The Ways We Help or Hinder a Child’s Development of Self-Regulation

Within a period of two weeks I observed two very different styles of nurturing from two different caregivers in different schools.  Both teachers are wonderfully kind and caring, wanting only the best for their students. And, like every caregiver -like all of us- they do the best they can with the skills and awareness they have at the time. That said, the outcomes the teachers’ actions had on their tantruming students had very different results, and I wanted to write about my observations in light of seeing how different forms of the help we provide produce different outcomes…

The tantrums of both children had different dynamics for which I recommended different strategies. The first observation looked like this:

Miss Leslie teaches five year olds.  My client, “David” was having trouble with transitions, and had meltdowns during these times and then difficulty self-regulating. He’d get so upset he couldn’t even make decisions.

The trouble for David and his teachers was that when it came time for nap, he screamed and screamed, refusing to sleep. His teachers had no true sense as to why this was happening. We looked more closely at the transition time before nap. There certainly was a lot going on in a short period of time. It looks like this: Recess, then hang up jackets, wash hands, set up cot for nap, set up for lunch, eat, clean up, settle into cots for nap. That’s the routine. (I don’t like that the kids don’t have time to sit upright after eating for proper digestion but that’s a different story.) Although David seemed to be calm up until it was time to set up cots, my sense was that his anxiety level was ramping up at warp speed during that period. His meltdowns seemed to occur because of the extreme over-stimulation he felt at some point in this time period. It was too much for him to do all these activities in the manner of the class schedule.

Even though David’s teachers wanted to encourage responsibility by having the kids do as much for themselves as possible, what benefitted David and ultimately solved the problem was asking them to reduce their expectations of David and build in more supports for him during this tricky time. What Leslie ended up doing differently had a wonderful outcome: she simply made David’s cot up for him, which involved getting it from the stack of cots, setting it down in his spot and setting his sheet and pillow on it. It took less than a minute. She realized she didn’t have to view it as giving in, or as babying him. She rightly viewed it as supporting him and nurturing him in this way. She also provided more physical nurturance to David during transition periods in general by putting her hand on his shoulder, or reassuringly rubbing his arm  kindly, while being “present” with him for a few moments. Specifically, her setting up his cot helped so much that David immediately began transitioning and napping with no meltdowns.

This simple change David’s teacher made allowed David to experience success in the transitions, to feel a sense of control within these transitions, and to therefore feel good about himself as someone who is competent. Every child senses if they are competent in something or not; Leslie’s wise support helped David experience and strengthen his “I am competent” schema, which is no small thing, especially for a preschooler developing foundational identity constructs.

The second scenario I observed involved a teacher who was so over the moon about a three and a half year old who tantrumed in her classroom that she unwittingly “saved” him from natural outcomes. By not using appropriate strategies in a timely manner she impeded “Jake’s” abilities to experience problems and learn to solve them.

Miss Jan is a wonderful teacher; she is extremely caring and is a loving presence in her classroom. What I respectfully showed her was how she had become enmeshed with this little boy; that is, she was actually too involved with him emotionally to see that some of her behaviors were adding to the problem of his acting out. She wanted to help him feel better, but by giving him too much of the wrong kind of attention for negative behaviors, and at the wrong times – i.e.: feeding into his tantrums – her overall goal of helping him backfired.  So in this case we agreed that she would jump in less and let the second teacher in the classroom get more involved with Jake during the times when he acted out. Both teachers would be sure to use the strategies I recommended consistently, multiple times per day, every day, to include not feeding into or “giving” too much of oneself to the point that Jake manipulated the staff. Please note: this is not to say that I recommended withholding warm feelings or that I asked Jan to be something other than the caring teacher she is. It is to say that I asked her to begin to see the situation differently, and to see these new approaches to managing Jake as an even better way to love him. I essentially asked her to reformulate her methods of caring for him, without compromising the depth of her fondness for him. For example, we agreed that Jan would continued to warmly nurture Jake with hugs but only during appropriate times, i.e.: when there was a transition in activities; during play time; in the hopefully rare occasion that he got hurt physically from say, a bump or bruise; and always to reinforce when he was displaying positive behaviors.

These changes caused Jake to act out even more initially, and this was to be expected. Over time, both teachers kept the balance between co-teaching and intervening without feeding into negative behaviors. They and Jake’s parents used all the strategies consistently. Jake developed more “self-and-other”, and “actions-and-results” awareness, and benefitted from the appropriate, external balance he experienced from his teachers (and parents). The benefits were noted as more stable moods, less attempts to manipulate adults’ emotions, and more compliance. Eventually his tantrums began to decrease and he was not asked to leave the school.

Both stories have happy endings. For both boys, this translated to more behavioral successes which resulted from increased feelings of control and self-competence. These feelings and experiences, in turn, inform their social-emotional trajectory and give continued confidence to new activities and ways of relating.










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