Early Childhood Education has lots of these esoteric platitudes to express their far reaching and practical principles. Lately we’ve been thinking and talking about “Everyone is the same and everyone is different”. What does that really mean? Obviously we human beings look and behave in many similar ways. We have similar features, our senses and bodies are similar, we can have similar interests and aptitudes. We come from families, and have pets and friends and neighbors. We function in our diverse communities, with societal norms that we conform to. With reasonable variations we are in many, many ways the same. When working with young children we draw the child’s attention to these elements of sameness because this understanding, feeling and seeing this similarity, builds empathy and compassion and insight. In turn this awareness creates trust in the predictable reactions of one’s fellow man.
Human emotions are also similar. We all have feelings. Learning to manage and understand our feelings, and to see their similarities as we relate to one another, is particularly important and impactful as we teach this concept of sameness. Many people are afraid of feelings, and can feel confused and threatened by emotion whether it is their own or that of others. This is particularly true of children. Understanding the normalcy of feelings, how they come and go, and ultimately how to manage one’s feelings, reduces fear and strengthens this concept of self-empowerment and again shines the light on sameness.
All over the school, in every age group, when emotions rise one is likely to hear the teachers say “Oh look at his face, he looks so sad. He is crying. See her sad face, see her tears. He is just like you, he doesn’t like it when his hair gets pulled, that hurts. He is just like you, it hurts when your hair gets pulled too, you don’t like it either, do you?” Drawing attention to the emotion being communicated helps the child learn to read others’ feelings, and helps them understand their friends and themselves. It normalizes the expression of emotion and explains its role in human communication.
Identifying the feeling being communicated leads to the second part of the communication, the “so what do we do now?” part of the conversation. From the “same and different” perspective, most emotion is addressed to begin with in the same way: acknowledging and seeking understanding, then responding appropriately. The teacher’s goal is for the children to understand and manage their own feelings and reactions through helping them strengthen and manage their relationships with others, normalizing and reducing the fear that can drive us to react from a self-serving place rather than a place of acceptance. The teacher knows that this understanding builds empathy and compassion, and trust in oneself and in others.
“She is sad because mommy has gone to work. You know about that don’t you? Sometimes you are sad when your mommy has to go off to work in a hurry too. Shall we see what we can do to help? Let’s ask her what she thinks might help.” or “Andy really doesn’t like the big noise the fire alarm makes, does he? It scared him. It made him jump and oh dear, I see his tears coming down. Remember how scared you were when you first heard that loud noise and the teacher helped you? And now you know just what to do, and even though you still don’t like the big noise you do know just what to do and you don’t need to get upset anymore.”
When we understand each other’s feelings we can be kind and compassionate, we can be reasonable and understanding, we can support each other, and we can build connection, safety and friendships. We learn that we are the same, regardless of how we may look or talk or move about. Compassion and understanding goes a long way in cultivating a full, happy life regardless of culture, race, ability, gender, etc. Learning to see sameness and difference gives the child a sense of options as well; not all differences are even known in early childhood, but when they are the child will continue to find himself within a positive framework.
Teachers teach to this sameness because it is important to building community, even as they see each child as an individual with slightly individualized needs. Seeing the value in conformity grows out of understanding sameness. It builds from the idea that we can work together, understand each other, and that the sum is greater than the individual parts when we work together. Seeing our sameness allows us to agree to follow the same traffic rules, conform to agreed-upon behavior at the basketball game, and then to a different set of behaviors at the ballet.
As a child gets ready to enter kindergarten understanding and experiencing this community of sameness helps children conform to the school’s rules. Knowing that they are basically the same, the entering child realizes that she too can sit and listen, raise her hand to ask a question, and line up at the door when the time comes. She is confident in her differentiated sense of self: I am different and I am the same. I know who I am so I can conform without losing track of who I am in the conformity. The intense individualization that occurs in the baby experience helps the child learn about who he is, and by the time a child is school age he has assimilated this information; that is what allows him now to join the group. This adage looks at the trajectory of growth, acknowledging that at first we do need to see and know our differences but that once children hane learned about who they are their focus can shift from difference to sameness. This ability to know oneself, while also seeing the similarity among others, allows the child to grow into a reasonable and self-managed human being who can listen to and respect others. This adage reminds us that it is our responsibility to the changing child to assess and change our behavior and expectations along with the child’s growth so that she will be able to carry forward the norms of the culture we live in.
This adage also holds the seed of one of our democratic principles, that we are stronger and can do better when we are aligning our different-and-same selves to work together. It is why in school children are, within reason, treated equally; it is also why speaking up for fair treatment for all is so important in the child care classroom and in the world we live in. In the microcosm of BlueSkies we are building a utopia where equality and justice for all is part of the child’s normal expectation of life. We see how important it is to avoid corrosion of these foundational belief structures, for they preserve our happiness and our freedom.