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CHALLENGING CHILD OBSERVATION ASSIGNMENT For my observation assignment I chose Sam, a four-year-old boy who stays in my class for the aftercare program. I have worked with Sam previously in the camp last summer and became aware of his challenging behavior. For starters, he has a medical condition – he is prone to epilepsy (the cause is unknown). Sam is on medication and his doctors are constantly adjusting it and testing his condition. Sam’s parents asked teachers to be on the lookout for the warning signs of epilepsy.
So far we have not witnessed any seizures at school, only the slight eye twitching/rolling or slight muscle jerks on the shoulders. I’ve noticed that this happens when Sam gets tired or overwhelmed by noise, too many choices or being anxious about something. Other than his medical condition (which might have lead to the challenging behavior in the first place), Sam has a number of issues (like impulse control, entering groups, anger management, emotional regulation and empathy) that teachers are currently helping him to work on.
Here are some of the situations that I was involved in or witnessed while working with Sam for the past four months. 1. During the quiet time in the aftercare program, which starts at 1:30pm, Sam loves to play with legos, in particular with lego-people. He usually builds them up and then pulls them apart with gusto, calling them “the bad guys” and saying that he “needs to fight the bad guys”. I asked Sam’s mother about Sam’s fascination with the bad guys and she assured me that he never watches TV and she has no idea where it came from.
So every time Sam plays with this lego-people he starts making a lot of noise, throws legos all over the room and ultimately disturbs other children with his actions. The teacher tries to calm Sam down, asking Sam about his lego-people and commenting on how well he built them, offering to help him fix them again, like a surgeon who helps people to recover from an injury. It only makes matters worse: Sam becomes uncontrollable, throwing legos all over the place and bumping into other kids. The only way we were able to change the situation was to announce clean-up time, help Sam pick up legos and take him outside to play.
This is the case when positive reinforcement does not work for Sam to reverse his behavior and creates exactly the opposite effect (Ch. 9, pp. 151-153). It could be the fact that Sam does not receive enough positive attention at home and is more comfortable with the negative one. Of course we understand that Sam needs even more encouragement, not less, from adults and through our trust, respect and care for him he will learn to take care of himself. We must believe in Sam’s ability to succeed, to look for what he can do instead of what he can’t do.
In order to instill confidence in him, we need to notice and create positive moments with him, so that he feels less anxious when he is behaving appropriately. 2. Sam stands in the middle of a sand-box, digging a hole when the teacher announces a five minute warning before clean-up. He continues to play in the sand-box, but his game changes into throwing sand around vigorously. Some children complain about it and the teacher stops Sam and redirects him into a more constructive play. Sam follows, but as soon as the teacher calls for clean-up, Sam jumps up and starts pushing the boy next to him.
By the time the other children pick up their toys and line up at the door, Sam gets in trouble five times for not listening, not following direction, not helping, destroying somebody’s sand creation and spitting at another child. He is the last one to enter the classroom and the look on his face is tense and angry. I realized that in order to help Sam, I need to understand what triggers the challenging behavior in him. My observation is that he likes to play both inside and outside, it is transition that bothers him most, no matter how much warning he gets ahead of time (Ch. 7, p. 115).
So teachers needed to come up with the strategies to ease transitions for Sam (Ch. 7, p. 116). First, we created a picture schedule for Sam to help him remember the routine and understand it better. Then we came up with a job for Sam to perform during transition (he is a door holder). Since legos are Sam’s passion at the moment, we realized how important it is to encourage play and join Sam in his play, in which he is a commander of the lego guys and him and his “guys” are superheroes, saving the world from the “bad guys” (Ch. 7, p. 119), so the more items they pick up for clean-up, the less “bad guys” will come to get them.
It’s a weird logic, but it worked a couple of times. I try not to use the word “bad guys” too much, but it seems to be something that Sam relates to somehow and it motivates him to do the right thing. 3. Sam and two of his buddies are playing in the yard. It’s time for clean-up. Everybody is told to pick up three items from the sand-box and put them in the storage bin. Children get busy putting things away, crowding in one area, sometimes bumping into each other by accident. This must have stirred up unnecessary agitation in Sam. He picks up the one of the small plastic toys and starts waving it in the air.
