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Challenging Behaviors: What's the harm?

In the first article of this series on challenging behaviors, I quoted a former professor of mine who said that when examining behavior and corrective action, it is first wise to ask yourself, “What’s the harm?” In this month’s article, I’ll dive a bit deeper into that question and how it can affect discipline and the use of consequences.

In one of my first teaching positions, I worked at a facility where time outs were not only encouraged—they were mandated. The consequence for every misbehavior was a time out. Not surprisingly, it did not work. And, unfortunately, the quality of child care suffered. The children reacted both out of hurt and out of the need to test us. We reacted from frustration, from pressure from administrators, and from the lack of options provided to us. While I ultimately left the position, I did gain a better understanding of myself as a caregiver and a determination to find a better way to help children (and myself) understand discipline and consequences.

Action vs. Reaction

In observations of myself and other teachers, I have found that the difference between action and reaction is the difference between a classroom with a positive and productive atmosphere and a classroom where the atmosphere quickly becomes strained. When a teacher reacts, they make a quick assumption about the child misbehaving, the action being committed, and the victim (when there is one). This assumption happens so quickly that most teachers do not realize it has been made. The assumption is usually based on previous knowledge of the students and their characters, the teacher’s desires and goals for their classroom, and unconscious biases that the teacher may hold.

Because of this assumption about what happened and why, a teacher who is reacting will often immediately employ one of a few standard discipline techniques. The teacher may give the child a time out or separate them from the action in some way. They may force the student to apologize or attempt to get the student to explain their actions. Other consequences teachers often employ are taking something away from the child such as an activity, a toy or recess.

When a teacher acts instead of reacts, they take the time to fully assess the situation. Without labels or preconceptions, they examine the reasons for the child’s actions and consider harm (or lack of harm) caused. They also take time to assess if a consequence is best served immediately, later, or not at all. At times, no action is needed on the part of the teacher if the issue can be worked out between the students themselves. Lastly, teachers who act follow up with the child and with themselves regarding the behavior after everyone has had a chance to process the incident.

Oftentimes, children need a cooling period before they are ready to talk about their actions. They also need to feel safe and not shamed. When a teacher reacts, it can trigger a child’s defense mechanisms, further escalating the situation or causing the child to shut down. Acting allows children to have space to de-escalate before helping them try to work through their actions and feelings in a safe environment.

Action is also different from reaction in that it draws on a multitude of toolbox techniques to handle each situation rather than relying on the same go-to strategy for every issue. When a teacher realizes that each person and behavior is different or has a different underlying cause, then they will also realize that the same strategy will not be effective for every behavior. And by taking the time to analyze the situation, teachers can choose the best course of action and the best time to take it. They may even decide to let everyone, including the teacher, cool down before re-evaluating the situation and moving forward with an action.

So, Really—What’s the harm?

There are times when consequences are truly needed, and acting does not mean that no consequences are used. Rather, it means that they are used with discernment. When a child physically hurts another person or intentionally damages the environment, there should be a consequence. However, there are also times when teachers need to step back and ask themselves, why do I really think there needs to be a consequence for this behavior? Common answers that may come to mind are:

  • Because that is how I was raised

  • Because I need to train them for the next grade/first job/getting older/the real world

  • Because they deliberately disobeyed me

  • Because if I give in now, then they will take advantage

  • Because if I let one child do it, then they will all want to

I have had to battle with all of these questions and reasons myself. Ultimately, as teachers, we want the children in our care to have the best start at life and school as possible. We want to do what we can to make life and transitions easier for them. But to really be able to ACT and not REACT, we have to look at both sides of these excuses. When that happens, then teachers might come up with more questions or answers like these:

  • Just because it worked (or didn't work) for me doesn't make it right. It also doesn't mean it will work for everyone

  • Yes, we want to help train them. But we also want to encourage them to think and to make sound decisions for themselves. Additionally, the world and workplace are changing. Employees are now given stand-up desks and physio balls to sit on. Adults are given trust to decide when to stand up or go to the bathroom.

  • Have I asked why they disobeyed? Was there an actual reason? Have I been making them sit too long, or are they struggling with the task at hand and are acting out as their way of processing and asking for help?

  • Is this a one-time need or even an on-going sensory need or other issue that they are trying to meet? Have I taken the time to fully find out the reason behind this behavior?

  • Have I actually talked to the class to explain the situation in a non-shameful way? Have I trusted my students to make agreements and to understand another child’s needs?

I often tell teachers I am supervising: if they find themselves in the position of putting out one fire after another all day, then chances are that they are in reaction mode. The sparks from reacting to one fire will fuel another. Teachers need to take the time to prioritize which situations really need adult interference and which can do without.

By pausing to think, teachers can find better ways to quench the flames. Chefs know that some kitchen fires take water, but baking soda is needed for grease fires, and fire extinguishers are needed for the big flames. When considering child behaviors, teachers need to continually ask themselves, “What’s the harm,” because often, the most harm is done when a teacher decides to react instead of act.

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