Leaving your baby or young child for the first time with someone, other than a family member, is one of the hardest things to do for a parent. As practitioners and teachers we assign children a key person, settle them in and before we know it they are in the system, in numbers and in rooms. This all happens very quickly. We have to ask ourselves have we truly provided that child with the time to connect to a stranger? Have we really got to know what that child is thinking, feeling and telling us?
Let’s think back to the first opportunity to connect. What was it the child saw first in the middle of this new experience? The answer is lots of new and different faces also known as strangers. Hopefully all smiling and chatting busily but nonetheless unfamiliar. The child’s senses are on high alert, they can feel their parent is tense too and the interactions you deliver are not yet providing a safe and secure emotional environment. Now I know every child is unique in how they settle, some of those personal social dispositions are already in place and these can either help or hinder the process. Settling is of course dependent on so many factors. Taking the time to connect however is vital in those first few days and weeks but that’s not the end of the connection, it’s the start.
What every child needs is consistency and the key person approach is the basis of that. There are many other people in this new environment. Each has a different face, all as unique as every child. It’s those faces and facial expressions that centre around those interactions that we know make a difference to children’s outcomes. Let’s critically think about the face and those expressions because even if they are not ‘interacting’ they are still telling the child something each and every minute of the day.
The wellbeing of the child starts with the wellbeing of the adult. Children are super sensitive and pick up on your feelings of not being well, not happy in your job, not having a sense of purpose or just generally feeling like you don’t want to be ‘at work’. That ‘flat face’ expression tells a child ‘it’s not safe here’, ‘you’re not happy therefore I’m not either’, ‘you’re not giving me eye contact and I can’t therefore regulate my feelings, I’m confused and my behaviour will tell you that’, ‘you were smiling when my special person left, now you look blank’ or worse still, ‘I’ve shut down, I’ve tried to feel safe but your inconsistent approach is confusing and I’m scared’. ‘ I show no emotion because that is what will get me through the day’. Basically the child is in ‘fight or flight’ at this stage and suffering trauma.
This may sound dramatic but I am seeing more and more practitioners with little or no facial expressions in their practice. We need more laughing out loud, gasps when something happens, big smiling eyes to praise and puzzled looks when faced with a joint challenge. Please read that sentence again and make some big facial movements and you’ll see what I mean. There may indeed be many faces that do this but if there is one or two that don’t we have to ask ourselves ‘is this consistent?’ Babies and young children need that ability to identify both simple and complex emotions from your facial expressions, this is key to feeling safe and therefore learning. Without those big expressive facial movements from us children won’t develop ‘emotional literacy’ and we know this is closely linked to emotional intelligence. Those big facial expressions honestly make us feel better too! They make sure we are connected to our role, in tune with the child, alert to the learning opportunities and knowing how important they are gives us a sense of pride in what we do.
I hope my observations made you think not only about your own facial expressions but of those around you. Reflect and make some observations of your own. The children that you professionally love and care for need your commitment to connecting with them. You make a difference to every child every day. This generation of children need more facial expressions than ever before. As a society we are seeing these less and less, I blame the selfie and the Botox. Next time you are out take a look around at everyone’s face, no wonder we need to focus on our wellbeing! Take some time to connect, look someone in the eye and smile, you just might make a strangers day!
If you have a few minutes please take a look at this YouTube clip.
This will make you think and you’ll recognise that those 3 minutes referred to in the clip could be 3 days or more for some children. Don’t let that happen.