When little Johnny is REALLY disappointed that you gave him the red cup instead of the purple cup (We’ve all been there, am I right?!) it is much more effective to offer a sympathetic smile, than saying something along the lines of, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit!” (which, by the way, I had never heard of before I moved to the US. It doesn’t even rhyme if you say it with a British accent haha!) This just makes them more upset about the cup AND the way you just spoke to them. It also doesn’t teach them how to handle the feeling in the first place. This is what they hear: “Oh, my feelings don’t matter to you and you are telling me to just stop being upset without teaching me any tools on how to do so.” Cue meltdown. Let’s look to the science to find out why the simple smile helps and what we can say instead.
When we see an emotion on another person’s face, mirror neurons in our brain light up. We are not only able to recognize what that person might be feeling, but we feel it within ourselves. This is how empathy works. When you feel what someone else feels, you become more understanding of what they are going through. This is a perfect moment for those conversations with parents that could potentially be stressful – for both parties! Your own facial muscles are activated when you see an expression on someone’s face. When you see a smile, your own face reflects back the smile (or sadness, fear or even anger depending on what you are looking at!!) and you also FEEL what they are feeling! True empathy, especially with parents and their thoughts, feelings and concerns, brings a greater sense of trust. And who should parents trust more than the people who look after their precious babies for hours and hours each day?
How can we use this knowledge in real life as early childhood educators? Here are my top three smile tips:
????Draw a smile on a post-it note and display it somewhere you can see it every day. This could be on your fridge, your desk at work or even a window in your classroom. Use it as a visual stimulus to remind you to actively smile and make sure you break one out every time you notice it. Use it when you need that mental boost for behavior support, when talking with parents and carers and when your colleagues are having a hard time too.
????Make a real effort to purposefully smile at someone three times a day. Smiling is contagious. It not only makes you feel good, but makes other people feel good too! When you do this, take a moment to thank yourself for spreading some joy. Way to go! And if that person doesn’t smile back? Wish them well and get your face ready for your next encounter. Don’t forget even if they didn’t smile, their facial muscles will have twitched and sent that happy message! Start your day with smiling at yourself in the mirror – it’s a great way to practice self-care in a small but powerful way.
????Next time Little Johnny gets that red cup instead of his beloved purple one and you feel the tension rising, take a deep breath. Reserve judgement and smile. Take that moment to prepare yourself to model empathy. “You seem disappointed. You wanted the purple cup. It is hard to not get what you want. You can handle this. Breathe with me.” Smile and be present. These little people have BIG emotions to deal with. We are here to help them through it.
The best thing about a smile? Everybody has one and it is accessible at all times. Tell me how you are going to implement this tool in your setting and in your life.
And remember, it’s FREE!