Compassion and Grit

December 1st, 2023

Hello Selwyn Families,
In this month’s Thoughts on Teaching and Learning series, I’ve asked Selwyn’s Early Childhood Director, Mrs. Jennifer Livas to share her perspective on our preschool’s educational philosophy. I think you’ll find her thoughts refreshing and insightful. I hope you enjoy! 

“We have not inherited the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children.”
This quote dates back to 1936 from Oscar Wilde on his journey across Canada. I keep this quote from an old calendar page on the wall in my classroom. It reminds me of something true that if I’m not careful, I will repeatedly forget. When I think about the pedagogy of teaching and all the facets of the practice, I am quickly reminded how ever-changing our world is and yet somehow still the same. The playful, bright-eyed, curious nature of children has not changed, but the world they experience is moving faster than ever before. It will ultimately be theirs to prepare for the next generation. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to make their mark and experience life to the fullest.
So why do we worry? Why do we continuously ask ourselves if they’ll be ready? What is it that they need? I hear these questions in both my parenting circles and in my education field. It is a valid feeling to take a look at the horizon and ask these questions. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers but here is something I know for sure: they will absolutely need to take care of the earth but if we pull the thread on that: they’ll need equal parts of compassion and grit.
Taking care of anything well requires compassion and grit. The earth, our families, our careers, the things that matter to us most. It all requires care. A nurturing of sorts that in essence borrows from our strength, capabilities, creativity and mindset. Children, even as young as three and five years old, are extremely capable of these attributes.
We begin practicing these skills young as the foundational and fundamental soft skills begin to develop. From the beginning, we ask young children to do hard things, resolve conflict and find problems to solve. Let’s take a look at how this presents itself in the early childhood classroom. In our pedagogy, there are four key skills we prioritize every day in efforts to strengthen the muscles necessary for a balance of compassion and grit: independence, empathy, time and perseverance.
As soon as a child arrives at school, the first item on the agenda is practicing independence. We teach them how to take care of their belongings, wash their hands, and then choose their project. Over time, this autonomous decision-making process allows them to feel a sense of control of their belongings and their bodies. In turn, this practice builds confidence and self-esteem as they navigate the day independently. In each area of our classrooms are tools that the children can use to be independent: scissors at the lunch table to open their packages, low shelves with materials to access to complete a task and an atmosphere that encourages asking a peer for help when needed. There are plenty of times when independence is frustrating and difficult. We have seen many upside-down coats in our time! We remind them “you can do hard things,” and we teach ways to independently navigate the task. We believe they can do it and that their capability is limitless.
Empathy is quite the buzz words these days. We hear it often especially in relationship to conflict. At its simplest, empathy is the ability to feel what someone else might be feeling and the willingness to seek to understand. That is certainly a tall order in early childhood as the development stage they are in is still egocentric. So, we have to practice. The language of empathy is offered during times when children genuinely do not have the words to describe their own feelings, let alone someone else’s feelings. Many times during the day, you will find us asking a child to notice another child’s body language, facial expression, actions and words to look for the clues of their feelings. Over time, these become more obvious, and the children learn not only how to feel empathy, but also how to act upon it. In our classrooms, we have a Peace Place. This is an area in each space at the ECC that is always open to whomever needs a few minutes of peace. Sometimes this place is used for taking deep breaths, other times it is a place to just be when a child is overwhelmed with emotion. It is also a place of self-care, processing feelings, and brainstorming solutions. We keep fidget toys, books about feelings, soft pillows and blankets here. Many times, children will see a friend crying or upset and, on their behalf, go to the Peace Place to get an item to help calm them. This is a beautiful action that shows their ability to act on empathy.
Both independence and empathy need time to fully be realized: time to find the problem and time to create the solution. Time to have the idea and time to follow through. We call it “holding space” when referring to the waiting that happens for both autonomy and empathy. Patience is key and we know the investment is always worth the wait.
How do we know when something is complete? We let the students have a voice in answering this question. This is how we teach perseverance. By protecting their unfinished work, they begin to understand that not every task is finished at the end of the day. Most of the things we work on and care for take time to see a completion. Failure, mistakes, starting over, and relying on others are part of the atmosphere needed for perseverance. Creating a plan and seeing it all the way through is part of the process. We encourage them not to quit, to add another layer, to start over if needed and we praise their efforts for sticking with it when they wanted to walk away. I see this skill as the most important and the most challenging to learn in our fast-paced, everything-accessable-24 hours-a-day world. We’ll hold space for this one too.
The setting of our school is the ideal place for these skills to be nurtured. Surrounded by a beautiful landscape, we have the flexibility required to pursue the skills necessary to gift our children with the ability to be the best possible version of themselves. And that means their whole person: knowledgeable, compassionate, and strongly determined to do whatever it is they choose to do.
-Jennifer Livas

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