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Episode #131: Relationships have always been at the core of raising children. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is a children’s program that emphasizes authentic interactions when working with children. In this episode, Dr. Junlei Li, Senior Lecturer in ECE at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former director of the Fred Rogers Center, reminds us that we all have the capacity to provide children with the support they need to grow into individuals with self-worth and confidence. Thinking “deep and simple” is arguably more impactful than checking off all the boxes that are prescribed in developmental frameworks!
Fred always taught that first and foremost, no matter how much the child is struggling you want the child to have a sense of self-worth. How can we help a child who’s struggling to still feel like it’s worthwhile to read, it’s worthwhile to struggle, in that even though the child may not be able to read there is still so much he can do, or she can do?
Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”. Junlei, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
LI: Thank you.
So today we have Junlei Li on the Podcast. He is a senior lecturer in early-childhood education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is also the former Director of the Fred Rogers Center. Great to have you on the show, Junlei. Let’s start off learning a little bit more about you and your research centering around Fred Rogers and early-childhood education, and how you came to study this really cool subject.
I went to Pittsburgh to study child development in graduate school, and Pittsburgh is literally Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood where I go to school. I think where Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was produced it was just across the street from the campus, and Mr. Rogers actually lived in an apartment building about two minutes from where my graduate office was.
That’s pretty funny. And so you then also got involved with the Fred Rogers Center as a director. How did that happen?
I think when I was working on child development from early-childhood all the way to schooling I just had such an admiration for Fred’s work. And I kept – even when I was a young researcher working in the classrooms – I keep thinking to myself, or asking myself, “What would Mr. Rogers do to tackle any sorts of challenges that we are facing in the classrooms, in the community?”
And so I gradually gravitated towards the organizations that Fred helped to start, and Fred started two: One is now called Fred Rogers Productions, and that is the television production non-profit that used to produce Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and now producers Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and a number of other PBS shows. And the other, after he retired from television, was the Fred Rogers Center. And what the center hopes to do in a way is to carry on the legacy beyond television itself, trying to go into the communities and serve people face-to-face or serve people in their everyday practice rather than primarily through a television program. So I ended up working with both organizations in the last five years, being the faculty and the co-director of the Fred Rogers Center.
Cool; very cool. And what was it about Fred Rogers that really put him in a position where you saw him as someone to think, “What would Fred Rogers do?”, and then also to go on and be involved with the Fred Rogers Center?
I think perhaps more than anything else that I can think of I think Fred Rogers was able to communicate about what is essential in child development, what is essential in human development, in everything that he produced. That was something that I can honestly say that I didn’t quite get out of even my graduate training in developmental psychology. Fred is fond of saying and reminding people that when it comes to child development or human development on life in general that what he considers deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.
And I think prior to encountering Fred’s work, much of the work that I felt that I was doing –not only me but across the field – felt at times overly complex. And because it’s overly complex it ends up being in a very shallow way. And Fred Rogers has a way of pointing to what is deep and simple and essential in the work that we do with children and family.
Can we dive into that a little bit more in terms of explaining what’s the difference between something that’s shallow and complex or deep and simple and the way it’s communicated, or maybe examples, or something Fred Rogers would have said, for example?
Well, I’m going to try to not speak for Fred – I’m just speaking for myself, for early-childhood educators. If you open what is probably called the Early-Learning Standards of any state – whether it’s my home state Pennsylvania, or now Massachusetts, or any state – it’s typically, I would say, a document that’s over a hundred pages long, and it lists all the things from letters to numbers to social emotional development to behavioral to science to social science to social studies, etc. And it lists all the things a child needs to know before they enter kindergarten.
So when you look at that as a grownup – whether you’re a parent or an educator – you can’t help but feeling, “This is pretty complicated.” And it’s not always clear, right? What are you supposed to do as an educator or as a parent when you’re faced with something like that? And the same phenomenon exists I think in [kindergarten] through [grade] 12, as well as in higher education.
But on the other hand you can approach it in the way that Mr. Rogers would approach it. For example, Mr. Rogers when he described – and he writes about, “What does it mean for a child to be ready to learn?” – he lists six relatively simple things and he sticks to them.
