Difficult Behavior in Early Childhood: Positive Discipline for PreK-3 Classrooms and Beyond


Ronald Mah

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: The Role of Discipline

    Part II: Time and Using Timeout

    Part III: Setting and Following Through with Boundaries

    Part IV: Punishment, Praise, and Rewards

    Part V: Recognizing and Responding to Specific Behaviors and Emotions

  • Copyright

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    To my daughters Trisha and Kirstie, proof that good parenting can work! You are the true credentials to support this book. To Kim, wife, partner, coparent, and kindergarten teacher extraordinaire! You are the best. You take on some of the most challenging children and struggle with them with dedication, wisdom, and energy.

    To all of the kids, parents, and teachers who challenge me as an educator, therapist, and trainer with your lives, emotions, difficulties, frustrations, and successes. Your stories, more than anything else, are the foundation of this book. Some details have been changed, and some characters and situations are composites of different people and experiences, and everyone in this book has an alias, all to protect their confidentiality. However, each story or example reflects actual classroom, playground, household, and therapeutic experiences.

    To all of the teachers and parents who have asked me over the years about their children or about their classrooms or about their families and asked me for a book, here it is!

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin Press would like to thank the following reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance:

    • Bonnie Adama
    • First-Grade Teacher
    • Dorothy Grant Elementary School
    • Fontana, CA
    • Alice Atkinson
    • Associate Professor
    • Coordinator of Early Childhood and Elementary Education
    • University of Iowa
    • Susan Garrison
    • Principal
    • Lorton Station Elementary School
    • Lorton, VA
    • Gail Hardesty
    • Early Reading First Mentor
    • Chicago Public Schools
    • Chicago, IL
    • Lynn Hadden
    • Third-Grade Teacher, NBCT Early Childhood Generalist
    • Marietta, GA
    • Steve Hutton
    • Former Elementary School Principal
    • Villa Hills, KY
    • Xiomara Sanchez
    • Prekindergarten Dual-Language Teacher
    • Darwin Elementary School
    • Chicago, IL
    • Paul G. Young
    • Executive Director, West After School Center
    • Past President, National Association of Elementary School Principals
    • Lancaster, OH

    About the Author

    Ronald Mah is an educator and licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked in early childhood education for 16 years. For 11 years, he owned and operated a child development center. Currently, he is a faculty member of the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California, and New College of California in San Francisco and serves as a mental health consultant with a number of education organizations and programs, including Head Start, Asian American community programs, severely emotionally disturbed student school partnership programs, and vocational programs for at-risk youth. He also has a private practice as a psychotherapist in Castro Valley.

    A former community college instructor and member of the California Kindergarten Association Board of Directors, Ronald combines concepts, principles, and philosophy with practical techniques and guidelines for educators, community workers, and families. He uses humor and stories from his many experiences to help teachers and parents educate and discipline children in developmentally appropriate ways. A happily married man with two young adult daughters, Ronald brings both a personal perspective and professional knowledge to his writings and workshops. He earned his BA from the University of California at Berkeley and his MA from the Western Institute for Social Research.

  • Conclusion: Now What?

    Now What?

    I read the book, but I still have

    • an anxious boy;
    • a bright but off-track girl;
    • a sweet kid who hits;
    • an active child who is getting worse;
    • a child who doesn't care anymore;
    • a student who does something wrong, knowing he'll be caught;
    • doubts about timeout;
    • the kid who can't keep his hands to himself;
    • a sense that something is not right.

    Are you still asking “What should I do when …?” There is a better question to begin with. You are faced with a problematic child, a challenging situation, something confusing, or something not working well. What should you do? The first thing you should do is ask a lot of questions. Another appropriate form of the first question to ask is “What are all the questions I need to ask to get the information needed to help this child?” The series of questions in Chapter 14 about anger, sadness, anxiety or fear, loss or pain, or needing special services is just a beginning. Ask many questions as you reflect on yourself and as you conduct classroom and playground observations. Ask questions about the child, the circumstances, the community, and yourself.

    Asking Questions

    Here's a list of questions to ask yourself, to help get started:

