Yusuf finds his teacher at the playground and angrily complains: ‘Miss, Amélie has taken my bike!’. Without giving it any thought the teacher reacts: ‘Snitching is not nice, Yusuf! We don’t do that!’ For good measure, she repeats her message for all the other preschoolers during circle time: ‘You should not tell on your classmates like Yusuf did! If you do, you are a snitch.’ Yusuf has to stand up while she is announcing this.
The rebuke momentarily takes priority over the problem with the bike, but at least Yusuf has learned that telling on others is an undesirable way of behaving. Or has he?? Not according to a recent research-based overview of ways in which young children learn! In one of the chapters, educators get practical advice for helping young children to develop empathy and a sense of respect for others.
The ability to respect others is the end result of a developmental process. Infants already display various empathy-related behaviors. Young children still need to learn how to better recognize emotions, how to control their own feelings and take a perspective other than their own. Children with early empathetic competence and a ready acceptance of the fact that others may feel and think differently from themselves, demonstrate positive social behaviour when growing up. They share and cooperate with remarkable ease.
All young children develop at their own pace. It would therefore be unwise to have unrealistic expectations and to blame them for shortcomings in the way they behave towards each other. Preschoolers cannot be expected to be fully aware of the negative consequences that their telling on others may have. If they are unable to solve a problem with a peer, seeking help is a developmentally appropriate behavior. Reprimanding a young child and calling him/her a snitch will only cause the child to be confused, feel ashamed and not seek the adult as a resource, when problems arise.
Questions such as ‘How would you feel if X did this to you?’ are difficult for young children who still have to learn to see and experience things from another’s perspective. Neither does it serve any purpose to admonish children when they swear. Only when they have been explicitly taught other ways to express negative feelings can you correct them on this. We must avoid creating feelings of shame, since such feelings do not contribute positively to a child’s emotional development.
What you can do to help young children develop a sense of respect for others?
- Frequently talk about your own feelings and label the emotions your preschoolers are experiencing. E.g. You are smiling; you must be happy! It looks like you are angry.
- Help children practice taking another’s perspective through sustained imaginary play. Use story time as an opportunity to consider and discuss how each character experiences the world in a different way. Use social stories to introduce common social dilemma’s (being envious, bullying … ) and involve the children in trying to solve them.
- Build a sense of community in the classroom, make your expectations clear and foster shared responsibility for materials, the space, each other. Help young children take care of a class pet, tend to plants, create a get-well card for a sick classmate…
- Select materials, books, and activities that reflect the diversity of the children in your classroom and their families, and avoid stereotypical representations.
Source: Deans for Impact (2019). The Science of Early Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.
The report answers – based on existing research – eleven more questions related to how young children develop skills across three domains: agency, literacy and numeracy.