Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Keeping the Peace: Advice from the Trenches of Elementary School

I smiled when my husband said, "Claire seems so tempestuous, lately."

"Why the smile?" he asked.

I tried to figure out how to say what I was thinking without offending him. Often, when I give my perspective or offer advice about his relationship with Claire, he hears it like I'm the know-it-all wife carping at a feckless husband.

"Do you really want to know?" I said.

"Yes," he countered.

"You and Claire fight a lot," I say with trepidation. "You guys get into power struggles. She doesn't want to do stuff that you want her to do, so she yells at you. You force her to do it anyway. She yells louder. You yell back."

"Got any advice?" he says. I've gotten him thinking, instead of defending himself. It's time to bend his ear...

"Sure." After all, I was an elementary education teacher before having Claire. I remind him that the advice I have to offer is based on years of professional experience.

I start with the philosophical, "I'm not talking about the run-of-the-mill tantrum, or when kids just
want what they want. All young children struggle with emotional regulation, impulse control and expressing their feelings. We need to teach them how to manage those things in life too. My advice is about helping you with the emotional dynamic of your relationship with Claire. It's about supporting her sense of agency in relation to your authority over her, and making sure she feels respected and seen by you."

Then, I outlined what I had learned in the trenches about the emotional dynamic between adult and child -- the down and dirty, the nitty-gritty of keeping the peace in the classroom. Now that I've shared this list with my husband, I've formalized it for all the blogging world to see*:

HELP! I NEED SOMEBODY: Capitalize on your child's desire to help you and to be needed. Sometimes, when Claire starts to struggle against me, I remind her that I need her help to get the task done. I remind her that putting on her shoes is not going to happen without her. On a good day, she will quickly turn from my foe to my ally. We have now become a team working towards a common good. I always make sure I thank her profusely afterwards for her essential contribution to getting the job done.

FAIR WARNING: Outline expectations of your child ahead of time. My husband is particularly bad about this one. For example, he will expect Claire to abandon the puzzle in which she is completely absorbed, in order to eat lunch. In his mind, he's made her food and it's time to eat. She likes to know what's coming. She can struggle with transitions. If you think about it, adults do too. Kids appreciate a heads-up about what's coming next on the agenda, just like us.

FEELINGS…NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS: We tend to forget that kids want the same thing that we want a lot of the time. They want their experience validated and to feel like we understand them. My interactions with Claire tend to be more peaceful, when I acknowledge her feelings and encourage her. "I know its hard to wait for breakfast to be ready. Sometimes, I don't like waiting either. You're doing a great job waiting". Not only am I trying to show my child that I see her, I am putting into words what she probably can't yet.

THE CARROT: I want Claire to learn how to pick up her toys, not generally something that she wants to do. When I dangle the park in front of her, she's more apt to acquiesce. I will say, "It's time to go to the park, but we have to pick up our toys before we go". Works like a charm every time. Of course, eventually I want her to pick up her toys on her own. She isn't there yet. The "carrot" strategy is what we would call "scaffolding" in the educational world. It's a support used in a new area of learning. When she's had enough practice, we will take the scaffold away and see how that goes.

THE TIME IS NOW: Instead of saying, "I want you to eat breakfast" or asking, "Do you want to eat breakfast?", I say, "It's time to eat breakfast". Really, this tweak is a minor sleight of hand. I don't know why it works so well. But blaming your request on time instead of you takes away the personal element, and, hence, the power struggle. It was one of the first things someone told me as a new teacher. If you go into any class in any part of the country, you will probably see teachers employing this one.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: When we make a request of a kid, we often assume that he needs to do it right away or we will lose face with him somehow. It's not necessarily true. Kids have a different concept of time, so if there's no urgency, let your little one do it on his own time. You can acknowledge what's going on, "I know you don't want to do this right now, but we need to do it soon". Then, set a timer to remind him that it needs to get done.

READY, SET, GO: Similar to the previous one, when there's no time constraint, ask your child to tell you when she is ready. She just wants to feel some control over her destiny, which is reasonable enough. This strategy works particularly well when your child is close to you with nothing better to do. When Claire doesn't want to have her diaper changed, I will take a step back from the diaper pad and say, "You let me know when you are ready". She gets bored, and it usually isn't long before she thinks it's her idea to have her clothes or diaper changed.

