Taking care of yourself is one of the most important lessons children can learn

A group of twisted toddlers try to draw attention to a story by gymnastics teacher Ike van der Zee (28) on Wednesday morning. “Sad?” asks the teacher. ‘What does a child look like when he is sad?’ The kids imitate it. Bent forward, eyes slightly closed, corners of mouth down. For an extra dramatic effect, a few fists wipe imaginary tears from the corners of your eyes. ‘Very good. And what can you say when you see that a child is upset? ‘ ‘Are you good?’ suggests a girl with a long ponytail. “Hold in hand,” muttered a classmate in a pink tutu. And: ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Hi! Do you hear that? ‘ says Van der Zee delighted. “That’s a really good question.”

the resting fish

In 2018, one alarming report after another appeared on the mental well-being of young people and children. Performance pressures undermine their mental health, noted the Council on Public Health and Society among others. “It aroused interest in ways to increase children’s psychological well-being by being aware of this in school,” said Marloes Kleinjan, professor of youth mental health promotion. “Then the pandemic got over it, and the problem only got more urgent.”

‘You can only learn if you are comfortable in your own skin.’

At the Huizinga School in Amsterdam Nieuw-West, the little ones storm through the gym every week for lessons on anger and fear, self-confidence and the calm fish. “You can only learn if you are comfortable in your own skin,” Kleinjan says.

After toddlers check in with Van der Zee happy, scared, angry and sad, they are allowed to play freely with a buddy. The teacher has pulled everything out: hockey goals, swing ropes, a volleyball net and a kind of plateaus on wheels like wobbly scooters. Before the children disperse, they are given a task. ‘Select? Look around, ”it sounds somewhat cryptic. ‘You can do anything but look at your buddy: what does he want? Is he happy? Or maybe sad or angry? ‘

The children go wild and immediately report ups and downs. Some couples fall apart unnoticed. A team celebrates a goal in hockey, the opponents collapse in disappointment. Jayden, a boy with dark, sparkling eyes, wants to play volleyball, but his buddy mingles a little timidly after him. ‘By connecting the lessons about emotions and social interactions with exercise, children immediately experience what we are talking about,’ Van der Zee sums up the thinking behind these exercise psychology lessons. Jayden looks a little lost on his buddy Nura. Now he has set his sights on hockey, but she does not seem to have much enthusiasm for that either. She can not clarify what Nura wants, as she has only just lived in the Netherlands.

After about ten minutes, the children return to the circle. “Jayden, what did you see happen to Nura?” “A little happy, a little angry,” mutters the boy. ‘Angry? Or sad? ‘ asks Van der Zee. “Also a little sad.” ‘Do you know why?’ Deep sigh. “I really do not know.” “Maybe Nura was a little scared too. She’s just new to the class.” Jayden nods understandingly. He was happy himself, he also mentions briefly. ‘Yes. And you had a lot of patience too, sweet Jayden.’

A number of emotions have also gone through the other duos. Nader says his buddy was angry. ‘Because, because, because …’ Yes, why again? ‘Because he had lost. But afterwards he was happy again. ” “Well seen Nader, how well do you tell it.”

Against bullying

At the beginning of this millennium, attention to social-emotional learning came over from the United States. Teaching the whole child, became the goal. So not only attention to language and math, but also to sports, creativity and social and emotional development. Since 2015, the law on school safety has been in force in the Netherlands, which obliges schools to do something against bullying – or at least have something on paper about it. Many anti-bullying programs, such as The Peaceful School or Kwink, focus on general socio-emotional skills with the idea that bullying decreases when children feel good about themselves and learn to empathize with the other person. Only some of these programs have been studied for effectiveness. A prerequisite for this at least seems to be coherence. In other words, not a one-time package of eight lessons, but social-emotional learning throughout the school year at fixed times during the week.

Between pride and shyness

During another Wednesday class with Miss Van der Zee, her cool Crossfit hoodie collides with the green-red high socks she has put on in honor of the crazy clothes day in group 4, against the buck in the corner of the gym is a large mirror . A boy in tight jeans gets up from the circle and walks hesitantly towards it. He gently gives a thumbs up while his eyes cling to Van der Zee. “I trust …” she whispers to him. She stands behind him and folds his hand into a fist with her thumb lifting it to his reflection. He knows it again. “I trust you, dare it.” With a smile that is somewhere between pride and anxiety, he quickly slips between his classmates.

‘A’ problem student ‘should not learn to deal with the other, but should learn to deal with himself.’

