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I Understand You! 3 Little Words That Create Empathy (teacher's secret helper)

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood!

This quote is from a classic rock and roll song by the Animals from1965, lyrics written by Bennie Benjamin, (photo), Gloria Caldwell, and Sol Marcus.

The song may be outdated but the sentiment remains true. Everybody wants to be heard clearly. How often does that really happen in our lives?

As early childhood professionals, parents, and caregivers of all kinds, we tend to get it. If we want to help people in any way, we must first understand them.

People really do need to feel understood, but it’s not always so easy to communicate. Think of all the times you felt misunderstood over the years.

I believe that everyone is born with the capacity for good, evil, and more. Everyone can develop empathy and understanding. I’ve been working on just that, developing empathy in infants, toddlers and preschoolers for the last 43+ years now. I know what works.

If you're reading this, you're probably an early childhood professional, parent, or grandparent. That makes you a VIP to me. I'd love to connect further with you. (More about that later).

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second.* After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense.-Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

The hand the rocks the cradle rules the world. -William Ross Wallace-

Since you’re rocking the cradle, I want to make your life easier this week. Of all of the people trying to make it through covid, I feel especially concerned about the childcare community and the parents/caregivers of young children.

Since that’s you, I want to remind you how to make young children feel understood, in a nutshell? One simple word.


From the beginning. Carefully, and hopefully, without too much distraction.

Last week we talked about one of my favorite phrases in all of early childhood,

This week we’re moving on to the next awesome 3-word phrase you can use over and over again to help the young children you work with develop the kind of strong self-identity that they need in an unpredictable world. Remember, it’s repetition that helps young children form the habits they’ll use for their entire lives.

And the phrase I want you to use over and over again is......

I Understand You!

Here’s how you can use it to your best advantage.

Start in Infancy

  • Spend some time watching your child (we’re wired for this) and trying to figure out their body language. See what their eyes are telling you. And their bodies.

  • Ask yourself “what are they trying to learn right now and how can I help them with that?”

  • Watch, interpret, respond, re-interpret, repeat.

  • Teach baby sign language and pay attention to what they’re trying to tell you.

True Story

Teacher, “Look how tired your sister is, Howie! She keeps rubbing her eyes and yawning.”

3-year-old child, “No she’s not, she does that all the time!”

This family told me their baby never napped or slept ok at night. They were a great family, very attentive. But they collectively got no sleep due to a misinterpretation of the term attachment parenting. Great parenting is awesome but it doesn’t take the place of sleep!

Another way to talk about understanding children is to use every teacher's secret helper, scaffolding.

Scaffolding is a technical term (Vygotsky), that just means watching the child to see exactly what they need to learn next and supplying the least amount of help they need to get through it and learn something to use the next time. It’s a no-pressure situation.


2-year-old Sheldon is trying to finish getting on the tire swing and whining for help. He can’t get his booted foot over. My co-teacher tells me not to help him, He’ll never learn that way. I think about it. It's true, in a way, but he's not learning anything by crying either.

I approach him and talk him through it. I move his little boot over the tire just enough to let him get it over the rest of the way by himself. That's scaffolding.

Scaffolding starts with observation and ends with developmentally appropriate action.

Ask yourself these questions

  • What do you notice?

  • What are they trying to learn or figure out?

Then ask yourself

  • How can I set that up so they learn in a way that works for everyone? No one, adults or children, needs more stress, these days. That's where boundaries come into play.

When you’re stressed and overworked, it’s really hard to take the time to observe body language in any effective way though.

However, Novice teachers seek to mold children and master teachers seek to understand them.

Master teachers also see every behavior a child attempts as learning. It may be misbehavior that needs some work, but every behavior is an attempt to learn something new.

My favorite book about listening is from Faber and Mazlish. It’s perfect for busy people to read because it comes with comic illustrations that are both funny and very informative. Just like me, they give you concrete and simple examples of what to say and why.

If you like my ideas and want to help us create a world with more empathy and less bias, you can join our community of VIPs (Very Important Parents and Providers) here. You’ll immediately get a free copy of my 22-page slideshow “How To Get Your Kids To Listen Without Yelling or Time-Outs” that you can share with other professionals and parents.

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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