When I remind Sam to pick up two more things, he continues to wave his arms like a propeller and at some point lets go of the toy. It crashes into my arm with the force that guarantees a bruise. I let out a cry of surprise. I do realize, Sam did not do it intentionally to hurt me, but it hurts and Sam is now looking at me with a worried look. I hear his quiet “sorry”. My first reaction to him: “Why did you do it? ” Silly question! He smiles and starts running around me in circles. I try to catch him, but he is fast. When I finally get him, he falls down on the ground and throws a tantrum. At some point he yells at me: “I don’t like you! (I heard Sam saying it to another teacher once before, her response was: “You don’t have to like me, but you have to listen to me because I’m your teacher. ”) In order for me to calm Sam down, I need to calm down myself. I get down to Sam’s level and say as calm as I can: “I understand, you did not mean it to happen. I know you are sorry. Now, you have a choice either to put the toys away and line up at the door or I will help you do it and take you inside, because I have to go and can’t leave you here alone. ” Then I turn to Sam’s buddies who are watching our interaction with curiosity: “Please, show Sam more toys to put away. With a little more patience and persuasion, Sam calms down and joins the group. I praise him for his cooperation. It was a crowd control failure on my part (Ch. 7, p. 107). The next day I separated kids into groups during clean-up, so that there were no more than five kids in each are of clean-up. I also did some self-reflection on why I almost lost it when I got hit by a toy. It evoked some childhood memories of hostile situations with my peers. I have to let go of them to be able to stay cool and collected, not stressed. I cannot allow a child to push my buttons. I need to understand my feelings and where they are coming from.
Sam needs to see that I am not afraid of his intense emotions and won’t punish, threaten or withdraw from him (Ch. 5, pp. 59-60). I need to work on ”options statement” (Ch. 10, p. 169) to provide Sam with alternatives (WEVAS, p. 169). 4. Our group is leaving the big playground where we have taken the kids to (we go there only occasionally for special events: today we were invited here by our “big buddies” from the second grade). Children had a lot of fun and nobody wants to leave. As we line up, Sam throws a big tantrum. I am staying behind with him, while the other teachers leading the rest of the group back to the classroom.
I try to reason with Sam, giving him a choice to either walk with me or with another teacher. Sam seems not to hear me. I explain that his mother will be waiting for him back in the classroom. Sam shows no reaction. This is the second level of agitation (P. 167, WEVAS). I should have redirected Sam in a positive way, but he really pushes my emotional buttons and the only thing I can think of as an incentive is mentioning Sam’s mother, but it doesn’t work. In my final attempt I take Sam by the hand, but he pulls back and falls to the ground.
He most definitely would have hit himself on the concrete pavement, had I not caught him by his both arms, but he keeps on falling down and the look on his face is angry and determined. I have to let go of him, step back and walk away. After a couple of steps I turn around and see Sam sitting down in the same position. He is watching me. At this point I am really at a loss what to do. I need a divine intervention. Luckily another teacher shows up and tells Sam his mother is waiting for him inside. Somehow this time it works: Sam gets up and runs to the door.
It’s hard to say what caused Sam’s uncooperative behavior in the first place, but I have a feeling that by the end of the day he might have felt tired and possibly hungry. We should be able to offer Sam other choices for quiet play/rest available for Sam in case he needs them in the future. It was also Friday, which sometimes brings the anxiety about the upcoming weekend (Ch. 7, p. 111). Sam stays in preschool every day from 9:00am to 6:00pm and does not take naps any more (I heard that last year they were problematic – it took an enormous effort to put him to sleep), so by Friday he is really done with school.
