There Are No Bad Children – Three Tips for Discovering the Intent Behind Children’s Actions

I had to give this blog post some time to marinade in my mind before I wrote it because respect to children is at the heart of everything I do. It is inherent in every move I make, every word I type, every book I read to research topics that I want to teach about. I try to make it every part of every move I make in my classroom. Sometimes I don’t succeed (but no human is ever known for perfection), but I know when I do because I enter into a state of flow that only being in sync with the class as a whole can bring.

I recently gave a workshop about classroom environments. This workshop discusses how to create an environment that will be comfortable and engaging to everyone who is in it for the 8-10 hours a day most teachers and children are there. It takes into account the space as a whole, as well as the materials that are in the space. I love doing this workshop because I love seeing what teachers come up with to make their space more comfortable and engaging.

This night, however, there were a couple of teachers who were stressed about the environment in their classroom, and I’m not referring to the classroom or the materials. These teachers were concerned about the children in their class. I’m not going to get into specifics here because I take a firm stand on confidentiality, not just with children but with teachers as well. Suffice to say that the teachers were concerned about the material that I was teaching them because they felt that no matter what they did, how they changed the environment, what kind of materials they put out for the children, they were going to destroy it.

I had no answers at this workshop. I discussed this class at length with these teachers and came up with nothing, but not for a lack of trying. I discussed stress management techniques, which the teachers said that they were using. But when I tried to get to the heart of the problem – the intent of the children – the answer always came back the same: their intent is to destroy whatever they can get their hands on.

I don’t doubt that some children like to destroy things; disconnecting is one of the schemas that children explore countless times throughout their lives. However, these teachers feel that these children destroy things maliciously, with clear intent on destroying materials that don’t belong to them. And no amount of explaining, questioning, suggesting, or hinting was going to make them feel any differently.

Children feel. We all feel, but children feel much more deeply and much more intensely than adults do. Most of the time they do not have the self-control to handle their emotions and will act out in ways that seem destructive in an effort to gain a sense of control over their lives. Our jobs, as teachers, is to discover what is causing such big emotions in the children we care for. It isn’t safe to have children destroying everything, and it isn’t okay either, but rather than slapping a label on the child (“He’s so bad” or “He’ll destroy everything”), why not take some time to figure out why this child is behaving in this way?

1. Observe – Watch the child throughout the day – his interactions with others will probably be the most important here. If the child comes into the classroom all wound up, observe to try to discover why. Observation is your friend here – if you can see the destructive behavior in the context of their own frustration, it may help you find the root cause.

2. Communicate – Ask the child why they are destroying materials. Find out if they are upset – and if they are upset, find out why. We can’t help children feel safe until we know what it is that is making them feel unsafe, and sometimes we won’t know until we ask. Be sure not to sound judgmental – as if the child were doing anything wrong. If you approach a child as if you were mad or angry, they will either lie to you in defense (so they don’t get in trouble)or not say anything at all.

3. Breathe – Breathing is important, for us and for the child. Do some stress management with the child and breathe with them, especially before you have any kind of conversation with them. Our own stress management is important if we are going to approach the child in a non-judgmental way.

Destructive behaviors can be very frustrating, but with these tips, you should be able to help the child come up with solutions to their own frustrations that will help them be more productive and less destructive.

“I Don’t Believe You”

So today I got a lot of writing done. I am determined to get a book done; I’ve been talking about it long enough. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback on Facebook for the topic of the book, and that is a good thing. I did start writing a book about six months ago, but what I was writing was way too much for me to start out with. This one is a lot simpler, and it seems to be coming together fairly well so far. I’m under no illusions when it comes to how long it will take me to get this book put together. I know it takes awhile, and I’m sure that I’ll learn a lot along the way. I’m always up for a good challenge, and I’ve always wanted to write a book.

While I was on the playground today I was listening to another teacher discussing a situation with a child. I’m not sure what the child actually did, but the teacher asked the child about it and the child explained what happened, and then the unexplainable happened: the teacher told the child “I don’t believe you.” I couldn’t really believe that I had heard that; I can understand not believing every word that comes out of a child’s mouth, especially if the child feels that there is a threat of punishment involved. However, to actually tell a child that you don’t believe them?

Think about it this way: Imagine that you are telling someone that you trust a story about something that happened, and they say that they don’t believe you. How do you feel then? Inconsequential? Like the story didn’t even matter? Like they don’t even trust you? How do you build a relationship on that? Working with children requires that we build relationships with them with mutual trust on both sides. If a child is telling you something untrue, then that means that they don’t trust you with the truth. And if you tell them that you don’t believe them, that isn’t going to repair the trust issues that are present. It is only going to make it worse.

I try really hard to make sure that there aren’t these trust issues in my classroom. I don’t use punishment at all. We talk through things until we figure out what happened and we figure out solutions to problems. I try to approach situations with as little judgment as possible so that children feel safe telling me the truth. Lying comes from fear, usually from fear of punishment. If you take away the fear of punishment then lying stops.

So how do you make sure that children know right from wrong without punishment? That is a question that I always get asked, and I just answered while writing my book today. Maybe my next post will be an excerpt.

Happiness and Flow

I’ve been thinking a lot today about happiness because of a book that I got yesterday from the bookstore. The book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist who has spent years studying creativity. I had bought this book before but it hadn’t really done much for me so I sold it at the local used book store. Lately it has been on my mind, so when I saw it at the bookstore last night I bought this copy. This time it is really captivating my interest, especially since flow is such a powerful thing in my life. Flow is the term used to define the phenomenon of perfect focus – when you are so focused on an activity that time doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except the activity that you are doing. I know from my own personal life that flow is an exhilarating experience, one that I look forward to with anticipation and remember fondly when it is over. It is the feeling that motivates me to keep going when I feel like giving up on a project that I have been working so hard on.

One of the things that I have been trying to do is figure out how to bring the phenomenon of flow into the classroom. Children would greatly benefit from flow, and I feel that they probably experience it more than we do as adults. When we are adults we are busy doing all of those things that are expected of us, and not necessarily those things that we want to do. Experiences that involve flow are experiences that are personally satisfying to us, those activities that we are loathe to stop doing in order to do something else. How many times have children told us that they don’t want to clean up, that they want to keep playing? Is that flow? Do they get so involved in their own activities that time seems to stand still and nothing else is important? Probably. Children may experience flow a lot, especially those that are given the opportunity to choose their own work rather than being told what to do all day.

Maria Montessori developed the Theory of Concentrated Attention when she was teaching because she noticed a similar phenomenon. She noticed that when children were involved in a task that was challenging – but not too challenging – it was almost as if they blocked out the world around them and they were completely consumed by the task that they were working on. Montessori judged all of the materials that she used by this phenomenon: if the material led children to this concentrated attention, then it was kept in the classroom. If it didn’t, then it didn’t stay. I have tried to use this same method to determine what types of materials should be present in the classroom. Creating an atmosphere that is conducive to concentrated attention and flow isn’t necessarily hard, but it means that there will be a lot more loose parts in the classroom and not so many manufactured toys. It means that children have more choice, as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Mihaly’s assertion that creating a life where flow is more present creates feelings of happiness and productivity. I haven’t read all of the book yet; this is simply his assertion in the first chapter. He says that in order for us to feel that our lives are meaningful, we need to feel that we are in control of our lives. But he isn’t talking about the material aspects of life. He is talking about the mental aspects of life – our mindset and how we view our place in the world.

So far it looks like it is going to be a great read, and I hope to share more of my insights as I continue reading the book.

Changing Mindsets Part 3: Observing Classroom Behaviors

In my last two posts I have covered the first five steps that teachers can take to help change their mindset about classroom behaviors. In this post I will focus on the sixth step. These steps are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey.

Step #6: Observe and Understand

The key to changing our mindset about problem behaviors is reframing the intent of the child. For example, if there is a child in your class who constantly hits other children, it is easy to say, “This child is bad,” or “This child just wants to hit for no reason.” Reframing involves observing the child to understand exactly why this child hits. Maybe another child is taking toys from them. Maybe the child feels threatened whenever another child comes near them. It is important to observe so that we can understand as much about what is going on with the child as possible.

When you have a behavioral situation that causes a lot of stress in the classroom, it can be hard to take a step back and simply watch what is going on. Teachers have been conditioned to believe that if there is no punishment happening for bad behavior, then nothing has been done to correct the problem. However, punishing a child for hitting does not teach them why they should not hit, and it does not get to the root of the problem, which is why they are hitting in the first place. Asking yourself these “why” questions can help you begin to reframe the situation and the behavior.

After you have asked yourself why, it is time to find out. The best way to find out why a child behaves a certain way is to watch them and their interactions with others. When observing, it is important to write down what you see so that you can refer back to what you have seen and discover patterns in behavior. Writing down the time that the behavior occurred can also reveal patterns, especially if separate observations are done on separate days. Does the child become more aggressive around lunch time because of the many transitions involved in sitting down to lunch? Or maybe it is because he is tired? Writing down the time while observing behavior can lead to many insights that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Write down as much as possible about the behavior of the child and the children that he/she interacts with. It is okay not to write down every single thing, because at some point you will have to look up to see what is going on in between writing. Through practice you will likely develop your own short-hand, which will make it easier to record more information. When the child exhibits the problem behavior during your observation, you may already have seen why the behavior happened. Be sure to write down that the behavior happened so that you can refer back to it later. It may also be a good idea to allow a co-teacher handle the misbehavior so that you can continue observing the situation. That will make it easier for you to see the progression of behavior after the problem behavior is handled, as well.

Why is this important? We have talked about fight-or flight and what that means. Sometimes teachers can trigger a fight-or-flight response by how they react to a behavior. For example, if our child that has been hitting is hitting because another child has taken a toy from them, and we punish the hitting but do nothing about the toy that was taken away (because our focus is solely on the hitting and not on why the hitting took place) then the child that was hitting will likely continue to stay in fight-or-flight because his stress has actually increased. This may lead to even more aggressive behavior that may seem to be “for no reason,” when the actual reason is because they are still upset about their toy. Situations like this are common in classrooms with two-year-olds or other children who have not developed the verbal skills to articulate what has happened in their social interactions. After observing the child in action, you should be able to determine why their behavior is taking place.

Your action steps for Step Six:

  • Ask yourself why the child is exhibiting the problem behavior.
  • Observe the child to see if you can discover the answer.

In my next post I will discuss using this observation to make a positive connection with the child. To return to Steps Four and Five, click here. To return to the first three steps, click here.

Changing Mindsets Part 2

In the last post, we discussed how important it is to change your mindset when it comes to children’s behaviors. We also worked on three action steps that can help you change your mindset when you become stressed or angry. In this post we will look at two more action steps that will build on the answers that you gave in the previous action steps. These action steps are adapted from the Conscious Discipline program by Dr. Becky Bailey.

  • Step Four: Identify the action that the child does that causes you to feel stress. Does the child:
    • Throw toys?
    • Run around the classroom?
    • Hit other classmates?
    • Bite other students?
    • Some other action?
  • Step Five: Recognize what your actions are when you become upset. What do you feel inclined to do when you are upset? A good place to start is to fill in the blanks in this statement:
    • While upset, my inclination is to punish by ________________ or get the child to feel bad by _______________ or to blame ________________.

In the next post, we will focus on Step Six. To return to the first three steps, click here.

Changing Mindsets

Children are much  more than their behaviors, and it is important for you to develop a process by which you can separate your feelings for the child from your feelings about the child’s behavior. In order to change anything about the environment or how you implement your curriculum, you must first change your mindset about the behaviors that you see in the classroom. It is so easy to begin characterizing children by their behavior: “That one is bad,” “That one never listens.” But the important thing to remember is that children are people, just like you, and you wouldn’t want anyone characterizing you by traits that aren’t you: “She doesn’t listen to anything,” or “She is a bad teacher because she never does ________.” We all do the things that we do for a reason, and just as you wouldn’t want to be characterized by what others perceive as faults, neither does a child.

