Helping children develop appropriate behavior and ways to self-monitor is one of the most important aspects of raising a child. It can be an exhausting, consuming, and frustrating task, but when done well and with intention, it can be rewarding. Behavior management is also what takes up the bulk of a school day for young students. Imagine trying to corral a group of 20 adults into the same task or command a room of your peers, and how hectic that could be. Now imagine you’re a Kindergarten or first grade teacher with the same amount of people, except these people have had about 5-7 years on this planet, practically 0 social experience, and are still figuring out how to tie a shoe. Things will inevitably get a little crazy. Classroom teachers not only have to ensure that their charges grow academically, but also that they can just simply exist in the presence of one another without stepping on toes, interrupting, or touching the people around them. This is not to say your little elementary student isn’t lovely, adorable, and sweet, but throw them into one room with 19 others, and I’m sure you can imagine why teachers need to have a variety of strategies in their behavior management toolkit. The ones below may help.
- Positive reinforcement
This is a no-brainer but teachers and parents alike may forget to do it, especially when they have a child who they think is doing so many things wrong. Find the one thing he is doing right, even if it’s minuscule, and congratulate him on it. If he’s so used to getting attention for the negative, getting attention for a positive is reinforcing. If you’re a teacher, doing this in front of the whole class can be especially impactful if the child likes to be the center of attention. If you know your student would be embarrassed, it’s best to keep it private.
Try framing your statement in a way that shows you see your student and recognize his good behavior:
“I notice ________ is helping his friend.”
“________ is quietly and carefully hanging his coat up!”
- Silent reminders and warnings
While it can be useful to praise a student out loud, it is almost always damaging to scold a student out loud. Try using a system of 3 silent warnings or reminders to cue your student. It could be holding up a finger. If it’s hard to get her attention, it could be a touch on the shoulder, or a target word only she knows. When she hears it, that’s a warning. This could also be done to reinforce positive behaviors. For example, the word “bananas” means you just earned a star!
- WHEN is behavior a problem?
There is often a pattern to when bad behavior takes place. Is it when he gets bored? Is it during transitions? Is it during partner work? Is it at the start of a task? Once you know when the behavior is likely to occur, you can preemptively nip it in the bud or address it before it even happens with a check-in. Being able to do this is huge. It means the behavior is less likely to happen in the first place, even if your student is about to do it. Keeping a behavior log can be helpful in figuring this out.
- Good behavior
Ask yourself, “When does my child behave?” What is happening at that time? This forces you to recognize that she’s not always behaving badly (we can start to think that way when we are frustrated and desperate). You can then reflect on how you might be able to replicate some of those circumstantial pieces in other settings or times to encourage better behavior. For example, if your child’s behavior isn’t problematic during play time or when there is an element of play involved, can you experiment with adding more games to learning time? Maybe your child is well-behaved during movement activities. How can you bring movement into learning time?
- His level
Imagine you’ve done something wrong, and a giant person three times your size stands over you and starts reprimanding you. You’d probably feel pretty insignificant and perhaps even angry or frightened. When your child or student has misbehaved, crouch down at his level and speak to him directly and quietly. Do not stand at the front of the classroom and call out so that the whole class can hear. If the whole class can hear it, then all eyes are on him and that’s attention. For attention-seeking students, any attention is a plus, whether it’s good or bad. This only serves to reinforce the bad behavior. You can defeat that by not drawing any attention to bad behavior, but addressing it quietly, purposefully, and eye to eye.
- Be selective
Being selective about which behaviors to reprimand can work to your advantage. Choose one or two very specific behaviors to focus on. If the rest of the behavior is not really causing a problem or hurting anyone, and is a minor annoyance, don’t address it (for now). For a kid with executive functioning and attention difficulties, this will simplify. If you correct every little thing, your child won’t really have a grasp on what she is doing wrong. You can even put those two behaviors on a behavior chart so it’s very clear what the expectation is. For example, maybe you are going to work on simply entering a room quietly and not putting your hands on another person without permission. Some children don’t recognize physical boundaries and while they may not want to hurt someone else, sometimes that can happen. It’s a learning process. You may work with your child on keeping her hands to herself or asking permission when she wants to give a hug, for example. Rewarding or noticing when your child behaves appropriately or does not engage in the negative behavior (over the course of an hour, a few hours, or the whole day) can support behavior change. Once your child has overcome that challenge, it’s good to celebrate it before looking to address another issue.
Learning to be empathetic is a skill that is hard for even adults to develop and employ. Understanding another’s feelings or the impact you have on someone can be significant in behavior change. Does your child or student have opportunities to be empathetic? Does he have a chance to see how it feels to do something good and be proud? Has he ever been working on something important, and along comes someone being loud and disruptive? Drawing your child’s attention to their own feelings and the feelings of others can help him understand why his behavior is causing problems. Offering alternatives to those behaviors is helpful and may encourage friendship. For example, maybe your child loves to roughhouse and it’s how they show affection and that they want to play. Other children may not be used to this and may recoil from being bumped or shoved. Explain this to your child and then offer an alternative behavior:
“I noticed you wanted to roughhouse with your friend. What happened when you tried to play?” (Let them explain.) “Your friend may not be used to playing like that at home. Why don’t you try asking your friend what kind of game they want to play first?”
Follow up by offering your child an opportunity to play the way he wants to play with you at home. Oftentimes children with behavior problems struggle to build friendships and can become socially isolated, as they don’t recognize the affect their actions have on those around them.
Is your child responsible for righting her wrongs? At a young age, it’s difficult for a child to understand the difference between a bad person and bad behavior. If your child often finds herself “in trouble” she can start to believe that she is “bad”. But you can change this if she has a chance to fix the “bad” thing she did. Let’s say she knocks over someone’s tower, or scribbles on another child’s picture. Politely guide and support her in cleaning it up and fixing it. She could help rebuild the tower or create a picture with/for the other child. The other child may still be angry or upset, but giving your child an action may help her feel like she’s fixing it.
Sometimes the environment itself can be overstimulating for a child and cause them to act out. We’ve all felt overwhelmed by a situation or a setting. Maybe you’ve felt this way on a crowded bus, or at a social event. Sometimes we just need a quiet place. Having a place for your child to reset (not a time out) can be helpful. Ask him if he’d like some space. He can move away from the group for a brief, designated amount of time. Depending on your child’s needs, this may be time to just sit quietly, read a book, or perhaps work on a quiet project. For your particularly active kiddos, have some resistance bands, which they’ve already been instructed on how to use, or a stretching mat. If you can tell your child is feeling overwhelmed, perhaps offer this space before the stress and anxiety turn into bad behavior. I would encourage educators to not be too concerned that he is missing out on the lesson because if he’s feeling overstimulated or acting out, he’s not learning anyway. This time for space is not a punishment, but it is also not a privilege. Every child has different needs and you are teaching your student or child a valuable lesson in self-care when you show them that taking some time for space is ok. Even adults need to (and should) take breaks to reset and some people just need them more frequently than others in order to contribute the most and give their best.
- Brain Gym
Carrying on with the theme of taking a break, many schools implement movement breaks to help students refocus. Popular programs include yoga, Zumba, and Brain Gym get kids moving as a transition between lessons. All kids need movement to build strong neural connections in their brains and promote healthy brain development. You simply can’t have one without the other. Bringing movement into your daily routine can help your students release energy and focus better during learning time.