Graduate Admissions Blog

Theory and Practice – What Do Vygotsky, Erikson, and Maslow Know About 3 Year Olds in the Bronx?

If New York City is legendarily tough – The Bronx is tougher. There’s a sense of bravado – a strength, pride and a distinguishable bearing wrought from life experience in the Bronx. This character is passed down – it is cultivated in the youngest Bronxites because it provides a vital defense against the struggles of low-income families and neighborhoods throughout the borough. My classroom is vibrant – it is bursting with children harboring big personalities in little bodies. Their speech is often tinged with the particular accent I grew up hearing – very particular and very Bronx.

When I first started working in a classroom, I didn’t fully understand the complexities of early childhood theory and practice – let alone how profoundly these are intertwined. I wondered how great thinkers in the field of human development and early childhood education (like Erik Erikson, Lev Vygotsky and Abraham Maslow among many others), could know anything concrete or valuable about an inner-city child in 2013. My students’ undeniable moxie couldn’t possibly fit into a pre-determined box of behaviors or ideas. When I started Bank Street two years later, the Child Development course was one of the first courses we took – front and center – a cornerstone of the program. I quickly learned that many of these theories I was introduced to applied fittingly – answering a hundred questions, thoughts and hunches I’d mulled over about my students.

Maslow was an eye-opening excursion. His Hierarchy of Needs theory made perfect sense – if a child had a lack of food, warmth, shelter, stability, and freedom from fear – could he or she learn? I knew I as an adult couldn’t. His ideas highlighted some common-sense perceptions and yet, they adjusted and clarified my awareness. Through a crystal lens tinged with cellophane layers of translucent colors, I saw my children’s behaviors as effects of particular causes. Their behaviors took on different meanings – they could be symptoms of experiences I could not see. I became hyper-sensitive to my student’s physiological needs as well as their emotional and academic ones. Sometimes, as early childhood teachers, our roles go far beyond those most frequently tied to conventional teaching. Today, I disperse practices throughout our school day that fulfill many of those fundamental needs – attempting to provide an even ground from which to build from.

Like most theories – Erikson’s Attachment theory is complex and multifaceted. However, one of the principal things that stuck with me is that stability and consistency are essential components of attachment. Unfortunately in our fast lives, work and other engagements often steal away precious time from our children. It is an indelible resource that dissipates unnoticed. Working with parents and caregivers to promote meaningful experiences with their children has become an influential part of my practice. This builds a bridge between home and the classroom to forge a more secure child.

Similarly, Vygotsky taught me that scaffolding my students’ learning was a meaningful way to develop their personal ideology and critical thinking. Understanding the concept of meeting my children where they were in their learning – essentially, utilizing  their existing knowledge, present developmental levels and particular abilities to inform my pedagogical approach became invaluable. It served as a springboard to propel my educational relationship with them, and dive prepared into a year of more development. It honed my practice and truly revolutionized how I saw teaching and learning. The individualization and personal attention that came with this thinking stemming from Vygotsky’s theories allowed my children to flourish at their own pace – thus simultaneously instilling a security to simply be themselves. Working closely this way, there is less stress and there is a freedom to grow which is unattainable without an understanding of providing efficient scaffolding.

It turns out Vygotsky, Erikson, and Maslow knew a whole lot about children in the Bronx – I just needed to make the connections for myself.