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Thursday afternoon found me kneeling in front of my 2-year-old’s bedroom door, crying. She was on the other side, also crying. Nap was not happening…again.

And not only was I failing abysmally to convince an eminently unreasonable child to nap, I was missing a work call (actually for this article).

So there I was: brought to my knees, literally, by a toddler. And I had to wonder, was there really anything a teacher could tell me about child behavior that might make this easier? Because let’s be real, the teacher look — you know that look — isn’t going to work with tears in my eyes.

In talking to three long-time teachers, though, I discovered that most of their tips and tricks for managing child behavior flow from deeply held philosophies about how to care for themselves and relate to other people. And while each educator – a preschool teacher, a middle school teacher and a high school teacher – had their own style, all three said some version of this:

“Breathe. The kid’s crisis is not your crisis. Share your feelings and ask how the child is feeling. Don’t be afraid to use humor to make your point. Expectations work better than rules. There is a re-set button. It’s OK if you fail. Try again tomorrow. Your child loves you. Breathe.”

Alright. Yes. These were things I could try. And the next day, there were no tears at naptime.

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Here’s what the teachers told me (edited for clarity and length):

Rachel Hutson, 16 years in the classroom

8th grade teacher at Rowe Middle School in North Clackamas, Oregon

“Kids appreciate honesty. I say ‘I feel frustrated and hurt and I have a need for respect and consideration’ and the whole class just gets silent. There’s no pushback. And what I have found is that 100 percent of the time, 100 percent of the years I’ve been teaching, that it the response I’ve gotten. The message is one that is clear. A lot of times we think we’re speaking feelings and needs, but actually we’re speaking judgments, like ‘I feel disrespected.’ Well, that’s not a feeling. That’s attributing blame.”

“Parents are the ultimate love for the child and as such it is high stakes – the highest stakes of any relationship that kid has, so a parent is going to be on the receiving end of any behavior that kid has because kids care so so much about what that parent think about them. But the love between a parent and child is, I think, unbreakable. Even in the worst relationship it’s unbreakable.”

“The number one thing I’ve ever learned from my students is that they are forgiving. A kid will have a blow-out on Monday and the next day I’m like ‘Oh no, here they come.’ And they’re like ‘Hey, Ms. Hutson!’ They’re over it. They have taught me about the re-sent button. There’s a re-set button: just hit it, hit it hit it.”

Melissa Kolb, 30 years in the classroom

Preschool teacher at Kelly Elementary School’s Head Start program in Portland, Oregon

“When you’re in the midst of a behavior storm, just try to take a moment — in-breath, out-breath — so you can respond to your kids instead of reacting. It’s really hard, but it’s a crucial first step when someone’s pushing your buttons for the 1,000th time.”

“Remember that behavior is communication – try to separate your feelings from the behavior and think about what the child is communicating. What do they need? What do they not understand (even though you’ve told them a million times)? You can talk about the behavior with the kid, but don’t ask them why. They don’t know why.”

“When you’re in the midst of a behavior storm, just try to take a moment — in-breath, out-breath — so you can respond to your kids instead of reacting. It’s really hard, but it’s a crucial first step when someone’s pushing your buttons for the 1,000th time.”

Melissa Kolb, Preschool teacher at Kelly Elementary School’s Head Start program in Portland, Oregon

“You can’t be there for your kids when you don’t have anything left. That’s the hardest part. Find a way to take five minutes and breathe. Go to the bathroom if you possibly can. It’s not always possible.”

Kolb said she has two adult children and has spent 30 years in the classroom, but “by no means have I seen it all. Licking the floor was a new one for me this year. I sat down by him and said ‘Well, I see you’re licking the floor. Let’s come over here and sit up in the chair.’ I drew a stick figure of him sitting in a chair. That seemed to help. It was not, ‘Stop licking the floor! That’s disgusting!’ Which is what I wanted to say.”

Laura Barker, 9 years in the classroom

High school teacher at Bronx Center for Science and Math in New York City

“Do not enable helplessness. We should not be bending over backwards to do the stuff that our kids need the experience of trying and failing to learn.”

“It’s probably easier for teachers because there’s a certain emotional distance, but things I do include counting to five, taking a breath, reminding myself this is temporary, that as an adult, I am more resilient. This immediate crisis [the kid is] facing does not have to be my crisis.”

“I try not to blame myself when I tried my best and it just didn’t work out. You have to get over it when it doesn’t go the way you’d hoped.”

Things to try at home:

  • Print a list of feelings and needs. (Examples for older kids and younger kids can be found online.) Use it for yourself and the kids to give everyone a chance to pause and acknowledge their feelings.
  • Allow for failure in the name of empowering your kids. It’s worth watching your kid not put his laundry in the basket and then re-instructing him on how to do it right and then waiting (possibly for days) until he gets it. He’ll get it eventually. But if you do it for him today, he’ll expect it tomorrow and the next day and it will be one more thing you have to do that you don’t have time for.
  • Inject humor. Your little kid is screaming because you closed the front door and she wanted to close the front door. Listen for a minute, then make a funny face or do a little jig. It will surprise her and might be enough to let everyone just move on. This can work with older kids too. Nothing like seeing a parent try to dance to bring on giggles.
  • Have real, logical and consistent consequences. For example, tell your kid that toys left out on the floor cannot be played with the following day. Then enforce it. Do not get emotional about enforcing it. When they get emotional say “I wish I could make it better for you, but I can’t.” When they remember to put the toys away, mention it the next day. “I’m so happy for you that you get to play with your Legos today since you picked them all up last night!” Make sure the consequence is logically connected to the offense. Rewards systems get complicated quickly and are a lot to manage — just ask a teacher — so stick to simple consequences you have the bandwidth to enforce.
  • Breathe. Yes, we’ve all heard it, but it is amazing the difference it can make to pause for one breath, in and out, before responding. It’s free. It takes no preparation. And by calming you down it helps you and your kid.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about child behavior was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Lillian Mongeau is the West Coast Bureau Chief. Her future as a writer was not a forgone conclusion, according to her first grade teacher, Miss. Gill. "I would like to see her put more effort into her...

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