Helping Children Manage their Behavior
This article focuses on children's actions. Children's challenging behaviors can take many forms, from aggression toward others to self-comforting habits such as thumbsucking that are probably more troubling to adults than harmful to children. As you respond to each type of behavior, remember that the goal is not merely to eliminate a troublesome behavior, but to help children manage their own actions in the long run.
Aggression is a negative behavior that you will undoubtedly have to deal with at some point in your work with young children. By aggression, we mean the use of force to express feelings or to obtain what one wants without regard for the rights of others. There is a distinction between aggression, which is destructive, and assertive behavior or standing up for one's rights, which is healthy and constructive.
As always, your first step in dealing with behavior that you believe to be aggressive is to observe carefully. Not every act that results in tears or an injury to another is aggressive. Infants occasionally hurt others by pushing too hard or striking another with a hard toy held in a wobbly, uncertain grasp. Toddlers, new to walking upright, might trod on the fingers or toes of their creeping peers. And four- or five-year-old children often knock each other down because they are too absorbed in their play to notice someone coming across their path.
All of these are accidents, and your job is to use indirect guidance techniques to help prevent them. Make sure that all toys you provide for infants are soft and that there is enough room for children to move freely without hurting each other. When the inevitable accidents do occur, tend to the injured child while calmly telling the other that, “It hurts when you step on Cameron's toes.” Even very young children can feel empathy and will probably be concerned that a child is crying, although the connection between their actions and those tears is not yet clear to them. Asking the “guilty” party to help, perhaps by bringing you a tissue, may help restore positive feelings on both sides. Apologies seldom help, and demanding that children say they are sorry may merely teach them to be insincere.
In some forms of aggression, children hurt each other or damage property because they don't know another way to get what they want. Or they are so full of pent-up feelings that they lash out at whatever is closest to them. Some toddlers might even bite out of simple curiosity. While these actions are intentional, they are not done out of malice, so blame and punishment are inappropriate. Certainly you would never try to teach the child a lesson by showing him what it feels like to be bitten or hit!
Your first job is to stop the hurtful action, gently restraining the child if necessary, and perhaps removing him or her to a quiet place away from the group. Say “I can't let you kick Josh. It hurts him. And I won't let anyone kick you, either.” If the child is old enough to talk, you can wait until he or she calms down a little, and then find out what precipitated the action so you can begin to teach alternative ways of getting what one wants or expressing strong feelings.
As with most troublesome behaviors, your energy will be better spent preventing these types of actions than in dealing with them after they occur. Too many children in a room with too few toys and too few alert adults is a sure-fire recipe for lots of biting, hitting, and kicking as children are forced to rely on their own devices for meeting their needs. The pressure of an inappropriate curriculum or schedule can create tension that is likely to erupt in violence. Are the activities so difficult that they frustrate children or so simple that they leave the children bored and unchallenged? Are children tired or hungry, which suggests a change in scheduled meals and nap times? Attention to these factors will probably reduce the overall number of situations that require your intervention.
Direct guidance techniques provide additional preventive tactics. Teach the problem-solving techniques discussed in Chapter so that children develop the skills they need to resolve conflicts before they erupt into violence. Real-life issues, like how to make sure everyone has a fair chance at riding the tricycles, are potent topics for lively group discussion at circle time. During children's play, move close to them and show interest in what they are doing before their encounters escalate into violence. Sometimes just your reassuring presence helps children focus on constructive play and keep their disagreements in check. Act as a coach, providing cues for more appropriate ways that children can get what they want: “Tell Megan that you'd like a turn with the tricycle,” or “Tell Todd that you are using those blocks now.” Act as an interpreter for children who are unable or unwilling to express themselves verbally: “It looks like Jerome doesn't like it when you bump your truck into his,” or “I think Lakeisha feels crowded when you sit so close to her.” A child who continues to hit or lash out at others can be temporarily removed from a chosen play area as a logical consequence of the unacceptable behavior.
The final, and perhaps most troubling, form of aggression is hostile aggression, in which a child derives satisfaction from hurting another or doing damage. Dealing with this form of aggression will take all your skills as a sensitive observer, trying to discern the reasons behind the child's actions. You can deal with the individual acts of aggression using the techniques described above, but you would also be wise to seek the assistance of a professional counselor or psychologist as well, for children who take pleasure in inflicting harm are probably in some sort of psychological pain themselves.
Perhaps they have witnessed some form of violence in their home or community. Perhaps they have been a victim of abuse. Perhaps they have a disability that somehow makes them unable to feel empathy. Or perhaps they have too many stressors in their lives at this point in time. Your job is not to diagnose or assign blame, but rather to observe carefully and respond compassionately. Consultation with parents and other professionals will help you devise a plan to cope with these challenging situations. Appointing one teacher to take primary responsibility for working with the child may help to maintain consistent rules and consequences.
Solving a Pushing Problem
Two teachers of a group of three-year-olds went to their program director for advice. Three-year-old Jerry was pushing children backward with both hands, then laughing as they lost their balance, fell, and cried. The teachers said they had tried a number of their usual techniques, such as temporarily isolating Jerry, talking to him, and staying near him. Still, when they were away from him he frequently turned to the nearest child and pushed the child backward quickly without apparent provocation. His derisive laughter following the event especially bothered the teachers.
The director went to the classroom to observe. She then called the parents to arrange a conference. The morning of the conference, the father brought Jerry to the classroom. He was shocked when he, too, saw Jerry go to a circle of children and push over a child. He told the director how much he disapproved of the behavior he had just witnessed.
The director and Jerry's father talked for a time, attempting to understand Jerry's behavior. The director listened for a clue as to where the child might have learned the behavior. Finally it became clear. The family lived on a college campus where the parents were the houseparents for a group of college students. The college students frequently played with Jerry. They taught him to push them and then they would fall back and laugh. It was a game that they all enjoyed. Of course, Jerry was very confused. A behavior that was highly rewarded in one setting was getting him into trouble in another setting, but he was still too young for a talk about proper behavior to be an effective method of dealing with the problem.
The conscientious parents immediately instructed the college students to stop their pushing game. They were encouraged to play with a foam ball and develop various games around helping Jerry gain more motor skill. At the early childhood center Jerry was helped through close adult supervision to interact more gently with his peers at school. Little by little he quit pushing children and became more accepted by them.
With this example you can see how easy it might have been for adults to respond in ways that would not have gotten at the root of Jerry's problem. Conferring with the parents helped both to clarify the problem and to solve it. Fortunately, the director had a strong policy of conferring with parents.
© ______ 2009, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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