TJ is a three-year-old who is still in his first week at UCCC. He hides behind his mommy’s legs when she brings him to his class. He cries when she leaves and holds his teddy close all day long. He often cries throughout the day, too. “I see you have tears in your eyes and that you are hugging your teddy very tight,” his teacher comments. “When you are ready there are some fun things today for us to do.”
Later in the day, TJ is sitting at the table with his head resting on his arms. His teacher sits next to him at the table and mirrors his body language. When he sits up, she does the same – it almost becomes a game.
He eventually crawls into her lap and is comforted by her embrace. Echoing a child’s behavior, words, tone of voice, or simply (and non-judgmentally) saying what we see reflected in the child’s eyes is an important tool for teachers to show that they are listening to children. This mirroring process of both spoken and body language has been recently introduced to UCCC faculty as a method for partnering with children, and showing them that we are in tune with their emotional language. When we mirror children’s language, we are listening intentionally to hear not only the words, but the underlying meaning of the words and what is being emphasized by the child.
“I see you smiling” is different than “You look happy”
Does a smile mean a child is happy? Can it mean other things like anxiety, mischief, or fear? Often, we want to be more helpful to children than we should: we try to help assign words to what they are feeling, when we really should wait until a child is in a more peaceful state and help them reflect on what they may have been feeling.
Mirroring can be especially critical for children who are still developing vocabulary and understanding language. Children experience emotions with as much complexity as adults, and it is not always easy for us to label what we are feeling. Borrowing from developmental theorist Carl Rogers, mirroring puts to use the theory of unconditional positive regard, so that a child feels accepted without judgment, which makes it possible for a child to achieve independence and self-direction.
The Science of Mirroring
One of the most important discoveries in neuroscience, mirror neurons, supports what has already been said about mirroring language: there is a biological basis for developing an understanding of the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. Mirroring between mothers and infants has been shown to be essential for humans to developing empathy. When teachers can bring themselves into alignment with the emotions of their children, it will help their relationship grow, which means that children will have a more motivation to learn and a richer early experience.