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.

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!

What Are They Trying to Say?

Today was a big day in our classroom. We have been incubating eggs for about three weeks, and over the weekend several of the eggs hatched. Today was the day that the children got to meet the chicks.

Incubator with thirty eggs

Incubator with thirty eggs

We had talked to the children about chicks and birds and eggs a little bit, but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in it. After all, when you look at eggs for twenty-one days, they really don’t do much. There isn’t a lot to get excited about. But when they hatch – oh, when they hatch!

We decided to make a project out of it. We had the children draw pictures of what they thought the chicks were going to look like before we brought the chicks in for them to meet. The pictures were very interesting, but even more interesting were the quotes. One of the things that I usually do when I have children draw pictures of learning opportunities is ask them to tell me about their pictures, and I write down what they say. It gives me a different perspective – the children’s perspective – when it comes to where the project should go and what topics we should explore.

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The first chick

I usually don’t take a lot of time to look at the quotes and really check them out, but this time was different. I’m not sure if it was all of the work that we had already put into this budding project, or the fact that this time I really wanted to try to do this right, but I really took the time to notice where each child was coming from and what they were trying to explore through their pictures. It was amazing. Some children were focused on gender and how to tell if the chick was a boy or a girl. Some were focused on how the chick would move or fly around. Some were focused on the different parts of the bird. There were many different areas of focus, and each one was worthy of its own place in the life of our project. It was amazing to slow down and really look at what the children were trying to say.

I’ve said this a lot lately, but it becomes increasingly true every time I do something involving my classroom: slow down and look. Listen. Find out what the children are saying through everything that they do. Everything that children do has purpose and meaning, but sometimes we get so involved in teaching that we don’t slow down and listen to them. What are they trying to tell us? What are they trying to teach us? Today, they taught me that if I just slow down enough, I can hear wonderful things – not just in their words, but in their pictures as well. After all, children do have a hundred languages.

The Flow of the Project

I’ve been doing some form of project work with my classes for the last two or three years. It hasn’t been quite as structured as I’m learning to do project work because I didn’t have as much knowledge about it, but it has been there, based on what I learned through the reading that I did do. As I work in a center that is more focused on providing opportunities for project work as an educational philosophy, I grow to appreciate the flow of the project and of the day. There are times when the teacher has to facilitate a discussion, or plan an activity, or devise an addition to a center to enhance play. And then there are times when the teacher needs to just stand back and watch it all unfold.

I have long been a proponent of observation as a key – THE key – to high-quality teaching. There is no way to know what the class is interested in without observation. There is no way to know what the children are learning from discussions without observing them as they play to see what aspects of the discussion they are carrying with them and using. There is no way to know what direction to take the project without watching observing to see what the children are wondering or what misconceptions they show through their play. There is no way to truly understand the hearts of the children in the classroom without observing them.

Observation is so important, and taking the time to observe actions, words, and interactions is the key to being able to figure out what truly needs to be taught. Academic knowledge is wonderful and it has its place in my classroom, but I like to think of myself as a teacher of life. In order to teach about life, I have to clue myself in to the lives of the children in my care. I can’t do that by standing in front of them spouting out facts and then viewing their play time as a time for me to get some of my busy work done. I am just as involved in their play as they are, but I am noticing, noting, planning, questioning, and documenting. I am finding ways to help their learning come alive. Taking time to be still and let the children show me their lives is an essential part of the flow of the project.

Changing Mindsets Part 4: Take a Step Back and Connect

In my last post  I talked about using observation to discover the reasons why children exhibit problem behaviors. In this post we will discuss making a connection with the child. I understand that it may be hard to connect with a child whose behaviors have been so frustrating and have caused so much tension in the classroom, but this step is vital to changing our mindset about classroom behaviors. The observation process is very helpful in this regard, as it shows the teacher exactly what is happening to trigger the problem behavior. With this information in hand, it is easier to try to make a positive connection with the child because you are able to see that the behavior has a reason behind it. So for Step Seven:

  • Think about your situation with the child. What do you want the child to learn or to do? For example, if the child is hitting other children, you could say, “I want this child to use his words to solve problems instead of hitting,” or “I want this child to put his toys away at clean up time instead of throwing them across the room.”

Now you have reframed the situation. Before you were only focused on the problem behavior, which usually leads to punishment and frustration. Now you are focused on what the child needs to learn, which leads to teaching. That brings us to Step Eight:

  • Based on how you reframed the situation, what can you teach this child that will help them be successful? This can be as simple as, “I can teach this child which words to use in order to solve his social problems,” or “I can teach this child where each toy belongs so that he does not feel so stressed during the clean up transition.”

Up to this point, this problem behavior has caused a lot of anxiety and frustration in the classroom. It is important that you create a plan for staying calm during these situations. This child is watching you during these moments and the calmer you are, the calmer the child will be. The situation may not end as smoothly as you would like, but you will both be calmer. So for Step Nine:

  • Think about your reactions up to this point and write down what you will do differently during the next situation with this child. What can you do to stay calm in the heat of the moment? How can you use this situation to teach rather than punish?

