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Emotional Competence Part 5: Handling relationships

"The learning of emotional and social competence is, at its heart, about learning to be a warm, caring and empathic human being who can make worthwhile personal relationships with others." (i)

The five aspects of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, managing emotions, self-motivation, handling relationships and developing empathy can be seen as an interconnected set of building blocks. Each aspect is important in its own right, but they are also interdependent and all are necessary for the building of a strong, emotionally literate individual. For example, without self-awareness, a child would not be able to manage his emotions. Without self-motivation, he would be unlikely to be an active learner with the drive to work well with others. Without the ability to manage his emotions and without some level of empathy, he would be unlikely to build good personal relationships. Without good personal relationships, his learning and emotional growth would be stunted.

Some young children make good relationships because they naturally have strong intra-personal and interpersonal skills. They make friends easily and instinctively know how to approach other children and how to join in their play. Other children will need to be actively taught these personal skills so that they can build the relationships with peers that are so essential to the development of emotional competence and good mental health:

"Nowhere are children more likely to develop skills at regulating their emotions than in their relationships with their peers. It's here that they learn how to communicate clearly, to exchange information, and to clarify their messages if they are not understood. They learn how to take turns in talking and playing. They learn to share. They learn how to find a common ground in their play activities, to have conflicts, and to resolve them. They learn to be understanding of another person's feelings, wishes, desires."(ii)

Each child has a different 'starting place', according to both personality and previous experiences. Shy or introverted children can find it very difficult to connect with adults or with other children. For these children, starting school or moving classes can be difficult, and a close relationship with one adult is essential before they can be helped to branch out and interact with other adults or children. It is worth taking time to allow a child to shadow a key worker until he gradually starts interacting with others. Routine and predictability are of great importance to many children, along with some explicit modeling of the social skills that are necessary for building and handling relationships. It is important to gauge when to push children a little and when to back off. It can be helpful to role-model useful phrases such as, 'Can I play?' or, 'Shall I help you?', or to verbalise what you are doing aloud as you demonstrate how to make a connection with another person, such as, 'Shall we go and ask Mira if she needs some help?'

However, there is a great difference between teaching, demonstrating and encouraging these social skills, and overwhelming a child through insisting that he behaves in a certain way to fit into your expectations. We need to have empathy for the child in his unique position in the world. A useful exercise is to conjure up an image of personally being in a very daunting situation. For example, if you dislike singing aloud, imagine that you are standing up at the Albert Hall, about to perform a solo in front of an audience of thousands. That is probably close to how a very shy child feels if an adult insists, however kindly, that he speaks out at circle time!

Other children may have difficulties in making relationships because they are impulsive and tend to overwhelm their peers. For some children simple things like learning how to speak quietly is a major challenge. It can help to exaggerate your own voice or to give a cue such as moving your hands or fingers together to visually guide a child to find an appropriate voice. Another useful tactic is to display a series of cartoons of characters to represent different voices. Children can practice speaking loudly and quietly at circle time, until they learn to judge what is appropriate. For children who have problems understanding what is an appropriate tone of voice, try role-playing situations where they practice asking questions gently. Some children need practice to understand the different response that a friend will have to a command, such as, 'BRING THAT BOX HERE NOW!' compared to the gentle request, 'Can you bring the box here please?'

Appropriate body language and learning how to make physical contact with others can also be a challenge for some children. Most practitioners have come across the child who cheerfully drags her peers by the back of the shirt into the home corner to play, oblivious to the other child's pleas to be let go! These children need to be given the chance to practice restraint and appropriate physical behaviours, along with the words and tone of voice that are most likely to lead to a satisfactory interaction. Victoria was a child who needed a great deal of practice to learn how to make and maintain relationships with her peers. Her parents owned a busy London pub, and Victoria had spent much of her time interacting with the adults who worked there. She was naturally an outgoing, confident child and she related exceptionally well to adults. But Victoria completely lacked social awareness when dealing with other children. She created her own agendas for games and found it difficult to accept that other children might have their own views or opinions! Her teacher found that it was best to be explicit with Victoria, for example, telling her, 'Amit does not want to play dinosaurs. He does not like the roaring,' then, speaking softly, 'If you are very quiet, Amit might tell you what he wants to play.' It helped Victoria if the teacher made physical contact with her, such as a hand on her shoulder, along with a visual cue such as putting a finger over her own mouth for a moment while she gestured to Victoria to listen to the other children.

