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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

This is what love looks like.

A while ago I wrote about a little chap called 'Luke', who was pulling down the girls' pants, punching other children and generally being a holy terror. I told you about how I used gentle discipline techniques to break through his violent behaviour, till I got to the feelings underneath.

Here's a bit of a taste of what happened that day, months ago.

"...he struggles and shouts as I carry him over to the quiet area, where we can sit down. "Put me down! You're hurting my gizzards!" he yells, but I've been caught by that one before and watched him dance off laughing as I've let him go, fearful lest I be accused of rough handling.

Not this time. I know my hold isn't painful, I know I'm not being rough, though he's a well-grown, muscular boy and awkward to carry. I make it to the bench, sit down with him on my lap.

"I WANNA PLAY!" he shouts. "LET ME GO!"

His voice is loud in my ear, but he's not struggling. My hold around his waist is firm, but my hands are gentle.


"We need to sit here till you can stop talking with your hands," I say quietly. "It's okay to feel angry. But you need to say it with your mouth, not your hands. It's not okay to hit, and it's really, really not okay to pull the girls' pants down."

I stroke his arm silently till he stops yelling and relaxes a little, resigned to being kept here for the moment. I unfold his clenched fist and run it softly over the back of my hand.

"I need you to use gentle hands, like this," I say.

And I use my gentle hands to stroke his back as I hold him, trying to speak the message without any more words. He gets words thrown at him all day by the adults. He deflects words easily, staring boldly into your eyes while he goes right ahead doing the wrong thing.

But when I talk to him through my gentle hands, Luke starts to cry. Not angry tears, but great big heartbroken sobs. As he sits there shuddering on my lap, it's as though he shrinks back into his real size, his real age; he's not some monster, some oversized schoolyard bully towering over his peers. He's a vulnerable four-year-old child, confused and not understanding how to fit into his world."

(You can read the whole post here if you didn't already see it.)

I wanted to remind you of Luke today, because I know that sometimes we get so frustrated by trying to use peaceful discipline. Sometimes kids behave so badly that it seems easier to just let go of our own self-control and spank, or shout, or punish. Often it looks like that's working better, and more quickly- especially with repeat offenders.

But I have an update for you about Luke, and I think it's important.

Since the day I wrote that post, which was over three months ago, I haven't seen Luke. I've been too sick to work. Before that, I'd only seen Luke very infrequently- perhaps once or twice a month. I'm only the casual relief. I've had the most minimal chance to make any impact on his world, or on his way of understanding things.

I would have expected that that little incident would have faded from Luke's memory long ago. I would have expected that I had made no difference at all to him, in the long term.

But when I dropped in to that workplace today, to talk to the director about my illness, the very first person I saw when I opened the door was Luke. There he was, rolling about on the floor with some other boys, engaged in some ongoing and highly  energetic play scenario.

And then he spotted me. He jumped out of those cushions, flew across the room and threw his arms around my legs. He hugged me like his life depended on it.

Gentle reader, this is not a child who greets people by hugging them. This is a child who gets off the bus and punches you as he walks by.


Of course, I just about cracked up on the spot. I've rarely been so surprised or so touched by a child's sudden display of affection. I pulled myself together though, smiled, ruffled his hair, had a quiet word with him and moved on to do what I'd come for.

Later, driving away, I started to think about what I'd just seen. This is a child from a terribly disrupted background. Dad's been in jail, mum's barely coping, violence is the most familiar mechanism he knows for dealing with big feelings. Yet when I walked through the door- a relative stranger, who'd had that one magic breakthrough with him so long ago- what came out of him was an unprecedented affectionate greeting.

And then I did break down, and I cried my eyes out. But they were happy tears, for once, in this time of great stress for me.

Perhaps he did remember that day when I met his violence with gentleness. Or perhaps, somewhere inside him, he just remembered a face and a feeling to match it. Perhaps he just saw me, and recognised that this is what love looks like. 

