Early Childhood Education and the End of Global Conflict

In 2012 I participated in a training project at the Experimental Kindergarten of The Chinese Academy of Science in Chengdu, Sichuan. On the opening day of the project, the director of the school, Mrs. Zhong, told a story I have often thought of since:

Zhong related a conversation she had with the school cook (The Experimental school serves 350 children!). She had told him that educators from America were coming to spend two weeks working with children and teachers in the classroom, and asked him to be sure to prepare something special for lunch each day.

The cook was confused. America and China were at odds over trade. American politicians constantly accused China of trying to ruin the American economy by cheating. Americans were sworn enemies of communism. Why would Americans want to help the children and teachers?

Zhong, who would demonstrate uncommon deftness throughout the project, had a simple answer: American teachers were different than American politicians. They cared about children and families all over the world. They were passionate about developing creative and effective means of helping children learn and they wanted to share them for the benefit of the world community.

This not only satisfied the cook, but also moved him. He never dreamed, he told her, that Americans cared about China. But he could see that everyone cares for children, and that we are all united by our desire to see children and families thrive. He promised to showcase the best of Sichuan home cooking for us. (And he did - in a region renowned for its cuisine, some of our best meals were consumed off of tin trays in tiny green chairs right there in the classroom).

Since it’s my job to advocate for the value of early childhood education (and my livelihood depends on it), it’s easy to overstate its importance. But the cook’s story underscores something I think about all the time, and especially in response to the news lately: the solutions to the world’s problems can be found in early childhood education. (They are italicized below).

As the cook recognized, we all connect on a different plane over our desire to do right by children. Everyone is part of a family, and everyone – even the worst dictator or most brutal murderer - was somebody’s baby once. And I know from experience that everyone – from jobless single parents in shelters to seven figure CEO’s – feels the same sense of helpless insecurity about raising children. We are not only connected as a community of families, we are equalized.

Young children in the early childhood setting are learning to contribute to and rely upon a community. And the early childhood environment creates a natural community.

Trust is one of the main things early childhood educators teach. Above all else we must be trustworthy, and building a trusting relationship with children and families is always step one. We go on from there to teach children how to trust themselves and each other. Just that simple theme – how to trust yourself enough to advocate for and protect yourself, but trust others enough to listen and negotiate – could translate from the preschool classroom to the global stage with great benefit.

But in a larger sense, caretaking – keeping children safe, making food, commiserating about problems and sharing solutions – naturally create trust. Just as the cook could see in an instant that, of course American teachers cared about Chinese children, and therefore trust us sight unseen, the world needs to engage on that same plane – mutual caretaking.

Teaching young children is about helping to develop the mind. And the mind is a sense-making organ. The pinnacle of learning is not knowledge, but meaning. Children show great aptitude for this. They care about things that mean a great deal: will my parent return? How do I connect with another person? How do I fit into a group?

Many of the conflicts that threaten us most – take religion and race, for example – are abstract. That is, they are arguments about meaning, and not about safety, survival, or the necessary workings of a community. If we could all magically decide not to worry about them ever again, nothing of material significance would necessarily go wrong.

These are conflicts over how our minds make order of the world. They happen in large part because we don’t know how to make sense of differing perspectives. We grow up fearful of contradictions to our worldview, or even our way of going about things. We don’t learn how to use our sense-making potential to understand and support each other, rather than compete and clash.

Peek into a preschool classroom and you will see an alternative: adults who use their own dispositions and relationships with each other to model cooperation; young children being guided through the normal and healthy process of sharing space, materials and ideas; a laboratory for exploring how different ideas and styles can create strength instead of conflict. If we want to learn how to coexist peacefully through shared construction of meaning, we know where to find the blueprint.

Teaching regulation has become the core of early childhood education: helping young children become comfortable, receptive and organized enough to explore the world and respond to each other from a place of calm, comfort and curiosity. Interestingly, regulation has come to dominate the field in large part because children seem to be having more and more trouble with it. But through our response we have come to believe, as Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder argued in their theory of functional emotional milestones, that self-regulation and pleasure in relationships are the first and most fundamental steps of human development.

Conflicts by rule are disregulating – they are “escalations” from our normal state of calm. But they also begin with disregulation – our tendency to become distressed, distrustful, disorganized and defensive out of proportion to the events around us or the intentions of the people involved.

We rarely think of teaching regulation as a solution to adult conflict. In the wake of the tragic wave of police killings of non-violent African Americans, for example, we have discussed increasing cultural and racial sensitivity trainings for police. This is necessary, without a doubt. But as an inclusive teacher of young children, I would like to see the police become more regulated- to stay calm and curious enough about a situation to read it properly, take in information and de-escalate conflicts.

Our society has become increasingly isolated over the past century. And we are beginning to understand that isolation is at the root of many of our most costly social problems. A recent article in the Huffington Post traces studies that show that addiction correlates to loneliness more than anything else; Jihadists who are radicalized via social networking clearly have an insufficient stake in the real community around them; Young men taking guns into schools and churches are “lone wolves,” who are often ignored, shunned or bullied into a lifelong paranoid vendetta.

Isolation has been on the rise for a multitude of reasons - geographical, economical, cultural and technological. But we Americans have always had a hand in our own isolation. We were forged in the desire to sail off to the far side of the world and be left alone. Our democracy is a story of the tension between independence and interdependence. That tension has been badly aggravated by the polarized and pressurized environment of the contemporary world.

We want our freedom. We want to be different from the crowd and to take credit for our own unique identities. We want to be left alone by institutions. Yet we all long for connection to and support from some kind of community and we are struggling mightily as a society with loneliness and isolation. And although no one seems to want to dwell on it, our global spiritual and political differences will only be solved when we work from a place of acknowledged mutual interdependence.

Self-regulation creates trust. Trust fosters positive relationships. Relationships allow for the construction of shared, but varied meaning. Through shared meaning, we coexist as a harmonious community. This is the daily life of early childhood education and it all serves the highest learning value: problem solving. A problem-solving stance – towards building a tower or sharing a toy – is the ultimate end of early childhood education, much more than in the school years that follow. And it goes without saying that problem solving is exactly what the world needs.

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