Turning the Corner from Behavior Management to Connection and Collaboration

March 21, 2022

A community member shared a social media post with me from a pre-school teacher. This teacher was seeking advice from colleagues about “behavior management”.

The teacher wrote:

“I teach 4 and 5 year olds. I’m struggling with consequences for poor choices. I’m at a loss about what else to do. I’ve tried the following:

Time out

Daily Color behavior chart that goes home

Lonely Lunch

Walking instead of playing at recess

Trips to the office

They don’t care about the consequences and their behaviors continue.

When I taught 3rd grade, I was an expert at classroom management. Not in Pre-K for the most part.

Please share some of your ideas. Thank you!”

My first thought was that this teacher needs a lot of support. I’m assuming that this teacher loves their students. Because I still work in the schools, I’m also assuming that this teacher is overwhelmed, or tired, or both, or more, and is reaching out to a group of colleagues for help. That’s the power of social media. We have so many resources at our fingertips.

Now let’s look at the post.

This teacher appears to be shopping for new ways to punish their preschoolers. Let’s re-phrase what was written. One can interpret what the teacher wrote as: I’ve tried every attempt to punish them, isolate them, deprive them of things they like, scare them and make them feel sad, but nothing is working!

Yes, those tactics don’t work. A good rule of thumb is that you can’t make someone behave better by making them feel worse. 

As I was reading the list, it became clear that humanity had left the behavior management brainstorming process, all in the name of compliance. 

Lonely lunch? Two L words to make the punishment sound “cute”? I was sad reading the list. Imagine the 4 year old who was being told by the teacher they love that they have to eat lunch alone today. Imagine the devastating impact of hearing that at such a young age….or at ANY age! Rejection and isolation are not good behavior management strategies.

This teacher was struggling to find “consequences” for “poor choices”. This is where a lens change is essential for the health of the teacher/student relationship and the feeling of safety in school.

Calling behaviors poor choices is assuming that the student did something the teacher didn’t like ON PURPOSE! It assumes that they COULD HAVE behaved well, but made a conscious decision to do something wrong. That’s developmentally incorrect. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts and illustrated in an infographic, the book The Whole Brain Child (Siegel/Bryson) talks about the “upstairs and downstairs brain”. Making ‘choices’ is an upstairs brain skill. When 3 and 4 year olds have big behaviors or big emotional responses, that’s coming from their “downstairs”, reactive brain. The behavior is either a result of stress, overwhelm, dysregulation, or a sensory processing challenge. They’re not ‘choosing to be bad’, they don’t have the skills at that moment to be ‘good’. 

However, even if you’re CONVINCED that it was a “choice” and they need to be ‘taught a lesson’, Lonely Lunch doesn’t teach the lesson you want taught. Walking on the playground, or putting them in timeout, doesn’t teach that lesson, either. Validating the student’s emotions, noticing they are having a hard time, finding out WHY they’re having a hard time and helping them find a solution so they can do better next time- THAT’S the lesson we need to teach!

So, how does this teacher turn the corner?

First, I strongly recommend (and so does the literature) stopping Lonely Lunches, Time Outs and ‘taking away’ anything fun. Let the preschoolers play at recess even if they didn’t meet your expectations. Throw out your behavior charts and stop delegating the punishments to “the office”. Get rid of all of that. Those tactics are not best practice, not neuro-developmentally or trauma-informed, not effective in making long term changes in behavior and most importantly, they’re not nice! 

So, tell me what to do then!

Let’s assume it’s a classroom of 20 kids. Chaos, right? If all the threats and bribes aren’t in place, the kids will be hanging from the ceiling! The teacher will lose all control and the classroom will be run by a gaggle of insubordinate, wild preschoolers! Or, maybe not.

There are many unknown variables in the social media post (environment, support staff, etc), but in general, in a traditional ‘mainstream” classroom, not all of the 20 kids will need additional support all of the time. The teacher (or support staff if present) can focus on those few kids who need extra support. 

Action item: Get specific. 

To identify how to support the student, we first have to withhold judgment and identify the specific challenge. It doesn’t help to say ‘he’s always all over the place’ or ‘she never listens’ or ‘he’s just seeking attention’. Get specific. He’s having difficulty sitting on the carpet during morning meeting. She’s having difficulty waiting to be called on during reading. When you get specific, you’ll have a better chance of solving the problem. 

Action item: Get input from the kids.

While we support using the language of Ross Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions Model, that model takes time to learn, practice and master. The kids are having difficulty now. The Model is also best used proactively, not in the heat of the moment. That being said, the mindset and language of the CPS model is extremely helpful in solving problems that are preventing a student, or students, from meeting expectations. Greene’s book “Lost At School” gives examples of what the CPS Model looks like in a classroom. 

Most often, when I ask a teacher about what the child thinks would help, they respond “I’ve never asked them!”. So, ask them! As the adults, we’ve often been in a ‘try everything and see what sticks’ model of intervention. We become more efficient when we collaborate with the kids and yes, preschoolers can be great collaborators!

Action item: STOP momentarily if they’re dysregulated.

Instead of imposing where or how they sit, ask them where or how they think they should sit in order to do their best listening. Ask them what makes their body ready to learn. If they’re getting wiggly, don’t be afraid to STOP (because they are not available to learn if they’re dysregulated), “notice” again, collaborate and resume. Same for elementary students, or middle school students, or anyone!

Action Item: Check-ins.

Since “consequences” are reactive, working proactively can prevent the need for punishments. Before you start the day, or the lesson, or the morning meeting, check in with your students. Are they regulated and ready to learn? Do they need more input? Less input? No input? What will help them? What do they need? They don’t need Lonely Lunch. They certainly can use recess to meet their needs.

Turning the corner means stop seeing “behaviors” as choices. See them as communication that the child is stuck, and they need your help. 

In closing, there is no blame or shame here. The stress, the overwhelm and the exhaustion that teachers are feeling right now is very real. Some teachers are in survival mode. Same with our kids. Let’s all be kind to ourselves, and to our kids. Before you hand out that consequence, ask yourself; How will this make the child feel? Humans are wired for relationships. Let’s not rely on punishments to get our expectations met. Let’s use our relationship to create solutions where everyone feels heard. When we do, problems get solved, relationships strengthen, and it just feels better.