More information will be given about stress-management and calming techniques in a later post.

These action steps are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey. To return to Step Six, click here.  For Steps Four and Five click here. For Steps One, Two and Three click here.

In my next post we will begin discussing the stress response.

Observations for Behavior: Step by Step

In my last post I talked about observing children to discover patterns in behavior. While I outlined why we should observe children and touched on the how. I really didn’t take a lot of time to discuss how important observation is. And for a teacher in early childhood education, observation is extremely important because it allows us to learn more about the children we are trying to teach. We can’t know what interests to base class projects on if we don’t observe children to discover what they are interested in. We don’t have an understanding of what a child can really do until we observe them using a skill in the process of play. And we will have a very limited idea of why a child behaves a certain way until we observe to discover the “why”. Observation is one of the most important tools that educators have in their tool box, but it is one that some educators seem unsure about using. There are several different methods that can be used to observe, and one of the keys is to find a method that works best for you. While my method of observing problem behaviors works well for me, you may have to change or tweak the method a little in order for it to work better for you.

The first thing I do when I am preparing to observe a child for behavioral reasons is to make sure that my classroom is adequately staffed. When observing a child in this context your attention will be completely on him or her, so it is important that there is another teacher available to watch the other children who are present. Sometimes this may not be possible depending on the circumstances; if you work in a daycare home and are the only teacher, just know that while you are observing the child in question, you also have to be very aware of what is going on in the rest of the room.

Next, I ready the materials that I need: a notebook, pen, and watch. Whenever I do an observation for behavior I like to write down the times that everything happens. This way I can see if there are any patterns in time-of-day for the behavior if I have to do multiple observations in order to determine a cause.

After that I take my materials to a spot close too where the child is playing – but not too close! I want to be within earshot, but not close enough that I become a distraction to the play that is going on. While I am watching the child play, I write down anything notable that happens along with the time. I am usually constantly writing, because when I am doing this type of observation I never know what might be important. Something may happen early on in the observation that might set off a chain reaction – it may not be noticeable that the child is upset until much later, but when I backtrack through the observation I can find the original cause of the upset. So my observations look a lot like this:

10:00 – L picks up a block and places it on top of the tower. J asks L if he can play and L tells him “no”. L knocks over the tower.

10:01 – L walks to the science area and picks up a magnifying glass. He takes it to the block center and begins looking at a tree block with the magnifying class.

10:02 – S attempts to take the magnifying glass from L. L says “no” and pushes S away. L then looks at (teacher) and waits.

This scenario may actually happen during the observation. If a child looks to you for guidance, it is important to not get involved in altercations unless the children’s safety is at risk. The reason for this is because you will want to see how the situation plays out until the behavior that you are looking for happens. If L is a biter, it is quite possible that L may try to bite S, but you won’t know that unless you see L moving to bite. In order to figure out what the cause is for any behavior the observer must be that – simply an observer. This can be hard to do when we are so used to reacting to what is going on around us, and if the safety of the children is at risk it is very important to react. In order to find out why L is biting, it may be important for us to see how S reacts to being pushed because that may be what causes the escalation to biting. If L does go for the bite we should stop L before the bite happens, but not until we know it is coming.

These types of observations can be very eye-opening as you discover just what is going on with children. I have found myself surprised by the reasons why some children do things, but at the same time it has caused me to slow down and do a lot more observing overall rather than jumping into a situation without knowing what is going on.

 

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.

Defining My Own Direction

I have been inspired, which is great because school starts here in three weeks. I am beginning to define the direction of my classroom. Is it odd that I want to define a direction three weeks out, before I even have had an opportunity to observe the children in the space to come up with a direction that is in line with their interests?

No. My planning has to do with me. I have specific things that I want the children in my class to learn this year. They need to learn to recognize the letters of the alphabet and how to write them. They need to sharpen their counting and numeral recognition skills. But these are academic skills that every three-year-old begins to learn. There are other areas of knowledge that my students need to learn. And I ask myself these questions in order to prepare:

  • How am I going to teach my children social skills this year? How am I going to help them interact with each other productively?
  • What sort of discipline methods am I going to put into place?
  • How am I going to go about creating invitations to play this year – something that I have always wanted to incorporate, but haven’t had the time to plan or coordinate? And how am I going to plan and coordinate this?
  • What about science activities? How can we incorporate cool science activities that will help these children understand cause and effect and learn more about their world?
  • How can we incorporate music exploration? How can we make music in the classroom more hands-on and more interactive than simply using rhythm sticks or tambourines, or dancing to music that has already been made?

