Responding with Compassion to Challenging Behavior
We’re wrapping up “the most wonderful time of the year” and getting ready to head back to the daily grind. It’s the time when we reflect on how we want to improve in the coming months, and what we want to change about the way we live our lives. After all, none of us are perfect! We’ve all got a problem or two that gets us down from time to time.
Does this truth only apply to adults? Of course not. Sometimes kids have real problems in their lives, too. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy for them to put words to the issue or keep perspective on their situation. So how do they let us know? With their behavior.
No doubt you have heard that all behavior is a form of communication. Usually, the good behavior goes unnoticed in that way – when kids are engaged, their behavior is telling you that the situation is working for them. Not much need to intervene there! I often extend free choice time if this is the case for all of my students, whispering to my co-teachers, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” But when something is wrong, it’s crystal clear to everyone involved. Misbehavior, however it manifests, is a very noticeable form of communication. The teacher steps in to support, often with a trail of curious ducklings behind her.
How we respond in these moments is critical to the culture of a classroom. In every action and reaction, adults communicate to children with their behavior just as much as the opposite is true. What catches our attention and what we say or do afterwards speaks volumes about what holds value within our worlds. I always try to remember this when I come upon a situation where a child has gotten hurt by another. When you first respond to the victim, you imply a very different message than if you start off by reprimanding the aggressor. Is it more important to ensure that everyone is safe, or to critique someone who has made a mistake?
A teacher is faced with a million decision-making moments like this each school day, and these moments add up to help children understand how they are expected to behave towards their fellow humans. We hope that we can model for them in ways that will teach them kindness, acceptance, and forgiveness. It’s easy to demonstrate this kind of prosocial behavior when things are going well, but when kids challenge us day in and day out, it can start to get a bit more difficult. Even the most Zen of educators has a limit to their patience!
It is essential to remind yourself in this moment that they are not trying to drive you crazy – they are just trying to tell you that the situation is not working for them. Maybe they don’t have the skills to do what is being asked of them, or just don’t understand what is being asked of them. Or they might just not want to! One way or another, there is a problem. And it’s up to you to solve it.
Pause for a moment, and think of a specific problem in your own life that you are currently dealing with or have recently experienced; one where you realized that you needed to change, grow, or develop some new skill. How did the people in your life help or hinder you during this change, and how did it influence your ability to grow? If you could build yourself a dream team of supportive people for this kind of a moment, how would they ideally treat you in these sticky moments? Really stop for a moment, look away from my words, and jot down a few of your own about what kind of support you need when you are trying to make these kinds of changes in your life.
For me, I need a little extra time when I’m trying to master a new ability or awareness in life. I often need to be told more than once. And I really appreciate it when my friends and family give me a little grace when I slip back into those old unwanted behaviors.
This is certainly not an argument to “go easy” on kids, or to let your students “off the hook” when they do not adhere to the classroom agreements. In my first years of teaching, I made this mistake, confusing kindness with leniency. I earned myself a reputation as the Good Cop to my much more experienced lead teacher’s Bad Cop, and although it felt good when the kids would run to me for comfort, I also didn't get much respect or cooperation when I tried to lead the group. After taking a Love and Logic course a few years ago, I changed my tune. Now I know that people who say “children thrive on firm boundaries” are not just hardened or old-school. It's true. Giving clear expectations for behavior, and following through with logical consequences creates an environment where children feel safe and know what to expect. When your responses are predictable—firm but loving—they don’t have to waste their energy (and yours) by constantly testing where the line is drawn.
There are so many possible reasons why a child might start to push the boundaries and experiment with various forms of misbehavior. Sometimes it is a simple problem that you will quickly be able to discern once you delve into the issue. Yet sometimes, it goes a bit deeper, and it may be tricky to put the clues together. I recently took a course on Trauma Informed Care (if you're unfamiliar with this concept, please find a way to do the same!) and was amazed at how many normal reactions to trauma or toxic stress would present as challenging behavior to someone naive of the situation. Your kind and compassionate reaction to a child's difficulties could make all the difference at potentially pivotal moments in their lives. Never forget that those who act like they deserve your love the least, are the ones who need it the most.
Going forward, how can you incorporate more kindness into the way you guide students with challenging behavior? Surely there is at least one waiting for you in your classroom when you get back from the winter break! How will you help this child solve their problem? Keep in mind that you will always get better results if you focus on the child who is displaying the challenging behavior, not on the behavior itself. We’ll delve into that topic more next month, and I’ll also share some specific strategies I have found very helpful for keeping misbehavior to a minimum. For now, perhaps one of your New Year’s Resolutions can be to approach that child with a bit more compassion and understanding of the struggle they are enduring. Remember how you would want to be supported if the problem was yours.
For one last dash of inspiration, check out this great book written by Kobi Yamada: “What Do You Do With A Problem?” It presents us with the reminder that every problem is an opportunity “…to learn and grow. To be brave. To do something.” The unique illustrations from Mae Besom will immerse you equally in both the feelings of despair that can come when there is a problem, but also the glory of success when you have conquered it.
Bilmes, Jenna (2004). Beyond Behavior Management. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press
KidsMatter, CommonWealth of Australia (2008). “Trauma.” Retrieved from https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/mental-health-matters/mental-health-difficulties/trauma.
Love and Logic (2017). “Parenting the Love and Logic Way” www.loveandlogic.org. Golden, CO.
PBS, (nd). “Five Facts Every Family Should Know.” Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/inclusivecommunities/challenging_behavior2.html.
Yamada, Kobi (2016). What Do You Do With A Problem? Seattle, WA: Compendium, Inc.