Monday, June 07, 2021

"Yes, and . . ."

I met this four-year-old boy because he had been forced to leave his previous preschool. Apparently, he had taken to hitting, biting, kicking, and otherwise abusing the adults around him. From what I'd been told, and I didn't quite buy it, he got along well with other kids, it was just the adults. Whatever the case, I would know the truth soon enough. As he glared at me from under his bangs, I knew we were starting out from a place of distrust.

I said, "Good morning" to him without any extra enthusiasm, then let him go about his business. My original plan might have been to spend the morning getting him on my bandwagon, but that was out the window with his very clear signals to back off, so plan B was to observe him from afar. And sure enough, he began making friends right away. His father had told me that he was a "big fan" of Legos, so I'd dumped our entire collection of plastic bricks into the sensory table and that's where he spent most of his morning, talking constantly about the cool things he was making. He positioned his body as far away from the adult as possible without leaving the table entirely.

I've known kids who were suspicious of me before, who found my personality a little too big, my voice a little too loud, my presence a little too overwhelming. I get that, but I'd never met a kid who kept his distance from all adults, his own parents, of course, excluded. His father had told me that he felt the problem in his previous school was that the teacher "kept getting in power struggles" and "he always wins power struggles."

The boy had a spectacular morning, frankly. He was charming and engaged, eventually moving away from the Lego table, making a little art, checking out the cabinets in the home center, playing a round of a board game. He even sought me out at one point to show me the Batmobile he had created from Lego. The family, in consultation with an occupational therapist who had found nothing "diagnosable" in her time with the boy, had come to Woodland Park in the spirit of getting a new start.

It wasn't until we hit clean up time that his glare returned. "I'm not going to clean up!" he shouted at me when I passed where he sat, sulkily against a wall. "Fair enough," I answered, "Maybe you want to read a book or something." This is my standard response to a child who opts out and wants me to know about it.

Later as we gathered for circle time, he said, "I'm not coming to circle time." Again, I answered, "Fair enough," adding, "Sometimes kids like to spend circle time in the loft where it's quiet. If you change your mind, you can always join us."

I was employing a technique, whether I knew it or not, that founder of Transform Challenging Behavior, Inc. and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Barb O'Neill describes as "Yes, and . . ." Too often, I think, important adults in the lives of children become so focused on controlling a child's behavior that, as Barb says, we forget that our primary role is to help children get their needs met. When we find a way to tell a child "Yes, and . . ." we are letting them know that we are on their side, that we are not "opposition," but rather an ally. What we say after the word "and" is a suggestion for an alternative to conflict.

That first day, the boy simply glared at us from his stance of opting out, although he did take my suggestion to look at books as the rest of us tidied and took refuge in the loft during circle time. And he made those choices the following day and the day after that, as the rest of us went about the business of our community, tidying up, singing songs, and talking about important things. 

On his fourth day with us, however, our circle time conversation turned to superheroes. One of the kids asserted, "I like Batman because he can fly to the clouds." I'd noted that the boy had been listening to us from afar and this was something he clearly couldn't let stand. "No he can't!" We all turned as he came down from the loft to tell us, "Batman doesn't fly. He swings on a rope and drives a Batmobile."

As the other children took up further debate, he slowly made his way across the room, drawn in by the manifest importance of this conversation. He had chosen to join us, a choice he continued to make from that time forward.

He never lost his knee-jerk opposition to adults who would presume to tell him what to do. It would come out whenever we forgot that his healthy need to think for himself must first be met. Of course, all children have this need, but in this boy it was particularly pronounced. It's an instinct that might frustrate future teachers who don't know that "challenging behaviors" are almost always best addressed by examining ourselves and our environment. As Barb says, the key is "transforming how we think, how we feel, and how we talk about children who exhibit challenging behavior." And more often than not, this starts with stepping back from our urge to command and control to take a long hard look at what needs are not being met.

This is often a difficult thing to do. Our culture tells us that it is in the job description of any adult who works with children to "control" them, to make them behave, to insist upon obedience, to walk them in single file lines, to make them do their fair share. This attitude is reenforced everywhere. As classroom teachers we are often, first and foremost, judged for our "classroom management" skills, which is really just fancy jargon for compelling obedience. Parents are often judged by how appropriately their children behave and when they misbehave it's the parents who have "lost control." In other words, we, as a society, expect young children to instantly and without objection set aside their own needs, always, and upon command, in favor of the needs expressed by the adult, be it for quiet, stillness, tidying up, or whatever. No wonder some children, like this boy, rebel. Indeed, I worry most about the children who simply go along with whatever they are told to do.

When we see our role as helping children get their needs met, rather than controlling them, much of what we label as "challenging behavior" is transformed. By not engaging in power struggles with this boy, I discovered that he had a strong need for autonomy, to make his own decisions, a healthy, natural thing. When I offered, "Yes, and . . . ," I let him know that he was heard and, even more importantly, trusted.


To hear my entire interview with Barb, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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