How does the kindergarten staff react when children are crying?

There is not much research on how employees in kindergartens react when children cry. Two Swedish researchers have studied how they comfort them and how the children let themselves be comforted.

Text: MAGNUS HOLM / TRANSLATION: HANNE HERRMAN

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A small boy is sitting at the table making a puzzle. Suddenly he leans too far out and falls off the chair. It hurts, and the boy starts crying. At the same moment a kindergarten teacher passes by. What does he do to comfort the boy? And how does the boy react? Will he let himself be comforted?

This is one of the situations Asta Cekaite and Malva Holm Kvist have analysed. The two researchers used video observations to look at the interplay and socialization in ordinary activities in Swedish kindergartens. In an article, they tell how they studied the way caregivers reacted when children were crying.

Cekaite and Holm Kvist had observed that children often were crying in the kindergarten. This is still an area that has not been studied a lot, according to Cekaite.

“We have not been able to find much research on how the staff react when children are crying. This study is about how to comfort children, and how to do it in a physical way,” she tells.

TOUCH IN PRACTICE

Cekaite and Holm Kvist documented daily activities with a video camera in two kindergartens. For two months they observed twenty children from 2,5 to 5 years old, and their interaction with four female and one male teacher. At the end they had 20 hours of video documentation. All together they documented 50 cases when children were crying. In every case the staff reacted by talking to the child in question. In 33 cases they used different kinds of touching to comfort the child.

“In interviews the staff often said they didn’t use touching, but in practical life we observed that they actually did,” Cekaite says.

It was primarily when the children get hurt or became very sad, that the adults used touching as a way to comfort them. It was used together with words and calming sounds and was done it many different ways. An adult might for example, react to loud and prolonged crying by lifting the child up and hold it close. And in general, the child would be comforted. The crying child rarely rejected a comforting touch.

“It was in particular when they were crying, then they came closer raising their arms, clearly showing that they wanted to be comforted in this way,” Cekaite tells.

“In interviews the staff often said they didn’t use touching, but in practical life we observed that they actually did,” says Cekaite.

PART OF BEING A HUMAN

Most of us who have had small children in our care will recognize the findings of Cekaite and Holm Kvist. A child’s crying and the comfort through words, sounds, and touching all belong to everyday life, not only in Scandinavia but in other places as well.

“I also work together with researchers in other countries like USA.  We see that the close physical contact is a rather universal cultural phenomenon,” adds Cekaite.

She tells that researchers often have noticed this comforting practice when the families are at home. In an institutional context on the other hand, there are many restrictions on physical contact, primarily in the USA and the United Kingdom.

The practice is different from institution to institution. Here of course, cultural differences and public guidelines play an important role. Cekaite thinks it might be useful to problematize the way this could influence the practice of it in the kindergartens and the closeness and trust between the children and the kindergarten teachers. She believes her research might help the staff reflecting upon what they are doing.

“I think it can be useful to see that one does these things, and that one uses physical contact in a way that is not dangerous, but useful. It’s a way to build trust. I believe we ought to regard this practice as something not only belonging to the kindergarten, but to the fact of being human.”