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Understanding Behavior as Communication

Understanding behavior main

It’s a familiar scene: a preschool child is coloring during playtime when the teacher asks the class to sit on the floor for circle time. At the teacher’s sudden insistence, the child abandons his drawing, whines, and lashes out, throwing the crayons across the room. Outbursts like this one are incredibly common in early childhood classrooms, and many teachers may find themselves floundering as they attempt to remedy these situations. Should they punish such a child by sending him to time-out? Call a meeting with his parents to discuss his aggressive behavior? Ignore the outburst entirely?

When children start preschool, they experience many things for the first time. Schoolwork, peer interaction, verbal communication, and sometimes even the classroom language are things they may never have experienced at home, and encountering all of them at once can be overwhelming. When little learners become overwhelmed, actions take the place of words. A child may throw things, hit the teacher, or push a classmate to express their frustration. How can teachers bridge this communication gap and deter negative behavior?

This issue is one of many classroom concerns addressed in Effective Discipline Policies: How to Create a System that Supports Young Children’s Social-Emotional Competence. In this teaching manual, Sascha Longstreth and Sarah Garrity assess problematic behaviors that arise in preschool classrooms and identify the potential causes of and solutions to these difficulties. One of the key sources of conflict is the issue of communication.

Communication in Early Childhood

Though they may have mastered complete sentences, children six and under still struggle to communicate effectively. This may be due to a limited vocabulary or difficulty putting abstract concepts like emotions into words. Young preschool children are also still learning to identify their feelings and respond to them accordingly. A four-year-old isn’t going to realize she’s angry and count to ten before she lashes out; she’s simply going to feel an emotion that drives her to hit and follow that impulse. This is why social-emotional learning is so important in early childhood. Teachers and caregivers must address aggressive actions as the result of natural, organic emotions and show children how to react to their feelings in more-effective ways.

The first step to doing this is by determining what triggered the emotional outburst. In the above example, the child became angry when he was asked to go from coloring to circle time. While this behavior in an older child or adult would read as defiance and obstinacy, we must view the situation through the eyes of a preschool child. Likely, this child was used to coloring for as long as he wanted when he was at home. The sudden structure of the preschool therefore feels strange, making him uncomfortable and uncertain. This child also places great value on his drawing; it’s something he likes doing and works hard at, so the teacher’s request that he leave it to go do something he enjoys less feels like a dismissal of his talent. Between the lack of surety from the new routine and the sense of rejection from the abandonment of his drawing, the child becomes defensive, and has no way to communicate this complex feeling except through physical aggression.

Longstreth and Garrity’s suggestion for situations like this is to reframe transitions in a way that appeals to the child struggling. Instead of attempting to explain verbally that the child must go to circle time now because that’s the class schedule, the transition should incorporate the very thing he enjoys. For example, our aspiring artist could make a sign that signals to the class that it is circle time. This sign could show the class sitting down in front of the teacher or moving away from the play areas; allow the child to design it so that he feels a sense of pride and recognition at being given this important job. Once the sign is complete, the child can walk to each play area with it each day during the transition to inform the other children that it’s time to switch activities. Instead of punishing a negative behavior, the teacher takes a positive skill—the love of drawing—and uses it to first understand the child and then provide him with an alternative that is less disruptive and more beneficial to the classroom.

Children don’t exhibit challenging behaviors out of spite. When preschool conflicts like whining, biting, and tantrums arise, it is usually because the children involved are trying to say something. Negative emotions and sensory overstimulation are difficult to deal with at any age, and preschool children are still learning how to recognize and explain when something is wrong with them. However, with the right tools and experience, teachers and caregivers can bridge that communication gap and help children find better ways to express themselves, both in and outside the classroom.

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