At our January Meeting, I was happy to host Dr. Lynn Collins to speak with you about the development of Self Control and Self Regulation in children. I hope you learned how children move towards independence and social/emotional competence, and collected some ideas that you can apply with your own child and even when working in the classroom.
Just like walking, getting or losing teeth, riding a bike, and learning to read, each child’s path towards personal ‘self control and regulation’ goes according to their personal developmental timeline. There is great variability in when we see kids take these developmental steps. If you have a child who is pretty even-tempered, and who can modulate his or her behavior and reactions without needing a ton of support, it can be confounding to be around a child who does struggle with this.
In a cooperative preschool classroom where you are present as an assistant, it can be especially hard for parents of both types of kids. If you are not used to dealing with emotional or physical outbursts that seem out of context or beyond what you are familiar with, you can feel at a loss for what to do and how to help. You probably struggle to make meaning of this child’s behavior. I imagine you wonder about the genesis of these behaviors, or maybe you think about how you would handle such situations. In fact you may have some good ideas, but they likely come from your own experience with your own child who may indeed be wired very differently.
There are lots books out there prescribing discipline and guidance theories and techniques that may be very helpful for kids who fall into the middle of the bell-shaped curve in terms of their access to internal regulatory processes. But if you are the parent of a kid who is outside that middle range, you know there are lots of good advice and strategies that just don’t seem to make a difference. And you know this because you have probably tried most of them.
For the parent of a child who does struggle — of the child whose behavior draws attention — it can be very painful. You feel exposed and very often judged. We have all had the experience of our own child losing it in a very public place or behaving very poorly during some important family event. It can be embarrassing. You feel the eyes of the other shoppers or family members drilling into the back of your head and you can suddenly hear “the voice.” You know “the voice,” the one that says all kinds of critical things about you as a parent?
If you are the parent of a child who is struggling with regulation you probably fight a daily battle with that voice. You feel like you have to apologize all the time if your child caused a splash or did something “rude” or hurt another child. And you want to protect your child from criticism and judgement.
If you are looking at this from the outside, you probably have no idea how many conversations this parent has already had with me about how to help their child. You can’t know how many outside ‘experts’ they may be consulting with to find the right approach to help their child be in the world, fit in with their peers and within a community, but do so without squelching the very essence of what makes their child unique and without stealing their energy or joy.
I am hoping that each of us will take a moment to think about the messages that we give the children in our school and the messages we give to the other parents as well. Each child in our school is worthy of the same love. When they come into our classroom, they should feel that we have been waiting for them to come in and join us in exploration, learning and fun. If you find yourself cringing in regards to any of our kiddos, hit the pause button and go back and make a list of five of their most wonderful qualities. (Their smile, their laugh, their sense of humor/whimsy, their creative ideas, their energy and enthusiasm, how passionate they are about their friends, their knowledge of nature, etc.) Now focus on those and let that shine out of your eyes. Kids can read us like books. Make sure the story they feel coming from each of us is one of welcome.
Now think about how we are embracing ALL of the parents in our school. How can we make sure that we are not contributing to the voice of judgement and despair? After a particularly hard day, it is ok to feel it — and it is probably better to say “wow that was a rough one” than to stew on it. But do not be a reporter of doom and gloom or server of the bitter dish of shame. What you could say is: “I had a really hard time helping _____ today when it was (time to come in, when they got upset over a problem, etc.). Do you have any suggestions of how I could support them if this happens again? I really want to be there for them.”
Lastly, one thing that confounds many parents is how to talk with their children about a child in class who may be struggling. For children in the throes of the developmental stage of concrete operations, the world is black and white. People are either good or bad, nice or mean. They struggle with gray areas. They know that they make mistakes sometimes in terms of their own behavior, but it is hard for them to give other kids the same understanding they need for themselves — especially if the other child has frequent trouble containing themselves.
Work for understanding. Talk about how everyone makes mistakes. Everyone learns things at different speeds. Every kid out there needs and wants friends, desperately needs connection and love and acceptance. Preschoolers who make frequent mistakes or who are over the top in their reactions are not trying to push other kids away. They are trying really hard. REALLY HARD.
All kids need to learn to stand up for themselves and to ask for help when they need it. We want kids to let us know if someone hurts them or isn’t being kind or fair. We don’t want children to grow up with the habit of being silent victims. We want them all to develop a strong and clear voice.
At the same time, we want children to learn about extending the hand of friendship to someone who is struggling. We want them to learn about forgiving someone for their mistakes and then moving forward and letting them try again.
Help your child see the positive qualities that each child possesses. “Yes, it is hard when they do ____ and Teacher Marty and Teacher Lisa and their parents are trying to help them learn and remember to be kind. I wouldn’t like it either if someone (yelled at me, took my toy, told me I couldn’t play, wouldn’t listen to me, cried too loud or got upset too often).” Coach them on what they can do in that difficult situation (tell the person to stop, tell the teacher, move farther away from them if they are too loud, tell them you don’t like to be touched or called names). We want to give all the kids skills, understanding and compassion.
Never hesitate to come to me with your concerns or worries. I am here for the kids but I am also here for you. I will do my best to help you both understand and to feel like you have the tools to be helpful and successful in the classroom.
I appreciate all the love you bring for your child and for all the children because it is what make the classroom come alive and feel like the special place it is. We ARE the village. I cannot think of a place I would rather be or people I would rather entrust with the care and guidance of my own child. You are, quite simply, my heroes.
Much love and appreciation,