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Teach EYFS Article - Powerlessness

Here is another in my series of articles based on conversations with children, first published in Teach Early Years magazine. In each piece, I focus on one prominent theme. For this one, it’s POWERLESSNESS, which seems especially apt at the moment. My thanks to editor Jacob Stow for allowing reproduction, and if you want to know more, details of this and their other magazines and resources are available at:

  • Is there anything you don’t like about being a child?
  • You have no control because you’re not in charge.             (L - male)

I interviewed this little boy with his mother and I’m sure you are well able to imagine her facial expression on hearing his reply. There was good humour in her silently letting me know that it didn’t always feel that way to her.

Although, as adults, we may rarely feel that we have everything under control, our experience is nothing in comparison to the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness that small children have to process. It’s difficult for us to remember just how confusing and frustrating that can be. The feelings can be overwhelming for them, and it’s not unusual for challenging behaviours to have their roots in that frustration.

Small children tend to be people pleasers, they want to do well, they want to receive our praise, they are trying to fit in and they get anxious about not getting it right. No-one gets it right all the time in any situation, but as we get older we develop strategies to cope with our errors. In the early years our children don’t have the wherewithal to understand and control their own emotions, so the feeling of powerlessness is compounded and the frustration doubles.

How can we help?

It’s important, I think, to find instances where children are asked to make decisions for themselves, to take charge over some small element of their day, and to pay attention to the consequences of their choices. We often talk to children about them having made good or bad choices, generally in relation to behaviour, but how often do we allow them the opportunity to practice decision-making in a clearly structured way - so that they are aware of immediate consequence? Probably not often enough.

When a child is embarking on a quest of their own choice; to paint a dog or build a tower, say, or put their coat on without help, try getting them to verbalise exactly what it is they are setting out to do. Then when the task is complete (or has filled its allotted time!) you can discuss how successful the attempt has been and how the child might move on in order to progress, if they have succeeded; or if they have been less successful, how they might adjust the parameters, or choose differently, the next time they try something similar. In this way, they are learning that failure is not the end of the world, and that freedom of choice can be worth the risk. This approach can also develop mutual support within the class if you are working with small groups of children.

When I asked L to elaborate on his answer, he told me that he found it difficult to speak to grown-ups because, ‘You can't speak back the same way they speak to you’, but that speaking with other children was, ‘Easy because they're just like me and they're not in charge of me’. Clearly he is a little boy coming to terms with boundaries, social structures and his place within the community, and that’s a stage we all need to go through. Despite his frustration, he is enjoying the freedoms that come with a lack of responsibility, and the link between control and responsibility is a difficult one to learn. 

Children may rail at their lack of power, but on the flipside, they need the security of knowing they have someone to rely on and to run to when things go wrong. Let’s try and help them negotiate that duality - the time when they will have to be in charge of their own complicated lives will come round soon enough.

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