As I mentioned before, we have to let go of the notion that we as adults need to control children’s behavior, and instead put the focus on helping them build their own self-control. There are some things we can control within each situation however. Among them, are the preventative actions we can take before a negative situation arises, as well as the positive reactions we can have to that behavior.
Preventative Actions. When I talk about preventative actions, I am not implying that we need to remove all challenges from the lives of our children. As I’ve mentioned before, it is not our job to keep them from all conflict and disappointment, it is to teach them how to appropriately deal with those situations. If we create a preternaturally utopian situation for our children, where nothing is challenging, they will not build the necessary coping skills for real life.
What I am implying is that a person can only take so much. We’ve all had those days where we feel crushed under a dogpile of “little things”. That threshold for “so much” is even less for our little ones. If we can take care to avoid meltdowns that could be preventable, our children are more likely to have the reserves to deal with other challenges that will inevitably happen.
Meeting Needs. I mentioned in the last post, that a lot of undesired behaviors occur because a child’s need has not been met. It is logical then, that paying attention to meeting those needs will prevent such behaviors. Physical needs are an obvious one. We all make sure our little ones have enough food and rest before any taxing activity. What parent or teacher doesn’t have a stash of snacks somewhere, just in case the natives become restless? Different children may have other needs. For example, thrill seekers may have a need for more rough and tumble play within safe boundaries to fill their need for excitement, in place of other unsafe sources.
Power Grab. The same applies for the need for power. When we build up the child’s stockpile of power and success, she becomes less compelled to take that power forcefully, through aggression or a meltdown. We build a child’s sense of power by giving appropriate choices and responsibilities and providing opportunities for success. Sensory activities and open-ended art activities are both great for building successful experiences as there is no wrong way to participate in these tasks. Working within a child’s ZPD also helps build success and limit undue frustration.
Prepare. We can help a child succeed in any given situation by preparing them ahead of time. We can clearly explain our expectations (“We use a soft voice in the library.”) particularly right before the experience happens. We can also help children who have limited language abilities or social skills by giving them “social scripts” to help them when those specific social situations arise. As I have mentioned before, I am a big believer in teaching social skills directly and then coaching children through authentic social experiences as they arise during play.
Build Relationships. Another proactive step we can take is to build positive relationships with our children based on trust and respect. They need to know that they are loved just for being, not just for being good. When we make the time to give them our attention, they will feel less driven to gain attention through negative means.
Reduce Temptations. Check the child’s surroundings. Have you inadvertently created a temptation? A hot pan of cookies on the counter right next to a stool is just begging for someone to touch it. Markers left out near a blank wall might find a safer home near a stack of paper. We shouldn’t prevent children from ever making a bad choice (in fact, we really couldn’t even if we wanted to) but some temptations are just too much to bear. We shouldn’t set children up for failure.
We can also control how we react to a child’s chosen behavior. Calling it a positive reaction doesn’t mean that we cheerfully approve of a child’s misguided behavior. Rather, it conveys the idea that our reaction should lead to a positive, constructive outcome, such as a teaching moment. Remember that your reaction to an undesired behavior is modeling to that child how to deal with frustration and maintain self-control.
Immediacy. Make your reaction as immediate as possible so that the child can still connect your reaction to his action. If you wait too long, the child will not likely remember what brought on your response.
Find the Calm Together. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that you can not effectively teach, and a child can not effectively learn if either of you is still too upset. It helps to remember that the child’s behavior is not about you. It is about a young child trying to gain self-control. Mistakes are going to happen along the way to learning that skill. Patience comes from understanding.
Taking deep breaths is a great way to calm down. As you show the child how to do it, you will likely find yourself calmer as well. Another method I like to use for a child that needs to calm down is the trick candle. Holding my hand in a fist with my thumb up, I tell the child that I have a candle she needs to blow out. I may wiggle the “flame” a bit, and encourage her to blow harder. With a hard enough blow, the “flame” goes out….only to pop up again and again. This technique helps the child take a few deep breaths and usually gets a laugh as well.
Some children are soothed physical touch, while others need space. Some want to be still while others require movement to work out their feelings. Help each child to find what works for her and talk about that technique so that she can do it on her own when it’s needed in the future.
Constructive Talk. Once you’re both calm, you can explicitly explain what was unacceptable about the child’s behavior and give appropriate alternatives and clear limits. While talking about the behavior, it is important to validate the emotion, in spite of the action. (“It’s OK to feel angry, but it’s not OK to hit people. You can hit this pillow if that makes you feel better.”) Feeling angry or sad or frustrated isn’t wrong. We’ve felt all of those emotions ourselves. To be successful, children just need to learn how to handle those emotions.
Positive Guidance Techniques. Within the topic of actions and reactions, there is a bevy of positive guidance techniques that can be used to meet the specific situation. Perhaps circumstances require a logical consequence or a redirection of behavior. I’ll introduce this well-stocked toolbox of techniques in the next post in this series!
For more on Positive Guidance, click here!
Top photo by GERAS.