Sometimes all I really want to feel is love.
Sometimes I’m angry that I feel so angry.
Sometimes my feelings get in the way
of what I really feel I needed to say.
Modest Mouse-The Sad Parts.
Part 2: keeping calm at work
(to read part 1: keeping calm at home, please follow this link)
As I started to feel more centered at home, naturally I was able to feel more calm in the classroom. Although, yelling wasn’t really an issue at school, staying calm and centered was.
I observed myself through the day.
I watched for triggers. What was happening when my jaw would tighten or my voice would change tone? When my shoulders would tighten? Here’s the short list:
- When a child doesn’t get what he wants and so he throws a loud, emotional “tantrum.”
- When a child chooses to ignore or disrespect either an adult, or another child.
- When a child interrupts me when I am speaking to either an adult, or another child.
Analyzing the emotional triggers allows me to look at the whole picture. Once I have identified the trigger within myself, I am often able to let it go before it comes up.
Let’s break it down.
How do I stay calm when a little kid throws a tantrum when she doesn’t get what she wants?
The first thing that is important to understand about tantrums:
All of the child’s feelings are important.
All of the child’s feelings are ok. (even if we don’t like how they are reacting)
Here’s a list of a child’s fundamental needs from the lobby at work.
I don’t know if it’s new, or if I just noticed it for the first time while waiting for my lunch to warm up in the microwave. I like it because the list describes what every human wants.
I think people sometimes forget that children are just tiny humans trying to navigate the world just like we adults.
If a child is expressing his or her feelings loudly and disruptively, as adults, we often get triggered. We feel embarrassed, frustrated or angry, maybe out of control. Typically the child wants something and we want something different.
Here’s a mental checklist that guides me:
- Check in with myself
- Remember that today is a NEW day
- Listen and acknowledge the child’s feelings
- State the expectations
- Allow the feelings
- It’s not personal
- It will pass
When you check in with yourself, it’s helpful to have a mantra or maybe a visualization to help you stay calm. What children need when they’re feeling out of sorts is a calm, confident leader. Children don’t know what to do with all of those big feelings, and so you need to be the calm and confident one. Believe me, children can smell doubt, so be strong. My mantra comes from one of my favorite child care authors, Janet Lansbury:
She’s awesome. She has a helpful website and several books like No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Childcare, a Guide to Respectful Parenting; however, I am a huge fan of the podcast.
In fact, the title of her podcast is my go-to mantra: Unruffled. I recommend the podcast to assistants in my classroom. When attempting to help or redirect a child who is freaking out about something (usually because the child is wanting to do something that he’s not supposed to and needs to be redirected) I imagine myself wearing a pretty white cotton sundress. I take a deep breath and as I exhale and put my shoulders back, I imagine all of the wrinkles falling out of the dress. I try to relax into a calm and confident place before approaching the child.
I added today is a new day to my checklist a few months ago, when I saw this video from the Association Montessori International (AMI) website. In it, the woman suggests that, as parents and teachers, if we hold on to yesterday’s drama and conflict, not only is it a disservice to the child, it may also cause the conflict to continue. So saying “ugh, here we go again! He always does this…” could be making it more likely to continue. Holding on to something—some behavior a child did yesterday—could potentially perpetuate the undesired behavior. So let yesterday go and treat the moment as the first time.
When a child disagrees with you (aka throws a tantrum) you must remember that all his feelings are ok. His feelings are normal.
Now, what the child does with his or her feelings, that’s another thing.
In the photo series above, I told Helen, “It looks like you’re done with this map. Your pencils are all over the place and you keep walking away.”
Helen threw herself on the floor and yelled at me, telling me “no.” I held the line, reminding her that she could put the work away and do the rest in the afternoon or tomorrow. When she’d finished expressing her displeasure with me and she had purged her “emotional backpack,”aka tantrum, and she was calm enough to hear me, I calmly and confidently asked how I could help to put part of the map away. She’s so fiercely independent, which I love, that she said I could help by just watching.
When a child interrupts me I feel, what? Annoyed. Rushed. Disrespected. The strategies I use in the classroom for interrupting are the same ones, basically, that I use at home.
If I can, I start with a proactive approach. I tell my assistants that I will be giving a lesson to someone and therefore I will not be available for a bit. (Likewise, if I am at home, I tell my two sons that I will be on a phone call, for an example, and won’t be available for however long.) My assistant knows to protect my lesson presentation by intercepting any children who appear to need help from me.
Next, I have some hand signals that I use to let people know the status of my availability. If I am working with a child and someone comes over, saying, “Ms. Natalie, Ms. Natalie!” (or rather, “Miss Nat-O-lee!”) without taking my eyes off my work, I will put up one finger near the child about to interrupt. One finger up lets the child know that I will be with them in a moment if they are able to wait a minute. Alternatively, if I put my whole hand up, that indicates that I am gonna be a while and the child should find another adult for help if possible. My assistants also watch for these signals and intervene when necessary.
If I feel myself being interrupted a lot/more than usual, it is a red flag that I need to re-teach the children what my hand signals mean and why they are important. If I focus on it for a week, it usually improves dramatically.
If two children are having an argument in which one or both of them are feeling dismissed or disrespected that appears to be escalating, I step in and act as a mediator. Let’s say Helen and Connie are in a disagreement over who had the red pencil first.
Both girls have their hand on the pencil and neither one is willing to give in. I would step in and ask what’s going on or some such thing, at which point both girls would start to explain that “I had it first, no, I had it first!” I would remind the girls that we have to take turns to talk. I would ask one girl her side of the story and reflect back what she said, then do the same thing with the other girl. Then I would state the facts without judgment.
“So what I hear is that Helen was using the red pencil and she wasn’t done. Connie saw the red pencil on the table beside Helen and no one was touching it, so Connie thought it was available. Is that what happened?”
After both girls feel heard, the next part is the tricky part. Helen, would you be willing to tell Connie when you’re done with the red pencil? She REALLY wants to use it next.” Usually the child complies at this point. (The tricky part comes when Helen says,”NO! I’m never going to be done with the red pencil!” At which point I would offer to help find Connie an alternative that is available, hoping she goes along with the suggestion).
Here’s the key: If a child is disrespecting me or another adult, it doesn’t feel good. Respect is a foundation I firmly believe in. If the adult treats the child with respect, the child will typically reciprocate. If a particular child is not responding to my requests or instructions, often it means I need to take the time to rebuild a connection with that child. Sometimes the child is being such a turkey that the last thing I feel like doing is sitting down and spend extra time with him or her. I know from experience, though, that it works like magic to just be there, listening to a child who has recently been acting out of sorts talk about how many snails or rolly pollys he counted on the way to school or whatever. When the child feels heard and respected, he will feel more calm and will act more respectful during tense times.
I always try to remember, it’s not personal. This moment will pass.
Next time I want to post about an ongoing struggle of mine: taking time for me.