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.

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.

Forming Relationships With Children

In my last two posts (here and here) I have been contemplating forming relationships with children and why it is important. Today I want to talk about how to form those relationships with children.

It all started when I went crazy with planning activities for children on the night after my first day at my new job. I felt crazy doing it, and when I talked to the director about my wild night of planning, she told me that I need to slow down and concentrate on forming relationships with the children. As I began to reflect on why relationships are important, I realized that relationships are formed through doing things with others.

Think about it. When we want to begin a new relationship with someone, we begin doing things with them. We try eating out together to discover what we have in common when it comes to our tastes for food. We do other activities together to discover what we have in common as far as our interests go. And we talk to each other. A lot.

As I was thinking about the processes that we go through to begin new relationships, I realized that I wasn’t too far off the mark. Sure, I didn’t know  what the children are interested in, but I was creating a foundation for finding out. I was making a plan for activities that we could do together to find out more about each other. I didn’t put any of the plan in motion, but I have had several opportunities to find out what some of the children like, and have been able to base the beginning of a relationship on that. For example, gardening is a big part of the school community where I work now, and I have found out which children are interested in gardening and which aren’t. I have even done some gardening with some of them. I have dug up grub worms with some of the children, and we learned more about the life cycle of a Japanese beetle through this activity. Some of the children are wildly interested in airplanes, so we have done a couple of small activities having to do with airplanes. The lead teacher has given me the go-ahead to try to plan a transportation project for the beginning of the year. I have found that a few of the boys are passionate about superheroes, and have already seen some of the negative effects of that passion.

The children and I have even worked on communication. I have talked to the children a lot about their interests, their families, and school life. But we have all practiced communication that helps to heal broken relationships and repair damage done by our actions. These are important lessons that all children should learn, because the skills needed to communicate through relationship issues is a life skill that all people need. Letting people know when what they are doing hurts in some way, and being able to empathize, apologize, and make the situation better is important to every relationship that we have in our life. As teachers, it is important that we are not only teaching these skills to children, but using them ourselves throughout the day as we interact with them. Through these interactions trust is built and relationships grow. Children come to see teachers as not just a disciplinarian or someone who is there to teach them things, but as someone they can talk to and share ideas with, who will take their ideas seriously and help them grow those ideas into something meaningful and fun.

That is what the teacher-student relationship is all about.

The Key to Relationships

In my last post I discussed how important it is to form relationships with children when involved in caring for them. It is highly important. It is so important that I spent the better part of this past week reflecting on why it is important and how teachers go about forming relationships with students.

Why Relationships Are Important

Do you remember any of the teachers that you had when you were young? I only remember a handful of my own vividly. I remember my sixth grade teacher because she used to sing “Que Sera Sera” to me (my name is Sarah). I loved it when she did that. It was one of the techniques that she used to build a relationship with me. She also made learning interesting and fun, taking us outdoors for classes and making learning more hands-on than a lot of the other teachers I had did. In fact, I remember my fifth grade teacher for the same reasons – he made our learning very hands on, and I remember a lot of the experiences that I had in that class. But the relationships that we built made me feel safe with these teachers. I felt like I was in a secure place where I was valued.

Have you ever felt like you weren’t valued? Have you felt like that in a place that you spent the majority of your day? That feeling has the power to physically and emotionally drain people. It causes them to lose the enthusiasm for learning and work and to spend all day looking at the clock, waiting to go home. I read an article just last night that said that if a person has a friend at their place of work they feel more satisfied and happy in their work environment. Most children that attend childcare centers are there as long as, if not longer, than their parents are at work. This makes it a full-time job for children. In order to ensure that they will be happy and satisfied with their experiences in childcare, it is important for them to feel like they have a friend or a secure connection with someone.

That is where teachers come in.

A lot of children do have friends in the early childhood setting, but they are still learning how to get along with children and how to communicate with them. These friendships can be rocky and change from minute to minute, depending on the situations that the children find themselves in. Children need a connection that is more stable, one that they can rely on to be constant through the ups and downs of their days in childcare. When we form relationships with children we provide them this constant connection, even as we are guiding behavior and teaching social skills. The connections that we build with children give them a reason to want to come back to school day after day, and when children want to come back to school it decreases the daily stress of drop-off for both the child and the parent. That is a win for everyone.

In my next post I will talk about how teachers go about forming relationships with students.