If you are an educator or parent who wants to be inspired by how powerful emotional intelligence is in the context of working with young children, then stay tuned to this episode of the preschool podcast.
I also need to be able to read the people around me, because 93% of human emotion is communicated without one word being spoken, Ron. So I have to be able to read all the stuff that’s going on. And if you were raised by someone who gave you “the look”, you know what I mean? And also, have you ever given someone “the look”? I mean, I have! And so that look conveys so much power, so much information. And what I’m saying to you is about emotional intelligence: bottom line, it’s the ability to read people as well as we read books. And to be conscious and interactive and responsive and also productive, positive person in early-childhood, I need to be paying attention not just to what’s going on around me – what are the kids doing, what are the parents doing, when they’re coming in, who’s in a bad mood, who’s tired, who has needs that are not being expressed? I also need to read myself, and I need to be reading myself saying, “How is my energy right now? Am I bringing things with me from home that are influencing my work?”
So, Ron, that’s it. The last thing I’ll say about this is that I come from a field which is not focused on emotional intelligence at all. I’m a recovering attorney. And so being involved totally with the intellectual I came to see so often what was missing. And what was missing was, people learn through relationships. We learn through connection. And sadness is about misconnection. So emotional intelligence, Ron, is the pathway to building connections that are real.
I’m also thinking, Ron, of the child who is about to be bitten, because that poor kid is going to have a traumatic event happen unless I intervene. And also we know that the children around are always watching. There’s a piece of research on this. Children around are always watching? What is the adult in the classroom doing, whether the adult is a teacher’s aide, the adult is the parent, the adult is the teacher? How is the adult interacting with children that are under stress? And all the other children, whether they’re playing with blocks or they’re sliding down a slide, they’re going to be watching to see how I’m interacting with those children. So when you talk about connection, is the person in front of me that I need to be present to, to read what’s going on? And I can’t do that if I’m so caught up in myself that I can’t see what’s happening.
But to answer your question more on point, I would say that in early-childhood we connect with everybody. We are helping children prepare for their futures. We’re helping each child unfold, become who she is meant to be. And as such we help children. When we take them on a field trip, we’re going to connect with the firewoman or the fireman at the station. We’re going to connect with the people in the park. We’re going to connect with the community members who come in to read a story. Supposing a politician comes in to read a story. I would like those children to be able to connect with that person, and I’d like the person to be able to connect with the children. So the truth about early-childhood is we are relationship-builders. It takes emotional intelligence to do that. And we’re helping children learn how to do that, and how do we do that? We’re their curriculum. So whether you’re a leader in the classroom or you’re a leader of a program people are watching to see, “How does that person build relationships that people want to keep coming back, that people are happy with?” So we are models for the future of these kids relationships. Does that make sense?
But to go deeper to what you were saying, Ron: people who choose early-childhood aren’t choosing it to become millionaires, in terms of the bank account. We choose it because we become millionaires with the soul. And what does that mean? We’re on Earth to make a difference. Now, if someone’s listening to this podcast and you’re not about making a difference then I say to you, “Gosh, why aren’t you working with a bank? Why aren’t you working in a corporation?” Because if your goal is to be highly successful financially, then early-childhood is not your field. And you know, I’m not saying that’s right – I’m saying that’s wrong. I’m saying that the value system is flipped upside down if someone who wants to make money is more revered than someone who wants to help people become who they are meant to be.
But that being said I believe that authenticity is crucial – absolutely crucial – in early-childhood, because you know what? I can’t walk in a classroom and fake it and have the kids believe me. I mean if I am, if I’m trying to pretend and be somebody that I’m not, unless I’m actually dressed up as somebody else, the kids, they’re not going to believe me. They’re going to start asking me really honest questions.
And here’s the truth: niceness is the way the majority of women still – in the United States, anyway – have been taught that we’re supposed to be. And yet niceness is a cover often for conflict avoidance. And what happens is, 70% of women in the United States actually do not like conflict. And if you’re listening to this, wherever you are: you’re an exceptional woman if conflict is a natural thing for you. So we cover our difficulty and our fear of confronting people with niceness, and niceness means putting a smile on my face when I don’t believe it.
