Every parent, daycare provider and teacher has experienced at least on one occasion—although I would argue many occasions—a child who tests our patience, will and downright ability to manage the child’s behaviors. It’s frustrating for a grown adult to get caught in a duel with a 5-year-old who thinks that making a farting sound is funny. But the frustrating part isn’t the annoying sounds, it’s the fact that the grown adult is losing the battle, and the 5-year-old is quickly gaining power, or worse an army of supporters who giggle and copy the child, only weakening the adult’s abilities.
Even the best of parents and teachers has been caught in this dilemma, mostly because their role as parents and teachers involves more than just getting the child to stop making the sound. The stress of a long day of parenting, activity planning, and behavior management leads to a worn out response to the behavior that, despite the adult’s best efforts, only worsens the behavior in the child and leads to feelings of incompetency in the adult.
I too was once caught in this exact duel with a 5-year-old. As I tried to lead a lesson to the group of Kindergarteners, I became quickly frustrated by a boy who made farting noises, talked out of turn, and picked on the other children for attention. I made many desperate attempts to stop the problems, all of which failed because they were focused on the behaviors and only drew attention to him, thus reinforcing his use of the behaviors. I knew that I was making mistakes, but the frustration was getting to me and I couldn’t think of any other way. So, I continued to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Then another adult in the room tried his turn. I thought to myself, “This guy is a father of three kids; three very well-behaved kids. He’ll know how to stop it!” And then I watched as he too fell into the same trap. He pointed out the bad behavior, threatened for there to be a consequence and then sat next to him in an attempt to stop the behavior. But of course, the behaviors didn’t stop because they were working. They were achieving exactly what this boy was hoping they would achieve.
As the children worked on their project, I took some time to think for a few moments. I asked myself, “What would you suggest if you were an observer of this situation? What would you tell a parent or teacher to help him or her?” I told myself that I needed to give him attention for something other than the behaviors. Despite my frustration with this kid’s behaviors, I erased them from memory and walked over to him. I patiently waited until he stopped misbehaving, which unfortunately took longer than I had hoped! But when he was quiet and working on his project for just a few seconds, I pointed out with excitement in my voice that he was doing such a great job and was the kid in the classroom who was furthest along in the project.
His eyes lit with excitement as he joined me in the conversation. He spent the rest of the class period talking with me about his toys, family and his life. I had to pause to give others a time to share their stories too, but he was willing to wait without using behaviors because I promised to come back to him to hear his story. Both of us adults were quite surprised by the outcome. While both of us were smart enough to know that we should focus on the positive and ignore the negative, we had both learned that knowing so and doing so were two very different things. Neither of use could believe how a simple statement about his progress on the project completely turned his behavior around.
When his mom came to pick him up, she asked about his behavior. I could see the worry on her face and could tell that she was used to teachers talking about his poor behaviors. It was exciting for me to be able to say that he had great behaviors for most of the class period. I could see the light in her eyes too, just like I had seen in her son’s eyes when I praised his progress in the project. I was happy at that moment to be the one to say something positive about her child, because I now know she doesn’t get to hear it very often.
When I teach classes to child care providers, I promote that the providers should focus on whatever positives they can find to lessen negative behaviors in their environments. I often hear, “But what do I do if the child is NEVER good? How do I focus on the good then?” And my response to that is that no child is ever ALWAYS good or ALWAYS misbehaving, just like a child cannot NEVER be good or NEVER misbehave. All children have moments of good, and times when they misbehave. However, some children just have limited amounts of positive behavior, so we have to be on the lookout for that good behavior.
We must capitalize on that behavior when it happens because we don’t know when it will happen again. And for those who are desperate, who truly believe that a child is ALWAYS misbehaving, just remember this: A child needs to eat, so when she puts some food in her mouth, this is a great time to praise her for how quiet she is being!