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Listening to children is fundamental to our teaching and practice in the Early Years.
But listening to children isn’t just about hearing what they say.
In the Early Years, ‘listening’ means paying attention to children. It means showing respect for their choices. It means observing children’s play and behaviour, and analysing what we’re seeing to try to understand what children are telling us.
To find out more about how we can truly listen to children, I called up Sonia Mainstone- Cotton, a freelance nurture consultant working with 3 and 4-year-olds with social, emotional, and mental health needs. Sonia has worked in the Early Years for 30 years, is a trainer and author, and is the series consultant on the Little Minds Matter books.
Sonia explains how we can support children to feel listened to, by doing more than using just our ears. And why it matters so much that we do.
When it comes to children in the Early Years, we can’t always rely on being told what’s going on. Children may not have learned to speak yet, or don’t have the emotional literacy, or vocabulary to tell us what’s happening.
Sonia explains that although we are listening to the words children use (if they can), it’s also very much about observation, and noticing what’s going on. Listening is not just hearing, but reading bodies and body language, and understanding the emotions being conveyed.
But listening is also about how we, as the adult, use words too. The right words and the right amount, especially for young children who are new to emotional vocabulary or children who are really dysregulated.
“I think often with early years children we use too many words,” says Sonia, “We want a communication-rich environment, but when a child is really upset their ‘thinking brain’ isn't online as they’re in flight or fight mode. Cut your words.”
“We know when we’ve been listened to. We know how we feel when we’ve been really listened to,” says Sonia “I think it’s a universal feeling, even if we can’t nail it down, it’s a real sense we have.”
Ways to help children feel listened to while maintaining boundaries can include:
That might not mean you allow children to choose to do something or not, but encourage them to take ownership of how a task is performed, or the order.
For example, you’re encouraging a child to have a drink of water after some really physical play. You might say “Would you like to help yourself, or should I turn the tap for you?” or “Would you like it in this cup or that one?”
Sonia explains that where some children might struggle with control issues, being told to do something can be very triggering. A simple choice can allow children to feel in control.
Plus, being able to make decisions is a really important life skill. As educators, we can give children the chance to make decisions in a safe way, by involving them in age- and needs-appropriate decision-making. And this includes consent around their bodies.
“I think the NSPCC pants rule is really useful tool for children,” says Sonia, “It’s a great way to introduce content and it’s empowering to children. It’s letting them know it’s OK to say when something’s not OK. That the adults around them will listen and protect them.”
“When we see a dysregulated child, our immediate question should be, ‘What are they trying to tell me?’ Not looking at it through a behaviour lens”
Sonia refers to Tamsin Grimmer’s work on being a Behavior Detective and how this helps us to understand behaviour as a form of communication, especially when children don’t have the words to express themselves.
As educators, it’s our job to interpret the message the child is sending us.
“Say a child bites another child,” says Sonia, “Immediately, you have to be a behaviour detective as to why. Is the child biting out of frustration? Out of anger? Has the child got major sensory processing issues? Are they teething?”
In this way, we can look at solutions for what’s not working for that child. Do they need something to chew on, for example?
We’re focussing on meeting the needs that lead to the behaviour (the cause) rather than just stopping the behaviour, without solving the problem.
Once we begin to view behaviour through a communication lens and not a behaviour lens, it becomes clear that behaviour ‘management’ as a concept isn't helpful.
Instead of reward charts and talk about ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ behaviour, settings can embrace practice based in listening to children, emotional awareness, and language around understanding feelings.
Sonia explains what this might look like in practice:
Sonia explains that listening to children and moving away from behaviour “management” doesn’t mean that you should allow all behaviour.
“Sometimes we can get a bit lost in the Early Years when we say we’re not doing behaviour management,” says Sonia, “It’s not helpful to be wishy-washy either. You can have really good boundaries and still not go down a behaviour ‘management’ route.”
The ‘I wonder’ script supports adults working with dysregulated children to be calm and empathetic while reinforcing boundaries the same way each time. And, it means that all the adults who work with that child know exactly what to say.
Sonia has written out the script above for the parents of a child she supports, so the child benefits from stable boundaries and a consistent approach at school and at home. The script means that there’s no room to enter into an argument or negotiations, to help to stop the situation from escalating.
However, when it comes to consequences, Sonia explains that it must be appropriate for the individual child and their age and understanding.
“If a young child bites another child, then the parents say that the child can’t go outside three hours later, when they get home, that’s not going to work,” explains Sonia, “That child will have forgotten three hours later so, the consequence is meaningless. Similarly, a six or ten-year-old will understand consequences the way a two-year-old can’t.”
Further reading by Sonia:
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.