Theory and practice

How Do We Use Neuro-linguistic Programming in the Early Years?

With a bit of brain science, you can bring more calm to your setting.
Educators using Neuro-linguistic programming in the Early Years
September 9, 2020
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) a technique that relies on your body language and your choice of words to get children to cooperate better.
  • You can use NLP in your setting to help children settle down, and avoid the need to raise your voice over the bustle of a busy classroom.
  • Especially for children experiencing separation anxiety as they return to child care, NLP can help children find calm and feel more grounded.

Only around 38% of human communication is verbal — and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) helps teachers and caregivers to draw from the other 70% of communication that is non-verbal.

In a nutshell, neuro-linguistic programming makes it easier for teachers to get children’s attention and cooperation. This means using body language to create associations between certain body movements and what happens next in the classroom.

For example, if children learn that every morning after washing their hands they have a snack, they will quickly assume that if they are told to wash their hands, it’s because they are going to eat soon. Children of all ages, even little ones that are still too young to speak, will be able to make this association.

In a classroom setting, we can learn to adopt certain habits, routines, and body movements that are only used before children are expected to start sitting still. With regular practice, the associations become strong enough and enable the teachers or caregivers to use the habits, routines and body movements alongside gentle verbal commands, to gain cooperation with ease. The trick lies in only performing a particular action when you require its particular (corresponding) cooperation, that’s how you build the association.

It can get quite technical if you want to build your own associations, but there are some wonderful routines that are perfect for an EYFS classroom setting.

A well-tested NLP routine that’s ideal for EYFS classrooms

Neuro-linguistic programming engages the imagination and builds powerful associations between certain actions and behaviours. When you consistently work at building these associations, you can command a certain level of behaviour from the children by having them perform the action that it is associated with.

Let’s look at an example.

How does this look in a practical sense? Here’s a NLP routine that’s designed to help children associate calming down with a particular body movement from the caregiver. It works well if you want to control a busy and rowdy classroom of young children.

  1. Enact the rowdiness — this sets the scene for when you might need this exercise. Have the children picture themselves driving a car. Do the actions of driving (show your hands on the steering wheel) and tell them they’re going super fast. They’re the fastest drivers, they’re racing. You’re likely to hear squealing noises and car engine sounds from the children as they “race” their cars in their actions
  2. Bring their attention back to you by saying “but then…” with great anticipation. Then there’s a red light. Drop your hands and look serious. Ask the children, “what do we do at a red light? we stop”. Emphatically gesture a stopping motion with both hands as you firmly say “we stop“.
  3. Now that they’ve got the idea, tell them that the light has turned green and they can race off again. Repeat the arrival at the red light, this time the children will join you as you gesture and say “we stop.” Repeat this three times.
  4. Tell the children that today, while they are spending time with you at school, whenever it is time to stop what they are doing or stop talking, you will show them this – repeat the gesture and emphatically state – we stop.

This technique becomes effective after a few weeks of repeating the routine. If the children don’t respond when you use the technique during the day, you can always take some time to go through this routine again. It’s an exercise you can use to engage children no matter how excited or rambunctious the mood in the classroom is – you simply call out to them: “let’s see you driving your cars, who is going really fast? Sit down on the floor, wherever you are, let me see you driving your cars”. Just like that, you have their attention and you are able to drive home your message by repeating the routine.

It’s a wonderful way to remind the children what they are expected to do and going through the motions also establishes that you’re in charge, but in a gentle way. It also gives teachers a great opportunity to self-regulate and regain a sense of control.

Next, we’ll look at a few other ways to use neuro-linguistic programming to gently gain a sense of calm in your classroom.

Neuro-linguistic programming technique 1: Anchoring

Further reading

How it works:
Associations teach us behavioural patterns. If we have a negative connotation to something because of a past experience, we naturally avoid it. That’s how the brain learns to keep us safe, and we can utilise this in a positive way. Anchoring teaches little ones to associate a particular body movement with being quiet. Over time (and after much repetition) children will naturally become quieter when they are instructed to perform the movement that you have routinely had them do before it is time to sit still and listen.

How to do it:
Choose an action — it needs to be a large, full-bodied action that is easy to see and fun to copy. One of the best actions to use to get children’s attention is to stretch the arms out and flutter the fingers, because it’s an exaggerated movement children can easily see.

Each morning when you go through your NLP routine, use this movement while you ask the children to imagine that they are the big night sky and their fingers are the stars. Paint a vivid picture with your words that lasts for about 20 seconds – make sure it ends before the children become aware of their arms feeling tired. This becomes your anchor — it’s the body movement you use to pull the children’s attention back to you, like the twinkling-star-finger.

Use your anchor by stretching your arms into the air and challenging the children to show you how brightly their stars can twinkle. If the classroom is rowdy, keep at it, the children will slowly join in and once you have their attention, you can move on.

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Neuro-linguistic programming technique 2: Mirroring and rapport

How it works:
Mirroring refers to the way in which little ones will base their behaviour on what they see their caregivers doing. If you are a safe person that they trust, they will mirror you. Building rapport means creating trust between you and the child. Safety equals engagement, not just the absence of fear. This means they should feel free to mirror you, to learn from you, and have positive two-way interactions with you. Once you have established that relationship, you have far greater ability to inspire the children to take part in the actions and the NLP routines.

How to do it:
Stick to a routine of NLP exercises every single morning, without wavering. A good example of an NLP routine would be the driving exercise mentioned above. It’s the perfect way to start the day. Your movements should be exaggerated and easy to follow. Your tone of voice should be clear and communicate whether a movement and its association is upbeat and excited or soft and poised to listen.

The movements and the way in which you describe them should align with the children’s understanding of the world – simple and straightforward. Children love extremes, always include movements and scenarios containing animals that are very big or very small, very loud or very soft.

Neuro-linguistic programming technique 3: Reframing behaviour using your words

How it works:
The way we phrase our words reflects our perspective on a matter. If we view something negatively, it tends to show in the words we use when we talk about it. Reframing means moving away from focusing on what we don’t want from children and instead emphasising what we do want.

How to do it:
When a caregiver or a trusted adult is able to reframe an undesirable behaviour in a child, like shouting, failing to listen, or lacking concentration, the child might find it easier to change that behaviour. Reframing something negative can empower the child to turn it around.

The key to this NLP technique lies in changing our choice of words when we address the issue. In order to change the way we communicate about an issue, we have to change our perspective on the subject.

Instead of viewing a child as being disruptive, look beyond the behaviour to identify the need: the child needs help to engage with the lesson. We are then able to reframe the behaviour by seeing that the child is displaying that he or she has an unmet need, rather than feeling that the child is misbehaving. Instead of “If I have to ask you to sit still again, you will go to timeout” you can reframe it: “Can you show me where your eagle eyes are? Can you show me where your excellent fox ears are? I know that you are getting tired, but I bet you can show me for 5 more minutes how well your eagle eyes and fox ears can work”.

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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