Updated: Jan 7
During these first few weeks of January many of us will partake in making one, or numerous, new years resolutions. These promises to ourselves are usually based on areas of our lives which we feel need improvement or which we think we are failing at or underperforming in. Although I am all for striving to be the best version of yourself and working towards what makes you happy in life, I also wince when I hear some of the negative commentary and narrative that impressionable young ears can hear when we proclaim some of the “self-improvements” we wish to make at this time of year.
Observational & Social Learning
Child development theorists, whether they be social constructivists such as Dewey (1938), Vygotsky (1978) and Bandura (1977), or attachment theorists such as Bowlby (1969) and Ainsworth (1973), all emphasise the influence of social connections between carer/parent/teacher on a child’s learning and development. Albert Bandura (1977) in particular proposed his social learning theory which placed an emphasis on how children observe, model and imitate the behaviours and attitudes of those within their environment, subsequently influencing their learning and development.
When children observe those around them they learn what they perceive to be socially acceptable norms and these newly learned behaviours and attitudes become reinforced by the responses the child receives which will make them either more or less likely to repeat the behaviour. If this sounds somewhat familiar that is because Bandura’s theory is closely aligned to Skinnner’s behaviourist theory of operant conditioning (1953). In the case of diets as a new years resolution for example, if children hear adults talking about weight and body image in a negative way and then a colleague loses weight and receives positive praise this may send a message that reinforces social constructs around weight, social acceptance and happiness. Consequently, children may come to believe that happiness, social acceptance and a positive sense of self is closely aligned with weight loss and being slim.
Within the impressionable early lives of children we, the adult’s, are vital role models who have a responsibility to maintain an awareness of how we approach discussions, such as new year’s resolutions and planned life changes, in the presence of the children we care for. Think for a moment of the young child who overhears an adult in their environment discussing diets, weight loss and body image and the negative messages that children may be picking up on such as “if I eat less and lose weight I will look and feel better and be more acceptable to myself and others”. Such messages can leave deep impressions related to self-image, self-confidence and social constructs.
As educators, our early years curriculum framework highlights the important influence of the adult as a role model during early childhood. Themes of identity and belonging and well-being are front and centre of the Aistear curriculum framework and highlight the importance of supporting children to develop a positive sense of self as a capable and confident learner. Aistear also emphasises the importance of role modelling respect for ourselves and others in order to develop these dispositions in children. We must remember that the remit of our position as a positive role model does not begin and end with the curriculum and associated activities. Children and watching and listening to us all of the time and we must be cognisant of that and avoid negative conversations around issues which could influence the holistic development of children or provide them with a negative perception of either themselves or others based on superficial external indicators such as appearance, weight and body shape.
Of course, this does not mean that we cannot have positive and healthy conversations and discussions within the learning environment around exercise for fun and food for nutrition. In fact, we should be incorporating movement and exercise in the classroom through play activities particularly by providing access to a well-resourced outdoor environment. Additionally, we can develop and support positive interactions around food and a healthy diet by developing a healthy eating policy and sharing it with parents. Other constructive ideas which we could utilise are encouraging children to become hands on during snack time, set the table, chop up fruit, make sandwiches, pour drinks. These positive activities and interactions will help to encourage a healthy relationship with food and mealtimes as a social time where we prepare a meal and sit together to experience a shared experience full of conversations and healthy delicious food. Or perhaps start a veggie patch where children can plant, care for, grow and harvest their own vegetables and fruits which they can cook and eat together, such a valuable lesson which goes beyond healthy eating and promotes caring for the environment and sustainability.
Think before you speak
When we think of the importance of our interactions within the early childhood education environment, we must always remember that our interactions between ourselves and the other adults in the room are just as important and influential as our interactions between ourselves and the children. So, the next time you start to discuss new years resolutions, take a moment, and think about the impressionable minds in the room and your privileged position as an influential role model who can impact their self-confidence, self-image and their development of respect for both themselves and others.
About the Author:
Paula Walshe is an PhD student and Assistant Lecturer in ECE at Dundalk Institute of Technology. She currently holds a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC and has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. In addition to this, Paula is a committee member with PEMI, the professional body for the ECE and SAC sector in Ireland. You can learn more about Paula’s work here. LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed / Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator
Paula has also co-founded a Twitter community of practice page and podcast @ECEQualityIrl
You can listen to the most recent ECE Quality Ireland podcast here.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1973). The development of infant-mother attachment. In B. Cardwell & H. Ricciuti (Eds.), Review of child development research (Vol. 3, pp. 1-94) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Bowlby J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. SimonandSchuster.com.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.