Building Relationships with Children Who Have Challenging Behaviors

We always talk about how important it is to build relationships with children, but let’s be real. Some children are just really hard to build relationships with. I remember when I first went back to school to get my early childhood degree, one of my professors went around the room and asked why we went into this field. Of course, most of the answers sounded something like, “I love children!” She proceeded to tell us that we better have another reason for going into this field because that one wasn’t good enough. We all looked at her like she had three heads! She proceeded to tell us that of course, we should like children. But that alone is not going to sustain us through the challenging moments of being an early childhood teacher. She continued to say that one day we would find a child that we didn’t like….and then what? I thought that was just cruel…they’re just small children…what could they possibly do that would make me not like them?

Fast forward a few years when I was teaching first grade…I found the kid I didn’t like. It pains me to say it…but I just didn’t like her. Her behaviors were challenging, but that wasn’t why I didn’t like her. I could never quite put my finger on it…perhaps our energies were just conflicting. But I just didn’t like her. She, however, loved me. Which probably made my dislike of her even stronger. It was a tough year. I tried to make sure that I was building a strong relationship with her despite my personal preferences. I tried my best to learn to like her. It didn’t work always work, but over the year we did find some common ground. I can say honestly that she thrived in my classroom.

No matter how much you may love children, the same thing will happen to you at some point. You’ll find the child that challenges every cell in your body. You’ll find the child that makes it hard to build those positive relationships. Your challenge, then, is to push forward and continue to find a way to make a connection. Because it’s only through connection that learning occurs and behaviors change.

Challenging Behavior can appear in many different ways. It is also highly subjective…what one caregiver considers challenging, another may not. The important thing to remember with any type of challenging behavior is that the child is trying to send you a message in the only way that he/she feels capable of at the time. When you can look for the message, it becomes easier to respond in an appropriate manner. Responding in an appropriate manner can help you build healthy and positive relationships with the child. Stanley Greenspan talks about five specific types of challenging children.

The Highly Sensitive Child

Children who are highly sensitive tend to react more strongly to events than you might anticipate. Their perceptions of the world can be much more intense than the average child, and any type of change can be overwhelming to this child. They may be cautious, fearful, shy, worry a lot, or be anxious. As they grow, this may lead to moodiness, irritability, or depression. You might notice that highly sensitive children react more sensitively to touch, loud noises, bright lights, or change. They may also get easily overwhelmed by their own emotions.

Strategies:

  • Prepare children for upcoming changes as far in advance as possible and limit the amount of changes and transitions.
  • Use picture schedules or visual schedules so the child can anticipate what will be coming up in his/her day
  • Tune in to the child’s sensory system. Remember, he cannot control how his body is processing sensory information! If you notice the child reacting to bright lights, try dimming the lights in the classroom. If the child holds his hands over his ears at group time, give him a pair of headphones to wear.
  • Help the child label and talk about his feelings. Validate what the child is feeling and show empathy towards him.
  • Provide gentle but firm limits.

The Self-Absorbed Child

The child who is self-absorbed is caught up in her own world. She tends to be quiet, easily tired, shows little enthusiasm. You may find this child to be more passive and not as responsive as other children. Caregivers may need to show more enthusiasm and effort to engage the child.

Strategies:

  • Be sensitive to the child’s natural energy level, and do not expect the child to enjoy the same type of activities that others may enjoy.
  • Provide a quiet space where this child can get away from everyone for some alone time.
  • Children in this category can have vivid imaginations. Provide them with an outlet for imaginary play such as puppets or dramatic play areas and props.
  • Resist insisting that the child spend time with or be friends with the other children in the classroom. Respect the child’s speed and preferences when it comes to establishing relationships or spending time with others.

The Defiant Child

We all probably have experience with the defiant child….the child who is stubborn, always trying to be in control, and engages in constant power struggles with those in charge. Children who are defiant can swing from being avoidant and passively defiant to being angry and argumentative.

Strategies:

  • Don’t take it personally. As hard as it is, try to avoid getting angry and administering punitive punishments as this just makes the situation escalate.
  • Avoid power struggles. The key to avoiding power struggles contains 5 elements:
    • Say what you mean.
      Avoid saying things to the child that you don’t actually mean just because you are upset. Choose your words wisely.
    • Mean what you say.
      Make sure that you are only saying things that you actually plan to enforce. For example, telling a child that Santa Claus won’t come if they continue misbehaving isn’t typically something you actually mean. Be cautious when establishing limits and consequences.
    • Know what you can’t control.
      As much as we’d like to think we can control everything, we can’t. We can’t actually control children’s eating, sleeping, and toileting for instance. We can’t control IF a child picks up a toy. Think carefully about whether you actually have control over what you want the child to do, or if you just wish you had control!
    • Know what you can control.
      Think creatively about what you can control. You may not be able to control whether the child picks up the toys, but you can control what choices are available to the child UNTIL those toys are picked up.
    • Follow through.
      Make sure that you follow through on what you say you are going to do. This builds trust with the child. State your limit and the consequence one time, and then follow through on the consequence you established.