At the teachers’ meeting the next morning we talked about this situation and decided to talk to Sam’s parents about the possibility of taking Sam home earlier on certain days. Later, as the parents agreed to let Sam leave the center three hours earlier with the babysitter on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it seemed to somewhat improve Sam’s behavior: the next morning he comes to school he feels more relaxed. He really benefits from one on one time with his babysitter. I am also trying to figure out if Sam needs more choices in order to have more control or he finds it hard to make choices on his own (Ch. , p. 120) – I will have to work on helping Sam find positive ways to express his feelings. 5. It is snack time and the children are sitting at the table, sharing fruit, crackers and cheese. Sam is chatting with two other boys his age. Suddenly, I hear him say: “You poo-poo head! ” to another boy. It starts the whole exchange of potty talk and I realize that it is impossible to just ignore it, especially since it affects other children at the table (one of the girls already complained to me about Sam’s “potty words”). So I start my response with what questions (WEVAS, p. 67) in order for Sam to think about his actions: “Sam, what are you doing? ” Sam looks at me and smiles. Then I remind him about what he should be doing: “What is the rule during the meal? Is potty talk allowed? ” Sam responds: “No. ” But as soon as I look away, the game continues, escalating with every minute. Another teacher tries to intervene, telling Sam that potty talk belongs in the bathroom, and eventually sending Sam to the bathroom along with his plate. It has no effect neither on Sam, nor on his buddies, who demand to be sent to the bathroom too. Obviously, it is just a game for them.
What finally breaks the vicious cycle is the appearance of another teacher with the three 2-year-olds. She tells Sam that her little kids will be in big trouble if they hear Sam’s language and repeat after him. It makes Sam think for a moment and then he asks the teacher again, why the kids will be in trouble. She explains again and it seems to satisfy Sam to the point of not using the potty talk again for the rest of the day. I had a briefing with an experienced teacher after the incident and she advised me to teach the kids as a group how to deal with inappropriate behavior by ignoring it.
We needed to do some group discussions and role playing to reinforce good social skills in real-life interactions in the classroom (Ch. 8, p. 133). When the other teacher and I returned to the classroom, we had a circle time with the children and talked about potty talk and how to react to it. We did a puppet show where we reenacted the scene at the snack table. We also asked the children to turn to the next person to them and say: “I don’t like it when you…” and fill in the blank and then say something positive like: “I like it when you share toys with me”.
We talked about the rules in the classroom and came up with: be kind, respect others and the environment. The lesson empowered children to use the right language when feeling frustrated with Sam’s inappropriate behavior and it set the boundaries for Sam. 6. The next day, Sam tries to reenact his yesterday’s “success” and uses the same potty talk at the snack table, working hard to make everybody laugh. I remind the children to ignore the behavior and start talking with them about something else. Then a girl sitting next to Sam comes up to me, complaining that Sam’s using the same “bad” words as before.
I tell her: “Well, did you like it? ” She shakes her head. “Then, you have to tell him that”. The girl goes back to her seat, turns to Sam and says in a loud voice: “I don’t like it! ” Sam looks puzzled for a moment. The girl continues: “We don’t use potty talk at the table”. Sam starts eating his snack and does not respond, but the potty talk is over. It proves the point that “socially competent peers who can model and reinforce appropriate behavior every day are the best possible teachers for children with challenging behavior. ” Learning social skills is essential for Sam to get along with others (Ch. , p. 132). But I also needed to teach the social skills proactively (Ch. 8, p. 130), so I searched for the children’s books to teach them good manners at the table and stumbled upon the book called “Manners” by Aliki. I shared the book with the children. It had lots of different and innovative snippets, including role playing and fun cartoons, which helped to break up the pattern. Kids enjoyed themselves to the extent that they didn’t realize they were learning anything at all. 7. It is mid-day circle time for our group and the children are sitting on the carpet listening to the story.
Sam does not want to join the circle, he still plays with legos and after numerous attempts to encourage Sam to sit with the rest of the children the teachers gave Sam a choice of sit either in the circle or outside of it, but he would have to leave the legos behind. Sam immediately agrees to join the circle. But then he starts distracting the other kids by talking to them or getting up in front of them when he needs to see a picture up close. When we ask Sam to stop he continues the behavior. Finally the teachers take Sam out of the circle for a while so he can compose himself.
