Leading and Caring for Children

Acting Assertively When Confronting a Problem

We can’t prevent mistakes, but we can enable others to learn from making them.

I invite you back to the very first video I offered on the page What We Want. At that time I used it to provoke a personal reflection on the emotional reactions we all have to troubling behavior. You may have noticed the odd fact that I marked on the screen three actions of white shirted boy. These are the mistakes we can’t prevent but might enable him to learn something.

  1. piling on
  2. destroying children’s work
  3. kicking

I am assuming you are clear in your own mind which of these three actions are non-negotiable and which require a new agreement. If that distinction doesn’t pop clearly about whose basket these are in, it might be worth having another person watch this clip with you. The team immediately acts based on the responsibility decision they have made beforehand.

Decisions About Responsibility

If you are like me, the first of the three, the one in the still frame above, piling on, is not my responsibility. Remarkably, that was the only one of the three that this adult seemed to notice. What a contrary, confusing space for this very intelligent boy! The more horrible his action — kicking another child at the end of his spine — the more he seemed to laugh. This space for children was operating backwards! The more inventive he was in creating trouble, the more fun it was to be there.

I have seen many adults who behave in habitual ways when dealing with troubling behavior. Like a thoughtless reflex: tap on the knee —>kick. It’s as if they never considered what the children were learning, never even stepped back to try to fix the most horrible part of their job. What an unhappy life. Passive, thoughtless adults are the ones most likely to have trouble in their classroom and, usually, blame the children, which was the case here when they asked me to visit to help. I did hear their hostility toward this marvelous, creative, brilliant boy.

I have mentioned before that we have three choices when something untoward occurs:

  • ignore the problem
  • somehow facilitate the children taking responsibility for solving the problem
  • assertively take responsibility to stop such problems.

Now we address the one in bold. When something happens that is non-negotiable, such as kicking a child in the sacral area of the spine or poking a child in the eye. We take immediate action to ensure that children in our care do not get hurt. Below we see three levels of assertive actions, which start light and move heavier. At each level the adult stands tall and sure. No wimp here.
Boom — Clear Statement.
Biff — Reprimand.
Pow —  Management Protocol.
No messin’ around.

1. Clear Statement of Fact

“I can’t allow you to…”

I can’t allow you to hurt others in our community.”

This is a true fact. No need for me to go emotionally ballistic. No anger. Firm voice tone.

If I get upset, angry, or bossy, then I am doing what the child is doing: being upset, angry and bossy. I am not helping when I model that same way of being; my job is to show a better way to be.

I found that the better way has two components. First, one has to change one’s demeanor. When something happens that is a mistake where I have responsibility, I can’t be the same smiling, affable, person. I adopt a more staunch voice tone, posture, and facial expression. I am serious but not mean. I make that shift very apparent. I am normal; then I am firm. It doesn’t have to be over the top; it has to be noticeable.

Second, I have to follow the guides of Enterprise Talk, whose handrail is at hand, and talk about me. If I am to speak in the immediacy of a mistake (where I might very well be angry), the best place to start is Subjective Talk — I am the subject of the sentence. Thus the formulation: “I can’t allow you to…”

“I can’t allow you to hurt others in our community.”
“I can’t allow anyone to hurt others here.”
“I am stepping in to prevent anyone from getting hurt.”

This is, in fact, true. I like saying things that are true. This is my responsibility to be sure in my role as a leader of the community or family. I make sure that hurting will not continue.

What was surprising to me was how subjective talk changed my attitude at that very moment of confrontation. I don’t know if I can articulate fully why it made such a difference. The natural reaction for me used to be anger. I heard myself use these new words.  When I tell myself to say, “I can’t allow you to…” I hear myself define my action not as someone who is emotional but as someone who is doing something about it.

This simple change of wording also helped me be more aware of my privilege as an adult. I have more power; I am bigger, therefore I am the one who has to be careful to remember that the child and I are both human beings on the same planet trying to live in accord with our being. This is this lovely child right now. When I practice of starting with “I…” I can become more in tune with me. I am the one talking and trying to help. I could get my head back to remembering the child is currently powerful and competent.

2. The Reprimand

oneminutemgrThis may be one of the most significant things I ever have learned from a book, in this case The One Minute Manager, where Blanchard and Johnson describe three leadership actions for an organization; take one minute to make sure the goals are clear; take one minute to make sure positives are delivered specifically to the actors and the reasons why; take one minute to administer needed reprimands to highlight the mistakes without making personally destructive judgments. The last one I had never encountered before, so I thought I would give it a try.

It has always been hard for me to confront other’s mistakes in a calm assertive manner, probably because I never was treated that way by others. When I made mistakes I was punished with either something hurtful or nonverbal glances, criticism or withdrawal. Like other human beings I am likely to treat others as I was treated. That habit continues on unless I work hard at changing it.

Then I became aware of the Reprimand as a six step sequence, #2 having three parts.

1. Describe the mistake
Get close, touch if appropriate, and tell him or her exactly what the action was that was a mistake.

2. Describe the consequences for that mistake
(a) consequences for others around the child,
(b) consequences for the child, and
(c) consequences for you yourself.

3. Pause for 5 seconds, without anger, but with sincerity
4. Communicate how much he or she is valued, respected, and loved.