Here’s my belief, Ron: I believe that telling the truth with love is more important than pretending we don’t have an issue. Because if we keep hiding the elephant under the table, the table is going to get not only knocked over by the elephant, it’s going to crush somebody. And I don’t want that to happen. So what I’m saying here is, early-childhood is about honesty. It’s about being in the truth. And if you’re stepping on my toe I need to say to you, “Ouch. You’re stepping on my toe. Could you please move your toe? That hurts. And let’s talk about why you’re stepping on my toes, because I don’t want that to happen again.” That is a difficult conversation in early-childhood. But when you think about it, what are we doing with the kids? We’re helping them have those conversations. “Tyrone, when you needed to bite, when you were so frustrated, you wanted to just bite. Jasmine let’s you know let’s talk about that. What are you angry about? Show me.”
Depending upon the child’s age developmentally appropriate way of talking with the person what I’ve got to get down to with each one, each person is the truth. And sometimes the truth isn’t pretty, sometimes it’s not comfortable. But without it we can’t get set free. So what I’m saying here is, to survive – and not just survive but to thrive in early-childhood – I need to know when I can be soft and vulnerable, which is a lot of the time, because that’s who I am. And when I need to step back and say, “Holly Elissa, put up a boundary and tell someone this isn’t going to work.” And then if they do something on top of that that hurts me, then to say to them, “Look, here’s what I need. This isn’t working.” And if they continue to hurt me then to say, “We need to change this relationship or perhaps we need to end this relationship.”
So what we’re doing in early-childhood is, we’re teaching people who come to the earth with a great deal of vulnerability. And people who are teachers and adults, still we all have a great deal of vulnerability inside. What we’re doing is saying, “When can I be open and true and vulnerable?” That’s my goal. But when do I have to also take care to set boundaries so that children learn that it’s okay to say, “No, no, you can’t touch my body. That’s not right. That’s not appropriate. No, you can’t take the toy that I’ve got. I’ll share it with you in a minute, but not now.” These are such perfect, lifelong lessons about being thick-skinned and thin-skinned, Ron, that we could give so many examples. But I hope that… is that enough to see what I’m saying?
That’s the problem: I think we think “confrontation” means to smack somebody upside the head. But if you go to the basic Latin root of “confrontation”, it doesn’t mean that. It means to bring people together so that together we can sit at the same side of the table and hold the problem to the side of us, so we can look together at the problem like it’s one of those magic balls, those things that you look in to see what the real issue what’s really going on. We look at that together and we say, “Well, what’s going on here? My feelings were hurt. Were your feelings hurt? Okay, we got our feelings hurt. Well, what’s going on? I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings. I’m sorry that that happened. What can I do in the future that would work better so that I can communicate with you and you can hear me? And please tell me the same thing.” That’s how we’re helping kids do all the time: “Listen, Fernando, if you want the truck, let’s look at ways you can get the truck rather than just grabbing the truck.”
And the thing is, children are continuously learning. My feeling, as a 71-year-old adult, Ron, is that I’m continuously learning. And so every time I face a challenge which I don’t want to face – and still there are things I don’t want to face – I go back to, “What’s my basic feeling?” This is EQ, emotional intelligence. “I’m afraid. Okay, if I’m afraid, what do I need? I need to connect. How can I get help?” And then when I actually approached the person, how can I also be ready to find a solution that is deeper than my ego-need and deeper than that person’s ego-need? What solution can we find? And I always love this question. That’s good for children and it’s good for families.
And I know some leaders in early-childhood have that behind them, behind their desk, in front of their desk. They ask themselves with every problem that comes along, “How can we make this good for children and families?” So if teachers can’t get along because they’re so different, how can we make that good for children and families? My lord, look at that, Ron. What do you do if one teacher is really structured and organized and has to have everything planned? And what do you do if a teacher is really go-with-the-flow, emergent curriculum, in the moment, loving the children, and “Lesson-plan can go out the window if the kids see a centipede walking across the playground”? I mean, Ron, what would you say about helping those [teachers]? Would you think both of those teachers are important in the classroom? And if so, how can their strengths come together, even though they might conflict?
