Leading and Caring for Children

Troubling Behavior

It is often a struggle to find an optimal way of being when challenged by those you wish to help.

Here I address what is generally referred to as behavior management, positive discipline, or guidance, issues that everyone faces in the helping professions — parents, professionals, friends or volunteers. It is always challenging, because difficult problems emerge in unique circumstances with unique individuals. I tip my hat in acknowledgement of the many thoughtful people who have contributed their insights on a subject so vital to anyone in a helping profession. The next 29 pages are unique. For one thing, it’s not a book, and for another, it’s an experience in changing yourself. I call it Leadership, because that is what the adult provides the school community or the family, and Care, because the adult brings life experience, a longer term view, and the possibility of loving kindness and compassion in every moment.

The Nine Interrelated Topics of Leadership and Care

The menu displays the topics ahead, which build upon each other in sequence. If you are working through this with others or as an independent study for college credit, I recommend the sequence. I also expect readers to click around. Here’s briefly what each section contains.

What We Want — I’d like to start by clarifying the purpose we have in mind when facing troubling behavior, shifting from what we don’t want to what we do want. It’s also an invitation to do the exercises along the way, not just read. As a bonus I offer a succinct summary of the final understanding on this introductory page — The Optimal Way to Manage Behavior. If that works for you, you’re done.

Clarifying Responsibilities  — Where does responsibility lie when we have a problem? Which party has to deal with it? Me or you? You can watch a video and make those decisions for yourself.

Opening Dialogue — Let’s start in with getting things clear. When we have a problem how do we set up communication so we have shared expectations and opportunity?

Acting Assertively — Let’s not get pushed around. When we have a problem and we know it is our responsibility to address, what do we do? In what order?

Offering Information — When we have a problem and we know it is mostly the other’s responsibility, how do we communicate that responsibility in a clear and trusting way?

Listening — When emotions are high, people don’t think very well—no matter what age they are. How do we listen deeply and convey our trust?

Negotiation — How do we offer spaces for children to practice dealing constructively with each other?

Management Protocol — OK, nothing is working. What do you do then? When all the above fails to lead to an evolving improvement, the next step is to employ a collaborative, systematic methodology to discover what works.

Using Rewards Effectively — Behind everything is genuine, authentic, positive regard. We all can communicate that or we wouldn’t be here. BUT, when children have learned to manipulate adults and distrust personal warmth, we have to know how to use other kinds of rewards for a short time.

My Good Fortune

I was educated by troublesome children in a community with others. I had the privilege of being on a team of adults for 17 years who had the time to work together to create a space for a constant stream children who were referred to us, because the people who cared for them found themselves at wit’s end. Our team all knew the same children, all watched the same videotape, and all looked at the same data. Although we lived in daily anxiety and trepidation, we also lived in confidence that our efforts at documentation, willingness to live with uncertainty, and a dialogue filled with laughter and listening would benefit ourselves and at the children.

Just as the children were my teachers, waves of adult college students taught me, too. For 23 years I led a class at North Seattle College called Behavior Management. I taught it in as constructivist a manner as I could. Over 700 participants in that class investigated the ideas I share at this site. Each of those people tried these tasks in their own communities and families and brought evidence of their experiences back to contribute to our mutual understanding. Gradually I began to see how others in varied contexts and cultures discover how to change themselves in their own way toward an ethic of being. I watched them shed their feelings of being trapped and hopeless and evolve a new way that was founded in their own integrity and authenticity.

An Invitation to Study Leadership and Care

The work on the pages that follow addresses the problem of being confronted by children who push back hard, go wild under our noses, and challenge our self-confidence. We may have the best intentions and loving hearts. We can think positive things for children and families. We can think of ourselves as basically good. Yet, when something disruptive cuts in unexpectedly, we can also lose our footing, feel personally attacked, and become obsessed and angry. When events fall into that darkness, I want all educators and parents to be able to say to themselves, “I have a handrail to follow and not lose my goodness.”  Here is a way to optimize action — a way to approach novel situations in a considered way — without old habits messing things up.
I am not the one who has to deal with your difficulties. You do. You are a unique person with a cultural history and experiences very different from mine. I don’t expect you or anyone to be like me. I have found, however, that these understandings and practices change people’s lives—in their own unique way—by giving them a clarity of intention in difficult circumstances—the times that matter most—when they are upset, confused, and fed up.  I want you to be an expert in dealing with your behavior issues in a way that works for you, probably even better than anyone else could do it.

