Supporting Children’s Social and Emotional Development
Getting along with others is a key skill of the toddler and preschool years. How we teachers interact with children and guide their behavior has a tremendous effect on their happiness and learning.
What can the very best teachers tell us about classroom management and child guidance? In this unit, you will find that managing children's behavior starts with building good relationships and has little to do with being in control.
This unit includes two videos. Click on the picture at left to launch the first video.
This video runs 42 minutes. It should open automatically. Make sure your sound is unmuted. You may stop and start the video or replay it as much as you like.
Then... click on the second picture at left to launch the second video.
This video runs 56 minutes. It should open automatically. Make sure your sound is unmuted. You may stop and start the video or replay it as much as you like.
After you have watched both videos, complete each of the four activities below and email them to us as directed.
A summary of both videos appears following the required activities, to help you remember key points from the videos.
Building Secure Relationships
What you say and how you say it matters very much. Studies have demonstrated that children are more confident and learn more when they hear "encouraging speech" instead of "discouraging speech." But children we think of as "challenging" hear seven discouraging comments for every 10 comments they hear. And - this will surprise you - even the "good kids" hear discouraging comments four times out of 10.
A recent study from UCLA found that the average one-year-old hears the word "No" more than 400 times a day!
That's a whole lot of negativity. That's a whole lot of repression and put-downs. Yet we know that children who believe they are capable and respected learn best.
How can you improve your communication skills so the children in your care thrive with positive interactions? There are two things you must do: practice positive communication and engage in active listening.
Practice Positive Communication
Did you ever meet someone who instantly made you feel comfortable, as if the person were not a new acquaintance but an old friend? It's likely that person used communication skills to make you feel welcome and at ease. Either she had learned them and used these skills with the explicit intention of making friendly connections or she just naturally is the sort of warm, open person who communicates easily.
At the same time, you might have met someone who instantly communicated that they didn't like you and didn't want to talk to you, before either of you ever said a word.
Everyone unconsciously picks up on communication cues but small children pick them up very quickly. They don't understand what's being said much of the time, so they learn to interpret how things are said. Polishing your communication skills will make you a better teacher and caregiver.
Masters at non-verbal communication welcome others by smiling with their eyes (not just with
mouths) and making eye contact, getting down to a child's eye level, if necessary. They use open body language, which is relaxed, with open arms and loose fingers and hands. They are careful to avoid crossing their arms in front of them, pointing, or standing in a way that looks intimidating.
Great communicators say something and wait for a response. They want to begin a conversation, instead of a lecture. Great communicators listen to the other person (more on that in a bit). Great communicators use positive communication skills and active listening.
More Tricks of Positive Communication
Positive communication has the objective of persuading cooperation, not demanding it. When teachers use positive communication techniques they send the message that the child is a worthwhile person. To do that...
- Positive communicators offer opinions or suggestions instead of giving orders. They preserve the listener's sense of autonomy by making cooperation something the listener gives freely.
- They treat children with respect. They don't call them names or say what they did was "dumb." They don't use sarcasm.
- Positive communicators describe consequences as problems that might occur but they don't make threats. They say something like, "If you leave your jacket on the floor, someone will step on it and get it dirty," instead of "Pick up your jacket or I'll throw it in the trash."
- Positive communicators accept the answers they get. Sometimes teachers who are trying to be positive ask questions ("What do you think the boy in the story is feeling?") but they have one right answer in mind and don't accept the answers they are given. It's as if they want children to guess what the teacher is thinking. When positive communicators get an answer they don't expect, they express their genuine puzzlement: "Really? Tell me more about that..."
- Positive communicators are genuine and transparent when they talk. There's no hidden agenda or attempt to manipulate children into saying or doing what the teacher wants.
Notice communication skills in someone else in activity 8.1.
Of course, practicing positive communication takes more than sensitive speaking. It takes sensitive listening too.
