Thanks to a quick Wikipedia search, I now know that pro se is the legal term used to describe the act of advocating for oneself; the Latin phrase literally translates “for oneself” or “on one’s own behalf.”  As of today, I am officially adopting this term into the field of early childhood education to describe the challenge set before all of us who spend our days with young ones.  The imperative is to help children grow into beings that can advocate for themselves. We spend much of our vocal energy chiding children to “use your words” all with the end goal of helping children to stand pro se.  But the solo use your words commandment does little to grow a child’s skills of self-advocacy.  Consider all of the steps required to be your own advocate: you must posses the emotional awareness and conceptual understanding to identify your needs, the problem solving capabilities to design a plan for meeting those needs, the working memory to hold that plan in mind from espousal to execution, a vocabulary set that is large enough to communicate those needs, and the social restraint to manage yourself amidst a fit of strong needs in order to communicate appropriately and persuasively.  No wonder a simple use your words falls short of helpful!

How do we help?  How do we assist children in connecting the emotional longings they feel with successful, socially appropriate interactions that satisfy those longings?

1.Start early.  From day one, newborns are using the tools at their disposal to communicate their needs.  The more we listen to those needs and respect their communication, the more they learn that communicating works!  We can closely observe facial expressions, cries, and body movements and speak openly with the infant about what appears to work and what does not.  “Desmond, you are squirming around on your back. Do you need a new diaper?  Can I check it for you?”

2. Resist the temptation to fix it!   Children need practice, and lots of it!  They need specific scripts and language from us, and they need our connection through the process, but they need to work their own vocal chords in service of their needs!  When we intercede and solve their problems, we communicate a suspicion about their abilities to meet their own needs.  Instead, if we give children vocabulary and scripts to be their own advocates, they grow skilled at the process.  Here is what this looks like:

When one child is upset that another child took away a toy, I step alongside the one who lost the toy and say, “Do you want that back?  Let’s tell your friend. I will stand with you while you tell your friend that you want back.  Tell your friend, ‘I wasn’t finished yet,’ so they know you still have plans for toy.”  When someone is feeling left out, I give the vocabulary to find a friend.  “Do you want to play with your friends?  You can tell them.  Use their name loudly so they know you are talking to them. I will keep you company if you would like.”  When children come to me with a complaint, “Simone isn’t letting me go down the slide!” I give children vocabulary to manage the situation.  I might say, “You would like to go down the slide?  Let’s tell Simone. Would you like me to go with you? Use her name so she knows that you’re talking to her.”  Children need to hear a few key pieces of advice explicitly.  Use names, loudly and clearly.  Look for eye contact to know that the person you want to talk to is listening.  No one knows what your plans are until you tell them.

3. Remember, it’s not about you!   It can be hard to watch a child on the receiving end of intentional or unintentional aggression, but helping the victim find a voice prevents them from being a victim in the future!  It can be difficult to watch a child struggling to communicate (and knowing what they are trying to say), but allowing them the opportunity to hone their skills tells them that what they are trying to say is worthwhile!  As much as we possibly can, educators and parents will keep their own emotional triggers in check by enabling assertiveness rather than empathetically assuming the problems of the child.  Helping children own their needs teaches them that their needs are worth owning!  How powerful!  Instead of feeling powerless when a child is having a problem, feel empowered – you are supporting lifelong emotional health when you help a child find his or her voice!

4.  Move slowly and do less.  Expediency is the enemy of childhood.  I observed something curious the other day.  In a dramatic play situation, two children were on their way to an outing, and the child playing the mommy was saying to the baby, “Hurry up, baby…we’re going to be late!”  Nothing like having my shortcomings as a teacher and parent put on such glorious display by the crew!  I smiled in awareness – and agreed to offer myself the gift of moving slowly.  I often sense an invisible drumming tick-tock pressing me to rush through our days, excited by the possibility of explorations and discoveries, falling prey to the demands of a society that asks more and more of young children. (And by society, I do not mean my clients!  I have wonderfully supportive families who fully embrace a play based curriculum that moves along at its own pace!  Thanks, Abundant Life families!!)  My inner dialog often sounds like this:

If we don’t finish breakfast by 8:30, we won’t have time for sensory explorations before morning snack, which means sensory play will be pushed of to the time slot between snack and lunch, which is the space I like to leave open for outdoor play, which leaves us short on clean up time, which means we might have to (gasp!) leave the cleaning up until after our naps…

And so when children struggle for words to communicate their needs, or discussions about differing opinions take longer than my mental plan allows, I sense the drumbeat in my mind that pushes me to push.  But, Educator in me (remember her?) knows better.  She knows that children need time and space to discern their inner sense for what is important, and then they need support in connecting the need with the solution.  Time must be on the side of our children, even if it means leaving a mess for later, or saving a great sensory experience for another day.  And, in the times when we are running late for an appointment and we can’t afford to let the child’s full process unfold, we take responsibility for that decision.  When a child responds with whining, fit throwing, crying, or sulking, we own the rush, and help a child find connection as soon as we can manage.

May you feel empowered to empower the children in your lives to find their inner voice!  Thanks for reading!