'Tis The Season by Ernie Batson, M.A.
Spring has sprung!! It is this time of year that I get asked the most questions about children’s behavior and whether or not it’s normal. This is also the time when we see some very interesting behaviors in the classroom. For example, children who normally follow the rules, stay within their boundaries, and are easy going all of a sudden feel a need to assert their independence as well as their opinions. They become curious and want to know what will happen if they do this or do that. Things like defiance and talking back appear overnight. For the really young ones, this might be their first hissy fit or, in some cases, the first time they say “No.” These behaviors throw most of us for a loop and leave us bewildered. Why does this happen and what can we do when all this happens? These are the $64,000 questions!
First, why does this happen. I think there are a lot of things in play here.
- First, children have just spent the last 6 months learning so many new skills. For some it’s walking, some it’s talking, and others it’s more academic. With this new knowledge and these skills, children become extremely confident and believe they know more than any adult could ever think of knowing. Therefore, they need us not and they want us to know just as much! At the end of the day, this is all very typical behavior. I’ll even go so far as to say this is necessary for a child so they can get that well rounded development we all talk about and want children to have.
- Then, there’s the whole winter thing. Most winters nobody can get out to play and children, as well as adults, are feeling cooped up. Our winters have been so crazy that some days are beautiful and children can be outside. Then, the very next day it snows or the temperature drops and everybody must stay in. This leaves children confused and frustrated.
- Finally, there’s that time change. The sun stays up longer, it’s dark when we get up, dinner time is different, and it’s really difficult to go to bed when it’s still light out. This can be really confusing to young children. They don’t know which way is up because they’re hungry and it’s not time for dinner. Or, they’re not tired and it’s time to go to bed. This year’s time change has been unusually tough on all of us and that trickles down to the youngest of the young.
Before I go any further, I want to touch back upon confidence. Confidence takes a serious amount of balance. A confident person is one who can handle both the good and bad times successfully. I am always working to help children become more confident than the day before and I realize that there will be times a child stretches the limits. When this happens, I am rejoicing because this child has the courage to test the boundaries and they are ready to learn one of life’s lessons with someone who cares about them.
What can we do when these moments occur? Here’s what I know:
- In the first 3 years of life, cause and effect are at the center of a child’s learning. If I do this, what will happen? What happens if I say this? What will happen when I throw the ball? Everything is centered on cause and effect. For example, when a one year old shows their independence by openly defying mom’s request to come here, it is a moment to remember. Many times we’ll laugh (because it is cute) and the baby has learned that it’s o.k. to run the other way. Or, a child asks dad a question to which the answer is no and they keep asking over and over again. If dad gives in after the 20th request, the child has just learned that they get what they want when they keep repeating the question. My suggestions are to turn away when you’re laughing (because it can be hilarious) and if you’re going to give in, give in right away and save the whole arguing thing.
- Don’t take your child’s behavior personally! A child’s behavior has everything to do with them and nothing to do with us! Children want to learn and the only real way to learn is by doing. Learning includes academics as well as behaviors. They must have these moments to learn about who they are and where they fit in this world. The real bonus is that all those talks you had about what kind of person you want your child to grow up to be can be put into action because these are the best moments to learn.
- With every hissy fit, children are learning how to accept “No” as an answer. This is really tough for children and the skills they are learning are phenomenal. They are learning how to regulate their behavior and developing self-esteem. The importance of regulating behavior goes without saying. Temper tantrums with a 3 year old, while not pretty, are acceptable whereas temper tantrums at 21 are completely unacceptable. It’s best to learn earlier rather than later. The other skill, self-esteem, is the single most important piece in a child’s development. So much good comes from children who have a great sense of self. The piece to remember is that self-esteem is developed as much through tears as it is through cheers. After the hissy fit and things have calmed down, the child snuggles in and learns that mom and dad still love them and want them to be around. Once again, life is good! Now, the child is ready to accept the next “No” a bit more gracefully.
- Separate the behavior from the child. This one is extremely important to me! Children are great people who make mistakes just like you and me. Mistakes are O.K.; it’s what you do after the mistake that makes the difference. To help me remember this, I always start my statements to children with “I love you dearly and…” then finish with “…people in my class are being nice to each other, picking up toys, sitting on the tape, etc.” The first words “I love you dearly and..” are really more for me because I want to remember that I do love this child and they are just going through some growing pains. The “and” carries the positive message all the way to the end. If I use the word “but” in place of “and”, the positive message stops right there and children are more likely to stop listening.
- The time to talk is after the hissy fit and the child is snuggling into your lap. This is when the child is ready to listen and we’re more ready to talk with a calm voice. At this time, I remind children of two things. One is that I do love them and the other is the behavior that got them here. This last one is important because I want to help children identify the behavior that got them in trouble. I believe once they know this information, they’ll be more prepared to make a different decision next time. The other important piece is that I’m using a calm and caring voice because the arguing is done and it’s time to move on. When we’re finished talking, I wish them luck and we’re off to our next adventure.
- One of my favorite statements to children who are talking back or saying not-so-nice things is “I talk to people who talk nicely to me and right now you’re not talking nicely to me.” After I’ve said this I walk away and say nothing more until the child starts talking to me nicely. Another great one for me is “I’ll talk to you when your voice is like mine.” And then I keep repeating myself until the child’s voice has calmed down. (This really does work and it may take a few minutes for the child to realize I’m going to talk with them when their voice is like mine.) The key to either one of these statements is the ability to say what you mean and mean what you say.
I realize that this is all easier said than done especially when you’re in the heat of the moment. As a general rule of thumb, I won’t say anything if I don’t know what I want to say. If necessary, I’ve been known to cover my mouth to keep myself from saying anything because once the words are said, I can’t take them back. I’ve also been known to sing a song (“I like myself, I’m a really good person…” you can add your own tune) until I figure out what I want to say. At times, I’ll remove myself from the situation until I have a plan and thought about what I really want to say.
There is value in waiting on so many levels. First, children typically don’t like confrontation and the more time they have to think the better off they will be. Second, adults need time to think and too often we don’t give ourselves enough time. Finally, all parties have cooled down and only good can come from that; I hope! The bottom line to all this is safety. If a child isn’t safe, there is no highway; it’s my way. If a child is safe and I can keep an ear or an eye on them, then I’ll remove myself just to keep things from escalating.
Finally, please remember that these moments are all about growing up. These lessons are as necessary as learning the ABC’s and 123’s; maybe even more. When your child claims, “I hate you!” or “Stop saying those words!” do your happy dance! This is when you’ll know that you’re doing a great job and, most importantly, your child really loves you and wants your help.