Language Matters When it Comes to Shame

Recently I’ve joined several parenting (mom) Facebook groups online to get a sense of some of the topics that parents are struggling with. It’s supposed to be a place of support, where mothers can ask questions without fear of judgment. I have found it is quite far from that. I think I naively assumed that other people would obey the rules and stay silent if they didn’t have something nice to say. It’s far from that in fact. It’s a cesspool of judgment. But that’s not actually what I’m hear to talk about. One of the other things I found interesting in the groups was the way some of the moms were responding to discipline related posts. They weren’t just recommending spanking…but their ideas of how children should be disciplined were filled with rage, power, humiliation, embarrassment, and shame.

Shame was the one that really got me though. I’ve been reading and listening to a ton of Brene Brown’s work, and that’s the topic she studies. So these responses just kept coming back to me. In her work, she tells us that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. Guilt, she says, has the opposite correlations. So what’s the difference between guilt and shame? Shame is focused on the person (you are bad) and guilt is focused on the behavior (you did something bad).

Isn’t that just semantics, you say? Actually, it’s not according to the research. Language affects the way we internalize messages, and how we internalize those messages color the way we view the world. I doubt there is any parent out there that would want their child to grow up with the list of things associated with shame, yet many of our discipline strategies are entirely shame based.

It’s embedded in our language and our daily interactions with children. I remember as a young mother playing with my toddler and laughing as I said “You’re bad” as she was being sneaky in a game we were playing. It was an innocent comment on my part, said in jest, but did it affect her in a negative way? I’ll honestly never know for sure.

But what I do know is this: given the knowledge I now have around shame and its affects, I will make every attempt to focus on behavior rather than character in all of my interactions…whether those interactions are with children or adults. If shame has all of these negative correlations, I don’t want to be part of it. Do you? 

Spoiling Babies???

A friend of mine has a 7 month old infant in a group care setting. She came over with him the other day and told me that the day care had asked her not to hold him so much on the weekends because she was spoiling him. Apparently he was expecting the teachers to hold him during the day like his mom did when they were at home. She was heartbroken and devastated. She already felt like she wasn’t spending enough time with her son because she had to work, and now the precious little time she did have she wasn’t supposed to hold him? You can see why she was upset. She asked me what to do.

I find it absolutely heartbreaking that a parent would be asked not to hold their baby. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence. It stems from the belief that babies that want to be held a lot are spoiled. But here’s the thing….it’s not possible to spoil a baby until about 9-12 months of age. Before then…babies are just communicating their needs. Being held is just as legitimate of a need as wanting to be fed, wanting to be changed, or needing to sleep. Human touch is fundamental for development and survival, and helps to establish a secure attachment to caring adults.

During the first 9-12 months of life, children are in the sensorimotor modulation stage of self regulation. This means that they really don’t have any prior intentions in their behavior, and they don’t yet understand the meaning of a situation. Infants react to things that the caregiver does, but they are not able to reflect on the action, the meaning, or the consequence at all. All of their actions are doing one of four things:

  • Engaging in voluntary motor acts – learning how to move their bodies in different ways in the outside world
  • Learning about cause and effect – every thing is a new experience for them…they are figuring out how things work
  • Exploring their environment – this is a brand new world and it’s exciting to see what’s out there!
  • Trying to get their needs met – they can’t use words to tell you what they need, and they haven’t always developed enough mechanisms to be able to self-soothe all the time

Since their have no prior intention or awareness, their desire to be held is not manipulative. In an way. In fact, infants need to be held a lot to develop a sense of trust, which is critical to healthy development. Science agrees with this. You simply cannot spoil a baby.

So what about the baby that comes to child care on Monday crying to be held, but by Wednesday has stopped? It’s simple. He’s just learned that his cries for help aren’t answered so there’s no point in trying. If you ask me, that’s a sad place for a little baby to be. I know that in a group care setting it may be impossible to hold a baby as much as they might be held at home. So what’s the answer? You do the best that you can at meeting EACH child’s needs. And you talk to the child to let the child know that you will be there as soon as you can….that they aren’t alone….that you haven’t forgotten about him.

So my answer to my friend? Hold your baby as much as you want to. That’s what he needs, and that’s what’s healthy.

Types of Challenging Behavior

There are so many types of 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. 

My Story

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 will not 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. After all, they’re just small children. What could they possibly do that would make me not like them?

