When I was getting my teaching credential I observed children in a first-grade class- room. I learned a lot from that experience, but one thing really sticks in my mind— a boy named Ralph. His was the first name I learned in that class of 30 children. I heard the teacher say his name just seconds after I arrived in the classroom, and she continued to say his name at least an average of every five minutes throughout my observation period. “Ralph, please sit down.” “Ralph, stop it!” “Ralph, don’t push other children.” Sometimes she just said “Ralph!” when she saw him doing some- thing he wasn’t supposed to. When he was sitting quietly listening, or doing his seat work, or getting along with other children, he never heard his name called. He defi- nitely knew how to get the teacher’s attention. He had the teacher’s focus on him more than any other child. His behavior was working for him. It wasn’t evil behavior, but still, the teacher was feeding the wrong wolf in Ralph.

Paying Attention to the Behavior You Want to Continue I saw another example of the power of attention while I was observing one of my early-childhood practicum students working in an after-school program. It was snack time and the pitcher of milk on the snack table was empty. One child picked up his empty glass, held it out, and said gruffly to the teacher, “More milk!” Right about the same time another child said, “Please, can I have more milk?” The teacher immediately responded to the second, ignoring the first, who quickly changed his tone and words to sound more like the other child who got such a quick response from the teacher.

Check Your Understanding 5.2

Click here to check your understanding of teaching prosocial skills and morals.


So the message is: pay attention to children who exhibit the prosocial behaviors you’re looking for. Notice how gently the big kids help the younger ones. Remark on how nicely Ty is waiting for his turn. You’re a good model for parents when you begin to use the power of your attention.

Here’s another story about the power of attention. Ana is a family child care provider whose home gets busy after school with the children who come to her. Two of those children have a good deal of trouble getting along with each other. Ugly squabbles constantly break out when they are together. Ana’s usual method is to respond to them when they are arguing. She has taught them not to hit each other, but she can’t seem to

keep them from yelling at each other. She spends a good deal of her time settling their disputes.

Ana talks about these two with her neighbor, Irene, who is a teacher’s aide in a nearby elementary school and is enrolled in an early childhood class at the local college. Irene tells her what she learned about the principle that when you pay atten- tion to behavior, it tends to continue; when you ignore the same behavior, it tends to disappear. “What you stroke is what you get,” says Irene, quoting from the book she is reading for her class, written by Jean Illsley Clarke (1998), who is an expert on strokes and affirmations. She suggests that Ana start ignoring the arguing. She does. It gets worse.

Ana complains to Irene that the suggestion didn’t work. “I ignored them and ig- nored them and they kept right on fighting.”

“Maybe,” says Irene, “you took away the attention you were giving them for argu- ing without replacing it with attention for something else.”

“What do you mean?” asks Ana. “You have to pay attention to them when they aren’t arguing.” “Oh,” says Ana. She tries that approach. Whenever the two are playing nicely together she re-

marks about how well they are getting along. It isn’t easy to do this because she’s not used to it, but she makes a conscious effort. When a squabble breaks out, she leaves the room and starts washing dishes. Sometimes the squabble follows her, but she makes a point of ignoring the angry voices.

Ana doesn’t feel entirely comfortable about this approach. It seems dishonest and unnatural to her. Children ought to be good without her making this special effort. After all, cooperative behavior is what’s expected. It shouldn’t get special no- tice. It should be the norm. When she was growing up, her mother didn’t have to put up with this kind of annoyance. All she had to do was look at her children and the squabbles stopped. She wishes that would work for her, but it doesn’t. She begins to notice, however, that the squabbles aren’t true disagreements, anyway, but are bids for her attention. She continues to use the approach of paying attention to the posi- tive behavior and ignoring the rest.

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It works! Of course, the children still have their disagreements, but not so con- stantly anymore. Furthermore, Ana has gotten to know the children better and has even grown closer to them since she’s not so annoyed at the continual bickering. Ana has learned about the power of attention.

Using Affirmations Ana also learned about affirmations from Irene. Affirmations give messages that validate the person as an individual who has needs and rights. Affirmations are positive mes- sages about expectations. They encourage children to be who they are. They can come in the form of being interested in individuals and expressing appreciation to each one.

Ana knew something about affirmations, though she didn’t call them that. Being interested and expressing appreciation was something she did naturally, something she learned from her own parents. She wasn’t sure about using affirmations on pur- pose to help the children feel good about themselves so they wouldn’t have such a need to squabble with each other. Ana especially had trouble with the idea that with affirmations she was validating the children as individuals. Of course, she recognized that each was a separate person, but what she wanted to emphasize in her fam- ily child care home was their connections rather than their separateness. She wanted them to focus less on themselves and more on others.

Ana brought up her concern to Irene one evening when the children had gone home. “I don’t want them to think about their own needs” was how Ana put it. “That makes them selfish. They should put other people first.”

“But until your own needs are met, how can you think of other people?” asked Irene. “Think of this example,” she went on. “When you fly, the flight attendant in- structs you that in case of a loss of cabin pressure, you must put your own oxygen mask on before you help other people.”

“I think that’s an extreme example,” Ana responded. “Maybe, but I think it applies. And it points out that your own needs are impor-

tant in order for you to help other people. Isn’t that what your goal is—that your children not be selfish?”

“I see what you mean,” said Ana. The two didn’t resolve this issue because Irene tended to always focus on individuals

when she thought about young children and families, and Ana tended to avoid focusing on the individual. Irene seemed to emphasize separateness. Ana liked to emphasize re- latedness and embeddedness. But they understood that they disagreed on this issue and were friendly about it.

