Beth Sebesfi is an early childhood teacher and mother of three daughters aged 5, 3 and not-yet-1. From time to time she shares with us the professional insights arising from her personal experiences with children at work and home. Today’s story is a reflection on the impact of seeing children through a lens of ‘cuteness’.
Several years ago, I accompanied a group of senior educators to an international exhibition of work by children and educators from a world leading early childhood education system.
The respect that was shown through the documentation was inspirational. Children’s voices were shared without alteration; their work displayed with purpose and evident consultation. It was insightful, it was aspirational, it was thought provoking…
A fleeting comment, which led to a ripple of sniggers through the group.
“There’s no way a kid did that”.
Nods of agreement. A general consensus that the educators had an abundance of programming time and an agenda. Disbelief that any child would take even the slightest interest in local politics, town planning or social change.
“That’s cute though”, one optimistic educator offered as they pointed at a drawing of a lion, “I like the teeth”.
“Yes!”, a colleague responded.
“And the mane!”
“And the paws!” proffered another.
And then they decided to get a sandwich.
This is a very uncomfortable memory, one which I chose to believe showed an attitude held only on the periphery of our profession.
Unfortunately, as time went on I discovered that this resistance to hold high expectations for a child’s inquiry is a weed with sprawling roots. It can be seen everywhere in statements like:
“Let them be kids!”
“Can’t they just play?”
“Why does everything have to be political?”
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with thinking children are cute… but cute is so much easier than curious.
Cuteness is easier
It’s easier to take photos of children doing cute hand print craft, one at a time, than it is to watch them paint freely, expressing their ideas in a wordless process driven whirl.
To try to interpret unspoken meaning, to read their gaze, their movements, their thoughts by piecing together subtleties, emotions and what we know of their past experiences… that can feel impossible.
As educators we often look for ways to build scaffolds that lead to places we know. Isn’t a core element of ‘educating’ – to teach? To provide an answer? To know?
I propose that to truly invoke changes in our profession, to inspire educators to have high expectations for children, we need to start by letting this cuteness notion go.
Back to that lion
Perhaps the child’s true intent had been to present a cute lion with adorable paws. It’s not impossible. But if we position the child as a learner, a theory maker with his own ideas, we need to tune in.
How can we support educators to move from a place of disbelief to truly hold high expectations for children? Perhaps it’s not enough to simply show examples in practice.
To use a favourite analogy of mine, we don’t teach someone to climb a mountain by only showing them the view from the top. Instead, I suggest that educational leaders introduce a framework of questioning, where uncertainty is welcomed, and space is always left for the child’s voice.
What are you wondering?
When we watch children explore.
When we see their mounting frustration.
When we sense an impending meltdown.
In those moments, instead of trying to intervene or offer an answer, try to find the question.
Ask: what are you, a child, wondering?
Get questions right
When you drop a spoon from the edge of the highchair; what are you wondering?
Are you wondering about sound, or gravity, or your friends’ reactions to the mess? Are you just trying to make me pick it up for you? Is it really such a disaster if you are? If you are exploring your own efficacy, our relationship, the unspoken rules between you and me that define my role in your learning experience?
When the spoon hits the floor and your eyes light up, you giggle with delight, and it’s super cute.
What are you noticing?
And then, as an educator, I take the next step and I seek your perspective. I look for the learning. I ask, “What are you noticing?”
I watch your gaze, your body language, your verbal and non-verbal cues. I look for your reactions, your responses and read your changing mood.
Are you noticing patterns, or trends, or changes, or the effect you have on those of us around you?
More than babysitters
As educators we dedicate our professional selves to the pursuit of exceptional outcomes for children. We are more than babysitters. We look beyond the cute and seek children’s perspectives.
We must consistently evaluate our own biases.
I love language, and so I know that I have a tendency to scaffold learning experiences with books, stories and research.
Yet, we know that all children learn differently, we must consider that all children learn differently to us. The aha moments provide us with a level of insight into how their mind is working, and helps us to build a curriculum where we teach individuals with intent. A curriculum where a child’s focus, not my bias, is the guide.
Who are they?
We welcome the child’s ideas. We seek their perspective and apply what we know about how children learn to support their theory making.
Is the child a tactile learner who can observe the falling spoon again and again, but needs to have a turn dropping it to the floor to really understand that it will fall with or without force?
Are they language focused, waiting for you to label what is happening and encourage them to do it again?
Are they process oriented, noticing that the spoon may be pushed slowly to the edge, dropped without food on it or released from a tightly clenched fist and still fall?
As the patterns emerge, as we begin to understand what the child notices, we might start to recognise their theories as they emerge and look for opportunities for them to test and develop their theories. Maybe even challenge our own theories!
I choose to be challenged by children.
I invite you to seek out uncertainty with an open mind.
Start with the question:
What are you, the child, wondering?
What are you noticing?
What would help you expand on your ideas and observations?
A few days ago, as I made dinner, my three year old asked me what changes I had made to protect our environment.
Great question! I pointed out our compost bin, the way we use vegetable offcuts for stock, our use of cardboard boxes instead of bags at when we did the weekly shop.
I explained that this was why we wore extra layers instead of turning the heater on in winter, and why we walked to school whenever we had time.
“That’s good”, she replied. “… is that enough?”
I considered my answer, but came up short. “Well… no.”
And as she happily took another bite of ravioli, she threw the knockout punch.
“If you know it’s not enough, then why aren’t you doing more?”
High expectations. Challenge Accepted.
Meet the author
Beth Sebesfi is a proudly self-declared unconventional advocate for children’s rights in the early years. After spending ten years believing she’d found her calling as a teacher, then manger, then regional manager, then curriculum consultant, Beth was confronted by the incredible disparity between professional and parental perspectives of the sector when she became a mum. Torn between her desire to be a ‘regular mum’ and her complete inability to sit still, Beth began offering support services to families seeking to better understand their young children’s learning and development via her online consultancy and parenthood brand, Bayberry Blue. Today, Beth writes to inspire families and educators to understand contemporary professional philosophies, research and understandings in a personal, practical way. She is proud to work alongside her three daughters; Chloe, Mia and Layla, who love to offer their voices; new and insightful perspectives or unexplained, spontaneous musical interludes, to every professional encounter