Classroom Discipline: Taking Toys

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During one of my more recent workshops we were discussing observation and what to do if there is a conflict in the classroom. “If we don’t know who had a toy first, and two kids are fighting over it,” said a teacher, “its okay to take the toy and put it up, right?”

Why We Shouldn’t Take Toys

It is almost a reflex that we have, as teachers: if children are fighting over a toy, we put the toy up and give the children a chance to cool off, usually saying something like, “If you can’t play with the toy without fighting over it, then you won’t be able to play with it.” The problem with using this method is that most tug-of-wards over toys happen because children don’t know the words to use to express what they want, so they try to take. If we are simply taking the toy away and moving the children to another activity, they aren’t learning the words that they need in order to prevent a tug-of-war from happening again. Children need to learn how to stand up for themselves and say “NO” to another child that is trying to take their work, or even trying to harm them in some way. This teaches assertiveness, a key skill that children need that will enable them to stand up to bullying and other threatening behaviors later in life. The ability to be assertive also boosts self-esteem as children learn how to stand up for themselves, their desires, and their needs.

What We Should Do Instead

When children are involved in a tug-of-war over a toy, we should first try to figure out who had the toy first. Teachers should always try to know who had what in the classroom so that they can easily solve these kinds of issues. Usually when I am doing a workshop, the words “Observation is SO important in the classroom” leave my lips at least once during the workshop. This is a time when observation is so important. It is important that we observe enough to know who has what, because we are better able to help children solve their social problems the more we know about the situation. Once we know who had the toy first, we can coach that child to tell the other child “NO” or “I don’t like it” if they are a younger child (1-3 years old). If they are older, we can teach them to use even more words: “I don’t like it when you take my toy. Please give it back.” Usually, the words are enough for the offender to give back the toy.

Our job during these altercations is not to hand down a sentence or an ultimatum; when we take toys and put them up, that is what we are doing. Our job is to coach the children to the solution. We have to back up the child that had the toy first by telling the offender, “He didn’t like it when you took his toy. You can ask him if you can use it when he is done with it.” This teaches the child the words to use if they want something that someone else has, and teaches him how to respect the rights of the child that has the toy. For younger children, we can simply say, “He is playing with this toy right now. Let’s do _________ until he is done with it.” This beginning step shows the younger child how to respect the rights of others, and helps them ease into an alternative while they are waiting for their turn.

But I Already Told You, I Don’t Know Who Had The Toy!

Okay, you really don’t know who had the toy, and this can be a real problem for teachers of younger children who can’t tell you who had the toy first. One thing that I have found through trying to solve this problem in my own classroom is that the child who had the toy first will be the most upset when it is taken. It is almost akin to the story of the Wisdom of King Solomon. When I worked with younger children and there was a tug-of-war, I would take the toy just to end the tug-of-war. Usually one child would move away and the other child would become more upset. I would give the toy back to the child that was upset.

Why Do You Do This?

Any time you take something away from a child, it triggers a fight-or-flight response. The child does not feel safe any longer and reacts to this (hostile, in their minds) takeover by becoming upset. Different children can manifest this response in different ways, from crying to an all-out tantrum. Because we want children to feel safe and loved at preschool, we need to do anything we can to minimize the fight-or-flight response and foster connections and relationships with the child instead. This is one of the reasons why I say that it is SO important to be observant and know what is going on in the classroom as much as you possibly can. The more you know, the more you can do to help children who are involved in tricky social situations like this.

Do You Have Any Questions About How To Handle Other Classroom Situations?

If you do, just post your questions in the comments section below and I will try to feature them in an upcoming blog post!

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Talking About Stress Management

In my last post I discussed the fight-or-flight response and what happens in your brain and body during the response. These responses are pretty universal, whether you are talking about teachers, children, or the guy next door. Sometimes, no matter who you are, anger and frustration can cause you to slip out of the driver’s seat when it comes to your actions or reactions and end up in the trunk of the car, where you have no control. Te key to staying in the driver’s seat is to utilize stress management tools. These tools are easy to use and can even be taught to children so that they can use them during their own stressful moments. The key to learning how to use stress management tools effectively is to practice using them during calm moments, especially when teaching them to children. Since we have little or no logic or reasoning skills when we are in a fight-or-flight response, trying to teach a child how to manage their stress while they are in the middle of a meltdown will probably produce nothing but more screaming.

In the next few posts I will be discussing several different stress management techniques that I have found useful in the classroom. These techniques range from ones that are incredibly simple to ones that are full of fun and connection.

Fight or Flight

In my last post I talked about the stress response and what happens in the brain during a stressful situation. Today I am going to talk a little more about fight-or-flight and what happens during a fight-or-flight response.

Fight-or-flight is the body’s way of trying to survive through a threat. If the body feels that something is threatening its survival the brain stem sends the message to release several different neurotransmitters, along with adrenaline, that prep the body to either stand and fight the threat or run away from it. The neurotransmitters and adrenaline affect how you perceive what is going on around you:

  • You cannot think clearly or make decisions based on logic.
  • Most of your fine motor muscle control is lost.
  • You develop tunnel vision so that you can easily focus on the threat.
  • Your entire body is focused on simply surviving the threat.

