We hear a lot about the importance of the first five years of a child’s life in terms of brain development. Scientists estimate that 90% of a child’s brain develops by age 5. Through quality care giving as well as exposure to a variety of activities and experiences, neural pathways for language, spatial awareness, and social and emotional connections are formed. I think we have done a good job in nurturing early literacy, offering music programs for young children, and even socialization through community programs, childcare and schools. I wonder though, how we are doing when it comes to nurturing emotional intelligence.
When I see JK’s learning to read on iPads I can’t help but wonder what the iPads aren’t teaching. When I see kids in the office filling out a think sheet about their ‘bad behaviour’ without having anyone ask them what happened to them that they thought there was no other way to behave, I wonder if we are teaching consequences or compliance. When a bazillion dollars is invested in standardized testing, but funding is drastically cut for support staff and arts programs, places where the child’s emotional intelligence can be nurtured and explored, I wonder why we value stats over sensitivity. This is not a rant on the education system, but rather a plea for a more holistic understanding of child development.
If I were Queen of the world (ahhh, just give me a minute with that one…), here are some things I would consider when charged with the sacred task of nurturing very young minds:
1) Emotional safety is the bottom line for little people. Feeling love, belonging and security are more important than reaching developmental benchmarks. Pressure to achieve, criticism and withdrawing love or resources takes away emotional safety and put little brains on high-alert, into fight-or-flight mode. Learning is not possible when safety is threatened.
2) Acceptance of whatever is. That little person’s biological system is doing its very best to stay safe and regulated in the world. If we shut it down in process, the energy of that emotion will get stuck somewhere else. Be present, maintain safety, and ‘hold the bucket’ for the spewing, either joy bubbles or rants. Find strategies to help kids process emotions, rather than consequences for having emotions.
3) Identifying emotions and learning that feelings don’t last forever. This too shall pass. Mad doesn’t stick around forever, and we often need help to experience joy, especially if we started out mad. Kids need to learn how to identify, understand and process emotions.
4) Experiences with an emotional charge are imprinted in the brain and body. We remember what we feel more than what we’re told. Beliefs about who we are and what is possible in the world are formed around emotional responses to experiences. Confidence is not about ego or skill, it’s about believing you can do something because you have had a past emotional experience of success.
5) Modeling emotional intelligence. Humans are rich, three-dimensional love machines, but often children only get to see adults through a limited emotional lens; as authority figures, as task-completers, as workers . We think we are protecting kids from upset by not talking about feelings, but maybe we are sheltering them from growth. Imagine if a 4 year old was able to articulate that sometimes mom gets upset, but she’s not upset with me; when she gets tired she feels mad, so she goes for a walk while we play with dad, and then we can all play together again. (And it’s all okay).
For me, I have not found a better tool than EFT tapping to help identify, understand, process and regulate emotions. Tapping, as well as the holistic awareness that comes with it, are now tools in my parent-teacher-musician toolkit. I’ve included some resources here for your reference. Every day I learn more, and I forgive myself for not knowing then what I know now. Tomorrow I’ll have more learning and forgiving to do.
A few resources:
The Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard University has a series of videos explaining various stages of development.
This Arizona-based community-state partnership provides a good overview of development in the first five years.
Here Nick Ortner has written about how EFT tapping can be used to relieve anxiety in children.