There’s more than one way to address a behavior

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It turns out preschool boys are full of energy and can team up together to create an environment that feels chaotic and out of control. One preschool program that I often visit has entered a challenging phase, where the boys seemingly run the room. It also seems like the child care providers in the room hardly have time to engage with all of the children meaningfully because they are constantly “putting out fires.”

What makes this situation difficult is that it’s not only one or two children who need some very intentional proactive strategies to feel successful, it’s like seven. What I have observed is, these particular children, who happen to be boys, like to impress each other. It’s almost like they feel peer pressure to act a certain way. It’s become a pattern that some children will run around the playground when it’s time to line up to go inside. Every day some children do this. They run around the playground and taunt the child care providers, saying things like “You can’t catch me!” At first the providers tried a trusted strategy—get to children before it was time to line up, to hold their hand. In some situations, this works for those children who are “runners” because they do not want to have to hold the teacher’s hand, so this method takes one or two times to be effective. However, in this particular situation, that strategy didn’t work. The biggest reason is there are more children that habitually run than there are providers’ hands to hold.

What we know about children this age is that they have become increasingly more aware of and connected to other children. Other children become much more important than they were in earlier years. Most preschool children have friends and value being a friend. Fortunately, this program has access to an early childhood professional that has a strong knowledge base on the social and emotional needs and development of young children. After observing the behaviors and interactions of the children all day, he had a great insight that made perfect sense. Instead of talking to the children about their own good or bad choices (which I have used as an effective strategy in similar situations), talk to the children about what good friends would do. Whether the behavior was running around the playground when it was time to line up or hitting another child, most children of preschool age (and in particular the boys I’ve been referring to) know what kind of behavior is right and what kind of behavior is wrong. Good friends help their friends do what is right. Children at this stage are still learning what it means to be a friend. If asked, these particular children would likely say that the other boys are their friends. They would also say they want to be a good friend. So, encouraging them to help their friends do what is right might be effective. While they are focusing on supporting their friend, they are also doing what is right themselves.

In any situation where children are “misbehaving,” it’s important to be flexible. Just because one strategy to address a behavior worked with a different child (or group of children), doesn’t mean it will work every time. Sometimes you need to be open to trying a different strategy!