By Molly Breen
Challenging behavior in preschool is the rule, not the exception. In my setting, every day is a new opportunity for kids to be expressive, interactive, impulsive, and so on. Observing and responding to kids is the bulk of what we do each day. How can we be responsive to the needs of the child in the moment and prepare both ourselves and our little learners for greater presence and attunement when things go off the rails?
There is a movement in behavior guidance away from compliance and toward compassion for challenging behaviors. Compliance suggests that we have a set of shared expectations that we can refer back to as guideposts for how to be in community in our settings (rewards and consequences) for all children. A very simplistic example would be: no hitting (or, more abstractly: we take care of one another/we have safe bodies at school). And so if we observe a child hitting another child, we might remind them of the expectation and steer them back toward compliance.
But what happens when the behavior is persistent? We provide positive supports, right? We might use a chart, a marble jar, or a fix-it solution to steer the child back toward compliance with positive reinforcements or incentives. And, to be fair, these methods may work from time to time. But seldom do they get at the underlying cause of the behavior.
Compassionate behavior guidance requires us to get to the root of challenging behavior. Instead of asking the question why won’t this child ________?, we ask the question why can’t this child _________? The wording change is small, but the impact of this slight change is big. Won’t implies that the child is capable of changing the challenging behavior, that the behavior is intentional. Can’t implies that there is a deeper underlying cause for the behavior—likely a stressor or multiple stressors—and that we must become compassionate investigators to truly meet a child where they are (not where we are or where we want them to be).
One way to develop capacities for awareness and attunement—both for us and for our students—is through mindful practices. Over time, mindful practices teach our brains how to (and that it’s okay to) witness our body’s experience of any emotional, physical, or sensory stimulus without qualitative judgment. This is more than taking deep breaths—although those always come in handy! Mindfulness can be built, like all brain architecture, with practice and experience. The possible benefits are well-researched and plentiful and include:
- improved health and well-being
- improved concentration
- reduced emotional reactivity
- reduced blood pressure
- improved bodily awareness
Defining mindful practices can be a bit tricky. Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword that may suggest a wide range of possible practices, from meditation to simple present-moment awareness. In a preschool setting, I find that integrated activities for slowing down and noticing our bodies, our breath, and our heartbeat help us build awareness for the messages we receive through our limbic and sensory systems and, in general, provide an opportunity to experience these when we are not in a state of stress. Here are a few such activities that work well and are developmentally appropriate. I find that transition times are a great opportunity to practice.
Tic Tac Meditation
Find a comfortable place to sit indoors or outdoors (on the floor or the ground is best, if possible). Explain to the group that you will be trying something new: a silent meditation. Start with one Tic Tac (we like the nonminty flavors, but mint can be appealing to some kids and has some calming benefit as well). Set a goal of 30 seconds (or one minute if you believe your group is capable of being silent for that long). Distribute the Tic Tacs and ask the children to hold them in their hands until you do a countdown to begin. (This is good practice for delaying gratification.) Countdown “Three, two, one . . . begin!” and children can place the Tic Tacs in their mouths. Use a timer on your phone, or a sand or digital timer if you have one, to measure the time children should sit quietly. Start with a small amount of time and add time as children are able. When the timer runs out, reflect with the children about what they noticed. You can simply ask the question What did you notice while we were being quiet? Build subsequent sessions to increase the length of the meditation. We have done three minutes and longer with great success! Sometimes I think the kids forget about the Tic Tac and just enjoy the quiet. Pro tip: provide more Tic Tacs per child for longer meditations.
Breathe Through the Transition
There are dozens of great resources for mindful breathing. We have used the book Alphabreaths by Christopher Willard and Daniel Rechtschaffen as a guide for our transition breathing. When we ring our singing bowl or other bell to signal a transition, we also encourage the children to take three big breaths. We teachers do the same. Then, in the calm and quiet following the breathing, we might provide simple and direct instructions for what is coming next.
Hum That Tune
Humming is soothing and good for our overall well-being. When we hum, we vibrate the sinuses and stimulate airflow through the nasal cavity. There is also evidence that humming stimulates the vagus nerve and cues the brain to rest and relax. Try humming a familiar tune together during hand washing or take turns humming a little song for one another and guessing what it could be.
These practices and so many more can help us get upstream of challenging behavior by building some architecture in the brain and in the body for attunement and awareness. Then, in the moments when kids or adults are activated, we may have greater capacity to observe what is happening without qualitative judgement and without expectation of compliance, but instead with compassionate awareness. No, this is not a strategy for a behavior management plan; that’s more tactical. This is a strategy for lifelong well-being. Now, here’s another pro tip: we, the practitioners, have to be the ones to model and embody these practices for the children. They can’t know how to be mindful until they have experienced and observed it in the world around them.
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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