Leading and Caring for Children

What We Want

We start the journey clarifying our goals and values.

When children act in troubling ways and we feel expected to solve that problem, what do we want to accomplish? How do we want children to be next month, or do we want them to change right now? Or are we more centered on ourselves, feeling inconvenienced or confused? Maybe, above all, we must maintain authority and impose a solution?

I want to start with defining our intentions—beyond our common reflexes, beyond doing what our own parents did to us, and well beyond our comfort or power. A school, or a family, ought to be more than a place committed to control, don’t you think, and strive to be beneficial and supportive to its members?

I find that when people talk about what to do with a difficult child, the discussion usually focuses upon the child; it’s almost never about changes to make in themselves. The words I hear most often are, “I’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work.” If we want to be smoothly expert at this, we ought to admit right up front that we can’t change the behavior of the difficult child; we can only change ourselves.

Fostering the Best in Ourselves

When we want to foster the best in children, we begin by fostering the best in ourselves. When I refer to Leadership and Care for Children, the heading for this whole section on this site, I am addressing the ways we as a community can embrace the possibility of our own evolution. Not only do we have to craft a moral and ethical place to stand when we are attempting to manage the lives of children, we also must adopt a moral and ethical commitment to our simultaneous growth.

The pages that follow take advantage of the opportunity troubling behavior offers for our own growth as human beings. It challenges us to address how we think and act when children are so maddening. We are forced to create a way to act that maintains their freedom, choices, and power. Also, you might notice, what you encounter here never tells you what to do, since every child, adult, and situation is different.

I make an assumption here that human beings, no matter what age, grow best when when they cooperatively work through problems, have the opportunity to make their own decisions, and naturally correct their own mistakes. That is education. This course of study aims to assist you in becoming more authentic, kind, and compassionate in your own way by choosing options that you decide to explore.

I invite you to use this opportunity to bravely experiment with ways of communicating, maintain consistency of purpose long enough to test an effect, and use your emotional angst to energize your own change. Your growth depends upon shouldering the responsibility for finding strength, being the professional learner all educators must be, and openly lead others in becoming their best, too.

Video Provocation

I’d like to invite you into a series of experiences for you to discover what this means. The first is watching this 73 second video on Vimeo. I invite you to watch it and then take out a piece of paper and do the reflection challenges in red. We begin with where you are right now.

Let’s Look at Where You Are Right Now

You may have had experiences like this. My first was when I was in seventh grade and baby-sitting two brothers who came at me with their belts swinging, buckle first. I believed they were really going to hit me in ways that really hurt. I had no idea what to do, although I did know I couldn’t react with force.

1. I invite you to take out a piece of paper, any paper, and list the names of children who have confronted you with difficult behavior in the past, like those two boys. Like Dennis, you should have seen Dennis; he had a one-on-one teacher throughout school. Mark was memorable, too. And Lisa. You’ll meet Lisa near the end of this.

2. Then, if you are with others, share one or two of those stories before proceeding. It is worthwhile to hear the experiences of others in order to establish a the background, our place to start. If you want to discover new, more effective and more satisfying ways to deal with troubling behavior, you have to do the exercises I have spread out for you. You can just read along, but that’s receiving not constructing.

3. Now that you have one or more names like Mr. Whiteshirt above, I invite you to list the words that describe how you feel when confronted with difficult behavior. List out your emotions and thoughts when that happens before you read below the line.


I have listened to hundreds of people describe their emotions at those times. People often use words such as helpless, frustrated, angry. disappointed, incompetent, doubtful, ignorant, outraged, and lost. Maybe you have felt something like that.  Although a few say challenged, determined, most list emotions that are the some of the worst feelings we can have as educators or parents.

4. Time to write how you would like to be. What do you need to be better at it? What would make the issue simply disappear? Here’s another line to cross after you have done the work.


I asked these same people to formulate the opposite of the trauma, and they said things such as these.