This is not always easy when the speaker is a young child. Toddlers, preschoolers and even school-age kids sometimes take a long time to get to the point. It's tempting to finish their sentences for them, to interrupt them, and to try to hurry them along. Obviously, this is rude. And just as obviously, it doesn't help children learn to speak. In fact, it can make them clam up.
Helping children become masters of language is one of your key tasks as an early childhood educator. You must take the time to let children practice their language skills. Active Listening can help you.
Pay attention. You know from personal experience how annoying it is to try to talk to someone who is clearly not giving you his full attention. So when you listen to a child, stop all else. Look at the child and encourage him with open body language. Get down to his level if you need to, to make eye contact.
Use encouragement. When he says, "You know what?" counter with "Tell me what." Use encouraging prompts like, "Tell me more" and "What happened next?" If the child starts to wander, you can help him stay on track - this is teaching a key language skill - but be careful to avoid signalling impatience or annoyance. Remember, if you want a child to learn to be a good listener (and what teacher doesn't?), you must model polite listening yourself.
Restate. One way we all know that our listener has understood us is when we hear our listener repeat back in his own words what we just said. So do that when you listen to a child. Say what you heard the speaker say, in your own words. This is especially important when a child comes to you with a complaint. The child needs to know his complaint was received.
Reflect feelings. Say what you believe the speaker feels. Say, "You're upset about that" or "That was a scary experience," or whatever. Many times the story or complaint is not so important as a listener's recognition for how it made us feel. Consider when you call up a customer service department - if the agent says, "Oh, dear. That must have been frustrating for you," you feel much more "heard" than if the agent just says, "I can fix that for you."
The good news is that good communication is not difficult, though it might mean you have to break some old habits. And, even better, you can practice on everyone you meet!
Every early childhood teacher is busy and it's not easy being a good listener to 10 or 20 children at once. But there are some pitfalls you want to be certain to avoid.
We've already talked about some of these: you want to avoid interrupting a child, hurrying him along, and finishing his sentences for him. All of these inhibit talking and talking is one thing you most want to encourage.
In addition, do avoid correcting children's speech. Small children make grammatical errors, of course. They also make errors of pronunciation. These can persist into the primary grades. Your role is to model good grammar and good pronunciation, but not to correct children while they are trying to tell you something. Not only can this make a child lose her train of thought but it also can lead to speech problems like stuttering.
Listen to the child in his home language. Do not insist that a small child use English. It is up to you to understand him as best you can in his home language. Be respectful of him, as you would be to a new friend you just made, just arrived from another country. Again, your purpose is to encourage language, not to discourage it.
It will come as no surprise to you that positive communication and active listening are the primary elements in good classroom management. You will have fewer behavior problems and you'll be better able to resolve the behavior problems you have, when you use good communication techniques.
A Word About Rules
Sometimes adults believe their primary responsibility is to help children learn rules. Rules help children understand what is expected of them, especially school-age children. But developing the self-control to apply rules takes time. You will have more success and feel better about your work if you concentrate on helping children develop more self-control than if you concentrate on making them follow the rules.
All children need to know that an adult is aware of them and will step in and help when they lose control. Stopping off-track behavior and listening to the upset are both necessary so that children have a chance to learn from their mistakes. It’s easy to forget that rules have no value in themselves. What does have value is people's feelings, including the feelings of children who are behaving badly right now.
Few rules, focused on positive behavior, are all you need:
- We keep ourselves safe.
- We keep each other safe.
- We keep our things safe.
We all want well-behaved children. But some teachers (and other adults) seem to believe that good behavior is achieved by exerting control. They rely oftentimes on punishment to make their points, acting like two-year-olds themselves in their quickness to hurt by hitting, shaming or threatening children.
There is a better way. That better way is contained in the word "guidance," which implies teaching, shaping, and redirecting behavior to develop children's understanding of acceptable ways of getting along.
Let's talk about guidance. But we'll begin with the young children themselves. As we saw earlier, children's abilities and capacities develop over time. We can work with those, but we can't ignore them.
