When you hear the phrase “acts of courage,” you might think of the heroism of first responders, humanitarian workers, or doctors and nurses on the front lines. But courage doesn’t have to be quite so big — even young children can practice it regularly.
And they do: Talking to a new friend on the playground requires courage. So does trying a new vegetable or riding a bike for the first time. Jumping in the pool, even into the arms of a trusted adult, calls for courage.
As parents and educators, we want our children to grow into confident adults who are willing to take difficult but worthwhile action. That’s why it’s important to offer children opportunities to practice courage, says Lynn Louise Wonders, a licensed therapist and early childhood development and parenting expert.
“We want to create experiences where the child feels the fear and, with appropriate support, does the thing they are fearful of doing,” she says. “They develop an inner sense of ‘I can do hard things,’ and that helps them build self-esteem, confidence and more courage — maybe even a sense of adventure.”
Read on for how we foster courage in Primrose classrooms and how you can do the same at home.
Courage in the Classroom at Primrose Schools
Courage is an abstract concept and children 5 and under are concrete thinkers, Wonders says, so it’s important to bring the trait to life through examples, metaphors and pretend play.
Enter Percy® the rooster, the Primrose Friend who epitomizes courage. The Primrose Friends are puppets used daily in Primrose classrooms to teach positive character traits.
Teachers read from a Harmony & Heart® book about Percy: “Lead with heart, day and night. Stand up tall and do what’s right.” If a child is struggling to find their courage, teachers can pull out Percy to “talk” about how they’re feeling and how to be brave.
Primrose’s Balanced Learning® curriculum includes lessons about different kinds of fear, such as the fear of doing something wrong or the fear of being left out, and helps children understand that fear is natural and can be overcome, says Dr. Maria Shaheen, senior director of early childhood education for Primrose Schools®.
Special attention is given to the importance of doing the right thing, even when it’s difficult. Children learn to speak up if they see someone treated unfairly.
“Social courage is really tough,” Shaheen says. “Even adults don’t always step in when they see something wrong. That’s why it’s so important to impart these values early.”
Older children learn about courageous people in history, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and hear stories of how they became courageous.
How Families Can Build Courage at Home
Children need a strong, stable foundation from their families that gives them the confidence to try new things and even fail — sometimes repeatedly.
“Children can only learn at a higher level when they feel safe and secure. That’s how they develop bravery, courage and trust,” Shaheen says.
Children rely on adults to help them self-regulate when they are anxious or fearful, Wonders adds. That means naming the emotion with compassion — “I see that you are feeling a little nervous, which makes sense because you’re trying something new” — and then offering gentle encouragement: “I believe in you. I know this is hard, but you can do this. I’m here to make sure you are safe.”
Of course, if the child refuses to do something, it’s not a good idea to force them. That causes anxiety and distrust, Wonders says. At the same time, try to resist the urge to rescue your child from any uncomfortable situation, as tempting as that can be.
“You want your child to feel a little bit of discomfort sometimes, a little bit of fear, and know that they’re still safe and they can handle it,” Wonders says.
Parents can model courage by talking about their own fears in an age-appropriate way. For example, a dad who is nervous about speaking in front of colleagues could share those feelings with his child. Then, the dad could tell his child how it felt to be brave and why he’s glad he gave the presentation.
It’s good for children to know that even their parents must practice courage, and they can help adults be brave, too.
“Children 5 and under are very empathetic,” Wonders says. “They have the capacity to recognize scared or sad feelings and they are naturally very loving and nurturing.”
For more on developing positive character traits in children, check out:
- 3 Ways Music Teaches Children Courage
- Fostering Positive Character Traits with the Primrose Friends
- Teaching Children Responsibility: Start Early and Make It Fun
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