Behavior Is A Question


I recently observed this teacher-child interaction in my preschool classroom.
A teacher instructed a child to clean up the toys he had been using, to which he responded by rolling around, watching her and laughing.  As he stuck his hand in a basket of toys and stirred it around loudly in a gesture of intentional non-cooperation, he was visibly entertained by the scene unfolding. I could see that he was as curious as I was about how this would go down. The power game was afoot.
It took every ounce of impulse control not to step in and "help" by enforcing her instructions so she could get due respect as a teacher. What I know from my years in early childhood education is that the best thing we can do is observe.
So, I waited and watched. I knew that this behavior was an offering of information about how this child perceives his relationship with that teacher.
A child's behavior is never "bad". Sometimes, a child's behavior is his only way of communicating to us. If the behavior is problematic for us, it is likely a reflection of a broader problem within the relationship.
Why is he not taking her seriously? He's wondering if she means what she says. He's unsure if he can trust her. He's insecure about the entire situation. And therefore, he continues to push the limits and continues his unresponsiveness just to see if things are the way they seem.
Simply put, his limit-testing behavior is a question. Or several questions.
  • Do you mean what you say?
  • Can I trust you?
  • Can I lean on you?
  • Where does my power end and yours begin?
  • Is my world safe and secure, or am I untethered and out of control?
  • Will you still love me if I don't do what you say?
As I watched this interaction unfold, I knew that this moment could lead the relationship down one of many trajectories.  This could be a defining moment, built on many defining moments before it.  How would the outcome of this situation inform this child of where he stands in the relationship with this teacher, and in the world? What a massive concept for a child to discover through testing. But if not through the safe haven of preschool (or home), then where will he learn these powerful life lessons?
The follow tools will make interactions like this easier:
Offer choices
Children are motivated by independence. Offering choices gives an appropriate amount of power back to the child. "Would you like to put the red ones or the blue ones away first?"  This may or may not work, because ultimately the preference was to not clean up.  One of the choices in the above scenario might be to honor that preference, and you can point out the cause and effect of each available choice. "You can choose to clean up now or in five minutes. If you choose to clean up in five minutes, I'd like you to sit next to this basket of toys until you choose to clean it up." If the child refuses to make a choice, you can let him know that you'll choose for him. "You can clean it up now, or I can clean it up for you. If you choose for me to clean it up, you will not be able to use it again until tomorrow".
Take yourself out of the equation
Once the choices are presented, you are no longer part of the power dynamic.  Had the child known and understood the expectation and the consequences of his choices, he could move forward independently. It is no longer a child vs. adult battle of wills.  Nor would the teacher need to make it her agenda to make him clean up.  We are simply acting as facilitators of the outcome.  We narrate his choices, avoiding language like "I need you to" or "I would like it if".  In this way, we take ourselves out of the equation.
Stay ahead of the behavior
This happened right under our noses but if we had seen it happening we could have put some parameters on how many toys he was allowed to take out in the first place! Or we could have offered a little heads up, such as "I notice you're taking out a lot of toys. Remember, it will take a long time to clean those up!" Personally, I prefer not to interrupt play with my adult cautionary narrative. I like to see the children's process of exploration and creativity unfold organically, and if it means I have to clean up toys myself, I'm okay with that.  However, since she had given him the instruction to clean up, the follow through became necessary.
Be firm, but not unkind
Firmness communicates clearly. Wishy washy doesn't give clear expectations and boundaries. Children need to know what is expected.  The teacher used a quiet voice thinking that this was kind and gentle.  Instead, she should have been firm and clear and use an unquestionably audible volume. This is not to overpower the child, but to be sure everyone is on the same page.
Use clear, simple language
The teacher used a lot of words and repeated herself several times, sending a subtle message that she did not expect the child to follow the directions. Our verbal and nonverbal communication conveys our belief in the child's ability to succeed or fail.  By hovering over him and repeating her instructions, she displayed her lack of trust that he would do what she asked. She was prepared to physically enforce her instructions by helping him, and he knew it.
Take a neutral stance
To reiterate, the adult is simply a narrator in the situation. She is not there to pass judgment on the child or his behavior. Her judgment should feel irrelevant.  She simply points out his choices and their resulting consequences, and offers him the dignity to make a choice for himself. The more she judges, the more invested she becomes, and she is then in the power struggle once more.
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Ultimately, the goal is for the adult and child to be in sync, in the harmonious dance of child and caregiver.  Clear boundaries are important to establish consistency and trust. In this example, the actual cleaning up of toys is secondary. Effectively setting limits lets the child know that he is safe and contained within the adult's power so that he may then explore freely within the set parameters. But he will continue to test the limits until they are clear and consistent to him.
Remember that children are doing the best they can with their limited social, emotional, and cognitive resources. Try to understand the question hidden in the problematic behavior.  Closely examine the ways your responses might offer information about the relationship that contribute to the problem rather than the solution.  Continue to build the health of the relationship with each interaction. As the child grows to understand that the adult is a trustworthy, reliable, and powerful pillar, he will want to engage less in testing and more in enjoying life and play.
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