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A Place for Everyone: Nurturing Each Child’s Niche

By: Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
The ChildTrauma Academy

"Thomas can climb high, Prudy can dance, Robbie can read, and I am good at painting."
— A 5-year-old lists the special skills of her classmates to her grandmother.

One of the core principles of nature is that diversity brings strength. The strength of our families, communities, and societies comes from our diverse array of interests, skills, and strengths.

Identifying Strengths

Genetics and experience work together in ways that give us each a set of individual preferences and personalities. Some children are timid, some bold. Some like to observe, some are more active. Some children like dinosaurs, some like dolls. Some children can hear something once and remember it while others need many repetitions. To some, music is soothing during quiet time, to others it is distracting. Each child has a unique combination of emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social skills and capacities.

While we often recognize the presence of individual differences in children, it's important to appreciate the value of them. We can teach with individual learning styles in mind and measure and acknowledge a child's progress in all domains.

Educators of young children are challenged by the pressure to focus on academic achievement that filters down into the early childhood classroom. More than any other part of the education system, the early childhood classroom is an ideal setting to help identify and nurture a child's developing skills in all domains.

Supporting Special Skills

A major task of the early childhood teacher is to help a child find and develop his own area of solid competence — a niche. This niche is different for each child. For some children this will be their special skill with clay; for others it will be how fast they can run. When a teacher helps the child feel special and capable in any area, this will serve as a safe home base from which the child can continue learning in all areas.

In some cases, it's easy to identify a child's special skills. Children prefer to do those things that they can most easily master and in which they can most readily demonstrate competence. When you recognize a child mastering something in his niche, reward the child with praise and attention. This praise will have two important effects. First, it will reinforce the child and make him feel valued. Second, by openly acknowledging each child's unique strengths, you will help all the children in the classroom begin to appreciate diversity in interests and skill.

If a child can learn to appreciate the contributions of others and learn to recognize that our differences should be treasured and not feared, he will have an easier time discovering his own place, passion, and value.

Teacher Tips

  • Resist pressure from those who too quickly push "academic achievement" at this age. Help parents understand the need for healthy emotional and social development in order for cognitive development to be optimal. Search for articles and/or materials that help you make this point and share them with parents.
  • Reinforce the curiosity, focus, and dedication children exhibit when following their interests. The good citizen in the class should feel as valued as the good reader and the good athlete. You can do this by working with the class to create a list of strengths. Encourage children to work in teams, identifying their own strengths, as well as those of their partners, from the list. Later, review the exercise with children, reinforcing their strengths and possibly adding others to their lists.
  • Use children's primary interests to expand their skills. For example, if a child likes sports but shows little interest in art, music, reading or math, introduce him to books, music, and paintings about sports.