So here’s what Dr. Carl Jung said: we all have a shadow, and that shadow is the part of ourselves like a shadow if I were to walk outside – it follows me around. It’s always there. But it’s the part of myself that’s less tangible, that I can’t see so well. And so when I’m under stress that can provoke the part of me to come out that I don’t know very well. So a child who is under stress that’s normally a very playful, happy child will bite.
Ron, what does an adult do that gets under stress?
Now for me to get to that point, Ron, I have to work with myself first so that I’m focused more on what’s important to kids and families than my wanting to smack you upside the head. And so early-childhood requires a great deal of emotional and social maturity. But isn’t that what we’re helping the kids learn? And aren’t we the children’s curriculum for that?
And I’ll give you one really practical tip: Lucille Ball – you know, Lucy of the wonderful television programs that can still make us laugh? Whenever I think of her working in the chocolate factory with Ethel and she’s under stress and she’s got to pack all these chocolates and she can’t do it. She stuffing them in her mouth, she’s stuffing them in her bra, stuffing them, oh my god, everywhere. I mean, what Lucille Ball said when she was under stress – which she was because she was an innovative woman in Hollywood before women were directors and leaders in Hollywood, and a lot of people were not in favor of her doing that – you know what she said, Ron? She said, “When I see crazy,” – she didn’t put it this way, with crazy coming down the street – she said, “When I see someone coming at me that I know I have a conflict with,” – are you ready for this? – “I picture that person in his underwear.” And she said, “Before I know it I have a smile on my face.”
And that reminds me of a conversation I had with a man named Dr. Louis Cozolino, who wrote a powerful book called The Neuroscience of Human Relationships. Because all of this now can be mapped by neuroscientists, all of this meaning, the conflicts that we have, neuroscientist can literally record the electromagnetic signals we’re sending to each other. So if I’m trying to be nice and I’ve got a smile on my face but I’m angry at you, you’re going to think, “What a piece of baloney she is. She’s angry and I know it. So I’m going to get under her skin even more.” And we all know people that are really good at getting under our skin. So here’s another thing, another practical tip: If I need to have one of those honest conversations with people and I’m afraid of it, the one thing that helps – and the research shows this so well – is that I can claim my sense of humor, and in particular if I can laugh at myself. There is a gland inside of our heads – it’s a very primitive one, it’s been left around forever – called the amygdala gland. And all that part of ourselves needs to know is, “I’m going to fight you back or I’m going to run away.” And that is not a mature way to handle a conflict.
What we need to do is take one conscious step to get out of that primitive, autonomic part of ourselves and get into… if you just place your hand on your forehead, that’s where we need to go. Because behind there is the newest part of our brain. It’s called the orbital frontal cortex. But in everyday language it’s called the executive function, because we start functioning as executives. So the truth is, each one of us knows in our heart and soul, “What’s one thing I can do when I see crazy coming down the street so I don’t get hooked, so I don’t turn into a puddle of fear, so I don’t want to run away?” And for me, if I can recall my sense of humor, or I can just say to myself, “Holly Elissa, what is important here? Yeah, I’m angry at this person. Yeah, I’m upset with this person. But what’s the bigger picture? What’s more important?” It’s that we work together for the sake of the kids. So if I need to drop some of my baggage and some of my ego-needs, I can do that. I’m not going let the person hurt me.
But at the same time I can keep my eyes on the prize that I can even say something… here’s another, a third practical tip: I can say to that person, “Look, Stephen, I’m feeling anxious with you right now, and I want to talk about that. But more importantly, my goal for this conversation is that we find a way – each one of us – to reach out to the other one so that we can work better for the sake of the kids. Because that’s what’s really important to you, I know, and that’s what’s important to me. So can we talk about… I’ll start with me, what’s one thing I can do to appreciate what you’re doing more so that we can work better with the kids? And then I’m going to invite you, if you’re willing to, to say, What’s one thing you can do to reach out to me?
