May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

So Friday, October 1, 2021 was wild. It was one of those days at the ELC that felt like there must have been a full moon. Was there?

After our Early Learning Center students beautifully tolerated and managed two fire alarms, two evacuations and more scheduling shifts and pivots than could be counted, we found ourselves in awe of how much we, as adults, can and should learn from our amazing students. Their ability to manage twists and turns, surprises and concerns is refreshing, and their approach to the world, rife with unpredictabilities, ought to be embraced and celebrated. As the trusted adults in their world, we, their educators and parents, have much to learn about the valuable role we play in the development of their ability to be flexible, to be resilient, and to cope when challenges are thrown their way.

Self-regulation, or emotional regulation, is a set of skills that enable an individual to manage his or her emotions and control their behavior in accordance with the demands of a given situation. It is one of the cornerstones of early childhood education—a skill that is a part of the “hidden” curriculum in every good preschool program. This is because we recognize that good regulatory skills are not necessarily inborn, but rather develop over time and with good modeling from adults. Take, for example, the way your toddler looked to you after she toddled and fell and needed for you to say, “You’re ok. I saw that—you fell down hard and got a boo-boo, but you’re ok. You really are.” That toddler was dependent on your externally-provided reassurances that despite the fall, despite the figurative hardships she will encounter, that she is “ok,” that she can cope. That she can stand up, brush herself off, and forge ahead. It is the validation that something unexpected, unpredictable, injurious or even traumatic can happen—and she nonetheless can and will “be ok.”

After some years of having this message be externally provided, children naturally begin to internalize these messages and they morph into what can be called positive self-talk, a skill that helps an individual through difficult or scary experiences. Positive and encouraging self-talk can be best described as those moments when you talk to yourself to get yourself through some of life’s more challenging or harrowing moments. Like when you are driving at night and it starts raining buckets, and you say to yourself “Ok, this is rough, but I’ll just take it slow and I’ll be ok.” During a child’s early stages of development, we watch as kids take their cues from trusted adults—and we see just how valuable it is for them to see us take a deep breath, smile and say “We’ve got this. We’re gonna be ok.” And then, magically, they take that same deep breath and actually feel ok. The kids, really, are alright.

Children are flexible. While we believe that children benefit from schedules and routines and from being taught explicitly what to expect, we also learn time and time again that children can be unbelievably flexible as they traverse a change in plans, no matter how big or small that change may be. In fact, to reinforce this important life skill, we highlight flexibility every day in our classrooms so that children understand that plans can, and do, change—and that’s okay. When music is cancelled, we say things like, “We were supposed to have music, but we can’t today. That’s disappointing, but instead we will have free play in the classroom and that’s okay!” Or “I’m flexible; instead of playing with the magnatiles, I went to the dramatic play area. Next time, I’ll have a turn to play magnatiles.” Some time ago there was a popular rhyming phrase used by teachers in classrooms everywhere. When snacks, markers, toys or prizes were distributed, there were inevitably children who were disappointed in the item they were given and protested that they wanted a different one. That’s when the rhyming phrase “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset,” came in handy—and teachers across the country ran with it! It was constantly being used as a strategy for addressing disgruntled or dissatisfied students. The phrase has always rubbed us the wrong way in that it immediately dismissed a child’s feelings of disappointment and commanded him to simply, “not get upset.” We have since made that phrase verboten here at SAR (thank you, Rabbi Krauss!)—and instead prefer to send the message, “This was not what you wanted, and you’re frustrated about it, but you can handle it and come up with a solution!” The message may not have a catchy rhyme, but it communicates a life skill that we strive to inculcate; life sometimes gives you lemons, and that’s hard… but you are clever, resourceful and resilient and you can handle it and figure it out. And be ok.

Children are resilient. If you have been in the ELC before or had a conversation with either of us, you know this is virtually a mantra in the ELC. When difficult or scary things happen, we teach children to say, “That’s okay” or “I will be okay!” and, our personal favorite, “We’ve got this!” From COVID-induced Zoom school to enduring a quarantine on Purim, from being sent home during the day because of a potential COVID exposure to having to adapt to mask mandates, children manage, cope and forge ahead. Sometimes, as parents and caregivers, we may not give children enough credit in this area and then, after we are again impressed by their resilience, we look at each other and say, “Of course they are okay!”

And they let you know that they’re okay. One of the best ways to know that a child is “ok” is to sit with them, keep them company, wait to hear their questions and follow their lead. Children ask amazing questions. When children are feeling worried or confused, the questions they ask provide us a window into their thinking and their frame of reference. After answering a bunch of their questions and explaining to a group of concerned kindergarteners on that fire alarm Friday about how a smoke detector works, and why we were still waiting on the field instead of going back into the building, we noticed one child squinting into the sunlight, gazing up at our building, with a perplexed look on his face. Preparing ourselves for a follow-up question from him about our overall safety, or perhaps even a question borne of a fear of fire, we asked him, “What are you wondering about?” He turned to face us and asked earnestly, “Why do we say that smoke “set off the alarm” if really the alarm isn’t going off, it is going on?” After a moment of quiet contemplation we replied, “You’re right, that is strange, you are so right!” We all had a good laugh together, and talked about funny English expressions. But really, truly, the adults’ laughter came also from a place of having been sent the greatest signal that the student (and his buddies) had truly moved on from a place of fear and uncertainty with regard to their safety, and had returned to the more naive (and humorous! and brilliant!) musings of five-year-olds. Signal sent, and signal received. The kids were alright.

We took that wonderful observation and shared it during the conversations that we were having across the field with other children whom we checked on. After hearing their concerns about the evacuation, validating their feelings, and responding to some of their “wonderings,” we then posed the question that student raised about the expression with other groups of kindergarteners, and we were wowed by how quickly and effortlessly they seemed to redirect their attention to this confusing turn of phrase, engaging in conversations about it and relaxing into a dialogue that was fun and playful. They were smiling, resting in the sunshine, staring up at clouds and now wondering about some of the strange expressions and phrases we use. Collectively we were faced with a challenge, we coped with it, listened carefully to their concerns and answered them, reassured them that the adults had the situation under control and then we watched as they quite magically moved on.

Though neither of us have ever been successful at harnessing the time and dedication necessary to practice mindfulness meditation in our daily lives, we often remind each other in times of stress of perhaps the greatest quote ever with regard to resilience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), brilliantly captured the gist of what we believe by writing, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

Tough stuff happens, the waves keep coming, but we have in us the fortitude and resourcefulness to learn how to cope and persevere, and be alright. “Surfing” is now on the curriculum in the ELC.

We’ve got this.


Alana Rifkin-Gelnick is associate principal and Dr. Shoshana Dachs is a psychologist at SAR Early Learning Center.

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