In the next few posts I will be outlining a series of action steps that you can take in order to begin changing your mindset about a child and his/her behavior. These steps are adapted from the Conscious Discipline program by Dr. Becky Bailey. Today we will work with the first three action steps:

  • Step One: Identify the child in your class that creates the most stress for you.
  • Step Two: Return to the post about trigger thoughts and identify the trigger thoughts that you regularly experience in connection with this child’s behavior.
  • Step Three: Identify the feelings or emotions that you go through during the child’s behavior. A good place to start is the list of emotions in this post.

In the next post, we will work with the next two action steps.

 

 

One Word About Change

In my last post I discussed the Hierarchy of Change and how teachers can use it to see what elements of the classroom they can change. The Hierarchy of Change looks like this:

Hierarchy of Change with Header

Items that are most important for teachers to change are toward the top, and items that are least important are at the bottom. As you can see, the student is listed at the very bottom of the square. This is because not only are they the least important for teachers to change, but it is very hard for anyone to change a human being. As a matter of fact, any time that you try to change anyone, you are essentially applying force to them and exerting your own power over them. This is not the type of situation we want in a classroom, which is why students are listed at the bottom of the square.

I am a firm believer that people can change, and that goes for students as well. However, teachers can’t force or make a student change. Change usually begins when we change or clarify our own perception of a situation. In the example where you spent so much time cooking a special meal only to get angry at your significant other in the end, taking a few moments to find out what was going on with your significant other would have taken away the desire to think any trigger thoughts. You wouldn’t have gotten angry, and you actually would have strengthened your relationship with your significant other through communication rather than tearing it apart through anger. And communicating about their own stress would have changed the demeanor of your significant other, as well. Empathy and communication are powerful relationship tools, and we will be discussing these tools a lot more through future posts.

The Hierarchy of Change

One key to unlocking the secrets of effective classroom management is realizing that there are many pieces of the classroom puzzle that a teacher can change. However, the child is not one of them. The Hierarchy of Change shows different elements of the classroom that teachers can change in order to realize a less stressful classroom environment. The Hierarchy of Change looks like this:

Hierarchy of Change with Header

 

 

The Hierarchy of Change lists items according to their importance. Thus, while it may be easier to change the classroom environment, it is more important to change the teacher’s mindset first. Because teachers can’t change the student, the student is listed at the bottom of the diagram.

So what does it mean to change teacher mindset? In previous posts I have discussed how our brain reacts to stress, and that is something that will be covered more in future posts. One way you can change your mindset is by realizing that there may be more going on with a situation than you can tell at first glance. For instance, if a child is hitting another child, our automatic reaction is to punish the child that is doing the hitting. However, what if the child that he was hitting had taken a toy from him or hurt him first in some way? Changing our mindset means understanding that social situations are complicated in any situation, and in order to teach children how to navigate their own social setting, we have to be willing to get to the bottom of negative social interactions in order to help children repair relationships. In fact, changing your mindset means that you need to shift from a punishment mentality to a teaching mentality when it comes to any situation in the classroom. There are several other ways that you can change your mindset, and these will be covered in future posts.

Changing the environment means making it more engaging and more open to the exploration that children enjoy. Children are naturally curious, and children love moving. One of the ways that we can change the environment is to allow children to satisfy their curiosity more often and allow them the opportunities to move that they need. More will be covered on this in future posts.

Changing how we implement curriculum is probably one of the hardest pieces of this hierarchy to change, especially if you work in a school or childcare center that has a very specifically defined curriculum. However, you should familiarize yourself with the ways in which children learn best and use that knowledge to teach lessons in a way that is engaging, fun, and connects learning to the real world. More will be covered about how you can adapt lessons and make them more engaging and fun in future posts.

 

Our Brains on Stress

In my last post I wrote about classroom stress and the choice that you can make between being calm and being angry in classroom situations. I also wrote about how you should not give away your power to a child. After all,

No one can make you angry without your permission.