Please, you have to keep believing in gentle discipline. You have to have faith, and try your hardest to be consistent and unflappable. You just don't know when that moment will come when a child crosses the threshold, and suddenly learns that a limit gently enforced can be a true expression of love.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Raising resilient children

Most of you know that I'm currently engaged in the fight of my life, against breast cancer. (You can read about it over at my other blog, Fighting the Freeloader, or follow the journey through my other Facebook page.) It's taking up a lot of my time and energy.

What has that to do with parenting and childcare, you might ask?

It seems, if I'm to believe the feedback I'm getting from my readers, that I'm showing an unusually high level of resilience as I battle this disease. Over and over, people write to me that they're amazed by the level of humour and strength that I'm displaying in these terribly trying and tiring circumstances. I tell you this not to pat myself on the back- I'm a bit bewildered by the fuss, actually- but because it's occurred to me that maybe I have something really valuable to share with you here.

What did my parents contribute to my
resilience now?
How did I become so resilient? Is there a path that my parents  followed which led to me becoming so mentally strong as an adult? What did I learn, that now enables me to bounce back from these dire circumstances with humour and positivity?

Surely that toughness and lightness is what we want for our children. How can we help them to become mentally strong adults?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

When kids won't do what you ask

Another request for help from a reader!

Kristin asks:

I teach kindergarten, and this year in particular I am faced with (multiple) children who absolutely REFUSE to do what I'm asking them. I feel like it's attention seeking. Let it go, or take the reins?

The first thing I want to address here is the idea that 'attention seeking' is a problem in early childhood. Of course very young children are seeking our attention! It's not manipulation. They need our attention, and 'being difficult' is often an indication that they are feeling on the outer or that they have some sort of special need in that moment.

Young children are not a
homogenous body- they are
like different rainbows
gathered in a room. Try to
appreciate the range!
For many of them, kindergarten's the first time they've had to be away from their mothers, learning to be part of a large group. We need to keep our expectations age-appropriate. It is not age-appropriate to expect very young children, in their first years of group education, to behave like primary school kids- to act like a homogenous body when given directions. Some of them won't just sit down on the mat when you ask. Some of them have no idea about being quiet when asked.

So that's point one. Think about where these children are starting from, and don't expect miracles. Be patient.

Point two is about respect. Kindergarten children are still learning through play, not through being told to do things. They become very busy with their work of learning through play. They are not being 'ornery' when you call them to make a line or sit on the mat or find their hats, and they fail to comply. They are probably in the middle of something fascinating and educational! If we can reframe 'disobedience' as 'engagement (to the exclusion of external stimuli)', it looks very different.

We want to encourage focus, don't we? What looks random and unimportant to an adult can be vital, in the moment, to a child. We need to increase our respect for what children are doing, and be a little more humble ourselves about the orders we issue.

Give warnings before you want them to transition to a new activity. Respect the play-work they've done. Protect their partially-completed structures and projects, so they can return to them later. Try not to regiment them too much- they are very young. There's plenty of time later for sitting at desks and lining up, and at 4 or 5 years old, most children are not developmentally ready for that sort of learning environment.

Of course, that is not to say that it's alright to have a free-for-all in your kindergarten room. Children do need to learn to do as they're told, and not just for educational purposes. You do need to feel secure that they'll listen and follow instructions- for example, in case of an emergency. Worst case scenario- if the house or the childcare centre is burning down, the children need to be accustomed to doing what you ask them when they hear certain signals.

So the answer to Kristin's question is that you MUST be able to take the reins.

But how?

That's not something that happens overnight- you need to grow a sense of community and an atmosphere of trust, and you need to be respected as the leader. The good news is that there are some tricks of the trade that can help you to achieve that.

The answer to everything, as I often say, is relationship. But if you're a teacher, the truth of starting out each year is that you have to walk into that kindy room cold and...

Get their attention

If it's not working, stop doing it.

Raising your voice and shouting instructions to get the attention of a group of young children is doomed to failure. Yelling means someone's angry or upset- why would they want to engage with that? Would you? They simply don't hear you, or they block out what you're saying.

