Reflection by Eileen Sharbaugh, Nursery School Director
"One of life’s greatest joys is the comfortable give and take of a good friendship. It’s a wonderful feeling not only to have a friend, but to know how to be a friend yourself.”
St. Paul’s Nursery School teachers spend a considerable amount of their time focused on supporting each child as they work to develop social skills especially as autonomy evolves and children begin to form relationships and friendships outside of the home while attending school. As early childhood teachers, we understand that by doing so, we are in essence building the foundation for their future success in school and in life. Research supports the focus on social interactions in an early childhood setting such as a nursery school. According to Hedda Sharapan from The Fred Rogers Center, “a 20-year study published in the American Journal of Public Health which followed more than 750 children notes that researchers found that kindergarteners with the highest scores on ‘social competence’ were more likely to graduate high school on time, earn a college degree and hold full-time jobs”. Working on relationships and dealing with conflict helps children to flex their social competence muscle. It is important to note that this focus on social competence also involves problem-solving skills, self-control and self-regulation; the same types of skills needed to help children with future academic success.
Social competence is not just about getting along with others or “playing nice”. It is also about being able to deal with the uncomfortable or difficult times in relationships. At the nursery school this could include simple every day occurrences such as conflicts over a toy, frustration in not being able to be the first one in line or learning how to wait to take your turn on the slide. I often share with patents that conflict and disappointment are part of the typical day in the nursery school classroom and these experiences allow us to support and guide children when conflicts arise. As educators we see these as valuable opportunities that allow children to practice their social skills. Intentionally teaching children about empathy the teachers take on the role of “mediator”, not judge and jury or referee and they encourage children to take an active role in solving the problem and help the children to brainstorm ways to find a solution. It’s empowering for children when they are part of finding the answer to resolve a conflict.
Our goal is to help children to see things from another’s perspective. We begin by identifying feelings, naming the problem and gently drawing the child’s attention to their classmate so that they may begin to consider what others may be feeling. When our teachers encourage the children to be part of the conflict resolution process with their friends in this manner, as opposed to merely placing restrictions on difficult or unwanted behavior, the children are given the opportunity to think about, discuss and act on basic human values that promote empathy and understanding of others. The development of these skills requires lots of practice and we know that they are not mastered overnight. Gaining social competence takes guidance from an adult, opportunities to practice and time; lots and lots of time (maybe even a lifetime) to fully develop.