Here is the pattern: Some children are born extra cautious

Here is the pattern: Some children are born extra cautious

Here is the pattern: Some children are born extra cautious
Here is the pattern: Some children are born extra cautious

. This trait may even be in their genes. They don’t enjoy putting themselves out in the world, taking risks, trying new things. Sometimes this trait doesn’t really hinder them because it’s more a matter of timing than a deficiency. Some children are observers; they learn a good deal by watching for long periods before they try something themselves. When they do try something, they make rapid progress because of their careful observations. They may be thought of as being slow to warm up. Other children jump in with both feet without giving a thought to the consequences. If these more impulsive children are successful in their endeavors, they may be valued for their speed and compared with children like Dakota. (Bright and quick are sometimes thought to be synonymous with intelligent.) Thus, Dakota’s slow, cautious way of doing things may be underval- ued in some settings. That wasn’t the case in either the family or in the school in this situation with Dakota. The teachers decided along with input from the family that though Dakota may look as though she lacks initiative, it’s really a matter of timing more than initiative. An unfamiliar environment slows her down even more. At home with a sibling or a playmate, Dakota is much more secure and outgoing. She doesn’t look so shy and cautious. Shyness and caution are situational with Dakota.

The teachers at Dakota’s school have discovered that pushing her doesn’t do any good. She’s very resistant to join an activity until she decides on her own to do so. She has the ability to absorb by watching—far more ability than any of her teachers, who at first worried that she must be bored because they were projecting their own needs onto her. She isn’t bored. In fact, they discovered that she was getting much more out of preschool than anyone realized, but she was doing it in her own way. The teachers, with the family’s input, decided to be patient with Dakota and to respect her style. They also, when they could, arranged for her to be in smaller groups and play alone with one or two children rather than always urging her to join into large-group activities.

Watch this video to hear from a family with a child that has special needs, and the intervention team that supports his development.

The teachers have discovered that this quiet, cautious child has grown into something of a leader in the class. The other children are drawn to Dakota and are influenced by her. In fact, the day doesn’t truly begin until Dakota arrives. The teach- ers were really surprised when they discovered that Dakota’s quiet presence now in- fluences the activities in the classroom. They shared their findings with her parents and invited them to observe their daughter’s new-found leadership role.

Factors other than those that influence Dakota may be at work on another child who exhibits similar behavior. Take Brandi, for example:

Brandi is shy and cautious for entirely different reasons—she has a history of abuse and attachment issues. As a result, she has a great deal of trouble separating from her foster mother, who delivers her to school. She cries loudly and must be peeled off, so that the foster mother, who has other children to deliver to another school, can leave. Once Brandi quits crying, she goes into mourning. She stands by the art table with one finger in her mouth and her eyes staring vacantly. The teachers have decided that she isn’t even really “there” most of the time. She stares into space. She sits in circle time silently. She doesn’t seem to have learned a single song (compared with Dakota, who never sings at school but at home can go through every word of every verse, complete with hand movements).

Brandi is withdrawn, and it isn’t just that she has a slower pace than most chil- dren. She has a problem. In fact, this child might well have been born quick, lively, and a willing risk taker, but her life circumstances have beaten her into the child she is now—one who needs more help than her teachers alone can give her. Under ideal circumstances, Brandi’s teachers, foster parents, and biological family are working with social workers and therapists to help her adjust to foster care or help her family get back together. She also needs help to resolve her attachment issues and heal the raw scars of her abuse. If all goes well and everyone cooperates, Brandi will get her life back together and her spark will come back. She’ll be the child she really is rather than the child she has become.

The vital difference between Dakota and Brandi is that Dakota is the child she is and Brandi is not—she’s been wounded.

A Look at Aggression Let’s examine the subject of aggression in the preschool-age child—where it comes from and what to do about it.

We’ll start with Cory. He’s a four-year-old who attends an all-day preschool in which he is one of a group of 30 children. He gives his teachers a lot of trouble be- cause he seems always to be hurting someone. Someone constantly has to deal with the aftermath of his aggressive behavior. What’s going on with Cory?

It’s not easy to say what’s going on with Cory. There are many possible reasons for his aggressive behavior—some simple and fairly easy to solve and some much more complex. It could be that Cory has just not learned any other way to behave. In that case, he needs to be taught. Or it could be that Cory was rewarded for this behavior in the past and is continuing to be rewarded for it, so he continues his aggressive behavior. It could also be that Cory’s behavior is the result of bottled- up emotions. Maybe something is going on at home, and he’s feeling very upset by it. He’s letting off steam at school. His behavior might even stem from a physical source—either his own body chemistry or influences of the environment interacting with his physical makeup. Or his aggression can come from an extreme defensive- ness. The following sections explore these sources of aggression more closely.

