Unsmiling Faces: How Preschools Can Heal
reviewed by Tamar Jacobson - August 31, 2007
As a former preschool-kindergarten teacher, and now as an early childhood teacher educator, I can say that this is a book that speaks to my heart. Although it is written specifically for children who have been traumatized, I believe it is appropriate and suitable for typical children in any preschool. A preschool setting can and should heal all children. Our early childhood classrooms should be emotional safe havens for everyone. For example, Vivian Gussin Paley asks in the Foreword, Is there a preschool anywhere that does not include those who at times feel sad, angry, and helpless? (Page vii). Gussin Paley continues eloquently:
The rest of us, teaching in relatively stable circumstances, tend to resist the idea that some sort of therapy may be a part of our job, even as we encourage larger numbers of families and children to meet with therapists. We tell ourselves in the face of worrisome and unpredictable behaviors, The ordinary classroom is not meant to be a therapeutic community. Then we go about picking up the random pieces of confused, frustrated, and otherwise unfinished development that surround us as we try to create the facsimile of a caring family. (p. vii)
The book opens with the first two chapters describing emotional development, in a thorough and informative manner, including information about brain development that serves as a crucial foundation to how human beings develop emotional memory. The authors go about describing, in detail, ways of creating a safe emotional haven for young, traumatized children including the homeless and abused, and how to work with families and staff. The book is thorough and informative about the development of a childs self-concept, and includes a discussion about the importance of play, creating the appropriate physical therapeutic environment, as well as various techniques such as play therapy.
Chapter Two is particularly poignant and necessary as a reminder to all of us that, If we conceive of childhood only as a carefree and joyful time, we may be denying the experiential and emotional realities of many at-risk children who enter our classroom each morning (p 17). This comes as the introduction to this chapter whose title is, If Youre Sad and You Know It, as an antidote to the usual childrens happiness song we all know so well. The author even, ever so brilliantly, in my opinion, suggests that all our attempts to constantly cheer children may convey our own difficulty acknowledging, affirming, and tolerating a range of affects in young children, including those that communicate emotional pain and distress [italics mine] (pp. 17-18). Indeed, that may be one of the most important paragraphs to the entire book.
The second part of the book, which is titled Structures and Relationships in Preschool, opens with what I consider one of the most important chapters: Therapeutic Teacher, Therapeutic Classroom. It has critical implications for teacher education in general, not only for facilitators of special education. In this piece, Judith Ferber discusses the teachers role in a healing type of preschool classroom, including details about organizing the physical environment, the importance of schedules and routines, how to set limits and, even the appropriate type of curriculum. In other words the teacher in a preschool setting has many different roles, as instructor, caregiver and limit setter. Ferber talks about the importance of the teacher-child relationship, describing it as the missing link (p. 55), and the pivotal force. She goes on to say that Clearly, the importance of the teacher-child relationship for a needy child [for any child? my italics here] is paramount in effecting the development of cognition as well as emotional well being (p. 56).
Both the paragraph I cited above from Chapter Two (If Youre Sad and You Know It), and the teachers role in a therapeutic classroom, lead me to question why there is a lack of discussion about teachers emotions in general. Most professional counselors seek out some type of therapeutic supervision so that their feelings, beliefs, emotional reactions, or subjectivity might not interfere with treatment of clients. If we are to organize and develop preschools that heal, whether for traumatized or typical children, what are we doing, as a profession, to help teachers self-reflect specifically about how they feel in the face of their own difficulty acknowledging, affirming, and tolerating a range of affects in young children, including those that communicate emotional pain and distress? (as stated above on pages 17 and 18).
Koplow states, Teacher-child interactions must be open-ended, spontaneous, and genuine in order to facilitate emotional growth (p. 24). I could not agree more. However, in this very important book about creating emotional safe havens for young children, there is not much emotional support for the teachers who work with them. Koplow goes on to say that adults can help children emotionally by giving them permission to feel and express sadness, fear, anger, worry, and loneliness as well as joy, delight, excitement, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions (p. 25). I cannot help but wonder how the adults, caring for and educating young children are able to understand their own such emotions. And, more importantly, what are we, as teacher educators, doing to help them become more aware of said feelings so that they may be open minded, spontaneous and genuine in their relationships with children.
There is no safe place emotionally or physically in the education and development of teachers for confronting uncomfortable feelings they might have it is not possible for teachers to refer children to their colleagues [like counselors do] or seek counseling supervision in the context of education. Teachers just have to get on with it one way or another. As a result, young children are the recipients of many of our harmful, unconscious behaviors. (Jacobson, 2003, p. 19)
Unsmiling Faces: How Preschools Can Heal, is an important book for all early childhood teachers, whether of traumatized or typical children. Early childhood classrooms should most certainly be safe emotional havens. I expect that many of us are aware by now that emotional memory is stored in our brains never to be erased, starting with our earliest childhood. Indeed, ninety five per cent of the foundation of brain functioning is developed by age four (Perry, 2007). Each chapter in Koplows edited volume is full of important and helpful information on how to create a healing environment, emotionally and physically. I know that I will be recommending it to others and may adopt it in the future for early childhood courses. For me, however, the book would be even more complete were it to include a chapter specifically dedicated to emotional support for teachers.
Jacobson, T. (2003). Confronting our discomfort: Clearing the way for anti-bias in early childhood. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Koplow, L. (2007). Editor, Unsmiling faces: How preschools can heal. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Perry, B.D. (2007). Early childhood and brain development: How experience shapes child, community and culture. Houston: Child Trauma Academy.