PRO-CHOICE: I think most people are aware of this one. When a child makes a choice, the decision becomes his, instead of something being done to him. It's important to remember to keep the choices simple, and limited to a small number though. Too much choice can be overwhelming for a child.

CHOOSE OR LOSE: When you are in a hurry, you can start by offering choice. If this strategy isn't working or is taking too long, you can say, "if you don't make a choice between x and y, I'm going to make a choice for you". Children don't generally like it when you take charge of the situation, but they seem to have an uncanny, intuitive understanding of the fairness and logic of their loss of choice and are more apt to accept it.

DANGER, WILL ROBINSON: Try keeping the "non-negotiables" limited to dangerous activities and things that you absolutely will not tolerate. Then, kids will take you seriously when you make a "no options" demand of them. It's like the boy who cried wolf. If you cry wolf too many times, they won't believe you when you really mean it.

EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SINK: What worked yesterday might not work today. You have to be flexible, try different things, try many things, switch it up. Something will usually stick.

ALL IS NOTHING: Sometimes nothing works.

HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY: So you've tried all of these things and nothing is working. You're late for a doctor's appointment and your child needs to get with the program. Be honest, but keep it brief, factual and calm. "We need to go to the doctor now. I have to put on your clothes. I know you don't like it. I know you're mad". Then, soothe the angry beast as best you can.

HUMAN NATURE: Cut yourself some slack. You won't be perfect. I'm not. After years of teaching, I still lose my shit. I'm tired, hungry, in a hurry, feeling grumpy. Whatever. Remember that kids will not lose their respect for you for being human. You can always talk about your conflict afterwords. You can always apologize. Remember it's not the battle, it's the war (not crazy about the "war" analogy, but it does work).

*Disclaimer: I started this blog with one rule. I was not going to offer advice. I didn't want to tell people stuff they already know. I didn't want to sound preachy. I am well aware that I don't have the answers.

But today I'm wearing my teacher hat, not my mom hat. As a mom, I still don't have the answers. I wouldn't dare tell you how to raise your child. As a teacher, I felt I may have a valuable perspective to offer.

I hope you think so too. If not, feel free to leave me a comment telling me I'm preachy or I've told you stuff you already know. 


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Photo Source: Dominic Alves, Flickr, this photo has been altered which does not suggest that the licenser endorses me, this blog or its content. License

37 comments:

  1. I needed to read this today. You have summed everything up so well and you are not preachy at all. Sometimes a reminder can be good!! Love it.

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    1. Thanks for the validation that I don't sound holier-than-thou! I would loathe that, particularly because I am so far from perfect.

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  2. Not preachy and wouldn't care if it were - it's super helpful!!! Bookmarking and sharing with the world.

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    1. I'm glad it was helpful. I aim to please, dear Deb!

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  3. I wish you could come live at my house. Then you can remind me of these things when I forget. I learned many of these things when teaching. Sometimes I even remember them and actually apply them! ;-)

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    1. I'd love to come visit, Sarah! I haven't been to Iowa in years!

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  4. After this evenings bedtime cluster, I must admit that no matter what you do sometimes nothing in one's arsenal will work (tonight proved that once again for me). But will say you do offer some valuable input as an elementary school teacher. I too taught this age at one point and many of the teacher lessons can totally be carried over into the parenting arena with small kids. So, thank you for sharing and appreciate this post as it made me feel a bit better about the good and the bad, too!

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    1. Yup. I feel your pain. Nothing works, sometimes! It's like a never ending Aikido match!

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  5. Not preachy at all... very practical! Thank you! :)

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    1. I'm so glad it came across as intended, Jessica!