Learned Aggression. Children can learn aggression from watching others get what they want through aggressive means. They may see this on television or in their own homes or neighborhoods. They can even learn it at preschool from watching class- mates. They can, of course, also learn it from firsthand experience.

For example, a child wants a toy. She grabs it from another child and pushes him when he fights back. She has the toy—she gets her reward. Or, if adult atten- tion is the reward she’s looking for, she gets that attention when the adult marches across the room, grabs the toy out of her hand, and holds her arm tight while squat- ting down to look her in the eye and give her a good, long scolding. She gets even more attention when she is marched over to apologize. Her final rewards come when she is placed in a time-out chair and brought back every time she gets up. She has the adult’s full attention—including eye contact, touch, and a long stream of words. She can get the adult to notice her even from clear across the room simply by her behavior. If she still wants more reward, all she has to do is push one of the adult’s buttons. Spitting will probably do it. A “bad word” will usually do it, too.

If this child has learned this way of getting attention, the solution is to give her the attention she needs in other ways and to make her “unlearn” the ingrained be- haviors. Behavior modification is the answer. The adult must unlink the behavior and the reward by withdrawing attention rather than pouring it on. This is not easy to do while keeping everyone safe. Sometimes it is a matter of providing physical control while giving the least attention possible. Other times just ignoring the behavior will eventually make it go away. However, if this is a longtime pattern, it will probably get worse before it gets better, until the child learns that the attention she so desper- ately needs will come but is linked to a different kind of behavior.

The problem is that most adults who have to deal with this kind of aggression in a child are sorely tempted to turn to punishment; they want to hurt the child either physically or emotionally. What they may not realize is that hurting children doesn’t work. You don’t make a child less aggressive by hurting her—you make her more aggressive. Way back in 1975, Barclay Martin reviewed 27 studies on the effects of harsh punishment and concluded that children were likely to store up frustration from being punished and vent it later, using the violence that was used on them. The message regarding avoiding using aggression to deal with aggression is still valid today.

Power may be behind the child’s need for aggression. Power issues are never solved by being overpowered, which is the message behind punishment.

Aggression as the Result of Bottled-Up Feelings. Some children react to ten- sion with aggression. Their feelings are bottled up inside them, and even a little in- cident can “uncork” them. What “pours out” is more than the provoking incident calls for. That’s a clue to tension as a cause of aggression. Any little frustration can cause “the top to blow off the bottle.” When tension is behind the aggression, it is best to work on the source of the tension. However, that may be a job for a social worker and a therapist. If you’re Cory’s teacher, for example, you don’t have the opportunity to work on his home tensions, and you’re not a trained therapist. What you can do is reduce frustration for him at school. You can also give him outlets for his angry feel- ings. Some examples of outlets follow:

1. Vigorous physical activity can serve as an outlet—for example, running, jump- ing, and climbing.

2. Aggressive activities are also beneficial—for example, pounding punching bags, digging in the dirt, hammering nails, and even tearing paper.

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3. Soothing sensory activities can help calm the aggressive child—activities like water play, clay work, and finger paint. Cornstarch and water available as a paste to play in is a wonderfully soothing sensory activity.

4. Art and music activities also serve as outlets for emotional expression. Many children paint picture after picture, covering every inch of the easel paper with paint. From the looks on their faces, you can tell that they are finding the activity soothing.

Physical Influences on Aggression. Teachers can work on the problem of physical influences on aggression. For example, Cory’s diet may be terrible. Perhaps some family education is in order. Careful observation can determine whether low blood sugar is influencing his behavior. Is he particularly aggressive when he’s hungry? Steps can be taken to remedy that situation, both with a change of diet and with in- creased high-protein snacks. If physical problems are suspected, a visit to the doctor is in order.

It’s easy to see how environment can influence behavior. If Cory is part of a group of 30 children and they spend much time together in one classroom, he may well be overstimulated, which can easily result in a lack of control on his part. Crowding is a clear cause of aggression in animals. I think we, as a society, try to ignore this problem in people because crowding is a part of our daily lives and we just expect children to adjust to it.

Other environmental influences can be heat, lighting, and environmental pollu- tion. Even weather can make a difference. If you’ve ever been with a group of children on a windy day, you know how it can affect their behavior.

Extreme Defensiveness. According to Selma Fraiberg (1959) in her classic book, The Magic Years, some children imagine danger everywhere and interpret every little action of playmates as threatening to themselves. They are defensive to an extreme. Out of their fear, they attack first, rather than waiting to be attacked and then striking back. They need help to change their perspective and come to see the world as a non-

threatening place. Their world- view may be due to attachment or abuse issues, in which case those are the areas in which they need help. That help may need to come from a trained therapist rather than a layperson, though teachers may carry out whatever program the therapist suggests. All by themselves, the teachers probably can’t solve the problem of Cory’s aggression if that problem comes from damage inflicted on him.

