We are born with our temperament and behaviour is learned. Some children are more cautious than others. Some adapt to change easily while others do not. In every group, there are children who are more active and children who are more passive. The seemingly fearless are sharing space with the more anxious. These innate personality traits will be a part of who they are for their whole lives. They need to learn skills to help them cope, work together, behave within the boundaries of their culture, follow directions and strive to be the best version of themselves.
Sounds simple – just teach them – but it is tricky. In the early childhood years, children are egocentric. They see the world only from their own point of view. They do not yet understand that other people can have different viewpoints or need different things. When we make demands of them that are contrary to their desires, they find that frustrating. They think if they want a toy, that everyone must want them to have it. Then, we come along, tell them that they can’t have it or that they have to wait, and they do not understand how we could say something the opposite of what they think.
Children at this age are also limited in their ability to express themselves. Verbal children may know vocabulary but that does not mean they can use those words when they are upset. The same is true for all of us. I have been so angry or so frustrated that I cannot come up with effective words to use to say what I need. Adults struggle to find the words and string them together so we can communicate in those moments. If we, who have been through so many years of using words cannot find them when we are emotional, it is certainly unrealistic to expect that of young children.
Children are who non-verbal or speech delayed are even more challenged. They find it difficult to communicate all the time, not just when they are in an upsetting situation. They need someone’s attention or help regulating their own feelings and the impact of those feelings on their bodies, but they don’t have the tools to tell us. They will default to more physical actions and reactions so that they are “heard.”
When I first started working in Early Childhood Education, I went to the orientation for new teachers and was told that I was not allowed to use negative words when speaking to the children. I was not permitted to say, “No” or “Don’t” or “Don’t do that.” I thought I’d definitely slip and be fired. I wasn’t sure how to communicate to the children if I couldn’t say, “No. Stop. Don’t.” My use of words was always on my mind. Not only did I not get fired, that job was the best training ground I’ve ever had. I had no choice but to figure it out. With time and very intentional practice, using only positive phrasing started to come naturally. To this day, I strive to speak the same way to my own children who are now in their twenties.
Make it your intention to pay attention to your words when addressing children about their behaviour. Are you helping the child to understand why certain behaviour is expected? Are you talking to the children with positive words that helps them to both know what you do expect and feel as if the request is possible?
Behaviour is taught. It cannot simply be erased, and it needs to make sense to the child. Children need to know why I am asking them to behave a certain way and what we need them to do instead. We cannot simply make inappropriate behaviour disappear at our command. We have to replace the behaviours in a way that does not demean children and negatively impact their self-esteem. We need them to understand. Self-regulation is a skill set – just like any other skill set. We explain other skill sets to them. We need to explain our lessons about behaviour, too.
We may have a list of rules for children to follow at different times of day or in different places. All those rules are confusing, so we need to put them in simple categories for children to understand. Primarily, we want to teach children to be safe, be healthy, be kind and take care of their things. The rest are the details. We can help children to understand why we ask for certain behaviours if we attach them to those four categories every time, we teach them about appropriate behaviour. We also need to remember to tell them what to do instead. For example, when a child is running in a crowded hallway, I need to tell the child the type of rule (which really is what they will gain by doing it) and what I need to have happen. You might say, “Be safe. Walk in the hallway, please.” If a child hits another child because they are arguing over a toy block, you might say, “Be kind. Tell her that you had the block first.”
Finally, when children are meeting or exceeding expectations, they need to be acknowledged. They need to be encouraged to continue the desired behaviours. Self-regulation can be acknowledged but we need to be careful. When we are encouraging some, we need to be sure not to discourage those who struggle with their social-emotional growth. Offer the whole class time for doing an activity that they love if the whole class earns a certain number of pom-poms or small balls or some other item that can fill a jar. Each time a child does the right thing, they get to add one to the jar. They can even add pom-poms or balls to the jar for their classmate if they see them being kind, safe or taking care of their things without having been asked to do so by an adult. The jar has to be small and the contents large so they will fill it quickly. They need fun, acknowledging activities frequently. When it is full, celebrate with an activity they enjoy such as extra time on the playground or dancing to their favorite song. Every child at their own level can add to the jar without anyone being able to see who added how many. They are acting as a team. It is true that some children may not contribute to the jar, but isn’t that true of real life? On any team, some will contribute more than others on any given day. They will learn to help each other contribute, be happy for those who do, be willing to share in their success and then try again. Self-regulation, cooperation, teamwork and persistence will pave a strong path for the years ahead.
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