Friday, May 7, 2010

Got Kids? Help Them Learn to Self-Regulate!

I feel like an old lady about to go on a rant about the way it used to be. You know the tone of that voice that screeches, " When I was a used to fall down and pick themselves up." "When I was a kid, you ate what you didn't like, and you pretended you liked it!" "When I was a kid..." Ok, ok, I will stop now since I am sure you get the point. So, what is my point exactly? I've been thinking a lot lately about some essential skills kids need to survive, and, more importantly, thrive in kindergarten. No, I don't mean those academic ones, like writing your name, or knowing your letters or even counting to 10. I am thinking more of the ability to get through the day with a smile on your face, not all the time, but at least most of the time.
You see, many kids cannot seem to flow smoothly through the day, handling the moments when life doesn't serve them up their dreams on a silver platter. When asked to do something that is a bit challenging, or something they don't instantaneously love,  they simply don't "want to" and feel free to shout it from the rooftops. What is happening to us, adults? Have we lost our way? We have indulged, cajoled, entertained and pleaded with kids to get them to do what we want them to do. We have read books about how to turn their little worlds into places where they don't suffer any disappointment, pain or self-doubt. All this, perhaps, in an effort to protect their self-esteem, which might have been eroded for us in our own childhoods. Did our parents shelter us from the pain of disappointment? Mine surely didn't! And trust me, I have my own childhood skeletons so I am not claiming to be the world's foremost parenting expert. I definitely worked very hard with my own kids to "do  parenting" much different than my parents did. I listened to my kids, but I didn't rescue them. ( or at least I tried not to rescue) I empathized when they cried because they didn't get their way, but did I back down and change my mind, no! At least most of the time I tried to be consistent. Was it easy? No!
Here's what happens when kids come to kindergarten, and  you can see why they need the skills to manage their moods and attention.
It's 8:00 a.m. and the students in Room 11 have been busy greeting each other and putting their belongings away. In the next five minutes a couple of  kids will stroll in late, one of them I will call B.( not his real initial) B is late 9 times out of 10, often because he has delayed the day at home by refusing to eat his breakfast, get dressed or be ready on time.  He tries nearly every day to stash toys in his pockets which often become larger than life distractions for him. His parents are wonderful, loving parents who both work full-time. ( I have no bias here, trust me, I worked when my kids were little.. I have always worked!) Usually he walks in fresh with a smile on his face, which remains there until the first encounter when I have to redirect this highly energetic little guy to stay on task. His dad helps him get started on his work, and within 3 minutes,  B. is up and around the classroom, socializing and doing, well, frankly whatever he wants to do. He is over at another table group visiting with another boy who would rather suck on his water bottle, shirt sleeve, or anything else he can find rather than get started working. There is a reason that these 2 boys are across the classroom from each other, yet at any opportunity they are like magnets, stuck to each other engaged in a love-hate relationship where at least once a day one of them is in tears or in a huff about something the other one said.   With a quick glance over as I take roll, I request for B. to go back to his desk and complete his work, a math page that is usually a fun review with a dot to dot or simple graph of a concept we have been learning.  Do the kids think it's fun? Well, most of them somehow do, but B? Not so much. He doesn't really like many tasks that involve a pencil and an attention span of longer than a couple minutes. I get that! Truly I do, but we have many other moments during the day when kids get to learn without pencils.
Fast forward to 8:10 ( wait, that's only 7 minutes later and already there's an issue?) It's time to line up for morning songs and exercises and B. is goofing around in line, clowning and trying to get his pals to respond to his antics. Ok, yes, having fun is allowed at school. I encourage a good sense of humor and give kids many opportunities to shine through their delight in telling stories, jokes, etc.  On the other hand, when you have a kid who derives most of his satisfaction from taking others on a wild joy ride of shared diversion when the majority of the kids are engaged in learning, it can be quite frustrating. I gently place my hand on B's shoulder requesting that he turn around, stop talking and sing with the teacher leading the songs. He glares at me as if I am the enemy, folds his arms and decides to sit down on the floor, in the midst of 99 other students who seem to be quite perplexed by B's display.
As all of the kids begin to sing, B. stands up, arms still folded, eyes burning a hole in me as he glares across the room. I smile at him and encourage him to sing along. His friends around him try to cajole him into smiling but he is one stuck little cookie. He does not want to move on, or he is simply not able. For whatever reason, it's wearing on my heart as I truly do not like when a child is unhappy or glaring at me for 20 minutes for that matter.
As we return to the classroom, B. decides to throw his arms around me and melt into a hug. Clearly he is having a difficult time regulating his emotions this morning and my heart goes out to him. I smile and encourage him to focus on a happy thought of something he will do today that he loves. He smiles back and I hope that our day will be on the right track now.
Fast forward 30 minutes to literacy center time. I am in the middle of teaching a reading group and most of the kids know that this is one of our most sacred learning times. Of course, as in any classroom, there are the frequent flyers who take any opportunity to need intervention, usually to stay safe or not cause a major commotion.  As B. comes hurtling across the room with a story to tell, I gently hold up my hand in a "wait" and tell him that he can ask a friend for help before coming to me. B. tries to talk to me and I redirect him back to his desk. He blurts out that the girl next to him has stuck her tongue out at him. I ask him to please tell her to stop and direct them both back to work. Precious minutes have disappeared from my instructional reading group time and I feel myself annoyed again though I try so hard to be patient.
B. returns to his table and instead of sitting in his chair, climbs under the table and looks out, as if he is an animal in the cage. Again he burns a hole in me with his stare; I motion for him to get out and return to my teaching. I have learned to ignore the annoying but not dangerous attention seeking behavior. B cannot get past his feeling upset that this girl has stuck her tongue out. Mind you, she does this to almost every student in class, almost every day, so most of the kids just ignore her.
It's time for a center change and B. has come out of his hiding space. He hasn't done any work yet today, but at least he is not bothering anyone else. I announce his name as one of the students coming to my reading table. He smiles and races over, and I sigh in relief. Ok, things are going to get better now, I hope.
B. struggles along with a group about the same level as he is. He loves stories but mostly listening to them and he gets very excited as he gets to predict during the picture walk. As we begin to read and I listen and help each child B. gets frustrated when he can't read a word. I tell him to try once more and I will help him in 20 seconds after I finish with another student. That's not fast enough for him, so he puts his head down on the table and sulks.
Perhaps you are thinking of a million strategies and interventions I can do with B. Trust me, I have tried many and I talk with his parents often who also worry about his resilience and sensitivity. We are working on helping him to develop strategies to deal with moments when things don't go quite the way he wants them to. After he blurted out at home that he "just wants to die", his mom requests to meet with me and talk about how we can help him. Although she is open to counseling, her husband does not want the stigma of admitting his child is struggling.They have had some parental health issues since B. was born, so it's no surprise that he is having a little trouble coping during his first year of school!
Perhaps you are wondering about the rest of the class as I spend all of this time helping B. Although I used B. as an example, he is definitely not the only child in my class requiring a great deal of energy. I have at least 3 other boys who have a great deal of difficulty managing attention and impulses. One, in particular is the oldest of the lot, having turned 6 in early December, but, as his mom puts it, "He has no filter. He just says whatever he is thinking." Just the other day this boy told me, "Hey, Mrs. Young, do you think you can hurry up teaching us? I'm getting tired."  ( This comment, mind you, happens because as we go through a discussion the impulsive kids interrupt several times, making the explanation of the activity take longer. Still though they have been sitting not even 5 minutes!) Another boy, whose desk most always looks like a tornado has struck, is a virtual tornado himself, often seen spinning himself across the classroom while the rest of the students try to ignore him and do their tasks. This child has great difficulty managing attention for more than about 3 minutes and does anything he can to avoid tasks involving a pencil.  The other boy I mentioned turned 5 just at the cut-off point late November/early December and has no interest in being at school. He comes to the rainbow rug each day with something stashed that he can throw at a peer. He rolls around on the floor or worse, stimulates himself by rubbing on his desk or the floor. He seeks out peer attention and uses his body to communicate instead of his words! Can you say, exhausting?
  I also have an adorable little girl on the Autistic spectrum (referred to as having an Asperger's diagnosis) who has a tendency to do off the wall things for attention. Like what? Like taking the fish tank and trying to carry it across the room, or shouting," Mrs. Young, you are a crazy old fool!" as I try to teach a lesson. These behaviors are nothing compared to the beginning of the year scenarios where she lunged across the room announcing her intent to poke her peers or me in the eye with a pencil. We have worked very diligently to keep her and the others safe this year and she never ceases to amaze me with her lively imagination and creative abilities.
This post only describes the first 2 hours of a day in Kindergarten. After recess we ( my student teacher/intern and I)   help kids calm down and regulate if they have had peer issues on the playground. We try to provide a positive, consistent routine to keep their spirits upbeat and the learning playful.  The kids who benefit most are those who can handle their emotions, get enough rest, and have been taught that life sometimes doesn't serve up exactly what you want, when you want it!
If you have a child about to begin school, think about his/her resilience. A wonderful website with resources for building self-regulation and resilience is Fishfulthinking. If you have other resources to share, please comment below! If any of this sounds familiar to you, please comment as well. All of us together can help kids when we share strategies that work!