So I’m just going to sound off the six from Fred’s first book to parents: The first one is self-worth; the second one is trust; the third is curiosity; the fourth one is the capacity to listen and to look carefully; number five is [the] capacity to play; number six is solitude, the capacity to be able to be with yourself. Now, when I think of these six things, or if I think of any one of the six things, it’s not simplistic. But it certainly feels simpler than the 100, 150 page document that describes everything that a kindergartner should know before they even step their foot into the kindergarten classroom.
And it’s almost feels to me like when you talk about the state standards being a hundred pages long, a lot of that is almost like the output of what the child is displaying in terms of their learning and development, versus the six things for a child to learn. It’s kind of like, if you have those six things in place then all of those hundred pages worth of learning and development skills and indicators and domains will happen by nature of having those six fundamental pieces there, which are much easier to understand, I guess, and certainly a different way or maybe a different perspective of thinking about it.
Right. And I think focusing on this few and the powerful is not only is simpler but in a way it still invites flexibility and creativity as well as, I would say, applicability. So if you’re a parent or are you an educator and you have a child who is struggling, let’s say with reading, for example. And so if you think of the standards where you go, “Okay, well, here’s a child who is missing this skill and missing this skill and we better get that child ready because otherwise the child will fall behind when they get to first grade or third grade.” So you can imagine the kind of all the anxiety that comes with that. Or you approach it and go, “You know what? Here’s a child who loves stories but who just can’t read yet and who’s struggling to read. And let me think about kind of what is it that I can help the child develop?”
So I’m going to borrow from Fred’s six [simple things]: Let’s think about, Fred always taught [that] first and foremost, no matter how much the child is struggling you wanted the child to have a sense of self-worth. It’s not a superficial sense of self-worth as in, like, “Oh, you don’t have to read, it’s fine.” It’s more of, “How can we help a child who’s struggling to still feel like it’s worthwhile to read, it’s worthwhile to struggle, in that even though the child may not be able to read there’s to so much that he can do or she can do in the context of stories and books and so on?”
So I can just imagine there’s so many creative things that a grownup could do to help the child in that particular phase in just thinking about, “What are the essential elements that we’re trying to prepare the child to do?” Not so much in kind of… I can’t imagine any teacher or parent when they’re stuck in this situation [going], “Wow, I better go to page 65 of the Standards to see what [it is] that that child is missing.”
Yeah, interesting. It is one of those things where I always feel like sometimes the most fascinating things are the most simple ideas, and certainly this is a good example of that. How do you think we’re dealing as early-childhood educators and as parents with this idea of thinking about things a bit more deeper and more simply at that fundamental level, versus overly complicating things?
I think parents and educators couldn’t help but to be overwhelmed sometimes by the noises that they hear all around us in terms of what we must do, and “If we don’t do this, this would happen,” and so on. And I don’t think parents and educators need so much to be taught about the latest science and so on. I think, if anything, parents and educators often need a reminder in their daily interactions with a child that – I’m going to just borrow Fred’s words here – is that the greatest gift you have to give anyone else is your honest self, and that the way you give it is through how you interact and how you’re present, how you’re listening and how you’re honest with this child that you’re with.
And we can talk endlessly about all the different techniques that you can do to help the child to learn. But in the end I think it comes down to, for example, a simple idea that all of us – young children and grownups – we learn and grow best through positive, responsive, supportive human relationships. And no matter how old the child is, and no matter who we are, I think we have the capacity of providing a child with these kinds of relationships. And these kinds of relationships come from the simplest, most mundane, ordinary interactions that we have with children.
Do you think there is an element of human nature at play here where relationships are very intangible and subjective and hard to understand, whereas something like a list of state standards is very clear and prescriptive, so we kind of err on the side of something that we can clearly and prescriptively document and share with people? Do you think there’s some element of that at play? Or why do you why do you think we do tend to create these more complicated structures?
I think you’re right that sometimes we trust checklists more than we trust ourselves. And this reminds me of, there’s this inscription and supposedly Albert Einstein had in his office on the blackboard. And I think it goes something like, “What counts cannot always be counted, and what can be counted doesn’t always count.” And I just think that in the world of policies and standards we gravitate immediately towards the kind of things that’s easy to count. If you make a list then you can check it off.
Very few parents – I would say even teachers, although teachers have to live in that world, so let’s just go with parents – very few parents raise their children by going through a daily checklist. And I do think that there’s another part of human nature that we can draw from, which is that I believe human beings are created inherently capable of being in positive, responsive relationships with each other. And I don’t think it’s just an ideology. So I’d like to think about this for a second. So it’s so clear in science – whether you look at brain science, whether you look at the broader science of human development – that a child, from the moment he or she is born, longs for relationship, longs for interaction. You can see that in children all the time.
