Negotiating with children who seem set on digging their heels in and resisting your every instruction is tricky. Here are a few communication hacks that have stood me in good stead.
Scenario: Ethan is playing in the sand and isn’t likely to want to stop for snack time.
- Get alongside Ethan and play in the sand. Show genuine connection with what he is doing. After all, how willing would you be to listen to someone who never listened to you? Listen first, to demonstrate the skill.
- Give him a choice. Do not present this as a demand, more a casual consideration as a part of play. “Which do you want to do first: wash your hands, or put this truck away?” When he chooses, reinforce and praise his choice and move as if it is about to happen. (This is not a conversation about stopping playing so do not bring that up).
For extra support, use a visual time prompt such as a one minute sand timer. Use this to narrate time, not enforce your rule of law. Observe the timer with the child: “Oh look, in a minute this is going to be over, what do you want to do first….”, Rather than “you have one minute and then this has to stop.”
Scenario: Ava is not helping with the tidying up.
- Do not engage with the defiance. Pause your attention on Ava for a moment or so and then return it and offer Ava the power: “Ava, I am putting you in charge, which toys do you think I need to pick up first?” Let her take the reins and give you an instruction. Follow the instruction that you are given. As with before, why should we expect someone just to do as we say if we are not willing to do the same? We do not want to teach children that they have to do what they are told by people who are older than them, just because they are older than them. In some situations, to have learnt this could be dangerous.
- Once you have followed an order or two, change the question “Gosh there is a lot of tidying up to do, which toys am I going to pick up next and which ones are you going to do?” When she makes the choice, reinforce it so that she realises she has just said what she is going to do. In your reinforcement, give clear guidance to how she is going to do it: “Okay so I am putting the trucks away and you are picking up the dollies, and putting them all in their bed in the blue box?”
- Reinforce her success at tidying up: “Those dollies are all very comfy now you have put them away, what are you going to tidy up next?”
Scenario: It is storytime and Lydia is not coming to sit down with everyone else.
- Resist the urge to give Lydia instructions right away, instead use your attention like a torch beam to guide and direct the children. Narrate what you are doing: “I am looking at all the children who are sitting nicely on the carpet.”
- Create an attention bridge between the behaviour you are looking for and the behaviour you want to stop: “I am watching everyone walk to the carpet”. If you are worried about the children who are sitting on the carpet getting up again, involve them in this, saying: “Sitting-down children can you watch the children walking to the carpet?” – by mentioning them as ‘sitting-down’, you are continuing to reinforce that behaviour.
- If you have to give Lydia direct instructions, tell her what you are going to watch; think of the smallest first step towards doing the right thing, if you can spot something she is already doing then use that: “Lydia I can see you looking at the carpet, you are choosing your spot, I am ready to watch you walk over nicely.” If she moves, then keep that beam of attention on the movement. If she doesn’t, quickly go back to regarding the children who are doing what you were looking for.
Do we want them to just follow orders?
Some people will think that these hacks are a dangerous softening of discipline; children should be seen and not heard, should do as the grown-ups say. But should they? Is our aim really to bring up children who unquestioningly do as they are told by adults? Believe it or not, I was actually pleased, and his teacher was too, when my son was first naughty at school. Before then, I had worried he was not confident enough to do his own thing. A child who meekly follows every order should be as concerning to us as one that follows none.
The strategies above give the children the opportunity to make choices and to exert control. By deploying them, we are teaching the foundations of responsibility – a far better long-term outcome than blanket submission to our will.
Think about how we talk about behaviour
Remember that a lot of the rules in our settings are there for our benefit, to make it easier for us to deal with a large group of children (we are out numbered - we need the rule of law). It is easy for us to get fixed on our rules and not recognise the bigger picture. The child who doesn’t want to stop playing with the sand may possess a brilliant ability to focus on a task for a long time. The child who will not help with tidying up might need support structuring an approach to a task with no clear start point. The child who will not come and sit down might be testing out how their power holds up to ours, or may feel a need to be noticed in a crowd. A wilful child is not a naughty one, it is a resilient one. Repeatedly having your will defeated sows the seeds of depression in later life, and teaches children that no matter what they do, someone else has dominion over their lives.
We meet a lot of children, and we see a lot of ‘behaviour.’ We need to be very careful how we report behaviour to parents. Parents know their children better than anyone, but as their child grows up, they constantly meet them as they are now. Finding out who they are in your setting is news to them. Passing on information about behaviour should be done as carefully and as thoughtfully as a doctor passing on information about a medical problem.
Telling a parent that their child shouts too much, or runs inside, is a blunt presentation of a perceived negative, and it does not help them to do anything about it. It does not matter how cutely you dress it up, they hear it as a negative and they will worry about it. You know that pretty much all of the ‘behaviour’ that you deal with is simply a natural part of growing up. Our weaknesses and strengths are often two sides of the same coin. Instead of reporting ‘naughtiness’, present the strength a child exhibits through their behaviour to their parent and then give the associated learning that needs to come with it:
“Ethan has such spectacular focus, today he didn’t want to stop playing with the sand for snack time. We used a timer to help him realise it was ending and then he made a choice about what to do next.”
“Ava took responsibility for the tidying up today, she told me where to put the trucks, she knows where everything goes in the classroom. At first when we were tidying up she didn’t join in at all, it can be a bit overwhelming for children when we switch from playing to tidying – and the room is quite chaotic at that time – but once we had given Ava the chance, she was able to sort that chaos out for us.”
“Lydia always makes her own mind up about her actions. She stood back and watched when the other children sat down for storytime today. We guided her by telling her where our attention would be and then she came over happily and joined in, we were really pleased with her choice.”
Remember our aim is not to control the children in our settings but to contribute to them growing up and becoming physically- and mentally-healthy, responsible adults who think and reason for themselves. Signs that they are already taking control, and reasoning, should not be squashed - they should be built upon and celebrated.
Joanna is running Exploring the Impact of the Senses on Behaviour in Birmingham on the 28th June: a day well suited to those supporting children whose behaviour seems to be a bit different from what you would ordinarily expect.
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodivergent conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published four practitioner books: "Multiple Multisensory Rooms: Myth Busting the Magic", “Sensory Stories for Children and Teens”, “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” and “Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia”. and two inclusive sensory story children’s books: “Voyage to Arghan” and “Ernest and I”.
Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.