During the summer, I work as a babysitter/nanny to two adorable, challenging, wild little girls. The girls are 8 and 5, old enough to play together nicely, though the younger one is just barely 5 and still understands so little of the world (grunting doesn’t count as asking for help). The 8 year old has a host of special needs which makes things … interesting. Her anxiety and sensory issues lead to some interesting and challenging behavior. Luckily for me, these are the kids I love and the kids I work with regularly. Perhaps even more luckily for me, this is the year I am reading and learning about two particular topics: toxic stress in children and mindfulness-based teaching approaches.
While the kids I work with during summer certainly don’t have toxic stress (which is usually a result of grinding poverty, neglect, and violence), the big take away from some workshops I’ve gone to is this: kids respond in a way that seems reasonable to them at the time and kids often don’t know any better. Behavior communicates some kind of meaning and our job as The Adult is to help them express this meaning in better ways. Many children have literally no idea what that means or looks like: what words should I use? What does “calm” feel like? Adults have to model it, over and over and over and explain it while they do.
This summer is serving as a laboratory for me to implement some of the techniques and strategies I am learning through some great professional development reading. Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom, by Patricia A. Jennings, has a lot to say on responding to behavior using mindful awareness. Interestingly, most of the book is about what ADULTS need to do to elicit better behavior, through their own mindfulness and self-awareness. So far, here are some things that are working:
- Routine: As adults, we can feel out-of-whack if our routines are impacted too much. This stresses our fight or flight response, impacting our cardiovascular system, immune system, cognitive function, etc. And we’re grown ups! – we have at least some awareness of what’s going on. Now imagine you’re 3 feet tall and you still don’t understand how to tie shoes or why cars have red lights on the back of them. Imagine every day is different and you don’t know what to expect. That can’t feel very comfortable, and adds stress to your tiny body. For some reason, we think of “routine” as a militaristic, no-fun concept. But routine can be simple for kids. Even the littlest sense of structure takes away a lot of stress for kids, especially those like the 8 year old I watch. She’s already anxious – let’s take some anxiety out of the environment by having some structure, like breakfast and lunch in the same time, same place. Small steps make a difference.
- Don’t personalize the behavior: It is always amazing to me how irritated and mad I can feel at small children. They are so wildly frustrating sometimes that it is hard not to take it personally. For example, we had to clean our rooms the other day. The little one gets right to it, no help needed. The older one, though, spent time sulking and just lounging on her bed fiddling with the radio. My level of frustration kept rising as I kept reminding her what needed to get done. (“What a brat she’s being! Why is she making this hard?!”) Feeling my anger, I noticed it, took a breath, and tuned in. I again asked her to start cleaning, and sullenly she said she was trying to get the radio to work. I realized that she was jealous of her sister, whose boombox was playing loud Disney tunes as she cleaned. All she wanted was to have some fun like her little sister was doing. I offered her my phone to use instead (Taylor Swift, for the win!) and finally she got working. I could only help her solve the problem and tackle her job by being mindfully aware of my own feelings. If I stayed angry and took it personally, I would not have seen the situation in its full reality and found a solution.
- Attacking behavior with warmth and love: Children are wildly perceptive. For their survival, they need to be well-attuned to subtle emotions. Unfortunately that means for us adults, they sense when we feel tense and frustrated and angry. So when a child is acting up, though it’s very easy to respond with frustration, that can often lead to a spiral of bad feelings and worse behavior. Using a key mindful technique of slow and deep breaths, I am able to help lessen my negative feelings and thoughts. Then, I try to really look at the kiddos: they are so small! Look at how soft their skin is. How do you get teeth so tiny? I tune in to the physical reality of their littleness and the frustration melts a little more. Now I can approach with more love: are you hungry? Can I get you water? Would you like help? Do I need to tickle or dance the bad behavior away? This doesn’t always work (sometimes kids are like adults: just grumpy and in need of wallowing) but it at least makes me feel more compassionate and helpful.
These things are hard to do largely because they demand a lot from us cognitively, emotionally, and physically. Mindful awareness of breath, doing body scans, and using other such techniques, though, are a helpful starting place. Through my jobs I am seeing that working on children’s behavior has to start from adults working on their own emotions and actions. So here’s to a summer of mindful experimentation and many, many deep breaths.