Two preschool age Children are playing together. There is a noise on the other side of the room so you instinctively turn your head. Before you can turn back around, one of the two children is holding her arm and crying. You didn’t see what happened.
It happens every day in child care settings, at home, in playgrounds. Something happened but no one saw it. You feel that you need to find out what happened and you try to ascertain the truth from the young children. They will be hard pressed to tell you the facts exactly as they occurred. One child is emotional and the other is usually confused by the commotion or fearful of your response.
If you didn’t see what happened, you don’t know. You simply don’t know. It is possible that the child who seems to be a victim instigated the incident. It is possible that the child being accused of hurting someone didn’t mean to and it was an accident. Really, if you didn’t see it, anything is possible.
In the United States, we are innocent until proven guilty. Yet, that so often is not the case when we interact with children. We tend to judge children with whom we have a history – our own children or our students – when we didn’t see what happened ourselves and we have to rely on the word of preschoolers.
We need to remind the world that we are all human. Parents won’t always see everything that happens. Teachers who in early childhood settings work at an average 1:10 ratio of children to teacher cannot possibly see everything. The odds of witnessing every action get worse as the children get older and the ratio becomes even more unbalanced.
We don’t actually have eyes in the back of our heads. Multi-tasking is not real. We can only attend to one task at a time. A child is crying and something obviously happened. What can we do and still be fair?
- Model calmness in the face of upset. When we get upset and join in the chaos, we teach children that chaos is what should happen when things go wrong. We want children to know that we can face problems calmly and with thought. Yelling, pulling children and getting overly emotional solves nothing.
- Teach kindness. Even when you didn’t see the incident take place, it provides an opportunity to teach a primary socialization lesson – We all must be kind and when we are kind, we keep our hands to ourselves, wait our turn and are gentle with each other.
- Model empathy. Young children are not born with empathy. They learn that from watching adults. In the early childhood years, empathy has to be extended first to the child who has gotten hurt and then to the other child. The child who seems to be the perpetrator couldn’t do better in that moment. Hitting, grabbing, pulling and kicking are often the only tool in their box when they are frustrated. We need to explain that we need to be kind in a way that shows that we understand that they don’t know. They don’t know how to self-regulate emotions. They don’t know what to do with their frustration. Many times, they have no clue what they have done to cause the problem…. and if we didn’t see it, we don’t know either. A healthy dose of universal empathy will teach rather than harm.
- Forgive yourself and each other. After many years as both a parent and an early childhood educator, I have come to believe that our accusations, poor behavior and heightened emotions when we didn’t see an incident is an expression of our own guilt. We have come to believe that we should see everything that happens. Other people seem to expect it of us. If you heard a sound and turned your head, you were doing what humans do. If you turned to speak to someone else, you were not intentionally putting children in harm’s way. It is different if we neglect children and intentionally harm them. When a parent or caregiver didn’t see it and they are not neglecting the children, we need to be understanding. People are always doing the best they can at any given moment. If you could have seen it, you would have. If the teacher was distracted, it was likely for good reason. Navigating through the day surrounded by 10-15 preschoolers all needing attention isn’t easy – it’s quite the juggling act. Parents have their own juggling act, too. The teachers need to understand that parents are human and visa versa. Let’s get away from judgment and support each other’s humanity.
Learn to say this – “I didn’t see it. I don’t know.” Assume nothing and teach as much about socialization as possible.
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