The circle of love

Maria Aarts, founder and director of Marte Meo, speaking at the Early Childhood Australia National Conference in Darwin, October 2016. Photo courtesy of Early Childhood Australia

I recently had the privilege of attending the Early Childhood Australia (ECA) Conference in Darwin, NSW/ACT IEU Organiser Lisa James writes. The highlight for me was a keynote presentation and workshop by Maria Aarts, founder of Marte Meo.

Marte Meo was developed initially to give parents the skills to form relationships with their children with additional needs. It was first developed for children under psychiatric care and later ‘deprived’ children after a parent of a child with autism noted that her child was far more responsive to Maria than with the parent herself. The mother turned to Maria and said: “I’ve time, love and energy enough but not the information”.

Marte Meo has been successfully implemented in early childhood settings around the world, and Maria Aarts works in conjunction with KU Children’s Services and has worked with the teachers and educators at KU James Cahill Preschool in Sydney to help them become more developmentally focused.

Marte Meo teaches people to recognise and take action during the contact initiative – the moment when a child is trying to make a connection with an adult. This could be as simple as noticing when the child smiles and the adult smiles back. If the child makes eye contact, does the parent or educator see it, support and confirm the child’s initiative?

Maria noticed that some parents did not attempt to communicate with their infants. She turned to one mother and said: “You can speak to your baby” and the mother replied: “About what? When he speaks to me I will speak to him.”

Maria Aarts, Founding Director Marte Meo (centre) with KU Children’s Services CEO Chris Legg (right) and General Manager Early Education Professional Practice Kim Bertino (left). Photo courtesy of Early Childhood Australia

Maria’s new program is called The Golden Gift, which Maria explains is the gift parents can give their child in the first year of life.

Building relationships between siblings is important. Marte Meo helps parents identify the moments that are important opportunities for children to get to know their siblings and this assists them to get along with one another.

Parents and teachers from all over the world send three minute video clips to Maria to analyse. Maria then provides feedback about how to improve the interactions between the adult and child in the video. Another clip is sent three weeks after Maria’s analysis and advice are received about the first clip.

Marte Meo teaches parents to help their child to regulate their feelings. For example, a toddler is placed on the kitchen bench and turns on a tap and looks at his mother. Instead of shutting down the child’s communication initiative by scolding the child or solving the situation herself by turning the tap off, his mother took his hand and turned off the tap with the child’s hand so the child effectively assisted to turn off the tap. A natural reaction can be to step in and take over the situation whenever problems arise but when parents do this they take over the opportunity for a child to learn to solve problems. Maria cited one of the benefits of training children to be independent problem solvers is when they grow into teenagers and they call their parent because they have missed their train, the parent does not take responsibility for fixing this situation but demonstrates they trust the teenager to work it out for themselves: “I’m curious how you are going to solve this”.

I’ve time, love and energy enough but not the information.

Sibling relationships

Parents need to step back to make space for siblings to develop relationships with one another, such as letting a preschool age child to help feed the baby. A video of this scenario was shown at the presentation. The preschooler was filling up the spoon but he put too much on the spoon for the infant. The mother did not take the spoon and feed the baby herself or remove some of the food. Instead, the mother turned to the child and said, “that’s a big spoon for a little mouth, your brother has to open his mouth very wide to fit that spoon in”. The preschooler then removed some food from the spoon and said “a little”, demonstrating that he had understood the need to decrease the amount of food on the spoon for the baby.

It is important to teach children to be happy when something good happens to their siblings or to empathise when their siblings are upset by explaining what is happening for the other child and how the child is feeling about the situation. Marte Meo starts where the families are now, not where they want them to be.

A teacher’s role is to activate not compensate by helping parents to learn to respond to their child’s initiatives when you are not present. Parents may need to be taught to wait attentively, follow what the child does and naming the child’s actions and/or objects the child is using and providing developmentally appropriate verbal instruction before taking action.

Parents may need to be shown how to follow and lead when communicating with their child. The child does something and adult verbalises it (following) and alternately the adult says something and child performs the action (leading).

For children who do not develop language, parents may not be responding to the child’s communication attempts. Some parents do not know what activities are appropriate for their child’s development, some do not sit on the floor and play with their child and still others dominate the play and perform the actions for the child and this removes the ‘play’ element from the activity and makes it about performing ‘correctly’ according to the adult’s perception. Once parents have internalised a picture of themselves as a good parent this is self reinforcing.

Teachers need to read the developmental message behind special behaviour. They need to share the information about how to support the child’s development with the parents, not share the child’s behaviour problems. Parents are not living with a diagnosis, they are living with a child and they need to know how to support their development.

A little girl is playing with a small porcelain tea set. Another child pushes the porcelain tea set off the table into the basket and some of the delicate porcelain items break. This is translated to: “The child is interested in other children and he needs support to participate in play ideas and words to communicate. Give him the words at home as we do at the centre”.

For further information visit the Marte Meo website: .