I know about being upset, confused, and fed up, because I was there, too. Like all of us, I brought old expectations and habits. I rationalized my responding with anger or disapproval in an attempt to preserve my own comfort. Anyone can look at awful behavior and decide it’s the child’s fault; it’s not the adult’s. We are usually reluctant to view ourselves as the problem. It took me years of struggle to recognize the reciprocal relationship I had with troublesome children—reciprocal understands that learning goes both ways—and begin to get clarity about my willingness to be changed. Eventually I realized that when I had a problem, usually the troublemaker and I both operated out of habit.

As I lived in daily encounters with “troublemakers,” I had the opportunity to videotape events in my classroom of young children, bring them into the college classroom, and together construct experiences for adults to discover their place of comfort and confidence. Nothing can compare to learning through action research and being forced to walk one’s talk, to alter a habitual practice, and to find optimal ways to benefit others.

I bring what I have developed in my course to you. You will find in these pages a practical, successful resource for parents and educators. I promise that if you become engaged the next 29 pages of work, you will find the next difficult encounter with a child to be a welcome learning opportunity for everyone. That is the optimal way to be.

No answers are here; it is a journey. At the end I promise transformation. You will never be the same.

Recognition of Basic Inequality

scaleAt first I did not see the problem of challenging behavior as a problem that involved my power and privilege. After all, I was employed to be the one who solved stuff. I soon found that my best intentions as a solver were undermined in one way or another by the unequal relationship behind the encounter: adults have privilege over children; educators have privilege over students; guards have privilege over inmates. The role has the expectation of authority and often unrecognized privilege; the role comes with the expectation of being a fixer, as if children and students need fixing as if they were cars that needed repair.

My guess is that if you were the child to whom power was applied, you might well assume a defensive and warlike stance. Push me and I’ll push back. Resistance builds fast. For anyone who watches a power-applied-resistance-returned event from the outside, it is easy to conclude that the less powerful party is contrary and disobedient. After all, we expect the parent or teacher to naturally be the one with the responsibility to get things on track. Therefore, obviously, that child is a troublemaker.

Recognition of Reciprocity

We naturally see the less privileged, the ones without power, as “difficult”, often not being aware of how they may be being coerced and compelled to act in a way they don’t like either. Because the less powerful lack privilege, the relationship lacks reciprocity, where each side is learning from the other simultaneously and the scales are balanced. When the children or students have little or no voice in the decisions about what happens to them, they become more likely to push back and resist, either actively, or the worst cases, passively. Passivity is really tough to deal with.

Leadership and Care is openly intended to disarm the power differential first and then take on gathering the resources of the community to construct something new. I hold an image in my mind of each educator and parent as a community leader who cares for each child, cares for the community, and offers the possibility of reciprocal learning in every encounter. We learn and they learn. Each here and now is new, and each here and now offers an immediate possibility for learning. Nobody is bad. Nobody needs fixing. We are fellow human beings fortunate to be alive with each other in this moment.

The Olden Days

I didn’t always see it that way. In the olden days, 40 years ago, when I entered a classroom of difficult children, I copied what others did. I assumed I was to use the language they used, for that was the cultural way teachers talked: That’s not okay. — You need to use your words. — Shush! — Don’t. — No.

  • undertableCome out from under the table, okay?
  • No.
  • Look at me.
  • No.
  • What is wrong?
  • (silence)
  • It’s not okay to be under the table. You have to go to the bus now.
  • (silence)
  • Come out right now, or I will have to pull you out. Don’t make me pull you out.
  • (throws shoe)

When I copied what others did, I found the children pushing back. I naturally blamed them, after all they were trouble at home and that’s why they were in my school. I was the teacher with a job to do. I had to get them to stop being a problem. I had no understanding of what to do and absolutely no access to the child’s point of view. I stewed in bed or in the shower about what to do. However, I was fortunate to have the ability to make video recordings, employ systems for taking data, and work with others looking at the same recordings and the same data. With documentation I began to change myself. I tried new ways to be. I found amazement. I found joy. I found me. These terrible, awful, wild young children challenged me to become real, authentic, and loving. They had given me a precious opportunity to grow.

