If you’re a parent, you’ve been there. You’re in the grocery store and your child is screaming, crying at the top of his lungs – maybe even throwing in an occasional “you’re mean” or “you’re the worst Mommy,” for good measure – because he cannot fathom that you won’t let him buy those M&Ms and start devouring them right then and there. If you’re an early childhood teacher you’ve likely dealt with this sort of epic meltdown daily for years. Every classroom has at least one, although typically more than one, extremely strong-willed child. In my five years as a Montessori Primary teacher for children 2 ½-6 years old, I have had many. These are the children that tested my patience, but they are also the ones I learned the most from, grew closest to, and the ones I will always remember. In the throes of a tantrum, it is difficult to celebrate a child’s spirit and independence, but it’s amazing to observe the breakthroughs that happen when you acknowledge the child is not purposely misbehaving, but rather seeking help or tools for how to effectively give voice to and manage their feelings. As difficult as it is, it is imperative that we resist the urge to tame their spirit, and instead model peaceful resolutions and conflict management, while helping to guide and focus their enthusiasm and individuality so that one day, they change the world (as many strong-willed people do!)
There are several key aspects to working successfully with determined, head-strong children. The first is recognizing and celebrating the gumption they have that will one day allow them to be a leader. It is essential not to suppress these characteristics. Part of this means not trying to talk them out of their feelings. Instead of coaching them to “stop crying,” or “calm down,” acknowledge the emotion they are experiencing. In a calm, steady voice say “it seems like you are very frustrated. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s not okay to kick the chair.” By validating the child’s feelings, he feels heard and there is an automatic physiological response that allows him to begin to cool off. In reflecting his emotions you also give him a powerful tool – the language to be able to express himself more freely next time emotions run high. Children that can explain how they are feeling and name their emotions are more quickly able to move on, instead of learning to ignore them which we know creates larger problems later on. The second half of the “seems like” strategy is asserting boundaries. Let the child know it’s ok to feel a certain way, but it’s not ok to act out violently, or disrupt the classroom. Boundaries and limits allow children to feel safe and know they are cared for.
Another way to set boundaries in a classroom or at home is to partner with the child in creating agreements, rather than rules, about what are acceptable behaviors and why. When you collaboratively set expectations you foster a healthy, trusting, relationship. Including the child in the process helps him to internalize and understand the limits in a deeper way. One way to do this in the classroom is to hold classroom meetings. At the beginning of each year, we have a meeting where the children brainstorm essential rules for the classroom to ensure everyone is safe and able to learn and focus. The children come up with ideas like “use walking feet,” “no pushing or hitting,” and “use a soft voice.” It is usually the most strong-willed children who are anxious to be heard and have the most to contribute at these meetings! Being a part of the conversation allows them to process the limits better.
One of the often overlooked or undervalued strategies that is essential in the classroom when working with spirited, strong-willed children is the importance of establishing a “connection before correction”*, a term originally coined by Dr. Jane Nelson, the founder of the Positive Discipline approach. I have a little girl, Charlotte, in class who is extremely imaginative. She has an amazing ability to focus on lessons she prefers, like handwriting. She carries out these lessons with remarkable precision, despite her often simultaneous habit of creating and speaking stories out loud to herself. Charlotte is extremely intelligent and understands what the limits are, but has a very difficult time with unexpected transitions. Knowing Charlotte has a difficult time with this we try to prep her for changes before they occur; “Charlotte, you have about 10 minutes before it will be time to clean up for violin!” However, when this is not possible, these sorts of unexpected changes in schedule throw her off completely. She will sometimes ignore the teacher trying to help her transition, and other times melt down screaming and crying. Having a strong connection with children struggling with social-emotional behaviors helps because you begin to anticipate their triggers and rather than punish them for their behavior, you recognize their distress and help guide them through tricky moments by prepping them beforehand. This way it doesn’t get to the point where they are so upset they can no longer hear you. When Charlotte does have a “meltdown”, which is sometimes inevitable, as most of these techniques are not an overnight, immediate success, I approach her gently, on her level, with compassion. I know she wants to do the right thing and cooperate, but is momentarily overwhelmed by her emotions. I speak to her softly to begin to calm her, and let her know when she is ready to talk I will be there. Then, rather than try and talk her out of what she is feeling, I listen to what she has to say. Because I have built a relationship with her over time through playing outside or quiet moments reading together, she feels supported and knows there is nothing “wrong” with her, rather we can work through tough emotions together so she is better able to meet them appropriately in the future.
In the heat of the moment when a child is screaming, hitting, or kicking our first inclination may be to do what we internalized from our own childhood: rely on rewards and punishments. This tactic is often very effective. “Charlotte, if you calm down we can go get an ice cream.” Long term, however, we want to raise children who regulate their emotions and do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not so they can get an ice cream or other reward. Likewise, taking things away can also be effective short-term, until you run out of things to take away. The strategies above will likely not be miraculous overnight solutions, but if we can hang in there long enough and apply them consistently and with patience, our most stubborn, strong-willed children emerge from these phases and become confident adults who flourish and have so much to contribute to the world.
*“Connection before Correction” was first introduced by Dr. Jane Nelson in Positive Discipline Book – The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills.