Tuesday, March 11, 2014

How to Handle a Home Wrecker (in kindergarten)

Today for some reason I was thinking about Brandi, a 5-year-old girl who was in my kindergarten many years ago. I haven’t seen or heard of her in years and I wonder where she has come to in her life’s journey.

When she was in my kindergarten, Brandi was a ‘fireball.’ She was strong and did not have any extra padding on her bones. Light weight and solid, she moved easily and smoothly. She was very articulate and intelligent. She tended to be one of the last children to arrive each day, and I noticed from the start that Brandi did not have an easy time joining into the play of the other children. A regular occurrence was her arriving to many other children already engaged in play, houses built and imaginations unleashed in various activities. Brandi would look around the room and then walk toward some play activity and so often what happened next was a house knocked over and another child sad. “Steve, Brandi wrecked our house.” I saw that my work was cut out for me because Brandi was very determined to do things her way and if she thought I was trying to intervene she grew angry. She shouted “I can do what I want!”

One morning, Brandi was headed for an elaborate house made out of heavy wooden ‘play stands’ that looked a bit tentative in terms of stability. Another child was laying on the floor just inside the ‘house.’ I thought I needed to be close by to make sure everyone was safe and I watched Brandi’s arms prepare to push over the side of the house. I learned already that explaining to Brandi would not work, so I walked in between Brandi and the house. I said, “We will leave the house in peace.” She tried to get around me and push the wall over.  As calmly and gently as possible, I scooped her up and carried her over to the lunch table and sat down.

She seemed quite angry with me by then and said she was “going back over to knock their wall down.” So I sat her on my lap and held her, firmly but not tightly. I wasn’t angry or triggered. I didn’t squeeze her. I didn’t raise my voice - in fact I didn’t say anything. She squirmed and kicked and told me, “I am going to tell my mom, and she is going to call the police, and they are going to take you away....Let me go so I can knock over their house.” I said to her, only once, “I will not let you knock down their house.”

She was fired up and her muscles were tense for a minute or two, and I kept her in my firm hold. It was a protective use of force - not to hurt, but to keep everyone safe. To me, safety is a primary need for all, and a primary responsibility of all teachers! I wanted the other children to be safe, and I wanted to help Brandi develop other strategies for joining in with the other children. I didn’t want to exclude her from being with us as in ‘time-out.’ That seems like punishment to me. I understood that Brandi was simply using a strategy she had developed to get her needs met, a strategy probably developed by the time she was one-year-old. Strategies become habits when they are successful. So Brandi had found a way that worked in her world to get her needs met. The thing is, that strategy didn’t feel good to the other people involved. 

So my first step in that interaction was to create a boundary, and I represented that boundary. Boundaries are hard. No one likes boundaries. They are what prevent us from getting what we think we want when we want it. And they are where we find out who we are. What we do when we meet a boundary, how we handle the stress and the dissatisfaction tell us something about ourselves.

“Physical and social boundaries are important on the path of a healthy developing sense of self. The self can only find itself when it meets boundaries. It is a boundary when the child has a drive to stand yet cannot yet. It experiences the frustration of being unable, and also what it feels like to push through, to keep trying, and develop a new skill or capacity. This is one type of boundary experience. When he runs toward the curb with no sign of slowing before leaping into the street, and the parent loudly says, “Stop!” That is a boundary. He experiences the concern and love coming from the parent, and his trust in his parent grows, even if his words are complaining. It is the same with social boundaries. We adults must provide boundaries of physical and social safety for the children - and then they can experience our values in this realm, without intellectual explanation, simply by meeting the boundary where play behavior would switch to the realm hurting another.” (from my book, Connecting With Young Children - Educating the Will)

So what happened next. Two minutes went by and we sat quietly together, neither saying anything. Then I saw Brandi exhale and watched her whole body relax. She sat peacefully with me for another minute until she asked if she could go and play now. Off she went, cooperatively engaged in play with the others. About five minutes later Brandi came back over and hugged me and said, “Steve, I love you.”

When young children are helped to develops habits of connecting with others that work for both parties involved, it opens the way for the gradual discovery and eventual recognition that there are other human beings in the world who also have needs and desires and feelings. The young child has only a beginning awareness of self, yet it is a self that is the center of the universe for them. As teachers and parents, we can offer the children tools for a human way of relating that can be taken up more and more consciously as they get older, as well as boundaries in social and physical realms that create safety.

Brandi found a social boundary, kicked and screamed at it, and then relaxed in the security of it. She found herself there, at the boundary, and she found and recognized the loving guidance of her kindergarten teacher, me.

I want to hear from you - what challenges do you need help with, what questions are you struggling with?

P.S. Gently yet firmly helping young children to experience boundaries is important for their own development, and to create an environment of safety for them. What do you think about the experience I described? Let me know.

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