The Limits of Development
Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is a cornerstone of early childhood education and care. It refers to the notion that what we do with and for children depends on what they are ready to receive. It is obvious that we cannot teach an infant to ride a bicycle but it's not obvious to everyone that we cannot teach an infant to read (another skill that is "ready" at about the same time as the skill of bicycle-riding). So while educators might understand DAP, they sometimes forget it, in their eagerness to hurry children along to a more advanced stage.
This impulse to hurry children beyond their capacity to achieve happens also in the area of discipline. Too often we forget how little children are able to understand with regards to their behavior and others' needs. We try to impose rules that require children to behave at adult-like levels and which, of course, have little chance of being followed by toddlers and preschoolers.
In addition, many adults lump all children into the same "Kid" box, when we all know that children have different temperaments and inclinations from Day One. There are fussy babies who need care in one way and reserved, shy babies who need care in another way. Temperament persists, so that lively, impulsive four-year-olds are unlikely to behave like their more inhibited, compliant classmates. We don't expect every adult to behave the same way, but teachers sometimes seem to have that expectation for children.
Typical Behavior Patterns By Age
So, with the understanding that every child is different, what sorts of behaviors are typical for children at various ages? Erik Erikson says that each age is linked to an overall accomplishment that contributes to adult personality. The target accomplishment at each age is presented in the table below.
Arnold Gesell is another leading thinker in this area. Gesell not only describes the sorts of things children can do at various ages but he proposes that behavior is a matter of two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back. Gesell says that behavior proceeds in a spiral: progress is followed by a consolidation stage that looks like regression. This idea helps to explain why often it seems that children move backwards as much as they move ahead.
Find out more about Gesell's spiral development and what behaviors are typical at different ages by reading the handouts among the Additional Resources above.
Behavior and the Prepared Environment
As we mentioned in Unit Four, how an early childhood classroom is organized determines how children behave within it. Rooms with adequate space for the number of children within it, with easy access to equipment and materials, and with an impression of organization and calm help children find good things to do and get along with each other.
We all respond to our surroundings. Making certain your classroom supports on-task behavior and limits dangerous, rowdy activities is a good first step in your plan of behavior guidance.
It's important to realize that some children are more sensitive than others to clutter, noise, artificial light, and cramped conditions. If your youngsters are especially lively or if some have been diagnosed with attention or sensory issues, it might help to simplify room decorations and dampen sounds.
Your Automatic Tendencies
Adults guide children's behavior by keeping the limits of development in mind and by setting up an environment that supports good feelings and self-control. But what adults do with children and say to them are important too. Here's what you need to know.
We all have a default style of interaction with children that is based in how we ourselves were raised and also in our attitudes towards control. Some of us are naturally more or less controlling than others. Some of us are naturally more or less warm and supportive. These inclinations might be difficult to change.
Nonetheless, research demonstrates that for American children, at least, there is one best style. This style, which combines strong adult authority with warm, child-centered support, leads to solid school success, development of children's sense of self-control and self-esteem, and good interpersonal relationships. Everything we wish for our children is achieved by using this one best style.
Clark and Dawson call this style "Respectful." Adults who use the respectful style are comfortable in their role as leaders: they establish clear, simple rules and they expect children to follow them. But they also provide children choices and a chance to negotiate rules in special circumstances. They take children's ability to understand into consideration and when they reprimand children, consequences are aimed at solving problems and shaping future behavior instead of exerting control and punishing past behavior. Respectful-style adults emphasize the positives. They use lots of encouraging speech, humor, and love.
In contrast, permissive adults exert little authority but let children do what they want. They have few rules and tend to try manipulation to gain kids' cooperation. Classrooms headed by a permissive adult are chaotic and emotional.
Authoritarian adults take the other extreme: instead of little control they exert total control. Their relationship with children is governed by rigid adherence to rules and punishment intended to wound. Classrooms headed by an authoritarian adult are full of fear. Because adults have modeled mean behavior, children may be mean to each other too.
Children are not born with inner self-controls. These are learned behaviors gained through observing the important people in their lives. Guidance is teaching a child what TO DO instead of focusing on what not to do. Because children learn from their everyday experiences, it is important that you respond to their behavior in respectful, developmentally appropriate and emotionally safe ways.
