By Molly Breen
If you’ve ever had a classroom pet, then you know how transformational they can be for some children. That child who is incredibly impulsive and physically rough with friends is suddenly docile and tender with a little reptile buddy.
I have seen this time and time again—and similarly with kids who are overstimulated indoors but transform to calm, grounded, engaged people when they are outside. A new context can have a huge effect on behavior!
And in this era of early learning, when we are all doing our best to develop character capacities like empathy and compassion, it’s important to think broadly about how these can be “caught, not taught,” as Fred Rogers liked to say. When it comes to providing opportunities for children to develop their capacity for compassion, it’s all about providing varied paths to connection: what produces the spark of a compassionate feeling for some may not ignite for others.
As I wrote about in an earlier post, compassion is a capacity that is developed over time, with practice, and in social contexts (nothing surprising there for you early learning professionals!). Not only should we model compassion for the children with whom we work, we must provide opportunities for them to practice and FEEL the FEELINGS of compassionate care.
Here are a few ideas on how to get started with your very own compassion projects, big or small:
1. Make compassion part of your school vocabulary.
It’s a simple way to begin, but talk is not cheap! Affirm compassion when you see it in action, whether in books or in daily interactions between kids, staff, or community members:
“What a compassionate friend you are, Mabel. Thank you for taking the time to help Willie get his shoes on—you could see he was having a hard time and you decided to help!” I like to use ASL to reinforce important words or ideas. We call these “silent signals” in my preschool. You can learn how to sign compassion here.
2. Build bridges.
Instead of a show-and-share day that is object focused, build a bridge between home and school with a little family “homework”: ask families to share an example of helping others. Call it something fun like Near and Dear to My Heart Day or Helping Hands Sharing Day.
We regularly use family homework to connect home experiences to school: we send home a simple form for families to complete each month. Usually the form describes what we are working on in preschool, then asks a specific question like, “What is something your child does to help at home?” and then asks families to send, for example, a photo showing the child helping at home. Families can text, email, or print and return the photos back along with the answer to the family homework question. We talk about the answers during our circle time and hang the photos around the room.
3. Invite in furry visitors.
There are a variety of programs that provide low- or no-cost therapy dog visits to preschools. These trained owners and their pets provide excellent information and safe hands-on experiences about bite prevention, pet responsibility, and the special connection that dogs and people can have. In Minnesota, North Star Therapy Animals is a well-known volunteer-run organization, and there are many similar organizations around the country.
4. Build compassion into the curriculum!
Once a month or once a quarter, make some preschool art to share with the community around your school setting. Find out from your local block nurse program about folks who may be homebound and isolated and send them a little joy.
Talk with your preschoolers about how GOOD it feels to get a little card in the mail or a nice note from someone who is thinking about you. We like to send preschool mail to one another too! We always have stamps on hand to mail sweet messages from one friend to another—remember what a thrill that was when you were a child? To get your own piece of mail? And from a friend!
You can also explore the possibility of a pen-pal exchange with another preschool, retirement community, or even an international program like Students of the World.
All too often, when we seek out opportunities to “teach” an evolved trait like compassion, we become didactic or focus on specific examples to prove a theory: “Here is what compassion looks like, children!”
But of course we know that the best learning comes through play and through doing. So weave compassion into your program in the same way that you weave in frequent handwashing or authentic assessment. It can be thoughtful, seamless, and meaningful, I promise! And though we may not see the ultimate effect of our compassion projects, the impression will be indelible.
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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