Children inevitably do things we’d really rather they didn’t. They may hit, or bite or say mean things. And the truth of the matter is what they are really doing is trying to get their needs met with the skills and tools they have available to them.
If we want our children (or anyone for that matter) to do better we must teach them how.
We must show them through language and role modeling.
Understanding that people who do things we don’t want them to probably don’t know what we want them to do has been absolutely key in my work as a teacher and my role as a parent.
When we know better we do better.
It couldn’t be more true.
And so I like to teach these two phrases to guide our work with children and to support our growth as mentors when faced with behaviour that is difficult.
Behaviour is language.
Connect before correct.
Let me tell you the story of Carter.
Carter came to my program when I was a new teacher. He was from a troubled home and was put in the program by his well-intentioned auntie. Socio-economically he was not the same as the other children though at barely 4 years old he wouldn’t have cognitively understood that, however he may have felt it.
Carter could have easily been labelled one of the ‘bad’ kids. And I wouldn’t be surprised to found out that he was a difficult child to have in the classroom.
He did not like to listen to his teachers. Or his parents. Or anyone really.
He had a tendency to lash out, yell and generally be defiant.
He could often be found causing trouble amongst otherwise happy children. He would throw dirt at them, say mean things, push, kick, make faces; you name it.
When you were firm with him he always stopped and went to the furthest edge of our boundaries. It often looked like he would run away. He only did once and when I explained to him that he needed to stay within the boundaries he did, always. He was trustworthy in that regard though he definitely made staff uncomfortable.
One on one Carter was sweet, curious, excellent at drawing (something he did with his grandma) and very eager to please. I suspected underneath his hostile exterior was a sweet boy who was hurting and lacked the language and skills to explain and so I began to take a different approach.
I began to make a point of connecting with Carter at the beginning of every class.
I asked him about things I knew he liked, what he had for breakfast, what he was doing the rest of the day, etc.
I worked very hard to reflect the goodness I saw in him back to him.
I would tell him how much I appreciated that he was smart enough to take space when he was feeling upset.
When the other children would tell me he was outside the boundaries I would loudly tell them that I trusted Carter to stay with us and he was fine where he was he just liked to be alone sometimes.
After a few weeks of this we all began to see the sweet side of this ‘bad’ little boy.
He would bring things to the children that he overheard them looking for.
He would make things for them and for me.
He would often be the first to run and help the younger students.
And when I praised him for all of it his smile would beam up at me.
I forgot to mention, Carter was almost entirely non-verbal.
He rarely talked.
He would make very understandable hand gestures, facial expressions, and point.
He definitely could talk, and eventually we began to hear more of his ideas but for many months he scarcely uttered a word.
Of course, that all changed as our relationship grew stronger.
He began to bring me stories to tell. At the beginning of the day he would eagerly tell me about something he was proud of or looking forward to, just like so many other students would.
At the end of the year he gave me the biggest hug and I choked back tears, praying that his kindergarten teacher would see the same sweet hurting boy that I saw.
Carter still tended to be naughty but never for me. He looked to me and wanted to be kind because he knew I saw the kindness in him.
I tell this story because I want you to understand the two phrases above that still guide my work with children.
All behaviour is language.
When children are ‘misbehaving’ they are telling us about what they know how to do.
Their behaviour tells us something they cannot say in words.
It is up to us as the adults and role models to do the work to observe and understand what that behaviour is saying.
The second phrase comes when children are willful and do not listen to the things we are trying to teach them.
Humans who do not feel safe tend to do whatever they can to protect themselves.
Generally a child who is acting out does not feel safe.
We are their safety anchor.
We must reconnect to this child if we want them to be able to learn or practice a new skill.
We must connect before we correct.
One of the simplest and most powerful ways I know how to do this is to acknowledge and narrate.
“I see that you are feeling angry/frustrated/sad because Sarah ______.”
This usually prompts the child to start explaining their story and feelings if I have it wrong, or sadly nod if I am right. If you think you may have misunderstood the situation you can end your narration with, “do I have that right?”
Depending on your connection to the child we can ask if there is anything they need.
“Would you like a hug?” “Do you need to take a minute?” “Can I help you find another bowl/animal/stick/etc?”
Once the child sees you as a helpful (and safe) adult who is attuned to their feelings and needs you can give them the direction they were previously ignoring.
“We do not hit/bite/throw at preschool because it hurts our friends. You can tell Sarah and she will listen because she is a good friend.”
I always throw that last bit in loud enough for ‘Sarah” to hear.
It is a Steiner trick I picked up in a Waldorf school to speak to the goodness in each child as a way of ensuring their compliance with your requests. It’s kind of like saying ‘thank-you’ before a child has done something you asked them.
Obviously if a child is actively hurting someone you must stop them immediately.
I generally put my body between the two children and arms around the offending child.
“I can’t let you hurt Sarah. It is my job to keep her and you safe.”
And then I carry on with the scripts mentioned above.
Honestly taking the time to listen to our children has SO much power. It cannot be understated.
Children who feel heard and understood feel safe.
Children who feel safe are regulated enough to make the more evolved and mature choices we hope they will.
Wishing you all have strong relationships and safety in them.