Child care work is both rewarding and frustrating.

You have chosen the work of child care for the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of the young people in your care. The sheer pleasure of spending the day watching them learn through the play opportunities that you have provided is another motivator in your work. Then there are the days when every child in your care is going through a "stage" and has become impossible to deal with.

Every stage of human development brings with it normal behaviors that can be annoying to adults; parents and providers alike. Things like the 18 month old who sees everything as "mine"; the 2 year old throwing temper tantrums; the 3 year old that commands "don't look at me"; the 4 year old that calls others names like "poo-poo head" or the 5 year old that is able to dress him/herself yet often refuses to do so or whines "I can't". With experience, providers rightly learn to see these as signs of developing maturity rather than misbehavior.

(For more information about normal toddler behavior, and biting in particular, see the Toddler Behavior page from my friends at Early Childhood Info )

On the other hand, there is misbehavior that has a specific goal (and no, it is not to make you crazy!). This misbehavior is often in response to a direction or reprimand from the adult providing care. Examples of these types of behaviors would be: whining, lying, defiant disobedience, hurting others, or refusing to try to do a task that you are sure that he/she is capable of doing (like picking up a toy form the floor). It is often difficult for the provider in these increasingly combative situations to know how to appropriately respond to the misbehavior in a constructive manner because the provider's own emotions quickly become involved.

Quite often these confrontations result in a "war zone" with two casualties: the adult and the child. But there is a way to diffuse the situation before it escalates to that level, and the savvy provider is able to resolve behavioral issues in a way that preserves the dignity of both parties and result in a win-win alliance.

It begins with understanding the purpose of the behavior. What does this little person need from you that this behavior will supply? There are four basic goals of misbehavior: to gain your ATTENTION, to gain POWER, to get REVENGE, or to express a feeling of INADEQUACY. When you understand the reason behind the behavior, it is much easier to choose an appropriate method to correct the behavior. The difficulty lies in ascertaining the motivation, and your own feelings in the conflict can give you an insight into the underlying need that is being expressed. The provider must be able to take a mental step back from the situation and assess her own feelings and take notice of the specific response(s) to her direction or reprimand. Based on this information, she is able to choose the most appropriate corrective measure.

For example, if during a confrontation you may notice that you feel frustrated or annoyed, or feel that you must remind or coax the him/her to follow your direction. The child might be talking out, being a nuisance, forgetting, whining, or trying to be charming when corrected. Do his/her actions seem to be saying, "I only count when I am noticed" and/or "any attention means that I am loved"? If so, then the goal of the behavior is most likely a need for ATTENTION. Potential corrective measures might include: ignoring the negative behavior, giving attention for positive behavior, finding ways for him/her to contribute or help, or using reflective and active listening strategies. This would include focusing and really listening to the child's story and asking questions to get all of the details he/she wants to tell you. By taking a few minutes to meet this underlying need, the provider is able to circumvent an escalating problem behavior, and both the people are rewarded with a more satisfying relationship.

When you as the provider feel hurt or angry by the response to your direction or reprimand, or if you wonder "How could he/she do or say that to me?" there may be a feeling of a need to get REVENGE. This child may try to make him/herself unlikable by hurting others, or trying to "get even" for something perceived as a personal offense. His actions appear to say "I only belong when I hurt others and get even for them hurting me." The key here is to not respond in a hurtful manner, but to re-establish the relationship by helping him/her feel a sense of belonging. Your role as the provider is to teach cooperation: allow the child to share his/her perspective, empathize with how he/she feels, and help to problem solve when the tension has cooled. Your goal will be to allow logical consequences that are not punitive, and to assist in repairing the damage to the relationship with some form of making up.

A desire to express a feeling of INADEQUACY shows up in situations where the actions seem to project "I belong when I can convince others that I can't do anything right, so I won't do anything at all." You might see this behavior, for example, when you ask someone to pick up a toy and put it away, and he/she stands there looking at the toy, making no effort to pick it up. The child may say "I can't", might turn away, acting very passive or withdrawn, or may start to do as you asked, but then quits easily. When watching this behavior, the provider might feel exasperated, annoyed, and/or pity for the child, or experience a feeling of despair, asking herself, "What can I do?", feeling helpless herself in the situation. Nothing that you have done has motivated him/her to actually attempt to do what you have asked. The main thing here is to avoid doing it for him/her, which will only serve to reinforce the feeling of inadequacy and low self-esteem. You also don't want to coax or show pity. Instead, the better response would be to show that you have faith in his/her ability to accomplish the task, and then allow an opportunity to do so without monitoring his/her attempt. You might arrange small successes for the child or find situations for him/her to feel valuable or needed, and when you celebrate the success, be careful to not overdo. A simple "good job" or "I knew you could do it" or even a smile and "thumbs up" motion will encourage the child without bringing undue attention that may prove embarrassing in front of the others.

A child that often argues, lies, and acts aggressive, disobedient, or stubborn is trying to gain POWER or control of the situation. His/her actions might appear to be saying "I only count when you do what I want" or "I belong when I prove that you can't boss me". The provider will often feel provoked, challenged, disrespected, or even angry in these situations. You might feel the desire to prove your power or even to force the child to acquiesce to your desires. This situation often escalates quickly into an all-out power struggle. The best way to diffuse a power struggle is to do the unexpected: stop the tug-of-war and walk away. Take a moment to strategize how you will act rather than react to the behavior. Make a conscious choice regarding what you will think, what you will say, and what you will do. Remember that he/she is attempting to get a basic need met. This child is feeling frustrated and needs to feel a sense of control in his/her life. You will need to set aside your own emotions and look at the bigger picture. Validate the need by giving choices instead of orders and find useful ways for him/her to feel powerful. Use natural consequences to the choices. Also, in these situations it is best to limit how much you are talking. With such highly charged emotions and adrenaline coursing through his/her system, the child will not be able to focus on or understand what you are saying. Stick to as few words as possible, and keep your tone of voice calm and friendly.

Remember that this job is not about you, but about teaching children. By following this course of action, you are able to maintain dignity for yourself and the ones in your care, and will show that you respect their needs and can be trusted to meet those needs appropriately.

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