Non-violent and Moral Development at the Early Childhood level. Kanya Padayachee
In our society it just isn’t possible for children to avoid exposure to violence. Newspapers remind us of that every day. Many children experience violence in their homes or neighbourhoods, out-of-control ways that stop short of violence, but are still scary and troubling. Almost every child is exposed to violence in TV programmes, movies and video games.
Violent behaviour is often learned early in life, when the brain is making critical connections. Along with families, early childhood practitioners and caregivers can be crucial in protecting children from violence and supporting their healthy development. Just as children can learn to be violent, they can also learn to be good citizens, in control, patient and understanding. Children who learn these skills early in life actually practice violence prevention—something valuable throughout life.
Similarly, early childhood education should address the moral development of the child, especially the caring and compassionate aspects of morality. What could be more important than teaching our children a sense of caring and social responsibility? We might teach them reading and writing, but if we neglect to teach them to be caring and compassionate, what kind of society will we be creating? Will we have given them all they need for fulfilling their potential and achieving a sense of satisfaction in their lives?
Let us begin with teaching non-violence – looking at some of the practical ways we can achieve this, by our own action and behaviour.
First and foremost, young children need to feel physically and emotionally safe. There is no better way to start children on the right path in life than to provide consistent, reliable, loving care. Families come first of course, but our relationships with the children we teach and look after are powerful tools for protecting them from violence, now and later.
Children learn how to behave by watching people around them – the adults in their families and communities, and of course, they learn by watching us, their special, beloved practitioners/caregivers.
We teach children, by example, how to get along in the world. When we come together with the children in our class, or with our co-workers, to solve our problems peacefully, children see and learn how to deal with people in a positive way.
We can make our centres places of refuge by showing children many examples of people dealing with each other in friendly, cooperative ways. The children will gradually realize that there are many ways to deal with people and to resolve conflicts peacefully.
As practitioners and caregivers we have a responsibility to monitor our own anger. How do we behave when tension builds up? When children get restless on a rainy day? When a co-teacher lets us down? When a child has a toileting accident?
Remember, children learn by watching us solve problems with respectful words and non-violent actions. The most important way to teach children how to handle anger is to show that we can calm ourselves, think about our own actions, and take reasonable, non-violent steps to change the situation that made us angry. Only when we respond to anger in a calm, respectful manner can we begin to help children control their own angry feelings.
Children become confused, scared, and angry when adults hurt them, especially the people whom they depend on to love and protect them. The child who suffers continual physical punishment or is subjected to harsh, demeaning words can become aggressive and out of control.
When we must act to stop a child’s unacceptable behaviour, our goal should always be to do it with self-control and without violence. The purpose of discipline is to teach children self-control, not to punish them.
We must also refrain from labelling any child as “bad.” We can tell children that we do not like their unacceptable behaviour, but we must always reassure them that we still care for them and want to keep them safe.
Hitting children sends a confusing message. It says it’s okay to hurt someone you love in order to control them or solve a problem. Repeated harshly, over time, it trains children to punish others with force—the same way that they were punished.
The best way to get young children to behave the way we want—and to prevent escalation into anger and even violence—is to build a foundation of love and respect. We must pay attention to children when things are calm and comment on their good behaviour.
Compliment children for sharing a toy with a classmate or for putting their toys away or for avoiding conflicts with other children. If children get attention only when they misbehave, they will repeatedly act up to get attention.
As part of a young child’s daily life, practitioners and caregivers have a critical influence on that child’s development. What we teach children today will make a difference in who they are tomorrow. We must use our knowledge and skills to show a path to non-violence for children, for their families, and for the community.
Some people argue that moral development and a sense of caring are values to be fostered at home. Sadly, behaviours and attitudes of many adults in our society reflect a serious lack of social responsibility, an unhealthy compulsion to succeed at any cost and a willingness to “do wrong” to get ahead. Thus, teaching of these values doesn’t seem to be happening. If this is what children see around them, how can it be possible that children will just naturally evolve into caring adults who choose to make socially responsible decisions.
Addressing our cultural moral crisis will take the commitment and involvement of many elements of society, especially early childhood education. Community involvement is especially important in light of the fact that many children are not taught much about ethics and honesty at home. Worse, many parents may be caught up in the cheating culture themselves and set a negative example for their children.
