What We Want
When children act in troubling ways, when we find ourselves in difficult behavior situations, when we know we are expected to be wise leaders striving to do well for the child, what is paramount in our minds? What are we trying to do? What do we want to happen? Do we want to deal with troubling behavior for our convenience, so it goes away? Do we act to stop our embarrassment? Maybe at heart we react to simply maintain our authority and our personal view of correctness?
I want to define intentions beyond our common reflexes, beyond doing what our own parents did to us and surely not for convenience, discomfort, or power. A school — or a family — ought to be more than a place committed to something positive and of benefit to the members of that community or family. Usually I find that when people are faced with managing a difficult child, the discussion is usually about the child and is rarely about themselves. The words I hear most often are, “I’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work.” The trouble is we can’t change the behavior of other people; we can only change ourselves.
Fostering the Best in Ourselves
When we want to foster the best in children, we pass through fostering the best in ourselves. Leadership and Care describes step-by-step how we as a community or family can embrace the possibility of our own continuous change. Not only must we have a moral and ethical place to stand when we are attempting to manage the lives of children, we also must have a moral and ethical place to stand for our own simultaneous growth.
These pages address how to think and act when children are maddening to us without telling anyone what to do. Since every child and every situation is different an effective approach can’t provide solutions. It can assist one to be authentic, caring, and intentional while providing options to explore that build on shared understandings and community wisdom. These pages begin with your willingness to alter the current conditions, to recognize that you will be exploring new ways of communicating, to act consistently, and to engage in continuous reconsideration of what you are doing. The guides and challenges are sequenced explorations of new ways to behave to others behave well, too. Together we can step into a new space of strength, listening, and care.
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 with them. I was shocked. I had no idea what to do, although I did know I couldn’t respond 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 want to help make that move possible for you by providing the most effective approaches and challenges I have evolved over my years of helping people to do this. I invite you to invest some effort here. You have to move your muscles to make this a journey and move in your own way. Your way will not be found in reading. (You can check that by reading The Answer at the bottom of this page.) You have to do stuff. The observer side — reading, understanding, agreeing, or disagreeing — is not the actor side. You have to get off the bleachers and get down on the field.
An Opportunity for Climbing the Steps
This image is the metaphor for this site. Links here are carefully crafted stairs leading upward to an entrance to something, maybe a temple, which you can’t see right now. Imagine you are standing at the bottom. You can see and feel what is under your feet right now. You can see the first step right there next, too. That’s the metaphor. If you want to reach the temple you have to do the climbing, take one step to become ready to take on the second. At the top is the possibility of simultaneous reciprocal growth, adults and children together. You’ll not only understand what that means, you will live it. The stairs offer you an opportunity. The step up may or may not be easy; each person has to confront automatic habits and try something new. 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 as their habit of being.
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 love children who rebel when this happens. I value their strength and spirit. Those children have given me the most grief and created the very worst problems have often become dear friends. As a result I learned to trust children. I trust in the beauty of the child and the beauty of being a 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 by telling the truth. I always want to be authentic and to tell the truth, so I naturally bring with me the possibility of trusting the child right now in this moment.
2. I view the child as competent.
I am more likely to help the child take responsibility for this problem herself if she and I have clear communication about what is happening. I can clearly describe (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 and doesn’t get to play as much, you could become lost, and I would have to organize a hunt, fill out lots of reports, and possibly lose my job.” Then I follow the listing of consequences with direct, loving acknowledgement of the child, expressing my positive regard, and often a hug. This took practice, since I was never treated that way, but its an example of treating the child as intelligent and wise, strong and thoughtful. Mistakes are only mistakes. They happen. I always want to try authentic, person-to-person communication first because children are smart and like solving problems for themselves, too.
3. I am the leader of a learning community.
Therefore, I am not the problem solver. I am instead a leader. I lead an interdependent community of individuals who can care for themselves, each other, and the welfare of all. As a leader I assume the family or school community has the responsibility to find a way to enhance each other’s lives. Problems are opportunities for growth and deeper connections for everyone. Having a behavior confrontation is fortunate; we are privileged to have a real-life opportunity to use a troubling moment to work together on creating closeness. It is truly a joy to find ways for each of us to be listened to, belong, and participate fully. People take that confidence forward in their lives.
Schools are even more fortunate, because they provide a larger community than the family. Children learn best from each other; they are the best ones to help each other learn who they are and who others are as they reciprocally co-construct their identities. I have to keep reminding myself to stay in my leadership role and not expect myself to be the fixer.
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 for everyone. We get better the more we do it, too. Growing and changing is pretty cool.
Here is the answer, right up front.
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.
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..