And what that means – I was recently just thinking about that – what that means, though, is that we, the grownups around the child, must have an innate capacity to provide that relationship. Evolution is sophisticated enough that there’s no way that the process of evolution or creation – however you want to think about it that – there’s no way that process would create a need in a tiny child for which there’s no one around that can satisfy it.
And so if it is so evident that the child from infancy onward has that need then I think it is equally evident that those around the child have the capacity to provide it. And so I think those around the child just need a reminder that they can, and [that] their relationship isn’t this fuzzy, vague, abstract thing. A relationship is incredibly concrete.
In our work, which we call Simple Interactions, we try to break almost every relationship interaction down to kind of four basic dimensions. I’ll talk about one of the dimensions, for example. It’s a metaphor that’s been around our field for a while: It’s called “Serve and Return”, or sometimes more technically called “Reciprocal Interactions”. It just means that you give the child a chance to serve, to initiate something. And then you return, you reciprocate, you respond to what the child initiates.
So at a very simple level, if you hold a baby up, and if the baby isn’t scared of you, or the baby tries to smile, not necessarily that the baby is happy – the baby is just trying to get a reaction out of you by smiling at you. And for most people you have this inherent desire to smile back, and you would. And if you do then the baby is pleased and they’ll try to smile again because they want that interaction.
If you get a little older the child is beginning to learn language. Let’s look at the age of one to two, the child is there babbling right. But all of a sudden if the child starts to make an interesting sound, a sound that the child hasn’t made before, let’s say a child would start to say a word that’s a little similar to “Mommy” or “Daddy” or something, as an adult you instinctively turn your head. “What did you say? Did you say Mommy or did you say Daddy?” I mean, these are just very concrete, everyday examples of a very basic mechanism of human interaction, the responsiveness or the reciprocity of our interactions, that when the child initiates something we respond.
And I think most of us are capable of that, and somehow because the world gets noisier we end up kind of forgetting that we have that capacity. And in a funny way, literally when the world gets noisier, because imagine if you’re with your child and you’re in a really noisy place – let’s say you have the TV blaring, or your phone is beeping at you every other second, or there’s crowd around – you literally neglect to respond because it’s too noisy outside. But I think the same thing may happen conceptually when the world is all noisy about all the things you should do and you shouldn’t do a lot of things you have to do. You forget that some of the things that the child need the most are the things you already know how to do.
Yeah, it’s certainly a very powerful message, as I think you’ve done a really good job of challenging the notion that relationships can’t be seen as very concrete with some of these specific examples. So certainly a lot to think about on this conversation. And one of the things I always find so fascinating is when things do get all very complicated and complex oftentimes it really is going back to basics and thinking deep and simple as you mentioned in terms of looking at the way Fred Rogers looked at the world.
Junlei, any ideas for our listeners if they want to learn more about these concepts or your work? Where can they go to get more information?
So on two ends there is a lot of info you can find about Fred Rogers. You can go to at least two websites: One is the website of Fred Rogers Productions, and they are the television production company and they have a link on the website, the link to lots of legacy materials of Fred’s program, so you can watch videos and so on. And I think most of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes are streaming on Amazon Prime so that you can watch kind of full weeks and seasons of these episodes.
There’s also the website of the Fred Rogers Center [www.FredRogersCenter.org], which has a lot of materials particularly in relation to Fred but also how do parents navigate kind of the world of the current world of digital media and so on. And lastly, I think particularly for early-childhood educators, a number of us from different institutions have put together this website called Simple Interactions [www.SimpleInteractions.org], and [it is] a free website. It just has these tools there for professionals to use to think about how do they ground their everyday practice in the simplest, most concrete interactions with children. I think in the way it’s trying to answer the question that you asked earlier, which is, “How do we make relationship something real, something tangible?” And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with the website Simple Interactions. And when we travel around the country and around the world when we do workshops and so on, we do it around this concept of simple interaction.
Awesome. I would highly encourage our listeners out there to check out these resources. I think [these are] very valuable concepts and [it] sounds like some great content, both on the Fred Rogers Production site as well as Simple Interactions. Junlei, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Thank you so much. Thank you for your time.