Standing tall for early years

June O'Sullivan
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

To mark Empathy Day (9 June), we launched our Standing Tall for Early Years campaign ­– with a call for all early years settings across the UK to join together in planting sunflower seeds with children and celebrate the sector’s move towards a fresh new chapter – especially after a turbulent few months.

We also want to use this moment to champion the importance of empathy – a word we often use in early years. We translate it as kindness when we use it with the children – “Be kind”, “That was kind”.

For adults, it is much more about being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, seeing things from another person’s perspective and being able to respond appropriately. It’s central to people’s emotional intelligence and I think it is essential to leadership success.

Empathy is shaped by a range of factors, genetics, temperament and environment. The harmonious relationships we create in the early years are essential because children learn empathy through experiencing their own secure loving relationships, social referencing and imitating adults’ gestures and facial expressions. So, stop snarling!

We teach children empathy by helping them name feelings and the impact of their actions on the feelings of others. We help them develop the capacity to forgive. This is alongside children beginning to understand they are separate people in their own right.

Toddlers are often branded by negative language such as “toddler taming” and “terrible twos” but toddlers can learn to be very sensitive to others and, with the right guidance and time, they begin to learn the complex skill of empathy. In fact, toddlers can be much more empathetic than adults!

Covid-19 has brought out the good and bad in everyone. We have celebrated the power of kindness and empathy. Stories were shared widely of how people supported neighbours and vulnerable citizens and clapped for carers each week.

It isn’t just human kindness. Many have enjoyed the quiet streets and the lack of pollution during lockdown. We have reignited the inner joy of listening to birdsong, walking around our neighbourhoods discovering little green spaces, and breathing in the calm. Much was talked about a “new normal” and a refusal to go back to our wasteful and selfish ways.

Stepping into other shoes has seen people respond powerfully to situations such as the crackdown in Hong Kong and the brutal death of George Floyd. The lack of kindness and the failure of empathetic leadership to create fair systems has lit a fire across the belly of America and other parts of the world.

What has this got to do with early years? EVERYTHING ­– because we play a key role in teaching empathy both through demonstration and modelling language and behaviour as well as creating the right environment. As early years teachers we have an amazing opportunity to mould the next generation and teach them love and friendship so that they carry these values through school and into adulthood. This speaks to the very heart of our mission to change the world one child at a time. Our role during Covid-19 has demonstrated we have much to offer the national infrastructure as well as our support for the nations’ children and parents. We need to celebrate this under the glorious smile of the sunflower.

Let’s all unite in planting sunflower seeds with children and shine much-needed light on the great work we all do.

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website

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