So, you’ve been practicing staying calm and compassionate in the face of challenging behavior. You’ve put yourself in their shoes and taken three deep breaths until you’re blue in the face. But keeping the right attitude is only half the battle – every teacher needs to have a wide selection of tools on their belt for assisting those kids who are struggling and express that with their behavior.
Two of the best tools are not tangible, but metaphorical – and with that in mind I will recommend keeping a pair of binoculars in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. It can be a juggling act to try to look at the big picture at the same time as you deal with the daily grind of guiding behavior, but if you can strike the balance, it will certainly provide great insight and efficacy to your teaching practice.
Look at the Big Picture
I left you last month with the tip that when dealing with children with challenging behavior, you will always make more progress if you focus on the child, not the challenging behavior. I can’t emphasize enough how true this is. The more you know about the child and their situation, the easier it is to put together the pieces of the puzzle and see the big picture of what is going on. If your program doesn’t have a formal method for tracking information on children, it might be helpful to journal for a few minutes in a teaching diary and note all that you know about a child in your care who you find particularly challenging.
What do you know, or how could you learn more about the child’s family and their background? Is it possible that their cultural or behavioral norms are so different than yours that the way the child behaves at school seems defiant to you, but at home would be considered perfectly acceptable?
Does the child or anyone in their family have a significant mental or physical health history? Take into consideration if there have been any major medical issues or procedures for the child, or that the child has witnessed happen to a parent. Are there any developmental concerns? Has there been emotional trauma present in the family’s life? If you aren’t familiar with the many studies related to ACES scores and the myriad repercussions, please try to find a class about Trauma-Informed Care. Challenging behavior can be a way of expressing emotions undealt with about events that may be far in the past.
What is the child’s temperament like? How does it interact with yours as a teacher, and is there anything you can do to ease any strain that might exist? What is their best learning style – auditory, visual, or tactile? What are their basic preferences? If they learn best visually and they absolutely love the color green, can you incorporate that information into the way you plan some lessons?
These questions are really just the tip of the iceberg. As you more intentionally look at all that you know about a child, you will likely start to understand where they are coming from and their behavior will start to make more sense to you as their teacher. The more you understand the function of their behavior, the easier it will be to provide effective guidance and help that student to express their needs in a more socially acceptable manner.
For example, one of my students, Tom, has difficulty staying out of other kid’s space during meeting time. It makes sense to me because his dad comes from a Circus Clown background and loves being the joker in a crowd of people. Naturally, Tom sees our meeting time as the prime opportunity to try and make his friends smile and laugh – when they are already assembled as his audience! Yet he lacks finesse and his humor mainly revolves around sitting on other kids and talking about poop. Understanding his motivation to steal the spotlight did make it a little easier to breathe through it when he came up to me in the middle of a class discussion recently and licked my face—to the delight of the other students. On one hand I appreciated his comedic success, but I also tried to help him understand that this behavior is usually unappreciated.
Oh, a day in the life of a preschool teacher.
Take It Day by Day
When a student in your class is dealing with a problem, you may be in for a long process of discerning the message(s) that their misbehavior is communicating. You observe, assess, and respond as best as you can, then start the cycle again as variables change. You might address problems at home, pointedly teach a missing skill, or reinforce the expectations of the classroom more clearly. For many students, it takes repeated daily practice before their ability to conform to classroom expectations becomes routine. I find it very helpful to give specific coaching right before known difficult times, and keep behavior goals present in their minds.
This strategy is incredibly effective for a kid like Tom who has the skills to attend to a group meeting in a meaningful way, but is distracted by his need for social attention. Knowing this, I often pull him aside for a quick check in about 2 minutes before a meeting starts. After giving him extra transition warnings so he can bring his social interactions with his friends to completion, I quietly pull him aside to review the expectations for our meeting with me. Sometimes I offer him a tool, such as a Bilibo, (or any other fidget toy would have the same purpose) with the reminder that he can use it at meeting to stay in his own space -- not as a toy, but as a tool. Of course, it’s always best if you get a chance to follow up afterwards. If it went well, this is a prime time for positive reinforcement! If there is still room for growth, talk about how it went and how they could plan for a better outcome next time.
There are so many other, more tangible tools I would love to recommend for keeping the peace in a preschool classroom, but that will have to wait for next month! In the meantime, get to know your challenging students a little bit more. Challenge yourself to have a meaningful conversation with their families, not to address difficulties, but to understand more where they are coming from and what is going on in their lives. I hope that it will bring understanding to your work as a compassionate educator.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
-Stephen Covey, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” (Habit #5)