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Common-Sense Strategies to Support Unwanted Classroom Behavior with Empathy

Classroom Development

12/16/2021 | Erin Weisman

“Is there a full moon this week?” As an early childhood educator, I regularly hear this question posed both playfully and out of exasperation by colleagues. When I hear a co-worker utter these words, I know they are seeing many challenging behaviors in their classroom. A teacher has a long list of responsibilities every day: design and execute meaningful curriculum, guide calm transitions, support the physical and emotional well-being of their children, and so much more. Some days, these tasks run smoothly, other days, teachers feel thankful that simply no one got hurt. It can often seem like students are acting spiteful or disrespectful on purpose, but I believe that behavior speaks. It is our responsibility as caregivers to interpret that behavior at its root and support our young friends through it.

Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia early childhood education philosophy teaches that children have 100 languages. He says that many speak using words, but “the possibilities for ‘languages’ are endless– dancing, dreaming, playing, questioning, singing… loving, hating…. The child is made of one hundred.” When you experience negative or unwanted behavior in your classroom, that student is communicating with you just as they are when they shriek with laughter or say good morning. This is when knowledge of a child’s patterns is crucial. Is this behavior atypical for this child? Is this child’s home routine currently disrupted? What strategies support more positive behavior for this child? Are those strategies working in this specific instance?

The following approach encourages empathy, patience, and investigation in order to support children in moments of big feelings and unsafe behavior.

1. Take a Deep Breath

Every caregiver has their own personal set of triggers. Many are activated by whining or shudder in the face of a tantrum, others cannot tolerate tattling, etc. For each of us, some behaviors are easier to redirect than others. When one of your young friends exhibits unwanted behavior, unless they are in immediate danger, take a moment to breathe.

A child’s brain is designed to mirror observed behavior and emotion. When we let our own negative feelings influence our reaction to the situation, we often exacerbate the behavior. These feelings are valid, but they are not helpful until the child is calm enough to access their perspective-taking abilities.

Executive functioning skills engage people’s ability to pause and strategize before following through with action. Your preschool students are still developing these skills, but your brain already has them in the toolbox. Taking a deep breath before interacting will help you enter the situation calmly and kindly.

2. Separate the Behavior from your Biases

People make assumptions based on direct observations, past experiences, and representation in the media. When a child expresses themselves in an inappropriate or unsafe way, we must try to separate our reactions from these assumptions. Our biases often blind us to the reality of a situation and stymie us from offering empathetic support.

In the United States, educator biases yield disturbing disparities in the treatment of students based on race and socioeconomic status. The ACLU shared the following infographic detailing some of the harsh consequences of unchecked bias. Perhaps you do not have time to determine your biases at the exact moment a child needs your attention, but it is important to make time for self-reflection after challenging student interactions to ensure the type of attention you afford is not affected by bias.

3. Investigate to Determine the Root of the Behavior

When you have solidified a calm and kind attitude, it is time to internally ask questions. Does this behavior occur regularly throughout the day or at specific points in your schedule? What sensory input surrounds this behavior? Did this child’s caregivers share any information about unusual behavior at home? These types of questions provide information about a child’s physical and psycho-emotional state.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that people must have their basic needs met before they can step outside of their comfort zones, or access their upper-level processing skills. For example, many people of all ages feel hangry when their hunger goes unchecked for too long. As their primal needs are not met, they are less capable of accessing their emotional regulation skills. Determining the root of a behavior will give you the tools to solve it respectfully and in a way that supports the child’s self-esteem and social development.

4. Scaffold Safer Strategies for Expression

Recognizing the possible roots of unwanted behavior makes your job as the child’s interim problem-solver much easier. You can use empathy and concrete options to help your friend feel calm enough to express themselves appropriately. 

“I can see you feel really frustrated with your friend. Let’s take a break and have a snack together. I would love to hear about your block creation when your body is calm.”

“It is really loud in here! I can see that you want to be somewhere quieter, but my number one job is to keep you safe. When you run into the hallway, I cannot keep you safe. I’m going to help your body find a space in our classroom where you can have quiet time in a safe way.”

“It sounds like you really miss your mom. How can we show her that you were thinking about her at school today?”

Use a calm voice to validate their feelings and offer one or two simple options for alternative behavior. If your young friend is too overwhelmed to make their own choice, tell them gently how you are going to help them make it.

5. Collaborate with Families

When you communicate with the child’s family about unsafe or disruptive behavior, focus on objective observations. You can describe their facial expression and physical actions, dictate the language they used and how loudly they expressed themselves, and share physiological responses like crying, drooling, or shaking. Avoid editorializing about how the child felt. Perhaps your assumption is that a child felt angry, when in reality they were surprised. When you exclude these types of descriptive words, you honor the child’s experience by leaving it uninfluenced by your conjecture. 

Ideally, share your observations with primary caregivers in-person. When this is not possible, try to access them through a phone call or video conversation. Tone is difficult to read in an email. When the content of a note describes incidents societally perceived as negative, caregivers often hear a tone that matches their own assumptions rather than what was intended. Avoid miscommunications by offering opportunities for families to hear and see you as you relay information. When they can hear and see you, they can more easily tell how deeply you care about their child, and how eager you are to support them collaboratively.

All of this comes down to empathy. No, your students do not turn into werewolves whenever there is a full moon. No, supporting children when they exhibit unwanted behavior is not easy. But yes, you are loving, nurturing, and capable of calm redirection and support… regardless of where the moon is in its cycle, and regardless of how challenging the behavior your young friends express.

Erin Weisman has taught in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Copenhagen, and is currently in Washington, D.C. She is always working to honor and prioritize her young friends’ perspectives when learning in the classroom. Her favorite student compliment was from a child who said, “Good for you, Ms. Erin!” when she finished a big salad at the lunch table.

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