And, as we’ve seen, children go through stages of growth in certain sequences. Caregivers should not expect children to do things that they are not developmentally ready to do. Nor should caregivers scold children for behaviors that are normal for their age. When developing appropriate guidance and discipline techniques, ask yourself:
· Is the guidance method appropriate for a child this age?
· Is the guidance method appropriate for this specific child?
All children’s behavior is purposeful and happens for a reason. It’s up to you to figure out those reasons.
The following are some guidance techniques that will be useful to you as you work with the children in your care:
Set Limits. Limits give children safe boundaries in which to work and play. Children feel safer and are able to experience a greater sense of independence and competency when they know what the limits are. If you can, involve children in the process of deciding classroom rules.
Have only a few, simple rules. Here’again is a good set:
· We keep ourselves safe.
· We keep each other safe.
· We keep our things safe.
Children are more cooperative when they understand the reason behind a rule. Often, they will repeat the positive in the future because of this understanding.
· “Use a quiet voice in the hall so you don’t wake up the babies.”
· “Hang your coat up so that it won’t get walked on or lost.”
State the Positive. Tell children what TO do instead of what NOT to do. Words like stop, no, and don’t are good for an emergency, but do not give children the necessary information they need to make good choices.
Examples of stating the positive are:
· Please walk. Instead of Don’t run.
· When you eat your food your body stays healthy. Instead of Don’t play with your food.
· Play dough stays on the table. Instead of Don’t put the play dough over there.
· We take turns talking at circle time. Instead of Be quiet.
Validate Children’s Feelings. When you give words to what a child is feeling, the child knows she has been understood and she is better able to let go of the situation.
· “I know it is hard to wait for a turn, but it is Maria’s turn now. Your turn is next.”
· “You must have been very upset. Use your words to tell Mark.”
Remember that young children don’t know the names for feelings, so when you say, “Are you feeling hungry?” or “That’s so frustrating!” you’re not only increasing children’s vocabularies but giving them tools for self-understanding.
Model the Behavior You Want to See. Children learn by watching others. Show them what to do along with giving an explanation.
· “I’m going to wash my hands like this and then dry them and put the paper towel in the garbage can.”
· “I don’t know if I like this vegetable or not. I’ll put a little bit on my plate and try it. Then if I like it I can have more.”
· “Oops, I forgot to throw my gum out when I entered the room this morning. I’d better do it now.”
Reinforce Appropriate Behavior and Ignore Inappropriate Behavior. Sometimes children receive more attention from adults for inappropriate behavior than for good behavior. Your job is to catch the child being good and use positive attention to reinforce the desired behavior. While you cannot ignore unsafe or hurtful actions, you can ignore those that are annoying and can be safely overlooked. By ignoring these behaviors and rewarding the positive behaviors, children will eventually continue to repeat positive behaviors and the annoying ones will disappear.
Be careful about praise and rewards, however. These can actually have the effect of reducing good behavior instead of increasing it! If children feel they are being manipulated or judged they will refuse to go along. In addition, use of rewards and stickers sometimes causes children to cooperate only if they are “paid.” You want children to cooperate because it’s the right thing to do, not because there’s a reward attached.
Give Choices or Redirect. When children are given choices they are more likely to cooperate. Offering choices also promotes independence and gives the children some control over their own behavior.
· “I can see that you are not through playing yet. Would you like to put that over here and finish it after lunch or would you like two more minutes before washing up and coming to the lunch table?”
· “Luis has the red marker now. Would you like the green one or the blue one to use until he is finished with his?”
When a choice is not possible, you can redirect.
· “Helen is sitting there. You need to pick another place to sit.”
· “James you have so much energy but running is for outside. No one is at the water table right now, let’s play over there.”
An important thing to remember about giving choices is to give only those choices that you are comfortable allowing the child to make. Once children get used to choices, they usually want to make their own choices without protest.