As you can tell from the links, I have more than enough inspiration to work with. I want the children in my class to have a fun, exciting year that will pique their curiosity and inspire them to create on their own. I think we all want that. But the art of teaching (and it really is an art) is to reflect on what we have done in the past and figure out ways to make it better in the future. Even though I have not had a chance to observe the children as a group in the learning environment that we will call home for the next year, I can still plan ways to encourage productivity for our entire classroom experience. So while I continuously encourage planning through observation – and use that skill myself – I also acknowledge that it never hurts to reflect on the classroom as a whole and make changes accordingly.

Building Positive Relationships: Motivation in the Classroom

Do the children in your classroom motivate you? They should. They are full of wonderful ideas, and are curious about everything around them. I look at the children in my classroom and my brain buzzes all day long with ideas of different activities that we can do based on what they are already doing. Sometimes our day goes in an entirely different direction than I had planned on. Actually, that is probably most days.

On the other side of the coin is the child. When the teacher brings their creativity and motivation to what the child is doing, it motivates the child to do more and explore more. It pushes them to new limits. Just as Dan Pink talked about in his TEDTalk, it brings mastery and purpose into the classroom: mastery because children work toward understanding of different concepts related to their lives and interests, and purpose because the teacher gives their exploration more relevance and purpose with their involvement. The type of motivation that is at play between the teacher and the child is cyclical in nature, with the teacher feeding off of the motivation of the child and vice versa.

One of the things that I especially liked about the Sir Ken Robinson talk about Changing Education is pointing out that, when you strip education down to its bare bones it is nothing more than the relationship and interaction between a student and a teacher. When these two motivate each other and feed off of each other, magical things happen in the classroom and a mutual respect is built up between the two. As the teacher sees just what the child is capable of and the child sees that the teacher cares about their ideas and helps them expand on those ideas, a partnership in learning is formed. Children begin to learn about how to learn, and teachers learn to appreciate the little things that go on in the classroom – the things that can motivate them.

Classroom motivation isn’t just about motivating the students. As teachers, we sometimes need a little motivation ourselves. Taking a moment to observe the children and what they are doing or talking about can be just the reminder about why we are motivated to teach that we need.

Motivation, Play, and Observation

As we have seen in the past few posts, one of the keys to motivation is the welling up inside us of a desire to achieve a certain goal. That was the point of the last post, in which I described my frustration with school. In a classroom, the goals can come from the teacher or from the student. It is the job of the teacher to use observation to discover the desires of the students and develop goals to achieve based on those desires.

This morning I have been doing a little more research into emergent curriculum – research that I have been wanting to do for a while but have not really found the time to do. Because this blog has taken the direction that it has – into the realm of creativity, motivation, and interest – concepts of emergent curriculum are highly relevant.

The concept that I want to address today is that of play. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, children really don’t need a lot of motivation to play. They do it automatically. When we observe children during their play, we find that they explore many different concepts and ideas during their play. They explore building, going to the doctor, having a birthday party, going to the movies, a restaurant, or any of the other experiences that have been memorable to them. Our job, as teachers, is to pick out the themes of their play and use those themes to develop activities and lessons that can extend their learning through this play into other areas.

A key point about using play to develop learning activities is to make sure that children have enough time to dive deep into their play. Remember that some key points about allowing children to be creative include time, tools, and tolerance. In the book Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice, Susan Stacey writes:

Emergent curriculum places extremely high value on play as a generator for curriculum. Play provides an opportunity for children’s exploration, problem solving, incubation and development of big ideas, and therefore, learning. It also provides the teacher, as researcher, a prime opportunity to watch and listen carefully in order to generate further understanding of the individual child. All of which means that for children to fully develop their ideas and for the teachers to watch, interact, and write notes, a generous amount of time must be allotted to play.

While children are playing, it is important to write notes about observations that are made and responses that are given as teachers interact to clarify the child’s understanding of what they are doing. This process is talked about more in-depth by Stacey, who gives a few examples of interactions between children and teachers and the way that teachers have used their observations. One key feature about using observations is communication between teachers in the classroom. Teachers should be in sync about the direction they want to take an interest of the children. An example that Stacey gives is of a girl creating a face with eyes made out of buttons. The girl explains that when the buttons are covered with tape, the eyes can’t see. There were several different directions that teachers could have taken this observation, including how the body works, how eyes work, etc. They decided to focus on perspective taking, not just visually, but socially and emotionally as well. The teachers then came up with environment modifications and activities that could be done to extend thinking about perspective taking.

Doing observations and using them to extend ideas such as this are motivating to the teacher and to the student. The teacher gets the opportunity to develop learning activities in the context of what the child is already showing an interest in, which means that the teacher gets the opportunity to think creatively about the direction that the classroom is going. The child is motivated because their own interests and ideas are being used to stimulate learning in the classroom – and they get to play. As teachers, we should all know how motivating it is for children when we become involved in their play. As teachers interact with students, children gather around and play seems to take on a life of its own. Asking children open-ended questions during these times of interaction gives the teacher an unending spring of information with which to plan learning experiences, and keeps the classroom alive.