“Ellie was very shy and withdrawn for a five-year-old. She followed directions well so I didn’t have much reason to get to know her at first. Squeaky wheels get the grease, especially early on.
It probably took me three months to get her comfortable enough to have a conversation with me. I didn’t get the sense that she felt safe expressing herself around adults. My impression was that her parents were very strict and too busy to interact much. She acted like a little adult, really. No baby talk colored perfectly within the lines and even cleaned up the other kids’ messes instead of playing with them.
She didn’t smile or chatter. If there was no work to do, she sat quietly.
Ellie became my constant shadow the moment I started paying attention to her. I’d try to include her in other children’s games, but she’d leave the moment I stepped back to let someone else lead the game. When I talked to her preschool teachers, they said that Ellie had done the same thing then and just to let her be. At least she wasn’t throwing tantrums or crying for mom like the other kids did. She rarely cried even if she got hurt.
I often complimented Ellie in front of her parents when they picked her up, as I did for every child, but they didn’t acknowledge her achievements. They just gathered her things and left, Ellie trailing obediently behind. I’m not saying they were bad parents, just distant and not used to being affectionate. Each family is different.
So I was shocked when Ellie one day whispered, ‘I love you, Miss McKayla.’
And then immediately ducked her head. I froze for a second. I was repeatedly told that I was supposed to keep a professional distance from the kids. I was their daycare person, not a family member, or even a real teacher. This wasn’t a slip, like calling me ‘mom’, but an intentional thing. It meant a lot for her to say that since it wasn’t something her family said. Was I crossing a line if I told her that I loved her?
But how could I not affirm that she was expressing love? Of course, I loved her. I loved all the kids dearly.
So I replied, ‘I love you, too, Ellie.’
And that became our ritual every time I saw her. She’d quietly say I love you and I’d say it back.
Somehow, that made her more confident. She started playing with the other children. I no longer had a shadow, but that was fine because Ellie was trying new things and absolutely loved it.
She graduated kindergarten and moved up to the first-grade class in another building. As far as I could see, she thrived there. Her new teachers always spoke highly of her.
I was only a teenager, so I didn’t have an understanding of child development that might’ve helped me make sense of the change. Now, I’d guess that I served as a secure attachment base for Ellie because her other attachment figures were ambivalent or less responsive. Or she just needed someone to let her know it was OK to play like a kid.
Either way, I got to see a child learn to feel safe. It reminded me that it is important to teach that alongside all the hard skills and information we teach in schools.
Nowadays, I work with more teenagers than kindergarteners. Whenever I have to help a student or client to trust and respect me, I think of them as a little like Ellie. They all come in with different experiences of authority figures, and I might have to adjust my behavior towards them before they are ready to adjust their own behavior.
The vast majority of people who need love won’t ask for it, so I try to look for what they need regardless. Not all people need to be told ‘I love you’, but they all need to be shown that they are safe and valued.”