You need to change the way you get the whole group's attention so that it doesn't send out those old, negative emotional overtones. Here are some ideas:

(a) Turn all the lights off. Then when the kids look up from what they're doing and stop talking, turn them on again, and speak in your normal voice.

"I need everyone to come to the mat right now, please! It's important!"

And smile. Make it sound exciting, engaging, important.

(b) Ring a bell, beat a drum, or blow a whistle. A new and different tone colour cuts through noise much more effectively than your voice, which the children are used to. (There's a reason people used to use dinner gongs!)

Again, what you say next is important- keep it simple, direct and positive.

(c) No lights on? No musical instruments at hand? Then sing what you have to say instead of shouting it.

Singing cuts through chaos like nothing else I know. You'll find some simple attention-getting ditties in my blog post about music, under the heading 'transition tricks'.

(d) Use a puppet or toy to do the talking, and address individuals by name. "I'm Mr Sneezy, and I want to see you on the mat right now, Ethan! You too, Arianne!"

(e) Lower your voice instead of raising it. Go to each group of children and whisper "Something's happening over at the mat! Are you coming? Shh! Let's tiptoe! Do you think anyone else will see what we're doing?"

Actually, you don't have to say a word. Mime it. Put a finger to your lips and beckon, smiling. This is a good way to gather up stragglers- make sure you have eye contact by getting down on their level and using their name, then go into your Marcel Marceau routine.

Okay, you have their attention. Now what?

Be organised

Very young children will stop listening to you if you keep them waiting. You need to be organised, both practically and in your head. You need to know what you want to say or do, and launch into it the moment you have their attention. A child who gets up from the mat and wanders away before you've got your resources together, because you didn't have your gear assembled before you called the children in- well, that behaviour's not the child's fault. A child who walks away when you're giving him an instruction- well, you haven't kept his attention, have you?

How do we make sure instructions 'get through'?

Keep it simple

Start the year giving ONE instruction at a time. Work out the right level of language- and it won't necessarily be the same level for every member of your group! Suit your language to the individual child when talking one-on-one. With the whole group, keep it simple and short.

Make it engaging

Children co-operate when they're having fun. Keep it light-hearted if you possibly can. Make them laugh if you can.

OR, make it fascinating. Irresistible. Practical. Children learn by doing, not by being told, so make sure they take part in whatever you want them to learn about.

Note- be careful of overstimulating them, as well as being careful not to bore them! That's a balancing act, a fine art which is learned only through hard experience. If you're an inexperienced teacher, be kind to yourself. You will make mistakes. That's only a sin if you don't learn from them.

What about the 'problem child'?

What, there are still some children not co-operating?

Identify the leaders in any unco-operative groups. Target them with your professional skills and your loving attention. Improve your relationship with those leaders, through play and positive interaction. Find out their interests. Make sure they feel like they belong in your room. Spend time with the most 'difficult' children in your room, talk to their parents, find out what goes on inside their heads. Learn to love them for who they are, if you possibly can.

Give them specific leadership roles- sometimes the child who won't come to the mat themselves is the very child who's awfully good at getting everyone else to the mat! Make the 'problem child' your helper and messenger.

It's still not working!

If you're still not getting through, consult with your colleagues. Do they find this child hard to get through to? Is there perhaps a special needs diagnosis waiting to be made? Do you have a bored, gifted child making waves?

Ask for help when you're struggling- don't blame the child, or the parents.  Your 'problem child' (or children) may be desperately needing someone to notice that they're not coping.

That lack of obedience could be a cry for help. Are you listening?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tantrums: 3 steps to beat 'em, not join 'em!

I love answering my readers' questions. It's a long time since I wrote a post, given all that's happening in my life at the moment, but this morning Cari asked:

How do you handle tantrums?

And I can just imagine what she's going through. Anyone who's had a toddler knows what she's going through. So I'll put my Aunt Annie hat back on for a moment, to answer that question properly.