There Are No Bad Children – Three Tips for Discovering the Intent Behind Children’s Actions

I had to give this blog post some time to marinade in my mind before I wrote it because respect to children is at the heart of everything I do. It is inherent in every move I make, every word I type, every book I read to research topics that I want to teach about. I try to make it every part of every move I make in my classroom. Sometimes I don’t succeed (but no human is ever known for perfection), but I know when I do because I enter into a state of flow that only being in sync with the class as a whole can bring.

I recently gave a workshop about classroom environments. This workshop discusses how to create an environment that will be comfortable and engaging to everyone who is in it for the 8-10 hours a day most teachers and children are there. It takes into account the space as a whole, as well as the materials that are in the space. I love doing this workshop because I love seeing what teachers come up with to make their space more comfortable and engaging.

This night, however, there were a couple of teachers who were stressed about the environment in their classroom, and I’m not referring to the classroom or the materials. These teachers were concerned about the children in their class. I’m not going to get into specifics here because I take a firm stand on confidentiality, not just with children but with teachers as well. Suffice to say that the teachers were concerned about the material that I was teaching them because they felt that no matter what they did, how they changed the environment, what kind of materials they put out for the children, they were going to destroy it.

I had no answers at this workshop. I discussed this class at length with these teachers and came up with nothing, but not for a lack of trying. I discussed stress management techniques, which the teachers said that they were using. But when I tried to get to the heart of the problem – the intent of the children – the answer always came back the same: their intent is to destroy whatever they can get their hands on.

I don’t doubt that some children like to destroy things; disconnecting is one of the schemas that children explore countless times throughout their lives. However, these teachers feel that these children destroy things maliciously, with clear intent on destroying materials that don’t belong to them. And no amount of explaining, questioning, suggesting, or hinting was going to make them feel any differently.

Children feel. We all feel, but children feel much more deeply and much more intensely than adults do. Most of the time they do not have the self-control to handle their emotions and will act out in ways that seem destructive in an effort to gain a sense of control over their lives. Our jobs, as teachers, is to discover what is causing such big emotions in the children we care for. It isn’t safe to have children destroying everything, and it isn’t okay either, but rather than slapping a label on the child (“He’s so bad” or “He’ll destroy everything”), why not take some time to figure out why this child is behaving in this way?

1. Observe – Watch the child throughout the day – his interactions with others will probably be the most important here. If the child comes into the classroom all wound up, observe to try to discover why. Observation is your friend here – if you can see the destructive behavior in the context of their own frustration, it may help you find the root cause.

2. Communicate – Ask the child why they are destroying materials. Find out if they are upset – and if they are upset, find out why. We can’t help children feel safe until we know what it is that is making them feel unsafe, and sometimes we won’t know until we ask. Be sure not to sound judgmental – as if the child were doing anything wrong. If you approach a child as if you were mad or angry, they will either lie to you in defense (so they don’t get in trouble)or not say anything at all.

3. Breathe – Breathing is important, for us and for the child. Do some stress management with the child and breathe with them, especially before you have any kind of conversation with them. Our own stress management is important if we are going to approach the child in a non-judgmental way.

Destructive behaviors can be very frustrating, but with these tips, you should be able to help the child come up with solutions to their own frustrations that will help them be more productive and less destructive.

Changing Mindsets Part 4: Take a Step Back and Connect

In my last post  I talked about using observation to discover the reasons why children exhibit problem behaviors. In this post we will discuss making a connection with the child. I understand that it may be hard to connect with a child whose behaviors have been so frustrating and have caused so much tension in the classroom, but this step is vital to changing our mindset about classroom behaviors. The observation process is very helpful in this regard, as it shows the teacher exactly what is happening to trigger the problem behavior. With this information in hand, it is easier to try to make a positive connection with the child because you are able to see that the behavior has a reason behind it. So for Step Seven:

  • Think about your situation with the child. What do you want the child to learn or to do? For example, if the child is hitting other children, you could say, “I want this child to use his words to solve problems instead of hitting,” or “I want this child to put his toys away at clean up time instead of throwing them across the room.”

Now you have reframed the situation. Before you were only focused on the problem behavior, which usually leads to punishment and frustration. Now you are focused on what the child needs to learn, which leads to teaching. That brings us to Step Eight:

  • Based on how you reframed the situation, what can you teach this child that will help them be successful? This can be as simple as, “I can teach this child which words to use in order to solve his social problems,” or “I can teach this child where each toy belongs so that he does not feel so stressed during the clean up transition.”

