Friday, May 5, 2017

Neurodevelopmental Science and Social-Emotional Development in Young Children

Shortly after Passover, I attended Children Together’s spring conference. I can’t describe Children Together any better than they do themselves, so let me quote directly from their website: “Children Together is a labor of love; a community based, non-profit organization committed to increasing opportunities for the inclusion of children with disabilities and their families in Alexandria’s quality early childhood programs.  Children Together seeks to connect families of children with disabilities to quality programs as well as to link staff who serve children with disabilities with needed resources in the community.

Children Together envisions a future where children with disabilities and their families are openly welcome into quality early childhood programs in Northern Virginia.  In this ideal future, the directors of early childhood programs would be knowledgeable of available community resources which support the education of children with disabilities; and all early childhood teachers would feel confident that they have the skills and support systems needed to successfully meet the special needs of all their students.”

This year’s conference, presented by Dr. Beth Tuckwiller from The George Washington University, was entitled Neurodevelopmental Science and Social-Emotional Development. The essential understanding was objectively simple but essential and profound. In order to be successful in the classroom, children need to form attachments with their teachers in ways that are similar to those they form with their parents. While nothing ever could or would replace the parent-child bond, the teacher-child bond is nevertheless crucial. Too often, classroom teachers focus too much on routines and procedures, which, to be fair, do serve an important purpose. But focusing on routines and procedures to the exclusion of building relationships can actually be counter-productive. If children love and trust their teacher, if they have a positive, authentic, and mutually respectful relationship with their teacher, children will be more likely and able to comply with their teacher’s requests, whether the request is to line up or count to ten. Children are able to learn only when they feel supported emotionally and socially.

Every single aspect of a child’s healthy development, including academic growth, involves a social component. There are always two people involved, and in a classroom, one of those people is always a teacher. To take the essential understanding a step farther, this means that when a teacher encounters a challenging child, one who doesn’t meet the typical expectations, the teacher needs think about what they are bringing to the relationship before they can even begin to think about what extra support the child might need. The more challenging the child, the greater the need for a stronger teacher-child bond. I am reminded of something Haim Ginott, the psychologist and educator, wrote: “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Parents are always welcome to attend Children Together’s semi-annual conferences, and scholarships are available through the Anne Lipnick Parent Support Fund. Anne Lipnick (z”l), a beloved member of our congregation, was also a founding boarding member of Children Together in the early 1990s. Thanks to her unwavering commitment, hundreds of educators and parents continue to learn about best practices in educating and parenting. For more information, or to make a donation, please contact Carol Keller at 703-671-3939. Save the date for the fall conference: Thursday, October 19, 2017 from 4:00 – 7:00 pm. 

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