It’s that time of year…the leaves are falling (well…not really here in Texas, we just like to pretend they are), the cool winds are blowing (by cool I mean 75 degrees) and your classroom is in full swing. It’s also that time of year when that one little friend in your room is really showing his personality. You have taught and retaught procedures and expectations and this little guy is still really struggling. In other words…He. Is. Driving. You. Bananas. (I say “he” because too often than not, it’s a little boy.)
Well I will tell you my friend…you are NOT alone. In my new position as an early childhood specialist I see this happening in almost every room I visit. It doesn’t matter if you are title one, middle class or upper middle class, every classroom has its challenging personalities. Today I’m here to help add some tools to your behavior toolkit because as many of you already know, what works for one, will not work for all. The most effective teachers I see are the ones who understand that and truly take the time to get to know their children and work from there.
That being said, it all begins with knowing the child. I am very purposeful when I use the term “child” because I want us all to remember that these students are children. They are somebody’s baby boy or baby girl and they all come with their own unique little brains and personalities. In the heat of the moment, when we are at our wit’s end and we are working deep in the trenches (the “trenches” are what I lovingly call classrooms) we may easily forget that this being that is driving us absolutely bananas is still at the end of the day, a child.
Before we can redirect and guide our challenging students we have to take time to connect with them. This idea is backed up by brain research that tells us when children are exhibiting defiant behaviors or are in a stressful emotional state (anger, disappointment, frustration, sadness, anxiety) they are very unlikely to respond to redirection. This is because when they are in stressful states they are not using the “upstairs brain” or the part of the brain that is in charge of reasoning and logic, they are functioning with the “downstairs brain” which is what some people refer to as our “reptilian” brain that puts the child in survival mode (fight, flight, freeze).
In order to help our little ones begin to function with their upstairs brain we need to connect with them. Connecting with them helps them feel safe and secure. Once they feel safe and secure, then their downstairs brain can shut down in a sense and allow the upstairs brain to take over and help the child make more logical and rational decisions.
When I first came to understand this it made a LOT of sense. I have a 2 year old and oh. my. word. That child really knows how to push Momma’s buttons…and when he is having a meltdown, there is really nothing I can do teaching wise…I learned quickly all I can do is comfort him. When children are in stressful emotional states they need you to connect with them.
With all of this in mind, I’d like to share 5 Ways to Connect with your Most Challenging Child:
1. Get To Know Him and Let Him Know You
Think about your most challenging child. What is his favorite color? What is his favorite sports team? Does he have a favorite book, movie, cartoon? Who are his close friends? What are his strengths, his weakness, his fears? You may be able to answer some of these questions off the top of your head. If not, take some time to find answers to these questions. The answers might surprise you.
You can collect information several ways:
· Have a conversation: One way is to take time in the morning, when kids are doing morning work or getting unpacked to start a casual conversation with him. Jot down what he tells you on a sticky note and stick it in your data binder. Doing this over time can help you get snapshots of what is life is like at home, what his interests are and other important pieces of information.
· Observe him in the “wild”: When your kids are at recess, take your clipboard out and watch him interact with his peers. Who is he playing with? How is he playing? What social skills does he excel with? Which social skills are difficult for him?
· Use a formal inventory: This can be done with all of your kids or just him. Use this formal inventory to collect information on his interests, hobbies, friends, family, etc. To make it even more interesting, fill it out yourself and share it with him. You’ll be amazed at some things you have in common and he will appreciate the one on one time with you. (Remember that many of the unwanted behaviors we see in kids are cries for help and attention. They are going to get your attention one way or the other, so why not pay it forward and give him some positive attention?)
2. Identify His Strengths and Build On Them
Too often we look at what kids CAN’T do instead of what they CAN do. Unfortunately most of our challenging kids are usually our most academically struggling kids. That makes a lot of sense when you think about the time they spend being in trouble or getting into trouble compared to the time they are actively engaged in learning. It’s a simple math equation. Less time learning equals less time acquiring academic skills. Look for strengths not only in academic areas such as reading or math but in all subjects areas: art, music, science, problem solving, social skills, etc. When you find that strength, latch onto it and focus on it. There is a saying, “Where attention goes, energy flows.” The more attention you give him for his strengths, the more likely he is to play up to them.
3. Give him important tasks in the classroom
I know this may sound VERY scary to you. “You’re telling me let my most defiant child pass out the milk during snack time? We will have milk all over the place! NO way!” Ok…so what I’m going to say about this is make sure you are setting him up for success. Whatever task you give him make sure you do the following:
· Ensure that this is a task he WANTS to do…if he has no intrinsic motivation to do it, he won’t do it well and he won’t feel honored that he gets to do it
· TEACH him how to do it. Children (and adults) learn best when they are taught a skill through multiple modalities: visually, auditory, kinesthetically, tactically. Model the task, have the children practice the task with your guidance, take photos of the child doing the task and create a mini anchor chart to refer back to
· Emphasize the IMPORTANCE of the task so that he feels honored and has a sense of urgency to complete it correctly. Say something like, “This is one of our most important classroom jobs because if it doesn’t get done then…”
4. Teach the Skills He Needs to Be Successful
I’ve been to several Dan St. Romain trainings. He is AMAZING. I highly suggest going to one of his workshops if you ever get the chance. Dan speaks about the importance of approaching behavior management just like we approach the teaching of language and math skills. We don’t punish children for not being able to count to 10 so why do we punish them for struggling with behavior? When he made that statement it was quite an eye opening experience for me.
Identify one social skill that your challenging child needs the MOST. Does he struggle the most with taking turns, following directions, using kind words? I would start with one skill and really dig deep into that skill with the child. Have a mini conference with that child and discuss the skill explicitly and set goals. Explain that this skill is something we have to practice many times until we get really good at it. Make sure you teach this skill at a time when the child is not upset and has done nothing wrong. If you try teaching him when he is operating with his reptilian brain, he will not be responsive. Work on one skill at a time until he masters it, then move on to another. This is RTI right here folks! Document what you do, how he practices and track his success rate.
Make sure that once you teach the skill that you are constantly reinforcing it and praising him when he uses it. Give him positive attention for using the skill as soon as you see it, “John I saw that you used your kind words when you ask Bobby to scoot over.” That will get you a lot further than the generic, “Good job.”
5. Have fun with him!
Connecting with your most challenging child may be difficult at first. You may feel reservations about this child, you may worry that he won’t be able to “handle” fun with you. Just try and remember that at the end of the day he is just a child. Children learn best when they feel safe, secure and when they are having fun. You may be able to help them feel safe and secure but don’t forget about the fun! Here are some easy ways to have fun with your children:
· Play games whole group and purposefully partner up with your challenging child, this way you aren’t doing anything extra in your day, you are just purposefully giving your challenging child your one on one attention
· Tell silly knock knock jokes with your child, ask them to tell you some silly jokes they may know
· Find time during the day to read a silly book or poem to your challenging child, this give him your undivided attention and can help him feel connected with you
· Try implementing a Love Ritual; Dr. Becky Bailey has an amazing book with tons of love rituals you can try with your child, I do these with my toddler and it is really strengthening our connection
What other ideas do you use with your most challenging children? Have you tried any of these strategies before? What are your experiences with challenging children?