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«Sally Patton UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION BOSTON Copyright © 2004 by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. All rights ...»

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• Provide ways to foster self-esteem. Children with high anxiety have low self-esteem because they worry so much that they cannot 38 Welcoming Children trust themselves to handle new situations or the situations that they fear.

• Include visualization and guided meditations. Teach children how to use their vivid imaginations in healthy ways. Teaching guided meditation, in which they imagine being in a beautiful, calming place, will help them learn how to replace anxious thoughts with calming thoughts.

• Include prayer and meditation. Fostering children’s sense of a higher power and ways to connect with that higher power provides them with a source of strength and healing.

• Model positive self-talk. Teachers can constantly provide positive self-talk and feedback to the children and suggest positive words that children can use to replace the negative, self-defeating words they use in moments of high anxiety.

• Provide joyful music. It is difficult to feel fear when singing a joyful song.

Teaching Difficult or Disruptive Children Many children, not only those who have been labeled difficult, sometimes display overactive or disruptive behavior. Therefore, it is important that all religious education teachers acquire the skills necessary to work with disruptive behavior.

The child who is out of control or just being difficult can be frightening to both the teachers and the other children. Teachers may feel they are failing and that everything will end up in chaos if they do not control the situation. Some volunteer teachers easily panic because they do not have the training and experience to deal with difficult behavior. Some people avoid volunteering precisely because of their fear of handling such situations.

Yet some people always seem able to handle children who are being disruptive. Without discounting experience and adequate preparation, the attitude of the teacher seems to be the critical 39 Religious Education That Welcomes All Children factor for a successful experience. When the teacher is able to empathize and connect with the child who is being disruptive, he or she is better able to look at what changes can be made in the environment and the teaching style in order to direct the behavior of the child to become more positive.

Children who constantly act out are usually performing behaviors that they have learned will protect their dignity. Although their coping activities may be destructive, their behaviors are intended to maintain the last remnants of their self-esteem. In his books The Self Esteem Teacher and Raising Resilient Children (with Sam Goldstein), Dr. Robert Brooks emphasizes the idea of finding an “island of competence,” or a source of strength, in each child.4 Identifying that “island” or source gives us a technique for focusing on the positive and frees us to see the whole child instead of his or her limitations and disabilities. When we focus on fostering strength, hope, and resilience in our children, we can counter negative behavior and not give in to trying to control it.

We usually try to control children who are acting out with negative reinforcement, rather than figure out the reasons for their misbehavior. In Learning to Listen, Lovett emphasizes the importance of listening to people’s stories instead of making assumptions for treatment based solely on their behavior.5 We rarely listen to children who have been labeled disruptive; however, there is always a reason for disruptive behavior. After a disruptive episode is over, take time to listen to the child before it happens again.

Learning to empathize with a child who is acting out, to build on his or her strengths, and then to adapt the teaching style and the environment in order to change negative behavior does not mean ignoring expectations, rules, and consequences. According to Brooks, “We should never lose sight of the fact that when we discipline, we are involved in a process of education. Our goal is to assist students to become more thoughtful, responsible, and accountable and in the process to foster self-esteem.”6 Dr. Richard Lavoie, an expert on learning disabilities, has developed a behavior management plan for teaching children who 40 Welcoming Children display disruptive behavior. The following behavior management ideas for religious education teachers have been adapted from Lavoie’s program guide to the video When the Chips Are Down.7 In order for the recommended teaching strategies to be effective with disruptive children, teachers must develop positive attitudes about the difficult children they are teaching. Lavoie calls this a positive

supports philosophy:

• Teacher expectations make a difference. Unfortunately, if we are told that a child in our program has oppositional defiant disorder, that will determine the behavior we will expect. Likewise, if we are told we have a child with autism in our program, then we will expect strange and isolating behavior. There is a difference between knowing a child has difficulties and expecting behaviors based on his or her perceived limitations and being prepared for a child who struggles and expecting the best from him or her. Studies have shown how children respond to teacher expectations. In one study, teachers were told that they were getting a class of exceptional students, when in fact, the students were low achievers and considered failures. During the year, the class performed extremely well, just like the high-achieving students they were believed to be.

• A child would rather be viewed as bad than dumb. Most children, especially adolescents, would prefer to be viewed as disruptive, disobedient, or disrespectful rather than incompetent or incapable. Children with disabilities are routinely seen as incompetent and incapable. Be aware of creating any circumstance in which a child will appear stupid in front of his or her peers. That child may automatically become disruptive and prefer to deal with the teacher’s anger rather than feel humiliated in front of his or her peers.

• Children with difficult behavior are distinguished by their regrettable ability to elicit from others exactly the opposite of what they need. Often, the child who is most disruptive is the one who most needs compassion, empathy, and love. His or her disruptive behavior may be the only way he or she knows to get attention.