Up to this point, this problem behavior has caused a lot of anxiety and frustration in the classroom. It is important that you create a plan for staying calm during these situations. This child is watching you during these moments and the calmer you are, the calmer the child will be. The situation may not end as smoothly as you would like, but you will both be calmer. So for Step Nine:

  • Think about your reactions up to this point and write down what you will do differently during the next situation with this child. What can you do to stay calm in the heat of the moment? How can you use this situation to teach rather than punish?

More information will be given about stress-management and calming techniques in a later post.

These action steps are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey. To return to Step Six, click here.  For Steps Four and Five click here. For Steps One, Two and Three click here.

In my next post we will begin discussing the stress response.

Changing Mindsets

Children are much  more than their behaviors, and it is important for you to develop a process by which you can separate your feelings for the child from your feelings about the child’s behavior. In order to change anything about the environment or how you implement your curriculum, you must first change your mindset about the behaviors that you see in the classroom. It is so easy to begin characterizing children by their behavior: “That one is bad,” “That one never listens.” But the important thing to remember is that children are people, just like you, and you wouldn’t want anyone characterizing you by traits that aren’t you: “She doesn’t listen to anything,” or “She is a bad teacher because she never does ________.” We all do the things that we do for a reason, and just as you wouldn’t want to be characterized by what others perceive as faults, neither does a child.

In the next few posts I will be outlining a series of action steps that you can take in order to begin changing your mindset about a child and his/her behavior. These steps are adapted from the Conscious Discipline program by Dr. Becky Bailey. Today we will work with the first three action steps:

  • Step One: Identify the child in your class that creates the most stress for you.
  • Step Two: Return to the post about trigger thoughts and identify the trigger thoughts that you regularly experience in connection with this child’s behavior.
  • Step Three: Identify the feelings or emotions that you go through during the child’s behavior. A good place to start is the list of emotions in this post.

In the next post, we will work with the next two action steps.



The Hierarchy of Change

One key to unlocking the secrets of effective classroom management is realizing that there are many pieces of the classroom puzzle that a teacher can change. However, the child is not one of them. The Hierarchy of Change shows different elements of the classroom that teachers can change in order to realize a less stressful classroom environment. The Hierarchy of Change looks like this:

Hierarchy of Change with Header



The Hierarchy of Change lists items according to their importance. Thus, while it may be easier to change the classroom environment, it is more important to change the teacher’s mindset first. Because teachers can’t change the student, the student is listed at the bottom of the diagram.

So what does it mean to change teacher mindset? In previous posts I have discussed how our brain reacts to stress, and that is something that will be covered more in future posts. One way you can change your mindset is by realizing that there may be more going on with a situation than you can tell at first glance. For instance, if a child is hitting another child, our automatic reaction is to punish the child that is doing the hitting. However, what if the child that he was hitting had taken a toy from him or hurt him first in some way? Changing our mindset means understanding that social situations are complicated in any situation, and in order to teach children how to navigate their own social setting, we have to be willing to get to the bottom of negative social interactions in order to help children repair relationships. In fact, changing your mindset means that you need to shift from a punishment mentality to a teaching mentality when it comes to any situation in the classroom. There are several other ways that you can change your mindset, and these will be covered in future posts.

Changing the environment means making it more engaging and more open to the exploration that children enjoy. Children are naturally curious, and children love moving. One of the ways that we can change the environment is to allow children to satisfy their curiosity more often and allow them the opportunities to move that they need. More will be covered on this in future posts.

Changing how we implement curriculum is probably one of the hardest pieces of this hierarchy to change, especially if you work in a school or childcare center that has a very specifically defined curriculum. However, you should familiarize yourself with the ways in which children learn best and use that knowledge to teach lessons in a way that is engaging, fun, and connects learning to the real world. More will be covered about how you can adapt lessons and make them more engaging and fun in future posts.


The Teacher’s Choice

In my last post I talked about the stress that teachers face in the classroom. Most of them face this stress every day, and a lot of teachers do not have adequate support to help them handle the classroom situations that cause them so much stress. I have been a teacher in a preschool classroom for many years; the majority of my years teaching have been spent in classrooms by myself with no extra support.

Any time you find yourself in a stressful classroom situation you have a choice about how you will react to that situation. You can react to the situation in a calm manner or an angry manner; it is ultimately up to you. Or, as Dr. Becky Bailey puts it, “No one can make you angry without your permission.” This may seem easier said than done, but allow me to explain.

