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.

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In A Reframing State of Mind: The Three Little Pigs

Recently my class began a unit on the Three Little Pigs. I always look forward to talking about this book with young children, because there is so much that you can do with it. I have only picked the book up twice so far, though, and haven’t even gotten through it once. The first time we started to read it, one of the children wanted to build a house. We moved all of the furniture out of the middle of the floor and set to work (you can read about what happened during that experience here). The second time we picked up the book, I stopped reading and started asking the children questions about what was happening in the story, to kind of get a feel for their thoughts and feelings about it. And I was very shocked by what I found out.

“The pigs were being mean and it made the wolf mad!”

“The wolf blew the house down because he didn’t like it when the pigs wouldn’t let him in.”

“The wolf just wanted to come into the house and the pigs weren’t nice because they wouldn’t let him in.”

Of course, being three years old, the kids didn’t have one important piece of information: wolves like to eat pigs. But I was very intrigued by the thought process here, and the connections they had made to reach this conclusion.

See, I am a firm believer that children are mean for a reason. They don’t hit just to hit. Usually their feelings have been hurt in some way; sometimes it is not because of the child that they hurt, but by an outside source such as a teacher. So in my classroom we talk a lot about how our actions affect the people around us. If you take a toy the child isn’t going to like it and is probably going to retaliate. We talk a lot about using language and telling children that they don’t like something instead of hitting them. So the language that they used to talk about how the pigs were treating the wolf helped me to see that they are making a lot of connections between behavior and action.

So what does this have to do with creativity? Creativity is about making these connections, and the children in my classroom who have been able to make these connections have come up with some creative ways to deal with each other socially rather than just having an all out free-for-all. They have begun to learn to work together toward a common goal, such as creating original ideas (like the swimming pool) because they have moved beyond thinking simply about themselves and what they want. They have come to see how their actions affect other people.

Reframing is a powerful tool in this respect. When you practice reframing and teach it as well, it can totally change the dynamics of a classroom environment. It is extremely difficult and time-consuming to implement, but the rewards are totally worth it.

Especially when you see a class of two- and three-year-olds assigning blame to the pigs in The Three Little Pigs!

In A Reframing State of Mind: Finding Leaders

Yes, I got a new idea for a new series, called “In a Reframing State of Mind”. This series is dedicated to looking at children’s behaviors in such a way that we will discover positive intent rather than negative intent. And nine times out of ten, I am sure that they will detail some of my own personal experiences in the classroom. I hope you will enjoy.

Recently I began a new topic of study in my classroom: Houses. The story we are using to facilitate this study is The Three Little Pigs. I began reading the story to the children, but only got halfway through it when one of them suggested that we build a house. So we got up, moved some tables out of the way, and proceeded to build walls for a house.

Building a house with two- and three-year-olds is an interesting process because they haven’t developed the ability to think abstractly. When they think about a house, they visualize the outside of the house. Therefore, most of their building of a house involves the outside of the house. They don’t even think about the inside of a house.

Bear with me here. I am brainstorming as I type because this thought actually never occurred to me before. It occurs to me now because I have wondered how our beautiful house – complete with walls, a bedroom, a kitchen, a front door, and a garage – quickly became a swimming pool. But it makes sense. The square walls totally resemble a swimming pool to a three-year-old mind, especially now that it is June and swimming with families is becoming more frequent.

One child in particular was responsible for this change of direction involving our house building. Granted, it was probably way too early in the house-building process to start discussing rooms and such, but – like most teachers – I had a vision of what I wanted to do with this theme.

Swimming pools was not it. But I let it ride, mostly because I had a parent come to pick up in the middle of the process, and I was discussing with her some of the things I had seen her child do that day. And when I turned back around after the parent left, every child in the room had their shoes off and was wading in the “pool”.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else’s center, but in my center we have a policy that states that shoes must be left on in case we have to leave the building in case of an emergency. In my own space and on my own time, I would not have a problem with the shoes being off as long as we knew who’s shoes and socks were whose and could pair them back up with the appropriate children at the end of the exploration. But I was not in my own space or on my own time, so the long process of putting shoes back on began.

It was actually a pretty sobering experience, because all of the children let me know, with words that I had taught them to use in situations such as this, that they were very mad and did not like it. The child who came up with the idea began to cry, because it was a pool! We don’t wear shoes in the pool! And I totally got it, but rules are rules and we can’t have our shoes off in the classroom.

At the time I was very upset with the child who came up with the idea. At first because it messed up my plan, but when I finally came to terms that swimming in a pool was what we were going to be doing that afternoon, I got over that. But it was harder to get over the fit over the shoes, because this involved rules.

Later, when I got home and was able to reflect on the day, I realized something: this child has consistently shown amazing leadership. The fact that she came up with a plan to dramatize the pool so completely, and got her friends to go along with it when we were intent on building a house, showed leadership. She comes up with games all of the time, or new ways to dramatize ideas. She “bosses” other children constantly, but this can be redirected into constructive feedback and positive coaching. She can be taught how to be a constructive leader by being given leadership responsibilities (appropriate for a three-year-old, of course) that will teach her skills that she needs to be a productive leader. Words that she uses that could be construed as hurtful can be retaught to be constructive so that she learns how to be a leader without being hurtful to others.

I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it before. I had taken so much time being frustrated by her attitude toward others, her use of language toward them, and her disregard for some of the rules of the classroom, that I hadn’t seen how she used her inner creativity and mixed it with her leadership abilities. But these traits only became obvious to me when I took a step back and looked at her in a different context. In the moment, it is sometimes hard for us to see what is right in front of our face, especially when we are so fixated on rules and safety. I thought that I had gotten myself past that by being able to ask myself why I was not allowing a certain behavior in the classroom – and if I wasn’t able to come up with a good enough reason, then allowing the behavior. But that was before some things changed. My intent changed because of outside circumstances. This affected the ability of the children to fully dramatize what they wanted to, the way they wanted to, and get the most out of the experience that they could. It affected their creativity and my sanity. And in the end – as I think back on it now – my little leader’s creativity and leadership may have suffered from it. She isn’t trying to flaunt breaking the rules. She is trying to express her ideas with her friends. And she should be allowed to do that, within reason. It is the “within reason” that I have to discover – what is reasonable? What can I allow? What suggestions can I make that will enhance their game the way that they want to enhance it but not cause a safety issue within the classroom? How can I frame the suggestion in a way that will be acceptable to everyone involved?

How can I allow her to be a leader and still keep everyone safe? That is the question.