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Talk Less! A Waldorf approach to social and emotionally healthy children

Social and emotional development in children seems to be a topic talked about these days. We recently discussed in my training how a Waldorf Early Childhood (WEC) approach to this works in the early childhood setting. The impulse for us as critically thinking adults is to think we can teach young children through explanations, coercion, punitively etc…. How does the WEC approach this very complex and long development of the social and emotional capacities?

First WEC view it as the long haul, that these are foundations, not for early childhood, but for life.

Second, the spirit of waldorf education gives initial direction to working in the social emotional realm based on the following ;

Birth to seven - Early childhood cultivates and works in support of the child's deep, inborn natural attitude, belief and trust in and basic reverence for the world as an interesting and good place to live. Life is Good, Work with the hands, willing.

Seven to fourteen - In the lower grades in elementary school, this leads to more of a stress on using artistic elements in different forms (rhythm, movement, color, form, recitation, song, music.) This is not primarily as a means of personal self expression, but as a means to learn to understand and relate to the world. The child builds an understanding for different subjects out of what is beautiful in the world in the broadest sense of the word. Life is Beautiful, work from the heart, feeling.

Fourteen to twenty one - In the upper grades this leads in steps to an ever more conscious cultivation of an observing, reflecting, and experimental scientific attitude to the world. The education focuses on building an understanding of what is true based on personal experience, thinking and judgment. Life is True, work within the head, thinking

In a nutshell Hands, Heart, Head or Willing, Feeling, Thinking.

In early childhood the program’s social and emotional development begins with three focuses through the years birth to six. All are interwoven throughout to some degree but emphasis may be placed on one at a certain age. These three focuses are…. Are you ready… the secret to socially and emotionally perfect children……


2. Self initiated compliance

3. Boundaries

But where are the feelings, the conversation needed to understand the other, the deep introspection into ones self worth? Wait, what, virtues?, Self initiate…. What do these have to do with a social emotional development curriculum.? Lets start with……

Virtues – behavior showing high moral standards:

To start, the virtue piece is the most straightforward. We always speak of being a good role model at school. We as parents always try and put forth our best selves to our children. A part of a Waldorf educator’s development is inner growth, not just continuing ed. classes. How do we become better examples of human beings to the children? Virtues by demonstration are equally prevalent from birth to six years old. What do they see you do? How do they see you react? Do you seem angry, happy, sad, disappointed? They are cataloging all that they see of you and their peers. When one child hurts another I go to the hurt child and care for them, let them know all is well, show compassion. Depending on the incident I may say nothing to a very young child who did the hurting, or something simple like “we don’t hurt each other”. Then, most importantly we move on. We are all OK with each other, victim and instigator both feel safe, life goes on. It is very unusual for young children to hold grudges.

The young child cannot separate the willing from the feeling, they are one and the same at a young age. That is mine so I hit, I want that so I scream. I want to do that so I cry. The willing/feeling is like the Terminator - it cannot be separated or reasoned with. This is the root cause of why “discussing” emotions and feelings with young children is unnecessary and in some cases may create barriers for future social/emotional development. The very young child navigates the world through imitation. Around the age of three our expectation shifts to……………………

Self initiated compliance – initiated or begun by oneself the act of conforming.

Self initiated compliance is the focus in the 3-6 year old. This can be interpreted as the child’s capacity to engage in an activity of their own initiative within the framework of the class/home. I set the framework so that minimal instruction is required. To verbally instruct a child at this age is to bring them into the “thinking”. My job is to develop the “willing”. So in this, when snack is over I sing a clean-up song and they all get to work. They know what to do through routine and imitation. Your expectations (focus number three) of them become a group bubble which you travel about in. If one child is not where they need to be another may remind them. In time there comes compliance of their own will. Self initiated compliance is the root development of higher social capacities. Impulse control and sharing both are examples of these capacities. These are a long time coming for the young child to develop. Through repetition, reminders and peer learning these capacities will come in time. In this the Kindergarten is a miniature microcosm of the social fabric of our world. You become a contributing member of society by fulfilling your will by doing purposeful work for you AND the whole. Is it perfect? No. Sometimes they have bad days where the will is trumped by the poor impulse control or selfishness. In this case I may need to enforce focus three, which is technically not a focus. I would say it is a lemniscates: that which weaves between virtues and self initiated compliance and holds the social landscape in the class.

Boundaries – a limit of a sphere of activity

Here is where it is at the discretion of the teacher. I try not to be wooden. Emotions are human, when necessary I express humor, levity, silliness, incredulity, even anger. We are all their teachers as to when these emotions are appropriate. Boundaries may be reminder after reminder after reminder to only have two on the swing or not to make loud noises, or it may be a loud, sharp “NO!” if a violation around the fire is observed. When is crying/screaming a need for attention or a true pain? Will I soothe them with humor or does it need distraction or even ignoring? We as adults determine the boundaries and how they move forward to learn all there is in the social and emotional realm.

For the young child, actions speak louder than words. They are in the willing world. Not till around age nine will they truly awaken to social and emotional realizations. “how do I feel about how I made them feel?”, “how do I feel about that person?”. These are questions for the older child. In the early child, peer learning and the model of the adults are the prescription. What should unfold then is the foundation for the ability to navigate our very complex social order. None of this will work without solid boundaries. Without boundaries the young child by default makes their own rules. This will only lead to frustration on their part when they come up against established boundaries . But more importantly, children who don’t have adequate boundaries may become outcast by peers. Young children are very uncomfortable with deviance. Children who are consistently disruptive are seen as “unsafe”. I cannot overstate the importance of boundaries for the overall wellbeing of children socially and emotionally. You are bigger, stronger, and wiser. Put your foot down and don’t feel the least remorse, they will love you for it.

All three focuses are important to good solid social and emotional development. These by no means make one perfect, but they provide membership to the human race. The “harmony” one may witness in the play yard is no different than the harmony we experience as adults living our lives in our communities. I think of our lives as modeled in these focuses. Within the framework of boundaries (laws) I live and work “virtuously” (common decency) so that I may, through self initiated compliance, function purposefully in society (volunteer, get a job, etc.). The play yard where one sees chaos would be an example of failure of social and emotional education. Life will teach them most of how to function socially and emotionally. We can all be a part of each child’s solid foundation from which to be happy, healthy human beings.

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