The Kind of Attention Children Need to Become Responsible – Lessons from Head Start

The following 2 stories are from a collection written by my teaching mentor, Marian Burns.  Although these stories are from Head Start teaching experiences, they speak to parents as well as to teachers.

Julie’s Story

Julie was a very attractive and very bright 4-year old.  She was also very headstrong and extremely difficult to control.  She constantly tormented the other children, would not obey any rules, and used language that came from the gutter.  One day in late September, soon after the beginning of school, the class went on a field trip to the Auburn Tot Lot.  This was a children’s playground with a petting area.  When we arrived, the gentleman who was in charge came up to me, pointed to the little girl and asked. “Is that Julie? I replied that it was. “Well”, he said, “You won’t be able to have a class if she’s allowed to stay.  My wife won’t come out today to greet the children if Julie is here.  Julie kept this playground in turmoil and kept four adults unable to do their work all summer long. We’re not going to let your class into the petting area.”

Imagine what power that child had – that four adult childcare workers were completely controlled by her for two months, I determined that this would not happen in my classroom.  I decided that I would not give her any attention for her negative behavior. I knew that she would always win that battle. However, I could not just let her run everything. The first part of my plan was to look for every positive action she made and quietly tell her. “I like it when you let Susie have a turn.” Or, “I like it when you listen quietly at story time” I thought this might take the whole year to make any effect, since she did almost nothing I could reward her for.

Part two of the plan was more difficult; every time she went out-of-control, I took her out into the hall outside the classroom (leaving my aide with the rest of the children). In the hall, I put her in a small chair and sat myself behind her in a larger one. I then crossed my arms over her chest (hugging her from behind) and grasped her left hand with my right and her right hand with my left. I held her firmly and said only one thing. “I will let go when you have control of your behavior.”  She would then struggle, scream, screech, holler and swear. She used words that I knew but would never, ever think to say.  Believe me; it was extremely difficult to retain my hugging style embrace. She used her head to beat on my chest, tried to bite me, tried to kick – and continued to twist. I needed brute strength to keep her sitting there.

The first time I did this, she screamed and struggled for over 20 minutes. I said nothing about her behavior or language. I simply kept repeating in a calm clear way: I will let go when you have control of yourself. On some days, in the beginning, I would have to repeat taking her out several times, and each time, I would repeat, “I’ll let you go when you have your behavior under control.” Then, during the first week of November, I sat on a hall bench and Julie sat down beside me. I waited patiently – this time, saying nothing. She sat quietly for two or three minutes and then looked up at me. “I’ve got my controls” she said quietly.

She took my hand and we went cheerfully back to the classroom.  That was the last time I ever took her from the classroom for her behavior.  She still had trouble at times with her “control”, but whenever that happened, she would look at me.  The eye contact was enough – I’d smile at her; she would look at me for a minute or two, and it always worked for her. Of course, I continued to let her know what I liked about her behavior.

It seemed like a miracle – Julie became a favorite in our program – with the teachers, cooks and assistants as well as the other children. She was bright, articulate and cheerful.  I had been able to give Julie firm, caring boundaries with positive reinforcement as she gained her own control. I can only hope that as she entered public school the next year, she could continue to progress with the help of her new teachers.

Tony’s Story

Tony came into my Head Start program a couple of months after we had begun the year. He was a beautiful child with large, dark brown eyes.  One day when we were all out on the playground, Tony came up to me sobbing, tears streaming from his eyes. “Jimmy hit me” he said, continuing to cry.  My aide was standing near me and she immediately started for Jimmy who was hanging back, behind Tony, and looking very worried.  I held out my arm to stop the aide, and said to Tony, “Did it hurt?”

“Yes”, he sobbed; it hurts a lot.”

“Did you tell Jimmy that it hurt? I asked.

“That hurt!” Tony looked around back at Jimmy.

“Well, you hit me first” he replied.

“I was only trying to be your friend” said Tony.

The situation immediately changed, and Jimmy and Tony ran off to play.

Obviously, Tony needed help, not punishment. He had just found out what doesn’t work to make friends. Now I could help him learn skills for making friends. I could have lost this valuable opportunity to help a child learn if I had not spent the time to model a way of communicating.

Please respond to tell me what you took from these experiences.

Copyright 1990, Marian Burns

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