Sunday, September 11, 2011

It's The Work Of A Lifetime

(A couple days I posted about some of strategies and techniques we use for when 2-year-olds experiment with hitting (kicking, biting, scratching, pushing . . .) in our classroom, then followed up with a post about one of the tools we teach children to use when they are the "victim" of hitting (kicking, etc.). It's a complex, multi-faceted, often very emotional (for both parents and child) issue, one that is as natural at that age as learning to walk was just a few months earlier. The comment sections both here on the blog and over on Facebook filled up with enough questions and ideas that it was clear that a follow-up post was in order. I doubt I've adequately addressed everything here, so I urge you to read through those comment sections if you haven't already: lots of good stuff there.)

On my first day as the teacher of our Pre-3's class a boy started crying, not such an unusual thing. What was extraordinary was that his classmate Ellie raced across the room and proceeded to quite efficiently and unemotionally, as if handling a necessary task, beat him about the head and face. Ah! Naturally, I leapt in to separate them, the boy now wailing. Since we're a cooperative it was easy enough to turn the boy over his own parent to be consoled while I dealt with Ellie and what struck me as a bizarre response.  Having spent several years already as a teacher of older preschoolers, I'd often walked children through conflicts that had involved hitting, but there had been no conflict in this case, but rather a sort of random administration of a pummeling. I guided her through the usual statements of fact like "Hitting hurts people," but a lot of the tools in my traditional tool belt didn't apply here and the episode ended leaving her apparently nonplussed and me feeling dissatisfied.

Over the course of the next few days, each time Ellie heard another child crying she would react the same way, racing over to administer a good thrashing. It got so that my first response to crying was to look for Ellie and cut her off. In my search for the cause of this strange behavior, I eliminated the possibility of it being something she'd either learned or was reacting to at home. She was, except for this quirk, an otherwise loving, lively, cheerful kid. In fact, after a handful of these incidents, I began to wonder if she was hitting her classmates, not as an act of violence, but rather in a misguided attempt to console them. Working on that theory I began to intercept Ellie as she inevitably made her way to the center of every emotional scene by taking gentle hold of her wrists and, when appropriate, helping her hug and stroke the crying child, saying things like, "When we're gentle it helps people feel happy again." It took a few weeks, and it's quite likely she would have figured some of this out on her own, but she was soon johnny-on-the-spot with hugs (still often too robust, but hugs nonetheless) instead of hits.

We spend our entire lives trying to understand emotions and how to deal with them, so it shouldn't surprise us when our preschoolers need our help to navigate through the complexities of being human, often behaving in ways that strike us as bizarre and perverse as they do their best to figure it all out. So while we're discussing behaviors here, we're really always talking about the complex, messy domain of emotions. And because each child is his own individual collection of emotions, there are no hard and fast rules or formulas that can be applied in all cases. Our most important resource as adults responsible for children are our fellow teachers and parents and taking the time to be experimental and reflective in our approach to these complete human beings who are doing exactly what they are designed to do.

So with that in mind . . .

Reader Arual and others asked about dealing with children who hit parents or other adults. For the most part when a child hits me it's either because he's angry, because he wants my attention, or because he is still (like Ellie) working on how to acceptably show affection. Figuring out which it is (or if it's something else) is of course the first thing to do. Fortunately, it's usually a fairly easy thing to do. If it's about getting your attention or a misguided show of affection, your approach is probably pretty straight forward: finding ways to give the child the attention you want to give them (because otherwise they'll just take it, and usually not in ways that you find acceptable) or teaching them new socially acceptable ways to show affection (as I did with Ellie).

But I suspect Arual is asking about hitting parents out of anger. At school, I start by using the technique we teach the children, holding my hands in front of me, palms toward the child, and forcefully saying, "Stop! I don't like to be hit." When that doesn't work, I just hold their arms gently, but firmly, and repeat, "I don't like to be hit," "Hitting hurts me," and "I won't let you hit me." I strive for a calm, friendly tone. I do not want to feed his out of control anger by being angry myself. There is obviously a long conversation needed here, probably a series of conversations, but as long as the child is hitting, he can't really listen anyway. Sometimes I have to hold the child's arms until he burns himself out. Usually, however, we can convert to one of those big, full body hugs where I am holding him on my lap, while controlling his arms and legs, continuing to make statements of fact ("You are very angry," "I am holding you," "You are my friend") until he is ready to talk.