Affirmations can also be used to let children (or adults) know how they can be while accepting how they are at the present moment. Irene, who understood how this princi- ple worked, used it in the classroom where she was a teacher’s aide. One example: she avoided labeling any child as “shy.” When one parent talked to her about her son’s shy- ness, Irene shared what she had observed and made it clear that she saw the boy as cau- tious and careful, putting a little different light on the behavior. Irene used affirmations with this boy, letting him know that he was fine the way he was. If he was slower to accept a new person or situation than other children were, she let him know that was all right, too. She affirmed his need to feel safe. She also affirmed the individuality of his pace. It usually took him a while to warm up and she didn’t hurry him. On the other hand, Irene encouraged him to take a few risks, recognizing his potential as a person who could even- tually come out of his protective shell and become more able to explore freely. All this was discussed with the teacher and the parents. Everyone agreed with Irene’s approaches.

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When thinking about strokes and affirmations, it is important to look at both in a cultural context. This chapter, because it is in line with my own cultural background (European-American) and also my training to be a teacher, focuses on independence and individuality to some extent. It’s what I know best. The idea is to help children feel good about themselves. In some cultures the focus is on downplaying individual- ity, keeping the child firmly embedded in the group (Howes, 2010; Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull, 2008; Rothstein-Fisch, Trumbull, & Garcia, 2009). Along with this focus may come teaching humility instead of pride and putting others before self. As you saw with Ana, strokes and affirmations seemed strange and in opposition to the goals of her family growing up and her situation as a family child care provider.

Also, in some families direct communication is not valued. Subjects may be talked around instead of directly addressed. Indirect communication, in the form of behavior (including body language), is more valued than what is put into words. In fact, in these families, the kinds of statements used in this chapter to illustrate strokes and affirmations may be regarded as uncomfortable or manipulative. When parents want their children to do something, they just tell them to do it, and the children have respect for their parents, so they do it. Those parents don’t need to make their children feel good about themselves. The children feel good just being part of the family and fulfilling their role as son or daughter.

These are two very different approaches to child rearing that seem to be op- positional in some ways. The fact that they are different doesn’t mean that one way is right and the other is wrong. It means that there are differences, and differences must be acknowledged, accepted, and honored. When people who have diverse per- spectives come together, they have opportunities to learn from each other. That is a strong message in this book. We share what we know and believe in with others and remain open to what others have to share with us. So with all that in mind, let’s look further at strokes and other forms of positive adult attention.

Children’s Response to Positive Adult Attention Does giving positive adult attention always work? No. There’s nothing that always works all the time, in every situation, with every child. How children respond to posi- tive affirmations and strokes depends on their previous experience, which relates to their opinions of themselves and their reality about how the world is. Some chil- dren feel validated by affirmations; others don’t. Some children accept the positive strokes they are given; others ignore or reject them.

Why would that be? These patterns have their roots in early experience. Imag- ine a baby who is ignored most of the time. He knows at some deep level that he needs attention and, because he is an infant, the strokes he needs are physical as well as social. He needs physical care given in a way that tells him he is cared about. Strokes in one sense of the word relate to physical touch and in another sense mean caring personal attention. The baby needs strokes or he’ll die. Because he is an infant, he can’t get attention except by crying, and even then his cries are often ignored. He does get fed and changed often enough to keep him alive, but he doesn’t receive his full quota of warm caring strokes—either physically or in the form of adults paying attention to him. So when he gets old enough to create a ruckus, he does that. He soon learns that some behaviors bring adults to him. If the behavior is unacceptable enough, they even lavish attention on him—not affection, but attention. It’s not positive attention that he receives. He is yelled at, scolded, even punished. But because he is so desperate for strokes—so needing attention

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Working with Families of School-Age Children 115

of any kind—he accepts these negative responses. He comes to expect them, and when he’s old enough to think about such things, he even may regard negative strokes as his due—somehow convincing himself, consciously or unconsciously, that he deserves them.

That attitude, that concept of reality, is what makes it so hard to get through to a child who is used to getting negative strokes. Positive strokes are ignored. Affirma- tions go in one ear and out the other. They don’t relate to the child’s reality.

Imagine a child, Michael, who comes from that type of situation early in life and is finally removed from the home, passed through several foster homes, and finally adopted at age four. He now arrives in kindergarten at the age of five. The teacher, aide, and parent volunteers are kind and loving to him, but he doesn’t accept that kind of attention. They tell him what a good job he is doing on his art project; he throws it to the ground and stomps on it. He refuses to accept positive strokes. He seems to need the negative ones. And he is an expert at getting them. He hurts other children. He destroys their things and laughs about it. He constantly butts heads with the adults. He acts like a general all-round menace.

It is tempting to label this child based on his behavior. He has a knack for making adults very angry. The teacher and aide begin to resent all the time they spend trying to manage his behavior. He spends a lot of time in the principal’s office. No one feels like giving him positive strokes anymore. “That just doesn’t work,” they all agree.

The parents feel equally helpless in the face of Michael’s negative behavior. They know what is going on at school; it’s much like what goes on at home. They are taking a parenting class and getting some counseling, but they haven’t yet been successful at making a difference in Michael’s behavior. They remember the first conversation they had with Michael’s teacher about his challenging behavior. See Strategy Box 5.1 for the process the teacher used to communicate with the parents about concerns about Michael.

Michael might sound like a child with a disability or mental health issues. Per- haps he is, but nobody yet is willing to take the step forward to get a diagnosis. They may feel helpless, but at the same time they are still hopeful that they can work to- gether to help him improve his feelings about himself and the behavior that goes with them.

There is another child in the class who has been identified as a child with special needs; she has a whole team of professionals, along with the teacher and her par- ents, who have worked together to create a plan for her education. The plan is called an IEP—an Individualized Education Plan—and was the result of a series of discus- sions among the team until they came to an agreement about what was needed for this particular child.

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