As adults we are currently experiencing more uncertainty than we have perhaps ever known before. Due to the global pandemic things are getting changed at the drop of a hat – events are cancelled, the rules regarding whether or not we can socialise can change, and we don’t know when life will begin to go back to normal, if ever. The complete lack of control we are experiencing is leaving adults feeling angry, frustrated, stressed and many are suffering high levels of anxiety..
That feeling that comes from lack of control is what life can be like for a lot of children. Without realising it, it is so easy to give our children no control. We choose what is going to happen in their day, who they are going to be with, what they are going to eat and what activities they will get to choose from. Before arriving at your setting, a child will very often have had somebody else choose what they are going to wear, what they are going to have for breakfast, who is dropping them off and who is picking them up. When they arrive at your setting they don’t know for certain what adults are going to be in today and which children are going to be in. Can you imagine how frustrating and unsettling that is? Especially if you are not told or don’t understand what is going to be happening. Now throw COVID into that mix: all the cancellations, change in routine, not seeing people you are used to seeing. Everything in young children’s lives is out of control. Some children deal with this by trying to take back control, and this presents itself as them trying to have their own way and becoming very angry or upset when it doesn’t happen.
Many of the events described above are things that we cannot give children a choice over – they don’t get to decide who takes them to and from your setting. We can, however, help support them through the feelings that this lack of control can bring, and help them feel control in other ways. If there is a particular child in your setting that is becoming very angry, it may be that they are struggling with the lack of control in their lives. Here are some ways you can help them with this:
- Recognise their feelings – how do you feel when there is a power struggle? Frustrated? Angry? Well, children feel the same. We need to help them recognise this feeling if they are going to have a chance of dealing with it. Label it for them – ‘I can see that you are feeling angry’ and empathise – ‘it is hard when you have to stop doing something that you are enjoying’.
- Remain calm, yet assertive to demonstrate a sense of safety. As we’ve just established, the child is likely to be feeling some big, strong emotions. If you meet them with similar emotions, the situation will only escalate. You need to remain calm. At the same time, remaining firm with your decision will give the child the security that they need.
- Tell them or show them what is happening in a way that they can understand, so that their day isn’t an unknown. The child will have been hearing your voice all morning and may find it hard to process language. Using a different method of communication can work wonders when you are trying to show them what is happening. This might mean showing them using visual symbols, photos, through signing or by physically walking them through the steps. A visual timetable on the wall is brilliant at helping a child understand what is happening in their day and therefore feel more in control.
- Give warnings before transition. Imagine that you were really enjoying an activity and then you got told to stop what you were doing straight away to change to doing something less fun. How would that make you feel? Don’t expect a child to just stop what they are doing as soon as you ask them to. They need time to prepare for the transition, just as you would. Communicate to them what is going to be happening, and then use a visual timer such as a sand timer to show them how long they’ve got before they need to change activity.
- Give them some control. This is really important. You need to let go of the things that don’t really make a difference to you and allow the child to have some control over the little things that mean the world to them. If you can, let them choose what colour cup they will have, what song we will sing today, which activity they do first. They don’t have bills to worry about and a family to support – the colour of their cup might be massively important to them so, where possible, let them have control over it.
- Show them respect by asking their opinion – showing them that their feelings really matter and will affect the outcome. This will help them feel valued and let them know that they do have some control in your setting.
- Offer choice. If you are facing a battle because the child really doesn’t want to do what you have asked, offer them a choice. You can do this, or that – that way they get an element of control but ultimately will still have to do what you asked.
- Give responsibility/ask for their help – there is no better way of making a child feel valued than by showing them how much you need their help. If you can give them an element of responsibility, no matter how small, it will make all the difference to helping them feel more settled and secure.
As always, the biggest step in helping a child is understanding. If you and the staff around you can take time to understand the reasons behind a behaviour, we can go a really long way toward supporting that child. At the end of the day we just need to remember that behaviour is a form of communication so if we can understand what is bothering the child, we can help address the behaviour.
About the author:
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.