This week we are discussing Chapters 27 & 28. Deborah Hirschland will provide insight and lead our discussion this week about behavior strategies. Just joining us? Get all the book study details HERE.
Four-year-old Kevin plops down in the block area of a Pre-K classroom where his classmate Sam has been constructing an elaborate castle. Kevin immediately grabs for the arched block that Sam is placing out front as an entryway, but Sam isn’t interested in handing it over. He calmly points out that there are others just like it nearby.
Kevin doesn’t seem to understand that Sam is trying to help out and doesn’t want to take no for an answer. With a look of intense frustration, he kicks over the entire castle. Then, after delivering a well-placed punch to Sam’s arm, he runs off.
Sam begins to wail. The classroom’s lead teacher Amalia heads Sam’s way to find out what happened. She looks visibly stressed: this is the third time that Kevin has caused another child great distress and it’s only twenty minutes into the morning.
Amalia and her co-teacher Libby are trying to stay patient and upbeat in the face of Kevin’s many difficulties. Experienced and skilled educators, they’ve taught kids with challenging behaviors before and know that even with good help, it can take time for such children to find their way. They remind themselves often that this is Kevin’s first experience in preschool and that his play and social skills are well behind those of his peers. They’re also starting to sense that Kevin has some difficulties processing language, “hard-wired” vulnerabilities that could well be contributing to the behaviors that are causing them such concern.
What to do? Part of the problem for these teachers is that Kevin’s frustration is so quickly ignited, and that he hurts other children so frequently. As a result, it’s difficult for them to find opportunities to offer him the support he needs to develop the skills he lacks: skills in using language to make his needs known, in playing and problem-solving with other kids, and in managing his frustration without lashing out. If only he’d stop kicking, hitting, and hurling toys – and stop running around the room when they try to lend a hand…
Amalia and Libby are wondering something. Should they consider giving Kevin time-outs to reduce his explosive and unsafe behaviors? They’re not sure; they’re strong advocates of their program’s overall no time-out policy, though they know that their director will work with them to make an exception to that policy if everyone decides it’s truly needed. But even with the possibility of time outs as a last ditch option, they’re hesitant – such an approach might leave Kevin feeling even more frustrated than he is already. Should they set up a sticker system instead? They’re not convinced about that idea either. With Kevin’s high level of impulsivity, such a system might not even make a dent in what’s going on.
Amalia and Libby are stumped. That’s why, as the program’s early childhood mental health consultant, I have been called into the classroom to take a look. It’s also why, standing in an unobtrusive spot from which I can observe Kevin, I see firsthand the events just described. To figure out how to help this boy begin to thrive, and to provide the other children in his classroom with the safe and calm classroom environment they deserve, Amalia, Libby and I have our work cut out for us.
Nicole, a single mother, is worried about her daughter Maya. Nicole believes that the experience of a trust-filled attachment should always lie at the heart of parenting – she has read some books she really liked about “attachment parenting” – and consistently lets five-year-old Maya know that she’s interested in hearing about how she’s feeling when she’s upset. Nicole does her best to help her daughter work through what’s bothering her, and sees the two of them as beautifully connected. Nicole values that sense of connection because when she was young, she didn’t get much of what she needed emotionally from either of her parents. As a result, she swore that when she had kids, they’d have her full attention and support when they were having a hard time.
There’s a problem though. Maya is continuing to get very upset at home many times a day, and often over seemingly small things. At those times she cries hard, yells loudly, and often ends up kicking and hitting her mom. Nicole always tells Maya that hurting others isn’t okay. And after Maya sorts her way through the problem at hand, she quickly returns to her sunny self once again. Furthermore, Nicole has consistently heard from Maya’s teachers that her daughter rarely falls apart in school – there she’s experienced as a calm and relatively flexible classroom member. Kids enjoy her company and her teachers do too.
Nicole is delighted to know that out in the world Maya is doing so well. But things don’t seem to be improving at home and she’s starting to feel that her daughter is stuck in a way that isn’t good for either of them. Now Nicole is seeking some guidance from me about what to do. Should she be firmer with Maya? She’s not keen on the idea of time-out, she declares without my asking – she has troubling memories of being sent to her room frequently as a child and doesn’t want to do the same to Maya. She wonders aloud about some other options. Should she institute a reward system to help Maya learn to stay calmer in the face of frustration? Should she start taking away privileges or much-desired activities as a way of encouraging Maya to behave differently?