I want to stay calm. I want to be confident and self-assured. I want to know more. I want options and good ideas. I want to be supported by other educators and parents. I want to be able to express my love and trust in the child as I help the child in that situation. I want to stay calm.

Moving to this confident and self-assured way of being, without the negative emotional stress, is the purpose of Leadership and Care. I wish to make that move possible for you by providing this sequence of approaches and challenges I have evolved over my years of being an educator of young children and adults.

I invite you to invest effort here. You have to move your muscles to make progress in this journey, but you get to propel yourself in your own way. Your way will not be described in reading. I can attest to that by providing the knowledge you need. The answers are here, right up front, at the bottom of this page. You can read the five things to know, and if you wish, assume you have what you need and stop.

But knowing is never enough: you have to be able to do it naturally and truthfully, and that takes practice, practice, practice. Assuming an observer role, like watching a sporting event—reading, understanding, agreeing, or disagreeing—is not being in the game. To participate you have to get off the bleachers and get down on the field.

An Opportunity for Climbing the Steps

templeThis image is another way to look at it. Links from one page to the next are like chiseled granite stairs arrayed upward towards an entrance to something we can’t now see.

You are standing at the bottom looking upward at the effort ahead. All you can directly feel is under your feet, where you stand now. You can see the first step close by, the logical first act to take. If you want to reach whatever is up there, you have to do the climbing, take one step to find the place to take on the second. This is your opportunity.

The possibility ahead, maybe this year or in two years, is that you will arrive at a new way of being. Each step up may or may not be easy. Each person who climbs has to confront automatic habits and try something different. I invite you to take it on.

I promise that if you proceed in diligent action through the pages of this site, you will alter your ways of being with children; your life will be different and so will the children’s. The results are long-lasting. If you are a parent, and make the changes, your children will never have to, for they will have this way of being as their existing foundation. 

Tom’s Underlying Beliefs

Before I go further I want to share my frame of reference so you can gather some idea of what’s ahead. You and I know that everyone is unique, so you can expect there will be no generalizations from one problem to another. Each child, each parent, each educator is like no one else in the history of the planet and circumstances are always unique. Every situation is new, and I have handled each troubling behavior differently. However, I can share how I look at things, and you can see if this way of looking applies to you in your circumstances.

1. I trust children.

When a child creates a problem at home or at school, I am likely to believe that the child is telling adults something they might benefit from paying attention to. The child could be communicating that adults are over-restrictive of her life and intelligence. You are treating me unfairly. You are boxing me in. You stop me from my impulse on your impulse, not for any perceivable reason. You treat me as something to boss around, always telling me to do this or do that. I never get to make any real choices.  I see this happen in many schools. I see powerful adults disfranchise and discriminate against children.

It may sound odd, but I have learned that I really love those children who rebel when this happens. I value their strength and spirit. Those children who have given me the most grief and the very worst problems often became dear friends.

As a result, I learned to trust children. I trust in the beauty of the child and the beauty of being human. When something is upsetting I remind myself, “Oops. Something essential needs addressing.” Trust is built over time by being an authentic, present person and telling the truth. I always want to be authentic and to tell the truth, so naturally I have to bring with me the possibility of trusting the child right now in this distressing moment.

2. I view the child as competent.

I am more likely to be of assistance transferring responsibility to children if they and I have open communication about the impact of a specific action. My leadership follows guides mentioned elsewhere of Model~Inform~Warmth. I can inform by describing (a) the consequences to others that arise from a certain act, (b) the consequences for the child herself, and (c) the consequences for me. It sounds rather like this:

“When you run out of bounds, the group has to wait until this problem is solved and doesn’t get to play as much. You could become lost or confused. I would have to organize a hunt, fill out of reports, and possibly lose my job.”  

Then I follow the listing of the three directions of impact with some acknowledgement of their strength and agency, my love, and, when appropriate, a hug. Surprisingly, this required many attempts before it went smoothly, since no one had ever done that to me in my life. This is one structure for learning to treat children as wise and competent.

