School Shootings and Small Children: Turn Off the TV

This time the school shooting is in Newtown, CT, and most of the victims are children.

Horrified and upset, we stay glued to the news, grieving with the families and worrying about the safety of our own children. In the process we forget that they may be listening and watching, too.

We’re not bad people, we’re just concerned, but it’s important for us to remember that the news and young children don’t mix. The information and images are too frightening, too hard for them to process.

So let’s turn off our televisions and radios, our computers and cell phones, and try to put ourselves back together. Then we can focus on the children in our lives who depend on us to make them feel safe.

They have probably heard about this shooting or are at least aware that something terrible has happened. Let them ask questions and express their thoughts and fears. If we don’t allow them to do this, they get the message that we’re too scared to deal with the situation and they become even more frightened.

To find out what they know, ask open-ended questions and base your response on what they say. Let them know that it’s natural to be afraid and you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe.

Above all, spend time with them, listening, talking, reading, cuddling, and telling them that you love them.

For a helpful post on more we can do, see “Talking with Children about the Connecticut School Shooting” by Eileen Kennedy-Moore. 


Anxiety: A Signal of Challenging Behavior

Challenging and aggressive behavior often seems to come out of nowhere, but the truth is that if you look carefully you can see it on the horizon–in the guise of anxiety.

Anxiety in a child is a kind of early warning system that something is amiss, whether it’s the result of being left out of a group, stress at home, exposure to violence, even autistic spectrum disorder.

It’s hard to notice in a busy classroom because it’s internal; it doesn’t usually show much, and it doesn’t affect anyone but the child himself. But anxiety interferes with a child’s ability to learn and interact with his peers, and it can easily escalate to agitation and aggression if it isn’t addressed. We will certainly notice it then.

Become Sherlock Holmes

To see anxiety, you have to become a detective. To begin with, you must build a close relationship with every child and get to know all the children well–their temperaments, developmental levels, play skills, families, and cultures; what frustrates and frightens them; what makes them happy, mad, or sad.

You also have to learn to read the subtle physiological and behavioral clues the children display as they try to cope with their anxiety. For example:

  • Physiology. Tears, frequent urination, clenched teeth, blushing, pallor, rigidity, rapid breathing, sweating, fidgeting, vomiting, squeaky voice
  • Behavior. Downcast eyes, withdrawing, hair twirling, thumb-sucking, sucking hair or clothes, biting fingernails, hoarding, clinging, whining, being noisy or quiet, screaming, masturbating, smirking, giggling, crying

Figuring out what the child is thinking and feeling will help, too.

  • Thoughts. No one loves me; no one wants me; I’m no good; I don’t like it here; I don’t have any friends; no one will come to get me; I can’t do it; I’m bad; I want my mommy
  • Feelings. Distressed, troubled, afraid, nervous, excited, expectant, sad, irritable, grouchy, mad, insecure, frustrated, worried, confused, panicky

Reach Out

When a child’s characteristic clues appear, it’s time to connect–to smile, to sit nearby, to offer your help, to ask open-ended questions.

Pay special attention to your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, which all convey far more than your words. You’ll want to do whatever works for a particular child.

This tiny intervention delivered at just the right moment will save you tons of time and trouble later, and protect the child from learning that challenging behavior is the best way to solve problems.

PS. Many of these ideas come from the WEVAS program created by Neil Butchard and Robert Spencler. For more information go to www.wevas.net


The More We Get Together: Thoughts on the NAEYC Annual Conference, 2012

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I must admit that I find the NAEYC conference daunting: so many people, so many choices, so many lines.

This year Judy and I both made the trip. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the conference center, and it didn’t take us long to figure out where to get breakfast and lunch without standing in line for hours.

Judy was amazed that although thousands of people attended—spread out in a variety of hotels and all converging at the conference center—we ran into almost every person we were hoping to see, in some cases more than once. We connected with  friends and colleagues, old and new, while we were having coffee, while we were eating dinner, at our book signing in the exhibit hall, in workshops, in hallways, even in the bathroom. We felt like members of a gigantic family.

