Navigating through the early childhood years is a tough proposition. It’s amazing that so many make it to the other side.
The hurdles come right after the other once the day begins- getting ready to go someplace in the morning, saying goodbye to Mom or Dad at child care, trying something new or going on a new adventure, ending one activity and moving on to another, leaving child care, eating at a restaurant instead of at home, and getting to bed.
All of these can evoke stress and discomfort for young children and their caregivers. When we see each of them as separate events, finding solutions seems overwhelming. But, if we can examine their commonality, they will be easier to address.
Looking again at that string of daily tantrum triggers, you’ll notice every one is a form of transition. The child is being asked to change from one activity to another or from familiar to unfamiliar.
Let’s face it. Even adults can have issues with these, but we have learned, through repeated exposure, to make the needed adjustments and move on. But, for young children, these expectations just don’t fit with their developing timeframe.
A young child is just figuring out he’s a separate being from everyone else and even from his surroundings, for that matter. He is also trying to get a grip on his independence and decision-making, while still holding on to the coattails of his significant attachments. What an internal struggle that is! It’s no wonder a few meltdowns are around every corner.
There are 5 underlying, basic needs that have to be satisfied before any progress can be made. And, it’s all or nothing.
1. Security. Children need to feel safe and secure. Without this, distractibility, hyperactivity, and low coping thresholds take over. Security is at the top of the list, because it is fed by the following 4.
2. Limits. Children need to feel boundaries. Giving them too much freedom or inconsistency goes against their nature. They will test and push until the limits are established. Setting them early on will save everyone a lot of grief.
3. Predictability and Familiarity. Young children are creatures of habit. Considering all of those internal struggles they’re trying to sort out, the last thing they need is for someone to start changing things up. This can easily rock their world, but not in a good way.
4. Preparation. Life is all about changes and that’s not something we can stop. But, what we can do is prepare the way, so it isn’t unexpected or as stressful Sometimes what adults think will be a great surprise can turn out just the opposite. An abrupt change, regardless of how well-intentioned and spectacular, is usually too much to process, leading to emotional outbursts. I remember a nephew’s surprise third birthday party with a magician that turned into an afternoon of crying and turmoil. Practicing or rehearsing for something new or different that is about to happen is an excellent strategy for making the actual event go smoothly... for everyone.
5. A loving, sensitive, and consistent care provider. This sounds like a given, but far too many times it just isn’t happening in every child care program. Too often, high turnover creates an unstable landscape with a revolving door of caregivers. This creates a deep uneasiness in children, who long to make attachments, but are thwarted over and over. Research tells us that this unhealthy situation, fueled by low wages and poor management can result in damage to a child’s ability to trust and form basic relationships. Feeling a warm, reciprocal bond with someone creates a strong working model for healthy relationships he will continue to apply throughout his life.
If we, as teachers, care providers, and parents can ensure these 5 basic needs are met, we are enabling happy and well-adjusted children. And, what could be more important than that?