Kevin and Maya’s stories are just two of many that take place in young children’s families and classrooms across the country every day. Sometimes the “bumps” kids experience at home or in school are big like Kevin’s. Sometimes they’re even smaller than Maya’s. But whatever the specifics, all children need the adults who care for them to help them in becoming engaged learners, compassionate friends, capable problem-solvers, and responsible and caring family members. As Kevin’s teachers and Maya’s mother know well, however, it can be hard to figure out just how to provide the help kids need to achieve these important goals.
I’ll return to Kevin and Maya later. For now it’s worth noting that their stories raise some of the same questions that Rae Pica addresses in chapters 27 and 28 of her wonderful book What If Everybody Understood Child Development. Are rewards and punishments ever a useful part of helping kids learn to manage their feelings and behaviors in the midst of their busy families and classrooms? Does their use – or overuse – lead to children relying on outside motivators rather than coming to feel confident and in control from a deep and enduring place within themselves? How about the kind of “if-then” statements Maya’s mother is considering using (“if you do this, you won’t be able to do that”)? Is it ever a good idea – not just in the short term but in regard to children’s development over time – to use natural consequences to help kids learn to balance their needs with the needs of others with whom they live, play, and learn?
How about time-out? Should it ever be an element of what we do as educators or parents to help kids find successful ways to manage their impulses when they’re upset or angry? Should it ever be a part of our “toolbox” as we help children learn to do what adults need them to even when they don’t feel like it? Should it be one of many tools we turn to, or should we ban it as a tool altogether? And if we do “give time-out a time-out,” what might we replace it with when we feel like we’ve already tried everything we can think of to support a child in developing new skills, to help him as he works through how he’s feeling, and to assist him as he learns alternatives to behaving in ways that just won’t fly in our homes and schools? Finally, as in Kevin’s case, what should we do when a child is being unsafe, over and over again? Is time-out a useful strategy then?
These are hugely important questions for all of us in the field, and Rae has brought them to the fore simply and eloquently in the chapters just noted. They’re not always easy questions to answer. In fact, I’ve wrestled with them repeatedly over the course of my career as a social worker who spends much of her time in early childhood settings, working with children who are struggling in one way or another, partnering with teachers who are concerned about those same youngsters, and helping parents support their kids more successfully at home. These questions have also made their way into the books I’ve written about helping some of our most worrisome children begin to thrive at home and in school. (Kevin, as is probably clear, fits in that category.)
I’ve now spent over thirty years in the early childhood field. During that time we have swung this way and that on a lot of issues – the use of time-out being just one. We debate what’s best for kids. We nix one idea and try another. The pendulum about what we think of as “best practice” swings back and forth. And whenever there is new thinking that emerges from the worlds of research, theory-building, or practice, we consider what it can tell us about how to support and nurture the kids we care for.
The areas we consider in this regard range widely. We don’t just have information about how relying on rewards and punishments can work in the short run but hold back children’s progress in the long run. We also know quite a bit more than we used to about how children’s temperaments and hard-wiring affect their ways of being at home and in school. We have learned a lot about the impact of stress on kids’ ability to cope well too. And we’ve come to understand just how much troubling or traumatic experiences can impact children’s development, readiness to learn, and emotional well-being. And this short list is just a start.
The nuances in how we now think about children play out in what we do. Our growing understanding of children’s sensory issues, for example, has led some educators to go from insisting that young kids should all sit “criss-cross applesauce” during group time to giving kids four different ways to sit and telling them they can go from one to another when they get restless. What those educators find is that just a little “tweak” like this one, based on some relatively new knowledge about differences in development, can lead to a great reduction in the “wiggles” as a class of kids engages in group-based activities and learning. Endless reminders are reduced as well and – in classrooms that use them – time-outs may no longer seem so vital to the success of circle time.
