Explore the world of the young child with me, Stephen Spitalny, early childhood consultant and writer. I offer lectures, workshops and mentoring around the world.
I was a kindergarten teacher at the Santa Cruz Waldorf School for 24 years and am a former board member of WECAN (Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America).
We all have habits. One study showed that more than 40% of our daily actions are habits. 40% of the things we do are done habitually, without conscious awareness and thought. That is a lot of our time spent in autopilot mode. Now, there are some benefits to this. When we are acting from habit we free part of our consciousness for thinking, planing, reviewing and so on. Do you notice how much thinking you do in the shower? It is because nearly all of your shower activity is habit. You don’t have to think about it and therefore your mind is free to wander.
Many habits are created as a strategy to meet a goal. Once the strategy proves successful we repeat and repeat until we just do it without thinking. That is a habit. We are not born with our habits, we develop them in response to experiences. Usually habit forming is not intentional - there is no conscious choice made to form the habit.
Imitation is the central learning tool of young child. Through imitation the young child learns walking, speaking, and stress response patterns and so much more. All habits.
With very young children, many of their habits are created by imitating those around them. Habits are also created by babies attempting to get their needs met and discovering certain strategies that are successful with the adults in the baby’s environment. They try it. It works. They repeat and repeat and repeat. So by the time we are adults, we have many habits including ones for dealing with stress, challenges and not getting our needs met. Often these strategies are not helpful and are unproductive for social harmony and true problem solving.
When you get stressed do you ‘check out’ and fall into your habit reaction pattern? You can be honest here. No one can hear you. We all do it. What is your particular, unique stress reaction? Do you yell and stomp around? Throw things? Tell someone else it is their fault? Freeze up? Withdraw? Fall silent and walk away? When we start to see those habits, those behavior patterns, then we have a chance to change them. Habits in themselves aren’t a problem. There are habits that need changing though, the unproductive, ineffective and unhealthy ones.
First step - see your habit patterns, your reaction style. The next step is to use your free decision-making capacity to choose the habits you want to change. It takes the power of will to start the new habit started, but once the new habit is really running strong we can ‘fall asleep’ and let the new habit run itself.
Now why am I thinking about habits so much? Because the habits of adults strongly affect the children around them! Now here is a weird thing about our brains. We have a certain kind of brain cell called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons ‘fire’ both when we act and when we observe an action performed by someone else. In older children and adults, mirror neurons help in understanding the actions of other people. For young children mirror neurons function in the learning of new skills by imitation. Our habits are being transmitted by our example to our children who are imitating them. So it is incumbent on us to try and deliver habits to our children that we want them to have.
I want young ones to develop the habit of washing hands before eating, so I model that activity for the children. I want young children to develop habits of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ so I use those phrases myself whenever appropriate. I don’t want my daughters to take up my habits of dealing with stress by withdrawing, so I try and model engagement and conversation when I am in a stressful situation.
When breaking and forming habits, we need to know that change is possible.
CHANGE IS POSSIBLE.
The basic mechanism for learning and development is the will. What is the will but our capacity for doing, for taking hold of the world around us through activity. All education is education of the will, both in the adult and in the child. In the adult there is much more possibility for intention to be part of the equation. The primary way the will functions in the young child is through unconscious imitation - the learning modality for the young child is imitation. What we do, what we say, and who we are, as adults standing before them, is of utmost importance. The basis of all of this is the exercise of our will which in adults is our capacity for freedom, the capacity to respond rather than react. When we present the example of changing ourselves, that possibility is implanted deep in the child’s neurology and psyche as a possibility for their own future changing.