Use I Messages. I Messages are a common tool used to tell others how you think or feel without blaming. I Messages typically have three parts: a description of the behavior, a description of the feeling, and the reason behind the feeling. Here are some examples:
· “When you stand on the chair I am afraid because you may fall and get hurt.”
· “When it is noisy during circle time I am frustrated because I can’t talk loud enough for everyone to hear.”
· “When you fill the glass too full, I am worried that the juice will spill.”
I Messages are a respectful way of telling children what the problem is and allows them to come up with solutions themselves.
Use Consequences Correctly. Letting children experience the consequences of their behavior can be an effective guidance tool. But consequences are often used incorrectly.
Consequences should be logical and related to the behavior. If Gretchen leaves her coat outside and it gets wet, then wearing a wet coat home or wearing no coat is a logical consequence. Telling Gretchen she cannot go out the play the next day because she left her coat outside today is not logical.
Consequences should be immediate. Children have little concept of time. If Mark is silly at snack time and spills his milk, a logical, immediate consequence is that he has to drink water. It’s not helpful to tell him he will not be allowed milk in the afternoon.
Consequences should be delivered sympathetically, not gloatingly. Sometimes teachers apply a consequence as a punishment and seem almost gleeful. But consequences are effective because they are the natural outcome of behavior not a victory for the teacher. Any “I told you so” messages will make the consequence less effective.
Consequences should not be part of a trap. Never try to catch a child in a misbehavior so that you can apply a punitive consequence. You are not the enemy. Don’t behave like one.
Use Gentle Touch. Sometimes a hug or a pat on the back is all a child needs in order to feel safe and secure. Infants need holding, cuddling, and rocking to calm and soothe them. Many children like to be rocked or to have their backs rubbed during rest time. This kind of human touch conveys nurturing and support. Touch can be used, when necessary, to protect a child or others from danger. You might put your hand on a child’s arm to suggest slowing down or ask a child to hold your hand when moving from one area of the building to another.
But touch should never be rough. It should go without saying that teachers never hit children, shake them, jerk them about, or push them into a chair.
In addition, best practices certainly do not include shaming children, embarrassing them, calling them names, treating them like babies (when they're not) and other bullying tactics. No matter how stressed you're feeling or how badly your day has gone, being mean to children is never right.
What Gets In Your Way?
If it were that easy, we'd all be Guidance Masters. Our children would all be well-behaved all the time and our classrooms would be serene islands of learning. Real life is more challenging than that.
Our first impulse is to blame the children. "I'd be a better, calmer, sweeter teacher if I had better, calmer, sweeter kids." But remember the first principle of guidance: All children’s behavior is purposeful and happens for a reason. Children only do what makes sense to do. If your class is less cooperative than you'd like then look to see how you're getting in your own way.
We interfere with our own success when we're preoccupied with our own concerns, when we feel distracted or overwhelmed, or when we're trying to do too much. We will be less successful if we ignore the best practices and try to impose inappropriate expectations and inappropriate methods.
But, even when you do everything right and are calm and collected every moment, you will still be challenged by children's behavior. Kids have bad days too and some children have had bad lives. On the next page, we'll talk about ways to handle the trickiest guidance situations.
No one ever said that caring for children would be easy. But when it's especially hard, it makes sense to look at the roots of misbehavior. In this Unit, we'll do that and we'll propose ways to shape behavior towards more prosocial patterns. We'll also talk about what to do when you're up against the toughest challenges.
First, though, let's review the basics of human behavior.
Behavior Has Purpose
All behavior is purposeful. People do what they do for a reason. But sometimes those reasons are hidden, even from the persons themselves. When people act, seemingly impulsively or without thinking, they are acting from unconscious needs that everyone has. Understanding these basic needs helps to understand behavior.
Let's look at two important notions of universal human needs, those of Abraham Maslow and Erik Erikson.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow was interested in "normal" psychology - the sorts of things that make ordinary people do what they do. He found that in order to reach the highest levels of human functioning, people must first fulfill lower-level needs. If these lower-level needs are not met, people are not able to concentrate on higher-level accomplishments.