When you say that someone makes you do something, you are ultimately saying that this person has control over you – enough control that you would not be able to stop yourself from doing what the other person wanted you to do. When you say that a child is making you angry, you have effectively given away your power to a child.

It is time for you to take your power back. That is why I say that you have a choice. Do you choose to give your power away to a child or do you choose to keep your power for yourself?

In my next post, I will discuss what goes on in our heads during stressful classroom situations.

How Do You View Children?

When I first wrote that question as a way to start my thinking about classroom management, I thought, “Wow, what a loaded question!” I mean, we all love children; if we didn’t we wouldn’t be working in the field of early childhood education. But it is no secret that this is a very challenging field: a 2003 study found that the turnover rate among early childhood educators is estimated to be between 15-30% every year. About a year ago I wrote a post in which I pondered the idea that teaching in early childhood is considered a dead-end job. Obviously, I have never considered it a dead-end job, but those who aren’t familiar with (or aren’t curious about) the amazing amount of knowledge out there that can make the job easier have a harder time in the classroom than those who seek out knowledge and productive ways of doing things in the classroom.

One of the most frustrating aspects of working with children is dealing with problem behaviors. Many different discipline and classroom management systems label these behaviors different ways, from “mistaken” to “challenging,” but the fact is that early childhood educators are expected to handle these behaviors on a daily basis while still trying to maintain a nurturing atmosphere. Sometimes these roles can feel conflicting if problem behaviors get out of control; teachers feel that the role of disciplinarian, coupled with the frustration that comes with it, overtakes and consumes their role as nurturer. Having to be a constant disciplinarian is one of the factors leading many teachers to burnout.

So what if I pose the question differently: what if I ask you how you view children in the worst situations, those situations in which you are being the disciplinarian rather than the nurturer? How often does it happen throughout your day? Is there one children that you find yourself disciplining more than others? How do you feel during those situations?

I remember when I first began studying about classroom management and discipline techniques. I was a fairly new teacher in a three-year-old classroom with fifteen children. I did not have a co-teacher or an assistant teacher; I was alone. There was one girl – we’ll call her Jayla (names are changed to protect the innocent) – who put me in the disciplinarian chair every single day, all day long. Jayla’s behaviors made me feel:

  • powerless
  • frustrated
  • overwhelmed
  • hopeless
  • alone
  • angry
  • out of control
  • anxious

Needless to say, when I felt these emotions, it became difficult to have a productive learning environment. While I tried to be as positive as possible with other children in the class, my negative emotions took a toll on my energy level and my positive interactions with the rest of the class. After all, a teacher only has so many hours in a day with children. The more they find themselves in negative situations, the less time they have to be in positive situations.

In my next post, we will explore the choices that teachers have in high-stress discipline situations in the classroom.

Defining My Own Direction

I have been inspired, which is great because school starts here in three weeks. I am beginning to define the direction of my classroom. Is it odd that I want to define a direction three weeks out, before I even have had an opportunity to observe the children in the space to come up with a direction that is in line with their interests?

No. My planning has to do with me. I have specific things that I want the children in my class to learn this year. They need to learn to recognize the letters of the alphabet and how to write them. They need to sharpen their counting and numeral recognition skills. But these are academic skills that every three-year-old begins to learn. There are other areas of knowledge that my students need to learn. And I ask myself these questions in order to prepare:

  • How am I going to teach my children social skills this year? How am I going to help them interact with each other productively?
  • What sort of discipline methods am I going to put into place?
  • How am I going to go about creating invitations to play this year – something that I have always wanted to incorporate, but haven’t had the time to plan or coordinate? And how am I going to plan and coordinate this?
  • What about science activities? How can we incorporate cool science activities that will help these children understand cause and effect and learn more about their world?
  • How can we incorporate music exploration? How can we make music in the classroom more hands-on and more interactive than simply using rhythm sticks or tambourines, or dancing to music that has already been made?

As you can tell from the links, I have more than enough inspiration to work with. I want the children in my class to have a fun, exciting year that will pique their curiosity and inspire them to create on their own. I think we all want that. But the art of teaching (and it really is an art) is to reflect on what we have done in the past and figure out ways to make it better in the future. Even though I have not had a chance to observe the children as a group in the learning environment that we will call home for the next year, I can still plan ways to encourage productivity for our entire classroom experience. So while I continuously encourage planning through observation – and use that skill myself – I also acknowledge that it never hurts to reflect on the classroom as a whole and make changes accordingly.