There are other examples too. Realizing how many twenty-first century children are coming to their classrooms highly stressed and notably distracted, some teachers have started using a mix of yoga and breathing techniques to help kids relax more and focus better. And based on new understandings of how the brain works when an individual is emotionally overloaded – and on the importance of maintaining connection with kids who are easily frustrated and/or overwhelmed – educators sometimes offer children specific things to do when they’re upset rather than always sending them off to a “calm down” corner to figure out how to pull themselves together without support. (See Becky Bailey’s Creating the School Family for more on one version of this kind of approach.) We use social stories to help kids master the difficult issues in their lives and give them visuals about how to engage in problem-solving too. (See the website of the Center for the Social Emotional Foundations of Early Learning or CSEFEL, for specifics.)
In short, we’ve learned a lot and we keep trying to get it right. And as I now take all of this complexity and return to questions about rewards, punishments, and time-outs, there are a few aspects to what I’m going to suggest in response to chapters 27 and 28 of What if Everyone Knew About Child Development.
On the one hand, as Rae points out so clearly, we want to keep in mind what we’re aiming for – in this case, kids who are engaged, connected, and compassionate, and who learn how to control their impulses and manage their feelings from a place of inner strength and well-being. We want to avoid what we’re worried about too, i.e. fostering kids who “behave appropriately” in the moment in order to gain rewards or praise (or avoid punishment or isolation) but who don’t develop the inner resources that will serve as their guides and anchors over time.
On the other hand, I believe strongly that we should guard against getting too dogmatic about absolutes along the way. Especially since absolutes – never do this, always do that – tend not to take into account how children differ one from the next: their constitutional natures are different, their families and cultures of origin are different, and their earliest experiences in life are different too. If kids are all different, should we have blanket rules about what we do and don’t do to help them thrive? And yet… aren’t there some basic assumptions and rules that we can rely on even in the midst of all of this complexity: things we should never think or do or always think and do? More questions without easy answers.
As a way of holding all these important points and questions in mind, I like the idea of exploring our teaching practice in ways that are not just child-friendly (based on what we know about how all children learn and grow) but also child-specific (taking into account children’s unique histories and ways of being). What does this balancing act involve? In part, it requires acknowledging some basic principles: That we want all kids to feel cherished and supported. That we believe all kids benefit from knowing that their needs are valued and their feelings are understood. That we believe, at the same time, that all kids need help learning to live in a world in which those feelings and needs have to coexist with the feelings and needs of others – that sometimes they’ll have to wait, that often they’ll need to share, and that living in groups means the necessity for flexibility, compromise, and problem-solving.
In this same arena of child-friendly universals, there are other principles as well. Most of us would probably agree that it helps all kids to understand, over time, that some kinds of behavior are hurtful and that being a responsible member of a family or classroom community means that both kids and adults have to learn to manage their feelings and to control their impulses. Most of us would agree, too, that we’d like all kids to feel that we’ll stick with them lovingly as we help them develop the skills they’ll need to be empowered yet compassionate and assertive yet flexible. We want all kids to know that mistakes are part of learning, and that we don’t expect them to be perfect. We just want them to keep trying, and want them to understand that grown-ups make lots of mistakes and have lots to learn too.
What about the child specific end of things? Maybe we need to acknowledge that for some kids, time-outs will feel too shame-filled to work well but that for others, the use of time-outs as one option of many – or as part of a safety plan that has time-outs as a bottom line – may be helpful. Maybe we can entertain the idea that “if-then” consequences are part of many cultures and can be a really useful way of helping kids learn that their behavior has consequences – and that such consequences for some kids used sometimes – may actually help them internalize their learning so that eventually their motivation to control their impulses and manage their feelings will stem “from the inside not the outside.”
Maybe we can remind ourselves that pleasure and interest in a child’s presence and efforts is often far more powerful then praise for their accomplishments but that praise, in reasonable doses, can have its place too. And perhaps we can keep in mind that kids really do need to feel that when they’re not controlling themselves in a safe or caring way, adults will support them in developing the skills of self-control they lack but will also stop them from hurting others or destroying things. Maybe we’ll consider the idea that for some kids used sometimes, “stop messages” that involve a removal – to a time-out pillow, to a bedroom to play quietly, or to a quiet corner to calm down and reflect – may be an extremely useful tool. We might even ask ourselves whether for some kids for short periods all the time a very steady time-out plan may be just the thing to begin turning things for the better. For some kids, never. For some kids, sometimes. For some kids, all the time for a short time.