Maslow's ideas are important for us because they make clear how essential it is that children not be tired or hungry, that they feel safe and secure, that they feel loved and admired. Children who are unable to control their behavior might need help to resolve gaps in their basic needs.
Erikson's Developmental Stages
We talked about Erikson's stages before. Erikson was a student of Sigmund Freud and his stages represent an attempt to translate Freud's ideas into a more practical form. Erikson believed that at every age from infancy through old age, there is a task or achievement that must be accomplished. People who make on-time accomplishments of age-appropriate tasks are happier, better able to deal with adversity, and better-adjusted.
For us, Erikson's ideas give insight into working with children at different ages. We can see that babies need trustworthy caregivers who love them, and two-year-olds want to do things themselves. We recognize that Erikson's stages are "true" from our own experience, but knowing about these stages makes them helpful to us as tools. We're reminded, for example, that preschoolers want to try new thing.
How Do Children Misbehave?
Everyday misbehavior seems to fall into a few categories. Let's take a look at those, applying what we know now might be going on.
They Try to Grab Attention. Children need attention in order to survive. So babies cry to get attention and preschoolers interrupt you. They want to know that you're still thinking about them and that they're still important. But with 4 infants or 16 preschoolers in your care, you can't give attention to everyone at once. So kids' attempts to get your attention can be annoying. But annoyed attention is still attention and if that's all children can get they'll take it. Try to notice children when they're doing what you'd like to see and attend to that.
They Try to Take Control. Some children try to control things by saying, "No!" and "Mine." Others hit, say mean things, or get into places they know they're not supposed to be. Offering choices can help the child who says "no" to everything. Giving children responsibility for what they see as important tasks can also help the controlling child. When working with control-situations remember to use Respectful guidance, not Authoritarian guidance (which can set up a power struggle with the child) but not Permissive guidance either (which gives the child the control she wants).
They Try to Get Revenge. Revenge and sabotage are techniques used when a child has been treated with disrespect. He hits back, scribbles on his enemy's paper, or trips his enemy on the playground. He's angry, he wants justice, and he doesn't think he can get satisfaction any other way. Children may learn revenge at home, either as victims of revenge or as the victims of punishment they are powerless to do anything about. The vengeful child is full of anger. He needs help to "use your words."
They React With Disappointment and Despair. Children want to be successful. They have visions for themselves that sometimes are not matched by their abilities - they don't draw as well as they'd like, they can't jump as far as they'd like... there are many things they'd like to do that they just can't do well. So they get frustrated. The frustrated child may hit, kick, throw things, or throw a tantrum. Or the frustrated child might withdraw, cry, or refuse to try. Feeling like a failure is not something we want for the children in our care.
Keep in mind, too, that some behavior is just a matter of over-excitement and lack of self-control. Your prepared environment and excellent scheduling of the day will help to minimize wild behavior.
Guidance Strategies To Avoid
Clearly you want to address misbehavior but some strategies are better than others. Keep in mind also that we all have our own issues - we may be under some of the stresses Maslow's Hierachy suggests. So notice what in your own life might get in the way of your good guidance efforts and try to limit the effects of those in your teaching practice.
Here are some strategies that don't work well in furthering children's understanding of how to behave.
Time Out. The way Time Out usually is implemented doesn't work very well. Putting a child in the corner or making her sit in a chair either inspires new rebellion, so that she refuses to stay put and you waste time and energy trying to make her do so, or it makes her feel mean and sulky. It also calls other children's attention to her and may lead them to isolate and reject her. Not only that, but minutes spent in time out are minutes lost for learning. These minutes add up.
Time Out's function as a calming strategy works only if it's done right. That's described later in Supported Calming.
Rewards. Giving treats, prizes, stickers and parties as rewards for good behavior make being self-disciplined an economic transaction. The child is in control, since he can refuse to cooperate if he decides the reward isn't worth giving up whatever he'd rather do. And your role as teacher is reduced to a purchaser of behavior, instead of a guide and role model. Learning and self-disciplined behavior are good in themselves. Inserting rewards corrupts goodness and makes every request a manipulation.