The Inattentive Child

This child is highly distractible. He tends to be restless, fidgety, always on the go, and may quickly shift his attention from one activity to the next. Caregivers may find the child rarely finishes an activity that he started.

Strategies:

  • Be sure that your space is not overwhelming with distractions. Avoid covering every wall with something decorative. Avoid hanging things from the ceiling as this can be a distraction as well. Choose carefully when putting things on the wall to avoid “visual clutter”.
  • Provide the child with fidget toys during activities to help keep the child’s attention.
  • Allow for lots of movement and breaks. Avoid asking the child to sit for long periods of time, and offer lots of opportunities for active play.

The Active Aggressive Child

The active aggressive child tends to be more impulsive than most and may react physically to situations without even thinking. She may hit, punch, or kick to express her anger. She becomes frustrated more easily than most children, and has a hard time controlling her impulses. You may also notice that she has less sensitivity to touch, pain, or sound.

Strategies:

  • Be as warm and nurturing as possible. It’s sometimes hard to show this type of care with these children, but the less warmth and nurturing an aggressive child gets, the more her aggressive behaviors will increase.
  • Provide firm structure and limits for the child. Establish boundaries and consequences and be sure to follow through.
  • Help the child to express her feelings in appropriate ways. You may allow the child to push against a wall or squeeze a stress ball or twist a towel when angry. Avoid allowing the child to hit anything, even a punching bag or bean bag chair. Since the child has a hard time controlling impulses she might not differentiate in the moment between what is ok to hit and what is not.
  • Don’t give in to angry outbursts. If the child gets her way through this behavior, you have just reinforced that it works.

I’ll leave  you with this final quote by Ben Stein. “Relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, and all achievement in real life grows.”

Building Positive Relationships

Relationships are an essential component of an early childhood classroom. One of my favorite quotes is by Jack Shonkoff, editor of the book Neurons to Neighborhoods in which he says, “Without relationships, there is no development.” If you think back on your own experiences, I imagine that the times when you learned the most were the times when you felt connected to the teacher. I love this video by Rita Pierson as she talks about building relationships with children:

I get so inspired listening to her. And then I think about the experiences that many children have when they arrive at school Another one of my favorite videos is this short video from Atlanta Speech School  called Every Opportunity. We have the ability to influence how children perceive their environment:

Here are some tips to help you get on the right start to building positive relationships with children in your classroom:

  • Greet each child warmly using his/her name. Consider using a greeter apron. A greeter apron has different symbols on it that represent different types of greetings, such as a heart for a hug, a hand for shaking hands, a happy face for a smile, or a #5 for a high five. Children can choose which way they would like to be greeted in the morning, including not having a greeting at all.
  • Learn how to pronounce (and spell) each child’s name correctly, even if you have to ask multiple times. No one feels special when his/her name is constantly mispronounced.
  • Allow for unstructured play time each day. Let children be the leaders when playing instead of making all of the decisions for them. This shows children that you value their thoughts, desires, and feelings.
  • Have casual conversations with children during free play time instead of always “testing” them or doing “teacher talk”. Sometimes we ask so many questions that children don’t think we are really interested in what they are doing.
  • Be consistent and mean what you say. It’s not mean to follow through on your word. It actually helps children to feel safe. When you set a limit with a consequence and then provide multiple chances, it can become very confusing to children what the boundary actually is.
  • Talk to children about their interests. Strive to learn what they did over the weekend, who they saw, what they liked most, etc.
  • Respect children’s feelings. It’s ok for children to be angry or sad or frustrated. Teach children that feelings are ok, and show them appropriate ways to express their feelings.
  • Limit TV and Other “Screen Time”. Electronic devices take time away from connecting with human beings. Use the time children are with you to make live connections.
  • Speak privately to children when an issue arises. Make sure that they don’t feel humiliated in front of others.
  • Play games in which children learn how to take turns. This prepares them for conversational turn taking.
  • Get on the child’s level when talking to him/her, and make sure you are using a pleasant and calm voice.
  • Acknowledge children’s accomplishments by using specific feedback about their actions.
  • Give children time to develop relationships with other children in the classroom.
  • Provide children with opportunities to practice skills such as how to get someone’s attention, how to solve friendship squabbles, and how to take turns.
  • Learn basic words in a child’s native language.
  • End each day with a warm goodbye, and start each day fresh with no leftover emotions from the previous day’s events.