A Few Years Later

A few years later, I was teaching first grade. I found the kid I didn’t like. It pains me to say it, but I didn’t fancy her. Her behaviors were challenging, but that wasn’t why I didn’t have a soft spot for her. I could never quite put my finger on it. Perhaps our energies were conflicting, but I just didn’t like her. She, however, loved me. Which probably made my dislike of her even more potent. It was a challenging year. I tried to make sure that I was building a solid 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 honestly say that she thrived in my classroom.

It Takes More than Liking Children to be a Good Teacher

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 a connection that learning occurs and behaviors change.

Types of Challenging Behaviors

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 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 appropriately. In addition, responding properly can help you build healthy and positive relationships with the child. Stanley Greenspan talks about five specific types of challenging children.

Types of Challenging Behavior: The Highly Sensitive Child

Highly sensitive children tend to react more strongly to events than you might anticipate. Their world perceptions 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 for the Highly Sensitive Child:

  • Prepare children for upcoming changes as far in advance as possible and limit the number of changes and transitions.
  • Use picture schedules or visual schedules so the child can anticipate what will be coming up in his/her day.
  • Provide gentle but firm limits.
  • Tune in to the child’s sensory system. Remember, he cannot control how his body is processing sensory information! For example, 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. Watch this video to learn more about using empathy for challenging behaviors.

Types of Challenging Behavior: The Self-Absorbed Child

The self-absorbed child is caught up in her own world. She tends to be quiet, quickly 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 spirit and effort to engage the child.

Strategies for the Self-Absorbed Child

  • Be sensitive to the child’s natural energy level, and do not expect the child to enjoy the same 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. Instead, respect the child’s speed and preferences when establishing relationships or spending time with others.

Types of Challenging Behavior: The Defiant Child

We all probably have experience with the defiant child….the stubborn child, always trying to control, engaging in constant power struggles with those in charge. Rebellious children can swing from being avoidant and passively defiant to being angry and argumentative.

Strategies for the Defiant Child:

  • Don’t take it personally. As hard as it is, try to avoid getting angry and administering punitive punishments, making the situation escalate.
  • Avoid power struggles. The key to avoiding power struggles contains five elements:
    • Say what you mean.
      Avoid saying things to the child that you don’t mean just because you are upset. Choose your words wisely.
    • Mean what you say.
      Make sure that you are only saying things that you plan to enforce. For example, telling a child that Santa Claus won’t come if they continue misbehaving isn’t typically something you 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 control children’s eating, sleeping, and toileting, for instance. We can’t control it IF a child picks up a toy. So think carefully about whether you have control over what you want the child to do or if you wish you had control!
    • Know what you can control.
      Think creatively about what you can control. For example, 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. Doing what you say builds trust with the child. State your limit and the consequence one time, and then follow through on the consequence you established.

Types of Challenging Behavior: 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 for the Inattentive Child:

  • 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.

Types of Challenging Behavior: 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. As a result, she becomes frustrated more easily than most children and has difficulty controlling her impulses. You may also notice that she has less sensitivity to touch, pain, or sound.

Strategies for the Active Aggressive Child:

  • 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 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. For example, you may allow the child to push against a wall, squeeze a stress ball, or twist a towel when angry. However, avoid letting the child 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.


Challenging Behaviors can be frustrated for even the most experienced teacher. However, when you can examine the behavior closely and determine the type of challenging behavior, you will choose strategies that more closely target the child’s needs. 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 grow.”

Want to Learn More About Challenging Behaviors?

The Psychology Behind Behaviors is a must-have class for all teachers and parents of young children. This unique workshop blends the worlds of psychology and early childhood to help you understand why children (and adults) behave the way they do. We’ll take a deep dive into classroom behavior and look at how the brain develops and influences behavior and typical reasons why children misbehave. Teachers will walk away with a better understanding of why the children are doing what they are doing as well as insights into their own reactions. We’ll discuss concrete strategies for helping children through challenging behaviors so that teachers feel equipped to handle the children in their classrooms. Geared towards anyone who works with children of any age.

Building Positive Relationships

Building positive relationships is 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.” In other words, if children do not develop positive relationships with the significant people in their lives, they fail to thrive. If you think back on your own experiences, I imagine that the times when you learned the most were when you felt connected to the teacher.

I love inspirational videos. And when I think about everyone that I’ve heard talk about building positive relationships with children, I think about Rita Pierson. She’s as real as they come when she describes teaching children. But the thing I love best about this video is her perspective on seeing the positive.

