You know when you’re standing in front of a class full of four-year-olds and you ask, “What do you know about kicks on beam?” and one of them blurts out “MY GRANDMA’S DOG DIED!” thus creating a barrage of ‘my [fill in the blank] died’ stories, unstoppable by even the most seasoned preschool coach?
While comments like this seem totally random to us, your gymnast is experiencing his world through himself first. He was thinking about his grandma’s dog, therefore, everyone should know it, so he shared it. He was not thinking about class, kicks on beam, or why he should be paying attention to you.
This is because he is beautifully, perfectly, right on his developmental stage. He is...egocentric.
Surprise! Preschool aged gymnasts are self-centered. Egocentrism means that the child thinks that everyone else hears, feels, and thinks the exact same way they do. It sounds unkind, but it is just where they are, developmentally. Children ages 2ish to 7ish experience the world through themselves first, and everyone and everything else second.
Egocentrism—the second stage of a child’s development, according to Jean Piaget (head “Old, Dead Guy” of child development theory researchers)—is smack dab in the middle of your preschool classes all day, every day.
Here’s the thing: egocentrism is totally normal and should be expected. In fact, it’s not only normal, but as predictable as losing teeth, imaginative play, or any other preschool developmental stage. And you can’t fight it any more than you should want to fight any of the others. The best thing you can do is embrace it for what it is and what it isn’t.
What Egocentrism Means For Your Preschool Classes
In this stage of development, children begin to associate objects with names. They believe that names are actual part of the object, and if you modify the name, you modify the object. This is why it is a HUGE deal to kids when one friend calls another friend a bad name, the wrong age or not the ‘winner’ (even if they really did win the race.) It matters to the child because it feels real. To adults, it’s not a big deal to be called a name, because we know it’s not true. To kids in their egocentrism stage, being called a name changes who they are to fit the name.
During this stage, children are also not able to consider intention. They are mainly concerned with the final outcome of the activity, not another child’s intentions. For example, if another child breaks their toy, children in the egocentric stage will have difficulty understanding that it was unintentional. In class this may look something like: if you have a bunch of gymnasts on the stairs waiting to get on beam. One falls off and grabs another to help stay on, but they both fall down. The ‘pulled’ child will think his friend intentionally pulled him off of the stairs, even though it was an accident. He will not understand that his friend pulled him off by accident because the friend was trying to keep himself on the stairs.
You may experience a 4-year-old’s egocentrism in the following ways:
You ask your gymnasts to get their circles because you’re ready to move to your next rotation. One child sits on another child’s circle by accident. That gymnast freaks out and yells at the other to get off her circle. That’s egocentrism.
To her, that is HER circle. This child has no clue she is upsetting anyone else in class because of her yelling and doesn’t seem to care. That’s egocentrism, too.
If a child gets upset with another child in class, you can help her see things through another point of view by reminding her of a time when someone yelled at her, then guide her into a new way to solve the problem (i.e., “Say what you want, like ‘can I have my purple square back, please?’”). You may have to give her the exact words to say, and that is all right.
Watch And Understand
Egocentrism isn’t the end of the road for children’s development; it’s simply one of the most formative. Development of social and emotional skills during this stage is an interactive process, meaning that gymnasts are able to have small moments of sympathy when, say, a friend falls down and gets a scrape. They might comfort them by rubbing their back or bringing them a stuffed animal. They might also care less. Neither is right or wrong, but both are appropriate.
Just remember that egocentrism doesn’t make your kids selfish, it just means they’re learning how to see the world through other people’s eyes.
While you probably won’t stop an avalanche of random outbursts [“My fish is named Walter!”], you can understand them when they happen and redirect the gymnast’s attention. Knowing is half the battle, so start to watch, make room for, and respond gently to your gymnast’s egocentric behaviors in class (you’ll find them, I promise.) You might even find that simply having this understanding helps you be more empathetic too.
To deepen your understanding of preschooler’s and why they do what they do, check out the coach training course, Child Development for Preschool Coaches.