Mistakes are mistakes. They happen to everyone. No big deal. After a mistake we can try to fix it in some way. Once I realized my responsibility was to lead rather than control, I could drop my emotional fixation and use this moment as opportunity to acquire more competence in expressing the truth in dicey times.

3. I am the leader of a learning community.

I am not the all-powerful problem solver big person; I am the leader. My actual job as a parent or an educator is more like a moderator of a lively, interdependent community of individuals who can care for themselves, each other, and contribute to the welfare of all. My role is to remind everyone that the community has the responsibility to find a way to enhance each other’s lives.

Problems enable growth and deeper connections. It is truly fortunate to have a real-life opportunity to use this moment to work together to find new ways of living well. Later, when we look back at this time, we can see the joy of being listened to, of belonging together, and taking the time to participate fully. These are the memorable moments that people take forward in their lives.

Schools are even more fortunate, since they provide a larger, more multi-cultural community. Since it is true that people learn best from each other and more kinds of mistakes happen, members of a class, no matter what age, are the best ones to help each other learn who they are and who others are as they reciprocally co-construct their identities.

Often the children have better ideas than adults, too. Their involvement in addressing, working upon, and resolving a community problem demonstrates an essential, valued lesson: when people are having trouble, it is an opportunity. We take the time, because it is the time. We get better the more we do it, too. Growing and changing is pretty cool.


As promised above, here is the knowledge—a five-part answer.

The Optimal Way to Deal with Troubling Behavior

One of my earliest inquiries was to try to understand why some adults were so fabulous with children. It didn’t make sense why some people were not having the trouble I was having. It was as if they came born with the Force in them. Why was that true? When I asked some of them if they learned to be so good because of how they were treated by their parents, most said no; many described their families as dysfunctional.

But they were not dysfunctional. They were amazing. When they dealt with “difficult” children, the children were no longer difficult. This was fascinating to me, so I took notes on how these people acted and gradually pieced together what it was they brought with them. They brought an ability to do five kinds of things.

EXPRESS THE POSITIVES

These people were markedly happy, joyous, and full of laughter. I am sure you have been around people who are like that. They were constantly saying good things about others. They might bring surprise gifts, such as flowers or snacks. I know they made me feel like they really cared for me and others, too. We all were affected by their presence. We laughed more and smiled at each other more. Their energy made us feel great. These people lived contagious joy.

EXPRESS THE NEGATIVES

They also addressed what was wrong; they immediately called out mistakes by describing the mistake, not attacking or being judgmental. Mistakes are facts. They also describe the impacts these problems had on other people while remaining composed and affable. They were constructive and clear. They conveyed a sense of trust in the children that they could and would fix what needed fixing.

BE ASSERTIVE

These people could not be pushed around. They stood their ground. They stood up for themselves and their own rights. They conveyed in no uncertain terms what was totally unacceptable and what could be negotiated if that was necessary. They stuck to what they said even when criticized or challenged. They did not participate in arguments.

MAKE COMFORTABLE REQUESTS

They also seemed somehow able to convey to children what needed to be done in a way that offered shared responsibility. No bossiness. No being withdrawn or sullen either. It was like the difference between “Go wash the dishes.” and “We have lots to clean up in the kitchen. It’s a good time for us to catch up.” Pushing was totally absent, so there was no need for anyone to push back.

CUE CONSTRUCTIVE ALTERNATIVES

Somehow they knew just what to say to offer ways for children to express their feelings and needs appropriately. They would catch children before they made a mistake and inform them of better ways to act or what to say. This was almost an art form: little reminders, timely given, worked wonders.

5. How well did your own parents do at these 5 Optimal Ways?

6. It is worthwhile to listen to someone else’s thoughts about their parents and the 5 Optimal Ways, because in listening new thoughts come to your own mind..

Next Clarifying Responsibilities