Nothing I Do Works

The conference kicked off for me at 8:30 on Wednesday morning with my pre-conference workshop, “Nothing I Do Works!”, designed to help educators understand both themselves and children with challenging behavior, build relationships, and prevent and respond to inappropriate behavior.

Although participants dribbled in slowly (those long coffee lines and a late night watching the election results didn’t help), by the time the technician figured out how to separate my speaker from the sound system in the room next door, almost every seat was taken.

Presenting to a large group always has its challenges, but this workshop went extremely well. Everyone seemed to be involved and interested, and there was a great deal of interaction among the participants. Clearly the people who showed up really wanted to be there (except perhaps for the person sitting right in front of me texting the entire time).

Goose Bumps

Despite the overwhelming number of options, Judy and I succeeded in choosing some terrific workshops. I had goose bumps for 90 minutes listening to Barbara Sorrels of the Institute for Childhood Education in Tulsa, OK, share her experiences working with children exposed to violence. We all need to think about how children’s behavior is often a reflection of the lives they live outside the classroom and how we can help them to feel safe and ready to learn.

I would also like to thank Dr. James Coplan, child psychiatrist and pediatric neurologist in Rosemont, PA,  for his insights regarding children on the autism spectrum. Held in a very large but half-empty room, his session should have been filled to the rafters with folks who have kids with ASD in their groups or work with them in other settings. Coplan presented a wealth of clear and useful information that will help us to understand the needs and behaviors of children with autism and permit these children to participate more fully in classroom life.

The Culture Door

My conference experience ended with my presentation of  “Opening the Culture Door” which examined the influence of culture—the child’s, the educator’s, and the school’s—on expectations and behavior.

Culture often holds the key to developing meaningful relationships: When we understand and appreciate the culture of the children and families we work with, they feel recognized and valued.

Once the workshop got started, it became a real opportunity for the participants to delve into their own culture and experience, which is crucial to understanding the culture of others. My job in facilitating these sessions is to create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to share their own stories. I think they did!

You can get the handout for “Nothing I Do Works!” here 

You can get the handout for “Opening the Culture Door” here

If you have trouble with these links, you can email me at barbarak@challengingbehavior.com


We’re Heading for the NAEYC Conference in Atlanta

I hope you’ll join me for “Nothing I do works!” The importance of understanding, preventing, and responding effectively to challenging behavior,” which will help you to understand yourself and the child, build relationships, and prevent and manage inappropriate behavior (Wednesday, November 7, 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., Georgia World Congress Center, Room A412).

In “Opening  the culture door: Creating a caring learning environment that respects and reflects the cultural values of all children,” we’ll examine the influence of culture—the child’s, the teacher’s, and the school’s—on behavior (Friday, November 9, 1:00 to 2:30 p.m., Georgia World Congress Center, Room A410).

Last but certainly not least, I’d love to meet you at Pearson Education’s “Meet the Author” event (Exhibit Hall booth #1320) on Thursday, November 8, 11:00 a.m. to noon.

We look forward to seeing you there!


Facing the Challenge: Training Trainers

In 2006 a group of experts came together to create a program for helping early childhood educators address challenging behavior. Initiated and funded by the Devereux Early Childhood Initiative (DECI) and based on our book, Challenging Behavior in Young Children , it was called “Facing the Challenge.”

I was excited to contribute to the development of the program’s three DVDs  and later to collaborate with DECI trainer Karen Cairone, who also works on special projects, on a 2½-day training module that would teach others how to use these excellent materials. Since that time we have offered the Training of Trainers workshop to groups all over the U.S., and I have had the honor of presenting it with Karen, Rachel Sperry, and Nefertiti Bruce, who are all wonderful and inspiring presenters.

Special Training

Last week, after Karen and I led a training session at the Devereux site in Villanova, PA, I smiled all the way home, through two planes and five hours’ worth of air and land travel.

