Help children learn to take responsibility for their actions and you will lay the foundations for future good behaviour, says Paul Dix…
Leave children caught in a Mary Poppinsesque dedication to one adult and they will struggle to manage themselves in the absence of a great leader. Self-management is not reserved for the over-fives but is an essential foundation for good behaviour that must be laid in the early years. Getting the balance right between leading the children into positive routines and asking them to reflect on their own behaviour is critical.
The behaviour conversation in abstract has little impact. Talk around behaviour is endlessly circular. “You need to behave better”, “Oh yes I do, I will, I promise”, “You are behaving badly again”, “Well I will try harder”, and on and on. It is easy to see why some adults feel like they are getting nowhere and resort to managing behaviour using the force of their personality. The shock and awe of the big stick approach might satisfy some vengeful adults in the short term, but it does little to create a positive model or to lay the foundations for self-discipline. There are simple adjustments that you can make that focus the conversation and make it more reflective, less forced. Of course the language of choice helps. “You made some bad choices today (the wet playdough on the head incident being just one example), you need to make a good choice now.” You can also encourage focused self-reflection through questioning: “Who do you think was hurt by what you did?” “How could you make it better?” “When you feel cross again what could you do instead?”
Having a thinking corner in the room where children go to reflect can also be useful. They might visit the thinking corner alone, with an adult or even with a friend to help. Ask them to draw and explain what happened. Use it as a map of their thinking and then draw out some different choices with them. Signs, symbols, icons and photographs can also help to arrange their thinking and map different patterns of behaviour in front of them. Rather than having everything stuck to the wall, use the images like flashcards to engage the child in a short reflection of their actions. Shift the focus onto the consequences for other children (pink lumpy hair) and the adults (explaining pink lumpy hair to mum). These conversations should last no longer than a few minutes, conducted out of earshot of the other children and should end with simple agreements: “When you go back with the others tell me what you are going to do straight away.”
Alongside the consequences that you highlight for the rest of the class there must be consequences for the child. Without consequences the intervention has no teeth, the conversation no tension. Without consequences your interventions can appear to be ‘nice little chats’ where no one ends up taking responsibility. The foundations for future behaviour are then set on unstable ground.
Land your sanction calmly and without anger. These are inevitable consequences of bad choices. Present it as a natural follow on from poor choices and as the child’s defensive reaction kicks in (“That’s not fair!”, “I hate you”, *weeping uncontrollably*) remind them of their previous good conduct.
Alongside the consequences that you highlight for the rest of the class there must be consequences for the child. Without consequences the intervention has no teeth, the conversation no tension. Without consequences your interventions can appear to be ‘nice little chats’ where no one ends up taking responsibility. The foundations for future behaviour are then set on unstable ground. Land your sanction calmly and without anger. These are inevitable consequences of bad choices. Present it as a natural follow on from poor choices and as the child’s defensive reaction kicks in (“That’s not fair!”, “I hate you”, *weeping uncontrollably*) remind them of their previous good conduct.
In the classroom many of us need to shave the rough edges off our personality to create a persona that works for the children. We are not all naturally assertive or solution focused. The personality I want to show in the classroom is not the same one that you might see if you caught me on a Sunday afternoon swearing repeatedly at pieces of the tumble dryer I have taken off that won’t go back on (they always fit extra pieces right?). I need to be a better version of my natural self. Left unchecked my own personality comes complete with attitudes, tones and physical language that are not appropriate for very young children.
When things are going well your enthusiasm, excitement, care and commitment come naturally. When the chips are down and it starts kicking off your need to reach for an assertive, planned, even scripted approach. Not only will this help to narrow the conversation it will also allow the rest of the children to feel safe and keep your own stress levels in control. Practise and rehearse assertive sentence structures to help you reach that Zen-like calm in the midst of rule-breaking, playdough splattered chaos.
For older children three choices work well. For younger children two clear, closed choices can help to direct behaviour without too much discussion. Skilful deal-making is another essential assertive skill of an early years practitioner. “Okay, do you want to make a deal?” is irresistible. It suggests that you are willing to compromise (even if you are not), lets the child feel like they are being listened to and returns decision making to the child. Try using the assumed close: “When you have cleared up the last of the playdough I will talk to you about what is happening next,” rather than “Clear up the mess or else!” Your positive assumptions about the child’s behaviour echo in the child’s self-esteem long after the conversation has finished. Preface requests with “Thank you” so that the child hears the acknowledgement before the instruction: “Thank you for picking the paper up.” Try absolute belief, even in the face of overwhelming odds! “I can feel that this is going to be an excellent session”, “I have been looking forward to this session all week…”, “I know that you can do messy play without drawing blood”. Finally, by encouraging a child to react appropriately – “We need to sort this out together” – you can model different ways to deal responsibly with the fall out.
Your persistence in pursuing a more reflective approach to managing behaviour may not give the instant satisfaction of the big sticks. It may not bear obvious fruit for years. Working in early years has always been a balance between doing what is right today and sowing seeds for the future.
Adults who respond aggressively to poor behaviour often demand apology above understanding. When we teach children to apologise constantly for their behaviour, we teach them an easy way out. It becomes clear to them that a brief display of humility satisfies the adult. They learn quickly how to apologise brilliantly but not to behave better. Children who are well-practised in the art of the quivering bottom lip need to learn better behaviour, not better apology technique. Of course, it is right to take responsibility for behaviour, but there are many ways to do this that demand far more of the child than just a pantomime of apology.
How to land a difficult message, softly…
● Remind the child of their previous good behaviour immediately after you tell them the sanction for their poor behaviour.
● Challenge their negative internal monologue: “You can do this, you are intelligent and able.”
● Thank the child for listening/looking at you/wiping the tears aside.
● Position yourself at eye level, don’t demand sustained eye contact.
● Use a soft, disappointed tone. Model the control you want to see from them.
● Remind yourself that the sanction is a consequence, not personal retribution.
● Walk away and give the child space as soon as you have finished speaking; return in a minute with some encouragement in a lighter tone.
Paul Dix is a multi-award-winning behaviour specialist and managing director of Pivotal Education.
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