The same goes for rewards. Without a doubt, an over-reliance on rewards has dire consequences for kids over time, consequences that both Rae and Alfie Kohn write about with great wisdom. That said, when a child is having trouble managing his feelings and is engaging in a particular behavior that’s problematic and worrisome – and when, in addition, we’ve tried a number of approaches that haven’t been successful – it can sometimes be useful to develop a short term reward system to “jump-start” change.
I once was helping a preschool program with a four-year-old who was hitting other kids frequently when he was angry. He had a lot to be angry about – his life at home was terribly difficult. But things in his classroom had gotten to the point where his classmates were giving him a wide berth, and the steady emotional support and proactive coaching his loving teachers were providing weren’t working to help him find less hurtful ways to manage his feelings.
A week-long and specifically targeted rewards system helped enormously. It temporarily seemed to trump the intensity of his anger with the motivation to get the rewards he was being offered. And preschoolers being the forgiving sorts that they are meant that within a week he was welcomed back into the classroom’s circle of play. That experience of being welcomed by his peers quickly became a motivator in its own right, along with his teachers’ and parents’ deep pleasure in his progress. But it’s worth noting that it was a reward system, used only to help with one behavior and only for a week, which allowed a wonderful shift to begin taking place. For some kids, never. For some kids, sometimes. For some kids all the time for a short time.
None of what I’m saying here contradicts what Rae is encouraging us to consider: She’s asking us to question ourselves about the practices we use and sometimes overuse. She’s encouraging us to think carefully about why we do what we do and how we do it. And perhaps most importantly, she’s pushing us to consider what impact our approaches actually have on kids – versus what impact we believe they will have.
So what I’m doing here – or so I hope – is to try to add to the discussion, and to emphasize that there’s a lot of nuance in this complex process of considering what’s good for kids. Our best practice pendulum swings back and forth for a reason. Can we honor both the wisdom and the limits inherent in each side it reaches? Can we keep our universal principles in mind while adapting to individual children’s needs? Can we keep flexibility in and rigid rules out?
I think so. The problem is that once we commit ourselves to being flexible, things get tricky. Because if we entertain the idea of employing a particular strategy from time to time, knowing that it can have significant downsides, we open the door to that strategy’s overuse and misuse. Yet we don’t want to get too boxed in by a particular point of view if being helpful to different kinds of children means having a lot of tools in our toolbox.
All of this brings me back to Kevin and Maya. A flexible approach was undeniably helpful for both kids. As always, connectedness and care lay at the heart of what these two children needed in order to thrive, and an emphasis on skill development over behavior management did too. (See Jenna Bilmes’ wonderful book Beyond Behavior Management for more on this important distinction.) That said, in Kevin’s situation, it helped enormously to implement a safety plan – one that included a version of time-outs. For Maya, some if-then consequences at home helped things move forward significantly. There were other changes in what Kevin’s teachers and Maya’s mother did to support these two kids as well. That makes sense: helping kids grow and thrive is always a multi-faceted endeavor.
So what were the changes made in responding to these two children? How did the judicious use of time-outs and if-then consequences sit alongside the many other aspects of how adults interacted with them in order to promote emotional well-being and developmental mastery?
In Kevin’s case, the teachers and I made a visual chart picturing the four behaviors that were most problematic for him and his classmates: hitting, kicking, throwing toys, and knocking over furniture. The chart had a photo at the top with Kevin smiling and a header that said “I have safe hands and feet!” Below that, there was a stop sign next to each picture of the behaviors we were targeting.
Once the chart was introduced and we were sure Kevin understood what it meant (an important piece of the puzzle since he appeared to have some challenges in language processing), Kevin’s teachers responded to each incidence of the four unsafe behaviors in the same way – by taking Kevin’s hand and removing him quickly from wherever he was. The plan was to give him a brief and firm reminder (“We use safe hands Kevin!”) followed by a short period in which his teacher would continue to hold his hand without talking further about what had just happened. If Kevin responded to such a removal with hitting or kicking either teacher, they brought him to a newly cleared out and pillow-filled “safe space” where one of them stayed with him – though not so close that they he could hurt them – until he calmed down.
The safety plan didn’t end there however. After Kevin regained composure during some hand-holding or in the safe space, the teacher involved would warmly invite him back into the classroom’s activities. Then she would sit with him to support him as he tried playing or interacting with his classmates. Was this a time-out plan? Yes, in part it was. But it had some of the quality that the “Responsive Classroom Approach” emphasizes: Kevin was removed not to punish him but as one way to help him start learning the skills of self-control and self-soothing.