Barbara working with the participants at the Facing the Challenge Training of Trainers, Villanova, PA

What made this training so special? There were many factors, but perhaps the most important was the group itself. All the participants were mental health and early childhood development specialists who are also experienced trainers, and they work with teachers, children with and without disabilities, and migrant populations. Some live close enough to Villanova to get there by car; others flew in from the West Coast. All brought their enthusiasm, experience, sense of humor, and intelligence with them. I can proudly say that over the 2½ days I did not see a single droopy eyelid.

First Karen and I presented the program’s content, covering all eight modules of the “Facing the Challenge” DVDs, from “What Is Challenging Behavior?” to “Intervention Strategies.” We used the planned presentation notes, our own styles, and of course the DVDs’ video clips, which are so full of learning opportunities.

Digging In

Then the participants dug into the material themselves, learning more about Power Point, timer slides, and embedding videos. They all seemed to enjoy making the material their own and presenting it to the group.

One small group invented a culture and language of their own (which they dubbed “WaWa”) to illustrate how families who come from a different culture and speak a different language often feel left out, especially if they have a child with challenging behavior.

Another small group had us pretend that a balloon was a child and charged us with keeping it afloat so that it would come to no harm. They enabled us to realize how our work with children requires a team with common goals.

Over our days together, we talked about how important it is to reflect upon the good, the bad, and the ugly so that we can learn from our successes as well as our mistakes. What this experience ultimately reinforced for me is that the more energy we put into an experience the more we get out of it.

I want to thank the members of the group for all their energy and for helping Karen and me to provide a training filled not only with useful content and materials but also with laughter.

PS. I wasn’t the only person invigorated by this training. I just received this note from participant Susan Pollack: “The October 10-12 training has been on my mind ever since the ride back to Virginia. I can honestly say that this was one of the best sessions I have attended in my more than 30 years in the early childhood field. I am looking forward to implementing the modules with my staff.
Thank you for a wonderful experience.  It was an honor to be a participant.”


Can We Stop a Shooter-in-Waiting?

Is it possible to predict who will commit a school shooting?

Are there warning signs that teachers, administrators, and threat-assessment teams can use to alert mental health professionals and law enforcement that a child may kill himself, his classmates, or his teachers?

The answer is almost certainly no. Psychology hasn’t yet developed this delicate art, and it probably never will. Multiple interacting factors push a shooter to act, and the vast majority of people who are mentally ill are not dangerous. By and large, school is a very safe place.

Not so long ago, when life became overwhelming youngsters who were marginalized and disaffected usually headed for the person responsible for their trouble—an abusive father or the kid who bullied them. But ever since Columbine, these boys (and they are always boys) follow a well-established cultural script—a template. Violent media help them along by equating masculinity with guns and power.

What Can Teachers Do?  

Sociologist Katherine S. Newman, who has studied school shootings in depth, suggests that eliminating even one of the risk factors underlying a school shooting will reduce the chances of a future shooting. Here are some of her recommendations:

1.  Identify and include kids who feel marginalized, isolated, friendless, under attack, or bullied, because they are most at risk, especially if they’re also depressed or dealing with other mental problems.

In other words, strong relationships with teachers are crucial. Although kids who don’t fit in won’t ask for help because it isn’t “manly,” they desperately need someone who cares, someone who can model an alternative set of values and give them room to be different, someone who can refer them for appropriate help. Chances are such kids are not easy to get close to, but trying to build some sort of positive relationship is crucial.

Marginalized students also need an inclusive classroom climate where they can develop ties and become part of a community. If they feel they belong, maybe they will be less likely to carry out an attack. And because they often advertise their intentions, in a community their peers may know about—and disclose—their plans, enabling experts to intervene in time to prevent violence.

2.  Make academic, counseling, and disciplinary records available from grade to grade and from school to school.Newman writes, “The commitment to second chances, and the desire to avoid labeling kids in ways that prejudice future teachers is socially worthy, but it exacts too high a cost.”

A more open system would make it possible to spot patterns of behavior and get help for students who need it. We must balance the right to confidentiality against individual and public health and safety.

 What Do You Think?

Is it a good idea for school counselors, administrators, or teachers to have access to a student’s records? Should access be confined to administrators and school counselors, or should teachers be able to see records, too? Would knowing a student’s history affect your attitude and behavior toward him? How would you balance your knowledge with the student’s right to privacy?


