Early in my career I worked in an Upper East Side, play-based, preschool with two-year-olds. I was in my early 20’s with little life experience under my belt. I had an incredible education from Bank Street College of Education with some experience in the classroom and I was a nanny before accepting this position.
The children in my care were often having their first school experience. They were in a group of children for the first time. They were being asked to take turns, negotiate space, and eat as a group. For some of them, almost every situation proposed new social and behavior expectations for them to figure out.
I had an endless amount of patience and understanding. If I came across a problem in the classroom, I talked to peers and went to the books for research. When I was feeling overwhelmed by the ‘boy energy’ in the classroom I found a book that changed the way I understand and responded to their energy. When I had a group of late 2’s and early 3’s excluding peers with a teenager like tone, I found a book that helped me understand what was happening and built rules and boundaries to support the excluders and excluded.
Like every teacher, I eventually came across a child who I constantly struggled with how to help. This child walked into my classroom in my 4th year of teaching. Sure, there were other kids that I had to work to figure out but this child was unique for me. His physical behavior was so intense in the classroom that my stress level was heightened by the concern about his behavior, my worry about the other children’s safety, and my dread at facing the parents (his and others) at the end of the day to address whatever happened that day.
The Director of the school was aware and up to date on what was happening with the child and she played the role as sounding board and support. I was working through strategies from my early childhood/special education training and she gave her input on what I was doing and gave me the attention I needed (and had my back with the parents!).
After a particularly difficult day, I walked into her office, closed the door, and slumped down in a chair. I spilled a detailed account of the day and expressed my frustration. She calmly listened and what she said next changed me as an educator and as an administrator.
It’s been about 20 years but basically it went like this. Danielle, I hear that you are having a difficult time with this child. Can you tell me something that is special about this child? Something that you like about him? What are his strengths? My first response was a blank look. It took me a minute to change tracks in my brain. I stumbled at first but then was able to list many strengths and things I admired about this child.
I received more support in the classroom to work closely with that child. I also made a conscious effort to spend time with him when he was not being physical with others. I took him on trips away from the classroom to get supplies, to cook the playdough, or just spent time being silly together on the playground. His actions were still somewhat unpredictable but my response was different. I developed empathy for this child whose impulses were beyond his control at the time and that this behavior was actually a bump in his road. We had more fun together, we used strategies that helped decrease his impulsive actions, and ended up having a great year. The person who really changed in this dynamic was me.
My image of this child was flipped after that one pivotal conversation with my Director. I went from a place of distance and frustration about this child’s behavioral challenges to embracing a child who was struggling to control his impulses and needed outlets for his energy. I stopped seeing him as the child who hits everyone and got to know a child who was dynamic, energetic, silly, loving, and highly drawn to sensory/physical activities. When I was able to better meet his needs the challenging behaviors decreased.
My director was always there for her teachers and she rarely had a closed door. Her attention was immediately on the needs of the staff, setting aside whatever else was on her desk. As a teacher supporting other teachers, a director supporting staff, and in my role as a friend/parent whenever someone needs to unload on their frustrations I let them. It is something they need to get out of their system. The next thing I ask them to do is...Tell me what find interesting about this child. Tell me what their strengths and interests are.
We need to connect to children for them to feel safe but also for us to have empathy, patience, and the understanding that young children need to grow and develop. That starts with seeing the child as an individual, as unique, and as special. The most challenging children to connect with are the ones that need it the most.