The U.S. is the most violent of the developed nations in the world. More than three million Americans are victims of violent crimes annually, including 1,800 homicide victims, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. When well-publicized events occur, such as the school murders at Columbine or, more recently, the shooting and killing of a classmate by a six-year-old boy, learning how to prevent kids from growing up with violence as their password becomes ever more important.
Research repeatedly indicates that the mind grows explosively in the first few years of life, and studies confirm that behavior learned in those years can become a dominant aspect of the child’s adult personality. Major organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), believe that the most promising approach to reducing violence in our society is to intervene early-during the first years of life-and teach nonviolent living.
These early childhood years often are the childcare years; 75 percent of U.S. children are in childcare during these formative years. Childcare providers are in a position to influence and help prevent violent behavioral development in those children in our care. This opportunity becomes more critical as some aspects of society may negatively influence behavioral development. According to the AAP, prime time television, to which some children are exposed as a baby sitting device, exhibits three-five violent acts each hour; and on Saturday morning, the rate is 2025 acts of violence hourly.
Some of our children come from high-risk environments such as families where domestic violence and/or drug abuse is present. Children who have been abused or who have witnessed abuse are at high risk. Children who have been exposed to alcohol before birth or who are malnourished or otherwise unhealthy are more prone to violent attitudes. Studies of inner city children under age six years show that 75 percent of these children have witnessed violence in their communities, and a significant number have witnessed violent death.
Secure, safe, and nurturing relationships are essential in facilitating healthy social and emotional development and in preventing the development of violent behavior among children. Positive relationships can be fostered in childcare settings, as well as in the home. According to the 1993 NAEYC Position Paper on Violence in the Lives of Children, it is important to provide a sense of community for children and their families and to utilize developmentally appropriate and comprehensive curricula.
Building a sense of community begins by helping each child feel like they belong and are an important part of the classroom community. Some caregivers do this by actively listening to children, addressing their needs, calling them by their name, having a special space designated and labeled for each child to keep their belongings, including pictures of each child and their family in center books and on the walls, and protecting and advocating for the rights of every child.
Each child also needs to feel a responsibility for working together in their childcare community. This can be accomplished through a variety of shared group activities, such as painting murals, creating books, taping a video, and writing stories. Since it is more appropriate for young children to work in small groups, the projects do not have to be done in a large group to help children see that they are part of the entire setting. Children can work in small groups, based upon their interests and abilities, and the work can then be compiled into a project for all to enjoy.
Helping children to learn about ways they can contribute to the childcare community is important. Some caregivers do this by having helpers to do activities such as, set the table, water the plants, and feed the class pets. Helping out on a regular basis lets children feel a part of the childcare community. With a little assistance, children can make cardboard puzzles that they give to their childcare program. Children can give dolls a bath to keep them clean. Children also can be asked to assist other children with tasks they are still learning, like putting their coat on or tying their shoes.
Personal and social skills are developed by interacting with other children. At an early age, children can learn the “give and take” of getting along. To build cooperation and communication between children, caregivers can ask children to work together to accomplish tasks like, putting blocks away or carrying a large ball to the playground. Children can be asked to work in pairs to create shapes, letters, or objects using their bodies. Since children need to work together to accomplish tasks like rolling a ball around in a circle or bouncing a ball into the air, parachute games can also be an ideal way to help children learn to play in a group and cooperate. Reading Stone Soup (1987), by Tony Ross and then making a class soup or salad to share is another example of an activity to encourage cooperation and communication.
Often it is necessary to help children develop the vocabulary and language skills needed to communicate. Young children may use force because they lack the words to express themselves clearly. Activities where children practice identifying and using words like not, no, some, all, same, and different may help them to better communicate their desires and intentions. Caregivers also may need to facilitate communication by having children who are experiencing a conflict sit and face each other and asking one at a time to talk and encouraging the other(s) to listen. Helping children to find words that describe what they are trying to say also may be useful.
It is important for caregivers to recognize when children are angry, frustrated, possessive, or jealous and help them deal with and express their emotions appropriately. Adult modeling of appropriate behavior is a very strong teaching tool. Using positive guidance techniques and encouraging appropriate behavior helps children to develop self discipline. Appropriate limits and reasonable rules help children develop the self-control needed for cooperation. Children who learn to regulate their emotions may cope better with life’s problems later.
Children can learn problem solving skills and decision making skills in many ways. Children can be asked to think of as many ways as they can to move from one side of the playground to the other (running, hopping, rolling, creeping). Children could be asked to identify the center/activity where they want to play and what they want to do when they are in the center/activity as a way to encourage them to identify options and make plans. Using free play, with appropriate supervision, offers opportunities for social problem solving. Real problems that arise can serve as a natural way to guide children in meaningful problem solving.
For additional ideas, refer to early childhood curriculum resources that have been developed especially to help young children develop skills in problem solving, cooperation, communication, stress management, resiliency, mental health, and other areas related to healthy social and emotional development.