Fighting Violence with Early Childhood Education

This summer two horrific mass shootings shocked the country.

The first, in July, took place at the midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises”  in Aurora, CO, just down the road from Littleton, a town that’s still reeling from the Columbine massacre. The shooter, James Holmes, killed 12 and wounded 58.

The second attack, by an unrelated assailant, Wade M. Page, occurred in August at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. Six died and three were injured.

This fall, two school shooters joined this nefarious company. A 15-year-old was charged with assault and attempted murder in Perry Hall, MD; and a 14-year-old shot into the ceiling of a packed classroom in Normal, IL. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Child with American flag and gun inTexas

A child with an American flag and a gun in Texas in the 1920s. Photo by Harry Walker, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library

Risk Factors

We know very little about these shooters, and we certainly don’t know what caused these attacks. But we do know some of the factors that increase the risk of violent and aggressive behavior, and we also know that risk factors are cumulative—one plus one equals more than two. They can easily become overwhelming.

In young children, these risks work to produce challenging behavior, and when that behavior continues into kindergarten and beyond it becomes harder and harder to change.

Children with behavior problems are frequently rejected by their peers, and as a result they’re deprived of opportunities to develop and practice the social and emotional skills they need for self-esteem and success.

Their behavior also creates problems in school, where teachers all too often make the situation worse by teaching them less and punishing them more.

No wonder children with challenging behavior develop into teens who drop out of school and turn to delinquency, gangs, drugs, and mental illness. As adults they’re more likely to commit violent crimes.

White Power

Even knowing nothing about his childhood, we can guess about how risk factors led one of these shooters down a dangerous path. The Milwaukee gunman was immersed in the neo-Nazi culture of racial hatred and its white-power music, “hatecore.” The songs he played on his guitar and bass were intended to incite violence and strengthen commitment to his cause.

To heighten the risk, he—and all of the other assailants, including the teens—had ready access to guns.

A Different Life?

But maybe once upon a time they were young children with challenging behavior. If they’d had strong relationships with their teachers and effective teaching, they might have turned out differently.

The police are lobbying for high quality early childhood education because research shows that it prevents crime.

What do you think? What causes violent behavior? Is it guns? Violent media? Poverty? Genes? And what can we do about it? Can high quality early childhood education prevent crime and violence?


Six Tips for Preventing Challenging Behavior

Maybe it’s one of your nightmares about the beginning of the school year: There’s a child with challenging behavior in your class, and you don’t know what to do.

Like many teachers, you probably had very little training in this subject. But believe it or not, you can help this child to behave appropriately and at the same time create a classroom that’s pleasant, relaxed, and conducive to learning.

Prevention is the best intervention. Here are some tips on how to do it.

1. Know the children well. If a child with challenging behavior can’t function, she may distract or frighten the other children, destroy their work, even hurt them. She will monopolize your time, deplete your resources, and keep you from teaching. But when the environment meets her physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs, she feels capable of success and needs challenging behavior less.

By anticipating when she’ll have trouble, preventing the situation from occurring, and reminding her of what to do instead of waiting for her to make a mistake, you can construct a new pattern: She will feel good about herself and yearn to have that feeling again.

You may have to change your teaching style to meet her needs, but you will have more to give to all the children.

2. Make your classroom a community. The social context of the classroom has an enormous impact on the way children behave. Although you can’t see or touch it, the social context—which grows out of our words, actions, and body language—is everywhere, telling us what attitudes and behaviors are expected, accepted, and valued.

While young children are learning self-control, they rely on the external environment to help them. Teachers can support them by developing caring, responsive relationships and surrounding them with a positive, prosocial, predictable social context.

When children participate in structured cooperative activities or work together toward a common goal, they have a better chance to feel included. Class meetings; music, dance, and drama activities; cooking, murals, noncompetitive games, large construction projects; and reading aloud to the whole group every day foster unity, shared interests, prosocial behavior, and cooperative social interaction.

3. Watch your (body) language.  Remember that you’re always a role model. When you smile and show your affection and enthusiasm, the children notice, and you set a positive tone for the whole class.