“And here’s an example: Steven, you’re so organized that I can feel intimidated. When you come in with that lesson plan and you know everything that’s going to happen in the next ten minutes, I get really intimidated. I’m so impressed by that. So what I’d like to do is, can you tell me a way in which I can support you as you’re doing that? Because a lot of times I’m just sitting around the edge, not knowing what to do. Is there something I can help you with? Because I want to be part of that. I see how the kids really benefit from that structure. So would you think about that, Steve, and tell me something I can do? And then when you’re ready we can talk about how I’d like to include you when the spontaneous things come up. Because I’ve gotten the impression that that might not be so comfortable, like when the centipede or the spider walked across the floor and you were in the middle of your lesson plan and I just felt it was really uncomfortable for you when all the kids went running around the spider and I went in to work with them. I’m sorry if that took away from what you were doing. But can you help me understand, when we’re in the middle of spontaneity, how can we include you more? These are tough questions. If you need to think about it overnight and come back together I’m 100% in on that idea.”
Can you see how that would be a different way than going to the person saying, “Well you really made me angry when you did this. And I don’t like that.” I mean, that’s helpful. And it’s true. And yet if I go deeper and ask the question, “How can we bring our differences to the table and work through them for the sake of the kids, even if it’s uncomfortable? Because right now I’m pretty scared. How about you?”
And with overlay, here’s the deal: Each one of us carries all of our life history with us. And my father was a very strong son of immigrants, but didn’t think that highly of women. And so when he came in and said something the law was the law, and there was no negotiation. There was no… he would call it “talking back”. And so when I would work with the principal or I would work with a boss who was a strong authoritarian woman or a man, all I could see was my father walking down the street ready to say, “My way or the highway.” And that’s what I call “overlay”: overlaying my past experience on the present moment. And what you’re saying, Ron, is, “Guess what? That’s bringing an assumption to the table. And those assumptions make a you-know-what out of me, and can make it out of you. So what I’d rather do is just go into a conversation saying, “If I’m really upset about this conversation? What’s going on with me? Am I expecting my father to show up again?” And if that’s the case, let me just walk my father right over into another room. And if I see him coming into the room I’m just going to say, Dad, talk to you later.” And if he gets an angry face, that’s okay. I can send some little child to go how him how to play jacks or something, you know? As long as he’s going to be nice to the child.
And then I can just be in the room, myself with this person. And if I feel that father come in through the door again I can say, “Holly Elissa, stay focused. You’re talking to Ron. Ron’s a human being breathing right in front of you. All you have to do is find out where Ron’s coming from.” And so I can say, “Hey, Ron, you know what? I’m not getting it. And I think that’s me and not you. I’m not saying anything about you. I’m just not understanding. So could you just explain to me like I’m in second grade? Help me understand where you’re coming from? Not because you’re doing anything wrong but because it’s a whole different way of looking at the world than I do, and so can you break it down for me?” And that as Ron starts to break it down I can see why you did what you did and why you thought I was doing something bonkers. And then I’ll have the courage then to say, “Oh my god, that really helped me. When you’re ready,” – because Ron might not be ready at the moment – “Hey, Ron, would you be willing to ask me the same question? Are you interested in finding out why I did what I did? Because I really didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Here’s what I intended to do, and it came out backwards.”
So those kinds of conversations, Ron – back to the beginning conversation – those are emotionally intelligent conversations, because it’s the ability to read people as well as we read books. We think everybody can have them. But there is a study that says one out of every six people in the United States has a condition called alexithymia. Alexithymia means that we have schooled ourselves out of the ability to pay attention or to read our own feelings, “What’s going on inside of me?” And we have schooled ourselves not to pay attention to other people’s feelings. So one of the reasons I’m a recovering attorney is because none of that law school’s intellectual preparation prepared me to be in the moment and build a relationship with people. It prepared me to build up my best argument to defeat the other person. And honestly it’s not just lawyers that do that. We all have that part of ourselves where we want to win, we want to come out on top. And that’s not what I want to be modeling for children. I want a model for children: “I want to come out on top, I want to win. And I also want you to win. And you know what? We can do that together. And even if we’re in a competition so only one of us wins, you know what? I can congratulate you and say, “You did a better job than I did. I want to learn how to do it. Can you share with me?”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if… Meyers-Briggs, the two women who read Carl Jung’s work when it was translated into English, they said, “Wow, if people could understand that we are actually all wanting to be in connection, we don’t want to disconnect. We only disconnect because we don’t want to be hurt. We don’t want someone to hurt us. And so what if we can step back and reach out to the other person and say, Look, can we work on this together, even though we might not like each other? I still respect you and I respect your position.”