Remembering How To Play

I look back at some of my more recent posts and I feel that I owe my readers an apology. I’m not even sure that I know who that person is that wrote those posts. Someone sad and lost, I think. That is where I have been for the past six or seven months. It took me a while to figure out why, but I think that I have finally gotten myself together.

I wrote recently that the children in my class do not know how to play. I think that a more accurate assessment of the situation is that I have forgotten how to play. My philosophy of education, which I so fiercely defended when I was in my first co-teacher position, went straight out the window when I entered my second. I was so focused on the special needs issues of the classroom that I neglected the other children in the room. When I turned my attention to the other children, I began to focus more on what I wanted them to learn rather than what they wanted to learn. I began to use coercion and punishment in order to achieve circle times, bathroom times, and other activities. Discipline problems began to rise and nerves began to get frazzled – and not just mine, but the children’s as well. Making the children do what I wanted to do became the order of the day, and while we fought tooth and nail to get things done, it felt like we got nothing done. Activities lost their meaning because more time was spent on a battle of wills than on any meaningful classroom projects. And through it all, I lost the love of my job. I began to hate going to work. I haven’t picked up a book bout early childhood education in months. The workshops that I so lovingly and excitedly prepared are gathering dust because I have had no energy or desire to do anything with them.

A turn-around in my thought process began this week as I wondered where the researcher in me went. That was why I loved this job so much – the thrill of figuring out why children do the things they do, how they think about certain things and why, and how to work with them to change their thought processes. Why d they behave a certain way in certain situations? These are puzzles that my brain loves to figure out, and these puzzles are absent from a classroom where everything that is done is what the teacher wills. The children lose their individuality in that case and become part of a group, and the puzzles become meaningless. The researcher in me gets lost in the shuffle, being taken over by the dictator who plans every moment and decrees every movement.

Upon further examination of the situation, I realized that my focus had also shifted from the children to the subject matter. I longed to teach my class about houses in the same way that I had taught my previous class, but I had forgotten that the subject of houses had arisen from the interest that the children showed in them rather than a desire by me to teach them about houses. I forgot that every big project that we did stemmed from their interest first. I forgot that no activity was mandatory, but usually no decree was needed; the children usually magically gravitated toward the activities that I laid out. The classroom was wildly productive and there was mutual respect shown between the teacher and students. Classroom rules weren’t stated as arbitrary decrees, but were handed out with logical explanations that the children could understand.

I have begun interacting with the class differently, keeping in mind the amount of time I ask the children to sit; keeping in mind the use of arbitrary statements; keeping in mind that activities can flow from the children just as easily as they can flow through the lesson plan. The results have been amazing. I have seen a huge downshift in the amount of behavior problems that had flared up. The appearance of individual personalities in the classroom has led to an appearance of several social and physical behaviors that need to be worked on. A problem that seemingly had no cause is showing signs of a pattern.

The problem has been one of philosophy. I have tried to overlay my educational philosophy onto one that is counter to mine, and the results ended up being a surrender of my educational beliefs. Going forward, I will have to figure out how to reconcile this. For now, I am having fun finding my way back to a classroom that I can enjoy being in.

And I am also having fun remembering how to play.

The Root of the Entitlement Mentality Part II

A long time ago I promised a sequel to my post “The Root of the Entitlement Mentality.” I never delivered on that promise, mainly because it was very hard for me to pinpoint exactly what is at the root of the entitlement mentality. And I feel that I still may not have gotten to the root of the issue, but I do have insights that I did not have during the writing of the previous post. This is mainly due to my research into classroom management, showing children respect, and the effect of punishments and rewards.

Showing children respect is a major pet peeve of mine, and has been since I have begun doing research into proper methods of disciplining children. I think that one of the major issues regarding the lack of respect afforded to children is a widespread misunderstanding as to what discipline actually is. The majority of parents and teachers today view discipline as a system where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished.

Children tend to view all of the things they do as a means to a certain end. In most children, the task itself is the means and the end, meaning that they tend to get pleasure from doing the task itself. When teachers introduce punishments and rewards, the child’s focus when doing a task changes. The child performs the task as a means to receive a punishment or reward; the end becomes trying to please the teacher.Tasks that once were enjoyable to the child now have no meaning to them other than as a way to gain approval, and thus become unrelated to independent self-fulfillment . Because children are not actively practicing self-fulfillment (because they are looking for rewards from other people), they develop an intense need for attention, as well as an affirmation of self-worth from anyone around them. Because of their increased need for attention, either punishment or reward is validating because either makes a statement of worth to the child. Rewards, of course, send a message of positive worth and punishment a message of negative worth.

