Beliefs About Children – Creating an Image of Children

Throughout our lifetime, we develop beliefs about the world and who we are. As educators, we also have beliefs about children. These beliefs can come from many different sources. Sometimes thinking about the sources can trigger more thoughts. For example, our own family is a big source of many of our beliefs. If we think about our family, we can easily come up with a huge list of beliefs. Other sources of beliefs can come from past experiences, friends, our culture, the groups we feel part of, the media, and, as funny as it may seem, beliefs created by our own imagination (I call these beliefs urban myths, and it is hard to pinpoint their exact source). Beliefs can be limiting or empowering depending on our perceptions. What is almost always true is that our beliefs drive our experiences, relationships, and the way we approach our work with young children. 

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What is your image of children?

In almost every presentation, workshop, or consulting event, I begin by asking educators to define their image of children. For some reason, the concept of our image of children triggers some of the most complex and challenging conversations. I had educators hold on to their perspective for dear life or negate that they have a prescribed image of children.

Why do I think defining our image of children is important?

Our constructions of childhood act as the foundation for the assumptions we make about children. These assumptions can influence the way teachers and other adults see the children they interact with. The image of children we construct is crucial because it allows us to question the assumptions we make about children and childhood and critically examine how we interact with children. For example, I have seen a trend to call young children in early childhood programs students. It is as we have forgotten the importance of protecting childhood as an essential and foundational part of lifespan. When we see children are students, we shift our expectations and role as educators. The image of a student may have us implement curricula and pedagogical approaches instead of understanding children. Another vital consideration about constructing our image of children as students is that it creates power relationships between adults and children. 

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Our image of children will define how we perceive their behavior.

The images of children we create are products of our adult desires and agendas. In short, children cannot be seen as empty vessels who simply reflect what’s going on around them; Children have knowledge, ideas, interest, and agency that guides their development and learning. They are also not flowers that we water or sponges that absorb everything. Children can discern and make choices. They have inner urges and profound desires to explore and engage their curiosity. 

As educators, we need to be aware of the different images of children they unintentionally and unconsciously have. By reflecting on the various images of children, we have created, we can assess both the restraints and affordances that each image offers. It is crucial that we do not fixate on a particular image of the child and instead consider how that image does not limit the possibilities or experiences available to them. These constructed ideas about children and childhood act as the foundation upon which our practices and philosophies are built, so it is essential to be aware of them.

Some of the typical images of children that often emerge in conversation with educators and families: 

  1. The image of the child as cute: When children do something important to them, it is not uncommon for an adult to say, “Oh it is so cute.” We surround early childhood ecosystems with cartoon-like characters because we think that they are cute and represent children. We evaluate children through a lens of cuteness that diminishes and disrespect their abilities.
  2. The image of children as empty vessels, clean slates, sponges, and flowers we water. First, I do not understand our need to label children or turn them into objects. This image sends the message that children are not capable of making their own choices or having independent ideas. These images are based on the concept that adults must lead children, or they will not be successful. When we hold these images of children, we may not be able to see their emerging curiosity and interests. Instead of trusting them and giving them the freedom to fly, we may restrain their creative impulses and control their process of experimentation and learning.
  3. The image of children as naughty and capable of misbehaving. This is probably the image I struggle with the most because we perceive everything children do as ill-intentioned and purposeful misbehavior. Thus, making us make decisions that lead to behavior management instead of understanding children. We tend to pathologize based on our perception of what is “naughty” and label children as having challenging behaviors that need constant discipline, management, and treatment. 
  4. The image of children as fragile and innocent. This image leads to the idea that we must over-protect children and shelter them from the world’s realities. Even though we must not overexpose children to situations that might be scary, we also must recognize that sheltering can also affect them. When we shelter and protect children from complexity and challenging ideas and topics, we risk ignoring the meaningful questions that engage, stimulate, and challenge children. 

The influence of Theory on our Image of Children

The field of developmental psychology has had a significant impact on how we see children. They are seen as being in stages, with each stage having its own set goal that children must achieve to move on to the next one. However, as our understanding of child development has grown, we see children as unique individuals with their own needs and capacities. While this view of children is more accurate than the previous one, it can still lead us to overlook the importance of socio-cultural context in children’s lives. In education, our perspectives and practices are often informed by developmental psychology. Even though this approach can support our practices positively, we still need to understand that we must reflect critically to make informed decisions.