When you find yourself “seeing red,” or when you are so focused on punishing the behavior that you forget about teaching through the behavior, you have entered the brain stem and have very little control over your actions. In children, fight-or-flight presents itself as tantrums, screaming, hitting, biting, or other high-intensity behaviors.

Another way to think about the areas of the brain is to think about a car. When you are using your higher-order thinking skills you are in the drivers seat and you are 100% in control of where you are going and what you are doing. When the stress hits and trigger thoughts begin going through your head you have moved to the back seat of the car. You have a little bit of control of where you are going and what you are doing, because if you reach over the front seat you might be able to steer – a little. Since most of your decisions are based on your emotions when you are in the backseat of the car you have a little control and you are able to make a few decisions based on some sort of logic – the kind of emotional logic that results in impulse buys when shopping at department stores. Once pure anger hits you are in the trunk of the car. You have no more control over where you are going or what you are doing; you are simply along for the ride. You don’t feel safe when you are in the trunk, and you would probably do anything that you could to get out of there.

I think we would all agree that we want to stay in the driver’s seat as much as possible, but how do we accomplish that when a class of children has us feeling threatened throughout the day? Stay tuned for the next post.

The Stress Response

Now that you have a plan of action that you can use whenever a stressful behavior pattern occurs, you need to recognize what causes these trigger thoughts and other stress responses so that you will be better able to utilize productive stress management techniques. While different people react emotionally to stress in different ways, our bodies react to stress very similarly.

When you feel stress or anger your body and your brain perceives that stress as a threat to your safety. Any time you feel threatened, whether it is a physical or emotional threat, your brain shifts from normal, high-level, logical functioning to a response based on pure emotions, and finally to a fight-or-flight response.

Imagine your brain inside your head and place your hand on your forehead. This is where the frontal lobe of your brain is, where all higher-order thinking takes place. Logical thinking and decision making occur here, and this is also where behavioral control (self-regulation) is also located. Now move your hand back to the crown of your head. This is the area of the brain where the limbic system resides. The limbic system is where emotional responses come from; this is where your trigger thoughts originate, as well as those impulse buys at the department store. Now move your hand down to the base of your skull at the back of your head, where the back of your head meets your neck. This is where the brain stem is, which is responsible for all of the functions that the body needs in order to stay alive, including breathing, digestion, sleep patterns, and stress responses. You spend most of your time using your higher-order thinking skills located in the frontal lobe of your brain, but let’s take a moment to explore what happens when you become stressed:

You are happy and the day is going along smoothly. You feel like you are in the zone. Then, your child decides that she wants to do something different from the group. She begins pulling out toys when it is time to line up, running around the room when it is time to lie down, or generally being defiant. At this point you begin to become stressed and trigger thoughts start going through your head. You have moved out of the frontal lobe and into the limbic system. All of your responses at this point become emotional in nature, but we already know that it doesn’t take much to reach the next level:

Fight-or-flight.

In my next post I will explore what happens during fight-or-flight.

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.

Trust and Creativity

So far on our journey to figuring out what makes creativity happen, we have discussed motivation and passion, but there is one aspect of the creative mind that we have not covered yet. It is very hard to be creative in any environment when there is no feelings of trust present. Usually we trust those that we feel safe with. When we do not feel safe, our creative brain shuts down and the part of our brain dedicated to survival takes over.

This part of the brain is dedicated to the fight-or-flight mechanism, and causes us to focus on only what is right in front of us. We learned from the Dan Pink video that creative answers are not right in front of us, but on the periphery.

This is why it is so important to have an atmosphere of trust and consideration – not just in our classroom, but also in our lives. As teachers, it is hard to come up with creative solutions when we feel too stressed or unsafe. Over a year ago my house was broken into and several items were stolen. It took over a year after that incident for me to feel safe enough for my own creative juices to flow, and for me to begin to be able to focus on this blog and my workshops. Our feeling of personal safety is key to being able to focus away from the present and begin focusing on the future, or focusing away from the immediately present to the what-could-be.

Realizing this as personally as I have, it is important to me to provide an environment for children in which they feel safe. There are many elements necessary to create a safe classroom, but the point for now is that this is crucial in order to have a creative classroom. If children feel that they will constantly lose connections or items, or feel a lack of consistency in what is expected of them, they will revert to fight-or-flight mode, which will cut down on their ability to be creative in the classroom.

trust and creativity

Gut Churn and the Creative Process

I had never heard of the 99% conference before – amazing to me, since I own a book that 99U published. It was a great book, too, about how to make creative ideas happen. Apparently, that is what 99U is all about.

Incidentally, it is called the 99% conference because:

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The Brain Pickings article that I am featuring today contains a video from a 99% conference in which Jad Abumrad talks about the beginnings of his unique radio show format and how he and his collaborators came up with the format. In the video, Jad’s collaborator discusses “gut churn”, that feeling in your stomach that you get when you are doing something new that could go amazingly right – or horribly wrong. Jad discusses the biological foundation for “gut churn”, as well as how the feeling is beneficial to the creative process.

I hope you enjoy it.