Feelings, nothing more than feelings.
I have mentioned that I am often inspired by the children when writing these articles, but this time, I was inspired by my students. We were having discussions about behaviour and how we react and respond to behaviour which we find challenging. It is often difficult for practitioners to know how to respond appropriately to children who are behaving in a way that is challenging for us - how do we respond sensitively and in a way that validates and explains the way those children are feeling?
There is some understanding of the fact that emotions can be very overwhelming for young children and they can struggle to cope with those emotions - they do not always have the language to articulate exactly what they are feeling and may never have had that feeling before so do not even understand it or how to control it. As practitioners, we know that we need to give a name to those feelings and emotions in order to help the child to understand that the feeling or emotion is perfectly normal, in the hope that next time they feel that way, they can cope better. When a child is having a melt down, I have often heard practitioners say something along the lines of “ oh I can see that you are really angry” - I have used such techniques myself and have been very proud of the fact that I have validated that child’s feelings and given them the tools to start to develop self regulation. Until, that is, I engaged in the Transforming Challenging Behaviour online conference this year.
This conference is run by Barb O’Neil and enables us to listen to some really wonderful speakers giving us their expertise and experience. One such discussion was on my previous point - validating children’s emotions and listening to it completely changed my practice. All my self congratulations, patting myself on the back, dwindled away, as I realised, rather than validating how children had been feeling, all I had done was to dismiss those feelings.
Let me explain - Alyssa Black Campbell and Laura Stauble discussed the use of the word ‘but’. We tend to acknowledge the feeling as I mentioned earlier so something like “I can see that you are really angry” …… then we add the “but” usually followed by something we want the child to do or perhaps telling that child to stop having that emotion, the timing is all wrong or we can't deal with it right now because there is something, we consider, far more important, that needs attending to. We make a good start by giving a name to the emotion and feel we have done enough, yet using ‘but’ we undo all of that and rather than validate that child's feelings, we have done the complete opposite, showing them that we have placed little value on what they are going through and that our needs are far more important.
Responding to a child who is experiencing a strong emotion we need to make sure that we are emotionally available to that child and have noticed that they need a connection to us in order to:
Settle the nervous system - co regulation and to activate the brain. Children need attuned and responsive adults not adults that say ‘but you need to stop that and do this now”. This can be really difficult if you are constantly expecting the children to move from activity to activity or to transition from play to an activity of your choosing.
Anna Ephgrave (2018) states that when settings enable children to engage in play without interruptions for focus activities, the adults are available to the children, interacting with them and able to deal with any potential behaviour issues immediately, teaching the children self regulation skills they will need to adopt to support their independence.
This requires practitioners to develop a connection to the children in their care - if a child does not feel connected to you, they will not respond to you. They need to trust you and know that you are on their side, to be emotionally available. In my setting, emotions have been high and children have requested “cuddle club” in order to feel secure and valued, a chance to build an emotional connection to that child.
Young children experience rage when their brains are at an unstable point in their development - this is when the ability to understand the spoken word exceeds the ability to speak and to process emotions through language. This equals a limbic storm rage - this is more commonly known as a toddler tantrum. Attuned adults can safely contain the rage and help the child to self regulate and recover.
Mine Conkbayir in her wonderful book, Early Childhood and Neuroscience explains that when children become overwhelmed by their emotions those emotions ‘hijack the brain, it means that the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain instantly become compromised” (2017). She continues that the result of this are children that cannot respond in a calm and rational way because all the actions are being led by the emotions, strong, overpowering emotions. It may be at this point that we tell the children to calm down, that there is nothing to be so upset about - has this ever worked for you when you have been upset or angry or frustrated!? Someone telling you to ‘calm down’, quite often has the complete opposite effect!! Mine suggests that we as adults talk through possible alternative reactions and responses and model these for the children so that they can process and understand. Communication is key.
The importance of communication for self regulation:
Talking builds brain patterns for language development, cognitive function and social interaction. Words are vital to the child’s pre-cognitive patterning. By strengthening the language centres of the brain this can improve self regulation as feelings are processed through expressing them in language.
Stress and self-calming
Some stress in our lives can be useful, it protects us from danger. Interestingly cortisol, our stress hormone, peaks in the mornings and relaxes in the evenings. So if the children in your setting have high level of cortisol charging through their bodies and they are being exposed to stressful situations such as changing from play to an adult directed activity, they will not thrive and they will not learn. Stressful situations are hazardous to healthy brain development but being supported through stress can be turned into opportunities for children to practice and achieve self calming techniques.
Mine advises that it is crucial for practitioners to be empathetic, patient and respectful to those young children who are experiencing overwhelming and powerful emotions. If we do not empathise, if we scold the child or demean that feeling, the child becomes more angry and does nothing to tackle the cause of the problem and support them with self calming. She gives top tips for how to encourage the children to achieve emotional competency in these situations. Think about how you are responding to something which, understandably, you are finding challenging, as everything you do is internalised by the children. Avoid punishing when a tantrum occurs. Teach the children how to manage their responses to situations they find stressful and make a real effort to model patience and self control so that the children can see it in practice and learn from it.
We do, however, live in the real world and at times, will lose our patience. This is to be expected and we should not punish ourselves for this, we need to understand it, respect it and deal with it. This may mean that when behaviour has made you reach your limits, you take yourself away from that situation and ask for help from colleagues, allow them to continue to support that struggling child.
I was reading recently about the value of a ‘thinking chair’, somewhere for the child to sit and think about their behaviour and the discussion was about it being a comfortable space, perhaps with cushions and books for example. Now this is just my personal opinion, but I do not understand the point of such a strategy - young children do not need time to think about their behaviour, they often do not understand their behaviour, so what can they possibly be thinking about? This, although maybe nice and comfy, is still punishment! What they need is compassion and support, adult guidance.
None of this is easy and none of this will happen overnight, it is, most definitely, a work in progress!! It is important to emphasise that it is always the behaviour that we find challenging and not the child. The behaviour is the child’s way of letting you know that something is not right and it is usually the only way they know of expressing that to you - what is the child trying to tell you with this behaviour? Again, this is where making a connection with the children is crucial, knowing them and the issues they are coping with possibly at home, new sibling, family separation, a new house etc. There is always a reason.
As I said, managing these situations, is not easy, but we must remember, at all times, that we are the adults, the children need us to do the thinking for them. Greg Bottrill’s advice regarding behaviour is simple, engagement is vital not just so that the children are learning but for their behaviour.