‘Children who repeatedly come into conflict with others often receive prescribed training in social skills from school’, educator Kees van Overveld describes the approach to ‘problem students’ in many schools. ‘The child must learn to deal with rejection or learn to solve problems.’ Van Overveld, who received his doctorate in social-emotional learning at school, sees that this approach does not work. ‘The child must not learn to deal with the other, but learn to deal with himself. In nine out of ten conflicts between children, this is where things go wrong. A child facing the other with clenched fists or a bright red head, but does not know what to do with that feeling until it finds a way out through tears or fists. ‘

According to Van Overveld, learning to deal with oneself should be at the core of social-emotional learning programs. This ‘dealing with yourself’ encompasses a wide range of emotional skills: recording emotions, understanding where they come from, being able to put words into them, daring to express those words and finally regulating those emotions. So do not tip a table when your classmate distracts you, but breathe, check in with yourself and indicate that you do not like to be disturbed.

Based on Van Overveld’s vision, Uitgeverij developed Kwintessen’s Kwink teaching method, which is used at the Huizinga school and about 700 other schools. Kwink’s animals guide children through lessons about quarrels, friendship, self-confidence and ‘help words’. Each theme is discussed for two weeks, synchronously from group one to group eight, more in depth.

Crocodile Kink

‘Just show each other: what do you look like when you find something exciting?’ A girl with a tall tuber and a serious face shows it: her eyes widen, her mouth tightens. “In life, you come across new things all the time,” Van der Zee tells the little ones. ‘For example, jump down from the seesaw, or say something in the circle. Sometimes it’s something you dare, and sometimes you think it’s a little exciting. ‘

Van der Zee starts a movie where crocodile Kink, the king of the animal kingdom Kwink, is nervous because he has to open a station. He is afraid he will confuse his speech and fears the reception. ‘Then, of course, I have to have a talk with the animals that have built the station. What if they do not like me? ‘

The children are fascinated by this king, though his worries do not seem to have been taken directly from childhood. They then see the messenger, a penguin, explain a trick to the king. He leads the king to the mirror, asking him to lift his thumb to himself, straighten his shoulders, and encourage himself, as the children have done in front of the mirror.

“What is it, self-confidence?” asks Van der Zee. ‘That you think you can do it’, the girl replies with a serious look.

She really noticed that these kids had already covered the lesson in class, Van der Zee will finish with satisfaction afterwards. But first she guides the children through all kinds of difficult activities: walking backwards, jumping, dancing. As she claps her hands, everyone stops. The children point to their own breasts with small thumbs. ‘I trust you, dare it,’ it sounds with more and more conviction.

Student well-being

Early childhood offers unique opportunities for language acquisition. Do children also master these emotional skills more easily? Van Overveld does not dare to comment on that. ‘I think the school context is ideal. Children work constantly with each other and are also continuously guided in their learning process. Feedback on emotion regulation, for example, fits seamlessly into this. Later in life this stagnates. “Frustration, is that how you feel? How can you put it into words? ” For example, you never hear a manager react if someone freaks out during a meeting. ‘

“Children from families with money worries, for example, experience more stress and this hampers their learning process. Programs that teach them to deal with these challenges can therefore greatly increase their chances of learning. ‘

It is clear in developmental psychology that children learn better when they feel good about themselves. Nevertheless, social-emotional learning is not included in the curriculum, and it is therefore up to the individual schools to give substance to it. Especially now that Holland scores poorly in basic subjects as a language, there is a call to go back to the basics and extra material is being pushed. “And unfortunately, social-emotional learning is often seen as an ‘extra,'” says Professor Marloes Kleinjan of Utrecht University and the Trimbos Institute. ‘Shame. more stress, and it can hamper their learning process. Programs that teach them to deal with these challenges can therefore greatly increase their chances of learning. ‘

But Kleinjan has a serious comment on this prayer for social-emotional learning in school. ‘It increases children’s resilience, but if we take their well-being seriously, we must also do something about their surroundings and the performance pressure they experience.’ It starts with the criteria that the Danish Education Authority uses to assess the quality of a school. ‘Not only look at performance in math and language and at reconnection and outflow, but focus on what a school does on the social-emotional level and student well-being.’

To ensure the privacy of the children and the safety of the classroom, the names of the children have been changed.

This publication was made possible with the support of ‘Fonds Special Journalistic Projects’ with reference to the website (www.fondsbjp.nl).

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