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Understanding Children’s Behavior: One Simple Idea

Every week, I help teach a dance class. And every week for the past three months, six-year-old Lexi (not her real name) has had to be first in line when the children await their dance props (scarves and whatnot). When it’s time to line up, she’ll push other kids out of the way to get the prime spot. When she’s dancing on stage and someone has a more desirable position than hers, she’ll inch her way into the other dancer’s space, slowly edging her out until she’s right where she wants to be. Some of this can be very normal in child development. It’s frustrating at times and certainly not how all kids develop, but normal for some children, nonetheless.

And up until last Monday, the kids in dance class had been finding ways to coexist with her without too much strife. I chalked it up to the world needing both leaders and followers. Some people are just a bit trickier than others.

Most kids naturally learn how to deal with different personalities.

Last week, however, Lexi was particularly rough when barreling over some of the other girls. This time, they didn’t like it. And the more they tried to work with (and around her), the more determined she became.

Try as I might to stay patient and let them work it out, I was getting frustrated with this girl.

When I’m busy with a lot of kids, it’s sometimes hard to remember that children usually know exactly what they need. They often know what would help remedy their undesirable behavior. Fortunately, I saw the struggling child in front of me, along with the opportunity to facilitate. So, I pulled her aside, hoping she’d take a shot at figuring out how to be fair to the other girls.

Kids are usually quite adept at peacefully working through their challenges when we give them the space to try. I wanted to treat her as a problem-solving partner.

At first when I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to leave the stage with me for a moment, she furrowed her brow and crossed her arms, clearly in a defensive posture. She followed me, and we sat side-by-side on a stair. Starting with a problem statement, I told her, “I’m seeing lots of sad faces on lots of girls today. It seems that many of them want to have a turn being first in line.”

She paused, looking momentarily perplexed. It seemed as if she were expecting me to chew her out.

I continued, “I wonder what we could do to keep it fair for everyone. Let’s talk about some ideas.”

Observing a wave of relief wash over her when she realized I was engaging her peacefully, she replied, “Oh, I know! We could make a list of everyone’s names and then take turns, going down the list, to see who goes first.”

Smiling, I told her I thought that seemed really reasonable.

And then I promptly ruined the moment by saying something about the “need to be fair” in a way that she could have perceived as condescending, which was exactly the opposite of what I hoped to do. Grrr. I felt instant remorse, but it was too late.

She continued just as she had before, pushing and clamoring over others to be first.

I heard myself wonder more than once, “What in the world is going on with her?

And then it dawned on me. I should ask her.

As I’ve written about before, expert Kelly Matthews of A Place for You Early Childhood Consulting suggests (and as she learned from her mentor, Deb Curtis), “Don’t get mad, get curious.”

I’m decent (not perfect, but decent) at “getting curious” when it’s my own child, but I’d forgotten this sage advice in a busy room full of movement and noise. Fortunately, that wisdom returned to me while I still had another chance to try it.

I pulled Lexi aside again. Her demeanor wasn’t much better than the first time I’d done it. I don’t blame her. But I stated factually, “It seems like something is hard for you today. I’m here if you’d like to talk about it.”

And this time, she sat me down on the stairs, girls moving all around us. She seemed oblivious to them. She proceeded to tell me how she “never” gets to be first for anything at home: she has an older brother, and “he’s the meanest”. In her words, he never lets her do anything, and her parents always side with him because he’s older and “knows more.” She reinforced how hard that is before adding that she was missing her Mom.

I sat quietly, listening.

She continued that her Mom has been gone for awhile, visiting her Grandma far away. And her Grandma is dying. And she doesn’t really know what that means, but she knows she misses her Mom and doesn’t know why she can’t come home to be with her.

On she went, citing all her very real troubles. Suddenly it made perfect sense why she was acting out here in class.

She didn’t need shaming, lectures, or punishment; she needed connection. She needed someone to listen.

Understanding children’s behavior happens best when we connect with them. When she was done sharing her story, I simply nodded, said I understood, and asked if she’d like a hug. She said yes. And then she wanted another. After that, she ran off, back to the group, and then out the door as class was ending.

For the next week until class met again, I wondered about her.

And then it was class time again.

I said nothing. However, I made sure to smile and go out of my way to say I was glad to see her. She told me about her new loose tooth (it’s her first one!).

I observed that every time the girls lined up at the wall, she put herself third in line. Always exactly third. She didn’t push anyone or do anything that would cause a teacher to raise an eyebrow.

As I’ve written about before, I know the importance of catching her doing something right.

So, at the end of class, I tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Hey, I wanted to let you know I saw how hard you worked to keep class fair for everyone today. You let others go first. I see the effort you made. Thank you so much.”

She smiled sincerely and added, “Yes, and I even offered my purple dancing scarf to another girl who I know likes purple, even though it’s my favorite color!” She switched from smiling to all-out beaming, proud of herself. As she should be.

I get a lot of things wrong, but I do my best to assimilate what I’ve learned from other wise parents and teachers. I don’t take credit for anything here–all I did was listen to Lexi. It’s the simplest idea; the simplest way to connect. And as it turns out, that’s exactly, and all, she needed.

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Update: Three more weeks have passed. She runs up to me and says hello every time she sees me. Her tooth is still loose, and her cooperation in class continues to be stellar (with no prompting whatsoever). Connection works, friends. I’m so proud of her. 

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