When the practice of time-out first made its appearance on the child guidance stage, it was introduced as an alternative to corporeal punishment, the preferred method of the day for helping children see the error of their ways. In this context, the nuance was a huge step forward. Unfortunately, many, parents and teachers alike, have fixated on time-out and the result is a method run amok.
My childhood and teenage years were shaped quite a bit by the fact that my dad was a lawyer and then a judge. Building and presenting a logical and convincing argument was a favorite family pastime. We engaged in (usually) friendly debate the way other families play Scrabble. As my father’s child, I learned the art of pursuing an argument. As a parent and a teacher, I have learned the art of ending one.
Charles Barkley is notorious for saying he is not a role model. While this provided for an interesting campaign, and has the best intentions (implying parents should be a child’s primary role models, not athletes) it’s still a bit flawed. (Sorry, Chuck.) The truth is, any adult in view of a child, is to some degree a role model. I mean, break down the word. A role model is someone who demonstrates how a role is filled. They are modeling behavior. This is contingent upon a child being able to observe you, not upon your willingness or objection to being considered such. Children are watching all around them and picking up cues on how to navigate social situations. They are looking for social behavior to emulate as references for navigating their own social situations.
Have you ever frustrated or angry? I mean really frustrated or angry? Almost beyond words? Doesn’t that just add to the aforementioned frustration? Well, imagine being a child. (It shouldn’t be too hard, I’m pretty sure you were one once.) Young children are bombarded with emotions just as intense as our own – if not more so as they are not tempered with the same reason and justification we can sometimes muster. These little ones feel just as frustrated and angry as we ever could, but have even less of an ability to verbalize it. Too often, that results in some other manifestation or communication of the emotion. This is when we usually see the tantrums, the biting, the hitting, the kicking, etc., etc., etc. How do we as adults usually respond? We swoop in, console the victim and cite the offender, lecturing them about that behavior. We see it as a failure to behave properly, when often, it is a failure to communicate properly.
Teachers and parents of young children are notoriously good problem-solvers. When discontent arises, we swoop in, assess the situation, and set timers, create turn-taking lists, grab another item for sharing, or utilize some other method from our bag of tricks. We are so good at problem solving because we get so much practice! This is all well and good, and at times a skill of survival, but to truly benefit children for the long run, it is ideal to involve them in the problem solving process. It may slow things down a bit, but eventually you will find that you are “swooping in” less and less as the children build their own sets of social problem-solving skills and become more independent.
Sorry about the delay on Positive Guidance Posts! Hopefully the combination of a few topics here will make up for my paucity of posts!
Often what is needed to head off a full-blown melt-down is just a little humor to lighten things up and regain perspective. Let me give you an example. Recently, I had spent a full day washing every dirty article of clothing in our house. A small feat in itself. I hadn’t, however, folded any of it yet. So at the end of the day, I was exhausted, folding laundry on my bed, just trying to get to the bottom of it so I could climb in! Well, my five year-old came in, with body language and a voice that conveyed that he just might try a bit of whining and fit-throwing to get his way as he said, “But I wanted to sit there!” I responded that the bed was “closed”. Then realizing the humor, said, “Get it? The bed is closed with clothes!” He paused for a moment, then his five year-old logic grasped it and his whole demeanor changed. He visibly relaxed, laughed a bit, and then moved to another part of the room to settle in and talk to me about something else.
Humor is an excellent distraction. It lightens the mood and shifts attention, often facilitating either natural or adult-prompted redirection. It’s not always the children who are the ones who need to lighten up. They’re naturals at funny business. In fact, I recently read that, on average, a child laughs 300 times each day, while an adult laughs only 15 times each day. So it’s logical that humor would be a natural tool to use when working with children.
I’m hoping you’ve spent enough time in your life observing water to understand the following analogy (and if you work much with preschoolers, I’m sure that you have). Imagine water running down a slight decline. It’s spreading and gaining speed, and headed right for , say, your favorite book. Destruction is imminent. And so you yell, “Stop! Water, stop! For goodness sake, STOP!” Does it work? Of course not. There’s too much momentum already at play. You try to stop it artificially by creating a dam. That seems to work for a moment, but soon the water rises, until it overflows and heads right for your treasured tome once again. Then you have an idea. A brilliant idea, by the way. You divert the water by digging a quick ditch, taking it in another direction. You redirect the water to a thirsty flower bed and both your book and the flowers are saved. You really are amazing, you know! Now, why did I tell you a random story about water? I hope that will soon be clear!
I want you to imagine now, a child whose behavior is undesirable, or inappropriate, or threatening certain destruction to person, property, or yes, even your favorite book. As I mentioned in last week’s post, it isn’t enough to say “Stop”. We have to describe the behavior we want. That may mean describing appropriate behavior, as we discussed last week. Sometimes, what is required is to redirect the behavior. Just as in the water example, there’s already momentum in the action, there’s already a need the child is trying to fill; the need to jump, the need to climb, the need to color. As we redirect, we move the momentum from an inappropriate or destructive direction into an appropriate, constructive direction. For example, moving from jumping off the tables into jumping off safe structures at the playground; from climbing up the bookshelves to climbing up a step ladder or climbing toy; from coloring on the wall to coloring at an easel.
Have you ever told a child not to do something, only to have them do that very thing one second later? Infuriating, isn’t it? The child, it seems, is being belligerent and willfully disobedient. But things aren’t always as they appear. You see, children are very suggestible. Once they have a mental image of a behavior, they are very likely to try it out. That mental image may come from something they saw on TV, read in a book, or that we have described to them with our words. Our words create a mental picture for them, and we want that picture to be of what they should do, not of what they should not do.
When you hear the word “Reinforcement” in association with child behavior, you probably think about sticker charts and prizes. And you’d be right…..and wrong. Reinforcement is anything that increases and encourages any particular behavior. Just as a seamstress can reinforce a seam, or a general can reinforce the troops, reinforcement makes things stronger. In the case of behavior, reinforcement makes a behavior stronger, more likely to occur, and perhaps even become a habit.