Modeling How We Respond to Frustrating Situations
As early childhood professionals, we know it’s important to model skills for children. We use language that we want them to use, we demonstrate social interactions that are considered polite, and we sit at the table while we eat so that children will learn to do the same.
But how often do we model how to make a mistake and recover smoothly? Do you explicitly spell out what you’re going to do when you drop something or do you just stoop right down to pick it up? Most of the time this correction comes so naturally to us as adults that we don’t think to use it as a chance to model skills. Yet the ability to be resilient to simple mistakes and frustrations is a prerequisite for a happy life, and one that takes so much practice for young preschoolers.
Inspired by the increasing frustrations of my student, Myles*, I recently decided to focus my social-emotional curriculum on helping my students build that sense of resilience. Narrowly making the preschool cut-off date by a few days, three-year-old Myles still has that waddle walk that gives toddlers their name. Most of the time he is a happy camper, but Myles can experience some big frustrations when he is trying to build with his buddies in the block area. After having gone through some recent changes in his home life, Myles had been escalating his response to minor frustrations. I observed him showing bigger and bigger responses to common hindrances in the preschool classroom, like someone taking the toy he was using, or getting in front of him while waiting to wash his hands. It was most especially obvious that his fuse was short whenever his block tower would topple over and he would respond with a top-of-the-lungs scream or even try to hit the person he thought was responsible for bumping it. Sometimes this would even end with Myles falling to the floor like a limp noodle and being unable to rejoin the play! While a loud response to frustration is typical for threes, this zero-to-sixty response seemed to me like it needed a bit of focused coaching to help maintain the peace of our classroom.
I started with a meeting to help kids learn that in our classroom, it is okay to mess up – but it’s how we respond that is important. As I started our meeting, I made a big show of getting so excited to read our book that I forgot to have us sing our usual morning song. As I called myself out on my mistake, I modeled taking a deep breath, thinking, and going back to the song. Then I segued into the book “It’s Okay to Make Mistakes” by a great author/illustrator of children’s literature, Todd Parr. This book presented us with the perfect opportunity to see how a mistake can be an opportunity to learn or to laugh. We talked about the responses to the silly mistakes and emphasized how the characters kept on going.
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When the book was over I whipped out three blocks and did a mini skit of building a tower that fell over. I adapted a suggestion from Beyond Behavior Management by Jenna Bilmes to tell the story in different ways and have kids suggest possible endings. The first time my tower fell over I let out a huge screaming cry and of course the group cracked up. But then I asked, “Is that what you should do?” and there was a resounding “Noooo.” I asked for their suggestions as to better ways to respond, and with their ideas, I modeled some more appropriate reactions. Starting over and building it again was by far the favorite – no surprise considering preschoolers just love repetition! Beyond Behavior Management is one of my all-time favorite texts on guiding behavior. Make sure you have a copy!
One morning soon after when the rest of the classroom was quiet and peaceful, I found about twenty minutes to sit uninterrupted with Myles and his friend while they stacked blocks. I helped them develop a play sequence which had three simple steps: build a tower, knock it over, then say, “Oops, try again!” It quickly became a very entertaining game that we kept going with a few variations for quite a while. A few times throughout that day, and purposefully during the rest of the week, I followed up with Myles using the phrase “Oops, try again!” instead of a scream. Sometimes in other situations, we’d use, “Oops, that’s okay!” or extend it with other relevant vocabulary words.
It definitely made a difference! Most of the time now, about two weeks after that first meeting, when Myles has a moment of simple frustration, he just smiles and gives it another shot. Even today, when he was having a very emotional day and quick to tears over almost anything, I heard him say “Oops, try again!” when his paper towel free-throw missed the trashcan. In that moment I smiled to myself and knew we had made some progress.
It’s a lucky day when you learn something new on the first try – usually it takes a few failures before you earn that sweet taste of success. Even things we know well can go wrong from time to time. But if one can’t deal with the inevitable frustration of those tough moments, simple speed bumps can turn into major hurdles. As adults, we rarely give children the opportunity to see us process these minor frustrations because we have learned to move through them so quickly. We may need to find other ways to help them develop the ability to stick-to-it. Observing Myles’ experience gave me the opportunity to discuss and pointedly model these skills for my students so that they can hopefully learn to manage their big feelings when little things don’t go their way.
One last resource I have to mention comes from the Center for Social-Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). For kids who get stuck in the frustration phase, I highly recommend the resources associated with Tucker Turtle. Tucker teaches kids how to stop and think, take three deep breaths, then find a solution to their problem. You can also get great teacher training on other social-emotional topics through their modules, especially this one.
*Name changed to protect student privacy
Collet, Vicki S. (2017). “’I Can Do That!’ Creating Classrooms That Foster Resilience.” Young Children, March 2017. 23-31.
Bilmes, Jenna (2004). Beyond Behavior Management. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Parr, Todd (2014). It’s Okay To Make Mistakes. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.