Inclusion and wellbeing

What we can hear when we really listen to children

We spoke to Sonia Mainstone- Cotton about the importance of listening to children through their behaviour.
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July 28, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Listening is more than words
    While we may hear what children say, it’s important that we are ‘Behaviour Detectives’ in our practice, and look for what children are really trying to tell us through their behaviour.
  • Listening means making children feel heard
    Validating children’s needs and feelings respectfully, and offering them the chance to make their own choices helps them to feel heard.
  • Consistency and appropriate consequences
    Listening and validating feelings doesn’t mean permitting all behaviour. Consistency and reinforcing boundaries supports children to feel safe.

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.

An Early Years educator is talking to a child. The child looks sad.

Listening is more than words

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.”

Helping children feel listened to

“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.”

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

The big ideas

Ways to help children feel listened to while maintaining boundaries can include:

  • Using a ‘script’ to validate the child’s feelings (more on that below) or,
  • Giving children a genuine choice between two or three things. 

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.”

A male Early Years educator having a conversation with a boy and carefully listening to him.

What does behaviour tell us?

“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 Mainstone-Cotton

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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.

What does listening look like?

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:

  1. You might start by sitting next to a dysregulated child and commenting to the child about what you think might be happening for them.
    She recommends using the phrase ‘I wonder’. For example, “I wonder if you’re feeling really sad right now. I can see you’re crying. I wonder if you’re upset because Peter’s taken your toy.”
  2. Next, you validate the feeling the child is experiencing.
    This is important, Sonia explains, as you’re demonstrating that emotions ‘just are’. They’re neither negative or positive. You could say something like, ‘It’s OK to feel upset…’
  3. Then the boundary, or ‘what’s next.’
    Reinforcing a boundary, if necessary, might look like, ’...but, it’s not OK to hit him.’ Or, reassuring the child of what might happen next ‘ I’m going to sit here with you until you feel better.’ 

An Early Years educator holds the hand of a small child. She is speaking to the child and smiling.

Moving away from behaviour ‘management’

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:

  • Supporting children with social, emotional and mental health needs in the early years- Routledge 
  • Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing- JKP
  • Supporting young children through change and everyday transitions 

Sonia recommends:

  • ‘Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience’ by Brené Brown
  • ‘Supporting Behaviour and Emotions in the Early Years: Strategies and Ideas for Early Years Educators (Little Minds Matter)’ by Tamsin Grimmer  
  • ‘Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years: How Love Fits with Professional Practice’ by Tamsin Grimmer
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