In addition, it’s important to note that coupled with Kevin’s safety plan was a huge emphasis on warm connection and “scaffolding for skill” – the latter involving many moments when teachers would sit with Kevin and help him make his needs known using language rather than frustrated gestures, and join him in learning to play and interact with others successfully. In fact, the reasoning behind the time-out plan was to reduce unsafe behavior so that teachers could give Kevin the help he needed – not to be the “be all and end all” as an approach.
And what about Maya? What “tweaking” was needed in patterns at home in order to help Maya cope differently? And what was the role of a more flexible approach to parenting in helping this girl make the strides her mother Nicole yearned to see?
Nicole was an eager partner as we worked to figure out what would help Maya manage herself differently through periods of frustration – not just helping Maya find things to do other than kicking and hitting, but helping her learn how to have milder reactions to small problems in the first place. Eventually, although connectedness stayed at the heart of Nicole’s way of being a mom, she worked on finding a more convincing “voice of authority” that she could use from time to time. And she added in some mild consequences to back up the expectations she wanted to set with more effectiveness.
Nicole let Maya know that hitting and kicking had to stop and worked to convey that idea forcefully without being harsh. She made it clear that she fully believed Maya could learn other ways to be mad. She told Maya that if she did hit or kick, she would need to leave her mother’s side for a short while. In short: if you do this, then that will happen. And it did.
Nicole also started to “cap” some of the feelings-filled discussions about Maya’s responses to seemingly small stresses. She realized that in her effort to stay connected to her daughter, she’d lost her sense of when to spend a lot of time on something and when to help Nicole roll with the punches. After a while, for example, the fact that they’d run out of the cereal Maya loved and that she’d have to have something else for breakfast led to a far shorter back-and-forth than it would have previously. Then Nicole would gently but firmly set out her expectation that Maya figure out how to handle her disappointment without further discussion. And so on. Within weeks, Nicole felt that Maya was handling herself with a lot less fuss and a lot more flexibility at home. She was especially delighted that kicking and hitting were becoming rare events. Nicole and Maya were on their way to a much easier yet equally loving life together at home.
Kevin ended his Pre-K year far readier for kindergarten than his teachers and parents had imagined he’d be at the point in October when Sam’s castle was destroyed, his feelings were hurt, and his arm was aching from Kevin’s well-placed punch. Maya made a lot of progress too, in a way that made a big difference to the quality of her and her mother’s time at home. An approach that was both child-friendly and child-specific made all the difference in both cases. Kevin’s teachers needed to bend in a direction that wasn’t their first inclination but which turned out to be very useful. Maya’s mother needed to bend a bit as well. Learning to honor our universal beliefs and yet consider what a particular child may need isn’t always easy – especially when the ideas we’re considering go against the direction in which our field’s pendulum is currently swinging. But it’s worth doing. For some kids never. For some kids sometimes. For some kids all the time for a short time.
- Bailey, Becky (2011) Creating the School Family: Bully-Proofing Classrooms through Emotional Intelligence. Loving Guidance, Inc.
- Bilmes, Jenna (2012) Beyond Behavior Management: The Six Life Skills Children Need. Redleaf Press
- Greene, Ross (2008) Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and how We Can Help Them. Scribner Books
- Hawn Foundation (2011) The MindUP Curriculum: Brain-Focused Strategies for Learning and Living. Scholastic Teaching Resources
- Hirschland, Deborah (2015) When Young Children Need Help: Understanding and Addressing Emotional, Behavioral, and Developmental Challenges. Redleaf Press
- Kohn, Alfie (1999) Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Mariner Books
- Minahan, Jessica and Rappaport, Nancy (2013) The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students. Harvard Education Press
- Siegel, Daniel and Payne Brison, Tina (2011) The Whole Brain Child: Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Delacorte Press
- Sniel, Elaine. (2013) Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents). Shambhala
- CSEFEL – The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations of Early Learning: http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/
- The Hawn Foundation’s MindUp Curriculum: http://thehawnfoundation.org/mindup/mindup-curriculum/
- The Responsive Classroom: https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/
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