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Friday, March 29, 2013

Guiding children's behaviour using calm words alone

Have you noticed that children rarely respond to pushing when you're trying to change their behaviour?

We'd love the playroom to look like
this... but more often that bin is
emptied all over the floor, right?
They don't sweetly tidy their room because you yelled at them to pick up their Legos off the floor. (Well, not unless you've got that child so cowed by fear that they're going to grow into a bullied child or a battered wife some day.)

They don't stop playing those games with pretend guns because you banned them. (They just play them round the corner, where you can't see them.)

They don't immediately stop having an embarrassing tantrum in the supermarket aisle because you gave them a slap on the leg or the bottom. (If anything, they yell louder.)

So where do we go instead?

For mine, the answer is shining a light with your words. Try to think of yourself as the sun. If you can cast some light on the situation and show your child where the shadows are, you stand a chance that your child can feel a sense of personal control of the situation and make better choices.

Now, I know that's counter-intuitive for some of you! You may be feeling that your child has too much control already, or is just totally out of control! LET GO OF THAT. What you are trying to do is let your child have room to learn better choices, and they can't do that with a policeman making and enforcing the rules for them all the time. 

Let me be clear here: there ARE times when you need to call a halt and be a policeman, such as when another child or an animal is getting hurt. That's an "I won't let you do that", physical-prevention moment, before you shine your light. 

I'm talking about those moments when you're tempted to be a moralist, when a certain behaviour seems socially unacceptable to you, when you're trying to nudge your child onto a better path. That's the moment to stop yourself in your tracks and, instead of talking AT your child, turn on the light.

The magic word here is NARRATION. Narration just means saying exactly what you see, without interpretation or judgment. You describe the scene before you.

Let's say a child is constantly pushing in to get a turn on the slippery dip. Instead of a lecture, deliver a description.

"I see Nathan trying to push in front of Xavier. Xavier's face looks angry to me. Xavier has been waiting for his turn behind Zac, not behind Nathan."

And let them work it out. Give the power back to the children. Xavier will feel acknowledged; he may find the strength to speak up directly to Nathan, instead of pushing back. Nathan himself may wake up from his desire to have another go now and notice the other child's disapproval- far more powerful to him than yours! Then he has the choice to change without being told.

You'd be amazed how often this works.

Here's another example. A two-year-old, denied a third biscuit or a certain item off the supermarket shelf, throws herself on the floor and screams incoherently. Instead of reacting, describe what you see. 

You might have to put your face down next to hers first, mind you, and describe your own difficulty: "I can't understand your words when you yell and cry. Can you take some big breaths and then tell me what you want?"

Once you use emotions' names
often enough, children start
to join the dots and can put
themselves into a recovery
space if you provide it. This
is an 'angry space'.
Then you can describe what you see. "I can see that it makes you very angry, or maybe very sad, when I say no. Your angry, sad feelings are making you bang your fists and kick the floor because they are too big for your body to hold them inside. Will it help if I help you hold those big feelings? I have nice long arms if you'd like to put some of your big feelings inside them."
And this is a 'sad' recovery area.

You'd be amazed how often a sobbing child ends up in your lap. Though of course, sometimes you need to be patient and wait till the child is ready to make that choice.

Narration works from birth to ease over difficult moments. The Magda Gerber approach as advocated by Janet Lansbury - Elevating Childcare and Lisa Sunbury - Regarding Baby, for example, show you how to use narration to calm and prepare a child who hates nappy / diaper changes by describing what you're going to do before you do it. 

"I see you have a wet nappy. Now I'm going to pick you up so we can go change it."

"I'm going to take it off now- it must be uncomfortable. I see you like to have a kick when your nappy is off- that's okay! You have fun there while I pull out the wipes."

And so on. Pop on over for some great ideas and scripts for the squirmy baby.

And what about those Legos on the floor? Damn, they hurt to walk on! Narrate, narrate, narrate.

"I see that the Legos are covering almost the whole floor. You are obviously having a lot of fun with them. But I have a bit of a frown on my face because I am worried about how I will get to your bed to kiss you good night without hurting my feet badly. I see that the box they live in is just over there."

And walk away! Leave your child the opportunity for agency and free choice of his/her behaviour. That is how they learn good choices

Stop pushing. It doesn't work. It encourages stubbornness, reactiveness and pushing back.

Start describing. It works. It encourages cooperation, verbal instead of physical interaction and emotional intelligence.

And once you see the results, you'll rarely go back... except in those moments when you really, really need a break yourself. Narrate that to yourself and your children, too. Not just advice for parents- it works for childcare workers too! I used to do it often in my preschool room!

"I am feeling very upset right now, so I am taking a little time out till I can feel calm again."

And I would breathe deeply. Often the children who had created the meltdown would take the hint, and start breathing along with me till the whole situation calmed down naturally.

That is a fine lesson to model!