Kidlutions(tm): Solutions for Kids said...

Joan! What wonderful, loving and capable hands ALL of these kids are in while in YOUR classroom! While all kids benefit from your patience and kindness, it is the particularly more intense and challenging kids that benefit MOST. I have seen what happens when these kinds of kids are with controlling, power-oriented people and the result is never pretty! For some of these kids, the biggest gift you will give them is not reading...but how to calm down, think it through and manage intense emotions! Some kids take longer than others to do this, but ALL kids can learn with the right guidance. NEVER give up on a child...this is why you ROCK!

I would love for some of your parents to take a look at our resources at

Also, we have a F*REE teleseminar on the "Anger Toolbox for Kids" premiering May 24th at 7-8pm CST. Folks can sign up here:

At Kidlutions, we know intense kids!

We need more teachers like you!

Unknown said...

I found you through Marjie Knudsen. I really like your work. This is an important post. Helping kids use speech to regulate behavior is very important. I like Laura Berk's research on self-regulation, too.

Joan Young (aka Mancini) said...

Thanks so much Wendy @Kidlutions! I appreciate your feedback very much and I agree that helping kids manage their emotions is such an important part of early education. It's not easy to be patient and firm; often it's downright frustrating. I will definitely mention you in my classroom blog on my resources for parents page. Thanks again!

Joan Young (aka Mancini) said...

Thanks DrMarty01 for your comment as well. I appreciate and feedback and resources to help parents with the challenges of raising kids to be emotionally healthy and engaged learners. I will look into the research you mentioned. Thanks again!

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