I get so inspired listening to her, and I start thinking about all the ways I can be more like her! As you think about your classroom and the children in it, there is always an opportunity to build stronger, more positive relationships. Below are some tips to help you.

Tips for Building Positive Relationships

Be Nice

This one should go without saying. However, when I walk into many schools, I see teachers that seem irritated by the children. As a result, 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 can influence how children perceive their environment, themselves, and us.

Personalize Your Greeting

  • Greet each child warmly using his/her name. Consider using a greeter apron. A greeter apron has different symbols representing 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 how they want the teacher or classmates to greet them in the morning, including not having a greeting at all. Learn more about personalizing your social interactions to build positive relationships in my blog post “Respecting Children’s Social Preferences.”

Respect Children’s Culture

  • Every child comes from a family with a specific culture. Take time to learn about each family, their traditions, and their preferences. Learn which holidays they celebrate and which they don’t. Find out the names they use to refer to other family members.
  • 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 or misspelled.
  • Learn essential words in a child’s native language that help you communicate effectively. Encourage the family to speak the native language at home with the child. You can learn more about best practices in my One Classroom, Many Languages: Strategies for Dual Language Learners” course.

Build Positive Relationships with Unstructured Play

  • Allow for unstructured playtime 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. It also lets the children have some control of their day. Let’s face it; no one wants to be told what to do all the time. Allowing children to have some control will also enable them to see you as a positive person in their life.

Real Conversations with Children Build Positive Relationships

  • Have casual conversations with children during free play time instead of constantly “testing” them or doing “teacher talk.” Sometimes we ask so many questions that children don’t think we are interested in what they are doing. Instead, spend time on the floor or at the table interacting with children individually or in small groups. Let them lead the conversation.
  • Talk to children about their interests. Strive to learn what they did over the weekend, who they saw, what they liked most, etc. Studies show that toddlers’ language outcomes increase when we talk about subjects that they are interested in.

Consistency Builds Positive Relationships

  • Be consistent and mean what you say. In other words, you have to think carefully about what you say to children before you say it. It’s not mean to follow through on your word. Instead, it helps children to feel safe. When you set a limit with a consequence and then provide multiple chances, it can confuse children with what the boundary is.
  • Build relationships with children who have challenging behaviors. The more positive your relationship is, the more likely you will see compliance.

Respect Children’s Feelings & Privacy

  • Respect children’s feelings. It’s ok for children to be angry, sad, or frustrated. Teach children that feelings are ok, and show them appropriate ways to express their feelings. When your child becomes a teenager, you’ll want them to share their emotions. Teach them now.
  • Speak privately to children when an issue arises in the classroom. This means that you aren’t calling a child’s name out across the room every time they do something wrong. And you aren’t marking their behavior on a chart that the whole class can see. Make sure that they don’t feel humiliated in front of others.

Favor Human Interactions Over Screen-Time

  • Limit TV and Other “Screen Time.” Electronic devices take time away from connecting with human beings. Instead, use the time children are with you to make live connections. So much research has confirmed that this live connection is vital for brain development.

Play Games

  • Play games in which children learn how to take turns. First, playing games provide time for you and the child to spend engaged in a fun activity. As a result, you are on track to build positive relationships. Secondly, game-playing prepares them for conversational turn-taking, which is an essential component in peer relationships.

Think About Your Tone and Position

  • Get on the child’s level when talking to him/her. You are more likely to get the child’s attention, and the child will be more receptive to what you are saying. Likewise, make sure you are using a pleasant and calm voice. Respect is a two-way street, and we are role-modeling how to speak to others.

Limit the Use of Praise in Favor of Specific Feedback

  • Researchers agree that praise is not always a good thing. Rather than saying, “good job,” acknowledge children’s accomplishments and efforts by using specific feedback about their actions. You can say, “I can see how much effort you put into your block building. You’ve been working on it all morning. Tell me all about it.”

Promote Positive Social Interactions to Build Relationships

  • Give children time to develop relationships with other children in the classroom. They need opportunities to practice the skills they are learning from you!
  • Provide children with opportunities to practice specific skills such as how to get someone’s attention, how to solve friendship squabbles, and how to take turns. You can do this through role-playing or social stories.

Always Start Fresh

  • End each day with a warm goodbye, and start each day fresh with no leftover emotions from the previous day’s events.

When you implement these strategies, you are bound to have positive relationships with all of the children in your classroom. What other ways do you build relationships with children?