The Gift of “Soft Eyes”

 In Self-Regulation Institute Blog

It was mid-December and I was in line at the supermarket. The young woman in front of me had a beautiful green wreath in her cart and an active little boy by her side. As she handed her money to the cashier, her child moved away and began to squeeze between the cart and the counter to get a closer look at some shiny decorations next to where I was standing. While his mother was reminding him to stay close, the cashier looked down at the child and said with a harsh voice, “Are you being bad?” Looking embarrassed, his mother noticed that her child appeared a bit disheveled with a small blue mitten clinging to the Velcro on his shoe and his red hat on the floor.

“He must be getting very excited for Christmas,” I said as his mother’s eyes met mine. She smiled timidly and offered, “And tomorrow is his fifth birthday.” “Wow, it is so hard for a little boy to stand still with so many BIG, HAPPY days happening so soon!”, I added. In that moment I was overcome by the holiday spirit of giving. My gift to this mother would not be delivered in a neatly wrapped package but instead by the softness of my face, the warmth of my voice, and the support of my words. My gift was the gift of “Soft Eyes.”

Several years ago, I was given this gift by Stuart Shanker and his Self-Reg® framework. My exposure to Stuart’s wisdom came at a time in my life when I was struggling to make sense of my own child’s behaviour. Allowing myself to wonder if my daughter might be lashing out at me because she was stressed, rather than because she was a defiant teen, allowed me to see a different child. This reframing shifted not only my perspective but also my behaviour. I was able to see that my reactions were not helping her to calm, but instead were fueling an escalation of stress…for both of us. After finding ways to get myself to a calmer state, I crept in slowly and offered her my calm. I engaged my child in recognizing her stressors. Together we acknowledged that there were some sources of her stress that we could not eliminate but that there were others we could at least reduce. Through tears and laughter we forged our way to incorporate the steps of Self-Reg® into our life and soon partnered in sharing this message with others.

Sharing the gift of soft eyes has become an organic part of my practice as a teacher educator and educational consultant. I provide my students with information and resources so they are better prepared to build an individual profile of the children they will be teaching. This allows them to reframe behaviours and make co-regulation their primary classroom management tool. Research I conducted this summer with colleagues found that information that helped pre-service teachers gain a deeper understanding of the possible causes of a child’s behaviour contributed to a change in the way they thought about that child, specifically a child with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (Catalano, Fives, McKeating, & Barnes, 2018).

While working with practicing teachers in early childhood classrooms, I have many opportunities to share the gift of soft eyes as well. Just this week I was facilitating a reflective practice session with several early childhood teachers in a public school district. Two teachers had the same child in their class, one in the morning in an inclusive classroom, and the other in the self-contained afternoon session. The afternoon teacher wanted to talk about a child I will refer to as Ben, a four-year old boy in her class with very rigid behaviours and challenges with transitions. She explained that Ben was only interested in interacting with one other child in the classroom and shared that this was becoming a problem because Ben would become very upset if he could not sit next to his friend. Another teacher spoke up and said that Ben was in her class in the morning and exhibited a similar pattern of behaviour, however, in her class it was a little girl that he gravitated toward. I asked both teachers to explain the “other” child. As they each described quiet children who were gentle in their interactions with Ben, I again found my opportunity to share the gift. Together we began to wonder why Ben might feel most comfortable, even safe, with these children. As we spoke there was a softening of perspectives and a shift from judgement to understanding.

With the approach of a new year, we all have a fresh opportunity to make this same shift. We also have the opportunity to continue studying how we most effectively help others reframe their perceptions of a child’s behaviour. Embracing the gift of “soft eyes” is not only a gift for others, but a loving gift to ourselves because when we become more understanding of those around us we embody a calmness that goes deeper. As we enter 2019, may we all make our world calmer and brighter by sharing the gift of soft eyes.

Catalano, C.G., Fives, H., McKeating, E. & Barnes, N. (Accepted, November 2018). Preservice early childhood teachers’ sense of efficacy for teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, submitted to Division K, Section five of the American Educational Research Association for presentation at the 2019 Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada.

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