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.

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Moving and Stretching for Stress Management

Moving helps increase blood flow to all areas of the body, including the brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, movement increases the production of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that help you feel good. These neurotransmitters can counteract the ones that the brain releases during the fight or flight response and put you back in the driver’s’ seat. Sometimes lowering the stress in the classroom can be as simple as taking the children outside to let them run and play for a while. However, in some child care centers or schools the day can be quite scheduled. Sometimes the weather may not allow for the children to be outside. There are many reasons why children may not be able to go outside. In those situations it may be worth it to try one of these methods instead:

  • Yoga – A lot of people are intimidated by yoga because they have seen pictures of skinny, flexible people bending themselves into impossible poses. Those poses and that stereotype are not the essence of yoga. Yoga is about accepting what you can’t do and focusing on what you can do, no matter who you are. Yoga pairs breathing and movement in such a way that you can’t help but relax. There are several resources available for doing yoga with children, including sets of cards that have pictures of different poses on them (these are the ones I use). You can use the cards as a large group activity, or children can practice with them independently.
  • Simple stretches – Developing a series of simple of stretches can help your class relax and increase blood flow. Touching your toes or doing a windmill are just a couple of examples of effective stretches. Doing exercises that cross the body can also help stimulate both sides of the brain, as well.

Remember, just like breathing exercises, moving and stretching should be performed throughout the day to fight stress build-up. And moving should be fun! Fun releases stress, too, so don’t take yourself too seriously during these exercises! Kids are only kids one time, so give them good memories of stress management and don’t make the process add more stress to the situation.

 

Breathing Techniques for Stress Management

In my last post I discussed why breathing is a wonderful tool to use for stress management. In this post I am going to highlight some breathing techniques that have worked wonderfully with the children in my classrooms. They have been so engaging that the children usually voluntarily perform the techniques on their own when they become stressed. Some of these techniques are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey.

  • S.T.A.R. Breathing – S.T.A.R. stands for Smile, Take a deep breath, And Relax. The technique involves raising your arms up to the sky when you are breathing in and lowering them to your sides as you are breathing out. Pairing the movement to the breathing helps get blood flowing to the brain, as well.
  • Balloon Breathing – This breathing technique is bound to be a classroom favorite. The technique: interlace your fingers on top of your head. As you breathe in, raise your arms like you are inflating a balloon. As you exhale, purse your lips to make a ‘pfffft’ sound, similar to the sound a balloon makes when you let the air out.
  • Smell a Flower, Blow the Petals – Students should imagine that their finger is a flower and pretend to smell it as they inhale. Then, as they exhale, they should pretend that they are blowing the petals of the flower away.
  • Smell a Cookie, Blow the Soup – This technique is similar to ‘Smell a Flower, Blow the Petals’ except that students are pretending to smell a cookie and blow soup instead.

There are a couple of key things to remember when it comes to using breathing for stress management:

  • Encourage children to breathe slowly and be mindful of completely filling their lungs with air. One thing that I have learned to do is ask students to put one hand on their belly so that they can feel their stomach rise and fall with their breath. This will help them think about what happens as they breathe.
  • Sometimes children will try to perform the breathing exercises very quickly. While this is just as fun to do as the breathing techniques described above, there is very little stress management benefit from breathing quickly because the lungs do not fill all the way. One way to get children to slow down is to highlight the contrast to them: “Wow, you were breathing very fast! Now let’s see how slowly we can breathe.”

In my next post I will highlight some stress management techniques that emphasize movement.

 

Using Breathing to Relieve Stress

Breathing is the simplest and easiest stress management tool to use, but using breathing for stress management requires more than the type of breathing that we normally do throughout the day. When we become stressed our breathing becomes shallow. Some people even involuntarily hold their breath when they are under stress. The American Institute of Stress states that “abdominal breathing for 20-30 minutes each day will reduce anxiety and reduce stress. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a sense of calmness.” While we don’t have time to stop everything and practice deep breathing for 20 to 30 minutes every time we run into a stressful situation, stopping long enough to take a couple of deep breaths is enough to move us away from the trunk of the car and toward the driver’s seat.

Because stress tends to build up over time, teachers should stop and breathe throughout the day. Because of this continual build-up of stress, some teachers find it helpful to conduct breathing exercises with the entire class at different periods throughout the day. Breathing before entering into particularly stressful periods of the day or difficult transition times, such as the period around lunch and nap time, can help ease the class through these transitions and create a more pleasant atmosphere for the children and the teachers.

Children are more likely to use breathing techniques that are fun and stimulating. In my next post I will highlight some breathing techniques that have been a big hit in my classroom.

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.