The Opportunity

This site is like no other resource in the field. Opening in these links are pages of information, stories, exercises, and documents that go beyond the content of books you can find. (I had six linear feet of behavior books on my bookshelf at the college when I retired.) Here you can watch videos of children you can’t find elsewhere. You can discuss issues with others, download exercises, download handouts to guide you later, and print wall charts to post in ready reference. I offer a unit, evolved through years of experience helping others through the process.

  • I offer constructivist experiences — you can test stuff out, draw your own conclusions, and construct your own way to act that is in accord with your situation, culture, and values.
  • I offer precise language so collaboration with others is more efficient and productive.
  • I offer testable propositions for you to investigate.
  • I offer my promise that this stuff actually works. (Many before you can testify to that.)
  • I offer my trust that you, the reader and your close ones, are capable of using these understandings to transform your lives.

Your Personal Change and Transformation

Leadership and Care is about changing your own behavior, not the child’s. What follows is a journey of experimentation through application. As you try to apply each idea in your life you will discover a new way to be that is more satisfying and more loving. Your application gives you results, which when examined systematically become your research. The results of your research, especially when shared with others who are doing the same things, constructs a new understanding. That co-constructed understanding, when combined with continual uncertainty, enables the gradual process of personal change. One step. Another step. Another step. A lifetime of steps.

Those steps are here for you to take on. The steps are relatively simple to do, and much more nuanced when undertaken with a team. Learning altered ways of being takes time; one can’t read something and immediately behave differently, but reading opens possibility and describes the current opportunity. What you will encounter here took me years of practicing and screwing up, before it became a more natural way of being.

Just as most people can look at black dots on a sheet of music and not hear the music, anyone can click through these 30 pages without changing anything. I invite you to take on each page, do the exercises, watch the videos, play the card games, and apply the ideas one step at a time in your daily life. I have attached a two-page Applications PDF with formal assignments to complete. Overall, I recommend taking about 3 months to explore what is here. No hurry. It’s slow time. How else have you learned anything important?

Should you do this?

If you have any of these questions, this is a place for you:

  • What do I do when personally hurtful confrontations interfere with my intention to do good?
  • When something obviously is not working with this child, where can I find an alternative strategy?
  • Wanting a deep understanding, how can I conceive of all strategies for all children I will ever encounter in one cohesive construct?
  • Paying it forward, how do I help others understand that whole complexity and be willing to evolve their abilities, too?

Basic Principles

We cannot change children; we can only change ourselvesI have learned that I am the one with the overarching responsibility for change. I don’t manage or alter others; I intentionally manage myself and alter the space of the community. That is why I call this work  Leadership and Care. Those words imply a positive, proactive place to stand.

Leadership acts in service to a community. The way leaders — teachers, parents, volunteers, — behave with children can optimize the child’s opportunities to grow out of habits that are constraining of experiences — ours and theirs — in concert with others in a community of peers.

An ethic of care opens when we understand our interdependence. The caring leader stands firmly assertive for the cared-for and offers, in a timely way, actions of substance that better things immediately. Alternatively, the caring leader acts supportively in the background for the cared-for in a responsive willingness to listen and to offer resources and opportunities.

An Invitation for You

This work is not about management, disciplinary devices, or control. It is not conveying to anyone a ‘right’ way to behave. It is not me telling you what to do. This work is an invitation, like an invitation to a party. I invite you to imagine the possibility of never again worrying about contrary or disruptive behavior. My hope is that generations to come can make Leadership and Care their own. If they do, they will naturally pass it forward by their model of being — an evolved adult with calmness, clarity, and assuredness — as a naturally inherited transmission of culture.

Next What We Want