As parents, we’ve all had that frustrating moment in public where our toddler begins to scream, kick and yell. And although this can seem like an act of disrespect, it’s developmentally appropriate for young children.
Even so, parents and educators can lay the foundation for children to learn to respect others. The key? Modeling respect for them, says Lynn Louise Wonders, licensed therapist and child development and parenting expert.
“They’re going to do what they see and hear,” Wonders says. “If people are treating them with kindness and respect, they’re going to be kind and respectful.”
Teaching Respect in the Classroom
At Primrose schools, respect for others is emphasized throughout the curriculum and in how teachers interact with children. Molly℠ the cow is the Primrose Friend who teaches children about respect for others through stories, role-play and songs.
Teachers define respect for children in clear terms they can understand:
Respect is treating people the way we want to be treated.
We have to treat each other with respect even though we are different.
When we put our toys away, we are respecting the materials and each other.
Teachers use Primrose’s Balanced Learning® curriculum to create experiences that help children understand that differences are to be celebrated and respected, and that everyone belongs in the community. That’s why each new school year starts with an Alike and Different unit that celebrates all students and their families. This focus on belongingness sets the tone for the year and is woven into subsequent lessons on respect, caring, generosity, honesty and cooperation.
5 Ways to Teach Respect at Home
Wonders offers some research-backed strategies for parents who want to help their children learn to respect people, animals, property and themselves:
1. Model respect for children.
Children will mimic what they see, Wonders says. When they see parents, teachers and other adults acting respectfully, they will do the same. Whether you’re interacting with your spouse, a store clerk or the family dog, act with respect because your child is watching — and because it’s the right thing to do.
2. Don’t confuse respect and fear.
It used to be common thinking that the way to teach respect is to scare children into listening. But child development experts, including Wonders, now know that spanking, yelling and other harsh punishments are counterproductive to developing respectful children.
“If an adult punishes a child in an angry way, the child is learning that a bigger person can hit and yell at a smaller person if they want to,” she says. “That’s not learning respect, it’s learning fear.”
3. Use the vocabulary of respect.
As teachers do in Primrose classrooms, look for opportunities to use words like “respectful” and “disrespectful” to give context to your child’s experiences: We gave our chairs to Grandma and Grandpa so they could rest. That is the respectful thing to do, because we love and care for them.
You can talk to your child about respecting plants, personal space, the environment, and other people’s likes and dislikes, when these topics come up in daily life. Point out examples of respect and disrespect in books, movies and other media your family consumes together.
4. Notice when your children act respectfully.
When you “catch” your child doing the right thing, reinforce the behavior for next time.
“When we notice a child using respectful words and respectful actions, we want to thank them with delight and notice out loud how respectful they are being,” Wonders says.
5. Practice co-regulation for big feelings.
Remember the example at the beginning, about your child screaming, kicking and yelling? It’s human to have an immediate reaction of anger, frustration and hurt. That’s the kind of raw emotion your child was acting from in the first place. Together, you can co-regulate your emotions and practice finding calm. This might mean deep breathing, taking a walk or taking space from each other; work on building a feelings vocabulary together so they know how to express themselves. When adults and children are calm, it’s easier to behave with respect and kindness.
For more on developing positive character traits in children, read:
- Teaching Children Courage, in the Classroom and at Home
- Teaching Children Responsibility: Start Early and Make It Fun
- Raising the Engaged Citizens of Tomorrow
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