Children under stress

I met the most amazing little boy working with a team last week. He was one of those kids who make it really hard for educators to name their children, you know the ones. The ones whose behaviour you remember long after they have moved through your life. The ones you often wonder where they ended up, what more you could have done with them and for them and their families.

Some children are the casualties of their environments. Those children who come from stressed households where mum and/or dad is just keeping it together for their children under really difficult circumstances.  The families where the local people say ‘oh, she’s from that family’ as if it explains everything.

The children whose behaviour is so severe that other children and educators get hurt when they lose control. Children under school age are more vulnerable to their environments than at any other age. These years set the patterns for children’s lives and educators and leaders in early childhood education and care services have a unique opportunity to impact on these patterns, to change the life of that child and by doing so influence change in their family.

Okay so you’re now shaking your head and thinking, well that would be fine but what about the other children. What about my bruised shins and these bite marks from last time I had to pull this child off another they were hurting. What about the mum who comes in and won’t talk with us about these issues, who is not responsive to what we say. Who won’t do anything about her child.

Yes, it’s not easy. Yes, not having that child in the service would make your life so much easier. Yes, asking the parent to remove them might be the best idea. So, what’s generally happening for Jack, I’ll call this wee boy Jack because I’m protecting his privacy.

Jack’s mum loves him so much and she’s really worried that every time she goes to pick him up someone makes a bee line for her to tell her he’s had a bad day, he’s hurt someone, his swearing is offensive, he’s not welcome in this place. I could talk a bit about intergenerational issues and mum/dad’s possible experiences at preschool/school here, but let’s stick to talking about Jack. Let’s find some ways for him to develop a sense of well-being and belonging in this place so he sees himself as a competent learner and in doing this, begin to change this negative dynamic for his family.

Spending time talking with stressed families, I know that every parent wants their child to have a better life than they had as a child. Than they have as an adult. Some parents can break this cycle themselves. Often educators change their families through their study, there is research about the effect maternal education has on children’s future achievement. Another of my favourite topics. Let’s get back to Jack. Mum is his primary caregiver so I’ll use ‘mum’ for the rest of this piece.

When Jack arrives each morning, educators brace themselves for the impact, other families look at their precious child and wonder if they will be safe from Jack today.  You can see children being told to keep away from ‘that boy’ today.

Jack and his mum walk into this atmosphere. It’s hostile. Immediately Jack goes into fight or flight mode because he doesn’t feel safe, especially if he’s already under stress from home that day. Fight or flight is linked to the part of the brain Jack is struggling to develop because of his environments. His fists are up, he doesn’t want to stay, he’s trying to escape to run to the safety away from this hostile place. Oh boy, it’s not going to be a good day for Jack.

So, what if Jack and his mum came into an environment where educators immediately get to his level with a big smile and greet him with gentle words and touch, and his mum with a positive comment. What if educators talk with Jack about something he did the day before that he enjoyed. What if the friendship educators have cultivated between Jack and another child is talked about, that this child will be here today and let’s get that thing you enjoyed doing together yesterday out again. What if they know about what he enjoys and have this ready for him each day, consistently. What if there are choices, real choices for him and he has the time to explore and choose what he wants to do for the day.

And most importantly, what if this was the response from every educator, every day at drop off and pick up? What if educators engage with mum with a smile and a comment to build her confidence, get to Jack’s level and really engage with him and show mum he is welcome in this place and that he will be well cared for?

These strategies will take time to work and often one or two educators with whom Jack connects to take the lead. A consistent person who tags another consistent person when their shift ends or they’re on a break so he always has a safe person. And so on until all educators become safe for Jack to be with. Until mum can come into the centre with a smile, excited to hear about what Jack’s done today and pick up a happy boy who is buzzing to tell her about his day.

The key is consistency. This also doesn’t mean behaviours are ignored, these still need to be acted on particularly if others are getting hurt.

It does mean setting the child up for a good day by ending the previous day on a high note and beginning the day with a positive interaction. This impacts on the child’s whole family. When mum sees Jack as a child other people genuinely enjoy being with, she will be proud of her child, knowing he is loveable and has potential that others can see too.

Leaving a family with a positive view of their child changes the dynamics of their family. This in turn improves the behaviour of the child and leads to the educators, leaders and families in the ECEC service seeing him in a positive light. When the child comes to trust settings outside his home, he begins to lose that flight or flight instinctive reaction, developing those other parts of his brain so important for future self-control.

A small Jack story. Jack came from home with some sweets in his pocket. Him mum had tried to remove them and had given up, not wanting to upset him on his way to preschool. An educator seated with him started a conversation with him about the sweets. She asked him to show her, and admired his treasure; she asked what he thought might happen to these if other children saw them. Jack was adamant he wasn’t sharing. The educator acknowledged that and made comment about there not being enough to share with everyone. He nodded at her logic. She asked Jack what he wanted to do to ensure the children didn’t eat his sweets.

He thought for a bit and looked to the educator. She suggested he could give them to a trusted adult, giving him three suggestions of people who were trustworthy in Jack’s eyes. She left him to think about his choice. When he made up his mind he went to the safe place he’d chosen and left the sweets, then headed out to play. No dramas. He went back and checked occasionally, even sneaked one to eat. That was okay as he learns to trust. Picking your battles and scaffolding the learning are important ways to effect positive, sustained change in children’s behaviour because they are children first.

Take some time to reflect on the strategies the educator used with Jack and list these.

What strategies did the educator use that might be useful to use with children you know?

What made these strategies successful for Jack?

What might have you done in a similar situation?

How could educators ensure these strategies were consistently used with children?

Remember, strategies you use for children like Jack are useful for all children.

The Director at Jack's preschool made this comment about Jack's progress: We have been positively engaging with him as soon as he arrives through getting down to his level, giving him a hug, engaging in conversation and some 1:1 time with him. We then re-direct him to another safe/trusted educator who will work with him 1:1 to build up his sense of belonging and self-worth. The leadership team is always available to tag in if necessary, our doors are always open for him to come in and have a break from the other educator for a short period. His 1:1 time has paid off as he is now starting to interact with peers in small group activities. Over time, these small groups will become increasingly safe for him, until he’s in a position where he can interact in these settings without needing educator support. That’s our goal, at least!!

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