Playing Tiger

An Example of How Teacher Empowerment Coaching Moves Students into Higher Brain Functioning during a Challenge: Positive Behavioral Management Techniques at Their Best

Written by Corrie Hill-Price, Kindergarten Teacher Haw Creek Elementary, Asheville NC

TIgerAs educators we hope to assist in uncovering students’ true selves. When students are celebrated and allowed to be themselves, they are able to feel well, live empowered lives, and have more skills for leadership roles. They become passionate about their learning whatever there style may be. Authentic engaged learning inspires others and helps leave a legacy for the future.

One type of student most teachers are all too familiar with is the overactive boy. He is constantly being moved around the room to better accommodate his busy hands. He is often labeled as out-of-control, mean, rude, ADD, ADHD, lazy, dumb, or just BAD. I choose not to label him, but to instead, get curious about what might be the root of his challenge, and not to perceive his behavior as bad.

One of my kindergarten students this year, Mikey, is one of these boys.

Mikey is bright, plays sports, older then most in the class, is the youngest of MANY siblings, and often demonstrates withdrawn, nervous behaviors. He tends to hang out by himself in the “space place” a lot as well as is constantly chewing on his shirt. Some days he barely makes eye contact, especially if we are having a support session about a behavior concern. He isn’t mean in any sense of the word. He is smart and a problem solver so sometime he might take advantage of a situation or play the game a little too hard, but he never intentionally hurts anyone. He is bigger then most of the other kids, and has a higher than average energy level which together can be a challenge in a crowded classroom.  If a peer tells on him for hitting or playing rough, he looks away, completely defeated and fights back tears denying any involvement.

This high energy and lack of self-control is especially apparent today in the classroom with Mikey playing uncontrollably on all fours, moving in circles on the rug, raising up on his knees and putting his head down to look at the carpet. He also is quite rowdy during and after lunch. Miss Honey (who walks with the class at lunch) said that Mikey’s behavior at lunch was even more disturbing today. “The long walk back to the classroom was especially terrible for Mikey today”, she says.  I smile and ask Miss Honey to continue to speak to him directly with positive messages of expected behaviors and a knowing that he can do it. However, by then she usually has become too triggered to say these things and falls into negative communications with him, which I totally understand. It is a challenge to continue seeing the positive when we are taught to change the negative.

 BUT…Today I got REALLY curious.

Why is Mikey choosing not to follow directions? Is he able? Yes, he can do it earlier in the day. Hmmm…he does eat very quickly each day. He also eats 2-3 snacks from school and school breakfast. He also asked me for a snack for the bus one day. Then it hit me! Mikey may have food insecurities at home. His eating habits are opportunistic. His fast eating, plus the energy spike from a large meal make sitting and standing still nearly impossible for him. This combined with the many times he has been told he was bad at walking down the hall are a recipe for increased misbehavior. I need to send more messages of connection, ability and belonging. Starting tomorrow I will provide Mikey with stimulating books or puzzles to do at the lunch table when he is finished. I will see if he will also be responsible for carrying the trays to the window and the lunch kit back to the room. These very important jobs will help him feel my faith in him and give purpose to the skills he is learning. If he agrees this may end up being a win-win for everyone!

 I then got more curious…

If Mikey is acting out and chewing on his shirt more and more, what else could be going on? Mmmm. Mom is sweet, obviously loves her children and wants the best for them. Maybe Mikey’s parent’s lives aren’t easy but they are good parents who do the best they can; but something must be up!

At Math time, while everyone was working, I decided it was time for connection. So I took 5 minutes to use empowerment coaching with Mikey. This was the conversation:

Me: “Mikey, I have noticed you have been in the space place a lot today.”

Mikey: Silence but he gives me a look and stops chewing his shirt for a minute.

Me: “I also noticed that you were not willing to do our activities this morning. This isn’t like you. You are very helpful during school usually. Do you want to talk about it?”

Mikey: Shakes head, yes but avoids eye contact.

Me: “Do you want to show me how you feel on our chart?”

Mikey: Points to a picture of a crying boy.

Me: “Did it happen at school or before school?”

Mikey: “Before.” He says in a timid voice that I have to lean in to hear. By this point we are both in the corner on the floor. Then the floodgates opened…

Mikey: “She made me throw away my tiger toy!”

Me: “Who?”

Mikey: “My mom!” and he melted into my lap relieved to have it off his chest. I pause and rub his back and hold him. He cries.

Me: Softly… “You are feeling sad because you had to say goodbye to a special friend. Is that true?”

Mikey: Shakes head yes.

Me: “If I had to give up my tiger toy before I was ready I would be sad too. Where do you feel this sadness in your body?”

Mikey: “In my hands.”

Me: “What does the sadness feel like?”

Mikey: “Hurtness in my chest.”

Me: “It’s ok. Breathe into the hurtness in your chest.” “It is ok to feel sad Mikey.” (I stay silent and quiet and hold space for him without any judgment, staying connected for a minute or so.) “Is there anything else you want to share?”

Mikey interrupting: “That’s why I was playing Tiger all morning!”

Me: “I get it. You miss your tiger so you are playing Tiger.”

Mikey: “Yes”, crying some more.

It all made sense to me now. His circles on the rug, raising up on his knees and putting his head down to look at the carpet at eye level were his way of working out this traumatic event. He was playing with his tiger. I reached into my Keep Calm and Be Kind Basket and gave him three small stuffed animals. I asked him if he would like to choose one to be his buddy for the day. He did, and he took the small black bear and bounced back to the group and stayed regulated for the rest of the day.

At the end of the day I noticed that Mikey is lined up with his bus group, a very rough group with some big kids. At the last minute, Mikey looks back at me and tosses me the little black bear and smiles.

I still don’t know why his Tiger was thrown out. He did mention because it had stuffing in it and of course my head began to itch and I was thankful for the information “just in case.” (If you are a teacher you know what I am talking about.)

Needless to say, my 5 minutes of curiosity may be life changing for this misunderstood active boy.

I am happy to report no bugs. 🙂

I got curious one more time…

What if, he had thought about taking the little black bear home? (I would have understood why.)

But instead, from what I know about neurobiology, when a child is in fight, flight or freeze (lower brain survival mode), he/she needs acceptance and validation in the moment of the emotional trigger to allow the brain to shift into higher brain functioning (reasoning, decision making, connection). Mikey and I formed an “empowered partnership” where we trusted each other in that moment. This creates a child who will listen and respect me (because I listened and respected him.) This mutual trust will help us work through future problems with more ease and more importantly advance Mikey’s skills socially, emotionally, and academically.

Big Idea: Getting curious can get to the root of the issue.

Tiny Detail: Mikey interrupts: “That’s why I was playing Tiger all morning!”

Bonus Thought: When is the last time a kindergartener maliciously tripped or hurt you? Probably never! They don’t want to hurt you or anyone else. Remember it isn’t personal.

****Update: Lunch behaviors and Mrs. Honey’s triggers have improved much over the past few weeks. Mikey still needs reminders but I no longer get bad reports from lunch. Mikey enjoys reading books after lunch and is thriving in leadership roles throughout the day. He now receives food to take home each weekend and it is obvious that he is thankful when he sees it in the backpack each Friday. We are working on a system to transfer his shirt chewing to another more healthy habit. He is very motivated to do this. Hopefully I will eventually support Mikey with the root cause of this habit through coaching him again when the time presents itself.

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