How Mr. Rogers Pioneered a Movement Towards Social Emotional Intelligence
"Children have very deep feelings just the way parents do, just the way everybody does, and our striving to understand those feelings and to better respond to them is what I feel is the most important task in our world."
Fred Rogers understood it first before any of us cared to or really could. He recounts one unique interaction he had with a child during a scene from his documentary “Won’t you please be my neighbor.” He fearlessly entered a classroom of young children, fit with his bright colored sweater, canvas sneakers and with a smile that only he could style. Unprompted and unsolicited, and unfiltered as a young child would, this boy exclaimed, “My stuffed animal lost his ear in the washing machine.” How would Rogers react to this spontaneous and quite quizzical comment shared by this child? “It was a test”, Rogers would later share reflecting on this incident. “To see if I could fit in and be one of them.”
Rogers empathized and validated this child’s disclosure through purposeful spoken language and subtle yet mindful non-verbal communication. “That must have been really hard he said. It’s hard to lose a part of something important to you.” The child focused on him, changing his expression from that of boisterous anger and frustration to curiosity. Rogers continued, “You know, humans are different. We don’t just lose parts of our bodies like our ears, do we, he asked. Or our nose? The other children started to bubble with excitement and curiosity. “Or our eyes,” he laughed. Rogers had passed the stiff test. Why? Because he engaged with the child through validation, empathy, and a bit of indulgence through simple humor. Rather than diminish the importance of the child’s disclosure, he facilitated and elongated the dialogue surrounding this child’s emotional state. “You know, these types of things don’t happen to humans,” he said. He could speak, understand and interpret the language of the child. In this brief two-minute interaction he demonstrated the nuanced art of conversing with a young child, providing the necessary reassurance, validation, and acute use of humor, all displayed through carefully chosen words and inviting body language.
At the core of it all, Rogers was a pioneer in the field of social-emotional learning. This way of thinking and interacting with children, foreign and perhaps “dangerous” at the time would help inform the best practices of SEL today. Using the platform of television for good and education- to teach values of kindness, empathy, the importance of community- he recognized the danger of television and the corruption and misinformation it could provide while replacing it without something valuable and sustainable. He helped inform us in many aspects of Social Emotional Learning, specifically influencing the DNA that is The Meeting House: fun, friendship, community. A few of his valuable lessons are outlined below: Kindness, Conflict Resolution, Use of Language, Active Listening, Social Awareness, Welcoming Mistakes.
Kindness: At the Meeting House we like to say kindness is contagious. As for Mr. Rogers, he would go as far as to say kindness and love are instrumental and the root of our existence. Being kind means responding to the needs of others. Helping children understand how they can affect people’s feelings by being kind and unkind was a hallmark of his practice. Adults can help children learn that being kind means trying to understand how other people feel through empathy and compassion. Furthermore, he noted that being kind to oneself is something people need to learn early in life, too. Rogers stated, “As caregivers, you have the great opportunity of showing your kindness through the care you give to children each day.” Being kind to oneself, as he suggested, could involve exercising, eating properly, and other ways of taking good care of our bodies.
Conflict Resolution: Rogers used puppets as a vehicle for expressing difficult and unpleasant emotions. He took tragic events that invoked strong feelings of anger, confusion, doubt, and frustration, and translated these feelings into a language that children could understand. Why are puppets such an effective tool for children (and even adults) who have difficulty communicating their emotions? Puppets are another great way to teach people of all ages about feelings. For example, to teach about feeling sad, you can use a puppet that has sad eyes and a teardrop on his cheek. People understand the connections with being sad and crying and this helps kids start to identify with the emotion represented by the puppet. In a sense, the puppet takes the form of the child’s ego and becomes the voice and expression of that child. The puppets can become mirrors for the children and means to activate their imagination, which can have a calming and therapeutic effect on the child.
Use of Language: Rogers was purposeful in the way he addressed children. He used the words “neighbor” and “friend” when referring to the children a sign of warmth and connection. He understands the importance of language and how it affects the engagement with a child. How you address someone both verbally and nonverbally (the use of body language and facial expressions) are essential aspects of social-emotional development.
Active Listening: Rogers once said, “More and more I’ve come to understand that listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another. Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift.” He believed better communication could result from listening more and listening more effectively and mindfully.
Communication Skills: His colleagues, friends, and family members note that to converse with was a truly unique and transcendent experience. Rogers listened with every part of his body. By leaning forward, he showed he was attending to what the speaker was saying. His intent; was to fully capture every word of the speaker, remaining present and mindful. Furthermore, he embraced silence, using it as a strategy to encourage the speaker to continue to share.
Social Awareness: Over the course of thirty-one years and 865 episodes, Rogers would use his Neighborhood to show the world as it should be—a microcosm of kindness where neighbors love and support each other through difficult times of death, divorce, and danger. Fostering growth, building relationships, and establishing community through acceptance were all central to his doctrine. "I like you as you are, exactly and precisely, I think you turned out nicely, and I like you as you are. It was also space where Rogers helped viewers confront their own fear and prejudices, leading them past them in his own non-threatening way. From the beginning, Rogers specifically challenged the nation’s understanding of race through his friendship—both on and off-screen—with Francois Clemmons, the Neighborhood police officer who just happened to be an African-American. Episode 1065, which aired only a few months after Clemmons’ debut, opens in a typical manner with Rogers inviting viewers to be his neighbor; but instead of putting on his iconic cardigan, Rogers talks about how hot the day is and how nice it would be to put his feet in a pool of cold water. He moves to his front yard where he fills a small plastic pool with water and begins to soak his feet. Soon Officer Clemmons drops by for a visit and Mr. Rogers invites him to share the pool with him. Clemmons quickly accepts, rolls up his pant legs of his uniform, and places his very brown feet in the same water as Rogers’ very white feet. Today, this small gesture may seem insignificant, but in 1969, it was considerable. Like public fountains, public transportation, and public schools, the public pool had become a battleground of racial segregation. Under Jim Crow era policy, not only could black and whites not swim at the same time, many pools were entirely off limits to blacks.
Welcoming Mistakes: According to Rogers, "the most important learning is the ability to accept and expect mistakes, and deal with the disappointments that they bring." We learn to welcome mistakes as learning opportunities for growth and reflection. Mister Rogers helps children understand that everyone makes mistakes once in a while, including him. In fact, making mistakes is a good way to learn. There's a visit with concert pianist André Watts and factory visits to see how people make books and erasers. In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe Daniel is worried that he is a "mistake" because he's so tame and shy and unlike other tigers. Children's caregivers play an important role in helping children learn about mistakes, and what they learn from their caregivers will affect how children approach both success and failure in life.
“Won’t You Please Be my Neighbor” ends with Rogers offering various cast members a challenge. He asks various cast members to take a minute in silence to thoughtfully reflect on a significant individual who made a strong impact on their life. I invite you to take this time to pause, take a cleansing breath, and reflect.