What other ways do you build relationships with children?

Welcoming Children with Respect

Yesterday was one of those days where I just did not feel like being social. I was feeling a little stressed, and while I wasn’t in a bad mood or anything, I just didn’t want to socialize. This didn’t seem to sit well with some of the people I interact with on a daily basis. They were expecting the typical energetic and social me…and when they didn’t get that I was bombarded with questions about what was wrong. That made me want to interact even less.

Nothing was wrong. I wasn’t in a bad mood. No one did anything. In my eyes, none of my relationships had changed in any way, nor had my feelings about those relationships. I just wanted to be in my own space and in my own head for a while. And most importantly, I didn’t want to feel like there was something wrong with me for feeling that way. I just wanted my preferences and feelings to be respected and honored.

Then I started thinking about children, and how my day yesterday relates to how we treat children. How often do we greet children at the door of our classrooms expecting the typical, cheery response…and then start over-analyzing when we don’t get it? Do we become irritated when someone doesn’t want to participate at group time or answer a question we’ve asked? Do we hover with questions about what is wrong when a child plays solemnly by himself rather than with other children? Do we really honor and respect children’s feelings and preferences from the moment they enter our classrooms? What are some of the ways that we, as teachers, can make it easier for children to show us how they would like to be treated that day….and allow them the flexibility to change their mind at any time without judgment or question? It’s an interesting question…and one that could be answered in many ways.

One of my favorite ideas that I heard at a conference once (perhaps from Conscious Discipline?) was to have a greeting apron or a greeting board. On this apron or board, you can have a variety of options that children can choose for their morning greeting. Each option would have a picture next to it, such as a picture of two bears hugging to indicate that the child wants a bear hug, a picture of two people giving a high five to indicate a high five greeting. The number of options is unlimited!

  • Bear hug
  • High five
  • Wiggly handshake
  • Smile
  • Wink
  • Wave
  • Thumbs Up
  • Fist Bump
  • Bow to each other
  • Clapping
  • Sogi – This is a Polynesian greeting in which you press your nose against the other person’s nose and inhale deeply at the same time
  • Sing a song
  • Use sign language
  • Blow a kiss
  • Just say hello

After we welcome children in the classroom, how can we continue to respect their individuality? I’m thinking about my own behavior in a classroom and how sometimes I want to participate but other times I just want to listen. Could we give children cards at group time to sit in front of them in which they get to make that same choice? What are other times during the day when we can respect their preferences? What do you do in your classroom? I’d love to hear from you!

Creating Meaningful Literacy Experiences for Preschoolers

Creating literacy-rich environments is certainly a buzz-phrase in preschool classrooms. It seems that everyone is always looking for new ideas to make their classrooms literacy rich. What seems to be missing from a lot of these conversations is meaning. It’s not enough to just have a lot of print in your environment. Research has shown us that just putting a lot of print in the environment doesn’t really help children attend to it. In fact, they may even start to ignore it. Rather, current research suggests that we should make sure that we create print-rich environments that are meaningful. Gone are the days when we label everything in the classroom, such as the door, the chair, and the window. These labels have little to no meaning to children. Instead, we have to look at the children in our classroom and determine what type of print would be meaningful to them. There are some universal activities that are meaningful to preschoolers, such as anything having to do with their name. However, what might be meaningful to one classroom might not be so meaningful to another classroom.

I encourage you to question everything you put in your environment to determine if it is actually meaningful to the children. Are the signs that label each area (Dramatic Play, Blocks, etc.) meaningful to children? Or are they just something that someone, somewhere along the way, told you that you had to have? (I’ve yet to see these signs as actually being required in any quality improvement program or accreditation standards even though many teachers insist that they are required). Are the labels you have on your shelves helpful to the children? Or are they a nuisance? Is the alphabet poster something that children use, or does it add to the visual clutter of the room? The answers to all of these questions may be different for every classroom. My point is that you have to be the one to critically evaluate whether something is meaningful or not.

So….what are some examples of activities that other teachers have found meaningful? Let’s take a look…..but even with these suggested activities….don’t forget to ask yourself if these will be meaningful for YOUR group of children!

Meaningful Labels

Some labels are meaningful. These labels help children know where to put the art materials when they are returning them to the shelves.

Meaningful Print in the Science Area

This science center has an example of meaningful print. While the children are not able to read this print yet in this preschool classroom, they will notice that the print has changed and will likely as the teacher what it says.