Comparison, Shaming, and Rejection. This is speech used as a weapon to wound and destroy. When you say, "Don't be a baby," or "Can't you do that? Everybody else can!" or "If you do that, I'm not your friend anymore," you destroy children's sense of self-worth, you undo the trust they've put in you, and you expose them in front of their classmates. It should be obvious that none of this is okay. The sad thing is that these sort of comments come too easily to our lips and we excuse ourselves by saying we were "joking." Remember that once something is said, it can't be unsaid. No joke is funny when it hurts.
Corporal punishment. Hitting, shaking, pinching and rough treatment are never okay. There is never a situation when they are justified. No matter how you were treated as a child and no matter how angry you get or how deliberately provoking a child's behavior is, corporal punishment cannot be part of your guidance repertoire. There is no halfway in this.
What's Best To Try
Well, if all those discipline methods don't work, what does? We'll get to some specific techniques in a minute, but first let's talk about two general principles to keep in mind: children's needs and teaching.
Support Children's Needs. Know what's going on for the children in your care. Everyone has a day that starts off badly and this could be the case for each of your children at least once in a while. Some children have rocky starts to the day just about every day, if their families are under stress. Think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and consider if some of your children require special support in one area or another.
And then, know what's typical for children the age of those in your care. This means knowing what they are able to do and understand, from a developmental point of view, and it also means knowing what drives their activity, following Erikson's stages.
Apply what you know and what you guess about the children to the ways you organize your classroom, how you schedule the day, and how you plan specific activities. Think ahead and imagine how the day you've planned might actually work out, given what you know about your children's needs and inclinations.
A lot of "behavior management" is really a matter of good planning, planning that is realistic about what the children can do and sensitive to which children might need more support. Keep in mind that the activities you plan are valuable for every child, not just for the children who know how to sit still or have the coordination or dexterity to be successful. Don't exclude children who might get over excited and don't frustrate children who might struggle. Plan carefully to make your activities fun and educational for everyone.
Teach Self-control. We forget that children don't know. We have to teach them how to control their impulses. We have to teach them how to regain control after they've lost it. We have to teach them how to play nicely in a group, how to sit in a circle, how to listen, and how to follow directions. We know these skills so well we forget that we were ever taught them. We forget that little children don't yet know.
In addition, we sometimes forget that the goal is not teacher-control but self-control. The goal is not good discipline but self-discipline. You don't want children to do as they're told, you want them to do things without being told. So while you certainly want children in your class to respect you as the leader, your objective is to develop their ability to lead themselves. And you have to teach that.
Of course, needing to teach something - how to behave and how to be in control - means that what is taught isn't mastered already. Children will make mistakes. When you give them opportunities to try, sometimes they'll behave well and show good self-control and sometimes they won't.
Because you have polished your skills of observation and planning, you will use these mistakes as your guide. You will watch and notice and tweak your plan for later or for tomorrow. You will recognize what your children still don't know about how to behave and then you will teach.
Here are some specific techniques that will help you guide children's behavior.
Noticing Good Behavior. This is sometimes phrased as "Catch a child being good," which makes it sounds like good behavior is something rare. But children are "good" more often than they're not. Once you start noticing good behavior, you'll realize this. So beef up your Happy Words Vocabulary - well done! brilliant! look at you! that's impressive! - and make noticing and commenting on good behavior a more frequent occurrence than complaining or correcting bad behavior. The change in children's attitudes and actions will surprise you.
A quick word about praise. Use facts, not value judgments. Instead of saying, "That's a good painting," say, "I like how you used blue and green together." Praise the action, not the actor. Instead of saying, "You did that like a big boy," say, "That was tricky - nicely done!" When you praise correctly, you help children to value their accomplishments and feel in charge of themselves. When you offer judgments, especially about the child herself, children feel unimportant and manipulated.