So this is pretty heavy stuff. In fact, the two women, Myers and Briggs who did the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, said, “You know what? If people understood these basic principles, we wouldn’t have to have war anymore. Imagine that.” Now I can’t control what goes on in the world but I sure can have an effect on what goes on between me and the other person. And so, Ron, I want to ask you, given all this stuff that we’ve been talking about, what’s important to you? What’s coming out that matters to you?
And I’m inviting people who are listening in right now: If you’re a parent, if you’re a teacher, if you’re a director, this is so life-changing. How can we help a child? And Fred Rogers said this: “What can I do with the man that I have, that I am?” How can I help a child who’s angry – and not ready to get over the anger – learn empathy for the child that’s been bitten? And I have seen wonderful teachers do things like, say, “Okay, so you know what? Do you remember when Thomasina bit you and how that– I hate Thomasina because she bit me! Okay, remember how it felt? How did you feel? It hurt so bad, I wanted to hit her! Okay. So what would you do? What would have helped you when Thomasina bit you? Well, what helps was when my teacher came over and she asked the teacher’s aide to come work with Thomasina, and my teacher just held me in her arms and I felt so good and I was able to cry. And it hurt so bad but I didn’t feel so bad after that because she helped me feel better. And then you know what my teacher said to me? She said, “Well what you need from somebody who beat you?” And I didn’t know. And so the teacher helped me understand that if somebody hurts me I can say to that person, I don’t want you to bite me again. That hurt me.”
Do you see, Ron, where I’m going with all of this? This is such a sophisticated life-skill development. Even on something as simple as saying, “I’m sorry,” that a person… I mean, do you know people in your adult life that are not good at saying “I’m sorry”? Wow. If they had learned, that if we had learned that as children, that saying “I’m sorry” is a wonderful gift of forgiving ourselves as well as forgiving the other person, and it’s all about accepting a humanity and people that we all mess up and make mistakes, I love that saying: “It’s only a mistake if I don’t learn from it.”
Yeah. And something to never forget as an early-childhood educator is that you can have such an impact on these children at an early age where if they’re taught or they learn something like this, this concept, so early in life and apply it through their life it can have a drastic, drastic impact on their life. And so super, super-important subject. We could talk about this forever, I think. It’s really engaging. Unfortunately we only have so much time. So what I’m going to ask, Holly, is if I’m listening to this and I’m also super-engaged in this conversation and I want to learn a little bit more about it, where might I go to learn a little bit more about this?
If you’re a visual person of course just go to YouTube, and if you just type in something like, “How do I deal with somebody who pushes my buttons?” All kinds of stuff is going to happen. Here’s another resource that’s a book: Dr. Neila Connors wrote a book called If You Don’t feed the Teachers They Eat the Students. I thought that was wonderful. She uses humor and that book is full of really practical tips about how to help each person feel like that person’s doing the best she can in the moment, and how to build on that and how to grow.
I also would say, tons of books, tons of podcasts. But the other thing is, you know what? I think there’s nothing like a support group or sitting down with close friends that I can trust, especially if they’re doing the same work that I do, and just say, “Look, I don’t know how to do this. I trust you that I can be my shoes-off self with you. I like comfortable confronting my team teacher. I don’t have a clue about how to do it. But I know the kids are upset when we don’t work together well. Can you give me some advice?” And just sit there and listen. There’s nothing like a real friend or a real peer who I know I can trust to help me out.
Thanks so much, Holly, for coming on the show.