    • What have I observed?
    • What have I experienced with this child?
    • What have I experienced with other children?
    • What is the feedback from other observers?
    • What is similar to other children or situations? What is different?
    • What do I expect? Why do I expect that? Why not expect something else?
    • What are my assumptions? Are they accurate assumptions? Why or why not?
    • What has worked before for this child? Why?
    • What hasn't worked? Why not?
    • What has worked or not worked for other children? Why or why not?
    • How is the behavior or functioning developmentally appropriate or inappropriate?
    • Is there an issue about limited resources or access? If so, what is the effect?
    • When does this problematic behavior occur? Why then rather than at another time?
    • What physical condition (tired or hungry, for example) is the child in when the behavior occurs? What happens if that is addressed?
    • What physical condition (tired or hungry, for example) am I in when the behavior occurs? What happens if that is addressed?
    • Is there anything different or new going on in the classroom, at home, or anywhere else in the child's life? In my life?
    • How does the child respond to change? How well do I handle change?
    • How well does the child handle transitions? How do I present transitions?
    • What aspects of the child's personality are potentially problematic?
    • What aspects of my personality are potentially problematic?
    • How does my personality mesh with the child's personality?
    • What is the level of stimulation during problematic situations? Noise level? Activity level?
    • Which stimulation levels work better for the child? For me?
    • At what point does the child get overstimulated? At what point do I get overstimulated?
    • How does the child respond to being overstimulated? How do I respond?
    • What is the communication style of the child? How is it similar or different from my communication style?
    • How explicit, as opposed to implicit, is the communication? How well does it work?
    • How much verbal versus nonverbal communication do the child and I use during our interactions?
    • How much verbal versus nonverbal communication is used among the other children and the problematic child?
    • How do the child's responses help or further harm the problematic behavior?
    • How do my responses help or further harm the problematic behavior?
    • How is my classroom similar or different from the child's previous classroom?
    • How is my classroom similar or different from the child's household?
    • How do class expectations and rules match or mismatch with prior classroom and/or household expectations?
    • Are there cross-cultural differences that affect expectations and behavior? If so, what are they, and what effects do they have?
    • How can I address cross-cultural issues with children? With parents?
    • How stable is the classroom environment? Physically? Emotionally? Socially? Intellectually?
    • How does that stability (or instability) affect the child's attitude, mood, and behavior?
    • How does that stability (or instability) affect my attitude, mood, and behavior?
    • What are other possible stresses or influences on the child, classroom, or home? How do they affect attitude, mood, and behavior?
    • What are other possible stresses or influences on me personally or professionally (administration or standards, for example)? How do they affect my attitude, mood, and behavior?
    • What is the classroom atmosphere (or culture)? How does it fit into the problematic child's experience? How does it support or stress the child?
    • To what extent (and how) are parents or other caregivers involved in the child's academic process?
    • How well am I able to work with the child's parents?
    • How informed and educated are parents/caregivers regarding the child's needs and performance? What can I do to support or advance that?
    • How healthy or functional is the family support system? What can I do to support or enhance that?
    • How do the other children positively or negatively affect the problematic child?
    • How does the problematic child positively or negatively affect the other children?
    • Is there a particular child or are there particular children with whom the problematic child has more conflicts? Why? What is the nature of provocation in either direction?
    • How healthy or functional is the school support system? What can I do to support or enhance that?
    • What issues does the child present that are within my scope of competence (by training, education, or experience)? What issues are not (for example, a child who may present a developmental delay)?
    • What issues does the child present that are within my scope of practice (by the legal definitions and limitations of your teaching credential)? What issues are not? (For example, a teacher should never tell parents to put their child on medication for attention deficit disorder. That would be making not only a medical diagnosis but also a medical recommendation. Teachers are not doctors or therapists.)
    • What other opinions, experience, resources, consultation, or support (within the school, other professionals, or community) can be accessed to support the child? How can I help access those resources on behalf of the child and family?

    And, finally, this is the last questions to ask: “What other questions do I need to ask? Is there anything else?”

    From Observations to Results

    By gathering all of the relevant information you can, the process to help and discipline children can begin. Your OBSERVATIONS of what may be going on will suggest THEORIES to be explored. These may or may not be your “favorite” theories. If evidence exists that there has been inconsistency in setting and following through on clear boundaries, you may follow through with STRATEGIES to create consistency and clarity. If the child seems to be unmotivated, to create motivation (the strategy), you may choose the specific INTERVENTION of a behavior incentive plan. If you realize that a particular situation (inconsistency in being brought to school on time) has led to a problem (child anxiety that leads to acting-out behavior), then you may want to set stricter boundaries (regarding parent timeliness). However, if you won't let yourself do that because your STYLE is to avoid confrontation, you will encounter difficulty in making progress. If your style allows you to follow through, you can achieve two types of RESULTS:

    • Boundaries will be set, and the child will be in class. The child will feel secure that he or she won't miss out by being late.
    • By being in class, the child can experience growth and change, academically and socially.

    This book suggested areas to investigate when observing and understanding why children misbehave. Questions were introduced and theories discussed. Timeout theory and behavior incentive theory led to major discussions of subsequent strategies and specific interventions. Inhibitions and misunderstandings were explored to show how a teacher's style can sabotage good interventions derived from sound theories. The discussion on boundaries clarified the need to assert the first set of results and established how boundaries set the foundation for the second set of results: growth and change. In addition, a series of intuitive and subjective questions prompted adults to analyze their observations and consider possible underlying emotional issues. Did this make sense? I hope so. But you may still want a specific answer to your question “What do I do when …?”

    Be a Teaching Artist

    If this book were an instructional manual about painting and I were a painting teacher, I'd remind you about the book's and my limits. I could teach you how to mix colors to get the right color red. But only you know when it is the right shade and intensity of red. I could teach you how to use different brushes and different techniques to get certain effects on the canvas. But as you bring the brush to the canvas, you must choose how deep or broad of a stroke will create the image you want. The techniques, skills, and craft of painting can be taught. However, it takes a special person with special qualities to be an artist.

    Education, experience, and training will enhance the analytical skills, teaching techniques, and conceptual and curricular sophistication of a teacher. A conscientious professional will strive to develop all of these things. This book seeks to aid in that process. However, in the moment that counts, with the challenge confronting you, with a child sitting before you, you are not just a technician or craftsperson. You must be an artist. Teaching and parenting will always be more than technique, theory, strategy, skills, and craft. It will be about art. What do people add to technique, theory, strategy, skills, and craft in order to become great artists? They add great commitment and great passion. This book can help with your craft to be a competent teacher, but it will not provide or replace the commitment and passion that are necessary for you to be great.

    Children are our greatest artist compositions. Often our most difficult challenges, our most problematic children, become our greatest accomplishments. Your love and commitment to your children will keep you asking questions. They will keep you exploring and learning. They will help you make continued effort when you are feeling unfulfilled, unsupported, unrewarded, unappreciated, and frustrated. You will continue to strive to meet the needs of the most difficult children so that they can become children who used to have problems. Commitment and passion will turn you into the great artist, great teacher, or great parent you want to be or that children need you to be. Hone your craft, broaden your knowledge, deepen your sophistication, but above all, be great!


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    Corwin Press

    The Corwin Press logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin Press is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin Press continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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