Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2006

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Children Who Hurt, Children Who Challenge

By Julie Nelson

If all children arrived at our school doors relaxed and happy, it would be easy to be a teacher! Calm, happy children do well at school, and our lesson plans and behavior guidance strategies work. The children who present challenges in our classrooms are often not happy or relaxed. There is the angry child throwing toys and swearing, the anxious child running out of the classroom or climbing on top of the shelves, the sad child who rarely talks and never smiles.

Successful intervention with hurting, stressed children requires responding to the underlying beliefs and emotions of children. It's not managing behavior, but meeting the needs of children that lays the groundwork for success. Successful intervention requires creating a caring community in which the needs of children are met; a caring community in which children who hurt can calm, trust, and learn.

In my classroom at Families Together, I work with 12 2- to 5-year-olds whose families are receiving child protection services. Recently, three new children started who had been kicked out of seven programs among them! Violence, poverty, drugs, alcohol, police, foster stays, and mental illness are everyday realities in the lives of these young children. The children are highly stressed, with many social emotional challenges. Some children's social emotional development is arrested; others are experiencing regression or delays. Highly stressed children have so much to gain from preschool experiences.

What are the keys to successful intervention with highly stressed children?

Foster a positive social emotional climate in the classroom.

  • The focus of the classroom is children's successes, not their mistakes.

  • Relationships, not rules, are primary. Value and support child-teacher and child-child relationships.

  • Teacher-child verbal interactions are primarily conversations, affirmations, reflections, and relationship builders--not directions, limit setting, and questions to which the teacher already knows the answer.

Provide anxiety reducing activities, practices, and language.

  • Vigorous outdoor play, rich sensory experiences, rocking and swinging activities, calming touch, and a predictable routine all are important.

  • Use words that calm upset children, not words that increase their anxiety. For example:

    I'll still be your teacher, even when you are angry.

    Not "If you act like that, you can't come anymore."

    This is a safe school. I'll keep you safe, and me safe, and all the kids safe.

    Not "You're going to hurt somebody."

    Everyone needs to be safe. Even when we don't like someone, it's not okay to hurt them.

    Not "We don't hurt our friends."

Respond to the questions and emotions that underlie the behavior.

Recognize and respond to
  • the fear that underlies the anger,

  • the need for connection and recognition that underlies attention seeking,

  • the worry about scarcity that underlies hoarding toys,

  • the lack of trust and feelings of helplessness that underlie power struggles, and

  • the anxiety that underlies the climbing.
Respond appropriately to the child's developmental age rather than demanding pseudo-maturity from the child.

Be truly fair!

If all children came to school with the same skills, strengths, and needs, it would be fair to treat them all the same. But children have such different worries, abilities, and histories, being fair means connecting with, caring for, and teaching each child to the best of our abilities. Highly stressed children need flexibility, not rigidity. They need caring, consistent relationships, not more rules.

Give them hope!

Learning takes time, and highly stressed children often have so much to learn. Recognize the small steps of progress. Encourage children when they make mistakes. If today was difficult, help them believe tomorrow may be better. Help hurting, troubled children talk, draw, sing, paint, and play about their hopes as well as their fears, about their dreams and wishes.

Highly stressed children can quickly lead to highly stressed classrooms and highly stressed teachers. But it's these very children who often have the most to gain from their preschool experience. When we reduce anxiety, build relationships, value and respond to emotions, and foster social learning, highly stressed children can be very successful in the early childhood classroom, and children, parents, and teachers can feel hopeful for their futures.

Julie Nelson is a Senior Early Childhood Teacher/Home Visitor in the Families Together Program of Lifetrack Resources, St. Paul, Minnesota.

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