We all know that children must learn to act in certain socially acceptable ways to get along well in society and to maintain a healthy sense of self. They must learn, for example, to follow certain rules of etiquette while eating, to use the bathroom appropriately, and to express their feelings of anger and frustration without hurting others. While it is important for children to learn and abide by these “rules,” teaching such rules isn’t what moral education is all about.
Morality runs much deeper than behaving according to the rules set down by others. It includes a sense of justice, compassion, and caring about the welfare of others. It also includes the ability to discern how someone might be thinking or feeling.
Some people may think that preschool children aren’t cognitively or emotionally ready to be concerned about anyone but themselves. Yet, we know that caring behaviour shows itself during the first year of life. Many infants show signs of distress when another baby cries, and toddlers become uneasy when another child gets hurt or is punished. Some year-on-year even display the same emotion as the child being punished. Such behaviours indicate a sense of caring and empathy. Helping children grow in this way should be a major goal of moral education at the early childhood level. Here are some guidelines and suggestions on how to promote moral functioning with young children, especially in relation to caring for others.
- Help children understand the reason behind rules, especially rules relating to such moral concerns as justice, fairness, and other aspects of human welfare. Discuss the reasons why one behaviour is preferable to another (e.g., sharing a box of crayons is preferable to pushing another child away). In discussing these contrasting behaviours with a young child, the focus should be on how what the child does affects someone else (e.g. sharing crayons makes a play partner happy while pushing the child away makes the other child sad).
2. Match your response to conflict situations to the children’s level of cognitive and social development. Young children will judge events and behaviours on how such happenings directly affect them. If, for example, four-year-old Bongi is playing with toys in the sandbox and doesn’t want to stop playing, it’s not likely that she will automatically be sympathetic to the fact that Philani, has been waiting for ten minutes to have his turn. We need to understand Bongi’s position – not that we allow her to play as long as she pleases. Instead, that we establish rules or procedures to protect the interests and rights of all the children and that the reasons behind these rules are shared with the children. In fact, in many cases, it’s best to develop the rules with the children. Developing a rule about time limits for using the sand box, for example, would include a discussion with the children about how most children enjoy the sand toys in the sand box and about how they feel sad when they don’t get a turn. While having and enforcing the time limit rule may not result in Bongi suddenly empathizing with the other child’s feelings, she should be reminded that there is a rule and that the rule was developed to protect the rights and feelings of all the children.
Children at this level are motivated to follow the rules to avoid punishment and/or to get rewards. Thus, they follow the rules when they can see that it is to their benefit to do so – that is, they get a reward or avoid negative consequences.
3. By talking about how someone else feels in relation to a specific action, we encourage children to understand and care about the feelings of others. In addition to not treating others unfairly, we have to teach children not to turn away from someone in need – that is, to show that we care when someone else is hurting or needs something. For example, attend to the victim first when one child hurts another. It’s always important to focus on the feelings of others when dealing with hurtful conflicts or transgressions of class rules. Instead of focusing on the concern that “the rules have been broken,” focus on the outcome of how “someone has been hurt” (or was put in danger of being hurt). This response not only attends to the victim’s needs but also helps the offending child develop a sense of morality, as caring about the welfare of others is critical to moral functioning.
4. Use children’s literature to share examples of caring. This often serves as an excellent stimulus for discussion (just as you discussed with them the rules). Rather than just reading a book from cover to cover with children, practitioners should help children “uncover” the meaning and personal implications of the story through thoughtful discussion.
5. Model, encourage, and reward acts of caring. Children need to see others engaged in acts of kindness and expressions of caring. There are many opportunities for caregivers and practitioners to put this in practice throughout the day. For example, if one child has been absent for several days because of illness, you might suggest making a get-well card for her. It’s also important to observe children’s behaviour closely and note any acts of kindness and caring. Children should then be praised when they show empathy for others. Teachers should also suggest ways in which children can practice acts of kindness in their daily routines – for example, holding the door for each other, sharing desired materials, helping when someone has a “mess” to clean up, etc.
Finally, the values of nonviolence and moral and ethical behaviour – feeling and caring for one another – rests largely on your shoulders. You have the power to make significant and critical differences to the lives of the children that you teach.
The ideas are sourced from papers by ECD specialists/academics.