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Keep calm and help children learn

Child's hands doing craft
Credit: iStock.com/DjelicS

Calm. The word itself – and the expectations that come with it – are enough to see anxiety and stress levels spike among parents and early learning educators.

The fact is, when it comes to children – especially en masse - the notion of calm tends to be more aspirational than real world.

Or is it?

What if we could redefine that thing called calm? What if it wasn't all Zen-like children doing as we ask and making our lives easy (or, at least a little simpler)?

Think for a moment when your child is calm. It's contentment, it's being occupied and stimulated, it's engaged play and activity which brings about calm. Certainly, it's also when they're asleep – but we should think past that for the moment.

Leaders in the Australian early learning sector advocate the benefits of a calm and consistent environment in a child's development.

The optimal way to provide care is to focus, first, on wellbeing. By minimising risk factors and ensuring needs are met, children are being given the right environment for learning.
Professor Donna Pendergast

Consistency, above all else, is critical. It's what sets the tone and immediately puts at ease a child in their environment.

Professor Donna Pendergast, Dean and Head of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University, says safety and a sense of security in the learning environment underpins everything.

Professor Pendergast says equally as important is the sense of community.

"The optimal way to provide care is to focus, first, on wellbeing," she says.

"By minimising risk factors and ensuring needs are met, children are being given the right environment for learning.

"The sense of belonging is just as important,"

This, Professor Pendergast says, is where community and being able to draw on the wealth of knowledge we have now, comes into the picture.

We are in an era where we have an unprecedented understanding of the brain and development; more so than any other time in our history, she says.

"Kids today have the benefit of that knowledge."

And with that knowledge comes robust frameworks and a better understanding of what works and what doesn't.

It also backs the educators and teachers; giving them another tool for their collective kit bags and bolstering their confidence.

In the end, it all points back to that critical factor of safe, secure, consistent and calm learning environments.

Performance coach Rowena Hardy, of Minds Aligned, is a master of neurolinguistic programming and cites consistency and close personal contact as being the most fundamental of needs for children in their first five years.

She says that consistency and contact gives the child the safety they need to feel at that specific time of their brain's development and as such, they will feel safe.

"Children need to feel safe to learn," Hardy says.

It makes sense. Which is why experts across the sector have adopted the approach of calm and consistent early learning environments recommending a balance between intentional and child-led play-based learning, in an environment which is reliably safe and predictable.

"There has been a great shift from the children just being 'looked after'," early learning educator and mentor Kirsty Brown says.

"We need to role model what is okay and what’s not – in a safe environment with a calm and professional approach," the Goodstart teacher says.

"Modelled behaviour means we follow the child's lead and respond accordingly, we interact on their level, we allow them to show their interests, we take the time to watch, we develop problem solving strategies and we enable the verbalising of emotions."

Central to this approach – and equally, resultant from it – is a predictable and consistent environment which facilitates the development of the child.

Helpful tips for keeping calm environments

  • Parents know that in the midst of the mayhem, staying calm is a golden rule. It’s important to recognise when you’re about to lose control so you can step away from the situation.
  • Create consistency and identify triggers. Adhere to routines and avoid incidents that you know trigger tantrums or upsets. 
  • Practice self-regulation so that children learn how to self-regulate themselves. Children feel safe when they have calm, consistent authority figures.
  • Understand your child's capabilities and be patient. Allow enough time for tasks to be completed within your child's ability. Recognise how you contribute to escalating issues by not giving your child enough time to prepare or adjust for change.
  • Don't sweat the small stuff. Learn to let go and instead of creating tension over the small things that go wrong, let them go. You'll feel better and calmer and consequently so will your child.
  • Take the time to teach your child simple things that frustrate them. It may take time and effort, but it will be worth it when they master the task and overcome the frustration. They will feel a sense of accomplishment. 
  • As our children become old enough to discuss feelings we can model how to discuss how we are feeling to help them manage their emotions rather than resorting to tantrums.