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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?


  1. These are great tips. And many of them work well at home, too, when your "class" is a class of three! Especially the singing . . . gets them every time. Now *they* have started doing it, too . . . if they see that A is particularly squirmy for a diaper change or whatever the girls burst out into song. :-)

    1. So true, Momma- this does work well at home. And yes, the kids soon learn to use the singing transitions- I love the way that happens!

  2. Great tips! My daughter struggles with transitions as she is often engaged. When she wasn't listening to the assistant teacher and playing with a friend instead of going to the line, she got "comment" in her binder that said she "continued to play all day!" I had had to laugh at that one... isn't that what 5-year-olds are supposed to do! As an ECE student observing in classrooms this is something that all the teachers I've seen struggle with. I think recognizing our own frustrations and then reassessing the situation helps. I like the above suggests and will keep this for when I start student teaching. Great advice as always from AA.

    1. Thank you Rachel- I also got a laugh out of 'continued to play all day'! That actually should read 'continued to self-educate all day'. :)

  3. So happy to have found your blog - thank you for some great ideas and explanations. Any further tips for the very young? Up to 18 months?


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