The social-historical theories have led educators to focus increasingly on society and culture’s impact on children’s learning. When we look at the historical and cultural perspectives, we start to create an image of children as producers and constructors of culture who create rather than replicate existing cultural constructs presented to them. When our image of children acknowledges them as active producers of culture, we value their contribution to the learning ecosystem. 

Reflecting and Transforming our Image of Children. 

Throughout our lifetime, we develop beliefs about the world and who we are. As educators, we also have beliefs about children (our image of children). These beliefs can come from many different sources. Sometimes, thinking about the sources can trigger more thoughts. For example, our own family is a big source of many of our beliefs. If we think about our family, we can easily come up with a massive list of 100 beliefs. Other sources of beliefs can come from past experiences, friends, and our culture. We have also been influenced by the media and societal messages. As funny as this may seem, some beliefs are created in our own imagination (I call these beliefs; urban myths), and it is hard to pinpoint their exact source. Beliefs can be limiting or empowering, depending on our perceptions. What is almost true is that our beliefs drive our experiences, relationships, and how we approach our work with young children.  

The good news is that limiting beliefs can be changed to empowering beliefs. 

The following is a simple reflective exercise that I do when I need to redefine my view of children. 

  1. Think about some of your limiting beliefs about children.
  2. Write five of your limiting beliefs, one each, on five index cards, or use the form below. No one will ever see these cards. Be honest with yourself. Examples of a limiting belief:
    1. Children learn only through teacher-directed activities.  
    2. Children are inexperienced, fragile, and vulnerable and need to be protected and kept safe
    3. Children need time to develop skills that will get them ready for Kindergarten.
    4. Children are so cute and funny. They keep me laughing all the time.
  3. Take the time to read each limiting belief – Reflect on the following.
    1. How each belief limits your interactions with children?
    2. How each belief affects your identity as an educator?
    3. How each belief guides your environment design and planning?
  4. Next, translate each of your beliefs into empowering beliefs. Write each belief on a separate index card. For example, “Children learn through active exploration.”
  5. Now, rip up and throw away your limiting beliefs into the trash can. 
  6. Use the five empowering beliefs and create a work of art that depicts your new thinking and the beliefs you will solidify through the design process. 
  7. Who would like to share one (or more) of their empowering beliefs?
  8. There may be times when it is essential to remind yourself of these empowering beliefs. What can you do to remind yourself of these empowering beliefs even in difficult times?
  9. After sharing your values and beliefs, work together to develop a unified value statement that you will use to guide the design process as we infuse loose parts into your classroom. 
  10. Collaborate on creating a drawing that depicts your typical value.

Example of limiting and empowering beliefs.

Children are fragile and need protectionChildren have strengths and need adults to trust them and guide them
Children need adult-directed activities to learnChildren need adults to create activities that give them control of their learning
Children misbehave to give me a hard timeChildren have mistaken behaviors because they are learning to navigate the world
Children need to be made to shareChildren need to own before they can share. Pushing the concept of sharing is confusing for children
Separating children when they “act out” helps them self-regulateChildren learn to self-regulate in the context of adult relationships. Holding a child’s hand goes further than separating them
Children are sponges and absorb everythingChildren do more than absorb – they are the protagonist of their own learning
Children are empty vessels and need adults o fill themChildren come into the world with knowledge. They are not only ready to learn but they are also wired with neurons that support their learning. 
Adults need to identify children’s deficits in order to help themAdults must identify children’s strengths and guide them to build upon them
Children are lazyChildren are disinterested in the information that does not relate to their interests
Learning ABC and 123s (academic learning) is the most important thing for childrenIntellectual learning (problem-solving, critical thinking, hypothesizing, and planning) is the most important learning for children
Children just want to playChildren play to learn and make sense of the world they live in
Children are naughtyChildren are learning and they need understanding from the
adults in their life

 Use this form to explore your limiting and empowering beliefs. 

Add Your Own Limiting BeliefsReframe Them As Empowering Beliefs

Share with us: 

  1. What is the learning for you as an educator? (e.g., “It is not easy, but I can share my core beliefs).
  2. How did this exploration change the way you look at children?
  3. What understanding have you gained about your view of children?