I wrote the steps in the back of my calendar that I carried with me all the time. Then two days later (in the laboratory school, which I have referred to before), I encountered a student in the back room scrummaging around, opening cupboard doors and file cabinets. Oops. She evidently was looking for something to use for her small group time; she was unprepared. The children, our clients, were left alone. They were kind enough to stay seated, but there was nothing for them to do. I found a way to secretly review the Reprimand steps, and approached her. I looked her straight in the eye and said,
“You are poking about in the teachers room. The children are out there waiting. (Step 1)
“They expect a new experience to happen for them that would be engaging and challenging. (Step 2a)
“You lost a chance to try something that you thought about and try it in your own way. You missed a challenge that could have benefited you. (Step 2b)
“I lost a chance to watch you and give you feedback about what you chose and how you presented the activity.” (Step 2c)

The next step was to wait and look directly at her for a time, 5 to 10 seconds — thankfully. I needed a break because I was trying to think of #4. What could I say that was affirming? In truth, I had no idea.

When nothing came to mind, I lamely used the words of the guide. I said, “I value you and you are highly respected.”

It wasn’t perfect, but she never came unprepared again.

Since that first time, I have had lots of practice; I have used it lots. But that first time was like learning to drive a car, rather incapable of shifting and steering at the same time. I was anxious and cognitively consumed. It wasn’t too long before driving became a thoughtless nothing. The Reprimand took about as much practice, for me, as learning to drive a car. Those three parts of the consequences are challenging to create on the spot.

If you want to learn this skill, expect a rough beginning, but it will smooth out depending on how frequently you have opportunities to use it. As with any new skill, you have to keep working at it until you can do it well before you can decide if it is good to do or not. I invite you post cheat sheets where you need them, and give it a shot.

My Reprimand for Mark

Mark hit Alex on the head with a unit block — a big quad unit block. It did’t knock Alex unconscious or give him a swollen bump, but it obviously hurt. Alex looked to me and cried.

[Later, I would learn that looking immediately to me was not a good indicator of classroom health. Instead of dealing directly with Mark, Alex looked for an adult to solve the problem. Not the best. I learned that when a caring community is built in the classroom, the children see their classmate’s hurt and attend directly to him or her. In the best schools young children move in to listen and offer care right away, not needing an adult, who may have missed what actually happened, rescuing anyone.]

I knew that this block bonk was my responsibility, so I used a reprimand:
“I can’t allow you to hurt others.
“You knocked Alex on the head with that block.
“He cried because it hurt. It makes it hard for people to play when they think that something bad may happen at any moment. Others may think you could be dangerous.
“I will have to explain to Alex’s mom what happened today.”
“I love you, Mark. You are an amazing person and important to our class.”

Well, that is what it was like when I got the hang of this. The love part was hard for me to say at first. Do I actually love this child? Yes, I do. I began to see how often I found myself loving the most behaviorally outrageous children. When I learned to pay attention to how I was feeling in the moment about Mark, when it was no longer about me as a controller or manager of Mark, when I could be present to Alex and be honest with Mark, I became a professional educator. When I relaxed, my love surfaced. How cool is that?

It took me about a year of practice before that time, in which I often said to children how much I valued them, how much they contributed to our community, how much I missed them when they were absent, and what strength they brought to all of us by being here. Those were true, too. As long as what I said was true, I felt like I was doing better than before.

Practice Slide Show

Here are slides to build your understanding. (Or download) Reprimand



I have found that C, the consequences for myself, seems the hardest for people in my courses to phrase factually, without bringing in one’s own emotional trauma, e.g., “I get sad when I see people hurt.”  This implies that the children have a responsibility to not upset you. That could be a guilt trip, if it weren’t absolutely true in this moment. You are responsible for your emotions and your handling of your emotions, so deal with it. It’s possible to look more irritated than sad, so authenticity is at risk. The children might wonder what is going on.

The cable car driver in San Francisco said it best, “Everybody’s arms and legs inside at all times. I don’t like filling out accident reports.” Truth.

So, one can try something like that. It might be true that you have reporting requirements, you have to meet with the victim’s parents or the child’s parents, you have to spend time in meetings, you have to stop something important, or you have to watch for the next problem all the time instead of having fun.

3. Reprimand Doesn’t Work

Although the Reprimand has reduced about 75% of the problems I have faced, it may not always work. Some children will keep on making the same mistake — keep on hitting others on the head with a unit block or keep on kicking. If you find yourself having to give the same reprimand more than twice, I recommend never using a reprimand again for that mistake. You can be confident that you have communicated clearly and respectfully, and you have proof that direct, honest communication does not work.

I regard further Reprimands as adding attention to what you don’t want. I stop trying another straight communication and go to the Behavior Management Protocol. That series of pages address difficult problems that don’t go away. This protocol (a systematic convention for proceeding) provides a means for investigating, inventing options, and deciding as a community what to try. This will take some time to fully mark out, so twenty pages of information open from the management protocol link in the menu.

Meanwhile, there is more to learn to do, before we have to go there. Let’s return to the topic of authentic communication by offering information, active listening, and negotiation.

Summary Document PDF Leadership & Care

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