No matter what the cause behind the aggression, it’s impor- tant to be working together with the family to discover what to do about it. Teamwork makes a big difference. Imagine how hard it is on a child to find one approach to Vigorous physical activity can serve as an outlet for strong feelings

aggression being taken at home and an entirely different one being used at school. Sometimes just teaming isn’t enough—outside expertise is needed. It’s also impor- tant to recognize when a situation is beyond the ability of the teacher and parents to solve by themselves. In that case they can work together to find the outside re- sources needed for assistance and support.

Teaching Problem-solving Skills The roots of violence start in the first years of life as children who don’t know how to solve problems turn to aggression. You can spot children in preschool who are at risk for becoming violent teens. They are the four-year-olds who solve all their social problems physically. If they want a truck, they grab it and then sock the little kid who had it first. If accidentally bumped, they shove the offender back harder.

Of course, all children who grab, hit, and shove won’t become violent teens. Af- ter all, this is normal behavior for young children. Some will outgrow it, but oth- ers won’t. Instead they will develop deeply ingrained ways of approaching problems, which can lead directly from preschool aggression to teenage violence.

Four weaknesses in problem-solving skills are exhibited by teenage offenders:

1. They make assumptions about a situation and neglect to get further information. 2. They seldom give anyone the benefit of the doubt but see everyone as a potential

adversary. They think people are “out to get them.” 3. They have a narrow vision of alternative solutions and rely mainly on violence. 4. They fail to consider consequences when they lash out.

Adults can help young children develop problem-solving skills before the weak- ness becomes ingrained. They can help children clarify situations, consider conse- quences, and explore alternatives to aggression.

To help, the adult must be on the spot when difficulties arise between children. It’s important to intervene before the action gets physical. For example, as the four-year-old grabs for the truck in the other child’s hands, the adult can stop him and say, “You really want the truck. I wonder what you can do besides grabbing it.” If the child’s response shows he can’t think of anything but grabbing, the adult can list some other ideas.

This is not a natural approach for most adults, especially when the tendency is to meet child aggression with adult aggression. That’s where training comes in. Teachers can learn to take this approach and model it for parents. Aggression can also be the sub- ject of a parent meeting. Certainly most families are interested in both how to keep their children safe from the aggression of other children and managing the aggression they find in their own children. Skillful intervention by adults is a skill well worth learning.

It’s important that adults not be critical or judgmental when they intervene. This approach is about talking it through, not giving lectures on being nice. Tone of voice and attitude are all-important as the adult guides the talking. The goal is for the chil- dren to begin to see the other’s perspective and consider alternative solutions.

Four qualities are important when helping children talk to each other in a con- flict situation:

1. Firmness should come through—“I won’t let you grab or hurt.” 2. Empathy also should come through—“I know how much you want that truck.” 3. A problem-solving attitude rather than a power play must be part of the

exchange—“He might give it to you if you ask him.” 4. Persistence is critical—“Well, asking didn’t work. I wonder what else you could try.”

The objective is not to solve the problem in a particular way for the child but to help him discover his own alternatives to violence.

Adults often short-circuit this kind of learning by putting children in time-out. Or they solve the problem themselves: “He had it first; give it back to him.” “If you’re going to fight over that toy, you can’t play with it.” Those adult actions don’t teach the problem-solving skills so necessary for the future.

Skillful intervention makes a difference. We can teach children nonviolence in the preschool years. Of course, teaching alone won’t eliminate violence. Other fac- tors come into play. If the child sees violence at home, on the streets, on TV, in video games, and on other electronic devices, the modeling effect comes in. Or if the child is a victim of abuse, the likelihood of his becoming a perpetrator is increased.

Safe Start is a nationwide program designed to deal with the roots of violence through prevention and intervention. Check out the Safe Start Center website for more information. Another organization concerned with young children at risk is The Ounce of Prevention Fund, which also has a website. A public/private partner- ship based in Chicago and built on decades of research on child development, this program is a promising approach to reducing violence through focusing on children ages birth to five. Brain research points to the impact of early emotional experiences on brain development, altering both structure and brain chemistry. Early experi- ences set up patterns of response that can last a lifetime. The program stresses pre- vention approaches that include helping adults understand how to teach children self-control. Adults in the program learn how to set limits, discourage unacceptable behavior, model appropriate behavior, and reduce the risk factors for violence. Early intervention includes quality early childhood education programs for children, in-

cluding specialized teacher training in violence prevention. These approaches are making a lasting difference.

