CAEYC Conference 2010: Building Mindful Relationships

By Laura Berquist, Teacher

Look inward to help bolster stronger relationships with young children. This was the message of one keynote speech at California’s major annual meeting for California’s early childhood education professionals—the California Association for the Education of Young Children, which took place in Long Beach, Calif., April 8-10. Bing teachers Andrea Hart, Stephanie Holson, Kitti Pecka and I attended lectures, workshops, networking events and special exhibitions celebrating early childhood education in California and the world.

“Since children develop and acquire new skills in a social context, early childhood programs have many opportunities to support child development across all domains,” said the speaker, Mary Hartzell, author and director of the First Presbyterian Nursery School in Santa Monica, Calif. Ample research supports that children who learn how to make choices at a young age persist when facing new and increasingly complex challenges, problem-solve in collaboration with peers and adults and develop keen emotional literacy (identifying emotions in themselves and others) and will be more resilient as they enter school. Hartzell explored this topic with psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, MD, for their book Parenting From the Inside Out.

Hartzell described what active engagement with children should look like in any setting. She reminded the audience that caregivers must be willing to interact and play with children. When stress enters the home or school, the quality of adult-child communication can weaken. “Intense states of mind can impair our ability to think clearly and remain flexible” in our interactions with young children, she said. Hartzell told the audience that emotional responses to stress are only human, and should be expected. The challenge, she noted, was to recognize one’s emotional response and learn how to manage it productively.

Hartzell shared research linking the early emotional experiences children have with adults and their later perceptions of the world. When adults model a way to process strong emotions safely, they help children develop empathy and efficacy in coping with strong emotions themselves. She recommended that adults find a way to physically transition out of a “disorganized” emotional state brought on by stress to one that’s more conducive to interplay with children: “Take one mindful breath or drink one glass of water-remember, you can always rewind and revisit this stressful moment later.” Likewise, when faced with a child in stress, Hartzell explained that adults must “meet [children] where they are.” This might mean getting down to their eye level and waiting expectantly for them to talk about what happened. Or, if the children are not ready or able to talk about it, they might be comforted by an adult narrating the emotion they’re displaying or the events that might have brought on this reaction. She urged the audience to embrace struggle and conflict as opportunities to communicate with children about emotions.

This theme of social-emotional health in relationships pervaded other conference workshops. In one that explored music as a tool for anti-bias education, folk singer and activist Jackie Breger explained that music helps some children calm down or process strong emotions. She shared stories of classroom interactions she had using children’s accounts of stress or change in their lives as the words for simple, improvised songs to commonly known tunes. She helped children share stories about an event in their home like the birth of a sibling or the experience of a flood, voicing their emotions through music. Music can be a profound intercultural experience for children, allowing them to express great joy and great sadness with each other. Breger urged educators to embrace music as a way of sharing events and honoring and incorporating the thoughts and experiences of children in a classroom community.

During a workshop entitled “Yoga as a Framework for Transforming Challenging Relationships,” Abby Wills, discussed how mindful awareness practices, including yoga, offer effective tools for cultivating strong, harmonious relationships. Wills examined how Western societies have a propensity for labeling emotions as “good” or “bad,” while Eastern traditions reflect on one’s current emotional state and value “exploring what is and is not working right now.” She encouraged the audience to actively reflect on the things they had strong emotional reactions to and use this emotion to transform their actions in a positive way. Additionally, she shared stories of using active yoga postures with children to rev up and resting, “savasana,” postures to calm down. In this way she shared how reflective mindfulness can support the emotional health of both children and adults.

While many conference participants agreed that prioritizing social-emotional curricula for young children is essential, they wondered how it could be meaningfully introduced or strengthened in a time of economic hardship and education budget cuts. Speakers from early childhood advocacy groups like California First 5, On the Capitol Doorstep, and the Head-start Association encouraged parents, teachers and community members to write letters to budget committee members and the governor’s office in support of high-quality early childhood environments for California’s children.

Bing has a selection of current legislative action materials collected at the CAEYC conference housed in the Staff Library.