41 Religious Education That Welcomes All Children

• The hurt that troubled children and youth cause is never greater

than the pain they feel. Lavoie’s words convey this idea best:

Children who are experiencing trouble at home or at school often feel powerless and hurt. Their response to these feelings is often inappropriate.... They become disruptive and disrespectful. The parent and professional must remain mindful that this behavior is rooted in the pain of rejection, isolation, and fear that they are experiencing. Therefore, the most effective strategy is to attempt to eliminate the causes of these feelings... not to attempt to simply modify the behavior.8

• There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals. We know that to be fair to all of our children, we must treat each child differently. Recognizing their different strengths, abilities, and needs, we can respond accordingly. At times, the child with special needs will require more of our time, attention, and resources; providing those things does not mean that we are being unfair to the other children. For example, it is not fair to set up a situation in which the children who behave appropriately (the ones who usually receive positive attention) can go on a church outing, while those children who are trying very hard but still struggle with appropriate behavior are excluded.

The following techniques for encouraging positive behaviors

are more effective if used with the positive support philosophy:

• Request desired behaviors rather than focusing on undesirable behaviors. For example, saying “Please put the book on the shelf ” is more effective than “Stop throwing the book.” Also, make observations instead of issuing commands. Rather than constantly telling kids to hang up their coats, listen to their grumbles and complaints and then say, “There are coats lying on the floor!” They will usually laugh and pick them up. Most importantly, label the behavior, not the child. It is more effective to say “It’s distracting when you bang your foot on the table” than “You are annoying.”

• Use positive reinforcement instead of relying only on punishment. Adults often dole out punishment without ever asking the 42 Welcoming Children person why an incident happened or listening to the child’s explanation. Children need to be praised, rewarded, and reinforced for appropriate behaviors. Be generous but specific with your praise.

“Joan, you did a terrific job cleaning up after making chalices today” works better than “Joan, you are a good girl.”

• Providing indirect praise for desired behaviors can be effective.

Praise a child’s behaviors to another adult, knowing that the child is nearby and can hear you. For example, for a child who has had difficulty getting along with the other children, one teacher can say to another, “Did you notice that Sam helped Miranda tie the string on her name tag? He is getting to be so helpful.”

• Reward direction, not perfection. As Lavoie says, It is important to remain mindful of the concept of successive approximations. Reflect for a moment upon the way in which a child learns his native language. The adults in the child’s environment continually reinforce, praise, recognize, and reward every new word that is uttered! This encouragement causes the child’s vocabulary to increase and grammar to improve. We do not wait until the child is fluent in language before we reinforce the progress.... We acknowledge every little step in the process. This concept is equally necessary and effective when we are attempting to change a child’s behavior.9

• Be generous with your attention. A child who is being disruptive is seeking attention. “You can ignore the behavior... but you cannot ignore the need.”10

• Do not compare one child’s behavior with that of others. An individual child can control only his or her own behavior, so focus on how that behavior can be improved.

• Listen to their stories. Children who are troubled have the need to tell people who they are and what they are feeling. If we listen carefully, nonjudgmentally, and sincerely, we can often learn about these children’s strengths and their unique ways of looking 43 Religious Education That Welcomes All Children at the world. They often have much to teach us. Because it may be difficult to listen so intently during the Sunday morning program, religious educators and, if appropriate, teachers can arrange for a meeting at another time, when they can give all their attention to the children who need it. This will go a long way toward establishing support and trust. It will also do wonders for children’s selfesteem when they realize we trust them to help figure out what is best for them in our programs.

• Find each child’s “island of competence.” Find out what the child likes to do and feels good about, and then figure out a way to incorporate that into the church setting. For example, if the child likes to grow plants, give him or her the responsibility of watering and taking care of the plants in the church. This will be even more effective if you give him or her the official title of “Caretaker of the Plants” and let the entire congregation know about it.

• Develop a proactive, positive behavior support plan with the group. Have the children help you create a group list of standards or expectations of behavior. Make sure all the standards or expectations are stated positively—for example, “Listen while someone else is talking,” “Only one person talks at a time,” “Comments should always be positive,” and “Everyone’s opinion is respected.” Then, make sure that these standards are enforced equally for all children. Repeat the standards of behavior at the beginning of each session, and provide constant reminders of what is expected.

Have the children volunteer to say the various standards.

When a behavioral problem does occur, try the following to

defuse the situation:

• Use guided meditation to calm down an overactive group or end a session. Guided meditation works well with almost all children and especially with hyperactive children. Be sure to darken the room and ask the children to get comfortable, whether lying on the floor, leaning against the wall, or sitting in a chair. Guided meditation engages the children’s imagination while helping them 44 Welcoming Children quiet themselves and connect with their inner knowing. Be sure to speak slowly and pause frequently to allow the children to do their own visioning. Maureen Garth has written a series of books containing guided meditations and visualizations with children that can be used or adapted for religious education settings. A guided meditation can be created for almost any theme or subject.

• Use distraction to head off unwanted behaviors. If a child begins to be disruptive, ask him or her to do something else, such as get out the supplies for the art activity. Tell the group something about what he or she is going to do after church. Take his or her mind off being disruptive.

• Change your proximity to the child who is being disruptive.

Often, troubling behavior will stop when you move closer to the misbehaving child. Once, while I was doing a guided meditation with some eleven-year-old children, one girl started giggling uncontrollably, which started a ripple effect of giggling among the other children. I continued my meditation, quietly moved closer to her, and gently put my hand on her back. The giggling stopped immediately.

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