Every single one of my mornings is spent hanging out with one of my little buddies in Early Intervention (birth to 3 years old) and to say I love it is a huge understatement. I have some friends who are just finding their voices, and some that are moving on to string 2-3 words together. Some really like to interact hands-on with me, grabbing my face to show me something, or hand leading me to their favorite activity to encourage me to play with them. Some take it as a quiet time to sit on the floor with me, resting their little head on my knee, as we read, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” for the 1200th time that morning, discussing all the animals and colors we see. It doesn’t matter to me because all of this is a communication from them to let me know what’s important to them right then. I am blessed to be invited into their worlds and get a glimpse of life from their wide, wonder-filled eyes. Mindfulness & toddlers don't seem to go in the same sentence so a few days ago I made a post about waiting for a child to invite you into their world. I have been the young therapist/teacher who thought they knew what each child needed without listening to them. I was wrong. On my journey into mindfulness, I’d like to pass along some tips that I’ve learned over the years so that we can help the next generation feel loved, accepted, and respected.
1.) Stop, Sit, Listen
I know, this seems like a no brainer. But how often do we walk in with our own agenda in mind? We need to be prepared and plan for what we are teaching children, but when you walk in what are they doing? What in the environment is showing you interest they may have? How can you use that to engage with them? If a child is playing with a certain toy or activity contently when I walk in then I’m going to sit down on the floor with them and quietly observe how they are playing. I might then ask a question or make a comment about what they are doing such as, “I really like your doll’s red dress” while I point to the attribute I’m commenting on. I’m not stopping their play, I’m not forcing my way in, I’m gently engaging without requirements or requests being made upon them. This has proven to be a wonderful strategy for me because I don’t seem imposing or threatening, just someone who wants to be friends with them.
2.) Be Present
This is a big part of mindfulness. When you're with a child BE WITH THE CHILD. It’s so easy to start to tick off the next few things you need to be doing, such as an IFSP Goal the child needs to work on. And we should always be thinking about that because we want to support their learning. But some learning can be novel and can lead to some big accomplishments! I have a little friend who is really into some beaded necklaces I put in small, individual containers. The idea was to work on opening and closing the containers (to work on fine motor skills), and then putting the necklaces on an off (which also worked on his fine motor, but also his flexibility in taking them off gently and patiently). He was so highly motivated by these necklaces and containers that we started to think of other silly things we could do, like balancing the containers on our heads while we do a sitting, “Buzzing Bee” yoga pose. I was being present to see that we could use his newfound interest in a bee we saw in a book, work on saying the “zzzzz” sound as well as learning to say “bee”, he was able to imitate my pose with age-appropriate accuracy, and he was imitating my actions of balancing something on my head. And we got in a huge fit of giggles while we were doing all of this. Be aware enough to know when it’s time to throw your agenda out the window and click into what’s important to them.
So what do I mean by connect? It means when a child is truly engaged in toy or activity, engage with them once they are comfortable with you. Don't force it. Make comments about different attributes of the toy, as open-ended questions, and sometimes you just have to sit silently while they show you how to use the toy that is meaningful to them or play a certain game. When your noticing things that they are struggling to express, give them the words. Don’t correct what they are saying, simply model it. If one of my friends is trying to do something, say connect large legos, and is making noises and facial expressions that are giving me cues that they are getting frustrated then I’m going to step in before they reach their boiling point. I’m not going to take the toy away and do it for them. I may say something like, “I see you are mad. Do you need help?” If they cue me that they do need help then I’ll verbally guide them on how to do it, such as, “Push the blue lego down.” If they are still having a problem then I’ll ask them again if I can help, but I’ll gently hand over hand guide them to complete the task with as little assistance as I can give while having them complete the task successfully. I don’t want to do it for them, my job is to help them learn how to do it. My job is also to show them that I have a lot of faith in them and know they can do what they need to and to help them work on their flexibility by showing them even if you're stuck you can get help. This morning I sat with a friend for 15 minutes while he attempted to string a bead on a piece of yarn. I asked if he needed help, but his body language told me he was very focused on doing this on his own. So I sat and watched, giving encouragement when he’d look over at me. He didn’t get the bead on but it didn’t matter to me. He had sat and attended to an unfamiliar task for 15 minutes and didn’t give up. That is going to teach him more about himself than I ever can.
4.) Respect where they are, and don’t rush them
“Our friends' daughter is reciting the alphabet while she tap dances and paints an abstract she’s imitated from Picasso. My child is the same age and isn’t doing that!” Ok, this was a little far fetched but has a grain of truth in it. It’s natural to compare children of the same age to make sure your child is hitting all their milestones, but at what point is the comparison stopping you from enjoying the unique child you have? I get it, I’m a parent too! But I had to learn that my child (and yours!) will hit their milestones in THEIR TIME. Not yours. Read this again: They will hit their milestones in THEIR time. Theirs. Not yours. No mine. Theirs. Let’s let that fact free you to enjoy this very stage in their life because they will never be here again so let’s celebrate them now and not when they hit a certain goal or milestone. Because guess what? Your child, and mine, will thrive because they will be sent the message from us that we love them just as they are, right where they are at. This leads to immeasurable self-confidence, which turns into feeling safe enough to make mistakes and learn from them, as well as developing their own mindfulness practices the older they get. I don’t do anything perfectly the first go around, it takes time and practice. So why should I hold someone else to a higher standard? When a child feels that it’s perfectly ok to try something and not succeed the first time, they will learn how to keep trying until they do accomplish their goal. This will help them be more receptive to try other things they might not have if they weren’t encouraged.
What are some mindfulness practices you use with young children? I’d love to hear them! Connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn and let’s share some ideas!