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  6. Holy crap, Rachel. I read this twice and am keeping this window open so that I can show it to my husband. I'll admit, when I first read about the subject matter, I had a tiny seed of doubt that any of it would apply to us - we are so immersed in ABA therapy for my autism-spectrum son that, well...I just wasn't sure it would apply. But OMG this is the best parenting advice ever. For every parent.
    I wish I'd have read this two years ago but am still so thankful to read it now. Thank you for writing it.
    Ok so - Time. Huge in my son's therapy (and now I'm wondering how much of it is therapy and how much of it is just exaggerated/more obvious parenting from a teacher's perspective) - using the words "it's time to ____" are so much more hugely effective than "you need to ____." The control. An issue (a big one) for my son.
    Help! - my little boy loves to help when he can. We need to do this more.
    The Carrot - I use this an unbelievable amount of times each day. I've been trying to help my husband learn it too. I'll say that it's time to go to the car (or whatever) and end up saying "Oh. Too bad we can't go to the sandpark because you won't put on your shoes. I guess Michael will have to play alone there." Usually, I'm met with "Michael? Sandpark?" and it works. Not always, but usually eventually.
    HONESTY. Huge for us. Saying "yes, I know it sucks that ____" still results in a meltdown but often it's more easily managed. Seriously. Acknowledging my son's feelings when he definitely does not have the words for them has been big. We just have to remember to keep it simple (which is another parenting class for us - seeing our just-barely-4yo who looks like a 6yo and acts like a 2yo - remembering to speak to where he should be/is/balancing is big). Keeping the honesty has been huge. For all of us.
    I also love the advice to keep the DANGER voice to just that. Again, something I want to read out loud to my husband because he has a tendency to sound as upset by a spilled drink as he does about not stopping to cross the street.

    You did not sound preachy AT ALL during this entire lovely amazing hugely important post. Seriously. I love it. Big. And thank you.

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    1. Kristi, it's great to hear that there was value for you. I'm not surprised. I was a special education teacher and my words come from my experience with this population. It's another example of how kids are kids, and how kids with disabilities are not necessarily that different from the rest of us.

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    2. I love you even more for saying that.

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  7. I really needed to read this. Reagan and I go through the same power struggle. It's amazing how you can look back on it and realize you are fighting for power with a two year old. But it goes right along with my Letting Go series and it's definitely a great reminder that there are ways to address all situations. LOVE THIS!

    xoxo
    Lanaya
    Raising-Reagan.com

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    1. I know you have, Lanaya. You have been so beautifully open and honest about your struggles on your blog. I completely agree about letting go. If we don't, we just drown in struggles with kids. It's important to pick our battles. Kids are much more brittle than we are!

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  8. I agree with much of what you have said, but tend to agree with your husband on some, also. I'm not going to go into it, as I, too, don't wish to sound preachy. Perhaps, the biggest item is the time allowed to transition, say from puzzle to lunch. To me, we all need to discipline ourselves and accept that things will pull us away from what we enjoy. Allowing a tantrum or debate from a youngster here doesn't enforce the needs to adapt to immediate change without emotional conflict. It's a matter of, "Stop, this has priority, finish without debate, and you can get back to what you enjoy doing faster. It's like when my wife asks me to do something when I'm watching a sporting event. I do it, and return, knowing that I can now enjoy without dragging it out. Just some thoughts. Really a great and thorough post!

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    1. So I sound preachy, eh, Rich?! :) I have many thoughts on your comment. First, I don't disagree that children should have expectations. It's what I said in my tip about transitioning to lunch. Second, I am sorry to disagree with you, but a young child is not developmentally at a place to understand "stop what you are doing and you can get back to it later." They generally do not have that sophisticated of a notion of time and sequence. I agree that later in a child's life that this is a great lesson in delaying gratification. Third, back to the expectations thing. I have a feeling that your wife gives you a heads-up before you need to do something, at least some of the time, or you have some sense that it's coming. And, if she doesn't give you a heads-up, I have a feeling that you don't always jump when she yells "boo" (except for an emergency). There have probably been times when you spend a few minutes finishing up your sports activity or whatever you are doing. Of course, I'm assuming here, but I'm also really talking about what occurs for me when someone asks me to do something. I just don't think it is unreasonable to have the same expectations that we have for ourselves for our children. It's not only reasonable, it's practical. Fourth, I am absolutely not talking about letting a child do what he or she wants. I'm talking about the manner in which we interact to get the child to do the things that we want.

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    2. I think both of you are actually on the same side of the fence here, with the "Honest is the best Policy" concept. There are times when you need your child to "get with the program" without negotiation & as you said you have to just help them deal with their anger, sadness tantrum to "win the war". On a daily basis though, when you have the time & opportunity it is soo important to remember that your kids feel as attached to finishing that drawing or puzzle as you might about finishing your work e-mail or news article. I also read something about no interrupting them when they're in a creative or learning process to reinforce that behavior as much as possible. I LOVE this article...LOVE LOVE LOVE. So much great information. Yes, I know (almost) all of it & I still need to hear it & remember to do it. Thank you so much for putting into (fun & interesting) words a magnificent list of reminders!!

