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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!


  1. Thanks AA - verbalising what is happening as well as emotions in a quiet, calm manner (if you can control yourself) is such a lovely way to model to our young children.

    1. Thanks Niki- I'm glad you see value in it too!

    2. This is so respectful of childrens' emotions and validates their feelings! I will wholeheartedly, adopt this in my caregiving responses when nurturing the needs of children and young people in my care. And also, with my now 17yr old son whose feelings are TOO heavy for him to contain at times...I am certain my "arms are still long enough"for him.

      Thank You for sharing your insightfulness.

    3. Well, thank you for your kind words, Lee Ann! I appreciate your feedback.

    4. sheila pluckebaumMarch 30, 2013 at 2:13 AM

      Thank you as a parent,grandparent and early childhood advocate,educator and trainer. 20 years ago we called them "I"messages.:) I like narration.:)

    5. Oh yes, Sheila! I remember that term 'I' messages too, from couples counselling. I prefer 'narration' as well. The validity of the technique remains regardless of the name!

    6. Narrration sounds better than I message. It's not about valadating your feelings, but another person's feelings.

  2. Thank you. So many writers only give DON'Ts. Don't spank. Don't yell. But they don't give advice on applying alternatives. For those who don't have any modeling or experience to fall back on, these things need to be taught. Great examples--thanks again.

    1. Thank you, Misty! I honestly can't see the point of that approach. Parents and teachers need ideas, not criticism.

  3. Would you suggest doing this for hair washing, too? My three year old has only once in his life been willing to wash his hair without much pushing from me. When I have tried not to push, I lasted about 2 1/2 weeks. I've thought about telling stories about a merman king who will only let my son visit him if he washes his hair (with beautiful orange soap). Is this pushing? Or helping? I've already started telling him these stories, and my son does know it is pretend. I'm frustrated...and wanting to help my son make good choices.

  4. Hi there, nice post. This is an interesting and very informative topic. Thanks for sharing you thoughts on this issue. Keep it up, looking forward to read another one in the future. Cheers!
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  7. Oh Aunt Annie I need your help, please! I am in my second year of working in the industry, and after working at a long day care for a year and a half, I have moved onto another centre that caters for 2-6. As I always say, this is my vocation, I truly believe I was born to work in it!

    During two weeks of Dip prac at this new centre, they offered me a job, and I've worked 8 shifts now. At first I was great with the chn, but now I am having a difficult time when, for example I do story (one of my favourite things!) or phonics time, and then afterwards, when some chn will sit and do 'writing journals' and the rest will play.

    I am ashamed to admit this, but for the first time in two years - I always said I wouldn't! - I yelled at the chn, at one point I even said "Stop yelling Billy!" talk about hypocritical!!! I am becoming the educator that I've always detested.

    At my previous centre, they felt that I was too soft on the chn, that the chn viewed me more as a friend rather than a teacher. Some chn would change their behaviour when I entered. I'm rather worried that chn view me as that sub teacher in school that students take advantage of, talking amongst their friends as oppose to doing any work. Only in child care it comes down to me! I know it's not the chn's fault, no child is a programmed robot!

    There are a particular group of boys who find it hard to stay attentive during group times, even with other educators. I am aware that some centres don't do group time as they find it doesn't work, and they use other methods, or if a child feels like it, we are supposed to let them go off. I know one centre even got in trouble from making a child sit down for group time instead of letting them wonder off, when visitors from ACEQA came.

    So, one child, whom I'll call Billy, is outgoing, loud, clever, inquisitive, talkative and also suffers from anxiety disorder (like myself!). I have noticed that Billy LOVES to help, he craves responsibility, which I try to cater for. Another child, whom I'll call Jeremy, is creative, playful and active but I've also noticed that he likes to 'taunt' his friends. Today his foot accidentally brushed against Billy, who gets aggravated easily, who said "Stop it!" and Jeremy smiles and does it again, using toilet humour. I have observed him doing this before, as if he likes the reaction of his friends getting riled up, who then kick him, and end up fighting each other.

    On the odd occasion I have felt myself get angry, as we all do, but mostly, once I learnt how to, I remain calm, and use strategies such as 'I messages' and other ways.

    I don't know what it is that has gotten me all in a fluster! The other teaches handle the groups fine, even I did at first! Perhaps it sounds a little cheesy, but I am still finding my identity as a teacher, I am getting there, it's just I often conflict over which path to take, I feel sometime that educators can be too 'shouty' or too harsh, sometimes even a tad too rough. But then I think well chn do listen to them when they say "Cara, come and sit down now!" or "Give it back Robby!" and "Can you not?".

    I feel like a fool sometimes because children that are more reserved sit on the mat and wait patiently whilst I'm sitting there after having said "1, 2, 3 eyes on me" 3 times or "Hands on heads! Hands or shoulders etc." I have tried to do your loud singing out of know where technique, but uh, that didn't work. I have even said "Gilian, stop running, and come and sit here" and all the rest, meanwhile I'm kicking myself for A) talking to a child that and B) not being able to handle a group of chn. I don't want to yell and I want to cater for each child. I know that some chn don't do well in group times, it's not their fault, but they learn in other ways.

    Can you tell by the lack of form in this disorganised, essay length question that I am in despair?

    1. What I hear is someone who is trying to be approved of by her seniors, while her heart tells her they're doing it the wrong way.

      It's a very hard situation when you're the new kid on the block. The other workers will be set in their ways, and those ways may well be of the 'do as I say, not as I do' variety- which does sometimes get kids sitting down and being quiet out of fear of reprisals. But is that what you want? Is discipline more important to you than meeting the children's needs? I think not.

      I suggest you go back to the ways that feel right to you, because you can't travel with someone else's compass. Preschoolers rarely have the sophistication to manipulate or take advantage unless we give them the opening by being unsure of ourselves. That is the opening you've given them- being unsure.

      Whatever you do, do it with certainty. Your confidence will be an aura that they can feel. If something's not working- a story, an activity- just say, "I don't think this is what you children need to be doing right now. Let's do something else instead. Who would like to put their hand up and then tell me what they'd like to do?"

      With the disruptive behaviour- convert it to a puppet show and ask the kids what should be done. Emu puppet, to you: "Kangaroo keeps hitting me with his foot and I don't like it." You, to the kids: "Hey everyone, Kangaroo and Emu have a problem. Who has an idea of what Emu can do?" Make your problem everyone's problem. Your classroom is a community. Are there class rules that the kids have chosen themselves? If not, use a group time to make some. (Teacher Tom has an excellent post on making class rules which you should read before attempting this.)

      As for stories, make sure that you have assessed the children's interests before reading a story. It's no good reading a bland story to a group of hyperactive boys, for example! Read them a story about a shark!

      I hope this has given you some starting points!

    2. Oh my goodness Aunt Annie, I am so appreciative of your (very quick!) response. I find myself nodding as I read the first three paragraphs, you painted the picture rather accurately. These are some fantastic starting points, and I know what you mean about the confident aura. I am eager for my next shift to turn myself around.

      I really love each child there and whilst they're in my care I want to be supportive and nurturing. I love reading about your experiences in various centres. You seem so confident, respectful and prepared.

      Thank-you Aunt Annie, I REALLY appreciate it.


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