Reader Sarahsews expressed concern about using our superior physical strength to control a child, worrying that we are teaching that might makes right. It's a valid concern and one I try to keep in mind even while in the midst of fisticuffs. You can easily go overboard, especially if you yourself are angry, something that is much easier to avoid as a teacher than as a parent, but indeed, I think that's the distinction. If we keep in mind that the only permissible use for this kind of gentle "force" (I don't think it's an oxymoron) is when we, without anger, are protecting ourselves or others from violence, as opposed to "teaching a lesson," I think we're on solid ground.

Reader voofavoofa wonders what to do about a child who is not calmed by the big embrace, but rather reacts by escalating into a kind of full-body frenzy of hitting, kicking, biting, and screaming. I've indeed experienced this before and it's not pretty. Typically, I give it a couple minutes, hoping that, at a minimum, the child will just tire herself out, striving to remain as sanguine and calm as possible, sometimes even singing softly. I don't know how to say this other than that I strive to turn myself into pure love by being as absolutely present as I can, shutting out everything else going on around me, not letting in self-doubt or fear of what others might be thinking of me. I know this just proves that I'm the aging hippie I appear to be, but I try to imagine that I am like a giant emotion sponge, absorbing her anger.

And that doesn't always work. At some point, I start to feel that it is more about the fight than the initial trigger for the anger, that the child feels justifiably outraged about being confined, which brings me back around to Sarahsews' concern about might making right. At school, we have an enclosed loft. I've often carried the child up there, positioned my body at the top of the stairs, blocking them, before carefully releasing my grip. Sometimes that transition from being held to having the freedom to move her body in a slightly larger, but still confined space is what it takes to turn things around. Sometimes I find I have to turn the job over to a different adult because I've become so much the object of her anger that I'm rendered useless for the purposes of calming. And sometimes we just have to wait until the child is tired out while we remain as loving and present as possible.

Voofavoofa also mentions the concern that her younger child is "taking notes." That does happen. They do try out behaviors they see in others. Hopefully, however, he is mostly taking notes on how you are calmly and lovingly responding to anger and figuring out that those violent behaviors are ultimately unacceptable.

Reader Carolina writes about a bad experience with a teacher who repeatedly placed her daughter in a position in which she was often the victim of another child's hitting, using the rationale that she needed to learn to "cope with aggression." Whoa!  I think we all see the flaw in this "law of the jungle" approach and understand why it should never be the policy of adults to allow violent behavior to happen. That said, natural consequences can sometimes come into play, even when we don't rely on them as a matter of policy. A few years ago we had a boy in our class who had it in his head that hitting someone was a great way to show affection. He'd come up to the kids with whom he wanted to play with a friendly smile and either slug or push them. We worked very hard with him, trying everything we could think of to get him to understand, but he seemed immune until one day I saw him come up to the largest boy in class and give him a friendly shove. This guy smiled back at him, so he shoved him again. They stood smiling at each other for a second, then another shove. This time, the bigger boy joined in the game and shoved him back, easily laying the smaller boy out on the floor. This all happened while I was trying to make my way to the scene. The look on the smaller boy's face was one of confusion and horror. I felt I could read his thoughts, "I do not like that!" It wasn't the end of his hitting, but I've always looked back on that as the turning point for him.

Reader Sarahfelicity worried, rightly so, about my mentioning that I sometimes try to command a child's attention by asking "yes" or "no" questions, like "Do you like to be hit?" There is certainly a fine line here. It's easy, especially when the adult is angry, to use these questions in an accusatory way or in a way that is really a demand for a "correct" answer. I never start out by using these kinds of questions, but only as a way to focus a child who is clearly trying to change the subject or is otherwise not paying attention. I honestly don't care about how he answers my questions (I have had children reply, "yes" when asked if they like to be hit). The fact that that he is answering them lets me know he can hear me. And as Sarahfelicity points out, it is indeed very much all about how the questions are delivered. She suggests using the technique of saying, "Look in my eyes." I don't use that one because it strikes me as too much of a command (which I try to avoid) but I think the same thing applies here as well: it's all in how the statement is delivered.

