Since collaborating with the other Infant House teachers on our recent workshop about The Language of Limits, I've been reflecting on how the language we use in interactions with children can actively scaffold emotional processing. Emma recently wrote about scaffolding in toddlerhood as "presenting materials to children in a way that will provoke interest, inquiry, and exploration." She goes on to write about a shift that happens as children get older, when teachers begin to present ideas as a means of scaffolding. This discussion resonated with my understanding of the use of language as a way of scaffolding children's emotional processing beginning right away in infancy.
In the same way that our material provocations are meant to inspire and engage children (and not to explicitly "teach" them in a top-down fashion), so too does our language scaffold their emotional processing at any given time. Our language evolves with children: when interacting with infants, we primarily reflect and narrate what is happening and the emotions that we notice. Infants are in a stage of soaking up emotional vocabulary and linking emotions to what is happening around them:
"Oh! You are feeling really sad that I set you down. I need to bring these dishes to the sink. I will be available to hold you after I am done."
Offering labels like "sad" or "frustrated" engages infants in their own emotional processing, as they are naturally driven to make sense of feelings in themselves and others. Calmly and simply explaining the limit in a situation (i.e. not being available) facilitates their cause-and-effect understanding of tricky emotional situations (when you need to step out of the room, I feel sad). These are fundamental components of any social interaction, and the language we use with infants reflects just that: meeting them where they are in their processing, we offer just enough language to facilitate their learning of this foundation, which will be part of every social interaction they go on to have as toddlers, Kindergardeners, and beyond.
We slowly add more language as children show us they are ready. As children reach toddlerhood, offering choices and using phrases like "It's up to you" or "Let's make a plan" are introduced:
"I notice you feeling frustrated that I am not available to hold you right now. I need space to work when I am at the sink. You can stand close by or go play in the classroom until I am available again. It's up to you!"
As children begin to take more ownership over all kinds of routines that occur throughout the day (e.g. getting dressed, setting the table/serving food, cleaning up before heading outside), they show us that they are interested and capable in making decisions about when and how things happen around them. Meeting children where they are in their emotional processing looks different now than it did in infancy -- we still label emotions and explain limits, but now there is room for negotiation in the language we use, as we give them age-appropriate power in limit-testing situations.
"I can tell you both really want this toy! I won't let you push each other, though. Let's make a plan!"
Older toddlers often show us that they are not only capable of understanding limits and making choices within them, but that they can also take on much of the problem-solving work in their interactions with others. When I notice children spontaneously running across the room to offer an upset friend a different toy, I know that they are watching and listening carefully, and that they are driven to find solutions (and exercise their ever-developing divergent thinking) in tricky situations. We can support this interest by offering toddlers more open-ended invitations (e.g. "Let's make a plan" or "I wonder how you will...") to engage in challenging emotional work.
In any limit-testing situation, it is not our role to make children see what we see, but to support them in seeing exactly what they see. It is our role to notice their perspective and scaffold their interest in engaging with whatever is most relevant to their emotional development. We can trust children to guide us in our practice of gentle leadership as they show us what they are currently processing and the direction that they are heading in next.