Reading Area

This cozy reading area is a big hit with children. It includes many cozy features, including pillows, rugs, and plants.

Listening Center

This listening center was made from PVC pipe and a cheap curtain. You can imagine how much children loved getting away to this area!

Books in the Block Area

Don’t forget to include books in other areas though!

When children walk into this classroom, they locate their name on the woodchip and then place it into a basket. Teachers can then use the basket to talk about who is here (or not) at group time or other times during the day.

Writing Table

This writing table is inviting to children. The table is set up for 2 children, because writing during the preschool years tends to be a social experience. The table has blank paper, blank books, fill-in strips with the words to a popular song the children were singing, children’s name cards (and teachers), pencils, alphabet samples, and word cards to put in the fill-in strip blanks.

Job Chart

Job charts are another way to include meaningful print into your classroom!

These small alphabet blocks are fun to put on top of these laminated name cards. Note: The name cards had all capital letters because the alphabet blocks were not available with lower case letters and this class was not yet able to match case on the letters. Typically, all name cards should use Sentence Case – with a capital first letter and lower case letters for the rest of the name.

Compound Words

This compound word activity can be fun for older preschoolers. Children try to find the two words that make up the compound word.

Sorting by Syllables

In this activity, children sort word cards by the number of syllables they hear.

This is just a sampling of activities to start your literacy program. What ideas do you have, and what makes them meaningful to children?

To Teach a Second Language or Not?

One of the questions I get asked alot by teachers is whether they should be teaching a second language in their classroom or not. There is so much pressure from parents and administrators that it becomes hard to know what to do.

There is no doubt. Children who learn a second language before puberty have an advantage. They learn the language as a native speaker and have increased cognitive abilities. Second language learning during early childhood boosts problem solving skills, critical thinking, listening skills, memory, concentration, and overall academic achievement. With benefits like these, it may seem like a no brainer…..why wouldn’t you introduce another language into your classroom? To answer this question, you need to answer a different question:

Are you a native or fluent speaker of the language?

If you answered yes, then you should absolutely include the language in your classroom. You can do this by reading books in the language, conducting circle time in the language, or just having conversations in the language. You can label objects in both languages in the midst of conversation….but it should all be done with the give and take of conversation that happens naturally with human communication.

If you answered no, then the answer is simple. You should not try to teach the language in your classroom. If you do, you will teach incorrect grammar, incorrect pronunciation, and will be more likely to present isolated words without the meaning that generally surrounds those words. Remember…conversation is a give and take…not a quiz about specific words! When you learned your first language, you learned it through natural conversation…not from someone quizzing you about specific words. Research tells us that children learn best through the natural give and take of conversation.

Children learn language from human interaction. Not from videos or audio tapes that try to teach a language. Engage children in conversation in the language(s) that you speak fluently. That’s what will help their language outcomes advance.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I teach some sign language to children without being fluent?

  • Yes. Again, the key here is to incorporate it into your everyday speech. It can be helpful to teach young children some basic signs to help communicate their needs, but the signs should be taught in the context of conversation, not in an isolated situation. For example, when you ask the child if he wants more milk, you might sign the words for more and milk.

What about TV programs that teach a second language? Aren’t those good for children?

  • The research is clear. Children need human interaction to learn a language. While they may learn isolated words from a television program, they will not learn the structure of language that is necessary for becoming fluent. It’s also important to limit the amount of screen time that children are exposed to.

What if I have a child that speaks another language? What is appropriate then?

  • If the child speaks another language, it would be appropriate for you to learn some words in that child’s language in an attempt to communicate with the child. You might try to read a book to the child in his home language, or count in his home language. The difference here is that you aren’t trying to “teach” the home language…rather you are just trying to communicate with the child.

Should I have signs in my classroom in more than one language?

  • Only if you have children in your classroom that speak that language. There is no need to label everything in every language, but it is ok to label some things in the child’s home language. However, if no one in your class speaks Spanish, then there is no need for Spanish labels in your classroom.

Should I try to convince the child’s family to speak English at home rather than their home language?

  • No. Encourage the family to keep their home language intact. This facilitates communication between the child and the parents and keeps a cultural connection open. It also ensures that the child doesn’t surpass the parent’s communication skills in the only common language that they have together.

Obviously the decision about whether to teach a second language or not is a complex decision with many considerations. It’s a hot topic, and there are bound to be strong opinions on each side of the decision. It’s important to consider each classroom and each family on an individual basis to decide what is best for that situation rather than making across the board decisions. Only then can we be culturally considerate.