Eliminate no, don’t, and stop from your vocabulary. “Stop running!” opens the door for trouble: Should they hop, skip, jump? Instead use positive, direct language that tells them what to do. “Please walk in the hallway,” stated clearly, calmly, and respectfully, informs them of the expected behavior.

Avoid why, too. Andrew may not know why he spit, and if you ask, he’s likely to fabricate a reason. He may even believe that an explanation will make the behavior acceptable. But unacceptable behavior is always unacceptable, and why puts some children on the defensive, making it harder for them to regain control.

Saying “please” and “thank you,” expressing your feelings, being sensitive to others’ feelings, and offering and accepting help all show that you respect and value the children—and demonstrate how they can respect and value each other.

4. Help the children create rules, which teach expectations and set boundaries for behavior. Three to 5 are enough—it’s easier to remember them when there aren’t too many. They should be clear, explicit, stated in the positive, general enough to cover almost any situation, and important enough so that there will be no exceptions.

Begin with the primary need of everyone in the room—to be safe. Children and teachers have proposed:

  • Respect yourself / Take care of yourself / Be safe
  • Respect others / Take care of others / Be kind
  • Respect the environment / Take care of the environment / Be gentle

The children will understand, respect, and follow the rules more readily if they create them themselves, with your support and guidance. Explain that rules enable people to treat one another fairly, kindly, and respectfully. This is a difficult concept, so work on it over time, including lots of examples and discussion so that the children come to a common understanding of what the rules mean. For instance, “respect others” may mean “listen when other people are talking” and “use an inside voice in the hallway.”

Post the rules with illustrations by the children and give each child a copy to take home. Throughout the year, use natural opportunities and activities to reinforce them. Children tend to forget, and practice helps them to remember.

5. Provide choice. When children can make their own decisions, they don’t need inappropriate ways to seek power and independence. Give them opportunities to succeed and to feel comfortable trying, and supervise closely so that you can reduce or add choices or teach new skills as circumstances require.

Even when you have a great circle or meeting time with lots of variety—sitting, standing, jumping, singing—give the children the choice to leave and return so that they don’t learn to rely on inappropriate behavior to meet their needs. Be sure to create a procedure for leaving and returning.

6. Teach social and emotional skills proactively and on a regular basis. They help children to make friends, regulate their emotions, gain self-esteem, resolve conflicts, and perform better at school.

Adults model, teach, and reinforce social and emotional skills, but because children imitate those most like themselves, they increasingly learn these skills through interaction with their peers.

Children with challenging behavior have great difficulty in the social and emotional realm. Often rejected by their classmates, they have few chances to learn and practice these skills, so it’s a good idea to teach social and emotional skills to the whole group. All of the children benefit; no one is singled out or stigmatized; and everyone learns the same concepts and vocabulary, making the skills easier to model and use.

Reinforce them in real-life interactions by staying closely attuned and coaching, prompting, and cueing to ensure children get the desired results.


Welcome to Children with Challenging Behavior

As the authors of Challenging Behavior in Young Childrenwe’re always looking for new information on this subject that’s so near and dear to our hearts.

From her base in Nova Scotia, Barbara travels the world giving workshops and presentations, while Judy stays home in Montreal reading books and online materials—and both of us collect interesting and useful research, ideas, and opinions that we believe will interest you, too.

So we want to share some of our discoveries.

Most of the information we find is straightforward and reliable, some of it is controversial, and some is downright wrong. We’ll tell you what we think—but we also want to know what you think, what you disagree with, what you want to understand better, what you’d like to know more about. That is, we rely on you to help us.

If we don’t know the answers to your questions, we’ll try to find out, because something that makes you wonder probably makes others wonder as well, and the more that we know about children and their challenging behavior, the more likely we are to make a difference in their lives.

We’ll focus mainly on young children’s behavior, but we’ll also write about aggression and violence in older children and adults—such as the shooting in Aurora, CO—because what happens in early childhood has such a huge influence on what happens later.

Look for us in this spot… or sign up at the right to receive an email notice each time we post.