Now it is time to examine what goes on in our heads when we are faced with a stressful situation.

In 1996 a research study was conducted about the effects of parental anger. The study revealed that anger causes people to form mistaken beliefs about the actions of the person they are angry at. These mistaken beliefs are called “trigger thoughts,” and for teachers, they prevent us from seeing the underlying causes of children’s behaviors.

The researchers grouped trigger thoughts into three distinct categories:

  • Assumed Intent – when we assign intent to the student’s actions, usually negative. Assumed intent usually means that we feel the child is misbehaving on purpose in order to upset us or another child.
  • Magnification – when our thoughts make the situation seem worse than it actually is.
  • Labeling – when we use negative words to describe the child or their behavior.

Below is a list of trigger thoughts that have been adapted from the 1996 study, as well as from Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline system. See how many of these trigger thoughts you can identify as being part of your thought process when you become angry in classroom situations:

Assumed Intent:

  • You are just doing this to annoy me.
  • You are deliberately defying me.
  • You know this is wrong and you’re doing it anyway.
  • You’re trying to drive me crazy.
  • You’re trying to see how far you can push me.
  • You are tuning me out intentionally
  • You are doing this deliberately to get back at me, hurt me, embarrass me, spite me, etc.

Magnification:

  • I can’t stand this one minute longer.
  • Your behavior is intolerable.
  • You have gone too far this time.
  • You never listen, pay attention, etc.
  • How dare you speak to me like that, look at me like that, etc.
  • You turn everything into a power struggle, lousy time, nightmare, chaos, etc.

Labeling:

  • You are getting out of control.
  • You are manipulating me.
  • You are lazy, malicious, stubborn, disrespectful, ungrateful, willful, selfish, cruel, etc.
  • You don’t care about anyone but yourself.
  • You’re deliberately being mean, cruel, hurtful, a jerk, a smart mouth, etc.

Trigger thoughts are very powerful. They usually enter our heads when we are stressed, and they have the power to transform that stress into powerful negative emotions. Imagine this scene, for example:

You cook a very special dinner for your spouse or significant other. You have spent a lot of time and effort to put this meal together. You proudly set the food in front of him, but he barely acknowledges the work you did or even the taste of the food. You become over-anxious and concerned that your loved one isn’t enjoying the meal, and as the silence continues even after the meal has ended, the trigger thoughts roll through your head:

“He doesn’t care about anything I do.”

“He is so ungrateful and selfish!”

“He purposefully didn’t say anything about all the work I did! Well, I’ll show him!”

And then you begin the silent treatment, when all along your significant other was simply distracted by his own stressful day at work! Rather than stopping and allowing yourself to discover why your significant other was behaving this way, you allowed your trigger thoughts to light a fire under the stress and anxiety you were feeling, and that created a huge explosion of anger. But you forgot one important thing:

No one can make you angry without your permission!

In the next post, we will discuss how to begin changing our mindset.

The Teacher’s Choice

In my last post I talked about the stress that teachers face in the classroom. Most of them face this stress every day, and a lot of teachers do not have adequate support to help them handle the classroom situations that cause them so much stress. I have been a teacher in a preschool classroom for many years; the majority of my years teaching have been spent in classrooms by myself with no extra support.

Any time you find yourself in a stressful classroom situation you have a choice about how you will react to that situation. You can react to the situation in a calm manner or an angry manner; it is ultimately up to you. Or, as Dr. Becky Bailey puts it, “No one can make you angry without your permission.” This may seem easier said than done, but allow me to explain.

When you say that someone makes you do something, you are ultimately saying that this person has control over you – enough control that you would not be able to stop yourself from doing what the other person wanted you to do. When you say that a child is making you angry, you have effectively given away your power to a child.

It is time for you to take your power back. That is why I say that you have a choice. Do you choose to give your power away to a child or do you choose to keep your power for yourself?

In my next post, I will discuss what goes on in our heads during stressful classroom situations.