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
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