Ignoring. Knowing what to ignore is almost as important as knowing what to praise. Ignore behavior that isn't hurting anyone or anything and isn't likely to escalate to something worse. Ignore behavior that seems intended to catch your attention. If you can, ignore something while you replace it, by Redirecting or using the Time In technique below. This has the benefit of providing the child with an opportunity to earn your attention in a good way while not providing attention to unwanted behavior.
Redirecting. Redirecting is the art of pointing a child off in a different direction from the one she was going. This is a super technique to use with toddlers, who are easily distracted away from a problem area to something more acceptable. But it also works well with preschoolers who need some sort of alternative activity. When there are too many children in the housekeeping corner, and Robert is sad, helping him to remember the cool stuff on the science table can help.
Time In. This is like redirecting but with more focus. While Redirecting is similar to providing choices, Time In is similar to Time Out. But in Time In, the child gets more of your attention, not the exile from attention that characterizes Time Out. For that reason, Time In is a redirecting technique that works nicely when there's a big argument and lots of anger.
Imagine that there's a scuffle in the block corner and children are angry. You quickly decide which child to remove but instead of sending her away or sending her to Time Out you enlist her in an Important Task. You ask her to help you set out the snack things or straighten your pencil drawer. Help her get started by working with her for a few minutes. Use your skills in Noticing Good Behavior to admire her efforts. If she can finish the task on her own, good, but make certain the experience is positive for her. There's no need to discuss the brouhaha among the blocks unless she brings it up.
Supported Calming. Maybe everyone in the block corner needs to calm down. Or maybe you discover a child quivering with frustration over an activity that is just not going right. When emotions are running high, Supported Calming helps children get back to even. Remember that kids don't know how to do this. They need to be taught.
So get the upset child to sit beside you or sit in your lap or lie on the floor with you. Help him to calm down by talking gently and soothingly. Show him how to notice that his heart is beating fast and tell him that he will feel better when he slows it down. Guide him in taking deep breaths.
Three or five minutes of calming is often all that is needed. The child can then decide to go back where he was or to try doing something new.
Safety Hug. The child who is completely out of control, throwing things, hitting people, yelling and screaming, can't get back into control on her own. Not only that but in this state she's a danger to herself and others. She needs you to take charge of her behavior for her, to keep her safe and to keep others safe, but she needs this in a way that is non-violent and non-threatening. She's already upset. Don't add to it!
So try the Safety Hug. Wrap your arms around her snugly but without hurting her. Sit down with her so you don't fall down if she pulls away. If you speak, speak quietly and calmly. When she quiets enough to hear you, try humming or singing softly. You might rock gently side to side.
You are not trying to control her so much as you are being her self-control. Right now her self-control is absent, so you are letting her borrow some of yours. This means it's especially important that you avoid being tense and angry. She may need your help for ten or fifteen minutes but right now this Safety Hug is what is important for both of you.
Get Help When You Need It
Let's say it again: no one ever said that caring for children would be easy. You have chosen the hardest, most important job possible. Some days, you're going to struggle with it.
On those days, get some help, if you can find it. If there's someone else there who can legally and competently step in, ask for that and take a 10 minute walk around the block.
If there's no one there who can help you, find the one sure-fire activity the kids can do and just do it. It might be water table, it might be going for a walk, it might be reading aloud every book in the classroom library. Just get through the day. Then go home, take a warm bath and be nice to yourself. Tomorrow get up and try again.
In addition, some children need more help than you can give. Know the limits of your expertise and don't guess or try to fake it. If you think a child has major problems, especially if you think things are heading to a bad or a sad end, consult someone who really knows. Get that child and his family expert information. Know where in your town or county you can refer families who need extra help. You - and I - are early childhood professionals. We don't know everything.
And... most importantly... talk to a child's parents. Especially if there are persistent problems with a child, talk things over with Mom and Dad and develop a plan together. You might use the Behavior Guidance Plan in the Additional Resources.
Helping children become self-disciplined and well-adjusted takes time and effort. You can do this but you don't need to do it alone.