Teachers and Care Providers – congratulations on the start of another fall, and thank you for the commitment you make year in and out to children and families.
By now you have spent at least a week or two helping a new group of children settle into your classroom, curriculum and routines. Through this process, each child has left an impression on you.
I invite you to take a moment to reflect on those impressions. Think briefly about each child in your care, one by one. Some children will leap to mind immediately. Others will come into focus later. Still others may not make it on your radar at all.
Of the children who you think of right away, I would bet that most have left a positive impression. You get a warm feeling in your gut when you think about them. You may have even pondered taking one or two of them home in your pocket, you love them so much.
Then, I am sure, there are a few who come to mind because they have a made a difficult impression on you. Your gut ties up in a knot when you think about them. They may be emotionally fragile, or resistant to your expectations, aggressive, disruptive, explosive, even. You likely have questions about “what is going on” with them. Perhaps you have theories. Maybe you even have judgments.
The “tricky” kids can make a particularly negative impression on us at the start of the year. We often feel like one or two children have “hijacked” what would otherwise be a smooth start to our routines and curriculum. We can find ourselves resenting their presence, or wishing that we could have a whole class worth of the four or five easiest, most naturally lovable children.
In most kinds of work, we just want to eliminate the challenges that make our jobs harder and more complicated. Not only is this not possible in early childhood education, it’s not desirable. We don’t just want to manage the children whose behaviors challenge us, we want to help them thrive. In an inclusive environment, we know that the presence of all kinds of children is beneficial to all the children. We want children to learn that everyone is working on something, and everyone has something to contribute.
In our personal life, we feel positively about people who do well, and negatively about people who do wrong. In the classroom, this translates to a certain formula: better behavior will create better impressions. If we can get children to behave, or regulate, or calm down, or cheer up, then we will be on our way to a better relationship. They’ll feel and/or act better, and we’ll feel better.
However, decades of research on the brain, the nervous system, development and teaching (and your own experience, I bet, if you think about it) tells us that it doesn’t work that way. The adults’ regulation and affect lead the way. We can’t wait until they shape up to be happy to see them. We have to be happy to see them in order for them to shape up.
This is hard. Think about your interactions with a spirited, challenging child. It probably goes something like this: She enters the classroom and does something “wrong” right away: knocks materials off the table, hits or pushes a peer, plugs up the sink, gets into your teacher supplies, etc. You chase after her and set a limit. This seems to rev her engine a little more and she runs off and commits another infraction. You chase after her and set a limit. This goes on all day.
Three things stand out about this model: one, you get into a pattern of saying “no” after the fact; two, you are not very happy to be with this child; and three (the most important), the child is organizing the teacher-child relationship. And it’s not very organized. You are falling into the child’s disregulated pattern of engaging with the world.
As Leslie Roffman and I wrote in our book, Including One, Including All: A Guide to Relationship-based Early Childhood Inclusion, the key to supporting challenging children is making a plan. The plan will contain all kinds of therapeutic strategies that should help a child regulate and thrive. But just the making of the plan – where the teacher goes from reactive to proactive, from negative to positive – will be therapeutic for teacher and child alike.
Consider this strategy from a plan we created in our book for a fictional (and very tricky) child we called Danny:
One teacher will try to greet Danny each morning with a big hug and go straight into making a choice from the chart. Danny will pick the tile from the chart that matches the activity he wants to do, and put it on the space labeled, “I choose . . .”
We can recognize some familiar action items here: a choice chart and teacher guidance. These are specific procedures that will help Danny get and stay organized. But why greet him with a big hug?
The hug is also a therapeutic strategy. The teachers in this fictional scenario have noticed that proprioception – heavy input to the bones, muscles, and joints – helps give Danny’s body the kind of organizing and soothing he craves. Proprioceptive input is a cornerstone of the sensory integration, body-based approach to support we adopted at The Little School.
But the hug is also a simple way of “flipping the script” with Danny. Instead of wishing he would catch a cold and stay home (just once!), the teachers have formalized a way to be happy to see him, and to show it. The greeting and the hug send a clear message: we have a plan; we know we can help you be successful; we love you; and we’re happy to see you.
Year in and year out, as a teacher and now as a supporter of teachers, I have seen this simple plan work wonders. When teachers take the lead and make a plan, they feel relief. Their confidence soars. They can’t wait to get back at the business of supporting their most challenging children. This is the deep benefit of inclusion – giving teachers a way to feel excited about their deepest challenges. That’s what we want children to learn from us.
So return to your gut impressions one more time. Think of that child you just adore. Take note of how that impression feels in your body and your mind. Take a snapshot of that wonderful feeling. As you make plans to address your deepest challenges, see if you can’t pull that parcel of feelings out of the trunk and superimpose it over each and every child in your care – even the hardest.
And have a great year. The world is depending on it.