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  9. As always, Rachel, concise, clear, interesting and EMINENTLY VALUABLE. Thank you!
    P.S. Sending this on . . .

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    1. Thank you, Diane. I'm so glad. And thank you for sending it on...

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  10. I agree! even the smallest of us wants to feel respected and loved and simple strategies like this helps covey those feelings. I do not like using incentives, I want my kids to just do things because they are the right thing to do, but my oldest son reminds me that bribes are the fastest and easiest way to get things done!

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  11. This is brilliant, Rachel. Absolutely brilliant. I just shared it on my FB page, and I will share it everywhere I can because I think so many parents can benefit from this practical advice. As a teacher, therapist, and Love and Logic parent, there is so much value in your suggestions. They are do-able for busy parents to implement and understand. Great job with this- you should give advice more often! ;)

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  12. This is great!! I use many of my teaching strategies in my parenting, too, though I teach high schoolers {though now that I think about it.... sometimes the behaviors are quiet similar!}. I totally agree on not demanding that they do something right away... I am very much a get-it-done-now person, and I get so impatient with my children. I definitely need to work on letting them clean up on their timeline if it's not an immediate need. I also have found the acknowledging of their feelings and expressing empathy helps a lot. And I agree with Stephanie ~ you definitely should share more advice!!

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  13. The time is now...that one has me thinking. Genius and such a small change.

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  14. very insightful, helpful advice.

    ~Lorelai

    Hopping by from the Friday Flash Blog Party! :)

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  15. NOt preachy at all! Rather super helpful!!! Thanks!

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  16. "Tempestuous"....now there's a word we just don't use often enough. :-)

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  17. I would love for you to share and link up at my weekly TGIF Link Party if you haven't already this week. Your favorite posts, most popular, recent or new! The party is open every Thursday night and closes Wednesday's at midnight. Followed by (Not SO) Wordless Wednesday! http://apeekintomyparadise.blogspot.com/.

    I would be honored if you join us and follow to stay connected Have a wonderful week!

    Hugs, Cathy

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  18. This is a great post Rachel! I think you've got your outline for your parenting from the trenches book! I've hear a lot of this before, and now that the boy is almost 8 some is relevant and some not so much anymore. But all of it is extremely valuable. I think the best part of this whole post is that your husband was willing to listen! (ok not the best part, but that is great and you should feel lucky :-) )

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  19. What a very useful and informative post. Lots of positivity and constructive pieces of information for your husband - and for other people here. TI shall certainly bookmark and come back to it when I need it :) Thank you so much for linking to PoCoLo xx

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  20. I have an opinionated little two year old...and i totally relate to some of the advice...given here..some i have used ...some i plan to now that i know...thanks!

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  21. When my fiance's daughter was younger she would often ask for everything under the sun at a store. any store, at the food store she would want THAT and THAT, at Sears she would NEED NEW SHOES. We would explain well you cant have candy this time, because we are here to buy stuff for dinner. Or you can't have new shoes now, because the shoes you have are still good - when they wear out we will let you pick out new ones. ONCE she had an outright meltdown at the mall because she wanted more stuff than what we were already buying her. We put every single thing back quickly and left with nothing. She never gave us a problem again (well now as a tween she tries to push our buttons, but knows her limits for the most parts). Her mom would always ask us why we take her shopping with us since she was such a nightmare. We explained we taught her from the begining that she didnt get stuff just for the sake of leaving the house. We also told the mom we always explained where we were going, and exactly what we were going to buy before we got to the store, so she knew what to expect when we got there. Her mom had always given in and bought her just about everything she wanted every single time they went to any store, because she didnt want to be "mean mom". Then she had to deal with the monster she had created.

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  22. Brilliant parenting and teaching advice Rachel! My background is high school teaching and everything you wrote could also be applied to working with teenagers. You've obviously had a heap of experience with kids and teaching is clearly your calling in life!

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  23. I absolutley love this list and in all fairness there are certainly a few of these that i will be trying!

    thanks for linking up with #MagicMoments

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  24. Rachel, you have captured the best of what we learn about managing young kids well as teachers, and summarized it beautifully! I wish I had written it myself! I certainly plan to share it. You are my kind of gal.

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  25. Thank you so much for your advise. I have really been struggling in my class trying to keep peace and it has been coming out in a "lose my shit" kind of way. I can't wait to get into my class and really work with them.
    Thanks again!

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