Several readers also asked about how our approach to hitting changes as the children get older, since my original post was specifically about 2-year-olds. While much of the hitting we see in 2's is of the "mad scientist" variety, as children get older hitting tends to become more purposeful, either as a means to an end or as an impulsive response to anger. In both cases our approach stays essentially the same, but we spend more time thinking through alternatives to hitting and ways by which we can "correct" what we have done. I might ask all parties present for "solutions" or simply rely on statements of fact. For instance, I might say something like, "When I want something I ask for it and say please," or "I usually feel sorry when I hurt someone else." Notice I'm not telling them to say "please" or "I'm sorry," but I am making factual statements about what I do in similar circumstances.

As for the "victims" of hitting, we work on extending our "Stop!" approach by teaching children to make themselves clearer by following up their "Stop!" with a statement of what it is exactly they want stopped, ideally using "I" statements. "Stop! I don't want you to hit me!" "Stop! I'm playing with that doll!" "Stop pushing me!" There is a lot of power in "I" statements, but since I know very few adults who have learned to be consistent with this technique, I've come to the conclusion that learning this is the work of a lifetime, one that I can hardly expect a preschooler to master, so I don't hammer on it too much.

And finally, many readers wondered what to do when a child just won't stop hitting no matter what you've tried. I can honestly say, I've never encountered this. I know there have been times when I felt like a child would never stop, when I felt like my efforts were for naught, when I was ready to throw up my hands. But as reader Ms. Angie points out it sometimes takes thousands of repetitions before some children truly learns these things. It might feel like I'm beating my head against a wall, but I've found that repetition, consistency, and the natural development of children are on my side.  If I came across a child who really would not stop hitting, however, if no matter how much I repeated myself over the course of a year, the child still showed no inclination to forego the punch as a way to express anger or to get her way, I would consider that this is a psychological circumstance beyond my training and abilities and encourage the parent to look into a professional assessment.

A few years ago, I had a 2-year-old who would give me the biggest, most friendly smile, usually as we were singing songs at circle time, approach me with a face full of love, and proceed to bite my thighs. I know he loved me and I loved him. I tried everything I could think of to make it stop, but it pretty much happened for the entire school year. When he returned after our summer break I was girded for more, but it never happened again.

We do our best, we try to stay calm, we love them. We experiment, reflect and persevere. We do what we can, but at the end of the day, it's the work of a lifetime.

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Unknown said...

WOW! I am not very good with words Tom, but I have lots of Love to make up for my inability to express myself through writing ... So all I can say is WOW! With lots of Love!

You Are an Amazing Man and I learn how to a better teacher with every article you post!!

Thank You!

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

You have helped my husband and I (a teacher and an early childhood educator, as well as parents of three small children) articulate what it is we value in our children and students, and make us laugh and cry pretty much daily. I can't believe I've only come across your blog now. The children in your care are blessed, and the teachers that learn from you are blessed too. Bless you!

Rachel (Hounds in the Kitchen) said...

I didn't follow the thread on facebook, but one way I deal with the concern that kids are 'learning hitting' by watching others is to puppet play after the fact and help onlookers process what they saw. It works well if one puppet is a teacher figure and another is an onlooker. The onlooker asks questions of the teacher like "Was (the teacher) hurting (the kid)?" "Why was (the teacher) holding (the kid) so tightly?" The puppet teacher can answer and reinforce that the real teacher was helping the angry child, that they were holding firmly but trying hard not to hurt, that the teacher wasn't mad but was trying to keep the angry child and other children safe, etc.

Cave Momma said...

Thank you so much for answering all of our questions and concerns. This is so incredibly helpful. Now I just need to learn to control myself better so I can help my kids better.

SarahSews said...

Thank you so much for your response to my questions. My 3 year olds worst outbursts are when we are home alone and I do try to put him in a safe spot (his room) and stand calmly in the doorway until he's done. I try so very hard to remain calm and not let his anger make me angry. Some days I'm more successful than others. It helps to read that I'm on the right track.

VoofaVoofa said...

Teacher Tom, thank you so much. For addressing so many of our personal questions, and for continuing to help and inspire us.

It seems many of your blog readers are like me, not "teachers" (in quotes because aren't we all teachers?), but parents of young children, struggling to help them learn this business of being human. And we're all here because we agree with so much of what you say, so clearly share many of the same views. I'm wishing tonight that there existed some sort of message board for all of us - we, the fans of Teacher Tom - so that I could just yammer on and on with my questions and pleas for advice and help. Without clogging your comment section.

Thank you again. And did you know that a very old, very large dog, once he's hit that sweet spot in his later years and begins to become hoarse, says, "Voofa! Voofa!" when he barks at the mailman?

- Kristin gail.