It can be challenging for teachers to describe their ‘average’ day. In a field with so many unpredictable variables, a typical workday is anything but average.
Teaching little ones has its highs and lows, depending on the disposition of the students in the classroom. Sometimes even one child can change the entire class atmosphere. But dealing with a difficult child is as subjectively complicated as the child and teacher involved.
So how do you diffuse the situation when a child starts acting up? Or better yet, how can you avoid the tantrum altogether? We enlisted education experts to share some tips and tricks for dealing with a difficult child.
Tips for acting “in the moment”
1. Keep your cool
“Sometimes a lack of reaction will actually solve the problem, as you are not giving attention to a negative situation,” says educationalist and personality theory researcher, Dr. Naoisé O’Reilly. Her work has taught her that taking a moment to observe the deeper issue at work is an important step in interacting with children who are lashing out.
"Sometimes a lack of reaction will actually solve the problem."
In order to truly understand the situation, especially if this is a recurring problem with a particular child, O’Reilly recommends taking a second to relax, de-stress and assess the situation. “Acknowledge if someone else has been wronged. It is important that you stand up for them,” she says. She adds that this also sets the ground rules for what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
2. Get on their level
“You cannot achieve anything by towering over them. Remember how small they are,” O’Reilly says. She suggests bending down and putting yourself on the same physical plane as the child. You should also keep eye contact with the child, even if he or she looks away. “Allow them the choice to trust you,” she explains.
3. Watch your body language
It’s difficult to focus on your body language in the midst of a major tantrum, but non-verbal communication is very important—even with children! If your posture is threatening, it will drown out your words. O’Reilly says that even something as subconscious as folding your arms will communicate confrontation in a moment where you’re attempting to appear non-confrontational.
“Ultimately, this child is testing you to see if they can trust you,” O’Reilly says. “They may be going about it in a very complicated and destructive way, but that is what they are truly doing.” Keep your body language open as an indicator of your attitude towards the child; that you are open to their trust.
4. Talk them down
“Ask them to close their eyes for five seconds and take three deep breaths,” O’Reilly recommends. This will help them anchor themselves. Have them imagine breathing from the very bottom of their stomach. Help them gradually clench and unclench their fists or slowly shrug their shoulders up and down. If a child is finding it difficult to follow you, show them the actions so that they can mimic them.
“Try to get them to tell you what is wrong. Listen carefully,” O’Reilly says. She believes this is the most important part of conflict resolution between a teacher and a student. Children tend to ramble when they are upset, but you can often decipher the real source of their discomfort if you pay close attention.
For children who have trouble verbalizing their thoughts, O’Reilly suggests asking them to draw the scene for you. This might seem like extra work after the crisis point has passed, but it’s extremely important that you understand the bigger picture of what is bothering a child—especially if that child repeatedly exhibits difficult behavior.
Tips for the bigger picture
6. Play detective
It’s important to be cognizant of the surroundings when problems regularly occur. O’Reilly suggests paying attention to who is around when the problem starts. What time of day is it? What appeared to spark the issue? Children aren’t always able to verbalize – let alone understand – the feelings they have, so you may have to investigate to get to the root of the problem.
The need to be liked, the need to adapt to surroundings, the need for purpose, the need to be challenged and so many others all make for a confusing mix of emotions children are working through. Identifying the right triggers and underlying issues can help you avoid the incidents altogether.
7. Play Cartographer
Once you identify the factors that may be triggering misbehavior, map things out on paper. Michelle Holmes, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Faith Lutheran School, makes an anecdotal grid to keep track of incidents with her students. She keeps a log with squares labeled for each child and records everything that occurs.
“This helps me see the big picture—what is setting off the child,” Holmes explains. She cites this grid as one of her most valuable classroom management tools, claiming it’s helped her track down patterns and address root issues.
8. Give them ownership
"The irony is that the more control you try to keep, the less you will have."
Let the students lead every chance they can, suggests Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, founding director of The Nature Preschool. She says child-led experiences are the cornerstone of successful programs. She suggests giving ample time for children to select their own activities and peers without being constantly re-directed by teachers.
“The irony is that the more control you try to keep, the less you will have,” Wiedel-Lubinski says. “Most personalities react badly to control, but everyone reacts well to respect.”
9. Address the root issue
After pinpointing the root of the problem, it’s time to address it. If the problem is hunger, offer a small snack. If the problem is certain group arrangements, reorganize them. Wiedel-Lubinski says she's dealt with these issues often. She suggests adding extra warmth and welcome to your words and facial expressions with the child.
“Model kind language and strategies for children to learn how to enter into play with peers,” Wiedel-Lubinski says. “Never use harsh or degrading language.”
10. Use some incentive
Incentive is a great preventative measure to take against future outbreaks, according to Dr. Emily Levy, founder and director of EBL Coaching. She implemented a reward program called “Bunny Money.” When children engage in pre-established positive behavior, they earn a Bunny Money dollar that they can spend on prizes at the end of the week. “Kids love this program and their behavior tends to improve remarkably,” Levy says.
Tips for your next step
These experts have given you a great head start on dealing with a difficult child and understanding how to identify the root of classroom behavior. These tips and tricks will allow you to confidently handle classroom outbursts and focus on what matters.
Don’t let the possibility of a tantrum or two keep you from pursuing a rewarding career in early education. Learn from veteran teachers what they love most about their careers.