For Elementary School Children, Naughtiness Is Not Always a Choice.

Emotions and childhood are temporary, but identity is forever.

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That’s one thing I’ve learned as a tutor for the past couple of years. I have been a tutor since age 16, my first job being a math grader for Kumon in my junior year of high school. I walked to work 3 days of the week and was paid $60 for my efforts. I was upgraded to English Tutor after a few months and the rest was history. Since then, I’ve been a teaching artist and a tutor, teaching children English (public speaking and poetry) and (light) math.

I am one of the youngest teachers and it shows in the way I treat children. There is a generational gap beyond measure. I don’t let myself yell, and if I do, I end up apologizing. I let my young people cry. I let my young people play. I let my young people talk (within reason). I do stretches with my young people. I let my young people take breaks and feel tired, without judgement or shame. I am honest with them when I make mistakes. I let them re-do mistakes on tests. I ask for high-fives and hugs before giving them. I give them grades as guideposts, not a defining factor of their worth. I let them explore and be independent.

Dr. Bruce Perry outlines six core strengths for children to develop during elementary school childhood: attachment, self-regulation, affiliation, attunement (empathy), tolerance, and respect.

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The sad thing I have learned working as a tutor with children is that often, adults aren’t yet ready to “go there” much of the time. A lot of adults believe that children, since they are so young, do not deserve respect. A lot of adults also believe that it’s impossible to disrespect a child, which is humorous, since disrespect is a learned behavior. Children learn what they are capable of by bearing witness. So much of adulthood is sacrifice and routine that when interacting with children becomes routine, it is easy to neglect the core strengths. Dr. Bruce Perry calls these strengths the “vaccine against violence” and once adults who interact with children vaccinate children, behavior and growth can be facilitated. Perry also notes this can be difficult when adults were not given these core strengths as children themselves, therefore being unable to give what they lack. As a result, in my experience, some children have poor self-regulation and suffer from social withdrawal, aggression, and other forms of acting out.

Adults, especially adults in caregiver roles towards children, need to start the work within themselves and look at their own pain so as to meet children with compassion and support instead of anger and punishment. As adults, we have zero days, mental health days, slow days, terrible days that just seem to drag. Children not only have these patterns as well, but they can worsened in unimaginable and devastating ways with adverse childhood experiences. There is always the possibility that a child has experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, experienced gun violence, manipulation, an addict parent, a family member in jail, divorce, death, abandonment, health scares and diagnoses for themselves and a family member, etc.

And to be fair, not every child who acts up has experienced terrible trauma. Not every relationship with a young person is going to be the same because they are a young person; you may feel closer to some students and have a colloquial rapport and that is okay. You may feel farther away from some students and have assumptions (true or not)swirling around. But there is no denying that it is better for everyone that when children act out of character, we operate on the side of caution rather than denying the children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences any sort of refuge.

Children don’t often show their pain by talking. They often show their pain through challenging behavior that requires attention as a means of survival. As a culture, the next generation of adults in charge: parents, family members, teachers, mentors, coaches and educators have to move beyond the idea that bad behavior is always a choice. First, we should know better than to adhere to generalizations and blanket statements towards children. Second, we can incorporate positive reinforcement in the classroom and at home. The way we counter some early childhood trauma is to make school a fun and safe place, caring about students, practicing radical empathy and patience, establishing predictable yet adaptable routines, helping children feel comfortable with themselves, and honoring beliefs that provide comfort. In the end, in 90 percent of situations, we need to see beyond the challenge and see what the challenging child is trying to communicate. The most important thing about communication is hearing what is not said.

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Instead of being annoyed by a child who isn’t talking, ask them open ended questions with no follow-up criticism. If you ask, “Who did you sit with at lunch today?” and they say “Nobody”, don’t allow judgment and parental anxiety to creep into your response. Remember you are talking to your child and to mind what you say. If all else fails, I turn to art. I let my students draw their feelings or just let off some stem. I reward them with stickers of media that they enjoy. There is a lot of color and symbolism in my room.

Instead of saying, “What were you thinking?” or ,”How many times do I have to tell you this?" say “I am going to help you with this.” Instead of making a child feel bad for not understanding something for the 50th time, say “This is tough but so are you.” and maybe it will take until the 500th time, but they will get it.

Instead of saying “Stop it, you’re embarrassing me!” during a tantrum, move the child or other children to a quieter room away from other students/tantrum. Instead of comparing children or responding physically, focus on the child’s feeling. Tell the child who is acting out, “If you need me, I’ve got you. If you need to get this frustration out, you have a few minutes and then I will check on you again.” Regulate this young person by focusing on soothing them and reminding them that they are safe. Once your child is calm, you can talk about alternatives to negative behaviors.

Tell the child acting out, “This is your responsibility.” And some days, it will work and some days, tears are more valuable than a lesson. We are always worth more than our mistakes. There is always another day.

There is a reason why we do not send children to prison over mistakes. We shouldn’t even act like it, whether at home or in school.

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Raise your words, not your voice.

Even if they don’t tell you the first time around.

Even if you have to gain their trust, slowly.

Breakthroughs happen everyday, and they are worth it.

Mernine Ameris is a poet, writer, activist, advocate, and chicken nugget lover about to graduate from George Mason University.

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