We may ask ourselves at this point: “Well, I see why punishment is bad, but what is so wrong with rewards?” Because children begin actively looking for rewards or punishments for their actions, they come to expect them. We perpetuate this cycle as children get older through giving out grades and extra credit. By the time these children reach adulthood, they come to expect some sort of punishment or reward for their actions, no matter how large or small the action is. The small rewards begin to lose their ability to offer the message of self-worth; bigger rewards are needed to provide the same feeling of satisfaction that the small rewards once did.

This is how the entitlement mentality is manifested, and it begins at an early age – at the age that punishments are rewards are introduced. This cycle can be stopped, or even reversed, as we discontinue the use of punishments are rewards. This brings us back to the definition of discipline. I was actually surprised when I looked up the word, because several definitions actually listed punishment as a part of discipline. However, there is another way to look at this word: according to, to discipline someone is to train by instruction and exercise. This means that if a child does something that is dangerous to themselves or others, we need to instruct them in the right way to handle the situation. This involves explaining to them what the proper action is, as well as explaining to them why their action was wrong. In this way we awaken in the child their own thought processes and allow them to own their own behavior. We also do not pass a judgement of positive or negative value when we offer our explanations, because that would put us back in the realm of issuing a punishment or reward. Our ultimate goal is to teach the child what the correct action would be in a given situation and help them to remember that action in the future. They will then continue to use the proper action and build upon it as they grow and develop.

We should also allow children a chance to play-act situations in the classroom. One girl in my class loves to pretend that her baby-doll has hit someone in the classroom, and it is amazing to watch her discuss problem-solving strategies with the doll. This is her way of internalizing what she has been taught; by practicing what she has learned through the use of a baby-doll, she will be better able to call upon her newly-learned skills when they are needed.

Doing away with the entitlement mindset, punishments, and rewards in the classroom is not easy. We almost seem programmed to say, “Good job” when a child does something (which is a positive value judgement). One thing that I have taught myself to do is make observations rather than statements that indicate a judgement. Pointing out the colors that a child used in a drawing, or indicating that you see the action that they are performing can go a long way in helping a child to develop independence and a sense of self-fulfillment through their actions. These types of statements also teach vocabulary and let the child know that you notice them or their work. Ultimately, it is up to the child to determine the value of their work; this will enhance their own self-actualization and their development into strong, independent adults who do not need approval from outside sources tot ell them that they are doing a good job. They will gain self-respect and self-fulfillment through their work because they enjoy doing it – which is also a topic for another day.

For more information:

Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism by Jerry Kirkpatrick

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Interest and Effort in Education by John Dewey

My Journey with Conscious Discipline Part ?

Boys, boys, boys. My new class is almost completely made up of boys, and those boys are ALL BOY. I am actually in my element with a class of mostly boys, probably because I was a tomboy growing up and I had three younger brothers. Still, the first thing I thought when I walked into this classroom was, “Wow, this classroom needs Conscious Discipline!” There were no higher thinking skills happening; everything was fight or flight and survival of the fittest.

The first thing I implemented was breathing techniques. I didn’t want the regular teacher to feel that I was overtaking her classroom or overstepping my bounds, but I knew that through proper implementation I could get the children breathing with no problem whatsoever. And did I ever! Within 24 hours I had those kids being S.T.A.R.s voluntarily! Every time there was an incident we were breathing. Any time it got loud we were breathing. I had one kid who took it upon himself to become a S.T.A.R. helper – without my even asking him to be one!

We haven’t worked on proper words very much yet, but I am working on making the children aware of how their actions affect the people around them. That is something that I know is lacking. Letting them know that the other teacher and I are here to keep them safe has helped. An amazing thing is that the other teacher started using the verbiage and methods that I have been using. I know that she usually uses these methods because she taught my older daughter years ago. I don’t know where those methods went with this group, but apparently they haven’t had a lot of consistency with anything. Hopefully that will change.

As it stands now, though, I’ve done too little too late. We will be implementing a reward system sometime in the next week because the problems are so bad in the classroom and the methods that I have implemented are not working fast enough for the parents who are getting tired of hearing that their children are getting beat up on by other kids (which is just about all of them). Since we will only have these children for a few more months, it may be okay. And it doesn’t mean that Conscious Discipline can’t work or be implemented also. But there is a lot that has to happen to make this classroom run more smoothly, something that I have been brainstorming and thinking about for a few days now.