Here we were dealing with the issues of impulse control (Ch. 8, p. 136). It’s hard for Sam to adapt his behavior to the context. It might take a long time for him to grasp the idea of sitting quietly at the circle time or wait for his turn to comment. Instead of letting Sam join the circle when he was not ready for it, we should have allowed him to play quietly with legos in a designated area until he was ready to participate successfully in story-time, because some group activities are hard for Sam to manage (Ch. 7, p. 114-115). 8.
Sam likes to play with the sand and sometimes gets carried away while shoveling it too vigorously. This time he hit another child standing nearby with the shovel and the child began to cry. I called for Sam to come out of the sandbox to talk to him. He started running away from me. I called for him again and reluctantly he approached me. The hurt child is standing by my side, sobbing. Sam looks nervous. I tell him that he hurt a friend and ask him what the right thing to do is. Sam immediately says “sorry”. The other teacher asks Sam why he did it and Sam says that he “was not thinking with his head”.
One of the skills we need to teach Sam is emotional regulation and empathy (Ch. 8, p. 135-136). Before Sam can tune into other people’s feelings, he has to be able to understand his own. Talking about feelings and encouraging Sam to talk about them, will help Sam learn to differentiate and label what he feels. We read books (”The feelings book” by Lynda Madison and “Feelings” by Aliki), have discussions and puppet plays about feelings, and also coach Sam through difficult situations. 9. Sam is building a sandcastle in the sandbox. Other children are trying to join in, but Sam wants to build alone.
He tells everybody: “This is my castle, I am building it. Nobody can touch it. ” The children take shovels and start their own construction nearby. After a while Sam leaves his castle and the shovel behind and comes to see what the children have built. When he returns to his castle, he finds out that somebody else is using his shovel and is adding something to the wall of his castle. Sam throws a fit. He is inconsolable. He demands his shovel back. The teacher explains to Sam that his name is not written on the shovel and it can be also used by other children.
After a few attempts to reason with him, the teacher finds another activity for Sam and the boy gets busy playing with water and sand at the other end of the sandbox. When he spots a familiar shovel he grabs it and hides it underneath a bench. When I ask Sam why he did that, his response was: “I need this shovel and I hide it so nobody can take it”. Sharing toys is hard for Sam, so we need to teach him how to do it in a positive way. We had a meeting where we brainstormed some strategies and came up with the role-playing between the kids on sharing (Ch. , p. 133). I also found two excellent books on sharing that I read to the children: “Who am I? ” and “The Sun and the Moon” by Brian D. McClure. Sam likes listening to stories and the books seemed to make a positive impression on him, so we came up with the reward system of reading a chapter from his favorite book at the end of the day, after he completes all the requirements of positive behavior throughout the day. It helps to keep him on track by putting stickers in his special “behavior” book every time Sam shows right behavior and cooperation. 10.
It is Lilly’s birthday today and her mother brought homemade cupcakes to share with the class. At the circle time we light a candle in Lilly’s cupcake and start singing “Happy birthday” song for her. Suddenly Sam Jumps up from his seat and before we could stop him, runs to Lilly and blows the candle. Everybody gashes. Sam looks nervous, with a silly smile frozen on his face. The teacher remains calm and tells Sam to go back to his seat (which he does) and before lighting the candle again she explains to the class that today is Lilly’s birthday and she is the only one blowing the candle.
Everybody agrees. The teacher thanks everybody for being cooperative and reminds the children that everybody will have their turn to blow the candle on their birthday. In this case Sam knew the rules, but he has a problem with impulse control (Ch. 8, p. 136). So we need to monitor Sam closely, remind him of the rules and expected behavior and also give him plenty of encouragement , not just a simple praise, (Ch. 9, p. 151) when we see him controlling his impulses (Ch. 8, p. 137).
We need to accentuate the positive by emphasizing the process and be compassionate about the mistakes Sam makes and by pointing out how his actions affect his peers. Also, knowing Sam’s challenge with transitions, next time I will remind the children what is expected of them before the event happens in order to prevent impulsivity. We might even role-play the situation with the candle blowing to make it more visual for the children. Reference: “Challenging Behavior in Young Children” by Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky (Pearson, 2007)
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