today and I’m sure there’s so much more depth you could go into on this subject. But thank you so much for taking the time to talk us through it a little bit today and give us that introduction. It’s a very exciting subject and I think there’s a lot more for us to learn, per your advice to early-childhood educators out there. Thanks so much, Linda.
Thank you so much, Ron.