By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive
Can you imagine if you were challenged to master a complex cake recipe after having only a conversation with a renowned chef? Or if you were asked to learn to play golf by watching a video of a talented professional? Chances are in either of these scenarios you might gain a working knowledge of the right vocabulary and might even learn some of the needed skills. But conversations, videos, articles, and so on rarely lead to true mastery.
Educational philosopher John Dewey once said, “The only way to prepare for social life is to engage in social life. To form habits of social usefulness and serviceableness apart from any direct social need and motive, apart from any existing social situation, is, to the letter, teaching the child to swim by going through motions outside of the water.” These words, uttered many years ago, still hold much wisdom today. The way to truly learn a skill is to use it. This is especially true for young children because they are contextual learners: They learn best within the context of a situation in which the skill is needed. This is true for academic topics too. As opposed to through a practice like “Letter of the Week,” children learn letters best when letters are part of words that interest them. Numbers are another example. Reciting numbers from 1 to 10 is one thing, but to truly understand numeracy, children need real experiences using numbers.
And this is also true of social skills. To learn to be part of a community, children need to take part in group experiences.
Human beings are not born understanding that hitting is wrong, that sharing is good, and that at times we all must wait for what we want: We learn these skills as we gain experience with others. As teachers plan and facilitate group experiences, they provide real opportunities for children to develop and practice the skills needed to navigate social situations.
For example, teachers can set up small groups during which they support children in sharing materials, such as tools for working with clay or playdough (there should be enough clay or dough for everyone). Or during group time, teachers can use puppets to present a story that poses some sort of social conflict. Children can propose possible solutions for the puppets to play out. Scenarios may include a situation in which one puppet teases another puppet or one in which a character takes a toy away from another character. These social story problems allow children to explore these topics in ways that are safe and facilitate group problem-solving.
Family-style meals are wonderful times for children to develop social skills. As children wait for the bowl of desired food to make its way around the table, they exercise and strengthen the social “muscles” needed for waiting. As they request the plate of sandwiches to be passed, they learn that the honey of courtesy attracts more flies than the vinegar of demands.
Children who enter kindergarten with strong social and emotional skills do much better at getting down to the business of learning. Children with strong social and emotional skills are also better equipped for life beyond kindergarten. And as John Dewey reminds us, those skills can only be learned and honed through use.
Early childhood educators are in unique positions to support the development of these essential skills. Just as we intentionally plan lessons to teach children literacy, math, science, and social studies, we must intentionally set up opportunities for children to use their burgeoning social skills.
The gift of these skills is one that will continue to serve children well beyond the time they spend with you.
BONUS! Download the HOMES Active Learning Scale, a free printable page from Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior. As you plan activities, use the scale to determine if they are hands-on, open-ended, meaningful, engaging, and sensory-oriented. While it is unrealistic to expect that all activities score a 5 on the HOMES scale, it is better for children and reduces challenging behavior when teachers strive to plan and facilitate activities that score at least 3 points.
Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., is the chief academic officer at Sunshine House Early Learning Academy, a chain of over 120 childcare centers located across the United States. Her articles on young children frequently appear on the Sunshine House’s website and in the popular childcare journal Exchange. She has worked in the field of early childhood for over 30 years, starting as a “teacher’s helper” in her younger brother’s center. She has served as a teacher, director, trainer, and family educator in numerous childcare settings across Michigan, South Carolina, and Spain. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.
Michelle is the author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior.
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