There is no single simple solution to violence. If we are to create a peace- ful world to live in, we must take a many-pronged approach. A good prong to start with is to help children get off to a good start and learn effective nonvio- lent problem solving in the early years.

Empowering the Preschool-Age Child Adults often believe that to manage children’s behavior and set them on the right path, they must dominate them by overpowering them. Trying to overpower children often leads straight to power struggles, which are the antithesis of empowering chil- dren. Children miss out whether they win or lose the power struggle. If they win, they discover that they can dominate an adult, which is frightening. Young children know that they need adults, and they want someone to look up to who will protect and sup- port them. It shakes their confidence in the adult to learn that they are stronger than the larger, more experienced adult. If children lose the power struggle, it takes them down a notch or two rather than convincing them of their own power. Power strug- gles are to be avoided rather than encouraged if you are working on empowerment.

To explore empowerment further, think of a time you felt powerful as a child. Avoid focusing on those times when you were overpowering someone; concentrate instead on personal power that gave you the feeling of being able to be yourself and of having some effect on the world or the people in it. Focus on this feeling. Isn’t this a feeling you would like children to have?

When I ask students to give examples of times they felt powerful as a child, they come up with a variety of situations in which they demonstrated effectiveness.

Watch this video to see an early childhood professional help children deal with conflict. What strategies did she use to support all of the children?

Sharing Views of Initiative with Families 93

Sometimes the situation has to do with carrying out some responsibil- ity; some remember a time when they were particularly competent at some- thing; others remember a moment of strength or courage—particularly in relationship to being challenged and conquering their fear. Some felt pow- erful because of their affiliations— the support people in their lives. Some people got a sense of their own power simply from being able to make choices—even when the conse- quences weren’t what they expected.

One way that children in pre- school gain a feeling of power is by “dressing up” and trying on powerful roles. They do this by itself or in con- junction with creating their own world and then playing. That puts them in the role of creator—a very powerful position indeed.

Even something as simple as physically changing perspective makes children feel powerful. One young woman remembered spending time as a child squatting on the top of the refrigerator, looking down from her vantage point at the world and the people beneath her. Another had a secret hideout on the garage roof, under the shelter of a tall spreading tree.

One less than desirable way that children gain power is by misbehaving and making adults angry. Only when you watch a scene of a little child sending an adult into a frenzy do you realize what a feeling of power the child must get from this reac- tion. It’s a little like being the person who pushes the button that sends a rocket into space. Wow! It’s also a bit frightening to feel so powerful.

Sometimes a child in a preschool situation will cause a good deal of trouble. This child manages to affect everyone around him. It gets so that everyone breathes a sigh of relief on the days he is absent because things are so different. Children who behave like this are often so needy for power that they get it in the only way they know how—by making a big impact on the environment, including the people in it.

If you recognize power as a legitimate need, it seems reasonable to find ways to empower children so that they won’t need to manipulate or disrupt to feel a sense of their own power. The following are some ways that adults can empower children:

◆◆ Teach children effective language and how to use it. Even very young children can learn to hold up a hand and firmly say “Stop!” to someone threatening them. They won’t need to hit or shove once they learn to use the power of words. They can learn to express feelings. They can learn to argue their point. They can become effective language users. Remember, though, that some cultures have a differ- ent view of teaching children to express their feelings. The goal is group peace and harmony over individual expression of feelings. It is important to recognize this difference when working with children who come from these cultures.

◆◆ Give children the support they need while they are coming to feel their personal power. Don’t let them continually be victimized until their personal power becomes so trampled that it threatens to disappear from sight all together. Use your personal power for

Children gain feelings of power by trying on powerful roles


them so they can come to use their own eventually. Don’t rescue them. Instead, teach them ways to protect themselves—with your support at first; later they can do it without your support.

◆◆ Help children tune in on their uniqueness and appreciate their differences. Help each child become more fully who he or she really is rather than trying to cast him or her into some preset mold. Do remember, however, that not all cultures see unique- ness and individuality as a value. Some emphasize downplaying any character- istics that make one stand apart from the group.

The idea of empowering children in general, and these suggestions in particular, may be very uncomfortable for some families. That’s why you have to use your best communication skills to share these ideas. But don’t just talk; also listen. Commu- nication is a two-way street. If you open up to new ideas from the families you work with, you’ll expand your view and know more about what to do with each particular child in each particular family. Strategy Box 4.2 gives further ideas about how to work with families around the behaviors of their children in the stage of initiative.

We can empower children and help them experience a sense of their own power. We can empower families as well. Missy Danneberg writes the Advocacy in Action feature “Advocating for Ourselves” on the following pages. Read it to see what a group of directors did to solve a problem created by a situation that was unhealthy and demeaning.

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