Stories from my personal journey learning about and delivering Nature-rooted programs across three different countries

Do as you're told... or not

Caylin (Forest Schooled)
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This didn't happen at Forest School, but I think it's important.

Could it be our fault that children misbehave?

You might be wondering how that question even makes sense. How could it be our fault when it is the child who controls their own behaviour, right?
Recently I witnessed two incidents in which a child's misbehaviour escalated to the point where several adults were shaking their heads in exasperation, feeling fed up and unsure of what to do. Was it because the child is just really really naughty? Or is there another reason? And could the adults involved have done something different to create a more positive ending?

Here's what happened:
Both incidents involved the same child. His name is Oscar and he's 5 years old. He enjoys jumping and running around and often gets caught up in his own imagination, where he no longer seems to notice other people around him. He struggles to sit still. The setting is a day camp for kids during the summer holidays which promotes lots of child-led play as well as some structured group activities.

Both incidents occurred during the structured group activities. These activities required the children to sit still and listen for a significant length of time. Most of the children struggle with this, but a simple call for their attention quiets them again. Oscar doesn't respond to these calls and has therefore been labelled as “the naughty one”. As a result, he has already spent quite a lot of time in timeout for “not listening”.

Incident #1:
A group of 30 odd kids are playing a game in which those who get out first have to sit quietly for a while waiting for everyone else. Oscar got out early and sat quietly for a little bit, but began to get bored. He then started to crawl away from the group. The adult leading the activity saw him moving away and asked him to come back and sit down. He stopped with his back to her, but did not respond.

She asked him again. He did not move or respond. Another adult nearby came over to deal with Oscar. She said, “Oscar, Rebecca has asked you to go back and sit with the group. You need to use your listening ears and do as you're told.” Oscar did not respond so she tried again. “Oscar, if you're not going to listen, you'll go to timeout.” Still no response. “Ok Oscar, let's go to the timeout chair. Get up please.”

He only slightly resisted as she picked him up and took him to the timeout chair which he ended up flopping down on top of looking utterly miserable. She tried again to talk to him, but he wouldn't look at her or respond, so she left him there to think about his errors.

Incident #2:
The same group of 30 odd kids are playing a game that requires participants to sit and wait once they've had their turn. Therefore, after 10 minutes of the game the children started to get a bit restless. Oscar started goofing around with a couple of other boys nearby. He was asked to sit down several times and told, “Remember, if you don't use your listening ears and do as you're told, you'll go to time out.”

He sat still for a while, but as the group got restless again, he began being silly with the boys next to him. The adult noticed and said, “Right Oscar, timeout. Please go to the timeout chair.” Oscar did so obediently, but shortly after began to scream and cry, throwing a tantrum.
Because of this misbehaviour, the sweet he had won as a prize during the game was taken away from him. He cried louder and began to disrupt the group. So he was brought to another room where he continued to cry and scream whilst rolling around on the floor. The adults shook their heads in confusion and utter desperation at his tantrum, unsure how to resolve it.
In both incidents, both Oscar and the adults were left feeling upset and desperate. Is this all Oscar's fault for being naughty? Or is there something the adults could have done differently that could have resulted in a different outcome?

Here's a few things to think about.
  • Both incidents relied on rewards/punishments as the method of behaviour management. More significantly, they relied on THE SAME method of punishment (a timeout) over and over again.
  • Both incidents involved exerting control over Oscar to “do as you're told”, effectively taking away his autonomy.
  • Both incidents occurred during similar situations in which Oscar was expected to sit still despite knowing that this is something Oscar struggles with.

With that in mind, what if the adults have reacted differently to Oscar? Could they have perhaps prevented the incidents from escalating? I argue yes. Here are some techniques that I find helpful:
  • Move away from the reliance on rewards/punishments to manage behaviour (especially if they obviously aren't working – i.e. repetitive use of timeout). See Do rewards and punishments actually change behaviour for more about this. Using a method that encourages empathy rather than fear of punishment is much more effective in the long run. If the behaviour is disrupting the group, explain this to Oscar. Describe how the behaviour makes you feel - “When you leave the game/make lots of noise, I feel sad/annoyed/angry because it makes it harder for the rest of us to play.”​
  • Nobody, including both children and adults, likes losing the ability to make choices over their own lives. Loss of autonomy causes a flood of negative emotions (Porter, 2003). Young children can struggle with how to deal with strong emotions, which can lead to tantrums (Sunderland, 2006). Instead of exerting control with “Do as your told”, give Oscar choices - “I understand you don't want to play anymore, but what could we do so that we can all feel happy?” Allow Oscar to come up with ideas. Suggest a few if he needs a prompt, but ultimately let him decide how to move forward in a reasonable way.​
  • Consider the needs of the individual and give them a role. If you know a child struggles to sit still, create opportunities for him to use this energy positively. Could Oscar become a helper? Could he pass things out? What could he do as part of the game that keeps him moving? And if he truly does not want to play anymore, consider why it's necessary to force him to do so. If it's not going to negatively impact someone else, allow Oscar to do something else he is interested in. Asking a child to do something he's not capable of sets him up to fail.
  • Lastly, but most importantly, be careful of labelling children as “the naughty one”. The more they are told this, the more they believe it. Consider what repercussions that may have in the future.

So, this is not a fool proof method for managing behaviour. Of course, children are individuals and respond in a variety of ways. These suggestions also require us to have patience and to invest time in a dialogue with the child, which I know can be hard sometimes. It's understandable that we, as adults, are not perfect (especially when under stress!).

So rather than a seamless 'How To' guide, these thoughts and considerations are more of an attempt to encourage us to to rethink how our actions as adults can impact the children we're working with. Ultimately, it's worth considering what do we actually want to teach children? To do as they're told? Or to understand how their behaviour impacts others, to empathise, and to think for themselves?

Porter L (2003) Young Children's Behaviour 2nd Edition, Paul Chapman Publishing, London.

Steiner C and Perry, P (1997) Achieving Emotional Literacy, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London.

Sunderland, M (2006) What Every Parent Needs to Know, Dorling Kindersley Limited, London.

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