Sometimes we forget how hard it can be to be very young; how the demands of adults to “behave”, “share,” and “cooperate” can be overwhelming when these fundamental skills of civilized society do not yet make much sense to a young mind.

Why do I always have to act a certain way? I’m having fun!
Why should I share my things? I’m not done yet!
Why do I need to work together with other people? I want to do what I want to do!

To successfully guide children toward understanding abstract concepts such as cooperation, it is most effective to demonstrate to them using words and examples they can relate to and be successful with. Although our efforts may be futile until their minds mature and are able to exercise empathy, laying the groundwork should start early.

Be Explicit. When you find yourself facing a teachable moment (an off-the-cuff moment where a lesson could be learned), explain in simple words what is happening and why it is good to respond a certain way. This is an exercise in Social Referencing (children observing the emotional reactions of their caregiver) that even infants can learn from:

Example. Your child is playing nicely by him/herself. When company shows up, their child wants to play too, but that means your child must rearrange their play, and they seem displeased. You could say, “Hmmm, I can see that you are having fun playing your game by yourself, but now a friend wants to play too! This can be tough, but let’s see how we can make this game fun for both of you so everyone is included and no one is sad! How do you think we can do that?”

This simple language 1) validates their unsettled feelings about shifting their play, 2) suggests an empathetic solution, and 3) prompts them to problem-solve with an open-ended question so they can own the solution.

Be Empathetic. Key life skills are the hardest to learn. It is through trial and error, disappointment and frustration that humans begin to accept unpleasantries and refine their responses to them. Empathy is an Executive Order Function (EOF) that directs and manages information. Cooperation is an EOF under the Working Memory category because it is a skill requiring multiple steps to understand social and structural rules in certain circumstances.

If I want this thing, I cannot just take it or they will cry.
If I hit my brother, mom will separate us.
If I scream in a restaurant, we will all have to leave.

Understanding that young brains are not yet equipped with these skills helps caregivers guide children toward empathy rather than demand it. Be patient. Be persistent. Be reasonable. Be consistent. The information will be sorted in their brains when their brain is capable as long as the messages they receive “make sense.”

Create Opportunities. When a caregiver is purposeful with life’s lessons, it can have a huge impact on a child’s cognition. Creating opportunities for a child to be successful lends to their success when unexpected situations occur. These opportunities can surface in play and in real life.

Example (play): “Sally the Hippo wants to play with Devin the Duck, but Devin does not want to play with her. What should they do? How do you think Sally feels? Let’s see how we can work together so everyone gets to play.”

Example (real life). When you are cooking dinner, ask your child to help. Express to them how much you appreciate them for cooperating in getting dinner ready. Soon enough, through consistent positive reinforcement, they will volunteer to help because they enjoy the feeling of your appreciation.

At Crème we honor our partnership with parents to guide children’s character development so they are familiar with life’s big lessons when they enter elementary school. We understand the importance of cooperation in group care situations. We encourage all of our children to participate in small and large group play, cooperative clean-up, and helping others. Through our P.A.T.H.S. program, play, songs, literature and Conscious Discipline practices, we facilitate the development of cooperative skills that build character and citizenship.

Dr. Masek
VP of Education