Children who have specific challenges in making and maintaining relationships also benefit from being given very specific, simple rules about social behaviour, such as an agreement that it is not acceptable to exclude others. Children will need ongoing support in following these sorts of rules. Sometimes a pair of children might exclude others not due to any malicious intent, but because they cannot yet handle group interactions and are better at handling just one interaction at a time. Support needs to be given both to the excluded child, and to the pair. At other times, children may have quite valid reasons for wanting to exclude another child from their activity. For example, if Jordan continually knocks bricks over, it is understandable that Pritti and Crystal will not want him to help them to build a spaceship with the bricks. In these situations, creative thinking is needed to find solutions so that there is a successful outcome for everybody.

To back up the rules and overall culture of respectful relationships, it is useful to have a planned programme for teaching specific social skills. This does not need to be complex or rigid, and should be fluid enough to adapt to the needs of children in the group as they arise. Circle time can be used to teach appropriate social behaviours for a range of situations that children will encounter, for example, how to approach a child who is new, how to deal with someone saying you cannot play, or what to do if someone is crying. In these sessions, specific phrases can be taught, along with appropriate tones of voice and body language. Displays can be made with specific phrases in speech bubbles, which can be used as a resource whenever needed. Puppets or soft toys can be used to act out situations and to help children find solutions to problems. Stories can be used to reinforce key points. There are many good children's books that deal with the issue of relationships, or alternatively, stories can be created with the children and later made into books for the book corner.

But no matter what rules and programmes are in place, there will inevitably be challenging times where conflict occurs, sometimes following a pattern and involving specific children. Altering the layout of equipment, teaching rules for using it, and supervising children carefully are all ways that these incidents can be kept to a minimum. When conflicts do occur, it is important to try to see every child's perspective and if possible to trace an incident back to its origins (although this should be kept short and to the point, as a lengthy or clumsy 'interrogation' can inflame a situation and lead to increased negativity for the children.) If it becomes clear that the children cannot solve a problem without adult help, diplomatic and thoughtful intervention is required. It is important to keep questioning to a minimum. For example, the question, 'Why did you do that?' is often impossible for a child to answer. Even if a young child does have the insight to know his motives, it is unlikely that he also has the vocabulary for an explanation! Unless a child is really able to answer this sort of question, it is probably best not to ask it. Conjecture can be a more useful strategy to invite discussion, although care must be taken not to dictate to children what they must be thinking or feeling. For example, saying to Natalie, 'Sometimes it can be frustrating to have to wait your turn for a bike,' is different to asking her, 'Did you hit Kevin just because he has the bike?' Care must be taken that the dialogue allows Natalie to trust her own feelings as being valid. This is vitally important - children need to learn to trust and recognize their feelings, which must not be dismissed by the adult. It was Natalie's behaviour that was unacceptable, not her feelings of frustration or anger.

When dialogue is opened in a non-judgemental manner, it is easier to help children to find the language for their feelings, and to invite them to problem-solve and seek solutions. Acknowledging and labeling emotions and then handing responsibility to the children can lead to better relationships forming through the process of working together. Kevin and Natalie may decide to create a ticket system for taking turns with the bikes, and the conflict will be forgotten and they will have made a stronger friendship through undertaking the problem-solving activity. When the ethos of the setting generates this sort of trust in children's ability to work out solutions to problems together, a natural result will be the building of strong, healthy relationships.

It can take courage to hand responsibility over to children and to allow them to own their own emotions and manage their own relationships, rather than attempting to micro-manage the children's more challenging interactions yourself. But the benefits of doing so in terms of healthy relationships within the setting are immeasurable. And healthy relationships open the doors for increased learning in all areas. This is where we need to put our main focus - on getting social interactions right, in order that we can free children and ourselves to grow and learn.

Exclusively for the Foundation Stage Forum - International copyright Nicola Call © October 2004. All rights reserved


i) Katherine Weare and Gay Gray, What Works in Developing Children’s Emotional and Social Competence and Wellbeing? University of Southampton , Research Report No 456, 2003

ii) Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman, Ph.D., Simon and Schuster , New York , 1997

Nicola Call
Nicola Call is author of The ALPS Approach and The Thinking Child. She is currently working on The Can-Do Club, a series of children's books with accompanying activities for the promotion of emotional competence. More information about Nicola's work can be found at her websites at acceleratedlearning.co.uk and www.candoclub.com

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